Lords over Creation 1
by An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To reflect on the similarities and differences between human beings and animals.
Preparation and materials
- This unit needs a fairly flexible approach and you could use a variety of readers at different points (e.g. the Bible reading, the two sides of the human/ape debate etc.).
- Visual aids could be used, for example a stuffed toy monkey!
- The New Scientist of 24 May 2003 claimed:
Reader: Morris Goodman of Wayne State University in Detroit has found that humans and chimps are genetically more similar than we thought. Both living chimp species (Pan troglodites) and the bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee (Pan panascus) share 99.4 per cent of certain functional DNA sequences with humans.
Wow! 99.4 per cent similarity! It's maths, so it must be true. But does that really make chimps 99 per cent human? What do you think?
Voice 1: Chimps are 99.4 per cent genetically identical to human beings.
Voice 2: But DNA is only made from 4 elements, so there is bound to be a 25 per cent similarity between all living things. We might be 40 per cent similar to dandelions – or 60 per cent similar to codfish – but are dandelions really 40 per cent human?
Voice 1: Chimps have been taught to use symbols. They can talk to us.
Voice 2: But have they got anything to say, apart from 'Tickle me now!' and 'Give me a banana'? Recent research has shown that chimps seem to have localized sounds, and that they can learn a similar sound as new neighbours . . . but is that speech?
Voice 1: Every bone in a chimp's body corresponds to a bone in a human body. They walk upright like us. Physically, we look incredibly close.
Voice 2: But chimp brains are 33.3 per cent of the size of human brains. They don't walk upright most of the time (their thighbone twists their knee outwards, whereas in humans it points forwards) and human feet can't grasp things like a chimp's. A chimp is covered in thick black hair. Their eyes, like dogs', lack whites . . .
Voice 1: Chimps seem to share a similar emotional landscape to humans. Different personalities are recognizable in a group. They can experience loss . . .
Voice 2: The same can be said of other animals – dogs, for example. Chimps can't tell jokes, can't laugh and can't ask questions. They can't communicate knowledge or get emotionally involved in soap operas . . . or fall in love (sex, for chimps, takes about ten seconds).
99.4 per cent sounds so 'mathematical', so 'scientific', but all scientific facts are open to debate and interpretation. Maybe, in the end, the 99.4 per cent figure doesn't change what human beings have known ever since they first encountered apes – these creatures are very similar to us, but also very different!
- So what does this mean about our place in the cosmos? For Christians, a fact like 99.4 per cent similarity can be accepted. It's true that human beings are one of a series of animals among many (although pretty different in all sorts of ways). But that's not the whole truth either – not what really helps understanding what it is to be human.
- For Christians, the difference is that the story of Jesus shows that God loves humanity and chooses to have a relationship with people. So how should people respond to the rest of the world? 'God loves us – so we can do what we like?' That's certainly the way human beings are behaving towards the rest of the natural world. In the wild, chimps, gorillas and orang-utans are being hunted and their habitats destroyed to the point where they might no longer be able to exist.
- Jesus probably never saw an ape. But let's conduct a thought experiment. What might he have made of this situation? The natural world didn't figure much in his recorded words, though once, speaking of God's love to humans, he said:
Reader: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
A throw-away remark, maybe . . . but perhaps God really does have a 'relationship' with sparrows. How would you decide what that was? Would you say they are 60 per cent as important – that's their genetic overlap with humans?! So is a sparrow as important as a codfish . . .? Are we 40 per cent better than codfish . . .? Well, the science doesn't really help here. We just have to accept that we don't know. Whatever the case, Jesus showed that God loved even the sparrows and other tiny creatures as well as humans. We are all part of God's interconnected universe. It seems unlikely that he would have approved of arrogant lordship of humans over other creatures.
What do you think?
Time for reflection
Mighty Lord of all Creation,
by whose power millions of species
of plant and animal exist,
help us to remember that we are loved by you,
and that you love all creation
as a parent loves his child.
Even though we are surrounded by vast mysteries,
help us show that love in our small lives.
'I wanna be like you' (from the soundtrack of The Jungle Book)