In August 2005, the London Zoo was the first in the world to highlight a new exhibit: human beings. After an exhaustive contest, eight candidates (a chemist included) were selected to serve as pioneers for this trailblazing attraction. In cages, with keepers in tow, these eight men and women “monkeyed around.” Like the rest of their caged neighbors at the zoo, the humans had a variety of toys to keep them entertained — board games, music, paints, and balls.
“Warning: Humans in Their Natural Environment” read the sign at the entrance to the exhibit, where the captives could be seen on a rock ledge in a bear enclosure, clad only in bathing suits and pinned-on fig leaves.
Tom Mahoney, age 26, decided to be a participant. He said, “A lot of people think humans are above other animals. When they see humans as animals, here, it kind of reminds us that we’re not that special:”
Twenty-first century science believes that the human being is just a sophisticated primate. According to this view, there is nothing wrong with behaving like an animal, because we are, after all, animals.
What is the truth? Are human beings mere animals with a better-evolved intellectual capacity? Or, as Judaism teaches, is the human being only part animal with a special soul, modeled in God’s image?
The most emphatic contemporary effort to obliterate the distinction between human beings and animals comes from Princeton Professor of Bioethics Peter Singer. Professor Singer, the inaugurator of the animal rights movement, is a champion of “animal liberation;’ which he equates with the liberation movements of blacks and women.
Professor Singer coined the pejorative term “speciesists;’ akin to “racists” and “sexists;’ to describe people who “give greater weight to the interests of members of their own species when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of other species.”
Is it a coincidence that Professor Singer, whose career started by championing the equality of animals with humans, has in later years become infamous for his enthusiastic support of infanticide and euthanasia? He has written, “Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all.” (Washington Times, Oct. 22, 1999)
Professor Singer cannot be dismissed as an eccentric intellectual. His book Practical Ethics is one of the most widely used texts in applied ethics, and he is the author of the major article on Ethics in the current edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Could Professor Singer be right? Is there no essential distinction between humans and animals?
And what difference does it make, anyway?
The ramifications are simple. In the animal world there is no moral accountability. A lion is not labeled a “criminal,” “murderer,” or “deviant” for killing.
Survival of the fittest is the rule of the day. Social Darwinism, a spin-off from Darwinism, resulted in the idea that the human being, a sophisticated ape, is also subject to natural selection and survival of the fittest.
Darwin himself foresaw the consequences of his theory. He wrote: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world.” (The Descent of Man, 1871)
Using this idea, Hitler was able to convince much of the civilized world that a certain people, the Jews, were savage and deplorable — worthy of annihilation. German racist theory viewed man as just another species of animal, to which the laws of “natural selection” applied in full. From a purely Darwinist viewpoint, the Germans were as justified as the organizers of the London Zoo’s “Human Being” exhibit. In theory, what could be wrong with a Darwinist, who didn’t like the color or style of your hair, weeding out your genes from the human gene pool?
THE SOUL OF THE MATTER
Is there a distinction between humans and animals, and if so, what is it?
Physiologically, we are more or less the same. Science recently revealed that chimpanzees have a 99.4 percent genetic similarity with humans. There are even those scientists who are seeking to propose that chimpanzees be classified as Homo sapiens.
Even our daily activities are more or less the same as those of most animals. Both humans and animals eat, sleep, socialize, play, mate, propagate, tend to their young, and live in social groups. Where do we differ from animals?
Professor Singer, in his attempts to prove that “the differences between us and the other animals are differences of degree rather than kind” summons — and dismisses — a list of supposed differences:
It used to be said that only humans used tools. Then it was observed that the Galapagos woodpecker used a cactus thorn to dig insects out of crevices in trees. Next it was suggested that even if other animals used tools, humans are the only tool-making animals. But Jane Goodall found that chimpanzees in the jungles of Tanzania chewed up leaves to make a sponge for sopping up water, and trimmed the leaves off branches to make tools for catching insects. The use of language was another boundary line — but chimpanzees and gorillas have learnt the sign language of the deaf and dumb, and there is evidence that whales and dolphins have a complex language of their own.
Perhaps Professor Singer is right. If the singular difference between animals and humans is based on the mere fact that we genetically surpass monkeys by 0.6%, then we are only different in degrees and not kind. How dare we then discriminate between animals and human beings?
In fact, in many ways, we are inferior to various animals. We could in no way compete with the swimming speed of the majority of fish. Our agility cannot compare to that of the monkey. And elephant can lift weights with its trunk that would cause the strongest human being to collapse. A dog’s olfactory sense is 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than ours. A blind bat, through its sonar ability, can maneuver its way through the most complex obstacle course.
Professor Singer notes, “That there is a huge gulf between humans and animals was unquestioned for most of the course of Western civilization.” Why? Because most people believed in the biblical account of God creating man “in His own image,” as the Bible states that God blew into Adam a soul — an immortal soul — and this soul formed the essential distinction between humans and animals.
The Bible recounts God’s plan for the creation of man and the divine mandate for humans to have dominion over animals (significantly, in the very same verse):
God said: “Let us make man… and they shall exercise dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and over the beasts of the land and over all creeping things that creep upon the earth.”
The science of cybernetics has discovered many similarities between computers and the human brain. Computer technology allows one to program a memory transfer, taking all the information contained in one computer and transferring it to another. Imagine that electromagnetic brain transfers were also possible. Information from the brain of one human being would be electromagnetically transferred to another person’s brain.
Imagine that all your “information” — your memories, knowledge, etc. — were transferred to another person. Would that person now be you? And, now devoid of your memories and knowledge, would you still be you?
Philosopher of science Sir Karl Raimund Popper wrote, “I intend to suggest that the brain is owned by the self.” That means that the real you is an entity separate from the brain.
The famous neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield stated that the mind is a basic element in itself, which cannot be accounted for by any neuronal mechanism.
Dr. Gerald Edelman is the preeminent director of the Neurosciences Institute and a Nobel Prize winner in immunology. Despite the fact that he set out to prove that the mind does not exist as an independent entity but is a product of Darwin’s selectional process, he capitulated recently and admitted, “It’s not totally reductive, meaning that it can’t be totally attributed to mere physical reality or evolution.”
It seems to be that what scientists refer to as the “mind,” Judaism would call the “soul.”
In other words, the real you is more than the biological, neuronal, and chemical systems allowing you to read this article. The real you must be something that transcends the physical. The human being’s superiority to animals seems to be only because of the divine soul.
That is the essence of a human being. We nourish our bodies with food, sleep and exercise. We nourish our brains with books and seminars. And we nourish our souls through doing acts of kindness, prayer and Torah study — which is the key to unlocking the science of the soul.
Excerpted from Search Judaism: Judaism’s Answers to a Changing World by Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer.