What Are Human Beings? Perspectives from Science and Scripture

What does it mean to be human? This is not the sort of question that occupies much of our thinking—at least not at an explicit, conscious level. Coffee shop conversations rarely turn to such speculative questions. Nevertheless, we carry out much of our lives with implicit answers to this question. Budget discussions—whether in Washington, D.C., or in our families—often parade different views of what it means to be human. “Feed the Soul or Feed the Hungry?”—this was the headline for a report on budget negotiations in a city council,1 but could just as easily summarize a congregation’s struggle to allocate its mission dollars. Either way, it divulges certain assumptions about humanity. Slogans sometimes capture deeply held views: “I think, therefore I am.” “She’s only human.” Some toss around the language of “unalienable rights” and “equality,” demonstrating that they have strong (even if not fully developed) views about human beings. The criteria by which we measure success or encourage happiness or contemplate health care decisions—these are all grounded in our commitments regarding what it means to be human. We may not think much about what it means to be human, but our thoughts and actions regularly put into play our default assumptions and beliefs about what this entails.

If coffeehouse conversations do not turn regularly to the nature of the human person, the same cannot be said of literature and film. In the nineteenth century, those who encountered Mary Shelley’s monster, that “hideous phantasm of a man,” the creation of Victor Frankenstein, might have wondered if humans were no more than the sum of their body parts, animated by a powerful electrical charge. Readers of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot may recall “the three laws of robotics,” a code of ethics governing robotic behavior. Asimov goes so far as to introduce a robot that claims, “I, myself, exist, because I think,” and practices worship of the creator. The 1999 movie Bicentennial Man, inspired by Asimov, narrates the two-hundred-year-long quest of robot Model NDR114 (a.k.a. “Andrew,” played by Robin Williams) to be recognized as a human. His (Its?) evolutionary stages manifest creativity, curiosity, friendship, emotional responses, financial independence, ownership of property, appreciation of beauty, and finally participation in the human condition of frailty and finitude.

Frankenstein illustration by Denise KlitsieFRANKENSTEIN
In Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, she imagines a creature that results from an unorthodox scientific experiment by her novel’s hero, Victor Frankenstein. She says of his monster, “Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

Among recent explorations of the nature of humanity in science fiction, my own favorite is the portrayal of Data, the android bridge officer in television’s Star Trek: The Next Generation. If the voyages of the Star Ship Enterprise NCC-1701-D are famous for going boldly where no one has gone before, Data’s own journey is consumed by his quest to become human. But this raises the question, What does it mean to be human? In the episode “The Measure of a Man,” Captain Picard persuades a court of law of Data’s right to self-determination. In “The Offspring,” Data engages in a form of procreation by fashioning a daughter as he maps his own neural nets onto an android body he has constructed. Later in the television series he receives an “emotion chip,” and in the movie Star Trek: First Contact he is (temporarily) given patches of human skin. Do these further Data on his quest to become “human”?

Considering the Natural Sciences

What does it mean to be human? Of course, questions like this are not only the stuff of film and literature. They sometimes arise unbidden and unwelcome. When Aunt Jennie loses herself in the dark, demented caverns of Alzheimer’s disease, or when Little Joey is riding his bicycle, is struck by a car, and now lies in a Persistent Vegetative State, have they lost their humanity? Abortion and other beginning-of-life issues, as well as struggles to define death and other end-of-life issues press for answers to the question, What makes us human? The natural sciences also challenge us in this respect. If we are separated from chimpanzees by only a fraction of our DNA; if we recognize decision making (and, then, some sense of “free will”) in animals of all sorts, from dolphins to earthworms; if we find evidence of “consciousness” among cats, dogs, and even fish; if we identify altruism among prairie dogs and schooling among meerkats, then what is it, really, that separates us from other animals? What makes us unique as humans?

From the perspective of evolutionary biology, the nature of our humanity would be understood in essential continuity with nonhuman animals and, indeed, with the nonhuman universe. At the level of molecular biology, any meaningful distinction between human beings and other animals is impossible to maintain, though this does not signal the loss of all grounds for speaking of human distinctiveness. In his book Human Natures, biologist Paul Ehrlich argues that human difference is the product especially of cultural evolution, which rests on the foundation of genetic evolution but has proceeded at breakneck speed when compared with the snail-pace of genetic change.2 “Cultural evolution” refers to the influence of massive transformations in the body of non-genetic information that shapes our lives—information accumulated in our memories, in our institutions, in our libraries, and increasingly in “the cloud.”

