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An ape face close-up with eyes closed
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Why Apes Are Not Spiritual Beings

Apes do not have language, which enables humans to think about abstract ideas

In an otherwise silly article about the “evolution” of religion, journalist Brandon Ambrosino quotes primatologist Jane Goodall on the topic of… religious belief among apes:

When the chimpanzees approach, they hear this roaring sound, and you see their hair stands a little on end and then they move a bit quicker. When they get here, they’ll rhythmically sway, often upright, picking up big rocks and throwing them for maybe 10 minutes. Sometimes climbing up the vines at the side and swinging out into the spray, and they’re right down in the water which normally they avoid. Afterwards you’ll see them sitting on a rock, actually in the stream, looking up, watching the water with their eyes as it falls down, and then watching it going away. I can’t help feeling that this waterfall display or dance is perhaps triggered by feelings awe, wonder that we feel.

The chimpanzee’s brain is so like ours: they have emotions that are clearly similar to or the same as those that we call happiness, sad, fear, despair, and so forth – the incredible intellectual abilities that we used to think unique to us. So why wouldn’t they also have feelings of some kind of spirituality, which is really being amazed at things outside yourself?

Brandon Ambrosino, “How and why did religion evolve?” at BBC Future

Do apes really have “some kind of spirituality,” akin to human religious belief?

Orangutan in Borneo/Eleifert (CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Let’s take a look at the similarities, and differences, between humans and apes. There is no doubt that apes and humans have very similar biology. Our brains are similar in many ways, although the human brain has a much larger neocortex. The lower levels of the brain—the diencephalon, basal ganglia, brainstem, etc., are very much alike. This is also true of dogs, cats and a host of non-human animals.

Anatomically and physiologically, humans and a variety of animals are very much alike. That fact, rather than the Darwinian inference of common ancestry, is why we use animals in laboratory research on human diseases. The similarity was known in ancient times. It is noteworthy that the first detailed study of human anatomy—that of Galen in the 2nd century A.D., was almost certainly extrapolated entirely from dissections of Galen, the father of human anatomical science, probably never dissected a human. Apes were close enough, and Galen’s profound (but slightly flawed) anatomical research was the standard in medicine for 1500 years.

Are apes and humans, who are anatomically and physiologically so alike, also mentally alike? Yes, and no. Both apes and humans, like all animals, have sensation, perception, memory, judgement (in a concrete way), emotions, and appetites. But we need not look to apes to see these similarities between human minds and animal minds. Our pets—dogs for instance—share with us a remarkable range of thoughts and emotions. My dog, at times, acts like Goodall’s apes—she can be happy, sad, fearful, or despairing about the things that matter to dogs, like food, companionship, squirrels, and the like. Animals of all species experience a broad range of perceptions and emotions.

But what apes (and other non-human animals) cannot do is think abstractly. That is, they cannot think of concepts abstracted from concrete things. Apes can think about a waterfall or a dance that makes them happy or sad. But they cannot think about happiness or sadness in a way that is divorced from the particulars that make them happy or sad. My dog can think about her bone and enjoy playing with it. But she can’t think about “play” as an abstract entity, as a concept.

How do we know that animals cannot think abstractly? First, there has never been a research study that has demonstrated animal capacity for abstract thought. Animals can be clever and, at times, very clever (in some ways more clever than humans). But their cleverness is always about particular objects or desires, never about abstract concepts. Beavers build dams, but only humans write engineering textbooks teaching and analyzing dam construction.

The second reason we know that animals can’t think abstractly is that they have no language. How could an ape contemplate abstractions, such as spiritual ideas, without words to think with? Every thought has an object, and without language, the only possible object is a physical one. Language enables us to think about non-physical, perhaps spiritual, things. Thus, abstract thought presupposes language.

Apes can’t contemplate spirituality—God, the afterlife, morality, salvation—because they can’t contemplate anything. Like all animals, they think concretely. An ape may concretely enjoy a waterfall or a dance, as a baby can enjoy playing with a toy without thinking about playing as an abstract concept. It’s not simply that the ape isn’t a human being. A baby is a human being but he has no words to express—or even to think—abstract thoughts.

All animals—human and non-human—experience joy and sadness, and all animals have access to the full range of perceptual and emotional experience. Animal perception and emotion may, at times, resemble human contemplation of abstract concepts but it is merely a resemblance; animal experience remains bound to particular things in the animal’s perceptual experience. Abstraction is beyond the reach of animal minds, because abstraction is an immaterial power of the mind, and only humans have immaterial thoughts. Only humans contemplate spiritual things.

Note: For Michael Egnor’s discussion of other claims found in “How and why did religion evolve?”, see How Did Religion “Evolve”?

Also by Michael Egnor: Does “alien hand syndrome” show that we don’t really have free will? One woman’s left hand seemed to have a mind of its own. Did it?

The real reason why only human beings speak Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly


Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Why Apes Are Not Spiritual Beings