A Monkey’s Kiss

04.28.2016

Can a monkey kiss? Franz de Waal says yes. Many scientists say no.

DeWaal says there are lots of things monkeys do that look very human. Tickling a young chimp is like tickling a child. They have the same sensitive spots. They have the same vocalized panting that we call laughter. And, even though they try to escape the tickling, when it’s over, they come back for more. But, can we call what chimps do ‘laughter’? Or is it merely vocalized panting?

 

And, it’s the same with kissing. Chimpanzees kiss each other in the same circumstances that human beings do—like when they greet each other or reconcile after a fight. So, De Waal says: A kiss is a kiss. But, other scientists say ‘a kiss’ is human. What monkeys do is not the same. It may look like a kiss. But, it’s really just mouth to mouth contact.

 

Bill Clinton would have reveled in this distinction. There was that wonderfully famous moment in our culture when Bill Clinton declared “I did not have sex with that woman.” And, as we later found out, what he meant was not that he had no physical contact with Monica Lewinsky.  He was depending on our agreeing with him that mere intimate physical contact does not constitute sex.

 

Sex is not just a physical action. It’s an idea, a concept, a category. And similarly, there is a tipping point where mouth to mouth contact becomes more. It becomes meaningful. And, only when we’ve done something meaningful can we be held morally responsible.

 

There’s a show on tv now called Humans about a new line of robots that are extremely lifelike. They look like us, they speak like us. And, their movements are fluid, not herky jerky like a stereotypical robot. But, they are not quite as fluid as we are. There is a little bit of rigidity to their motion that reminds us ever so slightly that they are not human.

 

At one point, the man of the family, who rents a beautiful female robot, has sexual relations with her. Later when he is confronted by his wife, he claims he didn’t do anything wrong. He cries out, “It didn’t mean anything. She is a machine!”

 

His wife is not convinced. But, once again, he is hitting on a very important distinction. A machine might be capable of action. But, to be human is to be capable of meaningful action. The Rabbis tell us that the question of meaning is what defines slavery. If you tell your worker ‘hoe this field until I come back’ you have made him a slave because you have given him meaningless work. You have robbed that person of his humanity because a human being does not merely engage in mouth to mouth contact. A robot can do that. What makes us human is that we are capable of a kiss. A kiss is meaningful.

 

And, the moment we cross over that mystical barrier into meaning is the moment we become morally responsible. I will repeat one of my favorite stories because it illustrates this point so well. I once was showing the Torah to a group of fifth graders. And, of course, the question that intrigued them the most was: what happens if you drop the Torah?

 

And, it really disturbed them greatly that there was a possibility that you could drop the Torah. So, one student said this: What if you are holding the Torah and you begin to sway a little. And, you start to lose control of the Torah. But, you haven’t dropped it yet. And, you try to right yourself. But, the Torah is really heavy, so it’s a real struggle to hold it. And, the heavier it feels, the lower it gets in your arms.

 

And, slowly, slowly, you find yourself getting lower and lower to the floor as you struggle to prevent the Torah from touching the ground. And, eventually the Torah is a quarter of an inch from the ground and you’re still holding it, but it’s getting so heavy that you barely hold it anymore. And, finally the Torah touches the ground. And, the question is: Did you drop the Torah? And, do you have to fast?

 

It’s a fabulous question. What the student was really asking was: was this mouth to mouth contact or a kiss? Was this a series of a hundred still frames or was it one motion we could call a ‘drop’? Was this the herky jerky motion of a robot, or was it the fluid indivisible motion of a human being? Or, in other words, have I done anything meaningful?

 

Because if I’m a herky jerky robot, I am only capable of a thousand unrelated actions strung together. None of those tiny actions in and of themselves has any meaning. I do not lift the Torah, and I do not drop the Torah. In fact, there is no “I” at all. It’s only when my actions are on some level no longer divisible, it’s only when the series of mouth to mouth contacts become mysteriously unified into what we call a kiss that we can be held morally responsible for that kiss.

 

The gap between mouth to mouth contact and a kiss is a chasm. It’s defies rational explanation. How do we get from one to another? We can say it’s a matter of intention. We can say it’s a matter of meaning. But, what have we really explained? Can you measure intention? Can you observe meaning under the microscope?

 

The role of science is to break down life into the tiniest of parts. It’s a very important way of looking at life. But, it’s only one lens. Because if a human being is only the latest version of a zillion incremental changes over time, there is no human being. There is no unity to these still frames. We can’t say they mean anything anymore than we can say the movements we have programmed into a robot are meaningful.  The moment we speak of meaning, we are making an inscrutable leap. And, we are out of the realm of science, into the realm of religion.

 

George F. Will once wrote a wonderful book about baseball called “Men at Work.” His goal was to show that being great at baseball or at anything is as much about hard work as it is about talent. So, he tells us that Don Mattingly the superstar hitter of the Yankees used to go out every day before a game and take 500 practice swings. And, this was at the height of his career when he had already achieved fame.

 

Why does it matter? Because talent is not very democratic. Talent is something you are born with. And, the democratic impulse is to resist with all our might any advantage conveyed by birth, and to stress the rewards we earn by our own choices.

 

But there are limitations to this argument. If 500 practice swings could produce a Ken Griffey, then there is nothing wondrous about Ken Griffey. And, I can tell you that on the day I saw Ken Griffey tie the record for days in a row for hitting a home run, there was something magical about it. And, everyone else in the stadium felt that way, too.

 

And, that’s why David Brooks argued recently that hard work is only the beginning. There are moments when after working and working and working, suddenly the mind takes flight. It’s like that famous bicycle chase scene in E.T: you’re pedaling with all your might, and suddenly your feet leave the ground. These are moments of inspiration.

 

Inspiration is not something we can plan for. It’s not something we can control. And, that’s scary. There is nothing more exhilarating than the feeling of flying in the air. And, there is nothing more terrifying. Once our feet have left the ground, we have made a commitment that we can’t go back on easily. That’s why after our people left Egypt, we had a profound moment of panic. For the first few moments, we were flying– and we were thrilled. Then, we looked down at the ground, and we cried out: “Oh my God, what have we done?”

 

But, that’s what freedom is. It’s a leap, not a baby step. It’s the moment we have courage to let go of that chair and go ambling across the room to the waiting arms of our parents. It’s the moment we let our feet leave the ground. It’s the difference between mouth to mouth contact and a kiss.

 

On Passover we read Shir Ha’shirim, song of songs. It’s opening words are: yishakeni mi’neshikot pihu/let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. We are the monkey that learned to kiss. And, thank God we did. This is our humanity. This is our leap to meaning. This is our freedom.

 

Can a monkey kiss? Franz de Waal says yes. Many scientists say no.
DeWaal says there are lots of things monkeys do that look very human. Tickling a young chimp is like tickling a child. They have the same sensitive spots. They have the same vocalized panting that we call laughter. And, even though they try to escape the tickling, when it’s over, they come back for more. But, can we call what chimps do ‘laughter’? Or is it merely vocalized panting?

 

And, it’s the same with kissing. Chimpanzees kiss each other in the same circumstances that human beings do—like when they greet each other or reconcile after a fight. So, De Waal says: A kiss is a kiss. But, other scientists say ‘a kiss’ is human. What monkeys do is not the same. It may look like a kiss. But, it’s really just mouth to mouth contact.

 

Bill Clinton would have reveled in this distinction. There was that wonderfully famous moment in our culture when Bill Clinton declared “I did not have sex with that woman.” And, as we later found out, what he meant was not that he had no physical contact with Monica Lewinsky.  He was depending on our agreeing with him that mere intimate physical contact does not constitute sex.  

 

Sex is not just a physical action. It’s an idea, a concept, a category. And similarly, there is a tipping point where mouth to mouth contact becomes more. It becomes meaningful. And, only when we’ve done something meaningful can we be held morally responsible.

 

There’s a show on tv now called Humans about a new line of robots that are extremely lifelike. They look like us, they speak like us. And, their movements are fluid, not herky jerky like a stereotypical robot. But, they are not quite as fluid as we are. There is a little bit of rigidity to their motion that reminds us ever so slightly that they are not human.

 

At one point, the man of the family, who rents a beautiful female robot, has sexual relations with her. Later when he is confronted by his wife, he claims he didn’t do anything wrong. He cries out, “It didn’t mean anything. She is a machine!”

 

His wife is not convinced. But, once again, he is hitting on a very important distinction. A machine might be capable of action. But, to be human is to be capable of meaningful action. The Rabbis tell us that the question of meaning is what defines slavery. If you tell your worker ‘hoe this field until I come back’ you have made him a slave because you have given him meaningless work. You have robbed that person of his humanity because a human being does not merely engage in mouth to mouth contact. A robot can do that. What makes us human is that we are capable of a kiss. A kiss is meaningful.

