What makes us human? Explorers and hula dancers might have the answer

If only I had my pith helmet with me.

That's what kept running through my mind as I sat in the National Geographic Museum's Grosvenor Auditorium last week, listening to a panel of five real-life explorers share their findings and reflections on the world at large.

As part of this "Evening of Exploration" (moderated by Boyd Matson, the "voice" of Nat Geo), the panelists included Explorers-in-Residence* such as Spencer Wells, director of The Genographic Project; Beverly and Dereck Joubert, wildlife conservationists and filmmakers; paleontologist Paul Sereno; and Emerging Explorer** Zeray Alemseged, an Ethiopian paleontologist who uncovered a 3.3 million year-old toddler.

* How can I get this title?
** Or this one?

The person who captivated me the most, however, was cultural anthropologist Wade Davis. One, because he spoke on the diversity of human culture and what he has learned from traditional peoples about different ways of living and thinking. And two, because he didn't have any hard data backing him up, just a lot of conversations and adventures. (My kind of science!)

What he said didn't need numbers to resonate, though, because it got to the universality of the human condition. Of his many eloquent turns of phrase, this idea in particular made me catch my breath:
Among humans, there is no one model of reality -- only a set of options. Other people are not failed versions of a perfect you. They are different answers to the same question: What makes us human? ... the human spirit is infinite.

Talk about deflating the idea of "primitive" or "uncivilized" with one articulate pin. By framing our cultural diversity in the context of choice, Davis showed that the freedom to do just that -- choose our own paths -- is fundamental to the human experience.

I saw this illustrated a mere two days later when I went to the Museum of the American Indian with my family. It happened to be Hawaii Day, a celebration of the island's indigenous cultures, and as part of it we saw the hula troupe Halau Na Kamalei.

Now, before visions of grass skirts and ukuleles dance before you, keep in mind that this troupe hearkens back to the male hula. Eight men and two women performed several dances for the rapt audience, and what was noteworthy was that it was not luau entertainment, but worship.

Captivated by the lyrical chants, synchronized choreography, and reverent dancers, my mother remarked how familiar it all seemed. At times the music sounded like Gregorian chant. At other moments the Hawaiian words mimicked Hebrew. The fluid movements evoked community dances of the Plains Indians, while the costumes reflected many cultures' customs of using flowers and fabrics for adornment.

Above all, what struck me was how often the dancers looked upward and raised their arms to the sky. They were not using their bodies to talk to us; they were using them for a more sacred conversation.

At that moment, I remembered something else Wade Davis had said: that one element he noticed across cultures all over the world was the tendency to worship something greater than themselves. Everyone looks upward. Everyone acknowledges they are part of a wider cycle. Everyone has their version of a Great Spirit.

How, then, in a world where we characterize our cultures with our self-expressive choices, have we somehow all felt a need to follow and mark a belief system as well? Granted, the stories and rituals vary, but the underlying drive to create meaning -- to create the divine -- is constant.

So I'm going to take Davis' thought and add a spiritual bent: Perhaps we are all failed versions of a perfect Creator, yet even in our failings have arrived at good and beautiful choices. Thus are our spirits infinite, because in striving to choose well, we connect with the eternal.

No wonder living is such an awfully big adventure. Let's explore more.