Did God Mess With Biology’s Roots?

Tito & HankI’ve said many times that the true, full effect religion has had on human society is not something any of us is really equipped to notice. It’s so … everywhere … that we have little to contrast with it in order to clearly see the damage.

Even science, which escaped the grasp of religion and went off to change the world in ways religion could never have managed, still — in my view, anyway — suffers aftereffects.  For instance:

Here’s a pretty good article about something humans and beasts have in common — thoughts and feelings.

Carl Safina Makes A Case for Anthropomorphism

The subtitle, in my view, is more correct, though:

The marine biologist’s latest book uses science to show that animals, like people, have complex inner lives.

I would argue that “anthropomorphism” is a mistaken word, a mistaken concept. It springs from an error injected into biology at its founding. The mistake — the belief in a separate creation for humans alongside the more general magicking into existence of the “birds and beasts” — was a religious one. Because Christianity was the paradigm of the day, Western biologists had no way to know it was a mistake, and automatically assumed humans were totally different from all other forms of life. Which would mean that attributing “human-like” characteristics to animals would be viewed as automatically wrong unless you could present masses of evidence for it. Which is what we’ve had to do for the couple of hundred years since.

On the other hand, if that starting slant was that humans evolved from common roots with all other life forms, a more workable initial view would be to assume similarity, and lots of it. Anyone asserting we had nothing in common with other forms of life, THEY would be the ones who’d have to present masses of evidence.

Our similar traits — feelings, a sense of self, grieving, so much more — aren’t “anthropomorphic.” They’re part of a non-anthro common heritage, handed down to humans from earlier sources. Specific traits possessed exclusively by humans would have to have evolved only very recently and are likely minuscule, something like the tiny capstone on a pyramid, compared to the massive block of similarity below. That similarity occurs in areas as diverse as body mechanics and function, biochemistry, neurology, behavior, and yes, thoughts and feelings. It took us hundreds of years to begin to really understand that, when it could have been a founding principle of biology.

On a side note, the question of “language” always comes up in these discussions, and though I can’t clearly point at religion as a root cause, I see it as the same sort of a mistake. The capacity for language might have originated with us, but communication didn’t.  Communication, the conveying of information from one animal to another, that’s something pretty much everything on two legs or four does. (And it’s not always aimed at, or received only by, members of one’s own species.) Bird calls and fox barks MEAN something; when they don’t wish to convey information to the world around them, animals are generally silent. Dogs convey messages all the time to their owners — in body posture, ear position, tail movement, and vocalizations — and it seems to me that most of it is deliberate. The question of intentionality is certainly worth examining in each case, but the basic truth of communication seems undeniable.

  • Explorer

    This is an excellent and thought-provoking post.

    Recognizing that one started with hidden assumptions is the first step towards seeing if those assumptions are even warranted.

    From “Why should we assume that animals have thoughts and feelings like humans?” to “Why should we assume that humans have fundamentally different emotional and cognitive process from all other animals?” is a brilliant retatement.

  • Wandering But Not Lost

    A tiny quibble–the statement that animals are silent when they don’t wish to communicate is misleading. Many animals (cats, for instance) have an extensive and elaborate non-vocal system of communication used with their own and other species. (When one of my cats lays his ears flat back against his head and swishes his tail around, I get the message loud and clear: “I’m angry! Leave me alone!”)

    • Cozmo the Magician

      I think that all the thousands of years that we have ‘domesticated’ cats we have been slowly breeding them to be just as self centered as humans. Anybody that has ever lived with a feline knows who REALLY runs the show.

  • George Montgomery

    I know that my female boxer communicates with me. If I’m sitting at my computer and she wants something, she bumps my arm with the top of her head. I look at her and ask her do you want ________, and she will react when I mention what it is that she wants.
    I’ve read that Descartes contributed to the problem by describing animals as “automata”. Maybe he did that so as to avoid conflict with the religious authorities of his day or maybe he genuinely believed it.
    Another issue is the common belief that humans are the apex of Evolution, the capstone to the pyramid of life.