A bit of background: the novel is actually a debate between two college students. Anna is a committed Christian, while Grant is a firm atheist. A few other students contribute questions or comments occasionally, but the argument is carried between these two. Here, they are discussing whether humans are unique.
Brenda: Okay, Anna. How are humans unique? Isn’t every species unique?
Anna: Well, my argument is that not only are humans unique, but that they are unique in ways that set them apart from all other living organisms, but puts them in a totally different class of organism.
Brenda: What do you mean?
Anna: Well, think of some mammal, like a tiger. A tiger is unique from other mammals in certain ways. A tiger has certain physical traits that, in combination at least, make it a tiger. No other animal has the exact appearance of a tiger. The tiger also has a certain combination of behavior traits that are associated with him, for example, the cubs are raised by the mom alone, and it eats meat. These are not unique. Other species do this also.
Grant: Okay, so far so good. But what if you are talking about some animal that really does have a unique behavior trait?
Anna: Like what?
Grant: Whales make unique songs underwater.
Anna: Other marine mammals make sounds underwater, some of them with some degree of musical scale.
Grant: But aren’t the oceans full of creatures that have bizarre and one of a kind designs?
Anna: Physically, yes. But behaviorally, they basically do the same things other species in their environment do: they work to find food and safety, and they reproduce.
Grant: Rather, they seek to find food and safety so that they can reproduce. Darwin for the win!
Anna: Not yet, or at least not totally. My point is that humans are unique in a different way than other species are unique from each other.
Grant: Such as.
Anna: Well, there are quite a few, and I am not sure I’ve got the best way to organize these. So I will just start with a rather everyday example, and work from there showing why it is unique.
Grant: Okay, what is your example?
Anna: We laugh at dirty jokes.
Grant: What? That is all you’ve got? Are you even going to tell us a dirty joke?
Marty: I will!
Anna: Actually, Marty, while I appreciate your willingness to contribute, I think we have enough experience to not need examples.
Marty: Just trying to help.
Grant: Well this should at least be interesting. I will concede that we do indeed laugh at dirty jokes, or at least good ones. Where are you going with this?
Anna: Well, actually I hope to mine quite a bit from this. In the first place, to tell or understand any joke, we need language.
Grant: Other species communicate, and our ability is only a difference is degree, not kind.
Anna: I disagree. Other species communicate with some combination of body language and sound, just like we could if for some reason our mouth could not form actual words. We have something beyond that. We can communicate not just in that way, but a totally different way.
Grant: I know the science is still being worked out, but haven’t we trained some apes and even certain birds to recognize words?
Anna: I haven’t seen any experiments that they could use language anything like the way we use it. In fact, it seems the researchers are back-tracking on some earlier claims. In any case, even if a human could train an ape or bird to respond in a limited way to certain words, it would still be the result of human training more than that animal’s natural behavior. It is the exception for the species. For us, it is an exception, if not a tragedy, for a member of our species not to be able to communicate with words.
Grant: Look, I know we could argue this point all morning. What else you got.
Anna: Well, jokes imply not only the use of language, but also abstract humor and laughing.
Grant: Don’t hyenas laugh? You always hear of a laughing hyena.
Anna: Just our projections on hyenas, I’m afraid. I think I’ve seen chimps laugh, but it’s a little hard to make out if they find something funny or just exciting and unusual. In any case, that is why I specified “abstract” humor, that is, humor based on words or concepts, as opposed to slapstick. No animal, no matter how smart, is going to laugh at the joke you tell it.
Grant: That seems rather trivial.
Anna: I don’t think it is. What makes something funny?
Grant: It depends.
Anna: But don’t jokes, and most humor in general, depend on some element either of surprise, or a sense that something is not what is expected?
Grant: What do you mean?
Anna: If a person trips and lands on their rear, would you think that funny?
Grant: Maybe a little. Again, depends on whom.
Anna: If you fell, would you smile and make some humorous remark?
Anna: And which would you find more amusing, a child of two tripping, or the Queen of England at some formal event.
Grant: The queen, obviously.
Anna: Because her falling on her bum would seem out of place with the formality?
Grant: Gloriously so.
Anna: Now, have you ever laughed at a joke about a crooked politician.
Grant: Of course.
Anna: Why are jokes about crooked politicians funny?
Grant: Oh, I see. You’re saying they are funny because they trade on the fact that politicians are supposed to be honest?
Anna: Something like that. My point is that the very fact of humor depends on something not being what it is supposed to be.
Grant: And what does this say about humanity?
Anna: That we, alone apparently, have a sense of how things are “supposed to be”. We have an idea not only of what is, but what could be or should be.
Grant: Is that really that important?
Anna: It is crucial. It is almost as great as the difference between a rat and a rock.
Grant: Surely not!
Anna: Think about it. A rock shares certain traits with a rat. They both exist. They are both made up of atoms and molecules. They both take up space. In fact, you could even, if you were very skillful, carve a rock to have the exact shape of a rat. But even though they have some traits in common, they have one difference, and that difference puts them in two different classes of being. One is a living organism. The other is just matter. One exists passively in the universe, while the other is an active agent who moves and acts in the universe, and can understand some things about the universe. In the same way, there is a class difference between a being who can act in the universe and understand it, and a being who can not only do those things, but can picture a different reality altogether, and makes his or her agency work towards that unseen reality.
Grant: But don’t some animals, at least, envision a future and act towards it? Beavers build dams, robins build nests, etc.
Anna: Well, it is hard to ferret out (pardon the pun) how much of that is cognition, and how much is just instinct. When my Australian Shepherd gave birth to a litter of pups a few years back, she immediately knew how to tear open their birth sack, and care for the pups, even though she was a first time mother. Instinct is an amazing thing. And this does seem to be the instinct of the species, rather than the will of the individual that is in play in, say, a robin building a nest. That is why one robin’s nest will pretty much look like every other robin’s nest. And even if animals do have an idea of how something should be and work towards it (which I do not concede), all their work again centers around their own needs for food, safety, and reproduction, not toward a picture of how the world should work or other beings in the world should act.
Sylvia: So you are saying that the very fact that we have humor is some sort of sign that we think distinctly from the rest of the animals? I see your point, but why talk about dirty jokes, as opposed to jokes or humor in general?
Marty: Yeah, especially if you’re not going to tell any.
Anna: What are dirty jokes about?
Marty: Or bathroom humor.
Anna: But have you ever wondered why? Why do we laugh at these things, and why should this kind of humor be in a special category? Brenda, I heard you say you grew up on a farm. Don’t humans and animals have very different ways of feeling about sex or bodily elimination?
Brenda: Of course. I always thought it was gross to think see the animals copulating, but they never tried to hide it.
Anna: But we do. We want privacy in these things. We would feel shame to do what every other creature under the sky does: appear without clothes in our day to day lives.
Marty: I’m all for it!
Anna: And we find transgressions or oddities in this area to be a great source of humor.
Grant: Come back to your point.
Anna: That we feel shame and humor and guilt about our bodies and our sexuality that is completely out of place as mere animals.
Grant: But this is just cultural conditioning.
Anna: Then why does it seem to be the rule for cultures across continents and across centuries? Certainly some outer aspects of this vary by culture, but we react to Ovid’s dirty verses much the same as the Romans die two thousand years ago?
Grant: So sex is dirty?
Anna: You know that is not my point! Our attitude towards sex is one area where we sense things are not as they should be. No animal feels this.
Grant: So what you are saying is basically that we think in a different way than animals?
Anna: Not just a different way, but in completely different categories. Because we see not only what is, but what should be, we are operating on a completely different level. We are not only alone in speaking, but in seeing. Our whole interaction with reality is different, unique.
Rick: Wait. My dog shows guilt when I scold him. Doesn’t that mean he feels guilt, and doesn’t that mean he sees how he should have acted, but didn’t?
Anna: Rick, glad you are still with us. I thought you weren’t interested. Actually, I don’t think dogs feel guilt. They have the ability through body language to deflect aggression, and we project our human feelings of guilt onto their body language.
Rick: How do you know? Are you a dog whisperer?
Anna: Easy. I have dogs too. They never display that cowering look except about the things they have come to expect a scolding or punishment about. This isn’t an inborn sense of morality. If you had never trained them to poop outside, they would happily do it in the living room with no remorse.
Brenda: So basically you’re arguing that only humans have a sense of morality. Seems like a long road to get there.
Anna: Well, using jokes as my example, I was also able to show we are unique in our language. But mainly I am also trying to show that a sense of morality implies a different way of interacting with reality. We alone use our minds to imagine a reality more beautiful, good and just than the one we have now. And we alone are able to use our mind and body and will to make that conceived reality an actual reality. We live, we exist, in a fundamentally different way than animals do.