 

And, the moment we cross over that mystical barrier into meaning is the moment we become morally responsible. I will repeat one of my favorite stories because it illustrates this point so well. I once was showing the Torah to a group of fifth graders. And, of course, the question that intrigued them the most was: what happens if you drop the Torah?

 

And, it really disturbed them greatly that there was a possibility that you could drop the Torah. So, one student said this: What if you are holding the Torah and you begin to sway a little. And, you start to lose control of the Torah. But, you haven’t dropped it yet. And, you try to right yourself. But, the Torah is really heavy, so it’s a real struggle to hold it. And, the heavier it feels, the lower it gets in your arms.

 

And, slowly, slowly, you find yourself getting lower and lower to the floor as you struggle to prevent the Torah from touching the ground. And, eventually the Torah is a quarter of an inch from the ground and you’re still holding it, but it’s getting so heavy that you barely hold it anymore. And, finally the Torah touches the ground. And, the question is: Did you drop the Torah? And, do you have to fast?

 

It’s a fabulous question. What the student was really asking was: was this mouth to mouth contact or a kiss? Was this a series of a hundred still frames or was it one motion we could call a ‘drop’? Was this the herky jerky motion of a robot, or was it the fluid indivisible motion of a human being? Or, in other words, have I done anything meaningful?

 

Because if I’m a herky jerky robot, I am only capable of a thousand unrelated actions strung together. None of those tiny actions in and of themselves has any meaning. I do not lift the Torah, and I do not drop the Torah. In fact, there is no “I” at all. It’s only when my actions are on some level no longer divisible, it’s only when the series of mouth to mouth contacts become mysteriously unified into what we call a kiss that we can be held morally responsible for that kiss.

 

The gap between mouth to mouth contact and a kiss is a chasm. It’s defies rational explanation. How do we get from one to another? We can say it’s a matter of intention. We can say it’s a matter of meaning. But, what have we really explained? Can you measure intention? Can you observe meaning under the microscope?

 

The role of science is to break down life into the tiniest of parts. It’s a very important way of looking at life. But, it’s only one lens. Because if a human being is only the latest version of a zillion incremental changes over time, there is no human being. There is no unity to these still frames. We can’t say they mean anything anymore than we can say the movements we have programmed into a robot are meaningful.  The moment we speak of meaning, we are making an inscrutable leap. And, we are out of the realm of science, into the realm of religion.

 

George F. Will once wrote a wonderful book about baseball called “Men at Work.” His goal was to show that being great at baseball or at anything is as much about hard work as it is about talent. So, he tells us that Don Mattingly the superstar hitter of the Yankees used to go out every day before a game and take 500 practice swings. And, this was at the height of his career when he had already achieved fame.

 

Why does it matter? Because talent is not very democratic. Talent is something you are born with. And, the democratic impulse is to resist with all our might any advantage conveyed by birth, and to stress the rewards we earn by our own choices.

 

But there are limitations to this argument. If 500 practice swings could produce a Ken Griffey, then there is nothing wondrous about Ken Griffey. And, I can tell you that on the day I saw Ken Griffey tie the record for days in a row for hitting a home run, there was something magical about it. And, everyone else in the stadium felt that way, too.

 

And, that’s why David Brooks argued recently that hard work is only the beginning. There are moments when after working and working and working, suddenly the mind takes flight. It’s like that famous bicycle chase scene in E.T: you’re pedaling with all your might, and suddenly your feet leave the ground. These are moments of inspiration.

 

Inspiration is not something we can plan for. It’s not something we can control. And, that’s scary. There is nothing more exhilarating than the feeling of flying in the air. And, there is nothing more terrifying. Once our feet have left the ground, we have made a commitment that we can’t go back on easily. That’s why after our people left Egypt, we had a profound moment of panic. For the first few moments, we were flying– and we were thrilled. Then, we looked down at the ground, and we cried out: “Oh my God, what have we done?”

 

But, that’s what freedom is. It’s a leap, not a baby step. It’s the moment we have courage to let go of that chair and go ambling across the room to the waiting arms of our parents. It’s the moment we let our feet leave the ground. It’s the difference between mouth to mouth contact and a kiss.

 

On Passover we read Shir Ha’shirim, song of songs. It’s opening words are: yishakeni mi’neshikot pihu/let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. We are the monkey that learned to kiss. And, thank God we did. This is our humanity. This is our leap to meaning. This is our freedom.