Classic Half-Truth: Humans Are Mere Animals
Sure, Homo sapiens are vertebrates, mammals and primates. A new book says that is all we are.
Melanie Challenger ought to know better. Her new book, How to Be Animal: A New History of What it Means to Be Human (Penguin Books, 2021) argues that humans are not exceptional or distinct from other animals. And yet Ms Challenger is a classical musician and composer, a librettist for opera, an author of three books, a poet, and a philosopher of biology with an interest in environmental ethics. In other words, she specializes in some of the very things that make humans distinct from other animals. Go figure.
Predictably, the materialists and Darwinists at The Scientist give her good press. They let her give her own spiel for her book to their audience of scientists. She claims that the concept of “dignity” is a late human invention.
“Dignity” originates in Enlightenment dualist ideas separating cognition from physicality and instinct. Dualism has taken many forms through history, such as the idea that humans are made of two substances, the body and the soul. Once rationalism was foregrounded, a new binary emerged: the human mind and our physical bodies. In this worldview, the impulses and feelings of animal bodies (including our own) are viewed as less important than our mental experiences. This isn’t mind over matter. It is the idea that the mind is all that matters, and that it is some kind of separate and separable thing from the body.
She tosses religion aside as an outworn idea from the shadowy past, then waltzes through a short history of Descartes and other rationalists who tried to maintain some semblance of exceptional human nature. “I conclude that it’s time for a much-needed paradigm shift that no longer splits the world into unhelpful and unscientific binaries,” she says.
In a separate article, The Scientist reprints an excerpt from her book. In places, she seems to recognize the uniqueness of the human mind to create, dream, control certain urges, to anticipate the future. But “The human mind is an amazing natural phenomenon,” she contends (italics added). Our apparently unique traits are differences in degree, not in kind. We have culture, but so do animals (see Andrew Whiten make this argument in Science Magazine 2 April 2021). Attempts to put our species beyond some “magical boundary” from the animals are misguided, Challenger insists. She presents her opinions as if they are facts, but she only invokes the power of assertion. Belief in an immaterial part of man is “mistaken” she says, bluffing her way as if she possesses knowledge and authority to declare it and make it so.
We urgently need to get a handle on what it means to be an animal and move beyond outworn dualism. It’s not just that we’re animals: embodied, physical experiences are richer and more meaningful than we’ve recognized. If that means we need to rethink our relationship to other animals, so be it.
This move has always been beset by problems. But, as time has passed, it has become harder to justify. Most of us act according to intuitions or principles that human needs outrank those of any other living thing. But when we try to isolate something in the human animal and turn it into a person or a moral agent or a soul, we create difficulties for ourselves. We can end up with the mistaken belief that there is something non-biological about us that is ultimately good or important. And that has taken us to a point where some of us seek to live forever or enhance our minds or become machines.
On this Easter weekend, many remember the promises of Jesus Christ to give everlasting life to those who trust Him. Ms Challenger challenges them to focus on their flesh, their bodily urges and instincts – the very things that Christ and the apostles warned about. She tempts them to forget their souls, which are mythical entities to be subsumed within materialism. Her savior, obviously, is Charles Darwin: “These days, humans are agents of evolution with far greater powers than sexual selection or selective breeding,” she says; in another place, “Our conscious encounter with the world is a breathtaking fact of how life can evolve.”
Everyone knows that humans have animal traits: we eat bananas; apes eat bananas. We have bodily functions, and so do turtles and birds. We carry on the species by sexual reproduction. Observant people agree, “humans are animals.” The half-truth says, “Humans are merely animals.” It’s the other half of a half-truth that contains the poison, luring the unwary to bite the hook.
One can focus on the body till the cows come home, and not fully describe the human animal. Wernher von Braun contended that we are “souls cast into animal bodies.”
Note: Theists and non-materialists can very well agree that animals possess some kind of soulishness. Just watch a dog leaping to its master that has returned from overseas: the exuberant whimpering, licking and squealing is a joy to see. Otters seem to genuinely experience joy when sliding down snowbanks into the river. Cat purring and hundreds of other examples show animals experiencing the joy of life in some measure. What imparts life to these animals if they are just bags of molecules? These thoughts reverse the challenge of Challenger. It’s not that humans are mere animals, but that animals, as creations of a loving God, have been endowed with something above the material: life. According to the Bible, humans alone are made in the image of God.
How can Christians challenge Ms Challenger and defend human exceptionalism? One apologist might list all the things that humans can do that animals cannot do. Some apologists might point to toolmaking, but crows can make tools. They might point to music, but some bird and whales make music. They might point out that humans have opposable thumbs, walk upright and have naked skin, but some animals have these traits. They might point to human emotions, but elephants grieve over a member of the herd that has died. Good writers have pointed to the argument from consciousness. In my opinion, this approach is unlikely to convince an evolutionist like Melanie Challenger. For instance, look how Matt Parker at The Conversation lists “Five ways fish are more like humans that you realize.” Each side stacks evidence in their favor: the theist evidences of human exceptionalism, the atheist evidences of similarities. A better way to defeat materialists is very simple. This method turns off their microphone, stops them before they start, and cuts the floor out from under them. It leaves them speechless, hooting like monkeys in the trees.
Just ask her, “Ms Challenger, do you believe that your view of human nature is true?” She’s trapped before she can get one word out her mouth. Of course she will start to say, “Yes, I believe what I have written; why else would I write about it?” She is not going to state, “No, I don’t think it is true,” obviously. Here’s why she is stuck. She made propositions. Propositions are not made of atoms or forces; they are concepts in the realm of ideas. They are statements that the proposer believes are true or could be proved to be true. We are not asking her if she believes she has the ultimate right answer about the philosophy of human nature, but whether she believes that her idea is correct; that’s all. Notice that her belief implies the permanence of truth: i.e., its eternality. If truth evolves (for instance, if it is true in our culture but not in other cultures or time periods), then an obvious response is that we don’t have to listen to anything she has to say. What she thinks is true today could be false in another tribe or at another time.
A follow-up question is similar: “Do you believe that it is good to say things that are true?” This now gets into morality, another immaterial, timeless necessity that cannot evolve. Obviously she is not going to answer in the negative, but how can a materialist give an affirmative answer to the question? It presupposes a standard of morality, like the 9th Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” If she doesn’t believe that commandment, or thinks that it evolves, then her listeners have every right to conclude that she is a liar and deceiver, not worthy of a moment of their attention. These two questions, if publicized, might make her book sales plummet. That would make her very angry, to which a clever interlocutor might quip, “What’s the matter? Don’t you believe in survival of the fittest? Too bad you lost in the fitness game.” This Challenger accident has blown up her mission.
The point of this approach is that any sincerely-stated assertion presupposes eternal truth and morality. The point is not that human beings always reach those ideals, but that those ideals must be acknowledged before any rational discussion can begin. If Ms Challenger were to respond, “Well, I don’t accept your view,” you respond, “Oh, but you don’t because you do.” She made statements she believes are true and right. Bingo! The trap door opens and her proposition falls through.
Acknowledgement of non-evolving, objective truth and morality are preconditions for intelligibility, as the late philosopher of science Dr Greg Bahnsen taught. If someone doesn’t believe in truth, and doesn’t believe that it is good to seek the truth, they have nothing to say. They have shot out their feet from under them. They might as well be howling in the trees like the animals they believe they are. Said another way, human exceptionalism is the ground of any rational conversation. It’s irrational to talk about rationalists like Descartes or Kant if you can’t first assume the existence of truth and rationality. Re-read Challenger’s statements with this in mind, and her arguments evaporate into dust and smoke.
Now watch this short video and have a happy Easter!