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Further Reading

Parting Shot

Our Quantum Leap

There Is a Huge Chasm Between Humans & Nonhuman Animals

by Michael Egnor

Anthropologist Jonathan Marks wrote an essay on PopAnth.com last October in which he asserted: "The argument that 'we are apes' is not a valid evolutionary one. After all, the distinguished evolutionary biologist George Gaylord Simpson wrote in a 1949 classic, 'It is not a fact that man is an ape, extra tricks or no.'"

Marks accepts the theory of common ancestry, and believes that we are descended from apes. He points out that evolutionary relationships are not the same thing as identities. Descent from apes does not mean we are apes. Taxonomy is not the same thing as identity. Or, as Marks says: "Science no more says that I am an ape because my ancestors were, than it says that I am a slave because my ancestors were. The statement that you are your ancestors articulates a bio-political fact, not a biological fact." Indeed, the differences are so profound as to render the view that humans are apes abject nonsense.

It is important to understand the fundamental difference between humans and nonhuman animals. Animals such as apes have material mental powers. By material, I mean powers that are instantiated in the brain and wholly depend upon matter for their operation. These powers include sensation, perception, imagination (the ability to form mental images), memory (of perceptions and images), and appetite. Nonhuman animals have a mental capacity to perceive and respond to particulars, which are specific material objects such as other animals, food, obstacles, and predators.

Human beings have these powers, too, but they also have mental powers that entail a profoundly different kind of thinking. Unlike animals, humans think abstractly, and they have the power to contemplate universals, which are concepts that have no material instantiation. Humans think about mathematics, literature, art, language, justice, mercy—an endless array of abstract concepts. They are rational animals.

Human rationality is not merely a highly evolved kind of animal perception. It is qualitatively, ontologically different. It is different because it is immaterial. Contemplation of universals cannot have material instantiation, because universals are not material and cannot be instantiated in matter.

I stress here the difference between representation and instantiation. Representation is the map of a thing; instantiation is the thing itself. Universals can be represented in matter—the words I am writing are representations of concepts—but they cannot be instantiated in matter. I cannot put the concepts themselves on a computer screen or piece of paper, nor can they exist physically in my brain. They are immaterial.

Nonhuman animals are purely material beings. They have no concepts. They experience hunger and pain; they don't contemplate the injustice of suffering. A human being is material and immaterial—a composite being. We have material bodies, and our perceptions and imagination and appetites are material powers, instantiated in our brains. But our intellect—our ability to think abstractly—is a wholly immaterial power, as is our will, which acts in accordance with our intellect. Our intellect and will depend on matter for their ordinary function, but are not themselves made of matter.

It is in our ability to think abstractly that we differ from apes. It is a radical difference—an immeasurable qualitative difference, not a quantitative difference. We are more different from apes than apes are from viruses. There is a metaphysical chasm between us. We are rational animals, and our rationality is all the difference. Systems of taxonomy that emphasize physical and genetic similarities and ignore the fact that human beings are partly immaterial beings who are capable of abstract thought and contemplation of moral law and eternity are pitifully inadequate to describe man.

The assertion that man is an ape is self-refuting. We could not express such a concept, misguided as it is, if we were apes and not men. 


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