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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Fall 2006
Vol. 33 No. 3

Challenging the Myth of Human Superiority

Lynn A. Brant

I want to challenge the widely-accepted myth found throughout our culture that implies that humankind is very special and that we are somehow created greatly superior to all other life forms.   This myth has seeped deeply into our souls.  If we define religion in terms of our ultimate view of reality then the myth I am talking about takes on a deeply religious aspect.  There are several lines of evidence that suggests this myth needs to be examined.

Myths are stories that help guide our lives from within and in many cases reflect the wisdom of generations of humans who have gone before us.  Some myths inform us about such mundane things as economics and politics.  Some, such as romantic fairy tales, inform relations between lovers.  Some myths serve more as entertainment and community cohesion through shared ceremony and beliefs.  Many myths, if not outright beneficial, are neutral in their overall effect.  However, some myths have outlived their usefulness or have been destructive from their beginning.  But one thing all myths share is that they are rarely questioned.

In Judeo-Christian thought, humans are made in the image of God.  In thinking this way, we elevate ourselves to a special level in the cosmos.  We think we are indeed superior.  Humans hold this myth partly because no other group of organisms can share their perspective and argue against our arrogance.

In the United States of a half-century ago, some white, heterosexual men knew they were superior to women, blacks, and gays.  To preserve that myth, women, blacks, and gays weren't allowed to disagree.  Hearing no disagreement - or any that they recognized - the myth remained intact until challenged by the civil-rights, woman's liberation, and gay-rights movements.

These myths have played and continue to play destructive roles in society, but what gives these myths life and influence, I would claim, is not some cosmic evil, but the thinking that comes from within isolated groups.  The evil coming from destructive myths is the result of the myth, not the other way around.  Any group will generate stories that tell something about themselves and their relationship to other people.  The group may consist of men, women, accountants, farmers, truck drivers, college professors, or members of particular religious or ethnic groups.  As long as the group fails to take into account the thinking of others, myths of various kinds will spring up.  The myths may or may not be harmless.  I have no doubt that members of the Klu Klux Klan truly believe in their racial superiority.  The ideas, the myths, upon which the KKK act did not arise from the entire community of U.S. citizens, but from some whites culturally and socially isolated through ignorance and economic situation.  I use this example of how myths take on a life and how they parallel the one I want to challenge.

That the idea of human superiority runs deeply in our culture can be demonstrated several ways.  Elizabeth Dodson Gray criticizes hierarchical thinking in her book1 by use of a diagram similar to Figure    1.  It's a triangle sitting on one of its sides labeled "nature" and the upward thrust point is labeled "God".  Inside the triangle there are the words, starting at the top, "men" "women" "children" "animals" and "plants."  When I use this in class, I add "dirt" to the bottom.  After all, how much lower can one get than dirt?  Many of my students don't like the hierarchical arrangement of "men, women, and children", but when these words are replaced by "humans" they think the diagram reflects reality.  I suspect many Humanists would accept this symbol if the word God is also removed.  Most people see no problem with this symbol if modified in these particular ways.  Humans are clearly superior to other animals, plants, dirt, and nature - that is, humans are inherently worth more than all other life forms and natural entities.  The argument is that we are made in God's image and we have a spirit; something other animals don't have.  We hear no dissent!  Cats and dogs and diatoms and toadstools are all silent. 

For the more scientific-minded, we know that biological evolution is how life developed on this planet.  Figure 2 shows the general course of evolution through time as presented in many older science textbooks.  We know that "higher" life evolved from simpler organisms as shown.  And humans, being the most complex and "highest" form of life, are placed at the top, just as in Elizabeth Dodson Gray's diagram.  Do we hear any dissent?  I hear nothing from the whales, monkeys, pine trees, or jellyfish.

We assume that humans represent the apex of some four billion years of organic evolution on this planet, then we are obviously the goal of the very process of evolution.  We are a self-aware species that looks out over the rest of the universe and is conscious of it like no other species that ever lived.  We clothe ourselves and we build fire.  We have great cities and civilizations.  We have language, books, artists, philosophers, and scientists.  There is not a problem we can't solve [except war, poverty, racial hate, and general ignorance].  We are pretty great!  No other species comes close.  We hear no dissent from camels or snails or grasshoppers.

We kill off whole species, chop down rain forests, and destroy ecosystems.  But that is all right because we are meant to do that.  If we need any excuse, beside our own convenience, we can turn to the Bible and read that we "have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."  Humans are special.  Humans are so special that some would not even want to interfere with the development of an unborn human embryo anyplace on the planet.  Some are told that even birth control measures constitute a sin.  We are that special!!

We could make a rather long list of human characteristics that seem to argue for why we are superior to other life forms, as well as nature as a whole.  But the list shares the weaknesses of IQ tests.  Who is making up the test and what do they want to prove?  The list is biased in favor of the list maker. It is easy to demonstrate our differences from other creatures, but not our superiority.  And even some of the items once on such lists are now shown to be false.  Self-awareness and language, for instance, have been touted as uniquely human characteristics for a long time.  But serious study of other primates has shown that they also share these attributes.  Their brains can manipulate symbols and communicate in pretty advanced ways.  They do lack the vocal apparatus to talk like us.  But does that make them inferior?  A child born without normal vocal apparatus is not regarded as sub-human.  Why should some primates?  The making and using of tools is another characteristic that has been shown to not be uniquely human.  Then there are those characteristics that have always been left off such lists because we are definitely inferior in those areas:  eyesight - eagles can see better that we can; the sense of smell - dogs are more sensitive than we are; and the ability to sense under-water electrical currents - we can't do that but fish can; and we cannot do photosynthesis, but broccoli and diatoms can.  The trouble is, the lists we use are self-selected.  It is like a KKK member demonstrating white superiority by citing white skin.  White skin can be used to show differences, but not superiority.  Just as having white skin is of no special significance, language and culture and college professors may not be anything special when it comes to some universal, cosmic evaluation of our species' worth.

I'm not saying that humans are the same as other species.  Certainly, we are very special to ourselves.  I am glad to be a human.  I want to make a distinction between how we find each other meaningful, worthy, and of value and how the great cosmos may find us.  We must act in the first sense of value toward each other (that each of us is special) and in the second sense of value (that we are just another species) toward the rest of creation.  It is in this distinction that there needs to be a lot of work done by the philosophers.

Our great need to be recognized as special and made in the image of God has created an associated myth.  Although believers in the unerring word of God, which they interpret in a particular way, deny biological evolution because it denies the specialness of humans, we also find many who accept the scientific explanation but hold onto the specialness by adhering to the myth that evolution works in the direction of human beings.

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