March 4, 2007

"It is [blank] that makes us human."

I just ran across an old page in a notebook with that heading. This scribbling is at least a few years old but not more than 10 years old. It is followed by 16 words, candidates for filling in the blank, written with some unknown level of seriousness. Here are my 16 words in the order I wrote them:
  1. shame
  2. remembering
  3. planning
  4. dread
  5. joking
  6. writing
  7. politics
  8. fashion
  9. arrogance
  10. history
  11. theory
  12. inhumanity
  13. timekeeping
  14. culture
  15. believing
  16. originality
Critique these items or the inquiry itself. Or just add to the list. Or make a record album, with those 16 song titles. And give me credit. And half your royalties.

IN THE COMMENTS: Bill responds to my request for a 16-cut album by finding an Otis Redding recording for each item:
1. shame (I'm Sick Y'all)
2. remembering (Champagne and Wine)
3. planning (New Year's Resolution)
4. dread (Don't Leave Me This Way)
5. joking (Happy Song)
6. writing (I Love You More Than Words Can Say)
7. politics (Change Is Gonna Come)
8. fashion (Satisfaction--Otis pronounces it 'satisfashion;' so really it's about his inability to buy nice clothes)
9. arrogance (Tramp)
10. history (You Don't Miss Your water)
11. theory (Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song))
12. inhumanity (Cigarettes and Coffee)
13. timekeeping (I've Got Dreams To Remember)
14. culture (Respect)
15. believing (Look At The Girl)
16. originality (Love Man)
So here's the new game: Pick some artist you like and come up with 16 appropriate cuts.


CB said...

Maybe slightly off-topic, but that inquiry reminds me of this line from The Tenant:

At what precise moment...
...does an individual stop being who he thinks he is?
You know, I don't like complications.
Cut off my arm. I say, "Me and my arm."
You cut off my other arm. I say, "Me and my two arms."
You...take out...
...take out my stomach, my kidneys,
assuming that were possible...
And I say, "Me and my intestines."
Follow me?
And now, if you cut off my head...
...would I say, "Me and my head" or "Me and my body"?
What right has my head to call itself me?

Richard Fagin said...


chuck b. said...

A gardener in a city park I I know once told me a story about finding the remains of a dead animal that had been torn up by another animal, dragged in to the middle of a pedestrian path, and shat upon. I thought, "wow". That story just came back to me reading this list. Which, reading quickly, I thought was about political candidates because you wrote the word "candidates" and the other posts are about politicians.

That's my little, first-coffee-of-the-morning ejaculation.

bill said...

Each is a chapter in an incomplete book.

AllenS said...

17. sex

Cedarford said...


1. Altruism
2. Love
3. Companionship of other species (pets).
4. Need for Music & Art.
5. Fertile females sexually receptive year round (except feminists). Prolonged infant dependency.
6. Imperative towards religious, spiritual practices.
7. Existence of taboos.
8. The unique evolutionary "package" no other species has in toto in comparison, that advantages us: Superior intelligence, abstract reasoning, omnivore, bipedalism, superior communications ability, opposable thumbs.

We see some species "on the edge" of some of these features. If humanity had died off in either of the two population crashes we know happened from genetic drift studies, perhaps in 5 million years chimps would be typing about their ascendency. 10 million years, maybe an elephant priest would be clicking like mad on a trunk-friendly GUI writing a sermon about too many hide adornments and the rogue ways of elephant youth.

Zeb Quinn said...

Blushing and the contemplation of one's own mortality are two uniquely human traits. I don't know how to reduce the latter to a single word.

tabarasta said...


AllenS said...

18. tattoos

reader_iam said...

second thoughts

Abraham said...


CB said...


Shouldn't that be "fear or hatred of sex"?

(question mark goes on the outside, right?)

bill said...

The Otis Redding mix CD (not that he wrote all of these, but he did sing them):
1. shame (I'm Sick Y'all)
2. remembering (Champagne and Wine)
3. planning (New Year's Resolution)
4. dread (Don't Leave Me This Way)
5. joking (Happy Song)
6. writing (I Love You More Than Words Can Say)
7. politics (Change Is Gonna Come)
8. fashion (Satisfaction--Otis pronounces it 'satisfashion;' so really it's about his inability to buy nice clothes)
9. arrogance (Tramp)
10. history (You Don't Miss Your water)
11. theory (Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song))
12. inhumanity (Cigarettes and Coffee)
13. timekeeping (I've Got Dreams To Remember)
14. culture (Respect)
15. believing (Look At The Girl)
16. originality (Love Man)

Sharon said...


