June 15, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Amazing Feats Highlight Human Exceptionalism

It’s not just what humans can do, but why they do it, that makes humans stand apart from animals.

MPR Raccoon free-climbs a skyscraper. Credit: BBC News

Social media had fun this week watching a skyscraper-climbing raccoon. Breitbart News showed tweets from people cheering on the animal’s progress as it climbed up 25 stories on a building in St. Paul, Minnesota, till the “MPR Raccoon” found a ledge to rest on, and was rewarded with cat food and a cage. National Geographic used the occasion to teach about five “surprising skills” of these animals: (1) astonishing adaptability, (2) a keen sense of touch, (3) crazy cleverness at solving problems, (4) teaching ability with their young,  and (5) face masks they use for identification. Nobody thought seriously, though, that the raccoon was trying to set a record for personal fame. The young female was probably scared when it started up, and then found itself unable to turn around. Ms. MPR Raccoon probably did not remember its predicament, or care about its achievement. And don’t expect other raccoons to give her a medal. Maya Wei-Haas explains in the NG article explains,

The tiny creature seemed to have gotten stuck a few stories above the ground and decided that the only way down was to keep heading up. Images of the little raccoon-that-could flooded the internet as the creature ascended the 25-story tower, taking frequent naps and breaks for grooming.

The Human Body Compared to Animals

Name most physical feats, and you can find an animal that will one-up a human being. Cheetahs and pronghorns can run faster. Eagles and peregrine falcons have better eyesight. Elephants can lift more. Whales can swim farther, halfway around the world. But aided with our tools and accessories, we are unbeatable: automobiles, space flight, supersonic jets, high-speed rail— and we can remotely control machines to do even better, like fly to the planets at tens of thousands of miles per hour. Even so, the unaided human body, when trained for a specific goal with the right motivation, can do remarkable things.

El Capitan towers above Yosemite Valley. (DFC)

Climbers Reach the Top of Yosemite’s El Capitan in Under Two Hours (National Geographic). This story was hard to believe when the news broke. If you’ve ever watched climbers on this world-famous monolith, you know that they look like tiny specks up there. Recently there was a guy who free-climbed the whole thing. Now, two guys broke a record, making it all the way up in under two hours.

On June 6, 2018, in California’s Yosemite National Park, Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell accomplished the seemingly impossible—climbing the 3,000-foot Nose route of El Capitan in 1 hour 58 minutes and 7 seconds. “It’s like breaking the two-hour marathon barrier, but vertically,” says Hans Florine, who, with his climbing partner Yuji Hirayama in 2002, was the first to take the speed record on the Nose under three hours.

The Nose is widely considered the greatest big-wall climbing route on Earth. It runs straight up the prow of the massive granite formation known as El Capitan and is the monolith’s most recognizable feature. Every spring, it draws the world’s most adventurous climbers to test their mettle. Most take three to five days to scale the challenging terrain, “camping” on the wall in portaledges anchored to the stone. For elite climbers, the time to beat is NIAD, or Nose-in-a-Day, climbing it all without an overnight. For Honnold and Caldwell, the route is their morning workout. “It didn’t feel that fast,” Honnold says of their latest record attempt, “but when I popped over the top I saw 1:57 and was like go, go, go, go!”

Next stop San Francisco as ‘longest swim’ embarks from Tokyo (Phys.org). If elite swimmer Ben Lecomte pulls this off, it will be an incredible feat of human endurance. We’ve heard of those swimming the English Channel, or trying to swim from Cuba to Florida, but the Pacific Ocean? Who can swim that far for a period of six months at sea?

Ben Lecomte dived into the Pacific Ocean Tuesday, kicking off an epic quest to swim 9,000 kilometres (5,600 miles) from Tokyo to San Francisco, through shark-infested waters choking with plastic waste….

He will face giant waves, sharks and jellyfish, and will also swim through part of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” in his attempt to be the first to accomplish the feat of swimming across the world’s biggest ocean.

Lecomte already swam the Atlantic in 1998, vowing “never again” to try such a stunt, but here he is again. The physical strain is only part of the challenge, he says.

“The mental part is much more important than the physical. You have to make sure you always think about something positive or you always have something to think about.

“When you don’t have anything to occupy your mind, it goes into kind of a spiral, and that’s when trouble starts,” he said.

Human Exceptionalism

While animals can succeed at specific events, humans win the all-around. No other animal can do all the events in the Olympics, which were designed to bring out the best in widely-varying human talents, from tumbling to archery, from diving to skiing, from weightlifting to ice dancing. No individual can succeed at every event (the Decathlon comes the closest), but every contestant is a member of Homo sapiens.

Humans also add moral motivations to their quests. Lecomte is trying to bring public attention to the tragedy of plastic trash in the Pacific Ocean. He is also wanting to monitor the radioactive fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The human quest for science is part of a unique trait of humans: to understand, to seek out facts, to make a difference in the world.

Finally, as Lecomte says, “thinking” is a crucial part of the success. Therein lies the key difference between humans and animals. The pronghorn runs by instinct; it’s not trying to set a speed record. The peregrine falcon speed-dives for food. A polar bear swimming a distance record may be having trouble finding a place to land. Human beings do not “need” to push the envelope and set records. Something in them wants to strive for greatness, discover new limits of endurance, and push the envelope further. Humans think. They plan. They train. And when they succeed, they do not necessarily succeed in the “struggle for existence” or “survival of the fittest” game. It’s not even necessary for them to pass on their genes to offspring to attempt what they do. Humans are un-natural.

C.S. Lewis said, “The Naturalists have been engaged in thinking about Nature. They have not attended to the fact that they were thinking. The moment one attends to this it is obvious that one’s own thinking cannot be merely a natural event, and that therefore something other than Nature exists. The Supernatural is not remote and abstruse: it is a matter of daily and hourly experience, as intimate as breathing.”


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