Matti Bunzl's Blog

Animal: What Makes Us Human

Animal: What Makes Us Human 

Are humans animals? The answer to this question is a perfectly confounding Yes and No.

From a biological perspective, things couldn't be any clearer. Like all living creatures, we evolved over millions of years. We look like most other species (two eyes over a nose over a mouth), share large parts of our genes with all other mammals (and over 98% with chimpanzees, our closest relatives), and do all the things that characterize earth's fauna (from breathing to eating to sexual procreation). Of course humans are animals!

Not so when seen from another set of traditions. In much of philosophy, religion, and aesthetics, humans appear as the very antithesis of the animal kingdom. They are the ones confined to the realm of nature; we are the ones who have ascended to the dominion of culture. Language, in all its creative potential, is the big separator. After all, what other creature has produced a Dante, Shakespeare, or Mary Shelley? To boot, what species even thinks (?) about other beasts, let alone uses them to define their own place in the world (Dante, Shakespeare, and Shelley being three of the writers whose depictions of the animalistic have done most to codify our understanding of ourselves).

This is rather familiar science-vs.-humanities territory. And it continues to have a hold on the popular imagination.

But it's not the whole story. Far from it. Over the last 10 years or so, a veritable revolution has been taking place in the academy. Spurred by developments in genetics and cognitive science, on the one hand, and new approaches to animals in the humanistic disciplines, on the other, we are witnessing an unprecedented convergence in once-distant fields of inquiry. Nowadays, evolutionary biologists speculate about art as an adaptation, while literary scholars challenge the species divide and theorize about animal communication. And interdisciplinary initiatives are sprouting all over America's campuses.

Are humans animals? Not long ago, the question produced a predictable standoff. Now it is quickly becoming the start of a fascinating conversation.

The 24th Chicago Humanities Festival will take this new conversation out of the academy and into the public at large. We will explore what it means to think about culture biologically, about biology culturally, and about the human-animal relationship beyond the science/humanities divide. In presenting the most cutting-edge work, Animal will give us a whole new perspective on our world. Most importantly, though, it will give us new answers to the oldest and most fundamental question in the humanities: What makes us human?

Please mark your calendar for the following dates:

Sunday, October 13: Morry and Dolores Kohl Kaplan Northwestern Day
Sunday, October 20: 7th Annual Hyde Park Day
Friday, November 1 - Sunday, November 10: Downtown

Joining us this fall will be:

Temple Grandin, animal scientist, autism activist, and bestselling author of Animals Make Us Human and Thinking in Pictures
Photo by Rosalie Winard
Temple Grandin, animal scientist, autism activist, and bestselling author of Animals Make Us Human and Thinking in Pictures

 

Atul Gawande, leading medical thinker, surgeon, and author of award-winning books Complications, Better, and The Checklist Manifesto
Photo by Fred Field
Atul Gawande, leading medical thinker, surgeon, and author of award-winning books Complications, Better, and The Checklist Manifesto

 

Sherman Alexie, beloved novelist and filmmaker, best known for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Smoke Signals
Sherman Alexie, beloved novelist and filmmaker, best known for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Smoke Signals

 

Frans de Waal, primatologist and author of Our Inner Ape, Primates and Philosophers, and The Bonobo and the Atheist
Frans de Waal, primatologist and author of Our Inner Ape, Primates and Philosophers, and The Bonobo and the Atheist

 

Susan Orlean, New Yorker staff writer and author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend
Susan Orlean, New Yorker staff writer and author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

 

Julia Kristeva, leading psychoanalytic theorist
Julia Kristeva, leading psychoanalytic theorist

 

Justin Torres, literary sensation and author of We the Animals
Photo by Simon Koy
Justin Torres, literary sensation and author of We the Animals

 

Maria Tatar, Harvard professor and leading scholar of fairy tales
Maria Tatar, Harvard professor and leading scholar of fairy tales

...among many, many more.

Sign up for our weekly e-mail blasts to receive information on other exciting presenters as they are announced!

Tickets will go on sale to CHF members on Tuesday, September 3 and to the general public on Monday, September 16.

Note on the Animal artwork: it's by designer Jason Pickleman, of JNL graphic design. Jason is the artist responsible for 2011's neon tech·knowledgē and 2012's multicolored America. We're pleased to be working with him again.

Tags: animal, fall festival, biology, language

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