There are some questions we ask of science that it is ill-equipped to answer. The question of how human beings are different from animals is one.
I thought about this when I read Kevin Laland’s article in a recent issue of Scientific American. “[H]ard scientific data have been amassed across fields ranging from ecology to cognitive psychology affirming that humans truly are a remarkable species,” he says. So we read on in the expectation that we will gain some insight into this difference.
The title of the article is “What Made Us Unique.” “[O]ur ability to think, learn, communicate and control our environment,” he says, “makes humanity genuinely different from all other animals.” But, alas, Laland spends the whole article undermining this point.
The bulk of the article is spent trying to establish that evolution is a plausible explanation for the differences between humans and animals, but invoking evolution only undermines the argument that humans are unique. In fact, one of the main points of Darwinian evolution—the primary reason it was controversial when Darwin articulated it and the reason it remains controversial today—is that it denies human uniqueness.
By appealing to Darwin, Laland implies that the differences between humans and animals are only differences in degree, not in kind. So much for being unique. In fact, Laland says several times that animals do many of the things that humans do—think, learn, communicate, and control their environment—it’s just that humans do them better.
But how does that tell us anything about human uniqueness? You can’t explain why humans are unique by studying behavior that is not unique. If you are going to say something meaningful about human uniqueness, then you are going to have to talk about what humans do that animals can’t do.
Furthermore, when we ask the question, “How is man different from an animal?” we are looking for something essentially different between us and the rest of nature. There are many non-essential or accidental differences between the two. When Plato jokingly called man a “featherless biped,” he was voicing a definition of man that did, in fact, distinguish him from every other animal. But neither being featherless nor being a biped says anything essential about the difference between man and animal.
The featherless biped kind of definition is the only kind of definition science can give to account for the difference. Science doesn’t deal in essential differences. Science can only treat quantifiable or behavioral differences, and essential differences between man and the rest of creation are metaphysical.
So where, if not to science, do we go for an explanation of how humans are fundamentally distinct from animals?
In the fourth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle articulated the difference quite clearly. Man, he said, was a rational animal. This designation was part of his larger division of substances—non-material substances, bodies, organisms, animals, and man—each of which had something that made it essentially different from what came before. Life rendered organisms different from other bodies, sentience made animals different from other organisms, and rationality made man different from other animals.
In A Guide for the Perplexed, E. F. Schumacher gives a simple explanation of these differences by appealing to “Levels of Being.” The first level of being is the mineral level. Minerals are non-living stuff—inanimate matter. It is the lowest kind of thing. But when we add life to this mineral, we get something completely different. We call this a “plant“:
mineral + life = Plant
Schumacher points out that this difference—the difference of life—is not physical, but ontological. It is not a matter of what humans and animals and plants do, but rather of what they are. It is a matter of philosophy, not of science.
We don’t really have an adequate scientific explanation of what life is. The great physicist Richard Feynman once said, “If you can’t create it, then you can’t explain it.” This may not apply to everything, but it applies to life. Life is not physical, but metaphysical, and yet it touches the physical world. We know when it is present and we know when it is absent, but we can’t really say what it is.
But even though we cannot explain what life is, we can understand the difference it makes. A thing with life is radically different from a thing that does not have life and there are no intermediate steps between them. They are worlds apart.
The next level of being is awareness. A plant, which is a mineral plus life, does not have it,but an animal does. An animal is:
mineral + life + awareness = Animal
A being that has life plus awareness is radically different from a being that only has life. It has senses a plant does not have. It can move itself in accordance with its own will. It can have emotions; it is actively conscious of things around it.
And here again, science is confounded. Science may tell you what happens in the brain when consciousness is happening, but brain activity is not what consciousness is. Neuroscience can tell us what happens physically when consciousness is happening, but that is very different from consciousness itself, which is non-physical.
Then there is another level, one that gets us to our main point:
mineral + life + awareness + self-awareness = Man
Man is not only aware, like animals are, he is self-aware. Not only can he think, he can think about thinking. Animals are conscious, but not conscious about their consciousness. They do not reflect back on themselves as humans do. They are themselves, but they do not think about themselves as selves.
Since self-consciousness (like life and awareness) is not scientific, scientists have no way to account for it. So instead, they must look for something other than self-awareness to try to explain human uniqueness, as in the Scientific American article.
We have such a high view of science that we think it can answer questions that cannot possibly be answered using scientific tools. Philosophy, and, we should add, theology, are the only disciplines that have the tools to address these kinds of issues, which is why the difference between humans and animals was well-known to and understood by philosophers as ancient as Plato and Aristotle.
Philosophers and theologians do not pretend they can explain life, or awareness, or self-awareness. These things are mysteries. But, by resorting to the metaphysical, philosophers can see more deeply into the essential differences between different kinds of creatures. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out, scientists begin with explanations and end up with mysteries; philosophers begin with mysteries and end up with explanations.
We didn’t have to wait until an evolutionary biologist wrote an article for Scientific American to find out what the key differences are between humans and animals.
So even if science were able to answer questions like this, it would already have been beaten to the punch. To borrow a phrase from astronomer Robert Jastrow, even if a scientist could scale this particular mountain of ignorance, and had conquered its highest peak, he would pull himself over the final rock and be greeted by a band of philosophers and theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.