AROUND THE TIME Darwin published "The Origin of Species," people began thinking really hard about what it was that distinguished us from all the other animals. For a while it was thought that we were the only animals capable of using tools. But it soon became clear that many species were very inventive, and we were not alone. Of course, there are only three or four animals on this planet that use tools for the joy of killing, and we humans are one of them.
For a while it was thought that we were the only animal capable of building an orderly society. However, investigation proved that ants, termites and other creatures were capable of constructing a society at least as complex as that of mainland China -- and easily as efficient.
For the longest while it was thought that we humans were the only animal possessed of -- how was it put? -- possessed of an immortal soul. Of course, those of us who have lived with Irish wolfhounds for most of our lives know that this is preposterous nonsense. I am reminded of what I hope is the true story told of a late-19th century French Catholic novelist, who on his deathbed is reputed to have said, "If I cannot be with my cats in heaven, I will not go."
There is one thing, however, that does distinguish us from all the other animals, and it is this: We are the only animal that makes art. We are the only animal that has invented metaphor to define ourselves to ourselves.
Now, I know about these experiments being done with chimpanzees and gorillas, persuading them to communicate with us by sign language. Interestingly, it is only the female chimpanzees and gorillas that are interested in this communication, the males being content to shriek in ways we have not translated. And some of these females have been taught a rather extensive sign language, a vocabulary of perhaps 400 words -- certainly larger than a number of New York cab drivers I've run across.
As far as I know, none of these female chimpanzees or gorillas has used the sign language skills to write a play. I'm sure, however, that as soon as one does, given the state of our commercial theater, it will be produced on Broadway; and, given the state of much of our criticism, it will run for three years.
But until -- if -- this occurs, I hold that we are the only animal that makes art, and I'm convinced that this is part of the evolutionary process. We all used to have a tail, you know. Not a collective one, you understand, but we still have a jut of bone at the base of our spine called the coccyx, and that is the vestigial remnant of our tails. You still have this jut of bone; don't look now, but take it as we must so much on faith. To simplify just a little bit, what happened is this: Somewhere along the line in the evolutionary process, our tails fell off and we grew art.
We have extraordinarily creative people in this country, but generally speaking they are not the most popular in the mind of the general public. Oh, John Updike and Philip Roth write a bestseller every now and again, and there's nothing to be done about it, but broadly speaking, the people we rightly put up on pedestals have less influence on the mind and morality of this country than their intellectual and creative inferiors. We know it is commerce that determines this, which equates popularity with excellence. But I warn you, if the finest minds and talents cease to matter in the larger cultural picture, we are in serious trouble, and our culture is in serious decline.
Our educational system is a de facto two-tier disgrace, with so many of our students getting, at best, a halfway decent education. In schools the arts are taught, if at all, as an adjunct, and getting a high-paying job is considered more valuable than being broadly educated. Few Americans are educated in the ways government works -- or does not work -- and our passivity, our downright apathy, in the face of the headlong retreat from democracy in this country makes us wonder if perhaps the late Max Lerner was not right: We are a civilization in decline without ever having reached its zenith.
They tell us that in a democracy, we can have anything we want. True. But it is also true that in a democracy, we get exactly what we deserve. We'd better figure out what we deserve.