Evolution, Science, and Religion 7: Why Darwin Thought We Are Animals

Evolution, Science, and Religion 7: Why Darwin Thought We Are Animals

“The task of humanity…is to create a global civilization which embodies both the spiritual and material dimensions of existence.”

The Universal House of Justice

Mar 19, 2012. Are humans a kind of animal?

Darwin, and before him Linnaeus, thought so. The world’s major religions, however, think not.

Therein lies a problem and a source of considerable conflict, including rancorous continuing debates about the teaching of evolution, over modern sexual mores, over abortion, and over what it is to be a human being. These debates that are a major source of division and contention in modern America and around the world.

The view that we are animals was endorsed by Darwin and has been embraced by many interpreters of evolution and by disciplines like sociobiology. Where did Darwin get this view? And is it defensible scientifically?

Human Uniqueness in Pre-Enlightenment European Thought

Before and even during the Enlightenment – which began 1650 – 1700 and continued until about 1800 – most Europeans viewed humans as distinct and different than animals. The Christian view predominated, and it looked to Judaic Scripture – the book of Genesis (Gen 1:26-27) – as its authority:

26And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

27So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Christianity taught then – as it teaches now – that humans have a soul and this distinguishes us from the rest of creation. This view is expressed cohesively in the Common Declaration on Environmental Ethics (2002) signed by Pope John Paul II and Bartholomew I, the leading Patriarch of Eastern Orthodoxy.

At the centre of the whole of creation, He placed us, human beings, with our inalienable human dignity. Although we share many features with the rest of the living beings, Almighty God went further with us and gave us an immortal soul, the source of self-awareness and freedom, endowments that make us in His image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26-31; 2:7).”

Philosophers looked to Descartes and other like-minded thinkers who taught that there was a vast difference between animals and humans. According to Descartes, animals lack minds and language, setting them apart from humans. Here are some of his comments (from Animals are Machines in Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence):

Now by these … means one can also know the difference between men and beasts. For it is rather remarkable that there are no men so dull and so stupid (excluding not even the insane), that they are incapable of arranging various words together and of composing from them a discourse by means of which they might make their thoughts understood, and that, on the other hand, there is no other animal at all, however perfect and pedigreed it may be, that does the like. … And this attests not merely to the fact that beasts have less reason than men but that they have none at all.

It is also a very remarkable fact that although many animals show more skill than we do in some of their actions, yet the same animals show none at all in many others; so what they do better does not prove that they have any intelligence, for if it did then they would have more intelligence than any of us and would excel us in everything. It proves rather that they have no intelligence at all, and that it is nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs.

Both religion and philosophy agreed: humans were unique.

Human Uniqueness in Pre-Darwinian European Thought

But views that humans were unique were increasingly challenged by the time that Darwin was thinking about evolution. Linnaeus (1707-1778), as we saw in blog 5, had already classified us as primates – along with orangutans and chimpanzees – and put us into the animal kingdom, claiming biological similarities. And the enlightenment had changed everything – religion was no longer in the driver’s seat:

… until the 1650s Western civilization “was based on a largely shared core of faith, tradition and authority”. Up until this date most intellectual debates revolved around “confessional” – that is Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist), or Anglican issues”, and the main aim of these debates was to establish which bloc of faith ought to have the “monopoly of truth and a God-given title to authority”. After this date everything thus previously rooted in tradition was questioned and often replaced by new concepts in the light of philosophical reason.

After the second half of the 17th century and during the 18th century a “general process of rationalization and secularization set in which rapidly overthrew theology’s age-old hegemony in the world of study”, and that confessional disputes was reduced to a secondary status in favor of the escalating contest between faith and incredulity”. [Age of Enlightenment, Wikipedia, quoting Jonathan Israel, accessed Mar 18, 2012]

The authority of religion – and the belief in the soul – had been attacked and deeply undermined. Secular belief – often pursued with the same fanatical devotion that once had characterized religious belief – shoved aside religion. The view that man was superior came to be considered as outmoded thinking from the past – and was proclaimed as false by “scientific” thought.

