What Makes Us Human?

The question “what makes us human?” can appear like one of those mind numbingly esoteric exercises a philosophy professor would put his poor students through. Along the lines of “what makes a circle a circle?” Just something to make the brain chase its tail, leaving it exhausted and no better for the endeavour. Yet, as I hope to demonstrate, there is no other question that can be more dangerous to you and me if it is not answered correctly. Whether or not you are protected from your government or are stripped of all your rights by your government depends on the answer to the question “what makes us humans?” Are we biological machines, different from other machines only by our carbon-backed molecules and degree of complexity? If so, we will suffer a fate similar to machines when we lose our usefulness to our society: the refuse pile.

A man who runs a landscaping business buys, sells and throws away machines based on their cost of maintenance subtracted from their ability to produce a profit for his company. It is a cold mathematical formula that determines its fate. Two thousand years ago, at the height of the Roman Empire’s power, a conquered land almost certainly lost its youth to the slave engine of Rome. Threats, beatings, torture and spectacular execution were the methods of motivating slaves to continue their lives of back breaking labour. After Spartacus lead a rebellion of slaves against Rome, the empire retaliated by lining the nearly 200km road between Rome and Capua with the crucified bodies of 6,000 rebel slaves. Not even ISIS has shown this much barbarism.

Rebellious slaves are crucified along the Appian Way.

Rome used to condemn criminals to die in the arena as entertainment for the masses. Sometimes, this took on the cruel form of forcing the condemned man to participate in a play. At an unknown point in the play, he would be killed as part of the storyline. When slaves rebelled or lost their ability to produce, they were discarded as quickly as broken power tools or machinery on a job site.

Yet something curious happened in the European landscape over the past 2,000 years. We saw the iron fisted heartlessness of Rome slowly morph into a world into which the Magna Carta was born. Starting in 1215 and evolving – as well as temporarily disappearing here and there – over the next 300 years, the “Great Charter” was the first serious process in recorded European history and perhaps world history — save for the Cyrus Cylinder – which began giving individuals more power relative to their rulers. The principles in the Magna Carta gave way to the legal concept of habeas corpus in which unlawful imprisonment was prevented by the State. In a world of slavery and conquest, this was a breath of fresh air. English Kings lost their absolute power over the church due to the Magna Carta’s innovative concept of a separation between the State and the Church. Individuals and the religious leaderships could now operate under a legal system instead of the will and whim of the monarchs. Eventually this beacon of liberty unfolded into British Common Law, a system of law in which individuals were examined by judges and not Kings. Personal profit, vendetta’s and power grabs were no longer available to those who stood over the people in judgment. Therefore a cooler, fairer legal authority of a body of laws replaced the oft hot blooded judgement of princes and kings, further dwindling the concept of a King’s “divine right” to absolute power over any and all subjects. Across the Atlantic the American Constitution and its accompanying Bill of Rights were also forged as an aftermath of the Magna Carta’s “big bang” of human rights. The English world in Britain and North America became the first civilization in history to abolish slavery. The United Nations Human Rights Charter is another descendant of the “Great Charter.”

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Now why did this not occur on the Asian continent? Why was Africa split into warring tribal governments that – before European colonialization – had no concept of leaders voluntarily bleeding power into their subjects? Why were Chinese citizens in the 1900’s powerless in the face of Mao Zedong as he tortured, worked and starved at least 45 million of his people in a few short years? How come the Aztec empire had no Magna Carta evolution of their own? When listening to a secular historical analysis of our legal history, a curiously omitted influence on Europe’s journey from a blood-lusting Roman Empire to a hot bed of individual human rights for “the little guy” is the growing influence of Christianity on this western continent. In the century prior to the Magna Carta, a group of scholars pulled together the writings of the Church Fathers, papal decrees and Roman Law in order to create a cohesive understanding of legal justice in a Christian context. Since the Roman Empire had embraced Christianity in the early 4th century, a developing area of study had been how to create a legal system that was fair and honoring to the Christian God. This was meant to ensure that those administering the law were not themselves guilty when handing out punishments – especially death penalties. As a result, a bent on moral integrity in the legal system was a direct result of the presence of a Christian mindset that was widespread in Rome and eventually European society. An important figure in the drawing process of the original Magna Carta of the early 13th century was the archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton. Concerned with the apostle Paul’s mention in his letter to the Roman Christians that earthly rulers were endowed by God to rule over them, the archbishop wanted to “get it right.”

Basically the theologians involved in the Magna Carta were continuing a nearly millennia long tradition of making sure those administering justice were free from moral guilt. Eventually the Lutheran Reformation would build on these concepts and push the world closer to the American Constitution by stripping even the priestly authority from over the individual and pushing for persons to be directly under the authority of Scripture and just laws. Remember that it was rebellious Jews in the Old Testament who begged for judges and kings to rule over them. God’s intent was to be the direct authority over His people. Knowing all too well the corruptibility of man, God’s original intent for His people was to keep them from delivering themselves under the heavy burden of human monarchy. As Israel found out over the centuries following their rebellion from God’s direct rule, men are more mercurial, demanding and cruel than a righteous and loving God.

The Magna Carta was not the revolution of human rights that the American Constitution was. It was simply the thin edge of the wedge which began to pry apart the absolute stronghold of human leadership over its subjects. The founders and authors of the first century of the Magna Carta’s development would be mortified to see how much power they lost as a result of trying to create some freedom for the rich and powerful from their kings.

