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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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, 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.