Pharyngula

Anthropocentrism: All of God’s Special Little Snowflakes
by Amy Peters

My four-year-old has a book of science activities.  One rainy day not so long ago, my husband and son decided to pull out the book and complete a biology activity on classifying living things.  The objective was to cut out pictures of animals in old magazines and decide how they should be grouped together.  Should they be grouped by the number legs they have?  By whether or not they are plant-eaters or meat-eaters?  Sea or land animals? Daytime or nighttime creatures?

Let’s be honest here.  My boy is only four.  Even with my husband’s help, the project basically turned into playtime with magazine clippings, safety scissors and glue sticks.  By the time they showed off their final product, the animal photos glued on their poster weren’t even close to being classified in the right groups.  Mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles had all been mixed together on his poster board in a beautiful, biologically diverse, gluey mess.  For some reason, amphibians and those spineless invertebrates didn’t make the poster. Maybe we don’t subscribe to the right magazines.

To my rapturous joy, near the top of the poster was a picture of a sleeping Homo sapiens.  That’s right.  My husband had thought to include a picture of a human baby.  It was glued squarely between an ocelot and a rhinoceros (at least they got them in the same phylum and class, right?).  Still, I thought it was quite clever of my husband to use such a simple exercise to demonstrate the characteristics we share with the animals on this planet and, in doing so, show that we are animals too.

Parents expect their children to have short memories, and are thus caught off guard when something we think was overlooked or forgotten ends up being significant.  Several days later, I was pretty sure my son had moved on from the kingdom Animalia to more exciting things like trucks and candy. Out of the blue one day he asked me, “Mommy, are we animals?”  My mind immediately went back to the science activity he’d completed the week before.  “Yes, we are animals,” was my response.

“But, Mommy, we seem… different.”

There it was.  An uncomplicated observation from a very brainy boy.  There was no disputing it. He was right.  We are… different.  So how to help him understand our place in the animal kingdom?  I was taken back to my own childhood where I was raised in a very anthropocentric mindset.  Not only was I taught that human beings were the most significant and special of all god’s creatures, my parents took it even further than that. I was taught that I was god’s special girl, that god knew me before I was even born, and that god knew the number of hairs on my head at all times. Why this hair-counting, voyeuristic god didn’t completely creep me out at the time, I have no idea.  Maybe I wanted very much to hear how special I was and maybe the god myth filled that need.

Yes, humans are different, but are we supreme?  And if we are supreme, was it a god or gods that made us that way? The Bible would lead us to believe so.  Why, it is completely integral to the Genesis story.

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ Holy Bible, NRSV, Catholic Edition

What does science tell us?  Well, for starters science in no way confirms the Genesis account.  Science tells us that we are very tiny life forms in a very, very big universe.  Compare your mass to the mass of the planet.  Then, compare our planet to our entire galaxy.  Then think about our galaxy in terms of the entire observable universe.  It blows the mind.  We are so tiny compared to all of that, how can one ever begin to feel special or significant?  We are not only tiny in size, but in time as well.  The age of the universe is reckoned at approximately 13.7 billion years. The Earth itself is dated at 4.5 billion years old.  Out of that 4.5 billion years, anatomically modern humans only originated in Africa around 200,000 years ago.  This means that for the majority of the life of the universe and, indeed, our planet humans have not been around. How then can we be supreme, the most significant entities in the universe, as Christianity would have us believe?

The answer is that we are not supreme.  We are, collectively, a blip on the radar.  The earth will still be here long after we are gone.

How are we to go about the 80 or so years we have on this planet knowing how tiny and inconsequential we are?  The answer is that we are not insignificant.  We are living things!  You, reader, are the product of millions of years of gradual, inching evolution.  Every cell in your body is a triumph of nature.  You are incredible because you are here and you are alive.  It is not necessary to believe in a deity or that as humans we have something supernatural within us that separates us from other animals.  Our significance is our place in the natural world, and the fact that that place is only temporary.

My little boy is far too young to understand this, so my response was a visit to the new Africa exhibit at the zoo.  My overly-cautious little one looked on as I stood inches away from a chimpanzee, separated only by a pane of glass.  The chimpanzee put his hand up to the glass.  I held mine up to meet his.  His eyes met mine and we considered one another.  In absolute awe (and yes, a little choked up), I looked back at my tiny son as if to say, “See.  Not so different.”

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.” – – Richard Dawkins, Unweaving The Rainbow, 1998.