Humanzees and Christianity

(Jay Nelsestuen) #1

Hi friends, long time no see. Here’s a fun one for you:

In any event, the nonsensical insistence that human beings are uniquely created in God’s image and endowed with a soul, whereas other living things are mere brutes has not only permitted but encouraged an attitude toward the natural world in general and other animals in particular that has been at best indifferent and more often, downright antagonistic, jingoistic, and in many cases, intolerably cruel. It is only because of this self-serving myth that some people have been able to justify keeping other animals in such hideous conditions as factory farms in which they are literally unable to turn around, not to mention prevented from experiencing anything approaching a fulfilling life. It is only because of this self-serving myth that some people accord the embryos of Homo sapiens a special place as persons-in-waiting, magically endowed with a notable humanity that entitles them to special legal and moral consideration unavailable to our nonhuman kin. It is only because of this self-serving myth that many people have been able to deny the screamingly evident evolutionary connectedness between themselves and other life forms.

The battle between science and religion rears its ugly head in this monstrous article by David Barash, professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington. In the midst of his arguing for the creation of a human-chimp hybrid, to prove once and for all humanity’s interconnectedness with the animal kingdom, he pauses to bash traditional Christian doctrines surrounding the soul and the imago Dei, virtue signalling at the environmentalists against factory farms too. When an atheistic worldview is paired with the idea that humans and apes shared an ancestor, the result is something that at times is absolutely repulsive. Barash seems hell-bent on confirming himself and his colleagues in their atheism, to the point of madness.

But enough from me. What do you make of this? I know that this can quickly get political (as well it should), but try to stay away from that, would you please? :slight_smile:

(Stephen Matheson) #2

What an excellent invitation to discussion!

(Jay Nelsestuen) #3

Nice to see you, too.

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #4

This is the most troubling part, for me.

But what about those presumably unfortunate individuals thereby produced? Neither fish nor fowl, wouldn’t they find themselves intolerably unspecified and inchoate, doomed to a living hell of biological and social indeterminacy? This is possible, but it is at least arguable that the ultimate benefit of teaching human beings their true nature would be worth the sacrifice paid by a few unfortunates.

He understands how ethically problematic this is, but holds certain countervailing considerations as higher in priority. Namely, it seems what outweighs these considerations of empathy for the hybrid’s social life for him is that he would finally be able to stick it to Christians.

Looking favorably on the prospect of a humanzee or chimphuman will likely be not only controversial, but to many people, downright immoral. But I propose that generating humanzees or chimphumans would be not only ethical, but profoundly so, even if there were no prospects of enhancing human welfare. How could even the most determinedly homo-centric, animal-denigrating religious fundamentalist maintain that God created us in his image and that we and we alone harbor a spark of the divine, distinct from all other life forms, once confronted with living beings that are indisputably intermediate between human and non-human?

But, all things considered, I mostly just lament that these are moments of my life that I’ll never get back, having read and commented on this article. In the words of the immortal Taylor Swift, “Haters gonna hate.” :slight_smile: I’d rather use the few precious moments God gives me to love those around me, including the non-acrimonious atheists who grace this Forum every day.

(Stephen Matheson) #5

This is just one of the aspects of the strange piece that would have been interesting to discuss, since it’s a basic moral question that all humans face (whether or not they acknowledge it): weighing the value of individuals against the common good. In this case, the “common good” is the public demolition of the existence of a “discontinuously unique biological status” for human beings. Barash seems convinced that the price paid by the individual hybrids would justify the benefit of “proving” to people that they are biologically continuous with non-human animals.

Barash’s goal of undermining the “nonsensical” notion of an imago dei is something that both Christians and secular humanists (like me) should want to vigorously explore. Humanism, by definition, privileges humans, especially individual humans, in ways that are very similar to concepts of imago dei. (I sometimes wonder whether humanists should give more credit to Christianity for helping to build humanism.) So, while I very much agree with Barash that the dismantling of Christian belief would, over time and overall, make the world much better, I disagree that the erasing of a persistent belief in human biological exceptionalism would accomplish anything good. And I’m not even addressing whether the humanzee would accomplish that erasure, psychologically. (I very much doubt that it would.)

Instead, our thread began with a Christian using Barash’s words, which forcefully attack a set of ideas, to attack other people ("…hell-bent on confirming himself and his colleagues in their atheism, to the point of madness."). Just one irony in that response is this: Barash is discussing the erasure of boundaries, and this Christian responded by erecting one that isn’t even the topic of the piece (atheism vs. Christianity). Did you notice that?

Both humanism and Christianity have something at stake in the discussion of human uniqueness. Secular humanism rejects imago dei as nonsense, because it is, but must also tackle the implications of removing the boundaries between humans and other animals. I don’t think a humanzee experiment is the right way forward, but just about anything is better than the fulminations that started the thread.


