Are human beings animals?

March 06, 2016
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By Jasbir T. Singh |

There is no conflict between Catholicism and science. Catholics acknowledge the great contribution of science in understanding the biological nature of human beings.

Catholics can accept the fact that human beings are classified as belonging to the animal kingdom according to the following taxonomy:

SpeciesH. sapiens
However, the story doesn't stop there. Science only describes the physiology of human beings according to evidence from observation through the human senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Science does the best it can while being confined to knowledge existing within space and time.

Philosophy and religion, however, go beyond science when describing the full nature of human beings, and offers information that is beyond space and time. Faith and reason coexist within Catholicism, providing an illuminated understanding of what it means to be human.

Catholicism teaches that humans are embodied spirits. The idea of a spirit is foreign to science because it is eternal (not existing within space and time) and not observable. Animals, on the other hand, are bodies without spirits. In the order of creation, Catholicism classifies humans according to the following "taxonomy":

(uncreated eternal being outside of space and time)
(created within space and time)
living spirit onlyangels
living unity of spirit and bodyhuman beings
living body without spiritall non-human living things (bacteria, cells, plants, animals, etc.)
non-living thingsgalaxies, stars, planets, elements, rock, water, air, fire, etc.
Humans know mathematics and can compose music, animals cannot. Humans can create computers and write computer programs, animals cannot. Humans can launch rockets to the moon and observe space, animals cannot. Humans have instinct and intuition, animals only have instinct. Humans have the capacity for ethics and following a moral value system, animals do not. Humans can question what ought to be, animals cannot. Even though some humans behave like animals, that is by their own free choice. Animals do not have this free choice.
So even though our fundamental physiology is of the animals, our full human nature is rather quite different from them. Classifying humans as animals is a very simple and limited understanding of what it means to be human. I would go as far as saying that science does a very poor job at providing insight into the nature of the human being. Catholicism does a far better job, and I think the statements that follow set the right context for understanding what it means to be human:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” -- Genesis 1:26
Respect for the integrity of creation
2415 The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man's dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation. 2416 Animals are God's creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals. 2417 God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives. 2418 It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.

-- Catechism of the Catholic Church

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