More than animals: what kind of creature are we?

What is man? Throughout history great minds have tried to define us as a species, but the essence of humanity has proved hard to pin down. “Man is a featherless biped”, Plato concluded, although he was somewhat dissatisfied with this as a definition. “Man is a reasoning animal”, wrote Seneca, echoing Aristotle. “Man is a tool using animal”, said Carlyle, anticipating modern anthropology. Man is “a poor, bare, forked animal”, wrote Shakespeare in his habitual pessimism about humanity.

So what have we? Man is an animal, at least; the dictionary definition of animal is “Any living thing that is not a plant, generally capable of voluntary motion, sensation etc”, which undoubtedly includes us. But are we mere animals? One answer with a long pedigree is that we are superior animals. Sophocles considered: “There are many wonderful things in nature, but the most wonderful of all is man”. Today the tendency is to emphasise the animal connection rather than any superiority. We are regarded as the products of chance in a world empty of God, not created by the one true God but created by nature. In today’s eyes, we are animals and no more, in the same category as the rest of the animal kingdom, in principle no more important than koalas or cockroaches.

Let’s consider some of the potential consequences of saying that we are simply animals, the chance product of unthinking nature.

Three false routes

We could say that we are gods

The idea that we are simply animals arises from the idea that the world is empty of the God of the Bible. Usually it is associated with the philosophy of naturalism, that nature is all there is, and that natural forces create everything. That being so, since we are clearly, and far and away, the most powerful of the animals, we may as well recognise ourselves to be the Lords of the world and rule over it. Why not? We merely take by right what we have by might. As the English poet, Swinburne, said, “Glory to Man in the highest! For Man is the master of things”.

This is what we see in practice—if not always in philosophy—in the modern world. Contemporary people act as though they have found themselves in a grand but empty mansion. The owner is apparently absent, or there is no owner at all, and this mansion just appeared out of nothing. We move in, take possession and act as if we own it. We make up the rules of who will be here with us, who won’t be, and who will use what room, and we enjoy all the benefits. We create our own world of meaning though the human mind. We make ourselves god-like creators. We have autonomy, in the literal sense: auto meaning self, and nomos meaning law. That is, we are self-legislating.

Think what this does to our behaviour.

Once we see that our moral beliefs are simply an adaptation put in place by natural selection, in order to further our reproductive ends, that is the end of it. Morality is no more than a collective illusion fobbed off on us by our genes for reproductive ends. (M. Ruse).

But so what? We are modified monkeys, and pretty powerful ones at that, so let’s live like gods. Who’s going to stop us?

We could say that we are feral animals

But we could look at our state in a far more negative way. Maybe we are just animals, and what is more, destructive, unnecessary animals. Maybe we are like the introduced species in Australia which have ‘gone feral’ and destroyed the native habitat. Deer, for instance, often need to be culled by the rangers in our national parks. This often causes public outcry, because they’re such gentle and beautiful creatures. They may look wonderful and make us feel good, but they were never designed to roam around the Australian bush. They do extensive harm and make life difficult for the native animals. They have to go. The same discussion takes place over rabbits, foxes and cats—they are all introduced predators making inroads into the landscape. But if we’re talking about predators that destroy landscapes, there can be no more destructive species than human beings.

In that sense, we are no better than feral animals, and we should be treated as such. We should be brought under control and our numbers kept down. One convenient way of doing this is to abort children, as that does not hurt anyone, or at the most another animal. We should make birth control compulsory. We lobby our own governments to fence off bits of nature so we can’t go in there and do harm. We’re not the rulers of nature, green groups constantly tell us; we’re the scourge of nature, and we need to be kept under control.

We could say that we are cheap

This follows from the previous view, and is all too prevalent. The fact of the matter is that there are too many of us—about 6 billion in all. Bengal tigers, on the other hand, are very scarce. The tiger is worth preserving and deserves our best efforts; there are not many left in the world. But human beings are easy to replace and expensive to keep. Destroying an infant Bengal tiger is a crime, under the CITES convention—but destroying an infant human, well, that’s just a woman’s right. Certainly if you have to choose between a deformed infant and a Bengal tiger, choose the tiger.

In this view, we are only here by chance and it is absurd to think that we deserve special efforts to keep us alive. It is better to consider the matter pragmatically and attribute value by some more sensible criteria. As ethicist Peter Singer says, “We should reject the doctrine that places the lives of members of our species above the lives of members of other species”. It’s not difficult to see that there might be those humans we could well do without—the young, the elderly, and the unfit. Perhaps we could begin to doubt that we all belong to the same species. Perhaps some are not truly human.