Philosophically, Descartes’ view of man as being superior to the animals was challenged by English political, mechanistic, and empirical philosophy – i.e., by the beginnings of modern materialism, atheism – as well as by other enlightenment trends.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is often considered a key instigator. Robert P. Kraynak – a political historian who studies liberalism and conservatism – describes Hobbes’ contributions here. Hobbes, according to Kraynack, held that:

… man is a complex machine moved by mechanical responses to images of external objects. This view is developed in Leviathan, Part I, which gives the materialist account of man as a creature of appetites and aversions: seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, and desiring power after power. … [His] model shows that human beings are selfish, competitive, and anti-social, and that they are rational only insofar as reason serves the selfish passions.

These views, despite concerns about Hobbes’ support for royal absolutism, were highly influential:

… he convinced many people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to change their views of the proper ends of government—from promoting the higher goods of virtue and salvation to protecting the limited goods of life, personal liberty, and property—inaugurating the natural rights principles of modern liberalism that became the basis of an enlightened middle-class materialism or “bourgeois” view of morality.

The net effect of Hobbes influence – and the influence of many other thinkers – was that Darwin came of age in an era where progressive thought saw the uniqueness of man as a theological holdover from the past inconsistent with the new truths of political liberalism and scientifically informed philosophy. It would be hard for Darwin not to be swayed by such thinking, especially since his view of evolution was one of gradual change, rather than of radical transitions.

So, Darwin, it is clear, thought in a cultural climate where belief in man’s superiority above the animals was still assumed, but it was a superiority of degree, not of kind. And this view was supported by his view that evolution was a simple mechanistic process of slow change. And he accepted this view as correct and scientifically sound.

But was it scientifically sound?

Next Week

Next week, we explore the scientific soundness of Darwin’s views. Given the huge spectrum of differences – some very substantial – between humans and the animals, is it still correct to say that humans are just animals?


This is the 7th in a series of blogs on evolution and religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he authored Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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One thought on “Evolution, Science, and Religion 7: Why Darwin Thought We Are Animals

  1. What amazes me about Hobbesian philosophy and the idea that humans are merely quantitatively different animals is that it so violates observable fact. Not all human beings are as he describes—notably those who recognize the existence of the soul and make legitimate effort to adhere to distinctly non-animal virtues.

    In this case, we are in the untenable position of being an organism that is attempting to study itself. In any other realm of human endeavor—government, say, or business—we would scoff at the idea that an organism (organization) could study itself with anything approaching objectivity. We would certainly not accept the findings of such an organization without great skepticism. Yet, we humans presume that we can, indeed, see the forest despite the fact that we are rooted in it.

    I think that this is an area where the scriptural record is valuable. From Krishna to Christ to Baha’u’llah, the scriptural record informs us that our essence (Atman, Buddhi, or Soul) is “the spirit of God in man”, that we are created in God’s likeness and “engraved” with His image. This is a recurring message and, if true, represents the only external view of human reality that we can have (well, until we meet a race of men from another planet, I suppose). I find it interesting that the “scientific” view of us is vastly less than what the teachings of religion portray. Are we a species with Woody Allen’s Disease, reluctant to join any club that would have us as a member?

    Oddly, this is another one of those areas where new atheism and the mechanistic view of humanity upheld by Hobbes and others is akin to extreme forms of fundamentalist religion. I’ve attended churches that took the Apostle Paul’s lament (“there is none righteous—not not one”) as a statement of spiritual fact and whose view of humanity is that every human being is unutterably wicked and low. This purely secular view seems to be in complete agreement, the only difference being that some animal behaviors (selfishness, competitiveness, greed, lust, etc) are not considered to be so much wicked as just (shrug) “human nature”.

    As comforting as it is to be able to slap a label on us and move on, it’s simplistic. The reality is much more complex. Again, I think the external view offered by the Avatars and Prophets of revealed religion can provide significant keys to understanding what really is human nature. It certainly offers a more comprehensive and reasonable explanation for the nuances and inconsistencies of human behavior. Hobbesian philosophy doesn’t even come close to accounting for the paradoxes it blythely overlooks.

    In reading your piece, I have to wonder if we aren’t going to see a sort of pendulum swing between the extreme views and enter an era where the principles of faith can inform the mechanics of science and the processes of science inform the way we approach interpreting principles of faith.

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