Atheists claim that humans are just animals, so animals should have the same rights as humans. On June 14, 2022, the New York Court of Appeals denied a claim by a Florida-based animal rights group called “The Nonhuman Rights Project.” The group had claimed that an elephant named “Happy” in the Bronx Zoo was in illegal custody and should be released because the elephant was equal to humans. After four years of litigation, Happy the elephant is denied personhood by the New York Court of Appeals.
There have been stories by animal protection groups of elephants displaying emotions that they interpret as typical human responses to the death of a family member. Other people have ascribed similar arguments for humanizing a pet dog or cat. We call this anthropomorphism, and we have dealt with it before.
If you deny that humans are created in the image of God, then any animal can be considered equal to humans. However, because we are in God’s image, humans have spiritual characteristics that animals don’t have. For example, we can express creativity in art and music, feel guilt and sympathy, have a complete self-concept, appreciate beauty, and worship God. Some people may ascribe human characteristics to a loved animal, suggesting that it can do one of these things, but they would not argue that the animal can do all of them.
Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote, “While no one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion, Happy, as a nonhuman animal, does not have a legally cognizable right to be at liberty under New York law.” She said that the legislature would have to decide to grant nonhuman animals the same legal rights as humans.
Are animals willing to sacrifice their well-being to benefit another animal? Altruism is a human characteristic thought to be missing in animals. As scientists study animal behavior more deeply, they see many cases where animals seem to demonstrate altruism. Those include jumping into a fight to save another animal when there is no direct benefit to the intervening animal. In one case, killer whales were hunting a sea lion. Suddenly two humpback whales charged in and pushed the killer whales away, allowing the sea lion to escape. People observed that happening three times in the same area.
There are also situations where animals seem to demonstrate altruism by giving food away. Vampire bats need a constant supply of blood because they can’t survive more than 70 hours without it. Researchers have seen vampire bats regurgitate blood when an individual misses a meal. In one case, a vampire bat gave away so much blood that it starved to death. Studies of meerkats, a species of mongoose in southern Africa, have shown that one couple will breed the offspring and other adults raise the babies. Studies of bonobo primates have demonstrated that they share food both in captivity and in the wild.
Are those the behaviors we thought that only humans exhibited? One constant danger in studying animals is our tendency to anthropomorphize animal behavior. In other words, we interpret animal behavior in light of human behavior rather than looking at the possible reasons for the animal’s actions. You can see this by looking at how people treat and talk to their dogs. The reality is that the dog has learned where it gets its food, its sensual pleasure, and its security. No matter how much support the dog receives, it will still chase the cat, eat the feces of another dog, and bark at a time that displeases the owner. Dog owners tend to overlook those animal instincts and behaviors, and they may even put clothing on the dog.
Researchers can see that all animal behavior in the wild has some kind of survival benefit. In the cases above, the whales don’t have sympathy for the seal. Killer whales attack humpback whale babies, and the best defense the humpbacks have is to drive the killer whales out of the area. Vampire bats are not successful in getting blood every time they go out, so sharing benefits all of the bats because the next night might be their time to be unsuccessful. A similar scenario is present with monkeys sharing. These animals seem to demonstrate altruism but still resort to survival behavior when under stress. Chimps raised in human homes do not become humans. When a human invades their territory, they resort to violent behavior. At the same time, pure altruism is a trait available to humans, but not all humans demonstrate it at all times. There is a saying that humans can act like animals, but animals cannot act like humans. The death of Christ on the cross is the classic example of sacrificing one’s self to benefit even those who reject you.
Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has made a career of studying bonobo apes. She would have us believe that there is no barrier between bonobos and humans. Her research raises the question of who we are as humans, and she would respond that we are just another animal. There are so many difficulties with this viewpoint that it is hard to know where to start. The most fundamental scientific problem is that there is a difference between communication and language.
Savage-Rumbaugh’s research is the main story in the July/August 2020 issue of Smithsonian magazine. She assumes that environment is not a factor in what distinguishes apes from humans, and she has lived with the bonobos in her research. A tool she uses in studying the bonobos is a “lexigram keyboard” with pictorial symbols corresponding to English words. One particular bonobo named Kanzi has used it to communicate with her. This ape could use some 660 English sentences functioning at a level higher than a two-and-a-half-year-old human child.
