What makes human beings unique? In an unforgettable speech to a Stanford graduating class, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky explores this question and challenges what many of us think about what separates us from animals.

It turns out that we may not be so special after all.

“There is nothing fancy about us at all. We are just a basic off-the-rack mammal,” says Sapolsky.

Over the years, traits and abilities once thought to set human beings apart have been found in other species. For example, bats observe the Golden Rule. Chimpanzees exhibit empathy. The dark side of what was once thought to be specific to human nature is evident in other species too. As Saposkly explains, we are not the only species that kill our own kind in cold blood:

Other species kill strategically in ways that would make Machiavelli proud.

That said, there are some things that humans do for which there is no analogy in the animal world. According to Sapolsky, what is most defining about human beings is the ability to deal with contradictions.

To illustrate, he cites the case of a Catholic nun who ministers to prisoners on death row in Louisiana. He describes the men as:

…some of the most frightening, nightmarish humans who have ever walked this Earth.

When asked how she can spend her time with such men, she replies:

The less forgivable the act, the more it must be forgiven. The less lovable the person is, the more you must find the means to love them.

As a strident atheist, this strikes Saposkly:

 …as the most irrational, magnificent thing we are capable of as a species.

Sapolsky’s insight about our ability to withstand contradiction reminds me of the wonderful story about a man who encounters a young boy on a beach. The beach is strewn with thousands of starfish that had washed up onto the shore after a storm. The boy is picking up the starfish, one by one, and throwing them back into the ocean so they won’t die.

The old man says, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water he said, “It made a difference for that one.”

The ability to embrace contradictions is indeed magnificent. As human beings, we are capable of forgiving the unforgivable, loving the unlovable, transcending the unfathomable and achieving the impossible. Just because we know a single person cannot really make a difference, it is all the more necessary that we must try to make a difference.

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. ~Aesop