Some Words About Human Memory

It’s not moral judgment that makes human beings human.  It’s not opposable thumbs, or volition, or imagination, or society, or even language, although language comes a close second.  It’s memory.

Without memory, language is nothing but “Watch out, saber-toothed tiger over there!” or “Give me that bone.”  Language is merely a secondary tool that allows us to communicate things we remember, because we need that complex structure in order to talk about the past. “Watch out!” and “Give me that” can be communicated with emphatic gesturing or monosyllabic grunts, but “Well, we were at that reunion the other day, and Bob was being shy, so I introduced him to Mary because Mary’s good with that kind of thing,” obviously can’t – and the latter sentence requires lots of memory to formulate.  Language is the recipe, but memory is the ingredients, of humanity.

Memory allows us to make moral judgements, by allowing us to compare past actions to consequences.

Memory allows true empathy, beyond the simple “I understand that this cat hurts because it got a thorn in its paw.”  In order to know what another being is going through, and truly empathize, on a level deeper than basic physical pain or immediate loss, requires memory.

Without memory, there is no need for explanations.  Once, long ago, some proto-humans lived out on the savannah, and it rained.  Among them was one who had been born with greater memory than any person before.  The other proto-humans looked at the storm, saw it was dark and ominous, and moved to a cave to hide; they felt the raindrops and the wind, felt they were cold, and huddled together; but the first rememberist thought of how it had rained before, and how sometimes it happened after the tribe had hunted a gazelle, and how sometimes the grass which the gazelle liked to eat didn’t grow when there had not been rain, and that first rememberist, remembering, and being for the first time human, invented the rain god.

And later, when the first rememberist looked at the other tribe members, and noticed that whenever the tribe played at fighting and chasing and hiding together, one of their number was always a little cleverer, and laughed louder, than the others, and that this same one, whenever the tribe ate, was always the most generous with the food; when the rememberist realized who this other tribe member was, as a person, the first rememberist became the first human to fall in love.

Without memory – real, deep, library-like direct-access memory – any animal is nothing but a collection of shallow, knee-jerk emotions, inherited instincts and Pavlovian, subconscious programs.  The greater the depth, breadth and browse-ability an animal’s memory has, the more “human” it can be – progressing on a scale from goldfish through dogs up to near-human elephants.  We human beings are not, as it has been said, thinking animals.  We’re not building animals, or talking animals, or even dreaming animals.  We’re remembering animals.


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