Human diversity: We’re not all the same under the skin

We are all born inside our heads and we live our entire lives there. What we understand about others is largely deduced from watching the shadows on the wall. We can potentially gain insight by talking with other people – provided we are able to open our minds to the possibility that they may be both similar to us and different from us.

Given our congenital myopia, it’s hardly surprising if our first assumption is that another person’s mind must work the same way ours does. Not that humans have always thought so, of course. A large part of human history has been dominated by the struggle to see past our superficial differences – to understand that just because someone has a different skin color, or hair texture, or eye shape, doesn’t mean that the mind inside is radically different from ours. As a species we’re still trying to get past the stage of killing, enslaving, vilifying – or just dismissing – those who don’t look like us on the outside.

Maybe people currently find it easier to “embrace diversity” if they see the differences between people as trivial and superficial. We’re all alike at the core, right? We all have the same needs and want the same things, don’t we? The trouble is that this kind of thinking dovetails all too easily with our inability to see inside of other people’s heads and can lead to overlooking or dismissing some very real – and very important – differences in how people’s minds work.

People have different mental abilities – intelligence, if you will – but also different mental talents, perceptiveness, and perceptions. Some have talent for language, some for math. Some people are good at understanding themselves, others are self-blind. We have different personalities: optimist versus pessimist, introvert versus extrovert. The basic emotions are expressed at different levels in different people. Some people struggle constantly with fear, others are all but fearless. This one is almost impossible to rile, that one needs a course in anger management.

Regardless of whether these differences are genetically determined or acquired through life experiences (I believe it’is some of both), they are real. The up-shot is that we do not all face the same challenges even though we may be placed in the same situations. Some of us will encounter problems that others will never be able to fully understand because they cannot see things as we do or feel what we feel. By extension, there are no uniformly applicable solutions to people’s personal problems. One-size-fits-all is no more valid in solving the difficulties people have in dealing with their lives than it is in clothing their bodies.

I see internal, mental, differences as the last (or next?) frontier of human diversity. The way I see it, we will not have fully embraced our diversity until we have learned to understand our internal differences and to treat them with acceptance, respect, and compassion – until we are prepared to treat all people as the unique individual beings that they are.

So much for the heavy stuff. Feel free to disagree, of course. Or tell me about your personal experiences with human diversity, internal or external.

Leave a comment


  1. I agree the differences are determined both genetically and environmentally. Even within the same family there can be significant differences. What might work for one family member may have the opposite effect on another. Maybe that’s one of the reasons family gatherings can end up with disagreement and misconceptions.

  2. G M Barlean

     /  October 28, 2014

    I love a meaty topic like this. I hadn’t thought of it in this way. I think I was trying to close the gap of diversity by making a common bridge. Deep down, looking for similarities to bind us. Maybe to a degree, that’s a good thing… a way to feel empathy and compassion. Those are things humans need and seem to be at odds with these days. Yet realizing difference and accepting and embracing it is important, too. Great, thought-provoking read. Thank you!

    • Obviously commonality and similarity has to be there at some level, or we wouldn’t have a hope of understanding each other. And that bridge is all important. What I was thinking about when I wrote this was all the times I’ve had people make suggestions to me – with the very best of intentions – but suggestions I really couldn’t use because I wasn’t them. Did that make sense?

  3. Wow, great–and big!–topic. Maybe because I spend so much mental energy creating and wrestling with characters in stories, my mind went immediately to the role stories can play in helping us understand and connect with those who are different. When I read “Lolita” or “Catcher in the Rye” or “Catch-22” I am deeply immersed in the inner life of someone who is not only unlike me on the outside but on the inside too. Fiction–and non-fiction–can be such an important part of that bridge from the known to the unknown.

    • That’s a wonderful observation, Audrey. I hadn’t been thinking that way when I wrote it, but you’re right. And I think it says that good writers are among those who have oven enough minds – and the needed sensitivity – to understand the minds of others even when they are different. It’s a wonderful gift to have.


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