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Oct 08

Evolution, Science, and Religion 29: Are Humans Merely Sophisticated Animals?

The terrestrial globe from the beginning was created with all its elements, substances, minerals, atoms and organisms; but these only appeared by degrees …

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’

Oct 7, 2012. Are humans merely sophisticated animals? Darwin thought so, citing biological and intellectual similarities between the two.

This is different than the view in most of the world’s religions. According to the Bahá’í Faith, humans have distinctive intellectual, creative, and spiritual capabilities that animals lack. Humans can transcend their “hard wiring.”

Does it matter what view we choose? After all, Darwin and his fellow thinkers rarely thought of themselves as animals, the exception being when they were intellectualizing.

It does matter, and very much, the religions say. Some of the reasons are that:

  1. Individuals, communities, and organizations need a firm grasp of who we are, not the soft, nebulous, randomly varying, fad-driven, consumer-focused lack of clarity that worldviews based on Darwinian perspectives provide.
  2. We need an accurate map of the territory that is our life and its possibilities. Spiritual, moral, and ethical growth are central components of any such accurate map, according to the world’s great religions. We are spiritual, moral, and ethical beings, they say.
  3. We need to be aware of our higher nature – as well as our “hard-wired” instinctual nature – and we need to know how to distinguish wisely between the two.
  4. We need to avoid the easy slide into prejudice and maltreatment of others of the social Darwinist approaches to other peoples, other nationalities, and other social classes.

And yes, like 19th century Englishmen of Darwin’s social station, we still think of people we are different than or opposed to as being savage and like animals.

The Descent of Man

Modern science tells us that man is a product of ALL aspects of the universe – and an outcome of all of its laws – not just descent from the animals. The elements that physicists study and astrophysicsts say are generated in the stars, the planets with their great oceans, mountains, and cocoons of atmosphere that planetary scientists, oceanographers, geologists, and atmospheric scentists study, the single-cell and multiple-cell organisms that cell biologists and molecular biologists study – all are essential ingredients of any full understanding of who we are and where we have come from.

Students of emergence, of the sciences of complexity, and of the vast range of evolutionary processes that are both the history of our universe and the process of the emergence of life, unhesitatingly and unceasingly tell us that new things – new functionings, new capabilities, new species, new forms of organization, new levels of complexity – are constantly coming into being. Why then should humans – whose intelligence, endless creativity, and ever growing capacity are overwhelmingly apparent – be exempt from those patterns of emergence that everywhere else are acknowledged and thought obviously apparent? Why does Darwin hold differently, insisting that we haven’t evolved past the stage of being animals?

Central to why he held differently was his view that the differences between men and the animals – viewed from the standpoint of intelligence, reason, and moral behavior – were not very great. Man’s mental capacities, Darwin thought, were insufficient to set man and animal apart.

The Differences Between Men and the Animals in Terms of Intelligence, Reason, and Moral and Creativity

Charles Darwin, writing about human mental facilities in The Descent of Man. summarized his views in the introduction to the book’s second chapter:

My object in this chapter is to shew that there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties …

His approach to establishing the validity of his view – and it was exceedingly effective – was to give anecdotal example after anecdotal example of how animals have the rudiments of capacities we sometimes think of as exclusively human.

Consider reason. Here is his how he begins his approach to the topic:

Of all the faculties of the human mind, it will, I presume, be admitted that REASON stands at the summit. Only a few persons now dispute that animals possess some power of reasoning. Animals may constantly be seen to pause, deliberate, and resolve. It is a significant fact, that the more the habits of any particular animal are studied by a naturalist, the more he attributes to reason and the less to unlearnt instincts.

After numerous arguments of this sort, he finally does admit that there are big differences between the mental capabilities of men and animals:

There can be no doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense. … [For an ape] the thought of fashioning a stone into a tool was quite beyond his scope. Still less … could he follow out a train of metaphysical reasoning, or solve a mathematical problem, or reflect on God, or admire a grand natural scene.

