Differences Between Humans and Animals: Buddhism’s Perspective and New Scientific Controversies

Differences Between Humans and Animals: Buddhism’s Perspective and New Scientific Controversies

Yanli Mi

Heroes are the practical people who recognize current tasks (识时务者为俊杰 )

Chinese Proverb

Editor’s Note: Stephen Friberg is visiting Morocco, Turkey, and then the Holy Land for pilgrimage at the Baha’i World Center in Haifa. His blogs will restart on July 22nd. Today’s guest blog is by Yanli Mi, a biophysicist from Szechuan province in China.

June 18th, 2012: Four positions can be offered to discuss the differences between humans and animals:

  1. Humans are the only species created by God, and are blessed with spiritual superiority compared to other animals (theologian’s position).
  2. Both humans and animals are sentient beings whose minds survive death (Buddhist position).
  3. Both humans and animals are and always have been automatons whose minds cease at death (materialist position).
  4. The ape-men were suddenly equipped with souls at an arbitrary date during the evolution process (evolutionist position).

We see humans as different from other animals on four levels: physiologically, mentally, socially and spiritually. However, neither science nor religion knows completely how to distinguish humans from other animals. Neither has advanced far enough to understand the whole of the “divine” connection between human and other animals, although we understood pieces of it.

The Theologian’s and Evolutionist’s Position

The most typical representation from the theologians is the view that species are unchanging and derive their forms by reference to a divine blueprint as exemplified by the Greek philosopher Plato (who famously believed that a rose would never become a cherry tree). A popular version of this is the view that all species were created in six days in a single week around 4004 BC. In other words, humans and animals were created separately and are totally different types of being, thus, only humans have immortal souls, whereas animals are automatons whose minds cease at death.

However evolutionists – represented by Charles Darwin – believe that all species arose from simpler forms. For example, all primates – including humans and apes – diverged from the common ancestor of all lifeforms, which originated the DNA coding which is universal for all plants, animals, fungi and bacteria on earth.  As time progressed, the characteristics of the one life form gradually changed in response to selective pressures.

Scientists have sequenced the genome of the chimpanzee and found that humans are 96% similar to the great ape species, and the human and chimp sequences differ by only 1.2% in terms of single-nucleotide changes to the genetic code (see The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond). The number of genetic differences between humans and chimps is ten times smaller than that between mice and rats.

The most promising ongoing work is to identify several sequences of genetic codes that differ between human and chimp with the goal to determine what creates human-specific traits such as speech, and a a breakthrough may aid scientists to learn what sets us apart from other animals.

The question is:

  • Are we completely determined by our genetic codes?  Given that genetic codes from a biological point of view are nearly the same for humans and chimps, will we behave at different levels at the conscious, cognitive, social and spiritual levels, because of a divine force beyond the 4% difference in the genetic makeup?

The Buddhist Position

Are humans the only species equipped with souls and desires for creativity, eternity, and  nirvana?

The answer from Buddhists is “No”.  Both human and animals possess Buddha-nature and have the potential to evolve towards higher consciousness. A soul may be reborn in the body of a human and non-human animals.

When I attended the 2006 American Neuroscience meeting in Washington D.C. with hundreds of thousands of neuroscientists from all over the world, I heard the holy Dalai Lama express his deep curiosity about the mysterious cosmic universe under the night stars that he experience when he was a child. A perfect spokesman of modern Buddhism, a special individual in human society, Dalai Lama urged neuroscientists worldwide to uncover the fundamentals of human uniqueness: the human conscious and subconscious minds, the human intelligence’s ability to recognize things, and its ability to take control of experience by learning, education and create.

The Dalai Lama dared to be so intimate with science is because Buddhists have always taken the evolutionary approach. Unlike many of the western religions facing a dilemma with Genesis and with the theological distinction between humans and animals, Buddhist philosophy is evolutionary in essence. In the Buddha’s view, everything shall be temporary, constantly changing, becoming, arising and fading. Buddhists believe that both humans and animals possess sentient minds which survive death (see Evolution is no Threat to Buddhism).

Buddhism requires humans to treat animals kindly because all beings are able to suffer and fear to injure or die. That said, Buddhists don’t treat animals as the equals of humans. The doctrine of karma says that souls are reborn as animals because of past misdeeds in the past lives. Rebirth as an animal is considered to be an unhappy rebirth, usually involving more than human suffering, and therefore a serious spiritual setback. Non-human animals can’t engage in conscious acts of self-improvement, therefore they can’t improve their karmic status, and their souls must continue to be reborn as animals until their bad karma is exhausted.  Only after cyclic rebirths, can the karmic animals be reborn as human beings and resume the quest for nirvana.

