What does it mean to be a human being?

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This is my monthly science and religion post at the Presbyterian Bloggers site.

Most of us believe that humans are different than other animals. We know that fish are different than birds, which are different from reptiles. There are distinctions between these animal groups, which is why we can call some creatures “Swordfish” and other creatures “Robins” and not be confused about which is which.

Animals can do some amazing things that we can’t do. Breath underwater, fly, use echolocation, migrate long distances to someplace they have never been before without getting lost, jump several times their height, smell all sorts of odors we can’t. We could go on and on. At the same time, certain abilities cross over classes. Birds and bats (mammals) fly. Fish, mammals and birds swim. Insects and reptiles and mammals can jump. Certain abilities are found in multiple kinds of quite different animals.

Humans have always wanted to claim we have particular abilities which are unique to humans. What would those abilities be? What makes us uniquely different than other animal?

Tool making?





Well, the interesting news is that scientists can find examples of all these traits in animals. These abilities, just like the ability to swim or fly, cross over classes.

Some would claim that the differences between animals and humans are of degree and not kind. Other animals make and use tools but human made tools are much more complex than anything any other animal makes. Animals communicate but none have the complexity of human language and certainly none (that we know of) have a written form of language. A wolf pack might enforce ideals of right and wrong behavior but the level of sophistication of human morality is far beyond any animal moral code. For some, what makes us distinct is the complexity of our language, culture, tools, morality, etc. But is complexity enough to claim distinction?

Are there qualities that humans have that no other animals have?

I’m not sure that we ought to expect science to illuminate what makes us uniquely human. Based on all that we have learned, even just the past 20 years, it seems the trend in science may well be to blur the distinction between humans and other animals. We may not be as biologically unique as we think we are. Which suggests that we ought to look somewhere else in our search of the location of our unique status in the world.

Additionally ethologists are discovering forms of culture and morality in animals, so the answer may not lie there either.

I want to suggest that our human distinctiveness is found in our relationship with God, and specifically our vocation given from God. I would be very reluctant to hold the position that humans are the only living creatures with a relationship with God. At best, all I can say is I don’t know. It is certainly not beyond the abilities of God to be in relationship with other animals.

What I would claim is that we humans have been given a particular vocation by God and this is what makes us unique and human. Humans are given responsibility for creation. We named the other creatures( Gen 2:19-20). We are charged to till and keep (Gen 2:15). I think it is our calling which makes us unique. As those who bear the image of God, we are called to care for the earth as God cares for it. This calling appears to be ours alone. Other creatures don’t have this responsibility and this power. We can nurture or we can destroy. Godlike power has been given to us.

Would we act differently if we understood our humanity to mean responsibility for the planet? Would we act differently if we believed that to be created in the image of God meant we ought to care for creation in the same way God cares for us? Would we act differently if we stopped thinking we were the best and smartest creature, the reason the world exists and began thinking we were here to serve and protect and nurture others?

I wonder. What do you think?


This topic, what it means to be human and the ways humans, animals and God interact has been an interest of mine for a long time. If you are interested, you can find more here on this blog. Probably the best way to find the posts is to look under the categories “animals” and “human”. Here is the first post on this topic.


If you live in the Grand Rapids area, please consider attending the Grand Dialogue Annual Conference April 16. You can find out more about it here. Registration is free! It is always an interesting event. The keynote speaker is Nancey Murphy on “Do Humans Have Souls: Perspectives from Science and Religion”. In the afternoon there will be a variety of breakout sessions on a variety of science and religion topics. I’ll be presenting one on “What Makes Us Human? Biology and Theology in Conversation”

2 thoughts on “What does it mean to be a human being?

  1. Do we differ from other animals because of culture (yes), tools (yes), morality (yes), language (yes), and learning (yes). I could add abilities to problem solve and think critically.

    Then again, I’ll flip-flop to NO to all those. The reason is simple, although we have more in common with other animals than differences, the key differences lie in our brain – that 3 lb structure of symphonic neurons allowing us to do so much more than others: including culture, technology, morality, language, learning, and yes – understanding God.

    Great post.

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