What Does It Mean to Be Human?

woollymammoth2As an Orthodox priest, I am always interested in the question, “what does it mean to be human?”  Science has a particular take on that question, which I find useful for understanding both humans and the universe. 

For example, scientists can with a high degree of accuracy determine the amount of each chemical element that is found the human body.   We learn from these studies that humans are largely composed of the four elements oxygen, carbon hydrogen, and nitrogen (by mass these 4 elements make up almost 97% of a human).   Oxygen by far composes the greatest mass in a human – slightly more than 61% of a human by mass is oxygen.  By contrast the air we breathe is 23% oxygen by mass.   Air is 75% nitrogen, while a human is only 2.6% nitrogen by mass.  A chemical analysis of humans will give us truth about what it means to be human, but it doesn’t give us the full truth for we know that a human is far more than simply chemicals.  The same is true of DNA – we now can describe the human genome and have a very accurate picture of what it means to be human in terms of DNA – or the ACGT bases which are the code defining the various characteristics of every living thing.  From the point of view of genetics it is precisely DNA which makes us human and is what distinguishes us from other animals.  This is all true and tell us something about what it is to be human, yet again, we would not agree that being human can be reduced to studying proteins, for we believe humans are more than simply protein alignments.  No matter how much chemistry and genetics can accurately and truthfully describe a human, we would say to limit our understanding of humanity to elements and proteins would not give a full and complete understanding of what it means to be human.

From my point of view science, biology, genetics or evolution are no threats to my understanding of what it means to be human.  They cannot prove or disprove any of the claims of the Bible, for the Bible is not science but rather offers an understanding of humanity that goes far beyond the reductionist definitions which chemistry or genetics offer about what a human is.  Indeed a merely scientific worldview can devalue humans, reducing them to chemicals, proteins and inert matter, and this can lead to denying that human embryos or fetuses are really human and to other errors in thought.   The understanding of what it means to be human, for Christians is shaped by faith in the revelation of God that humans are in His image and that we are animated material – animated by the Holy Spirit of God.   Humans can be described in terms of materialism, but such a description is neither complete or sufficient for understanding humans.

I write all of this really as an introduction to two thoughts and observations I want to make on comments offered by evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson in the NY TIMES:

  • 1) Judson in ALL HAIL THE APPLE MAGGOT! offers an explanation for why we can more readily observe the extinction of species than the evolution of new species. Basically her argument is that extinction is fairly observable – a last known animal of a species dies – and this has happened in our lifetimes. The emergence of a new species takes place over an extended period of time, and what we can observe is the process but the real emergence of a new species will take much longer than any generation of humans will be on earth. She offers the apple maggot fly as an example of an emerging species. This fly is still part of the hawthorn fly species but according to Judson began in the mid 19th Century to evolve into a separate species with the introduction of apples to North America. You can read her explanation of why she believes the apple maggot fly is a species in formation. The limit to her argument is that while the divergence of the hawthorn fly into an apple fly is in process, speciation still hasn’t occurred. And though given enough time and the right conditions, one can imagine the apple fly evolving into a separate species, it cannot yet be scientifically proven – we will always be able to observe that speciation of the apple fly has not occurred but there will be no time limit in which we would be able to declare that it will not occur. So speciation possibly could occur at some time in the infinite and indefinite future, but there is no point at which it can definitely be declared that it cannot or will not happen. So it is a hypothesis which cannot be disproven, which is very similar to claims of logical fallacy that some atheists make against arguments for the existence of God.
  • 2) In RESURRECTION SCIENCE Judson describes the excitement created in mapping the genome of the Woolly Mammoth from genetic material extracted from frozen bits of mammoths which died 10,000 years ago. What stood out for me in her article is the description of how fraught with failure is the science of cloning. It turns out that it is not as easy as science to create life. Even cloning life turns out to need a tremendous amount of human intelligent design to make it happen. There are implications for why it is reasonable to believe that it would have needed the intentional meddling of a Creator to cause life to exist in the first place. And while Judson can imaginatively be excited about a resurrection of the woolly mammoth, she acknowledges it would take a whole lot more knowledge than we currently have to pull it off. And even at that science would not be thinking about the resurrection as we Christians understand it – bringing a deceased being back to life, but only of reviving the genetic line of an extinct species. That would be a scientific miracle of sorts, but will do little to help us understand what it means to be human.

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