Science Ch.16 - Animals Have Souls in the Bible

Some animals can use tools, show emotions, and communicate with words, so are humans merely clever animals? The Bible and psychologists use different language but agree on the difference: humans are spiritual, while animals have only souls.


If you’ve ever had a dog or cat, there won’t be any doubt in your mind that animals have emotions and thoughts very similar to humans. They can be happy, sad, excited, cross, and even mournful when someone dies. They can also anticipate the future: they get excited when you put on your shoes and pick up their lead. And they have curiosity: even when a new object clearly can’t be eaten and is too small to urinate on, they will nonetheless investigate it. An abundance of YouTube videos show abashed-looking dogs trying to hide their misdeeds, which testifies that they can deliberately do something that they know is wrong and be concerned about it.

       Does this suggest that humans are really nothing more than clever animals? After all, it seems that the only obvious difference between us and other animals is the sophistication of our language. If animals could speak (an idea explored widely in fiction), would they be virtually identical to us?

       Surprisingly, the Bible seems to concur with this view, because it describes both humans and animals as having something very significant in common: a “soul.” The Bible uses the word “soul” frequently with regard to animals, so the traits listed above could be viewed as the qualities shared by all creatures that have a soul. On the other hand, the Bible also implies that humans are very different from animals because it says that humans are the only animals that have a “spirit.”

5-minute summary

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Soul and spirit

Outside the Bible, it isn’t common for a distinction to be made between the terms “soul” and “spirit,” but the Bible differentiates between them in a remarkably consistent way. The words for “soul” (Hebrew nephesh and Greek psuchÄ“) are always used only for animals and humans and never for God or angels. In contrast, the words for “spirit” (Hebrew ruach and Greek pneuma) are used only for humans, God, and angels. Actually, there is one exception, in Ecclesiastes 3:21 – the only one out of 1,655 occurrences of these words – where the word “spirit” is used of an animal. However, since this was probably quoting a well-known proverb of the time, it doesn’t really express the theology of the Bible.

       The Bible doesn’t define the difference between a soul and a spirit, though we can learn a lot from the way that it uses these words.1 In this chapter, we will try to discover what “soul” means, and in the next we will look more carefully at “spirit.” The Bible implies that we are similar to animals because we have a soul, but dissimilar because we also have a spirit. It seems that a soul is what distinguishes animals from plants and rocks, while a spirit is what distinguishes us from animals – it encapsulates the essence of humanity. This suggests that we can find out what a soul is by looking at features we share with animals.

Language and empathy

Social biologists have been struggling for decades with various theories about what makes us unique from animals. Most of these theories have been disproved one by one as they have made new discoveries about the actual lifestyles and amazing abilities of various animals.

       We now know, for instance, that several animals can use tools – chimps use a stick to reach food, and crows will even bend a wire to a shape that reaches into corners better. And although animals are mostly afraid of fire, they can overcome this – bonobo apes have even learned to light a match to warm a marshmallow (a treat they enjoy as much as we do). Social animals will help each other even if they aren’t related – a rat will let himself get wet to help a friend stay dry. Chimps have a strong sense of justice – they’ll even refuse a reward of food, seemingly on a matter of principle, if they see another chimp being given a better reward than theirs. And yet they’ll also steal food, although they are careful to do this only when the theft won’t be detected by a more powerful chimp. Unlike humans, no animals have verbal skills, though one bonobo ape has learned to understand the meaning of a few thousand different verbal words and can communicate by pointing to a vocabulary of five hundred symbols. Even in the wild, at least sixty-six distinct gestures so far have been identified as being used by chimps.2

       As we’ve seen, animals can display their own feelings, but they can also recognize emotions in others – chimps, for example, react differently to each other in circumstances that might indicate the other animal is angry or sad. To some extent, they can even identify each other’s emotions from facial expressions. We are familiar with recognizing when our pets are happy or sad, but animal psychologists have found that animals experience a wide range of other emotions, ranging from fear of anticipated events to mourning following bereavement.

       There are some things that animals can’t do. For instance, unlike even a young child, they can’t work out what another individual believes. Psychologists test this ability in children by using the Sally–Anne test.3 The child is shown a doll, Sally, who puts a marble in a box while another doll, Anne, is watching. Sally is then taken out of the room, and the doll Anne takes the marble from the box and puts it in a basket. When Sally is brought back into the room, the psychologist asks the child: “Where will Sally look for the marble?” From about the age of four, children know that Sally will look in the box because that’s where she believes the marble is. That is, the child can distinguish between what is true and what someone else believes is true.

