Sep 7, 2011

What Makes Us Human

In the 1950's and 1960's, linguist Dr. Noam Chomsky said that language is just too complicated for children to learn as fast as they do just by listening to and seeing others talk.  He concluded that infants are born with a sense, a "deep structure," an aptitude for syntax and grammar.

In more recent decades, however, researchers have analyzed every step of language and have discovered what the steps of language acquisition are, thus making it far less mysterious.

I read this and thought, they don't get it! Hashem created the world with four strata: domen, tzomeiach, chai, medaber - the inanimate (water, minerals), plant life, animal life, human beings.  The level of human beings is refered to as "medaber" - one who speaks, as intelligent thought expressed in speech is what sets humans apart from animals.  So Chomsky got it right.  There is a "deep structure" that is built into humans which enables us to master speech.  The fact that researchers can break down the steps of language acquisition doesn't alter the fact that humans are medabrim by definition!

I wondered how I could convey this point clearly and came up with this analogy.  The scientific approach would have us think that because there are chemical changes that occur when a person loves (seretonin, oxytocin, dopamine etc.), which can be measured, that love is merely a biochemical chain of events, not a state of mind and heart.  And yet, this science cannot explain situations such as the love of a couple like the Scharanskys who were apart for years and the love of parents for children who are grown.  As someone wisely put it:
"Love is a feeling, certainly, and chemicals may contribute to that feeling, but like all emotions, that aspect of love comes and goes. Love that becomes a constant is a state-of-mind and heart. It survives because we nurture it, and plant the seeds of the relationship in our soul.

Choosing to love someone is what keeps us in love, even though we know that at various times we may become angry, sad and frustrated towards our loved one. Choosing to love is remembering the good times in the middle of the bad times.

Chemicals cannot make our choices. We choose to open our hearts or not everyday, and this freedom of choice is what makes us human, and fully capable of rising above chemical reactions in order to make spiritual decisions of the heart."

That we are now able to see which part of the brain "fires" when different emotions are felt, doesn't reduce these emotions to nothing but chemical reactions.  The chemical reactions are just that, reactions to and visible manifestations of, human emotions. 

If someone would venture to articulate this more clearly for us, I'd welcome that! 


  1. Some animals do have a form of language or a way of communicating to others of their species. For humans though, it is much more developed and not nearly as instinctual. Human memory begins to record when speech begins. A baby may start to recognize its parents and caregivers before he can speak but his or her actual memory that can be recalled later won't begin until his speech is developed. Much of infant behavior though, is a result of inborn instinct. A newborn is able to suck from the moment of birth. He is easily startled. People may dispute this, but I have seen infants smile in the first week of life if they are being smiled at or sung to. Our emotions begin early. A baby of 8 months will cry if the mother leaves him. A baby who is hungry and waiting for his milk is also angry, sad and frustrated. A child of 2 or 3 will be jealous of the newborn. This is also natural and beyond the toddler's control.
    Eventually we learn to control our responses and emotions. A dog can be taught when not to bark and a horse can be taught when not to trot but we obviously have the task of understanding when our initial emotions or instincts must be tamed. G-d created us with the ability to control instinctual emotions and tame them. Just like the body secretes adrenalin for stressful situations in order to equip the person with "fight or flight", the brain secretes the necessary hormones to support the needed emotions.

  2. There is an interesting entry on "animal language" in wikipedia.