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9.2.05

Humans Are Animals

One of the basic themes that comes out of Mary Douglas's anthropological work is the idea that people think better in categories, rather than in scales. We like to sort things into clearly delineated groups (a tendency that seems active in Douglas's own theorizing, as she asserts the existence of four distinct "cultural biases"!). This tendency seems to be especially strong in religious thought -- perhaps because religion claims to reveal the ultimate structure of existence, rather than messy empirical "appearance." The flip side of this is a fear, strongest on the part of more religiously-oriented people, of sameness. Giving up a categorical for a scalar measure, to them, slides quickly into undifferentiation. An example came up in a recent Carl Zimmer post. He had reported earlier that due to some ancient mutation, humans lack the Neu5Gc sugar that other mammals have. Excited creationists wrote to him asserting that this is evidence that humans were designed. Their argument is basically that the lack of Neu5Gc makes humans unique, and therefore there must have been a creator who meant humans to be distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom. Zimmer makes the obvious reply: every organism is unique in some way (that's how we can distinguish species!), so the lack of Neu5Gc is not some special chasm between humanity and animals.

What interested me, though, is why these creationists were so excited over finding evidence of human uniqueness. Creationists seem to infer that because evolution says there is continuity between humans and other animals, it means that humans and animals are the same. Now, it's true that evolution denies the extreme kind of uniqueness that many religions credit humans with (and I have no problem with the idea that humans and other animals are a lot more alike than we realize -- in fact, I think it's pretty cool). But the fear expressed by creationists goes deeper, becoming a fear of total sameness. Without a gaping chasm to separate us, we might as well be monkeys.

In part, this fear is religion's own doing. The animal kingdom that they fear being assimilated into is not the animal kingdom studied by scientists. Rather, it's an animal kingdom constructed by religion as an Other or antithesis to humanity, an animal kingdom stripped of the ability to learn, communicate, and even engage in (rudimentary) moral reasoning. When scientists say that humans are animals, creationists hear that humans are beasts. So no wonder they're eager to find evidence of an important distinction between us and the animals.

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