Research in the last two decades has underscored the degree to which our political, religious, and ethical perspectives are somatically (or bodily) based. A recent article in the journal Nature illustrates this well: “An increasing number of studies suggest that biology can exert a significant influence on political beliefs and behaviours. Biological factors including genes, hormone levels and neurotransmitter systems may partly shape people’s attitudes on political issues such as welfare, immigration, same-sex marriage and war.”3 And recent metaphor theory has demonstrated again and again the somatic basis of much of our language. Thus, for example, phrases like “She uncovered the truth” or “I’m moving on from that relationship” recruit bodily actions in relation to abstract concepts. Indeed, brain imaging has shown that when we use auditory-related words we experience increased blood flow to the areas of our brains implicated in auditory-processing, the same is true of sight-related terms or words related to speech, and reading about someone riding a bicycle or chopping wood activates the parts of our brain implicated in those motor skills.4 Such examples illustrate the complex and inescapable interaction between genes and the environment, and press us to consider that what makes humans human is the degree to which our natures are underdetermined genetically and thus elastic in response to our cultural contexts.

Think about this with specific reference to our brains. When the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux wrote, “People don’t come preassembled, but are glued together by life,”5 he called attention to the fundamental neurobiological reality that human beings are always in the process of formation. At a basic level, formative influences are encoded in the synapses of the central nervous system, those points of communication among the cells of the brains, or neurons. Even if the organization of the brain is hardwired genetically, genes shape only the broad outline of our mental and behavioral functions, with the rest sculpted through our experiences. In other words, although our genes bias the way we think and behave, the systems responsible for much of what we do and how we do it are shaped by learning. From birth, we are in the process of becoming, and this “becoming” is encoded in our brains by means of synaptic activity. Simply put, in our first two years (and even beyond), far more synapses are generated than are needed. Those neural connections that are used are maintained and remodeled, while those that fall into disuse are eliminated. (Use it or lose it!) Fresh connections are generated in response to our experiences, even into adulthood, until the very moment of death. The longstanding nature-nurture argument (Are we products of our genes or of our upbringing?) is grounded in a false distinction, then, since nature and nurture both end up having the same outcome, namely, sculpting the brain in ways that form and reform the developing self.

Additional research in the neurosciences has had far-reaching ramifications for our understanding of what it means to be human. This research appears to be fresh and innovative, and in important respects it is, since only in recent decades have scientists been able to study the brain more directly by means of novel forms of imaging (for example, through computed tomography [CT] or positron emission tomography [PET] scans, and magnetic resonance imaging [MRI]). However, the basic insight that psychological processes depend on neural activity has a clinical base dating back at least to the seventeenth century, to the work of Thomas Willis, whose multifaceted neurological work led him to tie human desires and instincts, memory and imagination, reason and volition to the brain and central nervous system.6 Today, clinical work has demonstrated the neural basis of any number of qualities that we typically regard as characteristic of human beings, including moral reasoning, decision making, responsibility taking, emotions, altruism, self-identity, spirituality, memory, and more. Similarly, empirical research has demonstrated repeatedly that clinical improvements among persons suffering from depression, panic disorder, phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and schizophrenia are correlated with regional and/or system-wide changes in the brain.7 The implications of this research are important, but require careful nuance. It is one thing to say—though it certainly must be said—that these human capacities are bodily capacities. It is quite another to urge that, say, human creativity or human religious experience or human consciousness may thus be explained without remainder in materialist terms, as though these were nothing more than expressions of fixed neural patterns. The philosopher Timothy O’Connor has helpfully summarized:

What we know from our own subjectivity and agency, evolutionary biology, and the emerging sciences of brain and behavior point in the direction of human beings as wholly materially composed individuals—yet composed individuals of a very special, emergent kind. We are living bodies, dynamically changing parts as all bodies do, but bodies with psychological and moral (and perhaps spiritual) capacities that do not reduce to the outworkings of a vast network of impersonal physical particle interactions within the human brain.8

