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WHAT MAKES US HUMAN?


What is it that makes us human? What separates you and me from the rest of the animal kingdom? Is it our opposable thumbs? Our capacity to love (and to hate)? Our brutality and bellicosity? Ask this question of the next person you meet on the street. If he has given a little thought to the matter (and maybe read the same books as me) he will likely say the twin capacities of reason and reflection are what most distinguish us from our beastly cousins.

That is, to think deeply or carefully about something (reflect), especially past events in order to learn from experiences and avoid future mistakes. Which is why we study history. It is also the essence of wisdom. And to reason is to use logic in order to problem solve, whether about what to have for dinner or merely to contemplate the nature of the universe. The latter is abstract reasoning, the territory of philosophers, physicists and the street corner crazy person, whereas food is just fun to think about. 

But when it comes to reason and reflection animals are often underestimated. Anyone who has ever owned a pet knows that they learn from past experiences. I've thrown my dog in the pool a couple times, just to watch him dog paddle, and now he knows not to get too close to the water. Unless of course it's a really hot day, in which case he doesn't mind taking a dip, provided that after drying off he gets a treat. That's reflection at work. And scientists put rats through mazes all the time. We watch them scurry after food or evade the electric cage to showcase their problem solving abilities, while engaging in a little bit of animal torture. Are these experiments inhumane? To justify such treatment we say it's a dog eat dog world. We are more like our pets after all. And we thought we were special!

But we are. Which is why I hereby nominate two other characteristics which, unlike logic and learning from our mistakes, are unique to homo sapiens. I mean suicide and masturbation, because I'm pretty sure no species of animal other than our own kills itself or makes itself come. I do not include the bees who dive into the swimming pool in the heat of summer and wind up belly up in the filter. They're just trying to cool off and didn't reason their actions out. Nor do I count as suicides those little buzzers who have lost their stingers and know that they are dying already, only slowly, so in an effort to hasten their demise crawl over the ledge into the chlorine. They do this over and over again, despite my efforts to save them. Nor do I include in our select group the pooch that humps its owner's leg until the friction of penis to belly causes inadvertent ejaculation. I don't think simply getting its rocks off was the animal's aim, though maybe it was. I can't enter the canine's mind. When I want to masturbate, I position myself with some oil and a tissue or two, preferably alone and in the dark. Just me and my disposable thumbs. I don't mount my neighbor. Which if you ask me bespeaks a desire to spread one's seed, or it's just being cocky. But while animals don't intentionally off themselves or for that matter get their rocks off, humans do both all the time. Not just your average Joe, but philosophers and famous people, too. Perhaps more than most.

Take Sigmund Freud, who with his psychoanalysis and writings exhaustively demonstrated the powers of reason and reflection both in himself and in his patients. Freud, who used cocaine, was also a long-time tobacco smoker, which is a form of slow suicide. Indeed he was diagnosed with cancer of the mouth, surely due to the several cigars per day habit he developed in his twenties. The doctors who treated Freud concealed the severity of his condition for fear that the shrink might despair and take his own life. He didn't kill himself, and wound up living with his condition for over a decade. He did however continue to smoke cigars against his physician's advice. He was hooked on tobacco, believing it enhanced his productivity. In fact Freud told one colleague that all addictions were merely substitutes for masturbation, "the one great habit." 

It seems reasonable to conclude from this that as with suicide, Freud was no stranger to spanking the monkey. Or choking the chicken and beating the meat, though these and other euphemisms bandied back and forth by high school boys everywhere these days were unheard of during the doctor's time. But I think it is true that addictions are all forms of masturbation. As with masturbation, smokers, drinkers and gamblers alike can gratify their urges alone, though to achieve fulfillment without a partner, the sex addict must get creative, as in by cutting out cantaloupes, or else making use of porn. 

And I think suicide, which is already the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and on the rise, would disappear altogether if the would-be self-murderer just "busted a nut" before committing the act. (Ladies you'll have to excuse me, I don't know of a catchy phrase for a female orgasm. If you do, please share. I'll be in my bedroom - with oil.) Because most guys just fall asleep after said nut has been busted. The suicide-to-be probably would too, and awaken to a new outlook if not a new day. 

Just don't try masturbation and suffocation at the same time. This is known as auto-erotic asphyxiation, which purportedly did in INXS lead singer, Michael Hutchence, and self-titled martial arts evangelist David Carradine. Proving what I've always believed: that it's not wise to attempt two things at once, whether reasoning or rubbing one out. Because you'll do neither one very well and you might wind up dead.

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