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Of Dolphins and Man: The Vast Difference between Animals and Humans

By Msgr. Charles Pope

Those of you who read my posts regularly know that I have often expressed great fascination with and affection for the pets I have had over the years. I am in awe of the whole of the created order, which proclaims God’s glory.

However, there are important distinctions between the human person and the created order that sometimes get lost in modern movements such as environmentalism, animal rights, and even in the realms of philosophy and science.

Consider a recent article on that reported on the quest to communicate with dolphins, a species that the article calls “the first intelligent inhabitants of the planet.”

In his paper, Ryabov calls for humans to create a device by which human beings can communicate with dolphins. “Humans must take the first step to establish relationships with the first intelligent inhabitants of the planet Earth by creating devices capable of overcoming the barriers that stand in the way of … communications between dolphins and people,” he said. … “As this language exhibits all the design features present in the human spoken language, this indicates a high level of intelligence and consciousness in dolphins,” he said in the paper, which was published in the St. Petersburg Polytechnical University Journal: Physics and Mathematics last month. “Their language can be ostensibly considered a high developed spoken language.”
(The full article can be read here: Dolphins may have a spoken language, new research suggests)

Such lazy wording in a published scientific paper is disturbing on its face. Though admitting we do not really know what the dolphins are saying, the scientist concludes that their language exhibits all the “design features” in human spoken language. Really? How does he know that? For example, human language can exhibit the use of the future perfect tense (e.g., “By tomorrow I will have finished.”). Can the scientist show me that dolphins use such a tense? Do they use gerunds? How do they conjugate verbs? Can he show me how dolphins make use of higher rhetorical concepts such as prolepsis?

The scientist goes on to say, “Their language can be ostensibly considered a high developed spoken language.” The use of the word “ostensibly” buys him a lot of room for later denials, but still, such a statement seems incredibly rash.

I would argue that such conclusions are stunningly out of proportion to the evidence. One can only hope that this is a case of a journalist reporting too simplistically, rather than that the scientist himself is drawing such conclusions with so little basis.

This CNN report showcases many of troubles common today in discourse about human beings and animals. There seems to be a fundamental assumption that there is little difference between humans and animals, particularly the higher primates. Dolphins, too, seem to have been given a rather high place in the animal kingdom hierarchy.

But I would argue that the distance between man and even the highest forms of animal life is by no means small; it is a distance so large as to indicate a difference not merely in degree but in kind. This is demonstrable from straightforward observation. A thing can be known by its effects. Apple trees do not bear oranges nor do they bring forth baby pandas. As we look at animal kingdom, even its highest members, some questions begin to emerge. If, as many assume today, animals are really “just like us,” where are the effects?

Where are their great cities? Where are their libraries, universities, and hospitals? Where are their bicameral legislatures, in which they debate justice, pass laws, and organize for the common good? Where are their courts, in which they hold one other accountable, punish crime, and administer justice? Where are their great cathedrals, in which they worship God and prepare for death and the next world? Where are their works of art? Where are their museums, in which they honor their history and reflect on their progress? For that matter, where is their progress at all? How have they made technological advances or better organized their lives? Do they show any progress from one hundred or even a thousand years ago? Have they progressed from the use of simple tools to more advanced ones? Have they gone from rudimentary living to more complex behaviors and accomplishments? Does their knowledge and technology build over time? Have they learned anything new at all? Have they been to the moon and back? Have they probed the stars?

I could go on with these questions for pages, but the point is to illustrate that the differences between the human person and even the highest members of the animal kingdom are so vast as to indicate a fundamental difference.

Physically, I am not so different from my cat. Like me, she is a mammal; we share most of the same basic physical functions. She can feel pain, experience hunger, and sense danger. I have some physical abilities that are better than hers: opposable thumbs and a larger brain, for example. But she outpaces me in other areas: more acute senses of hearing and smell, for example.

But most of the similarities end with the physical level. My cat has no higher life. She does not ponder justice and other metaphysical concepts. She does not ask why or join me on protest marches. She does not appreciate great music or read literature. I could put on music that brings me to tears while she just lies there unmoved.

All the observations I have made and questions I have asked are indicative of a fundamental difference between man and even the highest of animals. The difference comes from capacities that humans have and animals do not.

In philosophy and theology, we attribute these vast differences to the fact that human beings have a rational soul. Humans can have command of metaphysical concepts such as justice, mercy, beauty, and truth. We can ask questions like why and how. These lead us to explore, to experiment, to progress, to debate, and to insist on what is best. Our longing for truth, goodness, and beauty draw us to something beyond ourselves and beyond simply what is. We have developed complex interrelationships that we call civilization.

The difference between humans and animals is fundamental, not merely accidental. We are different because of a capacity within us we call our rational nature.

What you have just read is more of a pastoral reflection than a philosophical treatise. One may quibble with a particular point, but I contend that the overall picture indicates a vast difference between man and animal, a difference not merely in degree but in kind.

This essay is meant to be a response to the sad situation in the world today, wherein many have reduced the human person to little more than a smart ape or an advanced animal. We are much more than that. We have rational souls that can soar above the merely physical. As one of the remedies for the darkness of our times, we must recover a sense of our unique dignity.

This article has been reprinted here by permission of the author after original publication at Community In Mission-

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