Modern Scientific and Technological Points of View: Chimeras

Ignoring the debates from past centuries, modern science and technology is trying to decode the genetic makeups for both humans and animals and attempting to simulate a shortened evolutionary progress.  It is doing so for various reasons, not only as experimentation with animals to find medical treatment for human diseases, but also to develop genetic-engineering approaches to produce food supply and to enable mass production of vaccines to address health problems associated with explosive population growth, etc.

If it has taken nature six million years to evolve from a chimpanzee to full human, it has taken only decades for modern science to blur the line between humans and animals by producing chimeras – a hybrid creature that is partially human and partially animal (they are named after a monster in Greek mythology that had a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail).

Literally, humans are “playing God” with genetically modified engineering technologies and changing all species on earth.  For example, to understand how the brain works, scientist engineered mice with human brains by injecting human neurons into the brains of embryonic mice.  The then were able to observe how a human brain has been formed, and are hoping to find associations between brain architecture and human cognitive behaviors.  Furthermore, experiments are being designed to further challenge the definition and status quo of humans and animals. One example entails using genetically engineered mice to produce human sperm and eggs, then doing in-vitro fertilization to produce a child whose parents are a pair of mice (see Animal Human Hybrids Spark Controversy; by Maryann Mott. National Geographic News: January 25, 2005).

Humanized monoclonal antibody from chimeras have already benefited cancer treatment. Science, it seems, is very capable of messing with the very building blocks of life – DNA and other substrates of biological bodies from bacteria and viruses to genetically modified animals, and finally to humans themselves.

Imagine our grandchildren living in a world where “man-made life” and “human/animal hybrid monsters” run around all over the place. I wonder whether Buddhists had predicted such “unhappy rebirth” in their doctrines many thousands years ago. If a chimera body can achieve enlightenment like a naturally born human body, will we make regulations to stop him?  If we humans have to co-exist with such chimera on earth one day, should a new religion be created to accommodate the dignity for both humans, animals and chimeras?

On the other hand, it is unknown whether we will become extinct as the most creative species because of “playing God”.  After all, “God” created us perfectly on the biological, mental, social and spiritual levels.  It is still hard for many people to believe the differences between humans and animals come only from the evolutionary selection of six million years.  If we mess up with the genetic codes, even if we make them only 0.00001% incorrect, we may face irreversible destruction as human beings. Furthermore, even if we make the exact genetic sequences for the chimeras and humans, will “God” equip them with souls, and desires to create and pursue nirvana?  The debate whether we should allow scientists to create without limitations are ongoing for that reason.  I wonder what will be Holy Dalai Lama’s vote on this, given his pro-science and non-discrimination attitude towards animals.

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7 thoughts on “Differences Between Humans and Animals: Buddhism’s Perspective and New Scientific Controversies

  1. The article comments that it “has taken six million years to evolve from a chimpanzee to full human”. But humans did not evolve from chimpanzees. Both chimpanzees and humans evolved from a common ancestor far back in the family tree.

    In fact, the discovery of Ardipethicus Ramidus threw our understanding of human physical evolution on its ear by demonstrating that humans and the great apes parted company far further back in time than previously suspected.

  2. The Bible also says that animals have souls. That’s why God forbid the eating of blood, because the Hebrews believed the soul was located there.

    1. I wouldn’t read the Bible as saying that animals have souls. Baha’u’llah says that all creatures possess spirits, but that what distinguishes humans from animals is that humans possess a rational soul that animals do not have. It’s what makes it possible for us to conceive of things we cannot see (and may never have seen) for example, based on inference or deductive reasoning. It is what makes us the only animals on the planet to be having conversations about whether or not we are animals, whether or not animals have spirits and moreover, to have invented languages that allow for that type of nuanced communication about intangible things, which we carry out on devices and using technologies unique to our species.

      The Bible uses the word nephesh to describe that breath of life that all creatures share, but clearly human beings possess capacities and potentials that animals do not.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Maya, Alejandro and Stephen. At the beginning of my article, I stated four different positions of how different religions view humans and animals differently, so I stated the Buddhism’s perspectives and the scientific controversies…Apparently your views represented more from the Bible’s views on differences between humans and animals. However, I do appreciate that Buddhism’s different perspectives, which talked about rebirth, but not abstract eternity:).

    I look forward to meeting you in person in one of Stephen’s discussion meetings.

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