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Featured image: Chimpanzee family/leonidp, Adobe Stock

Human-Ape Similarity Shows Humans Are Exceptional

If man is an animal biologically, but so unlike an animal cognitively, the obvious implication is that some aspect of the human mind is not biological

Although there are real differences, the biology of man and animals is remarkably similar. That is, in fact, why we have been so successful using animals for comparative biology and medical research. From a biological perspective, we are animals in many important ways.

Some claim that this similarity demonstrates that we are merely the naked ape. On the contrary, this biological similarity is striking evidence for human exceptionalism. Let me explain why.

Although human bodies are remarkably similar to animal bodies, humans and animals differ enormously in mental and cultural attributes. Man is the only animal who can reason, and the only animal with free will. Man is the only animal who has language. Man, alone among animals, creates literature, science, mathematics, music, art, theology, philosophy, and culture.

Even the most ardent materialists must admit that animal communication and behavior are radically different from that of humans. Animals have no natural language—at most, they use signals, but without grammar and without the enormous complexity and flexibility of genuine language that allows the expression of an infinite variety of abstract ideas that comes so naturally to man.

So if man is an animal biologically, but so unlike an animal cognitively, the obvious implication is that some aspect of the human mind is not biological. That is, it is not material.

I have argued that logic and science strongly point to the immateriality of man’s intellect and will. The research on free will by Wilder Penfield and Benjamin Libet, the remarkable unity of intellect despite disconnection of the hemispheres of the brain, the lack of brain localization for abstract thought as predicted by phrenologists, the fact that there are no intellectual seizures, the remarkable preservation of complex abstract thought in some patients with massive brain injury and persistent vegetative state, and the thus far intractable difficulty with human cloning despite the relative ease of animal cloning all point to an immaterial aspect to man’s soul.

Let me restate this: Only man has the capacity for abstract thought, and this is what essentially distinguishes us from non-human animals. The fact that we share so much biologically with animals means that the enormous differences between the human mind and the animal mind do not have a material origin. That is, the profound differences between humans and animals is not in the substance of our bodies.

Ironically, if humans and animals were biologically more different, materialists could claim that the material biological differences rather than immaterial spiritual differences account for our powers of abstract thought. It is precisely the biological similarity between humans and animals that precludes such an argument.

What is exceptional about us humans is not accounted for by biology but by the fact that, unlike non-human animals, we are not wholly material creatures. Man’s soul is a composite of material (biological) and immaterial (rational) powers. We are rational (i.e. spiritual) animals. This is the consensus of the great pagan, Jewish, and Christian philosophers, and modern science provides evidence for it with remarkable fidelity. Thus, the biological similarity we find between humans and apes, despite these vast differences in spiritual nature, is clear evidence for human exceptionalism.

Also by Michael Egnor on human exceptionalism

Can animals “reason”? My challenge to Jeffrey Shallit: He believes that animals can engage in abstract thinking. What abstractions do they reason about?

University fires philosophy prof, hires chimpanzee to teach, research A light-hearted look at what would happen if we really thought that unreason is better than reason

Why apes are not spiritual beings: Apes do not have language, which enables humans to think about abstract ideas

How is human language different from animal signals? What do we need from language that we cannot get from signals alone?


Apes can be generous. Are they just like humans then?

Featured image: Chimpanzee family/leonidp, Adobe Stock

Michael Egnor

Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics, State University of New York, Stony Brook
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 is an 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.

Human-Ape Similarity Shows Humans Are Exceptional