The 2021 winner of the Templeton prize is Dr. Jane Goodall. Dr. Goodall is, of course, one of the most famous scientists in the world renowned for her 60-year-long work studying chimpanzees in Tanzania. Her warmth and humility have endeared her legions of fans and the results of her work have redefined our understanding of animal intelligence.
The Templeton prize is an annual award given to those whose achievements utilize “the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” The award is at least in part a critique of the Nobel prize which offers no recognition to those pursuing spiritual questions. With a direct focus on spirituality, science, and religion, past winners have included Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, the recently departed John Polkinghorne, Desmond Tutu, Alvin Plantinga, and just last year, Francis Collins. This brief list of some of the more than 50 winners since 1973 includes saints whose lives were committed to spiritual work and scholars who have defined the study of science and religion. For example, Francis Collins was recognized for his work solving the human genome, his leadership of the National Institutes of Health, and his founding of the organization BioLogos.
And into that gallant company walks an unassuming octogenarian who spent her life studying chimps. In the video announcing the award, Heather Templeton Dill, granddaughter of the founder of the prize, John Templeton, asks Dr. Goodall, “Which of your discoveries are you most proud of?”
Dr. Goodall’s response makes it clear that in studying chimpanzees she wasn’t just learning about apes. She was making discoveries about humanity. She answers that her most important discovery was:
The fact that animals are sentient being. It was being taught at that time… that the difference between humans and all other animals was one of kind and not degrees. Thanks to the chimpanzees, because it was they – because of their similarities biologically to us as well as behaviorally, it was thanks to them that science gradually came around to understanding that we are part of, not separate from, the rest of the animal kingdom.
Dr. Goodall’s decades of work have shown that animals are far more like humans than would otherwise have been assumed. They have robust inner lives, hopes and fears, they have complex social structures full of love and grace, greed and hatred. Her observations do not lower the status of humans to one of “only animals” but instead raises the status of animals. She says, “If we have a soul or a spirit, then the other creatures do to.”
I understand that this kind of language makes some Christians very uncomfortable. Despite texts like Genesis 1:20, where nephesh chayyah is translated as “living creatures” (animals) when it often means “living soul,” many Christians do not want to see animals as having souls because it makes the difference between humans and animals one of degrees and not of kind.
Even Dr. Goodall would recognize that humans are unique. Other animals have intelligence, but they don’t do theoretical physics. Other animals make tools, but they don’t make super computers. The question is about the nature of difference between humans and animals. Is it one of degrees or one of kind?
I think the answer can be either one depending on what we are measuring. Chemically? We are almost identical to other animals with all of us being made mostly of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. Biologically? Humans are incredibly similar to other animals in that all of us are made of eukaryotic cells with a defined nucleus. Genetically? Here it is a difference of degrees wherein we share more than 98.5% of our DNA with chimpanzees. Behaviorally? Dr. Goodall has shown that this is also a difference of degrees. We can find parallels and harmonies in the behaviors of each species.
But what then about our status? Here the difference between animals and humans is one of kind. In this sense, humans are radically different than other animals. We are made in the image of God. This graciously given relational status sets apart humanity from the rest of creation. But that status doesn’t mean we have to be behaviorally different, genetically different, or biologically different.
When I was married, my spouse became different in kind from every other woman in the world. That radical difference in status doesn’t require unique genetics or special creation. It only requires a binding relationship based on love.
Confident in our identity as the beloved of God, the image bearers of the creator, called to keep and protect God’s creation, I hope that Christians everywhere can celebrate Dr. Goodall’s life, work, and recognition. Through her life God has reminded us of our intimate relationship to the rest of the creatures on this planet and in clarifying our relationship to other creatures, God reminds us of the true meaning of our relationship to the Creator.