As a species, we humans have many advantages over the other animals, including opposable thumbs and an appreciation for limericks. But sometimes I worry about us. We have a dangerous capacity for self-delusion that is not generally found in the animal kingdom. Animals never think they’re smarter or more capable than they actually are, but people do it all the time. To put it bluntly, we’re idiots.
You want examples? SHUT UP AND I’LL GIVE YOU EXAMPLES. Have you ever gone out to your car on a winter morning and found that the windshield was covered in ice? And you start to scrape it off, but because you’re either cold or in a hurry you don’t take the time to do it right, and instead you just scrape off one corner of the windshield so you can see where you’re going, and figure the defroster will take care of the rest as you drive? And so you’re driving with severely limited visibility on icy roads surrounded by other lazy drivers who also can’t see very well? Have you ever done that? Well, guess what. You’re dumber than an animal. When an animal encounters a situation that it cannot safely navigate, it stops. It waits for conditions to change, or it finds another route, or it gives up. An animal doesn’t think, “Hey, I bet I can outsmart the laws of nature!”
Of course, our refusal to accept our limitations is also how we make advancements. Nature said we were supposed to die of polio, so we killed polio. Nature told us we had to stay on the Earth, so we built a machine to take us to the Moon. Nature gave us the capacity not to vocalize every thought that comes into our heads, so we invented Twitter. In your face, nature!
But there is a fine line between bold exploration and sheer stupidity. Magellan was a bold explorer; a guy who uses gasoline to light his barbecue is stupid. (Most animals don’t even use tools, but the ones that do at least use the right tools.)
Consider also the disclaimer that appears in advertisements for state lotteries: “Lottery games are based on chance and should be played for entertainment only and not for investment purposes.” Now, regardless of your stance on gambling, you have to admit it is pretty entertaining to give a dollar to a convenience store clerk and get a worthless scrap of paper in return. That’s to say nothing of the scratch-off games, which involve everyone’s favorite pastime, scratching! Who doesn’t love scratching things??
What’s alarming is that we have to be TOLD not to play the lottery for investment purposes. We need someone to remind us that no matter how many dollars we spend on lottery tickets, we are never going to win enough to recoup our losses. Because you know that without that disclaimer — and in fact, even with it — there are people who think, at least subconsciously, that playing the lottery every week will eventually pay off. Basically, we’re smart enough to know what math is, but dumb enough to think that we can outsmart it.
You know what else humans do that animals never do? Get so fat they can’t walk. I guarantee, any dangerously obese animal you’ve ever seen got that way because humans helped it. There aren’t lions out in Africa just lying around, unable to walk because they’ve gotten too fat on gazelles. When a lion has had enough gazelle to eat, it stops eating gazelle until it gets hungry again. Whereas I just finished a carton of ice cream because I didn’t want to put it back in the freezer with only two scoops left.
But we are not a lost cause. One thing that gives me hope for humanity is air travel. That might sound counterintuitive. You might think that air travel, far from demonstrating the best mankind has to offer, actually brings out the worst in people. I used to think so too.
But consider. Have you ever taken a 6 a.m. flight? I have, many times. And every time I do, I’m astonished at how many other people are also taking 6 a.m. flights. The airport is always packed, and it is packed with the most miserable people in the world. You have never seen so many unhappy human beings in one place as in a TSA checkpoint line at 5:15 in the morning. We’ve all been awake since 3-something, it’s way too early to be doing anything, let alone anything that requires standing upright and dealing with airport security. And then, once we’ve been herded and prodded and x-rayed and fondled, we’re shoved into an airplane with a hundred strangers, all of whom are as grumpy as we are. Regardless of the time of day, airplanes are seething cauldrons of frustration and annoyance, a volatile mix of people who don’t want to talk to anyone and people who want to talk to whoever is next to them.
So what part of this gives me hope for humanity? The fact that we don’t murder each other. Think about it. Every single day, millions of people strap themselves to chairs in metal tubes being hurtled through the sky, elbow-to-elbow with foul-smelling strangers and overly chatty grandmothers, unable to truly relax or even get comfortable for the duration of the flight. How are there not murders happening on planes ALL THE TIME?? People behave rudely or impatiently, and occasionally there are incidents where someone flips out and has to be subdued. But it’s genuinely miraculous that we endure all of this without killing each other with our bare hands, or with 3.4 ounces of liquid. By all logic and reason, and given what we know about human nature, murders should be happening on airplanes so frequently that it shouldn’t even be newsworthy anymore. We should just be hearing occasional reports about the airlines’ efforts to keep their murder rates down. “Delta announced that its monthly murder rate fell below 100 in January for the first time since the airline instituted its policy of charging ten dollars to read the in-flight magazine.” But instead the number of airplane-related homicides hovers somewhere around zero.
This is where we have the advantage over the animals. If you corralled a hundred random animals and locked them into a cramped metal cage with no food or fresh air, they would kill each other. You wouldn’t even doubt that they were going to kill each other. You would plan on it. You would say, “Well, we’re sending a hundred animals to you by air, so you can expect to receive a plane with about 98 animal corpses.”
So kudos to us for constantly putting ourselves in situations that ought to result in bloodshed and not actually shedding one another’s blood! Then again, at least the animals that can’t fly have the good sense not to do it anyway. So maybe we’re back where we started.