Oct/Nov 2006 Salon

Homo Habilis

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Photo by Jim Gourley

Our first clothing wasn't clothes at all but hair--fur, actually. Under it we were pasty white and remained that way for millions of years. As we lost our fur we took on a darker complexion to protect us from the sun. Presumably, it was also at that point that we began wearing clothes, perhaps out of necessity, especially for those of us who lived in the African highlands. For the handful of malcontents who decided to head north, some 150 thousand years ago, clothes in the form of animal skins must have quickly become a necessity. From there it was a short hop to the Parisian runways and Michael Jackson's signature white glove.

Clothes have become literally second nature for us. We no more think of going about naked--no matter how closely some of us approach that state given half a chance--than we would consider walking on all fours. We have so incorporated clothing into our idea of who we are, our identity as humans, that we may as well call ourselves homo habilis as homo sapiens. We are the animal that wears clothes--or rather, we are not animals precisely because we do not go about in our skin.

The consequences of this seemingly accidental development are enormous. Far from being a mere necessity to protect us against the elements, clothes have become one of the principal means by which we mythologize ourselves to ourselves. Without our dress, without our suits and skirts and clever T-shirts, we would not recognize each other either as human or as particular individuals with individual identities. Try showing up at the office naked and see how many of your coworkers treat you like the same old Fred or Margie.

Even our states of undress are really states of minimal dress. True nakedness, except for special, brief periods of time even for the most comely of us, is to be avoided. Clothing has become as much a part of our psychic evolution as has our loss of body hair. Not just our bodies, but our minds are clothed. How else explain our total acceptance of the clothed state as the normal one and nakedness as the aberration? To strip someone and make them stand naked is to humiliate them, degrade them to something less than human.

We judge each other by the quality of our attire and rank each other accordingly down to the smallest detail. Imagine a presidential press conference with the commander-in-chief standing at the lectern in the altogether or in attire entirely inappropriate to the occasion. Add a couple months growth of unkempt beard and hair. Who could take him seriously? It would be as if he were to appear speaking gibberish or turn up colored green. In place of the president, substitute any other august figure you like--pope, CEO, chief of police.

But the consequences of the pride we take in ourselves for being something apart from and better than our furred and feathered cousins are more than incidental. Clothing helps give us the illusion that we are not just smarter and prettier than they are; we have come to think of ourselves as being of a different order, equivalent to a kind of divinity. We may not be gods as such--in a monotheistic culture we dare not make that claim. But we do insist that we are created in the divine image, an assumption that amounts to the same thing.

There was a time when we knew better. Back when we made our livings in much the same ways that other mammals still do, we saw that, while we may be better at some things, we were clearly inferior at others. Other animals were not just prey and beasts of burden; they were fellow predators, sometimes superior hunters and swifter runners, cannier stalkers. We might occasionally, if we got lucky, kill a bear or a big cat, but we had no illusion that the kill meant we were the better beast. Tomorrow it might well be the other way around. If, after a lucky shot, we got to wear the skin of an animal we slew, we did not dare to let the experience go to our head. It's clear from the evidence found in prehistoric caves that our ancestors filled their bellies and clothed their nakedness not by taking on mammoths and saber-toothed tigers but by laying snares and nets for rabbits and other rodents.

We knew our place. We knew--because we were confronted with the reality every day--that we were one with the rest of the animal kingdom. If we made totems of wolves and eagles, it was because we revered them, saw them for what they were—fellows, not inferiors—rather than because we thought they would make a cute mascot or eye-catching logo for the local sports team.

We had a similar relationship with indigenous peoples when we found ourselves in the minority on this continent after we first settled here. The natives clearly knew how to cope in an environment that was still unknown and hostile to us. We recognized their superior skills and knowledge. We deferred to them as would any newcomer to a foreign environment. Native medicine and science cured ailments unaffected by European methods and potions--think aspirin, a product of the willow tree. And perhaps most important of all, Indians knew how to cultivate foods like maize, potatoes, and tomatoes, without which the Europeans might not have survived.

We imitated the Indian forms of governance--the polite demeanor of our legislative assemblies is a direct consequence--and feminism owes much to the impression made upon European women by the equal or even superior status indigenous women enjoyed in the New World. We even idealized the native peoples, hard as that may be to believe when you consider how we treat their descendents and see how we portrayed them once we got the upper hand. Eventually we conquered them, just as we seemed to overcome nature itself, and then sentimentalized even as we brutalized them--except of course that real "brutes," the animals we kill or tame, neither sentimentalize not brutalize, certainly not in the inhumane way we humans do.

In our climb to the heights of the evolutionary pyramid, a construct entirely fashioned out of our arrogance, we have almost totally lost sight of who we are and how we fit into the scheme of things. We mistake appearance for reality. We see only the dry integument and ignore what it contains and conceals, the pink gooey stuff we share with jellyfish and worms and not all that much altered over the eons. All living matter is basically the same stuff. That's why we eat it. The more like us it is, the better it tastes, because what tastes good is what we nutritionally crave. Why else would we go to the trouble and expense of raising, slaughtering, and preserving mammals and birds, when we could get all the nutrients we need from plants, except that flesh similar to our own contains so many of those nutrients in concentrated form?

We even refuse to accept our eventual disnintegration. When we die, we preserve our dead flesh as if corruption were not its portion, as if mortality were the destiny only of inferior beings, not godlings ourselves.

These delusions have been going on ever since we became "smart" enough to distinguish ourselves from the rest of creation. With each new increment to our intelligence we became more ignorant of who we were, our eyes progressively clouded by hubris--until evolution and now genetic science have brought us face to face with the reality we have spent so many millennia mythologizing. And what we see is shockingly similar to what was in front of our noses back before we fell in love with our own reflections: we not only share 98 percent of the stuff we are made of with the chimpanzees, we share 50 percent of it with bananas.

Nor are any humans better than any other humans. Some of the very people we thought ourselves superior to have turned out to be more closely related to us than are the folks we look most alike.

Little of this knowledge has filtered down to the man and woman on the street. They see the world and themselves in much the same fashion as did their great-great grandparents. Some of us are still trying to find a way around evolution. It's said it takes at least fifty years for a new scientific discovery to reach the public consciousness. The general outlines of the Quantum Theory are only just starting to be generally known, and the archaic and discredited concept of "race" is still on the lips of even our brightest politicians, academics, and clergy.

But we have come full circle, or at least are heading in that direction. We are returning to the knowledge we had as our birthright hundreds of thousands of years ago. If we continue on this trajectory, assuming we don't destroy ourselves and much of the world first, we stand half a chance of saving ourselves from ourselves--our own and the other species' worst enemy. Then maybe we will discard the dysfunctioal stories we have created about ourselves, the elaborate moral myths by which we try so unsuccessfully to live. Morality should serve the creature whose mores it represents by orienting him to a greater reality than his own personal interests and desires. Ours has long since become divorced from that reality, along with our consciousness. Our fellow animals are not less moral than we are. They are just less hypocritical.

For those who think this means living by the law of the jungle, i.e., living with no moral code at all, consider how people all over the world have lived by pretty much the same set of prohibitions and admonitions: don't steal or murder; don't marry your mother; take care of the poor and helpless. The basic principles are universal. You don't need a Moses to promulgate them or a divinity to give them authority. And a $2,000 suit or dress and fancy indoor plumbing doesn't make us anything other than what we are: one species among millions, destined one day to take our place as perhaps a minor story in the long evolutionary saga, with no more right to inherit this earth than anyone else.


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