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What’s the difference between humans and animals?
One of the most fundamental questions that any human being should ask at some point in his or her life is: “what is the difference between me and my dog?”
Although at first glance the question is innocuous and maybe humorous, it is profoundly important because your view of human beings will have implications for how you choose to live life, and, at a societal level, there are consequences for all sorts of questions of social policy. Your views on economic arrangements, war and peace, and what happens after death, to take just three examples from many, will all be affected by whether you think you are an ape that evolved via a random “survival of the fittest” mechanism, or a spiritual being with an immortal soul that is on earth because of a divine purpose.
Interestingly, thanks to scientists in the Soviet Union, it was actually the dog that was the first species to go into space, but Laika certainly couldn’t have made it into orbit without the mental abilities of her human comrades.
So what was it that led humans to launch a dog into space, and not the other way around?
In 1912, Abdul-Baha, a central figure of the Baha’i Faith, traveled throughout North America and spoke at hundreds of venues. When He spoke at Stanford University, Columbia University, and many other places, He made fascinating remarks about the human mind, its ability to discover and transcend the laws of nature, and what this implied.
“All created things except man are subjects or captives of nature,”
“The colossal sun … is nature’s captive … the great bulky elephant with its massive strength has no power to disobey the restrictions nature has laid upon him; but man, weak and diminutive in comparison, empowered by mind which is an effulgence of Divinity itself, can resist nature’s control and apply natural laws to his own uses.”
He then gives examples: according to the laws of nature, we should remain confined to the earth, but through the use of the mind, we make airplanes to fly in the air or submarines to go deep into the ocean. We arrest the force of electricity and confine it within a lamp, we capture and store the natural vibrations of the air and play it later on the radio. Then comes, to my mind, a statement with staggering implications:
“Man is nobler than nature. There are powers within him of which nature is devoid. It may be claimed that these powers are from nature itself and that man is a part of nature. In answer to this statement we will say that if nature is the whole and man is a part of the whole, how could it be possible for a part to possess qualities and virtues which are absent in the whole? … man, although in body a part of nature, nevertheless in spirit possesses a power transcending nature; for if he were simply a part of nature and limited to material laws, he could possess only the things which nature embodies. God has conferred upon and added to man a distinctive power — the faculty of intellectual investigation into the secrets of creation, the acquisition of higher knowledge — the greatest virtue of which is scientific enlightenment.”
In this short space we can only begin to explore what Abdul-Baha said on this fascinating subject. To go deeper I recommend the full text of His speeches at Stanford and Columbia, and a letter He wrote to the Swiss scientist,
Dr. August Forel. One of the obvious questions that arises from this whole discussion is what is the Baha’i view on Darwin’s theory of evolution? A more detailed exploration should be the topic of a future article, but very briefly: Abdul-Baha explains that the human species has always been potentially distinct from animals – just as an embryo in the womb of the mother might resemble a tadpole at one point, it is nevertheless still going to evolve into a human being and not a frog. Likewise, just because we may have resembled other species at different stages of history, it doesn’t mean that we were that species. But more on this later.
For now, let me conclude with the amazing thought that, although you and I are separated by time and distance, we are engaged in a form of dialogue on this subject because of the inventions of the human mind. At best, our dogs can bark at each other if they happen to meet at the same time and place. And if they do bark at each other, as far as we know, they wont be discussing this stirring passage from Shakespeare:
“What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.”