...the classic philosophic answer.

peter hoh said...

Tsk, tsk.
Oh, yeah.
How about . . . .
Oh no!
Tap, tap, tap.
Let me be perfectly frank.
Click, clack, click, clack.
Back in my day . . . .
Maybe . . . .
To hell with you.
Tick, tock.
That's different.

XWL said...

I guess I'm more technologically oriented, but I think there are 3 things missing from that list that are pretty important.

1. Fire
2. Dogs
3. Indoor Plumbing

Without fire, we wouldn't have the luxuries of time and excess calories to worry about all that other stuff. Seeing the Survivor tribes transform pre and post fire is a good illustration of this.

Without dogs (and the concept of domesticating nature in general), we'd be much more vulnerable in a hostile world. Humanity made leaps and bounds in progress about when we first domesticated dogs. I don't think that's a coincidence.

I know I don't feel fully human unless I'm near clean reliable indoor plumbing. Before culture developed that (and cultures that still lack it), just didn't feel truly civilized.

Finn Kristiansen said...

I'm adding:

1) Humility

Simon said...

I'd pick the "album" choice, but I write very slowly, and my last attempt didn't go down so well. ;)

AllenS said...


What makes us human is the fact that we have sex (mostly) while looking into each others face. I think that makes us unique. I can't think of any other creature that does that. Oh, sure, you say, there are other positions, as in: "I shall mount you like the bull!", but you get the point. Which brings up my next observation.

18. sexual positioning

YAMB said...

Female orgasm.

AllenS said...

YAMB: exactly, it's all about sex. See #17.

DannyNoonan said...

I just read a great book called Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert. His position is that what makes us human is our ability to predict the future--or rather, our interest in predicting the future. We imagine what it would be like to be this way or that way, or to do this or that, or taste or buy or experience some state or feeling or thing. Imagining what different things would be like is what allows us to shape our lives. But according to Gilbert, most of us are really bad at predicitng what will make us happy.

lohwoman said...


bill said...

Ability to light our own farts.

aquariid said...

Dear Prof. Althouse- I feel the need to be polite- I am new to this commenting on blogs and would like to thank you for the chance to reflect on so many interesting subjects, particularly legal questions as I am an amateur lawyer (a little joke). It seems to me that non-anonymous blogging is very brave (foolhardy?). You put your thoughts and feeling out there for everyone to dissect and critique. Aside from my anonymity being well deserved, I would be embarrased to do that and afraid that I would betray my ignorance to the world. (I was a shy and sensitive child, still am.) Not that you have anything to be ashamed of. You are an obviously smart and experienced professional and that is why I bookmarked this site. And just to be fair I'll reveal that I am a US born male of your generation. (You see that took some guts because now I can't hide behind the excuse of youth!)

Regarding what makes us human:
I had an old dog who died last summer. She exhibited many of the behaviors in your list, except inhumanity. (Is saying that humans are defined by their inhumanity an oxymoronic tautology?) This dog was somewhat unusual except few noticed besides me. She invented a mirror game where she would sit in front of a full length mirror and watch what was going on behind her. I would try to sneak up on her and at the last moment she would spin around and catch me before I could grab her. Her big smile seemed to say "Ha! You can't get me because I have eyes in the back of my head!" She loved listening to Mozart's horn concertos. I couldn't listen because she would continuously sing along. Nothing else, just Mozart. She was fascinated with cats and would have loved to be friends, that never worked out. She did have some horse friends though. This dog during the sixteen years that I knew her only ONCE exhibted aggressive behavoir. She growled and snapped at her younger house mate who got too close to her dog biscuit (something that had happened plenty of times before). I was shocked and very concerned that something was wrong with her. This was a dog who would sit back and let stray cats eat out of her dish, if she didn't like it she would scratch at the door until I came out and chased the cat away. She was very meticulous about the pecking order. The older dog of the three always got the first biscuit and if I tried to tease and give it to her first she would drop it and look at me and wait. When she was the last dog left she would do that every time. It was almost as if dropping the biscuit was a libation to the dead! (Now that's anthropomorphizing). Her worse behavior was that she would refuse to go outside if there were hot air balloons in the sky. It was a pathological phobia. She would go into the bathroom in the middle of the house (no windows) and sit in the shower stall. It never feels right to say she was a "good dog". She wasn't a good watch dog, she loved everybody. To even refer to her as a dog doesn't feel right. What makes a dog a dog? She was a "person" to me.

Jay said...


Sissy Willis said...

Inhumanity, hands down. The irony is to die for.

Peter Palladas said...