I am an atheist, and I am vehemently opposed to what Barash is proposing. It has nothing to do with an “atheistic” viewpoint. Many atheists follow secular humanism, and this idea runs counter to everything that secular humanism stands for.

We already have mountains and mountains of genetic, morphological, and fossil evidence for evolution. No more is really needed to make the case.

(Jay Nelsestuen) #7

For what reason?

(Jay Nelsestuen) #8

Pardon me, but did you read it? The point of creating a human-chimp hybrid is to destroy the notion that human beings are created in God’s image, a central tenet of Christian (and Jewish) belief, and confirm once and for all the common ancestry of humans and chimps. He states that explicitly, as I and @AMWolfe quoted. If that’s not “atheism vs. Christianity,” I don’t know what is.

What an excellent invitation to discussion!

(RiderOnTheClouds) #9

I’m assuming he’s referring to the condition of the creature itself.


There is a very real chance that the offspring would be diseased, either physically or mentally. If we follow the Hippocratic oath the very first command we are given is “do no harm”, and this will more than likely cause harm.


Common ancestry between humans and chimps has already been proven beyond any reasonable doubt, so this experiment is completely unnecessary, ethical problems aside.

(Jay Nelsestuen) #12

Why follow Hippocrates?


I was just showing that trying to do no harm when dealing with medicine and scientific research in general has been a long standing foundation of ethics that even atheists like myself adhere to.

(Jay Nelsestuen) #14

I don’t doubt that. I’m merely wondering what reason you would give, given your worldview, for adhering to the Hippocratic oath. Tradition is a powerful reason, though not an ultimate one. What is the (or your) ultimate reason for rejecting the creation of a humanzee, from your perspective?

You say it would be useless, since common ancestry has been proven beyond reasonable doubt. This is a utilitarian reason–and yet Barash thinks it would indeed have a use, namely, to disprove Christianity. Do you think it would not be useful to that cause?


Because it puts forth an ethical view that is worth following. Of course, some of the original oath was a bit particular to Greek culture, but the essence of the oath appeals to my inner moral compass. It’s a rather long oath, so I won’t quote all of it here, but if you are interested in the classical and modern versions of the Hippocratic oath you should check it out here.

It wouldn’t be useful for that cause since evolution and common ancestry do not disprove Christianity. I don’t even see disproving Christianity as a useful pursuit at the level of human society and culture.

(Jay Nelsestuen) #16

At the risk of being pedantic, why?

Where did this moral compass come from? (I am honestly not terribly well-read on atheistic opinions on morality apart from some passing references.)

Well, that’s good, I guess. :slight_smile:

(Stephen Matheson) #17

Yep, I read it, and even understood it.

Human common ancestry with other animals is already known, and that’s one reason why I disagree with Barash that a humanzee would destroy the “god’s image” myth. That trope–to the extent that it entails biological “specialness” for Homo sapiens–hasn’t had scientific credibility for decades, but it survives. I don’t see how a humanzee would really be the nail in its coffin.

To characterize this as “atheism vs. Christianity” is to imply that undermining imago dei would undermine Christianity. If that’s your position, great, but I happen to know you don’t speak for Christian thought and belief. To make only the most obvious point here: imago dei never required the kind of biological uniqueness that the humanzee would wreck. Barash may loathe Christianity (I do too) but his piece is clear about what the humanzee ought to undermine, and it’s not Christianity itself.

But all your bluster seems to be precluding an interesting and actually relevant question: do you think that the fact of human animal ancestry undermines the imago dei? If you are not granting the premise of human animal ancestry, then my question would be: do you think that a demonstration of human animal ancestry would undermine the imago dei?

(Jay Nelsestuen) #18

I’m not certain. In the traditional sense of the imago Dei as human specialness or separateness from the rest of the created order, it most certainly does. But there are other opinions on what the imago Dei is that it would not. So I don’t know.


Because the oath puts forth commands that are moral.

I can’t speak for all atheists, but most atheists I am familiar with tend to see human empathy and reason as the source of morality. We can sense pain or joy in others, and can figure out how our actions will affect others. Moral obligation comes from the knowledge of how you experience pain, joy, injustice, fairness and how you can produce those same feelings in others.

(Stephen Matheson) #20

Are you sure (“certain”) that the “traditional sense” precludes common ancestry with other animals? I worked as a Christian biologist and scholar for decades and the best argument I saw was that non-human animals didn’t get the “breath” of god. I always thought that this meant that there was something unique about humans re their relationship to the creator, but since the raw materials (dust) seemed the same (“let the land produce” in Genesis 1, “formed from the dust” in Genesis 2), I could see nothing in the creation accounts to inform or rule out common ancestry. Of course, those strange old stories are barely coherent if at all, and their composers couldn’t even have conceived of common ancestry. But only the “breath of God” could, it seems to me, support an assertion of strong biological discontinuity, and that seems a laughably tortured reading of the text to me. In short, I have never seen an argument that could support the claim that common ancestry “most certainly” undermines the imago dei.