Religions across the world provide us with an astonishing array of customs, rituals, rites, ornaments, icons, vestments, symbols, sacred texts, relics, and even architecture, each belief system explaining in a unique way life's origin and faith in an afterlife. Yet all religions, with all this diversity, all share one important central theme across all deities (with rare but important exceptions for a few eastern beliefs): humans are special. With few deviations, religions declare that humans are separate from other animals, higher and better than other critters, unique in their relationship with the creator.
In the Judeo-Christian realm, early biblical passages give humans the unique special status of being made in god's image, unlike any other creature on earth, and clearly conveys upon humans dominance over all other living things. Humans are told to "subdue" the earth and "rule over" the air, land and sea.
These religious teachings not only condone but actively encourage humans to view the earth and its resources as separate from them, put here for their pleasure.
God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, over all the creatures that move along the ground."
So God created man in his own image, in the image of god he created him; male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."
These teachings are so pervasive, so fully embedded into western thought, that the premise is unquestioned even in much of the secular world. We see this in newspapers and popular press each time scientists publish another example of how animals are more like humans "than we thought." The media and their readers and viewers, react with awe and surprise when we learn that "young apes show empathy and comfort each other" much like human children; and that elephants have the human-like ability to understand the meaning behind pointing.
Listen to Your Gut
The religious idea of human uniqueness pervades deeply, but biology teaches a different lesson. Human beings are no more special than a butterfly, a gazelle or a paramecium. Our species is nothing but a normal consequence of natural selection, and certainly not the pinnacle of evolution. We are nothing special. God is just not that into us. First we must understand we are not even as human as we thought. The vast majority of our cells are not human at all, but instead, are comprised of microorganisms located in our eyes, mouth, nose, ears, skin and gut, representing about 1000 different species and as many as 8000 subspecies. Bacterial life dominates not only the earth's biosphere, but the ecosystem of our own bodies. Microorganisms outnumber our human cells by ten to one. Your intestine alone is home to one hundred trillion microbes. Most of the genetic information found in our bodies is non-human. The organisms that we host are not invaders or parasites, but an integral part of our internal ecosystem, helping us digest food, produce vitamins and fight against disease. They are us and we are them, and it is mostly them.
But OK, let's just look at the part of us that is truly human. Even that offers little solace. The genetic material found in chimps differs from human DNA by only 1.23%. A more familiar figure you may have encountered is 3% or 4%; the difference just reflects the method of comparison. In any case, we are 97-98 percent ape. But even these small differences of a few percent exaggerate the disparity between the two genomes. Most genes that differ between chimps and humans are considered "neutral" in that they code for proteins that do not confer any obvious difference between the two species. That leaves even fewer genes available that can be responsible for us writing this book, and the chimp not. From the perspective of composition, therefore, we are more bacterial than human and not much different from chimps genetically.
Bach and Buildings
Bolstered by religious conviction, we humans have always thought of ourselves as special, proudly noting our compassion, humor, altruism and impressive capacity to generate language, mathematics, tools, art, and music. In citing this self-serving list, filtered to our benefit, we assume that humans possess, and other animals lack, these honorable traits or capabilities. We ignore the inconvenient fact that we choose to define and measure intelligence in terms of our greatest strengths. We arbitrarily exclude from the definition of intelligence higher brain functions in other animals. We would be low on the list of smart animals if we included in our basic definition of intelligence the ability to use self-generated sonar to explore the environment and to communicate, as dolphins do so well.
We are using a bizarre circular logic here, working backward from a desired result. We look at all of our capabilities as humans, and then declare that those very sets of capabilities are what make us better than other animals, if not the image of god himself. That approach to defining ourselves as superior is a bit outrageous. In defining superiority we are just arbitrarily choosing characteristics that we know will put us on top. But even when we give ourselves a big handicap by creating self-serving definitions that we know beforehand will prove advantageous, the categories of "uniquely human" talents are shrinking rapidly as we learn more about other animals and their adaptive behaviors.
Almost every trait once thought to be unique to humans has been found, at least in some degree, in other animals. This is true for even for intelligence, at least once we stop defining smarts in a way that pre-determines that humans come out on top. It is rather arbitrary to declare the ability to solve a differential equation a higher level of intelligence than a matriarch elephant's capacity to lead her charges to a water hole she remembered from 20 years earlier in the last drought. But let's say you remain unconvinced, so let's leave intelligence behind for the moment. We know (see Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World) that other animals are self-conscious and self-aware. We know that other animals show real empathy; tool manufacturing and use; the use of language, perhaps even with syntax; culture; math; music; laughter; farming; and complex social organization involving millions of individuals. God is partial to bacteria, which have been around for 4 billion years, but he is just not that into us: we are nothing but yet another evolutionary experiment with too little time on earth to know if having a big brain is adaptive to long-term survival.
Wait, wait, wait you say. No other animals have built cities, gone to the moon, created symphonies, erected cathedrals or carved La Pieta. So true. Yet all of these amazing accomplishments are all the consequence of just a single evolutionary trait -- a big brain. But that big brain has also enabled us to create weapons of mass destruction and given us the technology to create pollution on a global scale. It has also given us religion. So if our big brain in fact leads to our extinction, would having a big brain be such an advantage? Since we don't know the answer yet, it is the height of arrogance to assume that our evolutionary distinction (big heads) is any better or more unique or closer to some god than the amazing evolutionary pinnacles we find in other animals: a cheetah's ability to run 70 mph or a whale's adaptation to dive to 6000 feet or the amazing cooperation in a colony of bees. Our large brains do not confer upon us any special status among our living cousins, and it is the height of folly to claim that evolution was driven toward humans as the pinnacle of achievement. One could claim with equal validity that evolution advances toward a pinnacle of speed, or that bacteria are the perfect creation because only they can occupy extreme conditions of temperature, salinity, pressure and acidity. The evolution of large brains confers no exalted status on the human race; large brains are just another consequence of evolution. We only think we are special because we define being special as having those traits we have; that circular logic is not too intelligent.