Sin: both original and unoriginal. If by the list you mean what distinguishes us from any other living creature, then the capacity to sin and to know that we have sinned is a mark of the human race and no other. (A related variant would be forgiveness.)

If though you mean what quality we should embrace as making us truly, fully human then I'd settle for being a member of MCC and dozing in the Long Room after a good lunch, half-dreaming of an English victory before being wakened for tea served by waitresses with flawless skin, impeccable manners and more than a passing resemblance to Nicole Kidman in 'Dead Calm'.

LoafingOaf said...

Artist: Morrissey

1. shame ("I'm Not Sorry")
2. remembering ("Used To Be A Sweet Boy")
3. planning ("In The Future When All's Well")
(Or, "Accept Yourself" -- "I sat in my room and I drew up a plan/but plans can fall through as so often they do/and time is against me now")

4. dread ("I Have Forgiven Jesus" -- "Monday - humiliation/Tuesday - suffocation/Wednesday - condescension/Thursday - is pathetic/By Friday - life has killed me")

5. joking (Can't think of one about joking, but "Satan Rejected My Soul" for some joking gibberish)

6. writing ("Girl Least Likely To" -- "How many times have I been around/Recycled papers paving the ground/Well, she lives for the written word/And people come second, or possibly third/And there is no style, but I say well done/To the girl least likely to")

(Or, "Reader Meet Author")

7. politics ("Irish Blood, English Heart" -- "I've been dreaming of a time when/The English are sick to death of Labour/And Tories/and spit upon the name of Oliver Cromwell/And denounce this royal line that still salute him/And will salute him forever")

8. fashion ("Hairdresser On Fire") (Or, "Christian Dior")

9. arrogance ("Sister I'm A Poet")
10. history ("Munich Air Disaster 1958")
11. theory ("The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores")
12. inhumanity ("Barbarism Begins At Home")
13. timekeeping ("Ganglord" -- "Ganglord/there's a clock on the wall/making fun of us all/Ganglord/the clock on the wall/makes a joke of us all")

14. culture ("We'll Let You Know" -- "At heart, what's left, we sadly know/That we are the last truly British people you'll ever know") (Or, "Glamorous Glue" -- "We look to Los Angeles/for the language we use/London is dead")

15. believing ("I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday")
16. originality ("Cemetry Gates")*

*If there's a compilation of the best songs under each, I'd nominated "Cemetry Gates" (not sure if it's misspelled on purpose) under "originality."

A dreaded sunny day
So I meet you at the cemetry gates
Keats and Yeats are on your side
A dreaded sunny day
So I meet you at the cemetry gates
Keats and Yeats are on your side
While Wilde is on mine

So we go inside and we gravely read the stones
All those people, all those lives
Where are they now ?
With loves, and hates
And passions just like mine
They were born
And then they lived
And then they died
It seems so unfair
I want to cry

You say : "'Ere thrice the sun done salutation to the dawn"
And you claim these words as your own
But I've read well, and I've heard them said
A hundred times (maybe less, maybe more)
If you must write prose/poems
The words you use should be your own
Don't plagiarise or take "on loan"
'Cause there's always someone, somewhere
With a big nose, who knows
And who trips you up and laughs
When you fall
Who'll trip you up and laugh
When you fall

You say : "'Ere long done do does did"
Words which could only be your own
And then produce the text
From whence was ripped
(Some dizzy whore, 1804)

A dreaded sunny day
So let's go where we're happy
And I meet you at the cemetry gates
Oh, Keats and Yeats are on your side
A dreaded sunny day
So let's go where we're wanted
And I meet you at the cemetry gates
Keats and Yeats are on your side
But you lose
'Cause weird lover Wilde is on mine

Sure !

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dewb said...

Great game! I spent most of the weekend in the car listening to the Rolling Stones, so let me take a stab at a Stones mix:

1. shame - Let it Loose
2. remembering - Ruby Tuesday
3. planning - Ventilator Blues
4. dread - Sister Morphine
5. joking - Dead Flowers
6. writing - Yesterday's Papers
7. politics - Sympathy for the Devil
8. fashion - Factory Girl
9. arrogance - Under My Thumb
10. history - Brown Sugar
11. theory - You Don't Have to Mean It
12. inhumanity - Gimme Shelter
13. timekeeping - Midnight Rambler
14. culture - Street Fighting Man
15. believing - Shine a Light
16. originality - Brand New Car

With a catalog like the Stones have, there were plenty of choices. I tried to stick to the Beggars Banquet - Exile on Main Street era, but 'theory' and 'originality' were tough.

Drew W said...

I know I shouldn’t be doing this at 1:00 AM, but I can’t resist the challenge.

The Frank Zappa Songbook Meets The Althouse Attributes:

1. shame: Bamboozled By Love
2 remembering: Cruising For Burgers
3 planning: What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning?
4. dread: I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted
5. joking: In-A-Gadda-Stravinsky
6. writing: Society Pages
7. politics: The Beltway Bandits
8. fashion: Brown Shoes Don’t Make It
9. arrogance: Honey, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me?
10. history: The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing
11. theory: Excentrifugal Forz
12. inhumanity: The Torture Never Stops
13. timekeeping: 9/8 Objects
14. culture: Aerobics In Bondage
15. believing: It Just Might Be A One-Shot Deal
16. originality: The Rejected Mexican Pope Leaves The Stage

Maxine Weiss said...


shame (Button up your overcoat)
remembering (September of My Years)
planning (The Day After Forever)
dread (The Hurt Doesn't Go Away)
joking (I Got Plenty Of Nothin)
writing (I Could Write A Book)
politics (America The Beautiful)
fashion(Baubles, Bangles and Beads)
arrogance (Fools Rush In)
history(A Hundred Years From Today)
theory (I Concentrat On You)
inhumanity (How Insensitive)
timekeeping (Round Midnight)
culture (Style)
believing (I Believe In You)
originality (But None Like You) what's my prize?

Peace, Maxine

XWL said...

Prince deserves a list, I think.

1. Shame (Papa)
2. Remembering (Sometimes It Snows In April)
3. Planning (1999)
4. Dread (Batdance, oh wait, I thought you meant dreadful, my bad)
5. Joking (Rock Hard In a Funky Place)
6. Writing (The Ballad of Dorothy Parker)
7. Politics (Sign O The Times)
8. Fashion (Raspberry Beret)
9. Arrogance (My Name is Prince)
10. History (America)
11. Theory (Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance, if that's not the title to a fantastic dissertation, I don't know what is)
12. Inhumanity (Slave)
13. Timekeeping (Manic Monday, he wrote it, so I'm counting it as a Prince song)
14. Culture (The Truth)
15. Believing (The Cross)
16. Originality (Starfish and Coffee)

Many alternate choices could be made for each word, but this will do in a pinch.

Peter Palladas said...

3. Indoor Plumbing

Or replacing leaky pipes with Great Poets.

It's a Richard Brautigan thing. ('Trout Fishing in America' from memory.)

Michael Farris said...

Artist X (all songs by John Doe and Exene Cervenka IINM)
from three albums 1981-1983: wild gift, under the big black sun, more fun in the new world)

after each song title is a line or two indicating it's appropriateness

1. shame (we're desperate: "our whole fucking life is a wreck")

2. remembering (when our love passed out on the couch: "midnight, when you passed out on the sofa, kissing any little child that comes along")

3. planning (we're having much more fun: "we'll crawl through your back yard and whack your yappin' dog")

4. dread (real child of hell: "shorts and tans and greasy thighs,
at night drive into slimy bars, and piss it out on our front yards"

5. joking (back to the base: i'm the king of rock 'n roll, if you don't like it you can lump it)

6. writing (adult books: "adult books, I don't understand, Jackie Susann, meant it that way")

7. politics (year one: "patriotic people sleep, in Washington DC,
waiting waiting waiting")

8. fashion (beyond and back: "I want to be like her, instead I stay nowhere, marked down in the basement, lousy at the bottom")

9. arrogance (white girl: "I'll replace your drunk old man, sit in the parking lot and hold your hand")

10. history (the new world: "it was better before, before they voted for what's-his-name, this is supposed to be the new world")

11. theory (some other time: "let's not talk about bombs or the brain impulses of severed limbs"

12. inhumanity (I must not think bad thoughts: "I'm guilty of murder of innocent men innocent women innocent children thousands of them, my planes, my guns, my money")

13. timekeeping (how I learned my lesson: "absence makes the heart grow fonder, so I never want to see you again")

14. culture (riding with Mary: "On the dashboard rides a figurine,
a powerless sweet forgotten thing")

15. believing (under the big black sun: "if it isn't men it's death,
it's the same old testament"

16. originality (because I do: "I am the ghost of all my dreams, to me it's all pretend, I pretend I'm alive or just not dead"

Melissa Clouthier said...


Peter Palladas said...


...and 'crocodile tears.' Human, all too human.

We may not be the only species that cheats on its mate, but we're the only one that pretends to be remorseful.