A major issue which is poorly understood in America today is the question of whether humans have any more value or worth than any other living thing. If all of life is viewed as a product of a naturalistic evolutionary process, and if survival of the fittest is what separates humans from all other life on earth, then if some form of life comes along that is more fit, humanity will become extinct. This scenario is the starting point for many science fiction stories.
We have seen the acceptance of naturalism and evolutionary origins of all living things in the claims of animal rights groups. Several years ago President Obama was taken to task by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) for swatting a fly (Fox News, 6/18/09). We have also seen multiple lawsuits on behalf of a variety of animals concerning property rights and abuse (see the March/April 2013; July/August 2014; and March/April 2015 issues of this journal and News and Notes of this issue). The scientific community is heavily divided on this issue because much of the research in psychology, medicine, and the development of drugs of all kinds is usually done on animals. Rats and mice are used extensively, but sometimes even monkeys are used to test a drug or procedure. There was a time not too many years ago when a pregnancy test involved the probable death of a rabbit.
The biblical point of view on this subject is very clear. In Genesis 1:26 the first couple are told to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth. In Genesis 2:15 we are told that “God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” It is clear that man was the caretaker of the garden and was responsible for managing it. God made the first clothing for humans out of skins (Genesis 3:21) suggesting human superiority to other living things. However, the major difference in humans biblically is that the man and woman were created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). The Hebrew word for fashioning the man's body is the word yatshir used in Genesis 2:7. This word is normally used in reference to something a potter would do — forming a statue or a piece of pottery. There is nothing special about the human body as we are made of the dust of the earth and it is to that dust that we shall return (Genesis 3:19). What is different is the spiritual makeup, as humans are described as being in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The Hebrew word bara is used in this passage and translated “create.” This word is used only in reference to what God can do, never in reference to what humans can do.
It is interesting that the humans are more than just a singular being just as God is. The word for God used in Genesis 1 is Elohim which is a plural word. In Genesis 1:26 when God describes the human’s total makeup the plural reference is given, “Let US make man in OUR image.” Here the reference is to the other parts of the Godhead, and the fashioning is to be “made” (asah) a plural being. Just as Elohim refers to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; humans too are made of more than just one part, we have body, spirit, and soul.
How do we know that this picture is true? What evidence do we have to back it up? We do need to emphasize that humans are told to take care of the creation and not to abuse it. Part of taking care of “the garden” means not polluting it, not damaging it, but rather being a good manager of it. It does not mean abusing the animals that live on this planet, and the Bible does not condone making animals suffer. It is based on the realization that animals are to be managed and cared for by humans, and throughout the Bible, we are told to use animals for our well being and even as a sacrifice to God.
WHAT IS NOT SPECIAL ABOUT HUMANS?
Many times we see statements about animals that fail to realize how special animals are. Animals think, and they can be very intelligent. The problem with making reference to animal intelligence is that it is difficult to measure, and that is true of human intelligence as well. As the father of a mentally-challenged son, I can tell you that measuring intelligence in humans is very difficult. My son as a child would score over 100 on an Otis* IQ test. On a Stanford-Binet IQ test, he would score less than 50. That is a huge difference, but it is because of what the tests are measuring. The Otis test was highly verbal, and my wife and I read to our son as a child. His verbal skills to this day are quite good. That does not mean that understanding always goes with the verbal skills. One of our favorite family stories involves a disciplinary situation where my son in anger stomped out of the room yelling, “You’re causing me to commit adultery!” He knew adultery was a bad thing and that it was something you commit, but he had no idea what was involved in an adulterous act. The Stanford-Binet was not as verbal and was probably a more realistic evaluation of his mental ability. There are all kinds of intelligence, and that is true of animals as well. We also need to point out that the size of the brain has nothing to do with intelligence. Some of the world’s geniuses, like the famous Japanese scientist Yukawa, had brain sizes well under 1000 cc, and animals such as whales have larger brains than do humans.
Animals can think and reason. If a banana is suspended from the ceiling completely out of reach of a chimpanzee, but there is furniture in the room, the chimp will stack the furniture until it can reach the banana. Those of us in the Midwest who feed birds can tell you that raccoons can think of incredible ways to get the bird seed even when it is stored in supposed “break-in-proof” containers.
Many times writers suggest that animals cannot talk, but it is important to understand that the word “talk” is far too restrictive to be useful. Parrots talk, but that talk is mimicking rather than conveying information. Most animals have ways of communicating. Birds singing are often sending a message to other birds about territory or reproduction or food. What animals do not have is language. They do communicate, but they do not have language. Language is defined as “the ability to acquire and use complex systems of communication.” That involves more than just identifying territory or making sexual or material contact. The textbook discussion of language says “language has the properties of productivity, recursivity, and displacement, and relies entirely on social convention and learning.” Animals do not have to be taught their communication skills. Those skills are instinctive and are present in animals even when they are not in social contact with other members of their kind.
A similar discussion is involved in the word “love.” The reason the Greek language has five words for love is that there are so many different kinds of love. Parent-child love is different from brotherly love which is different than sexual love. The biblical concept of love seen in the Greek word agape expresses a form of love that does not seem to take place in animals. The whole subject of emotions is very complex, but everyone who has had a dog for a long time has seen what appears to be joy and perhaps anger. We tend to ascribe human characteristics to animal behavior. A built-in survival skill that is instinctive may not be emotional, but whatever their control and origins may be, animals do seem to express emotions.