The difference between communication and language is an old issue. Aristotle wrote that animals could exchange information, but only humans could articulate what was just and unjust. The famous philosopher Rene’ Descartes in the 1600s, wrote that God had gifted human beings with souls, and, along with souls, language and consciousness. On this website and in our printed materials, we have talked about God’s design in animals that allows elaborate communication. Bees communicate by dancing information to other bees. Birds make sounds that carry meanings and warnings to other birds. The ultrasonic emissions of whales are elaborate communication tools.
Savage-Rumbaugh has shown that bonobos have a flexible capacity to communicate. However, she falls into the old trap of anthropomorphizing animal behavior – reading human interpretations into something an animal does. Statements such as, “She would look at me with a pleading expression on her face” is ascribing human interpretations to the ape’s facial expressions. The symbols on the keyboard are human symbols, and pigeons can learn to peck a particular symbol to get a desired result.
The Smithsonian article quotes one researcher as saying, “Work with Kanzi has always lived somewhere between rigorous science and social closeness and family life.” The difference between communication and language is a topic of hot debate. If you look up the word “language” you will see a significant variation in how different people define it. Humans have language that involves the meaning of symbols, the standards by which we measure behavior, and the values accepted by one’s peers.
The Bible deals with language, and God’s Spirit is involved with our language. When researchers have tried to humanize a chimpanzee by bringing it into their home, they do so with communication, but language is never a part of the process. Trying to turn an animal into a human being has disastrous results. We are created in the image of God, and language is a part of that image.
One of the main sticking points for those who say that we are just highly evolved animals is the capacity of humans to display spiritual characteristics.Humans show creativity in our ability to create art and music, to feel guilt, to be sympathetic, to have a concept of self, and to worship. Those who suggest we are just animals with big brains and no unique qualities have tried for over 100 years to find examples of “human behavior” in the animal kingdom. Some of those attempts have been front-page stories such as the reports of Koko, the gorilla. The trainer claimed that Koko created works of art and adopted a cat as a pet, but the bias of Koko’s trainer turned out to be the cause of the behavior. Most researchers admit that there was a great deal of anthropomorphism involved in the stories about Koko, and the same goes for elephant wakes.
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to an animal. Recently the Washington Post and The Week have published articles about elephants grieving and holding wakes or “religious services” when one of their kind dies. As you read the reports, you see strong suggestions that the reporters are engaging in anthropomorphism to support their claims of elephant wakes.
One report tells of seeing elephants touching corpses with their trunks and trying to lift them. It said they were “performing dominance behaviors typically used to protect sought after resources such as plentiful fruit trees or shady groves.” The reports also tell of members of five different elephant families interacting with a corpse for three weeks. There is also mention of a ten-year-old elephant walking away from her mother’s body with liquid streaming from her temporal glands indicating “great stress.” To suggest that these behaviors are religious ceremonies or elephant wakes seems to be the least likely explanation.
Elephants are herd animals. The matriarch is the leader of the herd, and when that leader dies, a power struggle takes place among the other females. This competition involves great stress, but it is a long way from a religious service. There is no evidence of elephants comprehending death. Some try to lift the corpse to its feet, demonstrating a lack of understanding of death. No elephant has attempted a burial, memorial, or preservation.
Humans are created in the image of God. We not only grieve, but we engage in behavior that indicates a belief that the departed is in a better existence. We honor our dead, and we continue to honor their memory. This is a spiritual awareness that is unique to humans. The value of human life cannot be denigrated by trying to find animal behavior with the same cause and effect.
So has this instruction, which humans have followed better than most of God’s commands, caused climate change?Should we all become vegetarians? Is veganism a solution to global warming and animal cruelty?
People have raised these questions in opposition to God, and to avoid the destruction of our planet. More than that, Peter Singer, in his book Animal Liberation, claimed that all animals are intelligent, feel emotions, and feel pain. He suggests that inflicting pain on animals is a barbaric tradition, and is unethical for modern humans. In addition to these objections, we have those who refuse to eat any animal products considering them to be unhealthy. Vegans avoid all dairy products, eggs, and any animal-based foods.
Certainly, humans are free to choose what their diet will be if they live in an area where a variety of foods are available. The reality, however, is that God designed humans to be omnivores. The statement of Genesis 9:1-3 recognizes that fact, and our bodies demonstrate it. Our teeth are made to both cut and to grind. Our digestive system is designed to handle a wide variety of foods. We are not only designed to eat many kinds of foods, but overloads of any one food type can cause problems for us. Too much plant-based sugar is not a healthy diet. Too many beans or too much honey can cause digestive issues for many of us. Many people have food allergies, especially if we eat those foods in large quantities. Having a balanced diet is critical to good health, and vegan diets can be unhealthy.
Raising animals does generate greenhouse gases, but grazing livestock causes only seven percent of the total greenhouse gases.Raising enough crops to supply the needs of all humans means deforestation and the use of pesticides, fertilizer, fungicides, and herbicides. In many places, growing food by planting crops is impossible, but animals can survive in those areas. Small-scale farmers totaling 1.3 billion people survive on animal products in places where relying solely on plant nutrients is impossible. Is veganism a solution for those people? It’s not even an option.
Any animal must indeed be able to feel pain to survive. The notion that raising animals for food is cruel and inhumane is short-sighted. Animals living in the wild can experience enormous pain. If a cow or goat escapes from its owner, it is in great danger from carnivores that do not dispatch their prey with no concern for their pain. Cattle raised with protection from carnivores, terrible weather, and disease are far better off than in the challenging environment of the wilderness. Is veganism a solution to animal cruelty or global warming? Not really.
A cow is not a human in a different body. They have no awareness of self, and instinctive drives dominate their behavior. While we anthropomorphize animal behavior (interpret what they do in human terms), the fact is that animals were created in amazing ways to survive. But animals do not have the spiritual properties that humans have.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines anthropomorphism as “the attribution of human traits, emotions or intentions to non-human entities.” We are all guilty of anthropomorphism when we attribute the behavior of our pets to human emotions. The Oxford dictionary goes on to say that anthropomorphism “is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.”
When a dog is jumping around and barking and licking us, we assume that the behavior of the dog is because of joy. In reality, this is an instinctive behavior in animals when establishing dominance within the pack. When the same dog tucks its tail between its legs and slinks away, we assume it is feeling guilty when it is an act of submission for fear of being attacked.
Some scientists attempt to prove that humans are just animals acting out animal responses to various environments. They conduct experiments to show that animals do the things we think are unique to humans. An example is attempting to explain the human smile. For us humans, a smile is an expression of happiness, warmth, and friendliness. When an animal grins, it shows its teeth expressing terror or aggression. When you see a monkey or ape grin on a commercial, sitcom, or movie, there is a trainer behind the camera threatening it.
Human traits which are not seen in animals include worship, guilt, sympathy, and creativity in art and music. It is essential to look at other explanations when considering the behavior of animals. Recently people witnessed a female whale carrying her dead calf for nearly a week. Several newspaper articles were guilty of anthropomorphism by saying that the whale was expressing grief. Many times animals in the wild avoid the scavenging of a dead sibling or offspring by maintaining a vigil over the corpse. That instinctive action assures that the offspring is, in fact, dead, and avoids spreading the disease that killed the dead animal.
I remember a field trip I had in my NSF graduate workshop for science teachers. At an aquarium in Chicago, we watched a demonstration of natural selection. A hungry northern pike was placed in an aquarium with three small fish. One was a wounded and incapacitated minnow. Another was a slightly wounded but otherwise relatively healthy fish of the same species. The third was a healthy well-fed fish. The lesson plan said that the students should predict which of the three fish the pike would eat. Our group of teachers all agreed it would be the incapacitated minnow. For the next 30 minutes, we watched the pike tear up the aquarium trying to get the healthy minnow and avoiding the two wounded fish. We teachers debated as to why that happened, but the aquarium workers said it was frequently the case.
Humans are unique because we are created in the image of God. That allows us to do things that reflect that unique makeup. When we interpret animal behavior in human terms, we are guilty of anthropomorphism.
One of the interesting challenges to human evolution has to do with our capacity for artistic creation. Why do human artistic expressions display beauty and color? There is no good evidence that animals express themselves aesthetically – be it music, color, artistic expression, abstractionism, or worship. When people have claimed that animals express themselves in these areas, the claims have turned out to be anthropomorphisms by those making the claims. We all tend to attach human attributes to animal actions, but the evidence supports the view that animals don’t do those things. On the other hand, artistic expression and human history go together.
One evidence of artistic work has to do with the pictures left on cave walls in various locations. Those drawings do not show a sequence of development. In other words, you don’t see older drawings that are more primitive than recent ones. There is a story that Picasso examined the Cromagnon cave drawings and said, “We have learned nothing about art in our entire history on planet earth.”
USA Today (November 9, 2018) published an article on new art finds in Borneo and Indonesia. They are much older than any of the drawings in Spain and France. Dr. Maxime Aubert who led the discovery says the paintings are 4,000 years older than any other find. Aubert says “they are the earliest known figurative artwork.” In addition to the drawings of mystic animals, there are hand stencils and cave paintings of human scenes, and extensive use of color.
