Humans and Chimpanzees: What's the Difference?

08/11/2011 03:15 pm ET | Updated Oct 11, 2011

This weekend I saw "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Besides being an entertaining movie, it raises profound questions about what it means to be human with broad implications I'd like briefly to explore here.

Although our understanding of neuroscience has progressed light years since the time of the first "Planet of the Apes" movie, there is a premise of this film that I'd like to, with apologies for the pun, throw a monkey wrench at: that chimpanzees could become more intelligent than humans by simply injecting a serum which rapidly develops their brains. This assumes that the size of our brain is all that separates us from chimpanzees, and that we are just a mass of physical elements with a powerful gooey supercomputer in our cranium that lives a few score years and then fades into oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans everything. I'd like to argue, as Socrates did before drinking his last cup, that there is also an important part of our identity, not made of physical elements, that is largely responsible for who we are and that continues on after our body returns to dust. If we do have a soul, it may not be as simple as injecting the right configuration of chemicals into a chimpanzee to achieve a doomsday scenario of monkeys jumping all over the Golden Gate Bridge and tearing down the Statue of Liberty.

Why does any of this matter? First, when I'm driving across a famous bridge, I want to know if a swarm of chimpanzees is going to appear out of nowhere and start jumping up and down on my car. Second, it helps for planning purposes to know if your existence will be measured in decades or in eons. And then at the level of society, New York Times columnist David Brooks sums it up beautifully in his book, "The Social Animal," when he discusses the failure of policy based on an overly simplistic view of human nature:

"Many of these policies were proposed by wonks who are comfortable only with traits and correlations that can be measured and quantified. They were passed through legislative committees that are as capable of speaking about the deep wellsprings of human action as they are of speaking in ancient Aramaic. They were executed by officials that have only the most superficial grasp of what is immovable and bent about human beings. So of course they failed. And they will continue to fail unless the new knowledge about our true makeup is integrated more fully into the world of public policy, unless the enchanted story is told along with the prosaic one."

Remarkable arguments in support of human beings possessing an immaterial soul were made in 1912 by Abdul Baha, a central figure of the Baha'i Faith. In that year, the centenary of which will be celebrated in just a few months, he traveled throughout North America and spoke at hundreds of venues. When he spoke at both Stanford and Columbia University, he made fascinating remarks about the human mind, its ability to discover and transcend the laws of nature, and what this implied. "All created things except man are subjects or captives of nature," he said.

"The colossal sun ... is nature's captive ... the great bulky elephant with its massive strength has no power to disobey the restrictions nature has laid upon him; but man, weak and diminutive in comparison, empowered by mind which is an effulgence of Divinity itself, can resist nature's control and apply natural laws to his own uses."

He then gives examples: according to the laws of nature, we should remain confined to the earth, but through the use of the mind, we make airplanes to fly in the air or submarines to go deep into the ocean. We arrest the force of electricity and confine it within a lamp, we capture and store the natural vibrations of the air and play it later on the radio. Then comes, to my mind, the kicker:

"Man is nobler than nature. There are powers within him of which nature is devoid. It may be claimed that these powers are from nature itself and that man is a part of nature. In answer to this statement we will say that if nature is the whole and man is a part of the whole, how could it be possible for a part to possess qualities and virtues which are absent in the whole? ... man, although in body a part of nature, nevertheless in spirit possesses a power transcending nature; for if he were simply a part of nature and limited to material laws, he could possess only the things which nature embodies. God has conferred upon and added to man a distinctive power -- the faculty of intellectual investigation into the secrets of creation, the acquisition of higher knowledge -- the greatest virtue of which is scientific enlightenment."

In this short space I can only highlight the tip of the iceberg of the arguments made by Abdul Baha on the subject. To go deeper and see how he explains it in a way even an Aramaic-speaking wonk would find captivating, I recommend the full text of his speeches at Stanford and Columbia, and a letter to the Swiss scientist Dr. August Forel.

Let me conclude with a flashback to an enchanted time: high-school English class and a multiple choice question about Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2:

"What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals -- and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?"

The question: Human beings are a) a moving form of dust b) paragon of the animals c) an effulgence of divinity. My answer: d) all of the above.