This perspective bears a strong family resemblance to the work on human nature and human capacities by Fuller Seminary professors Warren Brown and Nancey Murphy.9

The result of these ruminations is the humbling of traditional views that tended to locate humanity in a place of incontestable honor at the center of the cosmos. This is nothing new, of course, as scientific discovery has had this affect repeatedly—first by Galileo and Copernicus, who demonstrated that our planet and, thus, we who inhabit Earth, are not the center around which the universe pivots; by Darwin and evolutionary biology, who located homo sapiens within the world of animals, with a genetic make-up that strongly resembles the creatures around us; and by the neurosciences, with their tightening of the mind-brain link, endorsing the conclusion that human feelings, beliefs, thoughts, and behavior are the outcomes of the complex and creative interplay of genetic code and relational experiences.

Thomas Willis, illustration by Denise KlitsieTHOMAS WILLIS
(1621–1675) was an English doctor and founding member of the Royal Society. A research pioneer in the anatomy of the brain and nervous system, his Cerebri anatome (1664) is an elaborate volume in which the term “neurology” first appears. Reared an Anglican, he regarded his laboratory table as a kind of altar to the God who reveals himself in Scripture and the natural world.

Unsettling Questions?

For some Christians, these scientific perspectives on the human person raise unsettling questions. And it is true that a host of pressing issues are at stake in these discussions. For example:

  • Is there anything about humans that our mechanical creations and innovations in Artificial Intelligence will be unable to duplicate? Similarly, if humans, like sheep, can be cloned, will the resulting life form be a “person”?
  • What view of the human person is capable of supporting what we want to know about ourselves theologically—about sin, for example, as well as moral responsibility, repentance, and growth in grace?
  • Am I free to do what I want, or is my sense of decision-making a ruse?
  • What portrait of the human person is capable of casting a canopy of sacred worth over human beings, so that we have what is necessary for discourse concerning morality and for ethical practices?
  • How should we understand “salvation”? Does salvation entail a denial of the world and embodied life, focusing instead on my “inner person” and on the life to come?
  • How ought the church to be extending itself in mission? Mission to what? The spiritual or soulish needs of persons? Society-at-large? The cosmos?
  • What view(s) of the human person is consistent with Christian belief in life-after-death?

These are important questions. However, for biblical faith, the natural sciences have not caused the sort of ground-shift we might at first imagine. This is because the results of exploration in the natural sciences and biblical theology intersect at key points; in fact, they represent trajectories characterized less by collision and more by convergence. Interdisciplinary study—with contributions from natural science, but also from biblical studies, theological studies, ethics, and philosophy—is demonstrating that emerging scientific portraits of the human person are neither as novel as we might at first imagine, nor as threatening to Christian faith.

Scripture and the Human Person

What about the Scriptures? One looks in vain to the Old and New Testaments for speculative portraits of human nature. The question, What is humanity? does appear in Psalm 8 (cited in Hebrews 2:6–9) and Psalm 144, as well as in Job 7:17–18, however, and we find important orientation in Genesis 1–2. In these and related texts, the following perspectives are basic:

(1) Humans are not defined in essential but relational terms. That is, unlike the philosophical stream running from Plato to Descartes and into the present, Scripture is not concerned with defining human life with reference to its necessary “parts.” Nor does it concern itself with explaining in what we may regard as a philosophically satisfying way the nature of our physicality in life, death, and afterlife. Instead, Scripture presents the human person above all in relational terms. And it marks the human being as genuinely human and fully alive only within the family of humans brought into being by Yahweh, in relation to the God who gives life-giving breath, and in harmony with the cosmos God has made.

Interestingly, although this emphasis on relationality has sometimes been neglected in Western theological accounts of the human person, it has been front and center among theologians from other cultural contexts. Hispanic and African theologians, for example, have often developed their theological anthropologies with a focus on communality and participation, and on life as an undivided unity, with no distinctions between its “spiritual” and “material” aspects.10 Among such theologians, it is not uncommon for Descartes’s saying “I think, therefore I am” to be replaced with the Libyan proverb, “We are, therefore I am.”

