Beneath the surface of the societal debate about whether the theory of evolution should be the only approach to biology in the American public school lies the real issue of contention: whether human beings are essentially different from the other occupants of the biosphere.
There are certainly enough unanswered questions about evolution and unknown details about the Biblical account of creation to permit the two to at least coexist, if not fully resolve themselves, in a single human mind. What truly animates those opposed to the way science is currently taught to most American schoolchildren is the notion – tirelessly promoted by adherents of the Church of Secularism – that humans are in essence mere apes, if singularly intelligent ones.
Science, of course, can never prove otherwise, limited as it is to the realm of the physical. And our bodies do, after all, function in a manner similar to those of gorillas and chimpanzees. But a purely “natural selection” approach to biology inexorably leads to the “animalization” of the human being, to the view that our sense of ourselves as special, as responsible creatures, is but an illusion and a folly.
And yet, all people who possess the conviction that it is wrong to steal, or to murder, or to mate with close relatives, or to cheat on one’s spouse (or on one’s taxes); all who see virtue in generosity, civility, altruism or kindness; all, for that matter, who choose to wear clothes, believe – against the dictates of Darwinism – that the human realm is qualitatively different from the animal (or, in secular-speak, the rest of the animal).
Either we humans are just another evolutionary development, leaving words like “right,” “wrong,” good” and “bad” without any real meaning, or we are answerable, as most of us feel deeply we are, to Something Higher.
The latter, of course, is the bedrock-principle of Judaism. And while there may be no way for the physical sciences to prove that humans are essentially different from all else, there are nevertheless some objective indications, subtle but powerful, that support the contention.
Language, of course, is one. G-d’s infusion of spirit into the first human being, the Torah informs us, made him “a living soul.” But Jewish tradition renders that phrase “a speaking soul.” Communication, to be sure, exists among many life forms, but the conveying of abstract concepts – including the aforementioned “right,” “wrong,” “good” and “bad” – is something quintessentially human.
That we men and women generally care for our elders is another species-anomaly. Natural selection is myopically future-fixated. Progeny are what count in the evolutionary imperative; the elderly have already served their evolutionary purpose. And so animals care for their young, not their old. Most humans, though, feel an obligation to look not only ahead but behind.
And then there is a thought that had been percolating in my mind for a several days, growing slowly – evolving, if you will – until it emerged, fully-developed, only recently, at the end of a tiring hike, when, lying on a large flat rock, I caught my breath, watched an ant and remembered a Psalm.
My wife and I had spent a few days in the northeastern Catskill Mountains, and that morning had climbed up the steep rocky path leading from a winding country road to Kaaterskill Falls, a hidden and stunning double waterfall.
The trek was exhilarating but exhausting (at least to me; my wife waited patiently each time I paused to rest). When we reached the falls, nestled in a lush, verdant forest, we marveled at the beauty of the two cascading torrents, and at the loud yet soothing music provided by the rushing masses of water.
And there, on the rock, next to me, was the ant, meandering most likely in search of a meal (we had already eaten that morning). As I watched the insect, the Psalm – the 104th – came tiptoeing into my head. It is traditionally recited at the end of morning services on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of a new Jewish month; indeed, my thought had germinated when I had recited it the previous Rosh Chodesh, eleven days earlier.
It is a paean to the variety, interrelatedness, beauty and grandeur of nature. It speaks of the clouds and the wind, mountains and valleys, the food provided every creature according to its needs, nesting birds and sheltered rabbits. “How great are Your works, oh G-d!” the Psalmist interjects amid his observations, “All of them crafted with wisdom.”
“I will sing to G-d while I live,” he concludes. “May my words be sweet to Him… Let my soul bless G-d – praised be He.”
King David’s rush of appreciation and praise, born of nature’s magnificence, seemed an appropriate accompaniment to both the falls in their glory and the ant in his search. Pondering that, I felt the thought congeal. The tiny creature and we lumbering interlopers on his turf had much in common; he needed his nourishment, just as we would soon be hunting lunch down ourselves. Yet there was stark evidence that morning of an essential difference between the ant and us. Between the ant and the Psalmist.
It was yet another, and significant, aspect of human uniqueness, another aptitude unknown in the animal world, and not easily related to any evolutionary advantage.
The bug, I realized, like all the other bugs – and bears and snakes – in the woods, was utterly oblivious to the beauty around him.