Being human is important because we're human

By Razib Khan | September 26, 2011 12:29 am

There’s a rather vanilla piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer which reviews the ideas of how humans became human. I say vanilla because the headline is somewhat more sensational than the text itself, which seems sober and accurate. But this paragraph jumped out at me:

A main source of the idea that we humans are above the rest of the living world is religion. Even religions that accept evolution espouse a kind of human exceptionalism.

It is obviously true that human religions tend to place a special importance on humans. And it is accurate as well to observe that consistent messages of human uniqueness are most prominently espoused by particular religions. Even those religions such as Neo-paganism and Hinduism which adhere to a monism which collapses the distinction between human and non-human operationally do seem to privilege the human perspective.

But I think for the purposes of analysis we need to step away from the idea that religion is the “source” of any one particular thing. Like morality it’s pretty obvious that human exceptionalism in religion is an extension of our natural intuitions, which derive from the fact that natural selection tends to shape lineages to at least a minimum level of self-absorption. I think this issue needs to be generally kept in mind when we praise religion (e.g., “there would be no charity without religion”) or condemn it (e.g., “there would be no war without religion”). Rather than an ultimate wellspring of human behavior religion is more accurately conceptualized as an intermediating phenomenon. It takes the elements of humanity and recombines them into more complex cultural units. It does does not provide the inputs, it is a function which operates upon the inputs.

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Comments (16)

  1. Eerikki

    I don’t think I can completely agree with you on this one – although I am not sure what you want to say.

    In reality, there is no “humanity” per se, only different groups of individuals, families, tribes, and larger populations. The historical trend has been towards wider in-group. It is just a historical coincidence, that morality draws (a surprisingly thick!) line between humans and non-humans. It was only in the late 20th century when humanity was considered as a single united group. Before that different groups of humans were either part of the local “megafauna”, or enemies (Japanese) or both. For the most part, religions were not expansionistic, i.e. the local religion was not intended for all the “humans” because there was no such entity as “humans” as we understand it today. This also ment that slavery was OK.

    The trend that more and more animals are exepted under the protection of our morale is visible everywhere in the world, even in worst places such as China.

  2. Henk Groot

    This is not completely true. Of course, the thought that humans are an unique kind once was common place, but science and theories of evolution have proven this idea completely wrong. But the only reason for some one to still believe humanity is unique, comes from religion. So you are right when you say historically religion wasn’t the only reason for thinking this, but today it is.

  3. 4runner

    There is a a visceral– and in that sense, biological– facet to human morality. Thus– it is not completely untoward to argue that “humans” in the biological sense are animals that are hardwired to have certain visceral responses to certain situations.

    In the everyday-speak of the Phil. Inquirer, characterizing such visceral responses as morality and, to some extent, religion is quite common. In that sense– the biological hardwiring (of morality and religion) is indeed possibly the source of more complex social structures.

  4. Grey

    “it is a function which operates upon the inputs.”

    If someone notices people getting sick a lot after eating shellfish and decides that is bad for the group then they can try and stop people with rational argument or force or they can simply say “God said so.”

    This cultural rule will work on those susceptible and if the rule has fitness benefits then over time it will select for people who are susceptible.

    So if one believes culture-based selection has been a critical component of the more recent part of human evolution then given that culture-based rules have so often been tied to religion a critical factor in human evolution may not so much be the religions in themselves but the human ability to be religious.

    I’d guess the components of that ability are tied up in the sort of things some of your recent posts have addressed.

  5. April Brown

    I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that dogs have religion. Cats though I expect are cold hearted aetheists. Just a matter of crossing the language barrier to find out for sure.

  6. Darkseid

    you guys aren’t understanding what he wrote. he’s merely saying that religion is a catalyst for our intuition. a manifestation of our morality, not the cause of it, as it is likely a genetic predisposition. so it would be nonsensical to say “this wouldn’t happen if there were no religion” because it’s a part of who we are and how we evolved. It’s similar to saying “I wish it were 5 o’clock” or “this is all caused by humans fixation with athletics.” there’s no point in saying it at all…

  7. Rabidmob

    Wouldn’t that require proving that morality or altruism was some sort of survival trait?