Being Smart Might Be Dumb
This discussion is not put forward simply to argue how many angels fit on the head of a pin or to debate theology. Religion's grip on humanity's skewed perception of itself has real consequences. Biblical bias about our place in earth's history is one reason why the religious right resists the idea of anthropogenic climate change; we could not alter something god put here for our benefit. But that is just one example of something much more dangerous that has infected our society: facts have lost their status and meaning. With no common acknowledgment of an objective truth, we have lost the essential common ground essential for dialogue. The government shutdown and threat of default is just the latest example.
We have entered an age in which science offers the public nothing but another opinion, no more valid than the views expressed by any random radio host with a microphone and transmitter. Forget that virtually every economist in the world concluded that a default on U.S. debt would be globally catastrophic: I don't believe it, therefore it is not true. In this brave new economics is just another branch of faith; and the world climate change becomes just another liberal agenda item on par with discussions about gun laws.
Honest people with good intentions can legitimately disagree about the role of government and how to fund the public sector. We can argue whether drilling for oil in the Arctic is good policy. But there is no room for opinion when discussing facts. Facts and opinions differ fundamentally. The late Stephen J. Gould said eloquently that in the world of science, "fact" means "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent."
Yes, of course "facts" change with advances in scientific knowledge; that is the very essence of scientific inquiry. But that does not mean that facts as currently established can be willfully disregarded as simply another opinion. Facts carry more weight than opinion; to modify or overturn something previously accepted as fact requires deep proof with convincing evidence that is widely accepted by the majority of experts in that field. Opinions can vary with every individual; facts are a broadly accepted body of evidence. Everybody can have a different opinion; not everybody can have a different fact. The two are fundamentally different.
Atoms are the building block of nature. That is a fact, not an opinion. Atoms are not a liberal agenda item. You can't see, hear or feel an atom, but we accept their existence - because scientists have proven that atoms exist beyond any doubt even if using methods that we do not really understand. The average person cannot know from casual observation if the earth orbits the sun or the sun orbits the earth; but we accept as absolutely true that the sun is the center of our solar system. A heliocentric world view is not a liberal plot. Bacteria and viruses cause disease. DNA is life's genetic code. We accept all of this and more without demanding proof because we accept that the conclusions are widely adopted in the scientific community. Certainly we are not capable of proving or disproving that DNA is our genetic code; but we accept that as fact. We don't wait for more evidence because we've never actually seen DNA.
And now we circle back to religion, which contributes to the blurring of this clear distinction between fact and opinion. In the case of religion, faith is alone sufficient to substantiate a claim: "I believe in god therefore god exists." I need no proof, no evidence, no established fact to support my conclusion: I simply need to believe. Bringing this perspective to opinions outside the realm of religion is a tiny step. As with faith, my opinion becomes fact simply because I believe it to be true. In this worldview, the distinction between fact and opinion becomes meaningless. But just as with opinion, every person can have different faith, but not every person can have different facts. An atom is the building block of nature whether you believe that true or not. Your opinion does not matter here. Your faith does not matter here - because a fact is not equivalent to opinion or faith. Facts do not change on the whim of every individual.
This confounding of fact and opinion has had real and sometimes tragic consequences. The odd "birther" movement can only exist on the fuel of confusion between opinion and fact. President Obama's birth in the United States is a fact when "fact" means "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent." And so too is climate change. Thousands of climatologists from 166 countries agree without reservation that our climate is changing and that humankind is contributing to that change by emitting greenhouse gases.
Skepticism about climate change comes with a particularly rich irony. Many doubters cite the earth's past cycles of glaciation and warming to discount what we are seeing today as nothing but natural variation. How do the skeptics know of that climate history? From the very scientists whose conclusions they now doubt! As if the scientists themselves are unaware of their own conclusions about the earth's past, or if they are aware, did not take that history into account. Doubters preferentially believe one set of facts from those scientists but dismiss other facts as liberal nonsense. Doubters can do this because they confuse opinion and fact.
Really, on what basis do doubters base their views? Have they evaluated the evidence and decided based on their expertise that thousands of scientists are wrong? No, they listen to radio or talk show hosts with no background in climatology and simply adopt the opinion that climate change is a hoax. What if the same show host claimed atoms were a hoax? Would doubters be any more or less qualified to accept that opinion as fact? The opinion that climate change is a hoax does not carry the same weight as the fact of climate change established by experts around the world. Expert conclusions about our changing climate are not different than the results about subatomic particles that we see coming from the world's particle accelerators. Where are the doubters that stand up and say, "No, neutrinos really do not have mass - that is nothing but liberal propaganda." Why not? Doubters have no more expertise in particle physics than they do in climatology, so why doubt one conclusion from expert but reject the next? Because doubters confuse opinion and fact. And that is because religion has permeated the secular world with the dangerous idea that unsubstantiated belief and faith equate to reality. The idea that "I believe therefore it is real" is what might cause our ultimate demise, which might demonstrate that having a big brain is not so smart after all.