(2) In addition, with respect to the rest of creation, Scripture affirms of humanity both continuity and difference. This means, on the one hand, that Christians ought not to be surprised by the claims of evolutionary biology regarding the embeddedness of humanity in the animal world. Humans are clearly like other living things in that they are created by God, and thus in their relation to him and in their having been formed from the stuff of the earth. Accordingly, the life and destiny of the human creature is necessarily bound up with that of all of creation (cf. Romans 8:19–23). On the other hand, humans are unlike nonhuman creatures in that humanity (alone) bears the divine image. This also means that humanity is defined in relation to God in terms of both similarity and difference: humanity is in some sense “like” God, but is itself not divine. Humanity thus stands in an ambivalent position—living in solidarity with the rest of the created order and yet distinct from it on account of humankind’s distinguishing role as the bearer of the divine image, called to a particular and vital relationship with Yahweh and yet not divine.

(3) Humans, then, bear the image of God. Over the centuries, this phrase, “image of God,” has been the focus of diverse interpretations among Jews and Christians—ranging widely from some physical characteristic of humans (such as standing upright) to a way of knowing (especially the human capacity to know God), and so on.

Artificial Intelligence-Kismet-illustration by Denise KlitsieARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Kismet was a robot designed in the late 1990s at MIT by Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, a pioneer of social robotics and human robot interaction. Artificial intelligence (AI) is the science and engineering of making intelligent machines.

After the New Testament era, a number of early Christian writers followed the first-century Alexandrian Jew Philo in reading Genesis 1–2 against the backdrop of Platonic dualism. For him, and so for them, this meant that God first created the human soul (Genesis 1:26–27) and then placed it in a human body (Genesis 2:7). It also meant that, for Philo, the divine image was to be identified simply with the human soul. Not only is this view missing from New Testament reflection on the divine image, it is also an unsustainable reading of the text of Genesis itself. First, it is not only humans who are “soulish.” The Greek term Philo emphasized—psychē, sometimes translated as “soul”—is used in Genesis 1:30 with reference to the beasts of the earth, the birds of the air, and everything that creeps on the earth; like humanity, these are all characterized by psychē. Accordingly, it cannot be urged that “soul” distinguishes humanity from nonhuman creatures. All of God’s creatures, human and otherwise, share nephesh (the underlying Hebrew term), which we might think of in terms of “the breath of life.” Moreover, according to Genesis 2:7, humans do not “have” souls but are souls. This does not mean that humans are really “souls” contained in “bodies,” but rather that “soul” (or, better, nephesh or psychē) here identifies human persons in their totality. To translate the Hebrew term nephesh in a way that makes more sense, Adam “became a living being” (TNIV, NRSV). The Common English Bible is even more helpful: “The Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.” Like other living creatures, then, humans are characterized by their “vitality,” their divine-given life.

If “divine image” is not another way of saying “soul,” what is it? Recent scholarship has developed the ancient near eastern background of the concept of “image” in ways that lead us to conclude that it designated a ruler tasked with service as God’s special, earthly envoy. Genesis thus identifies humanity as God’s representatives, a view that coheres with what we read otherwise in Genesis 1–2 about humans in relationship to creation. In short, (A) we cannot identify God’s image with the soul, (B) the divine image distinguishes humanity in relation to the rest of creation, and (C) God’s image is relationally and vocationally defined. It does not identify a certain essence or part of a person, but rather refers to a way to be and a call on human life in relation to God, the human family, and the whole cosmos. The distinguishing mark of human existence when compared with other creatures is thus the whole of human life (and not some “element” or “portion” of the individual). Humanity is given the divine mandate to reflect God’s own covenant love in relation with God, within the covenant community of all humanity, and with all that God has created.

(4) Scripture affirms the human being as a biopsychospiritual unity. Again, Scripture does not locate this singularity in the human possession of a “soul.” Within the Old Testament, the term sometimes translated as “soul” (nephesh) refers to life and vitality—not a thing to have but a way to be. To speak of loving God with all of one’s “soul” (Deuteronomy 6:5), then, is to elevate the intensity of involvement of the entirety of one’s being.