  8. Darkseid

    well, it probably is anyway but either way you’d somehow have to explain how religion is found in all cultures on earth without it being genetic.

  9. Bean Soup


    The religion of the cat is not so different to many classical religions of ancient empires where the emperor too was regarded as a deity. To a cat- he/she is a god.

    It is of no surprise to me that the pharoahs, who saw themselves as gods, also saw the cat as spiritually protected.

    To a dog their master is God. He who provides all things, and the occasional walkie.

  10. RafeK

    When I was at university I wrote an essay on the idea that religion was a means of circumventing morality which is to say by claiming to be the origin of morality it can then tell us what the exceptions are. Thou shalt not kill, except adulterers, witches, disobediant children and anyone who is not your own ethnym. I assumed the thou shalt no kill was a universal moral impulse while religion was modifer that allowed us to circumvent it. It was off course well received.

    The more deeply I read about human behavior, history and culture the more it becomes obvious I was giving both human nature and religion to much credit. Your final sentence sums up my conclusions perfectly. Moral and ammoral impulses are inherent. The power of religion is not in giving rise to morality or in allowing human nastyness but as means of driving group cooperation for good or ill.

  11. Archwright


    Both are survival traits. Even plants have been proven to look out for individuals that they recognize as their own. Altruism is simply an extension of the instinctive drive to protect and develop entities like oneself.

    Wolf morality works very well for wolves, so does Bonobo morality. It is hard for us to express the mores of non-verbal species in verbal, human terms. However, there are clearly societies in both of these species, and a society cannot exist without some sort of moral/social framework.

  12. Grey

    “Wouldn’t that require proving that morality or altruism was some sort of survival trait?”

    I think there’s at least three possible answers to that.

    1. It was a survival trait early on for some reason and that selected for susceptibility. Once the bulk of the population are susceptible it can be manipulated at which point it could become physically maladaptive but culturally adaptive e.g a religion might develop that requires an unhealthy behaviour but not conforming to the religion leads to being shunned which in survival terms is worse. Once a religion is established with punishments for non-conforming which effect an individual’s survival and reproduction chances it doesn’t have to make sense any more. It’s effectively part of the environment.

    2. Group cohesion might be the benefit regardless of the details of the religion. One group might think x is right and y is wrong and another might think x is wrong and y is right but as long as 95% of each groups *agree* with their group’s morality it helps glue the group together and that’s what provides the survival benefit.

    3. Yes, but it might not be morality or altruism initially. Initially it might simply be belief in supernatural agency e.g luck. Being *mildly* superstitious might be adaptive e.g a stone age hunter who believes in his lucky pebble might be calmer and more cool-headed than if he didn’t.

  13. mileu

    This para from ur post jumped out to me…
    Even those religions such as Neo-paganism and Hinduism which adhere to a monism which collapses the distinction between human and non-human operationally do seem to privilege the human perspective.

    because, IMHO and biased opinion, the most active and deliberate thinking on religion is probably done in India and part of so-called Hinduism. There is a lovely saying in Hinduism that each living being fashions God on its own image…for instance for a frog, the God will be in the shape of a celestial Frog….so there have been attempt at removing the privileged position of human, by accepting the fact that this “bias” will exist.

  14. @April/Bean –

    “A dog sees people feed and care for him and thinks: they must be gods.
    A cat sees people feed and care for him and thinks: I must be a god.”


  15. Mephane

    @ziel: You made my day. Reminds me of another one: “If you call a dog, he will come and obey. If you call a cat, she will take note of it and might eventually get back to it, or not.”

  16. April Brown

    Since we’ve established that cats consider themselves dieties, does that make them aetheists because they don’t believe in a being that is higher than themselves?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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