May 7, 2012. We have been examining what science says about whether or not we are animals.
It is perhaps the most important questions – it certainly is the most polarizing – in the science and religion discussion. And it is the root cause of the debates about – and the intense opposition to – evolution.
Other questions – does God exists, do we have souls, is there life after death, what is the purpose of life – were once thought to be amenable to scientific explanation. But for these it is increasingly clear that science – at least in its current stage of development – has little to say of relevance.
The question of whether or not we are animals, however, seems to be a question where science does have an important and legitimate role in providing answers.
Are We Or Are We Not Animals: The Status Quo Answer
“Are humans animals?” Do a Google search on this question and the first thing that comes up – meaning roughly that it is the most linked answer and the one likely to be first accessed – is this one on the Wiki Answer’s site:
Yes, humans are animals. The human’s phylum is Chordata (vertebrate). The human’s class is mammalia. It’s order is primate (the same as apes). It’s family is Hominidae (apes that have no tail and can gather food with their hands.) The Human’s sub-family is Homininae. It’s tribe is Hominini. It’s genus is Homo and it’s specie is scientifically named Homo Sapiens.
There is no indication that there any serious questions about the issue – no discussion of the non-scientific arbitrariness of defining humans entirely by reductionist biological considerations, no mention of any modern neurological, paleontological, sociobiological, economical, sociological, behavioral, or philosophical studies of the uniqueness of humans, no mention at all that the answer is contested. With the exception of the Wikipedia Site “Human“, all the other references at the top of the search are of the same ilk: “La ti dah, humans are animals!”
If you have any questions why modern religious Americans – especially those with enough sophistication to question potted answers – are suspicious of – and doubtful about – aspects of modern science that address human origins, this should answer them.
Think about it. Amazingly, a question about our nature – a question often posed at a high degree of sophistication, a question that addresses our purpose in life and the nature of our humanity – is answered in an embarrassing, unsophisticated low-brow way that not only ignores the relevant issues involved, but ignores the scientific subtleties.
And it is easy to see why a young high-school student – or anyone who unquestionably accepts supposed scientific authority – would assume that the answer was a genuine one, imprinted with scientific authority and its aura.
The Wikipedia site on Humans, it should be pointed out, is quite different. It provides a wealth of helpful access to materials on numerous different fields of human studies and exemplifies why encyclopedias like the Britannica are no longer around. And, it studiously avoids confrontational claims about humans as animals. It even usefully points out that the word “human”, which I’ve been carefully to use to avoid the older sexist term “man,” derives from the Latin hūmānus, the adjective form of homō or “man”.
But, then on a side bar, after being vanquished, our old bumbling, inarticulate friend makes its reappearance. We belong – the sidebar usefully informs us – to the kingdom of animalia. And then – to make things worse – it informs us that this is the “scientific” classification. Actually, it is not. It is the biological classification.
The Problem with the Current Answers
So the answer that science provides to our question is a twofold one. On one hand science proclaims that humans are animals for reasons biological. On the other hand, science contains multitudinous studies that show clearly that humans are quite different than animals. This twofold answer is garbled, self-contradicting, and confusing. Or it would be if both sides were presented to the public, which mainly they aren’t.
The part of science which claims that we are animals is particularly problematic. It not only contradicts our direct experience, but also the contradicts the great teachings of the world’s major religions and its major philosophies. It even contradicts the fundamental precepts of science itself in so far as science is based on the validity of rational and logical intellectual processes – something unique to humans.
This simplistic answer is really an answer to a biological question – and only an answer to a biological question. But it is more than often construed both by those asking it – and often by those answering it – on a much broader basis. In the broader sense, it is a question about who we are. And the biological answer doesn’t – and can’t – answer it.
The consequences of this mix-up of answers and questions are manifold – ranging from the wide-spread belief that science proves that the purpose of human life is the pursuit of liberty, happiness, and the satisfaction of our animal desires, to mechanistic human and healing sciences that ignore human reality or consider it as of no import, to the growing conviction that the evolutionary sciences are cynically manipulative attempts to impose an anti-religious agenda in the false guise of science. None of these, of course, are true.
So, we have to ask the questions: On what basis – and on whose authority – does science validate the claim to offer the definitive answer to our question?
And who decides that the scientific, philosophical, and religious grounds for contesting this 18th century answer can be ignored?
The Future Role of Science in Addressing the Question of Whether or Not We Are Humans
Here is my conclusion: The idea that man is an animal is an arbitrary 18th century viewpoint based on the simple-minded assumptions that (1) a thing is what it is constructed from, (2) that a thing is what it was originally, and (3), that only simple material things are real.
While those assumptions – derived in great part from the extraordinary success of 18th century Newtonian physics – were revolutionary, challenging, and fruitful in numerous ways in their time (and still are in many circumstances) – they fall far short in light of modern empirically-based, systems-based, interaction-based, information-oriented, complexity-oriented studies that distinguish between behavior of parts and behaviors of the whole.
If my conclusion is correct – and it appears to be – what is it that science can do?
Here is a proposal. What science can do – and can provide – is the following:
- A clear set of criteria by which we can distinguish whether or not humans are unique.
- A clear description of the experiments that can be done to provide the relevant data for deciding whether humans are unique.
- A forum and sets of discussions that allows exchange of ideas about what the uniqueness criteria should be and whether or not the criteria have been met.
- Informed discussion of whether a proposed criteria is scientific or not.
- Studies of the usefulness of past, current, and future definitions of human uniqueness in science
Of course, there are a number of other things to be added to the list.
Exploring what science cannot do is equally important. Science cannot:
- Impose its own categories. Science can show where there are clear distinctions – where human behavior departs significantly from animal behavior – but it cannot force doubters to conclude that humans are or are not to be classified as part of the animal kingdom.
- Science cannot provide resolution – at least at its current stage of development – of very complex, high level phenomena like intelligence, human social organization, motivation, human purpose, etc. So it cannot answer high level metaphysical questions – the purpose of life, etc. – in anything like a meaningful way.
- Science by itself cannot impose meaning. It cannot tell us whether a particular arbitrary definition of some category or another is meaningful in an ultimate metaphysical sense, although it can tell us whether people think it is meaningful. Recognizing this would go a long way towards rescuing science from pretensions to religious authority.
And these ideas are just for starters. Obviously those who care about science can try to stop it from spreading misinformation – as it is doing now – about the nature of humans.
This time, I really am going to stop on the topic of whether or not we are animals. But obviously, I have to come back to it later given how important it is.
Next time, I will discuss a different aspect of evolution, science, and religion – randomness and the idea that it rules out God as a creator. For a quantum physicist such as myself, this is an area in biology where my experience in doing statistical physics gives me an advantage.
This is the 13th 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.