A German forester and author named Peter Wohileben has written a book titled The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. The book has sold more than 800,000 copies in Germany and has hit the best-seller list in 11 other countries including the U.S. and Canada. He was quoted in the March issue of Smithsonian magazine as saying, “We must at least talk about the rights of trees.” Since we are concerned about human rights should we also be thinking of tree rights?
According to the article in Smithsonian, scientific evidence indicates “that trees of the same species are communal, and will often form alliances with trees of other species.” Wohileben says that trees in every forest “are connected to each other through underground fungal networks. Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate.” What Wohileben is talking about is a symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi underground. The hair-like root tips of trees join together through fungal filaments to form a mycorrhizal network. The fungi consume sugar from the tree roots as they pull nitrogen, phosphorus, and other minerals from the soil which are absorbed by the roots for use by the trees.
The trees communicate through their “wood-wide-web” by “sending chemical, hormonal and slow-pulsing electrical signals.” The large trees with deep roots draw up water which benefits the shallow-rooted trees. The article says that trees also share nutrients with each other, even between species. In addition to the underground network trees also communicate with each other through the release of chemicals into the air, and they release large amounts of moisture into the air feeding rain systems.
Wohileben presents his story of the trees as if they have intelligence. He says that we must “allow some trees to grow old with dignity, and die a natural death.” Multiple scientists refute Wohileben saying that trees are not “sentient beings” and call Wohileben’s ideas anthropomorphism.
It is very easy to anthropomorphize the behavior of animals. According to Wikipedia anthropomorphism is, “the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities…It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.” When your dog cowers after you scold it for doing something, is the dog indicating guilt or remorse? It may look that way, but it may be that the dog has learned that by showing that behavior it will receive less scolding.
There has been an upsurge of scientific material suggesting that humans are not unique in their expressions of grief, guilt, patriotism, devotion, love, hate, etc. Several books have been written promoting the view that no human emotion is missing from members of the animal kingdom. How Animals Grieve by Barbara King and Beyond Words–What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina are two examples. There have also been numerous articles in scientific journals promoting anthropomorphism.
The problem is that it is very difficult to avoid anthropomorphism of animals. Frequently we see articles describing how an animal reacts to the death of its offspring. A recent magazine has pictures and discussions of giraffes, whales, dolphins, elephants, gorillas, baboons, chimps, and zebras seeming to grieve at the death of an offspring or a mate for periods of days. (National Wildlife magazine for February-March 2018 page 30-39) The question is whether this is an evolutionary trait of all life and humans are just more highly evolved, or whether we are anthropomorphizing the behavior we see. We have all been influenced by Disney with stories like Bambi, so the question is complicated.
The biblical definition of humans is that we are the life-form created in the image of God. We see that image reflected in the things that humans do that are not physical in nature. We worship. We create art and music and express our emotions in art and music. We feel sympathy and experience guilt. We have an agape type of love that is unrelated to reproduction or survival. We can be taught to think. These properties are made possible by our spiritual nature. We can debate whether all of these characteristics are really unique to humans or whether they have survival value, but our uniqueness as a species is not a function of our intelligence or any physical characteristic.
The difficulty in interpreting animal behavior is that we cannot easily ascertain the role of instinct. Reproduction in animals is instinctively driven. In most mammals the role of the female is determined by her reproductive capacity. It is the lioness that drives the pride, not the male lion. The wonderful work that has been done on gorillas and chimpanzees has shown the role of reproduction in determining the social structure of the entire troop. Study of baboons and chimps shows that stress hormones called glucocorticoids increase when a close relative dies. The release of the hormone oxytocin which inhibits glucocorticoid increases when there is physical contact with other partners after the death of a close relative. What we see in animal behavior is the result of the instinctive drives being disturbed.
There is no question that animals think and that they have emotions, but we should avoid excessive anthropomorphism. Animal emotions are tied into their instinctive drives–not to political or religious values. We suggest that those instincts are part of the design of these animals which provides them with the greatest probability of survival.
The unique nature of all humans should motivate us to value human life. We are not instinctively-driven robots that obey the drives built into our DNA. We can change the world in which we live both physically and spiritually. Valuing all human life and working together to solve the conflicts that divide us is a necessary product of understanding our spiritual uniqueness. When Jesus taught us to love our enemy and to do good to those who do evil to us, He was calling us to express that which makes us human–our spiritual nature created in the image of God.
–John N. Clayton