What is Identity?

Does having a soul depend entirely on your ability to recognize your individuality?

Have you ever stared into a mirror and someone else stared back? For most of the animal kingdom this is the norm. When an animal looks in a mirror, what it usually sees is another of its kind, a potential mate or rival. This has been proven by research studies where various species of animals were examined to see if they pass what is called the “mirror test.”

A mirror test usually involves surreptitiously placing a small but obvious spot of bright dye on an animal’s body in a position where it can only be seen by the animal directly in a mirror. When the animal looks in the mirror, if it notices the spot of dye and then begins to investigate the dot on its own body by using the reflection, the animal is assumed to have the cognitive ability to recognize “itself” in the mirror.

This form of testing has been carried out on a wide variety of animals and only a select few species have consistently passed the test. Several types of apes pass it (though not all), as well as a particularly intelligent bird species, the magpie, elephants, and dolphins. Species that you might expect to pass it like dogs and cats consistently fail. Human babies first seem to pass the test in the Western world at about age 18 months, but some babies in cultures in Africa and remote regions have been shown to take longer, not passing the mirror test up until the age of two or three at times.

What does this tell us about who we are and how we see the world? By being able to identify our own individual selves more easily than other species, does this tend to make us more inherently selfish? Human babies seem pretty selfish, but they don't pass the test until well over a year old.

Its also been well observed in nature that animals that live in groups will sacrifice themselves for each other without hesitation, from wolves in packs down to ants and bees in hives. These are creatures that fail the mirror test almost entirely. Does self-sacrifice therefore predominate only because such creatures have a detached view of their own value?

Human beings also prefer to live in groups, but when push comes to shove we often choose personal needs over those of the collective. Is a baby concerned about mom or dad's sleep when it cries at 2am in the morning for attention night after night?

It also seems to be the case that the more intelligent species acquire this ability at self-awareness as a natural form of their development. A possible explanation for all of this is that higher level species such as dolphins and apes need a strong sense of identity so that they can pick out unique traits in others of their kind, identifying trusted companions and rivals, and finding optimal mates. Dolphins that can swim faster, apes that have more dexterity in gathering food, are probably the better choices to mate with.

This brings us back to humans and personal identity. Our identity is so important to us that modern culture has become highly focused around displaying our distinctions. We've cultivated this behavior over the course of thousands of years and now spend billions of dollars a year on it. How we dress, who we associate with, and where we choose to work, live etc. are all considered vital details of whether we are worthy mates or not for others. 

Yet research has shown that the human ideal for beauty and strength is pretty universal across all cultures, and involves such things as a balanced symmetry to the body, youthful stature and healthy, vibrant appearance in hair and skin. Optimal people are those appropriate in weight for their size, with obvious signs of displayed wealth in clothing, jewelry and so on.

These universal values diminish our tendency toward distinctiveness even though there is a backlash against such values as being stereotypes, particularly by those who find it hard to live up to these ideals. If you're not eternally youthful and self-confident, if you're fat, or poor, then there's something definitely wrong with you. You are subprime.

Personal identity then is really a tool that we use to propagate the species, and perhaps to improve upon it. It is entirely a physical phenomenon generated in species of higher intelligence, or so we assume. Religion tells us it is a gift from God, evidence of each of us having our own unique soul. But if we have souls, and can demonstrate it every time we look in a mirror and see ourselves looking back, what does that say for dogs and cats? Perhaps there is no dog heaven or cat heaven after all.