       This suggests one ability in humans that may be related to the presence of a spirit – our ability to empathize. A well-trained artificial intelligence (AI) can work out what emotion someone is feeling from their expression, but humans can do this from much smaller cues and sometimes from none, except that they know what they would feel. This is as close as we get to telepathy, and it almost seems like we can read each other’s minds.

       Another thing no other animals can handle is the grammar of language. This is so natural to humans that we don’t realize we are doing it. But when someone tries to explain how English verbs conjugate (and what this means), we realize that this easy task is actually quite complex. Human brains are hardwired to learn how to string verbs, nouns, and adjectives together, and we quickly learn to construct complex sentences.

       My daughter said her first sentence just before her second birthday, when I asked her where the eraser on the end of her pencil had gone. Thinking about every word carefully, and evidently aware that she had to place them in the correct order, she pointed at the disc drive in the side of my laptop and said, “In the hole.” The repair was expensive, but I couldn’t be angry with her! Some chimps and apes can learn an impressive vocabulary, but they can’t do anything more complex than link words together in a random order.

Learning and teaching

Recent work with animals suggests that they also learn in a different way from humans. Like humans, many animals copy each other, both to learn useful activities such as using tools or by imitating the best courtship displays in order to win a better mate. And they also copy each other in doing seemingly nonuseful things. For instance, when some dolphins in captivity were taught to water-walk, after they were released into the wild other dolphins copied them doing this.4 But unlike humans, animals don’t appear to spend time specifically teaching each other – skills are merely passed on by being observed and copied.5

       One of the first jobs Adam had was teaching. First, he was asked to name all the animals (Gen 2:19) – perhaps a reference to language development – and later he had to teach Eve the important instructions that God had given him. She was created after God had told Adam: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen 2:17), so presumably it was his task to teach her about this vital aspect of life in the garden. When Eve had that fatal conversation with Satan in the form of a snake, she clearly knew about the command, but the version she quoted to him was subtly different: “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die” (Gen 3:3). The words in italics weren’t recorded as part of God’s message to Adam.

       Did Eve embellish it, or did Adam exaggerate? I suspect it was the latter because it sounds like something an adult says to a child: “Don’t turn the knobs on the stove – in fact, don’t even touch them!” The rabbis spotted a potential consequence of Adam’s exaggeration: they suggested that Satan deliberately “nudged” Eve against the tree, and when she didn’t die, it caused her to doubt what God had said. She had been taught that she’d die if she touched it, which had been proved false. This left her open to the suggestion that eating the fruit wouldn’t be harmful either. Clearly the art of teaching is also something that needs to be taught.6

       However, these abilities that humans alone have – teaching, language skills, or working out what others believe – are not the uniqueness of humans encapsulated in what the Bible calls the “spirit.” After all, AI systems can be programmed to teach, and although they are taught how to do this by humans, they are still doing something that no animal can do. Some AI is now so flawless at spoken English, including human-like pauses and filler words such as “um,” that new laws are proposed that will require them to announce their nonhuman identity when making phone calls. AI artists are certainly better than I am at copying reality, and now they can even invent realistic scenes and faces; and AI music programs can now create novel tunes and orchestration. (The robot that makes me feel personally inadequate is the one that can construct IKEA furniture – though I think the developers cheated by rewriting the instructions.) So although these activities cannot be done by animals, they can’t be regarded as the essence of humanity.

Worship and prayer

What really makes humans unique is that they worship and pray. No animals appear to do anything like this – we never see them giving honor to objects or images, or any ritualistic behavior directed to an individual they can’t see. Animals do take part in social-bonding activities that have no apparent purpose, and they may show obeisance to an alpha male, but they don’t seem to be interested in anything beyond their world of physical senses.

       In contrast, human children appear to be naturally religious. They tend to attribute purpose to aspects of nature that they observe, as though it was created or designed by a higher being. When six-year-olds are asked why birds exist, they say things like “to make nice music.”7 This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are born with a knowledge of God, but it does mean we are born with the propensity to expect a creator to exist. This continues into adulthood as a belief that things must happen “for a reason” – a belief that even atheists find difficult to dispel when something bad happens to them.