The consequences

Our traditional Christian view competes directly with such ideas about human beings. Either we are simply animals created by blind nature, ‘modified monkeys’, or we are the special creation of a good God. These competing views will have massive consequences in all sorts of areas: in education (what does the teacher of your child think about human beings?); in law; in medicine, in counselling; in business; in nursing homes; in race relations; in politics; in sexual matters—the list covers every human activity.

For much of the history of Australia we have had a broadly Christian approach to such matters. From about the 1960s onward, however, there has been a deliberate turning away from God here in Australia and the rest of the world, and a growing ignorance of his word. We can no longer take for granted a consensus of what it is to be human, and an ethic which goes with that. Our hospitals used to have that consensus. Even if people weren’t actually Christians, they agreed with the Christian consensus on the value of life and so on.

This decline in knowledge of God’s word, and decline in adherence to it, means that Christians must now think hard about what they believe about humanity, for society is no longer saying basically the same thing. We have to learn the Christian truth deliberately, and then learn how it applies to the world around us. Part of our witness to the gospel is a capacity to put forward the Christian view of human beings and its implications. Only then can we enter the struggle against de-humanising forces and ideologies that are flooding into the spiritual vacuum caused by our rejection of God.

I believe that God’s word has the truth of the matter, and that it will be found to work in experience. I believe that we would have a happier, healthier, safer society, if we followed God’s teaching. It would still be far from perfect, thanks to the continuing impact of sin, but it would be an improvement.

So what is God’s teaching about who we are as humans?

The Bible’s view of humanity

One Race

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’ (Acts 17: 24-28).

As Paul spoke to the philosophers of Athens, he confirmed a very important thing: that all human beings are of the same stock. We are all the children of Adam, all distinct from the animals in our relationship to God.

We are living in a world created by the one true God, not by accident and not by many gods. There is one God who is the Lord of heaven and earth, to whom we owe all things. He gives us everything, and he needs nothing. We are utterly dependent upon the one who made the world and is still in the world, and is very much interested in what goes on in the world. We are intended to serve this God.

The oneness of God is matched by the oneness of his human creatures. We can see from the Acts passage quoted that we all owe life and breath to the one God (v.25); we come from one stock (v.26); we are ruled by the one providence (v.26); we are all intended to serve the one God (v.27); and all are the offspring of God (v.28). This corresponds with the teaching in Genesis that we are in the image of God, thus setting us apart from every other animal. Although God has allowed for the nations and for the diffusion of the race through the world, he expects all to seek him.

This tells against all racism. Whatever the differences in skin, age, sex, language, history, culture, geography, we belong to the same race and must not despise others or think of them as less than human. It is only a very short time ago in our own history that appalling prejudice on this basis was commonplace. Here are some nineteenth-century views of Aborigines, reported in John Harris’s book One Blood:

“… the connecting link between man and the monkey tribe …”

“… only a species of wild beasts (and) there could be no guilt attributed to those who shot them.”

“… in mixing with them we feel doubtful whether we have to do with intelligent monkeys or with very degraded man.” (President of the Ethnological Society of London 1863)

“… Australian black may have a soul but if so, so does a horse or dog.”

“… I look upon the blacks as a set of monkeys, and the earlier they are exterminated from the face of the earth the better. I would never consent to hang a white man for a black one.” (juror)

What was used to counteract that? The majority of Christians had read their Bibles, and were saying at the time that all of us come from one man. Eve is the mother of all living. Aboriginal people may be very different from Caucasians or anyone else, but they are human beings who are entitled to the same dignity and treatment as we all are as human beings.

The Christian and the non-Christian views of humanity which were so blatantly in contest with each other then are still in contest now, and the differences are bound to surface again sooner or later. There is latent tribalism inherent in much of the talk of multi-culturalism. The test for the Christian is whether we are confined to one culture in our evangelism—either by ourselves or by others—or whether we recognise that God wants all to find him, whatever tribe or race.

The intention of God for our race is one of fellowship and love between persons. We are meant to be neighbours, just as the Samaritan overcame racial prejudice to share what he had with the vulnerable Jew. This is what we ought to be. But sin and selfishness constantly threaten the unity of the race. We constantly struggle against the reality of evil in human nature. When we fail to realise this, we think (as society currently does) that educational programs may solve the problems. Such plans fail to see that when you educate devils, what you get is educated devils. The only solution is a return to God.

Thus as Christians we are committed to the doctrine of the one race; we are internationalists and humanists; and we will not allow the barriers put up by sin to stand in the way of compassion and care.

Two sexes

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field.

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’, for she was taken out of man”. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. (Gen 2:18-25).

The Bible, affirming our oneness as humanity, is yet against individualism. It defeats any suggestion that we are identical with each other in every important way, merely a loosely connected bunch of individuals. In fact the Bible could be written for this very age, in which the personal freedom of people has run rampant. According to current society, we have ‘partners’, and the choice of whether it may be a male or female is morally indifferent. But the Bible tells us that we do not just have partners, we have husbands and wives. Our race is differentiated into two sexes, and that is something fundamental to being human. Without understanding that there are two distinct sexes, we will not understand how to be fully human.

It is a matter of understanding complementary union. Woman comes from man—she is not an animal. She is his equal, bone of his bones, flesh of his flesh. In sinfulness men with their (usually) superior physical strength have abused women and treated them like animals—but God did not make another animal for Adam. He made a woman, the same substance as man.

Yet woman is different from man, fulfilling God’s intention that he should not be alone, but have a helper fit for him. She bears the honoured title of ‘mother of all living’. Indeed, in the fullness of time, the Saviour of the human race is born of a woman, but without a man. The woman is named by the man and answers to him, in correspondence to him; in marriage they are united, as no animal or other part of the creation can be united with us. This is the beginning of kinship and family, something which is possible because the man and the woman are the same and yet different.

There is therefore an order in the relationship, corresponding to the order between Christ and God, and between the Church and Christ, which should be acknowledged and delighted in. Christianity does not stand for individualism or for collectivism; it stands for community. In one sense we are all ‘female’ to God for we are his ‘bride’, and we delight in that. God’s order should not be objected to; it should be enjoyed and explored.

The Bible stands in total opposition to sexual looseness; it sees the uniting of the bodies of two people, male and female—not male to male, not female to female, not human to animal—to be a unity of persons with profound consequences. A person with many partners has made himself cheap, and less than human. When sex is treated like a workout in the gym we are doing damage to our souls. A man who has had many partners cannot forget those partners. Even when he wishes to love one woman deeply and truly, he will find that the others who have been in his bed still exist powerfully in his mind. Promiscuity is profoundly inhuman. It destroys us. It is a matter of deep regret that it is so common, and promoted as the natural lifestyle. It is not natural for us at all; it is a perversion of our nature.

The intrusion of sin has, from the very beginning, disturbed and distorted this relationship. Our society tries to find solutions to the distortion, but looks in all the wrong places. The intense interest in male and female relationships in the last few decades has not lead to human happiness or fulfilment, and it never will—because it rejects God’s law. The cult of ‘living together’ has not encouraged human well being. A government that was truly interested in the good health of its society would never encourage it or endorse it. It’s bad for you. The way of God remains the way of blessing, despite the capacity of sin to ruin the good and frustrate our best intentions.

What should we do?

As human beings, we must understand who God has made us to be. But there is another important aspect of humanity that we must also understand: what does God want us to do?

To know God

We are made in the image of God in the world. In the original creation, man and woman were placed in the Garden and lived under the rule of God’s word. That is, they knew their place as creatures who owe everything to God and enjoyed a fellowship with God and with one another undistorted by sin. To know God was to love and obey him, not to act as ‘godlets’. Despite the fall, the goal of human existence remains the same: it is to know the living God and so to live under his rule and have eternal life (Jn 17:2,3).

To work in this world

We are put in the world to be the image of God; to subdue it and to fill it, and to care for it. The world is to support us, and we are to care for it (Gen 2:13-18). Work is something that was part of our role in the world before the fall, and forms part of our obedience to God.

Work itself is not a curse, but work has been cursed. So the work we do often damages the world and is troublesome to us. There is also suffering, from which we are not exempt. But work itself is good. The abuse of the world is not part of our duty, and nor is the abuse of animals. We are to care for our world. We are to work so as to keep ourselves and to support others; we are to work in a way that pleases God.

To work for the world to come

Our work here is always passing. The Lord Jesus is the one who is the true worker, he is the true image of God. He is the one who is now ruling the world and fulfils Genesis 1. It is his work that matters most; and as you do his work you are doing the best work, the true work. This is a work from which we will never retire, and are never incapable of doing. When you are in a nursing home, unable to move around or maybe even speak, you will still have work until the day you die—the work of the Lord in prayer. There is always work to do.

Conclusion

Is man just an animal? Are we modified monkeys or the creatures of a good God? And does it matter? It matters immensely. For the sake of the truth, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of our children, for the sake of our society—it matters. We have a basic witness to make, and a stand to take on the significance of the human being. It is because we are human that we best care for the world in which God has placed us.