But ultimately, he refuses to acknowledge that the differences are significant, citing the fact that there are incipient traces of human capabilites variously found in the lower animals:

Nevertheless the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.

Would Darwin hold to this view today, given all that we know about emergence, the role of DNA in biology, the vast range of discoveries of modern science, and the impact of modern social media technologies? Probably, given that his generation of elite Englishmen possessed much in the way of the same powers of communication, ability to build complex machines, and doing sophisticated science. They exhibited all of the external evidences of the human mental capabilities that so obviously distinguish us from the animals.

And because his conclusion is belied by his acknowledgement of the immense difference – his words – between man and animals in terms of mental capabilities, it is hard to see it as stemming from a purely objective and scientific perspective.

What we do know is that his views – because they make no distinction between man and the animals and thus encouraged people to “grade” other people on their level of intelligence and social advancement – i.e., their distance from a savage or animal state – made possible scientific racism and eugenics and helped create all the havoc those social phenomena were responsible for.

Next Week

Next week, we will detail the Bahá’í view on the uniqueness of man as found in the writings and talks of `Abdu’l-Bahá and contrast them with those of Darwin.

…………………………

This is the 29th 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 wrote 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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About the author

Stephen Friberg

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.

3 comments

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  1. robert landbeck

    “Are Humans Merely Sophisticated Animals? ” and the answer is an unequivical YES. Yet our species carries attributes both positive and negative at set them apart from other species. The the ‘dark’ side of the ledger, it is more and more self evident that we are not a ‘sustainable’ species. And that the hierarchy of values necessary to be so is almost the obverse of the predominant values that currently drive the modern world. It is also evident that our potential for destruction and self destruction, as measured by the nuclear arsenals around the world, and a growing environmental crisis, is much greater than our creative capacity for peace and sustainability.

    On the ‘plus’ side is the fact that we are an aspirational species. We are prepared to learn. But too often that learning only takes place after the price of error presents itself. And there is no wisdom to be had from hindsight. For most of our history, the cost of learning the hard way, that is after the fact, was bearable. The problem soon to confront mankind is that the price or not learning will have consequences not only outside any personal or political control, but that could present the whole of humanity with a very real existential threat of our own extinction.

    One might conclude that for all that humanity is, we remain a corruption of the natural order. An no religious or philosophical system or tradition has been able to change that reality, offer a solution or answer the question: where with the authority come from to turn that situation around? http://www.energon.org.uk

    1. Stephen Friberg

      Hi Robert:

      I can construe everything you rightly note to a better fit to the idea that human are NOT merely sophisticated animals. So while one can argue that humans are animals, it would be very hard in my opinion to support an unequivocal YES.

      Sure:

      “… our species carries attributes both positive and negative at set them apart from other species. The the ‘dark’ side of the ledger, it is more and more self evident that we are not a ‘sustainable’ species. And that the hierarchy of values necessary to be so is almost the obverse of the predominant values that currently drive the modern world. It is also evident that our potential for destruction and self destruction, as measured by the nuclear arsenals around the world, and a growing environmental crisis, is much greater than our creative capacity for peace and sustainability.”

      But all of this clearly sets us apart, as you note. And we are discussing this because we can change things. Animals can’t.

      As you note for the plus side of the ledger, the same holds true – there are clear distinctions.

      Some, especially in societies where there is an age-old Christian tradition of original sin, do conclude, as you note, that we “remain a corruption of the natural world”. But to my mind, it makes much better sense, and I can defend it scientifically, that we are different than other things in the natural worlds. We have much greater potentialities, powerful minds that can be used for good and bad, and a responsiblity to figure out the good and do it. As the Baha’i Writings say, its high time that we step into gear and create a peaceful, advanced world civilization.

  2. Bahram

    Excellent article Stephen, thanks!

  1. Evolution, Science, and Religion 31: Humans Are More Than Sophisticated Animals » Common Ground, The Blog

    […] addressed the issue of the difference between humans and animals in chapter 48, “The Difference Existing Between Man and Animals“. It is a brilliant, readable, and compelling introduction to the topic. I can do no better […]

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