Are Only Humans Moral?

Jeeves 2 dsSeveral months ago I began a series of posts looking at the questions addressed by Malcolm Jeeves (emeritus professor of Psychology at the University of St. Andrews) in his recent book Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience. For many people the most pressing questions at the intersection of science and faith these days have little to do with the details of the days of creation in Genesis 1 and everything to do with the essence of what it means to be human.

In his book Jeeves answers questions about psychology and neuroscience in the form of an e-mail conversation with a fictional undergraduate student. The questions posed by “Ben” represent the cumulative experience of more than half a century interacting with students taking psychology. Many of the questions came to Jeeves personally, others were suggested by friends and and colleagues … questions they had been asked by students and occasionally out of the blue through e-mails from people around the world.

In chapters 9 and 10 Jeeves addresses questions surrounding the uniqueness of humans. Recent studies have pointed to the presence of culture, morality, and even a form of altruism in animals, especially chimpanzees and other great apes. These studies will undermine many popular views of human uniqueness – if culture, morality, altruism and the like don’t make us unique, what does? One popular report just over a year ago Morality: It’s not just for humans, discusses the work of primatologist Frans de Waal. In his book The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates de Waal argues that human morality comes from within as a natural product of evolution.

And this leads to the question that Ben poses:

What do you think about all this? In your opinion, does the evidence of some forms of morality among animals undermine human distinctiveness? And what is the contribution of science to studying human distinctiveness, as compared to the contribution from other disciplines, including the Bible? (p. 116)

Malcolm’s answer:

[T]he appearance of what we might call a fuzzy boundary between humans and animals is not something that should bother Christians and those holding a religious outlook on life. For many of those who do not believe in God there is a tacit acceptance that humans are clearly unique in terms of their explosive development of learning, philosophy, literature, music, art, science, religion, and so on. Perhaps what some recent science developments have done is warn us off trying to base our claims of human uniqueness on such things as human capacity for thinking or reasoning. Both depend on how you define them, and can be seen at least in rudimentary form in animals. I don’t see any great issues at stake here for Christians. For us as Christians, the important aspects of human uniqueness are based on theological presuppositions, not on neurobiological observations. (p. 117)

The bottom line for Jeeves is that scripture doesn’t necessarily tell us that we are fundamentally different from animals. We, like they, are creatures. In Genesis 2 God forms both Adam (v. 7) and the animals (v. 19) from the dust of the ground. However, humans have a a calling and place in creation that is distinct from the animals. We are qualitatively different not just quantitatively different from the animals in this regard. In the Bible this calling begins in Genesis 1 and 2 and continues throughout the entire narrative.

chimp_hugJeeves understands the creation of mankind to be an evolutionary creation, from the dust of the same ground as the animals. Evolutionary psychology goes one step further than evolutionary biology and seeks to explain the development of such traits as memory, self-perception, language, culture, and morality as functional products of adaptation and natural selection. While cautioning against the reductionism that makes humans “nothing but” machines seeking survival, he doesn’t see a major problem with most of the ideas in evolutionary psychology. Because it is a new field we should hold conclusions loosely. In any new field there will certainly be growing pains and major changes in understanding. However, we shouldn’t fear or condemn the research. Rudimentary morality, culture, and altruism in other creatures does nothing to undermine distinctive calling and vocation given to mankind. According to Jeeves, even the evolution of moral behavior poses little problem for Christian faith. “When it comes to moral behavior, we do not need to deny that the capacity for moral behavior has evolved along with developments in the evolution of the human brain.” (p. 117)

Although Jeeves sees merit in the idea of a universal right and wrong, a moral law, he places more emphasis on the biblical revelation of calling and on the specific relationship between God and his creatures.

For those of us within the Hebrew-Christian tradition, our moral codes are informed by believing that God has spoken throughout the centuries through selected individuals and preeminently through Jesus Christ. …

As far as I can see, it is not necessary to try to deny the emergence of elements of altruistic or self-giving behavior in nonhuman primates, for example, in order for us to affirm the reality of what we call agape love. Agape love, we believe, was seen supremely and uniquely in the self-giving and self-emptying of Jesus Christ. (p. 118)

If the Christian explanation of the world is true there is a God who is in relationship with his creation and with his creatures. There is a purpose and a mission. It is on this relationship and mission that we should focus.

For Jeeves, Christian moral behavior should be shaped by the example of Jesus Christ not on natural abilities, distinctives, or inclinations.

Does the observation of moral behavior in Chimpanzees or Bonobos undermine Christianity?

Is evolutionary psychology a threat? If so, why?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

If you would like to comment please see Are Only Humans Moral? at Jesus Creed.

This entry was posted in Evolution, Psychology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.