What Makes Us Human?

We live in an age of incredible technological growth. I can remember when my school system brought me the first small computer that I had ever seen. It was a Commodore and the only language that it knew was BASIC. I learned the language and wrote my own programs for my students because there was no commercial software available. My students were absolutely entranced with this machine that would drill them on factual material that they were supposed to be learning. Writing the programs took hundreds of hours. It took over 15 minutes for the computer to load the programs even though they were very simple, and you could only put one ten question drill in the computer at a time because the memory of the computer was only 10,000 bits. You used a cassette to load each program in. I remember hearing about an "Apple" computer that was going to be so much better, but I doubted I would ever see one in my teaching career.

One day I had my students working on a project on the computers and I noticed one of the young ladies with her back to the computer in what teachers call the "pout position." She was obviously not a happy camper and was giving me all kinds of body language that indicated she did not like what was going on. "What's the problem Sandy" I asked. "I hate this" she replied. "What is there to hate?" I asked, "You get a chance to learn without having to listen to me!!" "That's exactly the point," she replied "No matter how smart this dumb machine is, it still isn't human!!" In the years since that incident I have found large numbers of students with the same reaction. In our age of technological advancement and incredible machines, it is important to keep in mind what makes us human.


It is not intelligence that sets man apart. The things that man does that really make him different are not related to his IQ. Retarded people do everything that brilliant people do. Having a son that has a high level of retardation and is living with a group of seven people who share his disabilities, I am in constant contact with people who do not score well on IQ tests. These people are still a joy to be with. The laugh, they cry, they create art, they sing and enjoy music, they appreciate beauty, they feel guilt, they have sympathy, they have a need to feel self worth, they worship God and constantly express a spiritual dimension, and they bring great things into the lives of others in a constantly changing and varied way.

In the animal world, we find animals that have very high intelligence. Whales, porpoises, and some apes have been shown to have high reasoning ability and are able to solve problems. Some researchers have placed the IQs of whales and gorillas in the 90s--which is within the range of normal humans. Anyone who has worked with animals extensively knows that they have very high capabilities and do some amazing things. Animals function primarily through a highly developed application of instinctive drives. These instincts function remarkably as long as the animal is in an environmental situation that matches the design of the instinctive drive. The more scientists study animal behavior, the more they realize just how sophisticated and intricate these instinctive drives are. One of our ecological problems is that when man changes the environment in which the animal has been functioning, the animal has a hard time adjusting to the new environment and is frequently threatened with extinction. There are countless examples of this problem--salmon swimming up dammed or polluted rivers, lemmings running off cliffs where land bridges used to be, birds unsuccessfully laying eggs in places where trees used to be, whales beaching in places where man has altered the shoreline or the magnetic pattern of the earth, etc.


One response to this discussion would be to say that humans acquire their humanness through socialization and the conditions under which they grow up. The argument is that we learn to be humans by having all the things it takes to be a human forced on us by our parents and other adults and peers through our childhood. There is no question that we learn a lot but most of those things are not what makes us unique as humans. They are mechanical things or methods that really do not have much to do with our humanness.

There have been numerous studies conducted with animals that are raised in human environments, beginning with Dr. Kellog's studies of a chimpanzee raised with his son in a controlled environment in which both babies were given the same love, attention, stimulation, and learning opportunities. All of these studies have shown that animals raised in human conditions do not become human. The animal may learn to do some things that humans do--such as make desired responses to stimuli by entering the appropriate data into a computer; but those things that set man apart--like creativity, the ability to be taught to think, language (not communication), worship and the conceptualization of God, guilt, sympathy and compassion--do not appear in any degree. There have been numerous stories of feral children who were supposedly raised by animals, but sensationalism and lack of serious study make the claims of those who promote these cases difficult to use.


Another proposal that has been made is that man is unique because of his brain. The argument here is that man is an animal that has evolved more completely than other life forms, and all of our unique characteristics are a function of that biological evolution. There are numerous problems with this viewpoint. First of all it needs to be pointed out that man's brain is not that unique. Animals like whales have brains that are considerably larger than ours. Some scientists studying the human brain have attempted to make arguments for evolution based upon the fact that other animals share brain characteristics with man. From a strictly mechanical viewpoint, the human brain has too many characteristics in common with other animals for it to be viewed as radically different and unique.

Those attempting to make arguments from an evolutionary standpoint are faced with another dilemma--the characteristics that make humans unique are not survival issues. Man's ability to create art or to worship God are not factors that natural selection can work on to guarantee survival or predict extinction. In fact if anything, these characteristics are likely to cause the death of an individual and prevent the proliferation of his or her genes. Sociobiology finds no solace in the evidence that is available from the human brain.


There is a uniqueness to man that is not rooted in his intelligence, his brain, his training, or his environment. This uniqueness is seen in all of us--the genius and the severely retarded. No culture, race, educational level, IQ, or age dictates these characteristics. The one thing that does offer an explanation is the spiritual dimension of man.

The Bible tells us that man was created in the image of God. The image that is conveyed can not be a physical image or we would all look alike physically, which we clearly do not. The image that is being discussed is man's spiritual image. Man possesses a spiritual dimension the Bible calls the soul. Jesus said in Matthew 10:28 "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both the body and soul in hell." The Bible also refers to spirit in a wide range of applications including some reference to animals. It is clear from the Bible, that man possesses three entities. 1 Thessalonians states it well when the writer says: "...I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."

To understand the three parts of man--body, soul and spirit--let us make a comparison to an automobile. I have a car which has a body. The body is physical and is made from the elements found in the crust of the earth. The body of my car will eventually return to the material from which it came. The car also has spirit. The thing that makes the car actually move is the fuel that is put into the gas tank. The fuel is the energy which makes the car able to function. These two components together will not make the car run in a satisfactory manner. With just these two working the car has no direction and is likely to cause destruction. There has to be a component which decides what the car will be used for, whether it will be driven responsibly, and how the other parts of the car are cared for.

The analogy breaks down of course, but it is not far off from our own make up. In the biblical language there are times when spirit and soul are used in ways that are not obvious mainly because of translation problems. The basics are still there and are very clear. We have a body which is dust and will return to dust. We also breath which is the basis of the energy that drives the biological machine. These two components we share with the animal world around us, and we are no different than a dog or a cat in these areas. Our soul is the spiritual component that decides how our bodies and how our energies will be used.

What makes us human is this spiritual make up. It enables us to create art and music. If gives us the capacity and desire to worship and to love in a self sacrificing way. It provides us with the ability to feel guilt, sympathy, compassion, and to be able to put others first. It is this spiritual component that enables us to relate to God and to be able to be influenced by God. Looking to this higher power that works through our spiritual make up gives us the ability to overcome drugs, destructive sexual behaviors, alcohol, pride, greed, selfishness, and all the other things that bring misery to life. We do not believe in our spiritual makeup because it is a religious tradition that has been forced upon us; we believe it because every shred of available evidence points to it and because the things that happen in life demonstrate that animal solutions do not work on problems that are spiritual in nature.

--John N. Clayton

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, Jan/Feb98.