Friday, February 04, 2011

Chimps and Humans

What is it that makes us human? If you ask people that question, often their answer describes ways they believe we are different than animals. We have language, we use tools, we have culture, we transmit knowledge from one person to another, we are self aware, we have souls. Until fairly recently scientists would have given similar responses to that question as would theologians.

Every now and again one runs across something that makes one wonder about the differences between humans and other animals. Consider this report in Science Daily about the actions of a group of chimpanzees toward a dying member of their group.

In the days leading up to the chimp's death, the group was very quiet and paid close attention to her, the researchers report. Immediately before she died, she received much grooming and caressing from the others, who appeared to test her for signs of life as she died. They left her soon after, but her adult daughter returned and remained by her mother all night. When keepers removed the mother's body the next day, the chimpanzees remained calm and subdued. For several days they avoided sleeping on the platform where the female had died, even though it was normally a favored sleeping spot, and remained subdued for some time after the death.

This week Science Daily published another story describing observations about the actions of mother chimpanzees after the deaths of their infants. While many animals recognize that a dead animal is different than an alive animal, the reactions described in these two articles describes something more. They describe the recognition of the death of a particular individual and what appears to be a sense of loss or mourning.

James Anderson, one of the researchers whose work is described in the article has this to say about his observations.

"Several phenomena have at one time or another been considered as setting humans apart from other species: reasoning ability, language ability, tool use, cultural variation, and self-awareness, for example, but science has provided strong evidence that the boundaries between us and other species are nowhere near to being as clearly defined as many people used to think,"..."The awareness of death is another such psychological phenomenon. The findings we've described, along with other observations of how chimpanzees respond to dead and dying companions, indicate that their awareness of death is probably more highly developed than is often suggested. It may be related to their sense of self-awareness, shown through phenomena such as self-recognition and empathy towards others."

The previously sharp distinctions between other animals and humans are blurring as we learn more about other animals.
The knowledge we have gained about the complexity of animals' lives is fascinating and gives us much to think about as we ponder who we are as human beings and what our relationship with other animals ought to be.
What makes us human?
What I want to suggest today, is that what makes us human is not our biological uniqueness. What makes humans distinct from other animals is our particular vocation, our calling to care for other animals and God's creation. As Christians we are called to love God and to love our neighbor. Who is our neighbor? The answer to that question may cross species lines.
There is, of course, much more to be said about all this- too much for one blog posting. But lets talk about it via the comments.

This is an area that is of interest to me. I have written several posts about these ideas on my blog, if you would like to read more.

And an apology: For some reason, the block quote tool and I have "issues" and the formatting after the block quotes doesn't return to normal. I was able to make a distinction in font and font size that I hope makes it clear where the block quotes begin and end and my comments begin.


Whitey Lawful said...

In correlation with this bio-sphere 'consciousness' and its attempted trangression of natural law by the saught impeding of the autonomy of man. Is a program to further undermind man and his actual consciousness by genetic determinism and biological mechanization.

Doug Hagler said...

It is not true that only humans have language - here is an episode of Radio Lab on that topic, talking about the many ways that species not only communicate with each other, but also with other species, including human beings:

In short, I like your answer a lot. The difference is not something ontological (humans are magically special and animals are not) it is covenantal - humans have a special calling and responsibility that animals do not.

There is just no real evidence anymore for the ontological view. Whatever you say makes humans special - dreams, cognitition, language, memory, grief, art - it is possible to find examples in the animal world that throw a wrench in the works of humane exceptionalism.

So we are made in the image of God, not because we are constructed any differently from animals, but because, like God, we are powerful creators. Like God, we consciously 'make' the world, and our call is to make it better.

Nancy said...

Doug, Thanks for your comments.You are right about other animals an language. I was not clear in my first couple of paragraphs, all those things I listed at "unique" about humans are not unique to humans at all.
What makes us human has to do with covenant and call not biology.

For those who are interested, I have spent much more time on this topic at my "regular" blog.