Science in Christian Perspective



Is "Man" Unique?

Richard H. Bube*

Department of Materials Science and Electrical Engineering
Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305

From: PSCF 48 (December 1996): 250-253.

A fundamental question that touches on a wide variety of disciplines in science and theology is the simple question, "Is `man' unique?" There are several ways that this question might be interpreted. Two of these, concerned with life elsewhere in the universe, may be stated: (1) Is there human life elsewhere in the universe? or (2) Is there any kind of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? These are questions of fact, for which we do not presently have the answer, but concerning which an answer is, in principle, obtainable. If we never encounter human or intelligent life forms from elsewhere in the universe, then our only possible answer to these questions is, "We don't know"; in this case some may choose to add, "For a variety of reasons, we don't think so." If we do encounter such life forms, then our answer is a simple, "Yes." Of course the effect of finding other life forms in the universe with respect to the question, "Is `man' unique?" depends on the specific meaning we associate with "man" and "unique."

These are not, however, the questions being considered in this communication. Here we focus our attention on the characteristics of the human race on earth, and ask again, "Is 'man' unique?" Or are there other forms, now known or imaginable, that can so closely reproduce the characteristics of the "human race" that it becomes impossible to distinguish between them? The question being addressed is clear to anyone who has watched the android Data on the TV program, Star Trek: The New Generation. It is posited that Data is an artificial creature, made by a scientist from lights, switches, and connections, so that to all intents and purposes Data has most of the characteristics of a "human being," although he is lacking in a few of the more emotion-oriented ones. (We get the impression that these could be added if knowledge and desire were great enough.) Creative plots have centered on whether Data should be treated as having "human responsibility" or "human rights," or like a nonhuman machine without moral consequences.

How should we think about the human race? Is it unique for some reasons, and if so what are these reasons? Our answers to these questions can profoundly affect a whole host of genetic and bioethical decisions, as well as fundamental social and theological issues. They are related to the creative activity of God in bringing each life form into being. Our answers also depend in a critical way on the basic definitions we assign to some of the most fundamental words involved in describing the human race, such words as "living," "human," "being," "person," "soul," and "spirit," which are far too often used in a thoughtless and confusing manner. Biological life characterizes all living creatures, human life describes living human beings, personal life describes the characteristics of human life when the individual is capable of exhibiting the properties attributed to selfhood, and spiritual life describes the characteristics of human, personal life when considered in terms of transcendence and its relationship with God. Practical definitions of these concepts have been suggested previously.1


If we are going to address the question, "Is `man' unique?" it is essential for us to be clear on what we mean by "man" and what we mean by "unique?" We do not attempt here to give an exhaustive philosophical analysis of terms, but to indicate practical definitions consistent with experience that we can use in proceeding with our discussion. By "man" we mean the "human race," that collection of creatures that share a common membership in the species Homo Sapiens, whose overall identity is associated with a particular biological type of genetic material. Here the term "human" is an adjective defining the biological identity of the noun it describes, e.g., a human ovum, a human fetus, a human body, a human corpse. A creature is "human" if it is based on "human" genetic material; it is not "human" if it is not.

 In common usage, a member of the "human race" is also called "a human being"; this term is often too ambiguous, and the more specific "a human person" is used instead to describe the full characteristics of a living, functioning member of the "human race." Again in keeping with contemporary medical and scientific understanding, as well as insights gained from the Bible, it is common to think of three aspects of a living "human person": (1) those bodily and biological aspects associated with biological structure and genetics, (2) those self-identifying, mental aspects involved in self-consciousness, interpersonal relationships, emotion etc. that are commonly considered as "soulful" characteristics, and finally (3) those spiritual aspects involving relationship with God and the transcendent that are commonly considered as "spiritual" characteristics. Although in many traditional usages, these three aspects have been thought of as three separate entities, it is much more likely that they should be viewed as hierarchical descriptions of different characteristics of a whole human person, a pneumopsychosomatic whole. To ask whether "man" is unique is therefore to ask whether the general bodily, soulful, and spiritual properties of a "human person" can be achieved in any other way than the common biologically-based ones of our experience to date.

Possible Alternative

In all of the following cases, it is assumed theologically that any creature produced by one of these alternatives is produced through the creative activity of God, either in a standard or a nonstandard way, rather than by a procedure that rules out the creative activity of God.

 (1) To be "unique" might imply that the normal process of fertilization of a human ovum by a human sperm followed by implantation and growth in a human womb is the only possible process by which "man" can be produced.

(2) The concept might be broadened to include any means of reproduction involving a human ovum and sperm, such as in vitro fertilization, or in vitro fertilization followed by maturing in another womb than that of the mother, or even in a synthetic womb. All of these variations would preserve the basic biological identity of the fetus, defined in the [ovum + sperm] form, and one conclusion would be that the claims that "man is unique" means that "man" can be reproduced in a variety of ways, as long as the biological processes are preserved.

(3) One step away from this would be to consider the case where a human ovum is fertilized by a synthetic sperm, i.e., a sperm "manufactured" in the laboratory from nonliving material, or where a sperm is used to fertilize a synthetic ovum. If it is assumed, as part of the conditions, that the synthetic sperm or the synthetic ovum are ultimately indistinguishable biologically from the naturally-occurring sperm and ovum, it might be concluded that success in bringing a human person into the world in this way would not violate the uniqueness of "man."

(4) This variation can be generalized still further to suppose that it were possible for a scientist to go into the laboratory, and, using "ordinary chemicals" off the shelf, to construct a creature in exactly the same way that a mature human person is constructed. In the previous case, we were still relying on "natural" processes to carry forth the fertilization and development of an ovum, whereas in this case we eliminate all traditional processes in achieving our goal, but hypothesize that we are successfully able to produce ultimately a living creature that is biologically indistinguishable from a creature produced in the ordinary way. Does the "uniqueness" of "man" exclude this possibility? Or is it more consistent to view the creature produced in this way as having all the normal human characteristics of bodily biology, soulful identity, and spiritual awareness? Could not this creature indeed be a real "human person" for whom Christ died?

(5) The final step in this consideration is now before us. We assume a major difference in that the creature being constructed in the laboratory is being constructed from a different set of materials and structures. The creature is clearly not a member of Homo Sapiens and therefore is not "human," and has no biological relationship to our usual concept of "man." The question is: "Does our normal concept of soulfulness and spirituality require the involvement of human biological material and structure of a particular kind, or can the same characteristics of the whole being be obtained by the appropriate use of alternative materials and structures?" Is it possible to construct a nonbiological, nonhuman "person" that could be appropriately described in terms of body, soul, and spirit (with meanings similar to those of the usual human biological person)? Could such a nonhuman, nonbiological "person" also be characterized as sinful and in need of a Savior?

Consideration of Cases

Cases (1) and (2) both contain no inputs to the formation of a creature other than the biological fertilization of human ovum by human sperm. No matter what variations are performed on this, and quite independent of the desirability or lack thereof of using any of these specific variations, we may conclude that the mature product of this activity is to be considered without question a "human person."

Cases (3) and (4) include more or less synthetic activity in the formation of the biological entities that then give rise to the final living creature. In both cases, however, and regardless of how unlikely they are to be actually achieved because of the technical difficulties involved, the underlying assumption is that the synthetic entities produced have exactly the same biological materials and structure as a "human person" produced by the techniques of (1) and (2). (Of course, if this "exactly" does not hold, the conclusion is nullified.) In the belief that the properties of the "person" are the same if the same materials and structures are present, even if the processes used to arrive at these same materials and structures deviate markedly from the "normal" ones, we conclude that the mature product of this activity is also to be considered a "human person."

Case (5) is critically different in that not only are the production techniques radically different from the "normal" ones, but the final product is also radically different from the normal "human person." We are left with the central question: "Is it possible to produce a nonhuman entity using nonbiological material and structures, which exhibits the same personal characteristics as a normal human creature consisting of the standard biological materials and structures?" At the present time, we do not know the answer to this question. If forced to make a conclusion based on current evidence and experience, we might tend to be traditional and give a negative reply: we find it difficult to believe that such a creature can be synthesized that will then possess and exhibit all of the characteristics of a member of the human race, but we cannot be certain.

Identity and Value

Once the issue of identity has been resolved, either in fact or by agreement, there remains an additional issue concerning "value" or "rights." Within the framework of Christian theology, "value" and "rights" are the consequence of the creative intention and act of God in bringing the creature into existence. If it is agreed that a particular creature corresponding to the five cases above is indeed a "human person" by identity, then it follows that the creature should be ascribed the "value" due to a "human person," and "rights" appropriate to a "human person." On the other hand, if it is agreed that a particular creature described above is not a "human person" by identity, it does not follow then that we need ascribe no "value" or "rights" to that creature.

There are other cases where a creature has the potential to become a "human person" but has not yet done this, where a creature was in the past a "human person" but now is one no longer, or where a creature displays so many of the characteristics of a "human person," that it becomes at least socially, and perhaps morally as well, essential to ascribe to it at least most of the "value" and "rights" of an actual human person even though it is not one in terms of some ultimate identity criteria.

Examples of these three types of possibilities may be given as follows. Although a fetus is both alive and human at conception, it requires a process over time (the neocortex, essential for "personal" existence, begins to function only several weeks after birth) for the fetus to become a "human person"; because of the potential of the fetus, however, the "value" and "rights" of a "person" are ascribed to it and are honored except in such cases as the "value" and "rights" of an actual "person" may come into legitimate conflict with those of the fetus. Although "personal life" has ceased when a "human person" dies, the resulting human corpse is still treated with an assessment of "value" and "rights" consistent with the memory of the living "human person" it had previously expressed. In both cases failure to attribute at least some measure of "value" and "rights" to the "nonpersonal" mode of existence would threaten treatment of the corresponding future or previous mode of "personal" existence.

If we now consider the third case above, we may well be led to conclude that even if a living creature cannot be considered to be a "human person," still it may be socially and morally incumbent upon us to treat such a creature concerning "value" and "rights" as completely as possible as if "it" were a "human person." This does not mean necessarily that we accept the claim that this living creature "really is identical to a human person," but that any action on our part to withhold "value" or "rights" from this creature would be inconsistent with the observable characteristics of the "nonhuman person," and would necessarily endanger our stand toward the "value" and "rights" of those whom we do accept as "human persons."


We have argued that the specific nonstandard processes that may be involved in the formation of a living creature with all of the body/soul/spirit characteristics of a normal "human person" does not affect identity as a "human person."

We have had to remain open on the question of whether a creature can be formed from totally nonhuman, nonbiological structures, and still possess the characteristics of a "human person," although we are inclined to consider it unlikely.

In a sense we have resolved the dilemma of how to treat a "nonhuman" creature who displays all (or most of) the attributes of a "human person." Even without being able to resolve the dilemma of what category the "nonhuman" creature fits into, we conclude that the more a creature behaves like a "human person," the more we should ascribe to that creature the "value" and "rights" of a "human person." We do this for the sake of the creature, but even more so for the sake of all the other actual "human persons" whose "value" and "rights" would be called into danger if we did not.



1R. H. Bube, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 41 (1989), 160; 41 (1989), 236; 42 (1990), 45.