Evolution, Science, and Religion 9: What Does It Mean if Humans Are Animals?

Evolution, Science, and Religion 9: What Does It Mean if Humans 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

Apr 9, 2012. Darwin thought – as many of his followers continue to think – that humans are animals.

This is not a scientific finding – indeed it flies against almost everything we see and can measure in the world around us. Neither is it consistent with the views of many leading researchers in such areas such anthropology and neuroscience. And it certainly isn’t consistent with the perspectives of the religions of the world and their view – honed across millennias of experience – that we are both animal and human.

Let’s consider some of the questions that arise when we consider the view that humans are animals.

A Word of Caution

A word of caution. Our topic is not as simple and straightforward as it may at first seem.

One issue, hidden like the bulk of an iceberg, is the matrix of fundamental political and social changes associated with the emergence of European-style nationalism and its associated forms of political organization, among them modern participatory democracy. Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679), widely considered to have laid the foundation for these changes, viewed man as a mechanism – a machine – with animal-like impulses needing to be controlled.

Another issue the emergence of modern rights-based perspectives in politics and social thought that oppose hierarchical political systems associated with divine authority models based on older Christian views of the uniqueness of humanity. In effect, differing considerations of whether or not humans are animals were – and continue to be – pitted against each other as theological and metaphysical arguments for different political systems and conceptions of society, a process that continues unabated today.

Another issue is the changing nature of our relationship with the planet’s animal life and the growing emergence of a stewardship ethos towards animals and wild places.

With this caution in mind, let us proceed.

What Does it Mean Morally, Ethically, Individually, and Socially if Humans are Animals

If we are animals, it means – if it is to mean anything – that we are bound to the dictates of our animal nature. No higher law binds us and there is no escape. Otherwise, we are not animals.

Obviously, people like Darwin, other enlightened thinkers, and many decent and progressive modern thinkers, didn’t – and don’t – really think that they themselves and their social equals are ordinary animals. They were – and are – exploring new intellectual ideas, their implications, and their usefulness. What they didn’t understand – and often still don’t – is that others can take their ideas and use them to cause severe damage to the public interest, invoking their supposed scientific authority.

What is nature of the animal nature we are bound to?

First and foremost it means instinctual behavior – we are hardwired to act in certain ways. We eat, protect ourselves, procreate, fight for dominance, attack and decimate others, engage in protective group behavior, gang up and bully others, lovingly raise our children, demonize and kill those that who outside of our group, act altruistically, follow alpha males or alpha females dogmatically and obediently, and don’t think about the consequences of our action.

It also means that we can learn behaviors. We can learn from the experience of our parents, our groups, and from those who train us.

There are, of course, many unanswered questions about what our animal behavior actually is. Does it mean, like Freud taught, that unknowable instinctual sexual drives in our youth drive our adult behavior? Does it then follow we achieve freedom and the happiness of society by engagement in sexual expression that “turns us on?”

Does it mean, as Friedrich Nietzsche taught, that the will to power – “achievement, ambition, the striving to reach the highest possible position in life” is “the main driving force in man,” that religious morality is for slaves, and that exceptional people – the Nietschean uebermensch – must obey no moral code beyond that of their own inner nature?

Does it mean, as Karl Marx wrote, “that what individuals are depends on the material conditions of their production?”

Does it mean, as the biologist Edmund O. Wilson famously asked, that “Darwinian natural selection, genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species … and that no species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history”? Elaborating further in On Animal Nature (1978), Wilson notes the implications of modern sociobiological views of the man’s animal nature:

If the brain evolved by natural selection, even the capacities to select particular esthetic judgments and religious beliefs must have arisen by the same mechanistic process. They are either direct adaptations to past environments in which the ancestral human populations evolved or at most constructions thrown up secondarily by deeper, less visible activities that were once adaptive in this stricter, biological sense.

The essence of the argument, then, is that the brain exists because it promotes the survival and multiplication of the genes that direct its assembly. The human mind is a device for survival and reproduction, and reason is just one of its various techniques.

This grab bag of different views of our nature – and I haven’t even started to do them justice – is a heritage of Darwin’s view. And not a one of them has scientific justification. They are at best unproven scientific hypotheses, or more usually, pseudo-science.

Their moral, ethical, individual, social and intellectual implications are similarly a grab bag – and sometimes we choose among them in a haphazard and almost random fashion until they create disasters and chaos. We then move on to another until the next disaster.

Sometimes we are told that war – the will to power – is what makes us noble and great. So, we massacre tens of millions in its name. Other times, we are told that our particular racial group is superior and that others are inferior, so we enslave them and kill them in the tens of millions. Or, we say that sexual freedom and the pursuit of ecstasy is our intrinsic nature, and we create deadly drug cartels to supply our resulting drug habits that then proceed to impoverish Mexico and Central America. Or, we follow Marx’s bidding and create societies driven by communism – or capitalism – that disadvantage the many for the benefit of the few.

To be honest, its hard not to regard these ideas cynically.

The Baha’i View: Humanity Is Able to Free Itself from Nature’s Bonds

The Baha’i view, as we have mentioned before, is distinctly different. Humans, although they share certain attributes with animals, possess attributes that set them apart:

The reality of man is his thought, not his material body. The thought force and the animal force are partners. Although man is part of the animal creation, he possesses a power of thought superior to all other created beings.

The animal creation is captive to matter, God has given freedom to man. The animal cannot escape the law of nature, whereas man may control it, for he, containing nature, can rise above it.

Central to the Baha’i view of human nature is a distinction between the natural world – where the laws of nature dictate what happens – and our human reality – where we can escape their dictate. Next week, we will explore this perspective in more detail.


This is the 9th 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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