People have sometimes called me to task for referring to humans as animals. The point is well taken that humans are unique, but humans are not plants, and they are not minerals. According to all basic elementary science books, there are three kingdoms – plants, animals, and minerals. Are humans animals? Yes, we are animals.
The problem we seem to have is that we don’t understand what makes humans different from bears, for example. In our correspondence courses, we have questions about what distinguishes a human from other forms of animal life. I find it interesting that the answers my students give are so poorly considered. Some will say that we think, but all animals think. Some say we have emotions, but all animals have emotions. Others will say we stand erect, but kangaroos, birds, and bears all stand erect. Still others say it’s our brain size, but whales have bigger brains than we do, and bears have very large brains.
I recently watched a National Geographic program on bears. The program emphasized that female bears in the wild that give birth to unhealthy or significantly deformed cubs will kill and eat them. AOL News on the web (August 18, 2019) carried a story about two Russian fishermen who rescued two bear cubs from drowning. The mother bear was swimming across a lake with two cubs on her back when she became tired and chilled. Her solution was to shake the two cubs off of her back, leaving them to drown while she continued her journey to the other side of the lake. These are behaviors that would be unlikely in a human mother. What is it that makes humans different? Why do human mothers continue to care for children with deformities or severe health issues? Why do human mothers usually show incredible resilience when their child is threatened?
When someone asks, “Are humans animals?” I reply, “Yes, but not JUST animals. Humans are not driven by “survival of the fittest.” There are characteristics of humans that cause us to care for those who are not “fit.” These human qualities also provide for an innate sense of the love of beauty in art or music or in a natural setting. What is it in humans that causes us to worship, to feel guilt, and to be sympathetic. What causes us to be driven by an “agape” type of love – self-sacrificing, nonsexual, and unrelated to our survival?
It isn’t any physical characteristic that makes humans special. Our spiritual makeup is the source of all those things that set humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. We are created in the image of God. That isn’t just an empty cliché. It is an observable difference between humans and the animal world around us. We can behave like bears if we choose, but bears cannot behave as humans.
Are humans animals? Yes, but not JUST animals. The word the Bible uses to describe the distinctive characteristic of humans is “soul.” It’s the part of us that never dies, and it separates us from all other forms of life.
— John N. Clayton © 2019