The Human Difference: How Humans are Unique Compared to All Other Animals
Are Humans Unique?
Evolutionary biology proposes that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors. If this is true then we are nothing more than glorified apes. However, compared to our closest relatives , scientific research indicates that humans are unique on many fronts, including creativity, personality, abstract thinking, and moral judgment.
The Bible makes the claim that humans alone are created in the image of God. 1 What exactly does this mean? Some have equated the image of God as being the physical characteristics of our bodies that make up the way we look. In fact, the Mormons have taken this interpretation to extreme by saying that God is just an exalted man, who has a body of flesh and bones. 1 However, the Bible says that both males and females are created in the image of God. 2 Unless God were a hermaphrodite (having both male and female sexual organs), this phrase could not refer to just physical characteristics. In addition, there are various verses in the Bible that describe God as having non-human physical characteristics, such as feathers and wings. 3 Should we think of God as being an overgrown chicken? Certainly not! God is so unlike humans physically, that the Bible often paints word pictures to give us a glimpse of what God is like.
So if the image of God does not refer to physical characteristics, what does it refer to? It is certainly likely that part of the image of God refers to the ability of humans to be creative. Anthropology tells us that sophisticated works of art first appeared in the fossil record about 40,000-50,000 years ago, 4 at the time that moderns humans first appeared. No other species of animal, including the apes, are able to create and understand images of art and drawing.
Human consciousness is a mystery that has evaded decades of intensive research by neurophysiologists. According to a recent article:
When an organism s neural pathways grow sufficiently complex, materialists insist, their firings are somehow accompanied by consciousness. But despite decades of effort by philosophers and neurophysiologists, no one has been able to come up with a remotely plausible explanation of how this happens–how the hunk of gray meat in our skull gives rise to private Technicolor experience. One distinguished commentator on the mind-body problem, Daniel Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained, has been driven to declare that there is really no such thing as consciousness–we are all zombies, though we re unaware of it. 5
Another thing that makes humans unique is personality. According to Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at New York University:
We have no idea how our brains make us who we are. There is as yet no neuroscience of personality. We have little understanding of how art and history are experienced by the brain. The meltdown of mental life in psychosis is still a mystery. In short, we have yet to come up with a theory that can pull all this together. 6
Is the human brain that much different from that of our closest relatives, the chimpanzees? According to Daniel J. Povinelli, from the University of Louisiana s New Iberia Research Center
Humans constantly invoke unobservable phenomena and variables to explain why certain things are happening. Chimps operate in the world of concrete, tangible things that can be seen. The content of their minds is about the observable world. 7
Insight into how chimpanzees really think can be seen in some recent experiments performed by Dr. Povinelli. In these experiments, the researchers used the chimps natural begging gesture to examine how they really think about their world. They confronted the chimps with two familiar experimenters, one offering a piece of food and the other holding out an undesirable block of wood. As expected, the chimps had no trouble distinguishing between the block and the food and immediately gestured to the experimenter offering the food. Next, the researchers wanted to see if the chimps would be able to choose between a person who could see them and a person who could not. If the chimpanzees understood how other animals see, they would gesture only to the person who could see them. The researchers achieved the seeing/not-seeing contrast by having the two experimenters adopt different postures. In one test, one experimenter wore a blindfold over her eyes while the other wore a blindfold over her mouth. In the other tests, one of the experimenters wore a bucket over her head, placed her hands over her eyes or sat with her back turned to the chimpanzee. All these postures were modeled after the behaviors that had been observed during the chimpanzees spontaneous play. The results of the experiments were astonishing. In the tests involving blindfolds, buckets and hands over the eyes–the apes entered the lab and paused but then were just as likely to gesture to the person who could not see them as to the person who could. In several cases, the chimps gestured to the person who could not see them and then, when nothing happened, gestured again, as if puzzled by the fact that the experimenter did not respond. In the case of experimenters facing with their backs to the chimps, they performed as if they knew that those facing way from them could not see and offer them food. However, subsequent experiments proved that the chimps had merely responded to conditioning from the initial experiments, since they had only received food from those experimenters who faced them. This was proven by having experimenters facing away from the chimps, but then turning to look over their shoulders. The chimps were just as likely to gesture to the experimenters facing away as the one who turned to look at them. Chimpanzees have no clue that humans must face them in order to see. It is obvious from these experiments that chimpanzees lack even a simple understanding of how their world works, but merely react to conditioning from directly observable events. 8
Other researchers have noted that chimpanzees do not understand the cause and effect of their actions. Apes will climb onto a box to reach fruit, but if the box is absent, will place on the ground beneath the fruit a sheet of paper and stand upon it. 9
A more recent study examined the ability of human infants and young chimpanzees to help human adults. 10 18-month-old human infants and young chimpanzees were presented with four categories of problems: out-of-reach objects, access thwarted by a physical obstacle, achieving a wrong (correctable) result, and using a wrong (correctable) means. While human infants could perform all four tasks, chimpanzees could only perform the first task. As in previous studies, chimpanzees were unable to discern when an individual failed at a simple task and how he could help. The researchers concluded:
A number of theorists have claimed that human beings cooperate with one another and help one another (especially non-kin) in ways not found in other animal species (26 28). This is almost certainly so, and the current results demonstrate that even very young children have a natural tendency to help other persons solve their problems, even when the other is a stranger and they receive no benefit at all. 10
Body, soul, spirit
Besides the rather obvious differences in the way animals process information in their brains, the Bible (and science) confirm that there are major differences in the ways humans make moral judgments (animals don t make such judgments, as we shall see). Part of what is meant by the term in the image of God can be found in chapters immediately following its first usage (Genesis 1) in the Bible. Both Adam and Eve had a personal relationship with God in the Garden of Eden. Such a personal relationship is not described, nor seen, for any other animal species. It is the presence of a spirit that was instilled into humans 11 that separates us from the animals. There are three kinds of life that God has created in this universe: