Skip to content

What is Human?

March 17, 2014

This week I noticed an advertisement for a TV show about how humans share some similar behavioral patterns with non-human animals.  The show is called “How Human are You?”  Well, 100%[1].  That will be a disappointingly short first and only episode.  However, I know what the show is driving at.  It’s a pretty common staple of a certain branch of biology and it’s a near given for some primatologists (some of whom are trained as anthropologists, interestingly enough): humans are not so different from non-human animals.  We tend to think of ourselves as very different (to the extent that not all of my freshman college students are aware that they are taxonomically categorized as animals).  This difference leads to a particular set of behaviors in which humans and animals are treated as fundamentally separate categories.  Of course Christian thinking does have a special place for human beings.  So does it matter to Christians how different humans are from other life forms?

In some sense it must matter how different humans are from other organisms.  However even a “worst case” scenario isn’t a death blow to Christianity.  Let’s just imagine that we discovered that some other species was our intellectual equal with complex language, oral tradition, philosophy, and so forth.  Would that cripple Christianity?  Certainly the Bible is human-centered and certainly we have always interpreted that to mean that humans are special, that alone of all life on the planet humans have the capacity to engage in the kind of deliberate moral or immoral behavior that makes for ethical obedience or disobedience.  However, if another intelligent species showed up we might conclude that the Bible is human-centered because it’s meant to be read and used by humans.  In fact, the Bible contains almost no information on the status of non-humans.  Besides a mandate to rule in Genesis[2], we know almost nothing about the “spiritual” status of other creatures.

One of the more common differences that is asserted between humans and other animals is that humans have a soul.  Not only is this solidly beyond the realm of testing but even this difference isn’t as clear-cut as one might think.  The Bible itself uses soul and spirit in a variety of ways that are not entirely analogous to modern English usage but do allow animals to have souls.  Our modern concept of human souls comes from a medieval division of souls into three types: vegetable (which conferred the power to grow), animal (which conferred the power to move), and logical (which conferred the power to think).  Medieval thinkers held that humans (and humans alone) possessed all three soul types but this is more a matter of medieval philosophy than Biblical exegesis.

So should Christians care how different humans are from other creatures?  I think the answer has to be no.  What’s more, it’s also not important that we find a single clear difference that sets humans apart.  Humans do math but so do chimps.  Humans use language but the boundaries of what animals are doing with language is being pushed further and further back.  Humans build cities but so do ants and prairie dogs.  However, humans put together these skills in a way that means that humans are writing articles about what other animals do while other animals are almost certainly not engaged in any kind of dialog about what makes a human being human.

Central to the odd idea that challenging what makes us human is philosophically important is fuzzy thinking.  It’s a specific sort of fuzzy thinking that appears again and again when scientists attempt to make an idea more interesting by tying it to philosophy that they don’t bother to understand first.  (Neurologists are another common offender here.)  The value of this example is mostly in being an example that helps us think more clearly about other cases we may run across.

The way good thinking about this topic should have begun is with the philosophy.  What is it that makes us human?  Why does that matter?  It’s unclear, as I’ve said, that the first answer even matters.  We can determine who is human and who is not pretty easily and what seems to be more important is what we do with this (the second half).  Coming at the question from this direction, the provocative claims that humans are somehow less-human because they share traits with other species is just nonsense.  However, if we skim over these questions and make culturally-common assumptions about what makes us human we may find that these assumptions don’t work.  We may be shocked to find that we are less unique than we thought.  We may then broadcast that shock as if something radical has changed when what has changed is really only that we have woken up to the question “what makes us human?” for the first time.

Unfortunately, Christians are often tied to older assumptions about how humans work.  A while ago I was asked how I could be an intelligent person and yet believe in “all this stuff”.  It’s a bad question but it’s a common one.  It assumes that the massive revolution in scientific knowledge has fundamentally up-ended older ways of thinking about people that Christianity depends on.  For some individual Christians that is true – their Christianity is based on ideas about how people work that just aren’t true.  But this isn’t the heart of Christianity.  Bad Christianity can be overthrown by bad philosophy quite easily but this says nothing about the more carefully thought-out sort of Christianity.  It behooves Christians to think carefully about our world so that we can better answer these spurious challenges.

[1] If you really want to debate this then the place to do so is with Neanderthal DNA and the question of Neanderthal taxonomy.  I would also probably watch that show.

[2] Even this could be dealt with since humans do hold the fate of other species in their hands in a way that no other species does.  Humans do rule other species and should do so in a manner consistent with God’s will.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: