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What makes us human?

Some say it's our genes. Some say it's our souls. Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham says that cooking makes us human, and to judge by all the celebrity chefs milling about, he may be right.

Hey, I love to cook, but in my view what makes us fully human is words, and what enables us to enjoy the blessings of civilization is the ability to write down and read those words.

Our ancestors started cooking at least a million years ago, but for most of that time nothing changed. They hunted, then they hunched around fires, holding meat on pointy sticks over the flames. End of story.

Until the story began. Evidence suggests people started talking, swapping stories and making plans at least 50,000 years ago. That enabled them to think big, to imagine trekking over a mountain range or through a desert to see what lay on the other side.

“Language was our secret weapon, and as soon we got language we became a really dangerous species,” biologist Mark Page tells the New York Times.

But you know, talk is cheap. Sure, it got us out of Africa, and yeah, we wiped out the Neanderthals and the woolly mammoths, but we weren't much better off. Then, about 5,000 years ago, writing was invented in the Middle East.

Its impact was explosive. Writing made it possible to keep records, allowing for a complex economy, technocrats and nationwide plans. Boom! Next thing you know, empires, pyramids and sacred books are busting out all over.

The transformative power of literacy has grown over the millennia, and in some unexpected ways. In his landmark book The Better Angels of Our Nature, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker argues that literacy led to a humanitarian revolution. The rise of reading and printing in late 17th century Europe let education to begin to displace superstition. Fewer people believed in “toxic notions, such as that Jews poison wells ... crop failures are caused by witches, children are possessed by the devil … and so on.”

More than that, literacy led to a rise in empathy. When Shakespeare penned The Merchant of Venice, he gave literature its first rebuke against millennia of anti-Semitism. “If you prick us,” Shylock the Jew says, “do we not bleed?”

How important is literacy to the fulfillment of human potential? One sure measure is the effort to suppress it. Slaveholders in the antebellum South knew the importance of keeping their chattel illiterate.

Frederick Douglass, in his magnificent autobiography, recounts how his mistress, ignorant of the rule against letting slaves read, taught young Frederick the alphabet. On learning of this, her husband put his foot down, and she tried to undo her error.

“Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper,” the former slave recalled. “She seemed to think that there lay the danger.”

How right she was. Even now, oppressors view literacy as a mortal threat. Islamist extremists resort to any cruelty to prevent girls from learning. In Afghanistan, the Taliban (ironically, the name means “students”) have thrown acid in the faces of dozens of girls with the temerity to learn to read.

Last September, National Public Radio reported on an Afghan girl named Rahmaniya whose own brother has tried to thwart her education. "Several times he has beaten me up," Rahmaniya told NPR. "He tells me, 'You go ahead and go to school, and I'll throw acid on you.” Rather than submit, she fled.

If she's lucky, Rahmaniya may gain refugee status and be able to move to a country where teaching girls to read is taken for granted. If she's extremely fortunate, the 19-year-old will be resettled in Lincoln.

If so, she will join thousands of refugees who have gained the gateway skills of English language literacy through the good graces of Lincoln Literacy volunteers. It's a joy to watch dedicated tutors meeting with eager learners and gradually to see the amazing power of literacy come to life. It's also a reminder of how much is at stake, not only for refugees like Rahmaniya, but for their children, their future and our community. Literacy, like cooking, makes life good.

Clayton F. Naff is executive director of Lincoln Literacy, a community-based nonprofit organization, which offers monthly training to volunteers interested in becoming literacy and language tutors. More information is available at


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