What Makes Us Human? (2015)

Originally published online at Wondering Fair.


Are we any different from other animals? It’s a rather simple question with rather profound implications. You see, are we just a few notches more advanced than Mr Chimpanzee or is there something bigger than separates humankind from other animals?

baby sleeping

Well, according to recent evidence from the cognitive evolution lab at Harvard University, there is “mounting evidence … [that] a profound gap separates our intellect from the animal kind.”[1] The article lists 4 areas – with my attempted translations in brackets:

  • Generative computation (invention)
  • Promiscuous combination of ideas (imagination)
  • Mental symbols (use of imagery to communicate experience)
  • Abstract thought

This is very interesting and a great start to the question of differences. However, I think there are many other areas that could have been commented on. For example, our ability to reflect on life seems unique. I have yet to see a cat that is so dismayed by life that it throws itself off a balcony to finish its life or sits depressed on a bonfire waiting to be burnt.

To this we could add that our conscience seems unique. We feel guilty when we do wrong. An extra-marital affair may feel good at the time, but is followed by self-doubt and guilt afterwards – and even though our instinct would suggest this action was ok, we feel bad, whereas animals live by instinct. Consider that even a trained dog has often become so precisely because it was trained to disobey its instinct by bribing it with a stronger instinct (normally, food!). If you’ve ever tried to train a dog that doesn’t care much for food, you’ll know how hard motivating it is!

But there’s more. Have you noticed our care for aesthetics? We put flowers in jars around the home, write poetry, appreciate drama and music and sport. And yet I’ve not seen a dog try to compose a musical with its barking. No, our aesthetic ability seems to be uniquely human.

In fact, there is one big difference, that clearly divides humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. And it is that of worship. You do not see religious rabbits singing praises to their creator or holy horses bowing down to the sun each morning. No, the drive to worship is uniquely human.

The writer of Ecclesiastes puts it simply this way, “God has set eternity in the heart of man.” This gap, this longing, this desire for worship, this desire for the infinite, to reach beyond our world and touch the invisible, to understand the mysteries of life, this is at the core of what it means to be human. And this explains why the greatest satisfaction in being human can be found in worship – in meeting the divine who became human, Jesus Christ – where the infinite touched the finite and broke into our world that we might be able to reconnect with God and truly live. Being fully human is found in being fully reconciled with our Creator and living as we were always made to live, yes, expressing invention, imagination, imagery, abstract thought (as Hauser showed) and with reflection, moral consciousness, self-control, aesthetic appreciation but also expressing worship. It is worship that sets us apart. It is worshipping the true God and getting back in harmony with Him that will bring peace. May you discover the beauty of worship the risen Lord and become truly human.


[1] Marc Hauser, Director of cognitive evolution lab at Harvard University in his article at  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/origin-of-the-mind/