Are Humans Natural?: The Contradictory Ideas of How We Think About Our Species

Humanity is a strange thing. It cannot decide whether it is part of nature or apart from nature. Mankind’s identity crisis has emerged from the clashing of naturalist and theistic philosophies, with political, religious, and philosophical fallout on how we treat ourselves.

The Scope of Scientific Inquiry

No matter how good the science is, it cannot answer questions beyond its scope, such as moral or theological questions. Even more so, scientists are no better suited to answer non-scientific questions than anyone else. Perhaps the worst mistake is to stretch our egos so far as to believe that expertise in one field makes us an expert in a field in which no person has ever been an expert – the study of our humanity. Hence, while the methods of genome sequencing and the like are all credible sciences, the off-hand remarks of scientists are often fiction.

On the human question, some scientists (the naturalists) portray humans as merely evolved primates, just another twig among the great tree of evolution from the world’s first cellular life to the plethora of animal life today: mankind is but a product of nature.

On the other hand, another large group of scientists (the climatologists, ecologists, etc.) depict mankind as an aberration from nature, a defect that contaminates and destroys nature.

And while both portrayals may capture some truth about the role of humans in the world, they cannot both be right regarding their attitudes toward mankind. We cannot both be merely natural yet be unnatural. This brings to a crossroads: are humans natural or unnatural?

Merely Nature or Merely Alien?

The first assumption might be that humans are simply part of nature at large. After all, everything else we see, hear, touch, and smell is part of nature. Why not ourselves? We share much of our genetic code with the other animals. We contain very similar proportions of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and other atoms in our body. At the fetal level, humans looks very much like other creatures. Physically, we look very much like the rest of the natural world.

Despite our acknowledgment of sharing many traits with other animals, by our own admission we don’t really believe humans are natural. We distinguish between what is “man-made” and what is “natural”, but no other creature is treated this way. The beehive is just as natural as is the bee; the nest just as natural as the bird; but concrete buildings? Concrete has no secret “unnatural” ingredients; it is largely water, rock, sand, and lime. But concrete buildings, walls, and statues, stick out for some reason, possessing shapes and proportions found nowhere else in nature.

We might be tempted to say man-made things are unnatural because they are ordered, mathematical structures – natural products put into unnatural forms. But this criterion does not distinguish the man-made from the natural world at all. The honeycomb is exemplary, as the bee builds strange and superb hexagonal arrays from otherwise disordered natural resources. The geometric arrangement of leaves and flowers on many plants, too, speaks to the order which is common to nature. So, by this reasoning we cannot call what is man-made “unnatural” and at the same time call humans “natural”. If we are natural, we must be in accord with nature, since we are part of nature. Oil cannot be divided from oil, but easily so from water.

“For so work the honey-bees,

creatures that by a rule in nature

teach the act of order to a peopled kingdom.”

William Shakespeare

If we are unnatural, then we may (though not must) be in discord with nature. But being unnatural- and hence aliens to this existence – suggests that we might have different value than everything else in nature. Certainly, one would be hard pressed to say we are less than (or at best equal to) all other creatures. Few would trade another human’s life for the life of a dog. Therefore, we must be greater than the rest of nature, as Genesis tells us “in the image of God he created them”. But, then, the atheist-scientist won’t like that conclusion at all, unless we found this belief on some criterion, like intelligence.

And so, the conclusion is either to 1) admit man is merely part of nature and therefore in accord with broader nature, or 2) that man is distinct from, yet less than or equal to, all other nature. Neither exalts mankind, and both lead at best to indifference toward our own species, and at worst self-hatred, misanthropy.

Where is the out? Only in a third path, 3) that mankind is truly a reflection of the divine and stands apart and above all other earthly things. If we are unnatural, we are either the supernatural caretakers of Earth (the view of humanity as divine) or villainous parasites of Earth (the view of humanity as equal to or less than all other nature). The result of knocking the pedestal out from under man’s feet is nihilism.

How Humans are Different

Being humble is a difficult thing. When someone tries too hard to be humble, one seemingly becomes arrogant as a result, yet trying to be arrogant certainly does not make us humble in return. If we don’t think we are humble, we could be humble but unaware of our humility. Yet if we believe we are humble, very likely we are not! And, so with humanity at large, humility is a difficult thing. However, the human is certainly something special, and we need not feign humility when we are the only creatures that know what humility is. The human is different, superior to other creatures because of our reason and language. We are the most intelligent life we’ve ever found. We are the only creatures who look for meaning in life and who aren’t satisfied with just the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. We can dream of new creations before they exist.

“…reason more than anything else is man.”

Aristotle, Ethics

By these marks, humanity is set apart from nature. We are quite different, even from our nearest physical neighbors, the other primates. To believe that mankind is mentally and spiritually alien (though perhaps not physically) to the natural world is logical. When we find a puzzle piece that does not fit with all other pieces, we know it is foreign to the puzzle at hand. So, too, mankind is sojourning in this natural world with a very unnatural mind and spirit.

While some may explain away these things in naturalist terms, no one truly believes we are nothing more than advanced animals. Otherwise, there would be no reason to refrain from taking another human’s life if it meant only the slightest material gain. The other person’s life would hold no ultimate significance any more than a dog’s life, or the short life of an insect. Only the psychopath is a true believer in atheistic naturalism.

The Strangeness of the World

At times I think it must be impossible that there is a God of the universe. Isn’t God just a psychological tool for humans to delude themselves that life is worth pursuing? Is God just the motivational crutch that humanity leans on?

But then I look around at the world and at people. On the one hand, the world is too beautiful to be merely the result of trial and error. That tree is far too complex for even the most intelligent known species to engineer. The eye is unfathomably complicated and poses complications for anyone who supposes evolution is merely a random process. The Earth is alive in every corner, yet the odds of life so improbable on the cosmological scale.

And even if all the beauty and complexity of Earth is not enough to make one believe in a Creator, there are humans – so outstanding, so different against the backdrop of the universe. Everything we’ve created, from simple cave fires to glass skyscrapers screams of the unnatural – indeed, the supernatural. We have mastered electricity, built the Internet, and landed on the Moon; none of these things suggests we are natural, but rather something that touches nature but remains apart.

We are so strange; I cannot not believe in God. If there is ever anyone who seeks some sign of God’s existence, look to yourselves. You are strange, ever so strange against the earthly backdrop, and no creature like you existed before nor will again.

Published by Christian Poole

Catholic | Father | Husband | Founder of ThinkingWest .com

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