To the best of my knowledge, humans are the only sentients on this planet that tell jokes. I think that may be one of the only things that makes us uniquely "human." (Writing is the other, in case you're wondering.)
Interesting - haven't there been examples of chimps writing and dolphins communicating through symbols. As for humour have you ever seen two dogs playing together - OK it isn't a standup routine in a nightclub but it can be pretty close to slapstick ... and dogs seem to see it that way too.
Some human cultures haven't developed the skills or need for writing and when they do learn it is more often than not because western missionaries have taught them so they can read the bible. Writing is actually relatively recent in human history (even cave painting, which is probably one of the oldest forms of 'writing' only dates back 10s of thousands of years). Would you argue that our ancestors prior to cave painting were not human beings or sentient?
(Oooo Carol! Thank you for making us think.
I would differentiate the notion of writing from using coding mechanisms or symbol sets. By writing (which I did call handwriting
, hence the possible confusion) I meant the act of recording gained knowledge and experience, or thoughts and dreams, in such a manner that they could be preserved and transmitted to different ages and cultures. In doing so humanity has established a collective experience and knowledgebase that basically allows us to transcend time and geographic space.
We can open a book and read what someone had to say about the human experience a few thousand years ago. And since we can do that, is the consciousness and mind that wrote those words (or had them recorded for it) really gone? To a certain extent, writing grants us a form of immortality. And what we know of most cultures, both living and dead, we have come to understand through their literature.
Many seismic changes in human culture (especially religious movements) came about as the result of something being written down: The Code of Hammurabi; The Ten Commandments; The Bible; The Koran; Luther's 95 Theses
; The Magna Carta; Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
; The Origin of Species
; The Communist Manifesto
; Mein Kampf
...and so on. The written word has the power to propel a society into a new era of enlightenment, or a bloodbath of intolerance and cruelty. And written words can take many years (or a change in venue) before their impact is fully felt. Much like a virus, the written word can produce effects independent of the person, society, or era that originally spawned it. A powerful thing indeed is the written word.
Now it is true that dolphins and chimps may use symbolic systems (given them by us) to communicate with us. But it is our
tool rather than theirs. Left to their own devices, they don't use writing systems, nor have they (AFAIK) developed such systems on their own. Rather interesting when you consider the number of species on this planet that have been around a lot longer than humans.
I'm also not saying that writing is a prerequisite for being considered sentient, intelligent, or even being human. What I meant was it was something humans uniquely do. If someone can loan me a copy of something a dolphin philosopher wrote 150 years ago I'll concede the point. Momentary aside:
Truth be told, sod the philosophical treatise. I'd even settle for a bit of contemporary doggerel - or a dirty limerick! Because I'd dearly love to hear a dolphin's take on what it means to be a dolphin. But I don't think I'll be sitting up nights waiting for it to happen.
And oh how I'd love to be proven wrong on this point!
To the issue of whether or not I would call a preliterate society "not human" I would have to reply "that's a loaded question." My answer would be that a society does not need
to employ written language to be considered sentient or human. But I would challenge somebody to show me a single piece of writing that is provably not the work of human hands. Perhaps I should have said "Humans uniquely make writing
." rather than "Writing makes us
Re Humor: To my mind, humor is rooted in an awareness of incongruity. Dogs and horses do
joke. (Spend some time around a New Forest Pony if you don't believe it.) But their joking seems to be based more on cause and effect: "If I push his buttons I can get this being to do something it doesn't want to do, or maybe scare it a little. Ha-ha!" I have never personally detected a sense of irony, or an appreciation of absurdity, in any animal I have ever known. From my experience with animals, absurd situations only seem to annoy or frighten them. So I would argue that what passes for 'humor' in animals is an altogether different mental process. Not less valid or amusing - just not the same thing as humor. There are funny animal videos - and then there's Oscar Wilde. Defining the difference would probably take a book, but I think most people would concede there is a significant difference between the two that is more than just a matter of degree.Carol? Anybody? Your thoughts?