Fast forward to the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries and we see the injection of a new factor in our legal, cultural and political reality in the Western world. With the rise of existentialist and atheistic philosophers such as Nietzsche, Hume and Sartre and the seminal appearance of Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” the western world began a shift towards growing secularism. As a result, the view of humankind also shifted towards rebranding us as machinery co-inhabiting the ecosystem and not as Image Bearers of God who stood at the centre of creation. Suddenly, atheistic communist states such as the U.S.S.R. and the Chinese Peoples’ Republic emerged and swallowed up millions of lives in its jaws. No longer was an individual an immortal divine creation (and therefore longer lasting than any State) but he was a temporal cog in the machinery of a State that would outlive him or her by centuries. Thus the engines reversed and the growth of the State’s power over individuals began making a frightening comeback.

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Existentialists: Kierkegaarde, Nietzsche & Sartre

And before we get cocky and point fingers at far away targets, remember that in the first half of the 1900’s the state of Indiana in the U.S. had a forced sterilization program for those it deemed “unfit.” This was sometimes determined by intelligence tests and at other times by criminal behaviour. God-mother of the pro-abortion movement in the U.S., Margaret Sanger, had this to say about poor people and immigrants.

They are…human weeds,’ ‘reckless breeders,’ ’spawning… human beings who never should have been born.

Organized charity itself is the symptom of a malignant social disease…Instead of decreasing and aiming to eliminate the stocks [of people] that are most detrimental to the future of the race and the world, it tends to render them to a menacing degree dominant.

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Margaret Sanger

Sanger was also a proponent of targeting the black population with abortion services in order to essentially exterminate them from American society. In 1972, Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki called the human race “maggots” that were “defecating” on the planet. In the past few years he was confronted with this past quote and failed to recant. Naturalist David Attenborough called the human race a “plague” and calls for reduced human reproduction in order to control our negative effect on the planet. Peter Singer, Penn State professor, admits that our culture has an ethics system that is rooted in judeochristian beliefs. He laments this and has gone so far as to suggest that severely mentally handicapped human babies should not be seen as more important or valuable as fully healthy pigs or dogs. He would decry human exceptionalism as “speciesism” and see no moral difference with this error and that of racism. A few years ago, a small fishing village named King’s Cove in Alaska asked the federal government for permission to cut an emergency road through a protected forest region in order to connect their town to a neighbouring area that had an all-weather airport. King’s Cove had experienced death of its residence because of their lack of an all-weather airport and the problems this caused when medical emergencies arose. Obama’s Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel visited the village and heard the residents detail the danger they faced. At the end of the town hall she stood up and said ‘I’ve listened to your stories, now I have to listen to the animals.” She was too concerned with the impact the road would have on water fowl to agree to building this life line for the villagers.

Please understand that these beliefs emanating from politicians and educator at the highest levels are consistent with a naturalist worldview. If I have a more complicated machine in my shop, but I can produce more profit by using two or three cheaper and less sophisticated tools, I will discard the more expensive and valuable tool in order to increase the bottom line. Whenever humans lose the qualitative value of Image Bearers and return to a demoted status of being a complicated animal, we run into the ethics puzzles that can easily put us on the losing end of a tug of war between us and birds. Triage is sometimes cruel but often necessary when dealing with equals. Such is the horror of the battlefield medical posts. Currently, the naturalist worldview is on a winning streak in the Western world and unfortunately this is being reflected in the types of choices being made by politicians and cultural leaders. With the advent of increasingly intelligent and powerful medical technologies, this is making the problem of a decrease in human dignity even more frightening.

Modern Technology and Human Dignity

Let us take a look at what we are choosing to do with our new found powers over nature. Is our power, combined with our demotion of human diginity a force for good or ill? Approximately 85% of Icelandic pregnant women chose to be screened to see if their children have any chromosomal abnormalities. The mother’s age, blood work and an ultrasound image of the baby can help show if there is a high probability of birth defects. Down’s Syndrome is the most common form of chromosome mutation and because nearly 100% of expecting mothers who are told their child may have this disorder choose to abort, Iceland is boasting the lowest birth rate of Down’s Syndrome children. Yet the news cycle spins this as if a disease was being eradicated when there is simply a genocide going on.

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An American lesbian deaf couple sought to have a deaf baby by choosing a sperm donor who was himself deaf and came from 5 generations of deaf people. They got their wish and their child was born deaf. This created a controversy about the ethics of making “designer babies” according to the wishes of the parents. Yet, if naturalism is true, there is no one higher than human kind and if we have reached the point of mastering lower order nature, are we not simply the extension of nature with the most intelligence? And therefore have we not acquired the right to make such decisions?

Recently, biologists have developed the ability to synthesize a complex of DNA and associated molecules known as CRISPR/Cas 9. Originally found as part of the immune system of bacteria, this complex system allows geneticists the ability to cut, paste and edit nearly every type of DNA.


Chinese scientists recently claimed to have modified human embryos by introducing animal DNA. The dawn of the real life “Island of Dr. Moreau” is upon us. Oregonian researchers in the U.S. have also created hybrid human embryos but never carried them to term. The Salk Institute in California has used CRISPR to create mice that have rat gall bladders and they have now modified pig lungs to be able to accept and process human lungs. An obvious end goal to such tamperings are to create human organ farm out of animals (and perhaps sacrificed human embryos) in order to provide much needed life saving organs for sick people.

We are at a very interesting junction and if human exceptionalism is not established we will lose some important battles as we enter the new age of genetic engineering. Can we establish that humans have a quality that sets them above the rest of nature and the Animal Kingdom? Much depends on how we answer this question.

Continue reading in our PART TWO…

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