       Child psychologists have also noted that children like to pray, even when their parents disapprove. There isn’t (yet) any evidence that children have an innate wish or ability to pray to God, but once they are taught that this is a possibility, they are keen to join in or pray by themselves. And if they are discouraged, they often still want to continue this practice. I remember a sad anecdote in a book on developmental psychology: a pair of young sisters knew that their mother didn’t approve of praying, so they waited until she’d said goodnight and left them alone before praying quietly together. Psychologists clearly can’t confirm that God hears such prayers, but they have found that there is a statistically beneficial effect for children who pray because they develop healthy approaches to life and cope well in crises.8

       I doubt that we will ever be able to prove or disprove that prayer is an innate human activity. It would require bringing up some children in isolation so that they never come across the concept – an experiment that would be ruled out by any ethics committee. However, prayer and worship appears to be universal in human societies. Every isolated tribe discovered by missionaries, and the few isolated tribes still in existence, all have some kind of religion that includes a wish to communicate with a higher being.

       For the last couple of centuries, people have theorized that religion would wane and eventually diminish until the number of people who had religious beliefs would be as small as those who believe in a flat earth. However, belief in the supernatural has persisted throughout the world, and the decline of established religions has merely been replaced by simpler types of religion such as belief in the power of crystals, lucky numbers, karma, or horoscopes. Atheism is certainly more common than it used to be, but true atheists are still rare.9 The recent popularity of conspiracy theories may be a kind of religion substitute because these usually envisage a higher power invisibly at work, such as a secret human agency or aliens, and a belief that you can cope better with life if you know about them. Such beliefs appeal to the same tendency of humans to look for a cause behind apparently random events and to search for someone who is in control.

       We have to conclude that our pets are more similar to us than we like to admit. Very few activities are unique to our species, and some of these – such as speech and morality – may be merely due to our larger brains. However, there are two ways in which humans are different: they take time to teach each other, and they attempt to discover and communicate with a deity or other unseen forces. So the Bible appears to be right that we have an animal “soul” but we also have a “spirit.”

       Science is helping us to understand more about an intriguing fact about humans: that we are significantly different from animals by being spiritual. We’ll explore this more in the next chapter, but one very significant factor stands out in the Bible: we share our possession of a spirit with angels and God himself. It is clearly a very important and elevating part of our makeup that potentially allows us into the presence of God – both now and for eternity.

Summary


• Animals use tools, show emotions, and communicate with primitive language.
• The Bible uses “soul” for animals as well as for humans, which may acknowledge these emotions and abilities.
• The Bible does not use “spirit” when referring to animals.
• Proposal: Our “spirit” is what enables us to communicate with God, and helps us show more empathy and cooperation.

1^ For all the instances of “soul” and “spirit” (and the different ways they are translated into English) using STEPBible.org, go to tinyurl.com/SoulOT.; tinyurl.com/SoulNT.; tinyurl.com/STEP-SpiritOT.; tinyurl.com/SpiritNT. There’s another potential exception in Gen 7:22, where (translating word-by-word) “all which [have] breath [of] spirit [of] life in their nostrils” either means all living things, or it expresses the tragedy that this included spiritual beings – i.e., humans.
2^ These examples and more are at Melissa Hogenboom, “Humans Are Nowhere Near as Special as We Like to Think,” BBC Earth, July 3, 2015 (tinyurl.com/LessUnique); and Alexandra Michel, “Humans Are Animals, Too: A Whirlwind Tour of Cognitive Biology,” Association for Psychological Science, April 28, 2017 (tinyurl.com/HumanCogBiol).
3^ See Wikipedia, “Sally–Anne test” (tinyurl.com/SallyAnneTest).
4^ See “Dolphins Learn from Each Other to Walk on Water,” University of St Andrews, August 29, 2018 (tinyurl.com/DolphinWalk).
5^ Meerkats may be a rare exception. See Weird Animal Questions of the Week, “Schooled: Animals That Teach Their Young,” National Geographic (tinyurl.com/MeerkatsTeach). But humans are truly distinctive in their dedication to long-term teaching through culture as well as language. See Kevin Laland, “What Made Us Unique,” Scientific American (September 2018) (tinyurl.com/DifferentAnimal).
6^ See Genesis Rabbah 19:3-4 (tinyurl.com/EveNudge).
7^ See the summary of Justin Barrett’s work at the Telegraph, “Children Are Born Believers in God, Academic Claims,” Telegraph, November 14, 2008 (tinyurl.com/BarrettChildrenGod), and his summary of similar work by others at the Guardian, “Let’s Stick to the Science,” Guardian, November 29, 2008 (tinyurl.com/BarrettChildren).
8^ See Vivienne Mountain, “Prayer Is a Positive Activity for Children,” International Journal of Children’s Spirituality 10 (2005): 3 (tinyurl.com/ChildrenPrayer).
9^ In 2010, 84 percent were still affiliated with an official religion. See “The Global Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, December 18, 2012 (tinyurl.com/84PC-Religious).

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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