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February 5, 2015 / BTM

Are Humans Unique, or Just the Most Evolved Form of Animal?


Are humans smarter than animals?

Is it ‘speciesism’ (discrimination against animals) to believe that humans have a greater moral and ethical worth than animals?

Do humans belong on the top rung of Darwin’s Tree of Life, or are they in a class all their own?

Do vegetarians and vegans walk a higher moral ground than the rest of us?

Is it just as wrong to exterminate rats as it was to exterminate Jews and other undesirables during the holocaust?

All of these questions have at least one thing in common: whether or not humans and animals have the same moral and ethical worth. They pit two worldviews against each other: imago Dei vs. evolution. In a logical world, they can’t both be right. So, which one is it?

Is there evidence for the idea that humans are morally and ethically superior to animals outside of the Bible?

Last week our small group discussed the topic of imago Dei – or how humans are made in the image of God. Imago Dei is a theological concept that is based on Genesis 1:26-27. It views humans as set apart from – or above – the rest of creation with a special status and unique responsibilities.

According to imago Dei, humans reflect God more clearly than any other part of creation, even though we reflect Him poorly because of our fallen state. According to the Bible, being created in imago Dei endows humans with inherent dignity and worth.

Imago Dei is also what sets us apart from animals. The idea that humans could be superior to animals is not a very common or popular concept in today’s society. I’ve been wanting to investigate this topic more deeply ever since I shared a post a few months ago with some initial thoughts on how humans are different from animals.

What does science tell us about how humans and animals differ? Here are some ideas from sources that come down on both sides of the question:

First and foremost, humans are thinkers by nature with a higher rational capacity than animals. Not only do we think, but we are capable of abstract thought (we can think beyond what we can sense). Furthermore, we can analyze our thoughts, and mentally peer into the future to consider how different events or ideas might play out and what they might lead to. This gives humans, as  Thomas Suddendorf told the CNN “a sense of free will and an edge over creatures with less foresight.”

There is no hard evidence to suggest that animals can reason or analyze the possible outcomes and consequences of their actions before they are performed. However, animals have been shown to create behaviour patterns as a reaction to stimuli (essentially responding and adjusting to the outcomes of actions after they are performed).

Humans have a unique sense of consciousness and time among the animal kingdom. Humans alone are capable of bringing together knowledge across different domains such as mathematics, space and time, causality, art, science and so on, to invent, create, design, build, and form decisions and ideas. In the words of Kenneth Samples:

Human beings are conscious of time, reality, and truth. They study the past, recognize the present, and anticipate the future. […] Reflective people wonder whether their perception of reality matches with reality itself. Human beings uniquely pursue truth […]: what is real (metaphysics), what is true (epistemology), and what is rational (logic) are paramount questions, but again, only for man.

Our awareness of time, as well as our knowledge of our fragile state, give us an awareness of death. This is more than a survival instinct – it shapes who we are, how we interact with others, how we prioritize and spend our time, what brings us meaning and what we hope to achieve.

There is no evidence to suggest that animals do the same. They have intuition and a sense of time (such as anticipating seasonal changes) that far outstrip man’s abilities in these areas. But, as Brantford Schleifer says: “animals are only able to relate time to themselves; they have no ability of relating time to third parties.’ We have no evidence that animals inquire into the ultimate questions about their existence, or the functioning of the world around them.

Brantford Schleifer notes that no animal relationships “exhibit a parallel with the human characteristics of love, in which a couple shares experiences, goals, dreams, hopes and aspirations.” We use our relationships to learn from each other as well by asking questions, sharing experiences, or seeking advice.

Humans have an innate spirituality. Regardless of how unspiritual the Western world may appear, we are an anomaly compared with the rest of humanity in this regard. This spirituality is part of what presses us to question our ultimate meaning and purpose. Even avowed atheists search for these kinds of answers. The ultimate questions of right and wrong – morality and ethics – are grounded in this spirituality. Humans can consciously choose to do what is right, even if it is more difficult or inconvenient. Humans choose to build character and change their lifestyles or actions based not only on comfort, but ultimate beliefs in what should be. None of these characteristics hold for animals.

Linguistic expression among humans far surpasses that of animals. While animals can certainly create numerous sounds and communicate through language, even learning human languages when taught, “they do not comprehend syntax or communicate in complex sentences. Humans can generate a practically limitless variety of words and concepts.” (Brantford Schleifer)

Often considered a negative trait, humans have the unique capacity to adapt and change their environment and surroundings. We are capable of doing this to a degree that isn’t even comparable with the rest of the animal kingdom in part because of what Suddendorf calls our ‘collective wit’: our ability to collaborate with others and draw on experience and knowledge from across disciplines and across time.

These are a few of the differences between humans and animals that I found in recent literature. They paint a picture of a fairly wide gap between humans and animals. But do these provide evidence for imago Dei (that humans are unique and set apart from animals, created in God’s image)?

Some would suggest not. I look at some of the responses against the alleged uniqueness of humans over animals in my next post.

Update: Here is an interesting article that takes these concepts further.

What do you think? Are the differences I listed examples of difference in degree or difference in kind?

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