Not surprisingly, then, salvation, as this is represented in the Gospels, must be understood in ways that account for the totality of human life, including the return of Israel from exile, the rescue of persons from demonization, the restoration of persons within their social and religious communities, the healing of the afflicted, the embrace of persons within God’s mercy, membership within the community of God’s people, and more. Consider, for example, the Gerasene demoniac. Luke’s account has it that, prior to his encounter with Jesus, the man is homeless, naked, and lacking human identity, religiously unclean, living among the dead, demonized, uncontrollable, engaged in self-harm; after his encounter with Jesus, the man is fully clothed, restored to mental health, liberated from demons, portrayed as a disciple, sent back to his home and community, and given a vocation to tell others what God had done for him (Luke 8:26–39). Here and throughout, the Gospels concern themselves with human recovery in ways that cannot be parsed into spiritual or social or biological needs. There is only human need.


Why is it important to reflect on what it means to be human? I have already drawn attention to the significant degree to which our thoughts and actions as churches and for the common good put on display our default assumptions about what it means to be human. Accordingly, it only makes sense to bring those assumptions out of the shadows and into the light of day, to test them for their faithfulness to what God has revealed in nature and through Scripture. The natural sciences may press us to articulate along fresh lines our understanding of the human person, and this may not be a bad thing. This is because of the important ways in which the natural sciences might lead us to reconsider what we imprudently assumed the Scriptures say (or must say) about our common humanity. Fresh emphases on our relation to the world we inhabit, on the importance of human community, on our ongoing (trans)formation within community, and on human wholeness—these are emphases from the natural sciences that are only to be welcomed by those committed to biblical faith.

In terms of the church’s mission, we should also consider the power of diagnosis. How we construe human liberation and recovery—salvation—depends a great deal on how we identify the human problem. According to the perspectives sketched here, we must think in wholistic ways about the reach of God’s good news. We simply must not reduce Christian mission to “saving souls” when this is taken as anything other than “human recovery”—and even then, the context and reach of “human recovery” must account for the nesting of human beings in congregations of faithful disciples, within the human family, and in relation to the whole of God’s good creation. Premium must be placed on the health and integrity of human community, Christian discipleship must be understood in terms of fully embodied life, and such Christian practices as pastoral care, preaching, discipling, and spiritual formation must be cast so as to account for persons as biopsychospiritual unities.

1. Rich Copley, “Feed the Soul or Feed the Hungry?” Lexington Herald Leader, June 16, 2002, D1, 5 (1).
2. See, e.g., Paul R. Ehrlich, Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect (New York: Penguin, 2002).
3. Lizzie Buchen, “Biology and Ideology: The Anatomy of Politics,” Nature 490, no. 7421 (2012): 466–68 (466); available online: http://www.nature.com/news/biology-and-ideology-the-anatomy-of-politics-1.11645.
4. Cf. Michael J. Posner and Marcus E. Raichle, Images of Mind (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1997), 115; Jerome A. Feldman, From Molecule to Metaphor: A Neural Theory of Language (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006).
5. Joseph LeDoux, Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are (New York: Viking Penguin, 2002), 3.
6. Thomas Willis, The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves (ed. William Feindel; trans. Samuel Pordage; The Classics of Medicine Library; Birmingham: McGill-Queens University Press, 1978 [1681]). See Carl Zimmer, Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain and How It Changed the World (New York: Free Press, 2004).
7. The evidence for these claims is ubiquitous in the literature. For points of entry, see, for example, Malcolm Jeeves and Warren S. Brown, Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion: Illusions, Delusions, and Realities about Human Nature (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2009); Veena Kumari, “Do Psychotherapies Produce Neurobiological Effects?” Acta Neuropsychiatrica 18 (2006): 61–70; Malcolm A. Jeeves, ed., From Cells to Souls: Changing Portraits of Human Nature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004); Anne L. C. Runehow, Sacred or Neural? The Potential of Neuroscience to Explain Religious Experience (Religion, Theologie und Naturwissenschaft 9; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007).
8. Tim O’Connor, “Do We Have Souls?” on Big Questions Online website, January 8, 2013, https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/content/do-we-have-souls?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=new_essay_180.
9. See, for example, Warren S. Brown, Nancey C. Murphy, and H. Newton Maloney, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Theology and the Sciences; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998); Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Current Issues in Theology; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Nancey Murphy and Warren S. Brown, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
10. See, for example, Joe M. Kapolyo, The Human Condition: Christian Perspectives through African Eyes (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005); Ismael Garcia, Dignidad: Ethics through Hispanic Eyes (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997).
11. See, for example, J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005).

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2013, “Thinking Science and Christian Faith Together.”