Suggesting that animals do not control their environment as a means of identifying animal characteristics is also prone to misunderstanding. Certainly, beavers control their environment and many animals choose certain environments and shape them to maximize their survival and the survival of their young. Examples are fish who scoop out bowls to lay their eggs, prairie dogs that dig underground homes, and birds that hollow out trees for nests. These things seem to be instinctively driven in most cases, and it is the role of instincts that may be more of an issue than the actual product of what that instinct might produce.
WHAT IS SPECIAL ABOUT HUMANS?
What sets humans apart from other animals and makes humans special is their spiritual makeup. We are in the spiritual image of God. God is a spirit (John 4:24), and we are in his image. That is what allows us to do things that have a spiritual base. We worship God “in spirit and in truth” because we have a soul that was created in the image of God. Animals do not worship no matter how advanced they appear to be. If worship were naturally acquired as a product of evolutionary processes, then one would expect to see worship carried on in some way in higher forms of life. Electroencephalograms show certain brain responses in humans during worship activities such as praying and singing, and no such pattern is seen in any way in other living things. This led some researchers in psychology to suggest that there is a section of the brain that only humans possess that causes worship. That would mean that such an area should be functional in some way in other life forms, and that is simply not the case.
Similar evidence is involved in human creativity. There have been elaborate attempts to show that animals create art or express themselves in art and music. The problem is that it is very difficult to avoid anthropomorphic influences by those doing the research. Koko, a gorilla who has mastered the sign language of the deaf released a music album of “Koko Favorites.” The album was constructed by the researchers playing a song for Koko and then asking for a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” by the gorilla as to whether that song should be included in the album. The problems with such a project should be obvious. The music played is from a certain culture using a certain set of musical instruments in a particular structure of music. The diatonic scale, the chromatic scale, etc., are choices humans make. More to the point is that this is a human enterprise. Koko is being led to make choices of human types of music. Researchers have pointed out that this is operant conditioning using a form of the modified American sign language which her trainer, Francine Patterson, describes as Gorilla Sign Language. Koko did not spontaneously express herself by creating an expression of feelings, emotions, or wonderment. She has been rewarded with food for making the response the researchers wanted.
In addition to creativity, humans are capable of a very special kind of love. It is incorrect to say that animals do not experience love, but the word love has multiple meanings and applications. The Greek language, the language of the New Testament, has many different words for love, each having a different meaning. Biologists and psychologists have researched love on a chemical basis. We know that lust releases testosterone and estrogen and that strong feelings can exist for significant periods of time — even months. The brain releases neurotransmitter hormones, dopamine, and serotonin, and these all play a role in the physical expressions of love. In animals, this is instinctively driven and results in the propagation of the species. Also instinctively driven is the care of a mother for her offspring.
What is unique about humans is that a selfless kind of love can exist that is not physical. The Greek word agape which is repeatedly used throughout the New Testament describes and emphasizes this kind of love. “God is love” (1 John 4:16) and “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) are two examples. One dictionary defines agape love as “the love of the soul.” You may not love your enemy as a brother (fileo in Greek), but you can love his soul as a human and want what is best for him or her. The classic emphasis on the various forms of love is demonstrated in John 21:15 – 17 when Jesus keeps calling Peter to the agape type of love, and Peter keeps responding with a fileo type of love that is not unique to humans.
A final aspect of what makes humans special is that humans have a concept of “self.” The notion of self has been a subject of debate among philosophers, psychologists, and theologians for many centuries. There is no physical way to discuss the notion of self because it has to do with the individual's relationship to culture and the events that are a part of the world around us. A part of this is our capacity to be concerned about our own mortality and what the future is beyond death. Self brings in many of the other concepts we have discussed in this essay. The agape form of love can be expressed for a country. The willingness to die for a belief is unique to humans. The whole notion of sin is a product of self, and animals do not demonstrate any concept of right and wrong or good or evil. Atheists like Richard Dawkins want to deny that good and evil exist (see River Out of Eden [New York: BasicBooks, 1995] page 133).
The notion of self involves a belief in evil, in sin, and in life after this life. It allows humans to feel guilt, to forgive, and to be sympathetic. Animals do not demonstrate these characteristics, and animal behavior can always be explained in terms of instinct and what promotes their own survival. A dog that dies defending his owner is not expressing patriotism or a self-sacrificing agape type of love, but rather is protecting his own source of food and shelter. This instinctive drive may cause an animal to do something that is irrational, but survival and propagation of the species are at the bottom of the action. That is different from humans offering themselves for the survival of another human or for a political idea.
We are all familiar with situations where a wild animal was kept as a pet for years and then suddenly turned on and killed its owner. No attempt to turn a pet into a human will work because no animal is created in the image of God. Humans are special, and the tendency of our world today to destroy human life for animalistic reasons is leading us toward global disaster. As a Christian, I have to believe that no matter who you are or what you believe, you have value as a special creation of God, created in his image.
*Otis–Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT)
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