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. 

Clayton D. Carlson

Trinity Christian College
Clayton D. Carlson is a professor of biology at Trinity Christian College.

3 Comments

  • Kevin Neuhouser says:

    If animals aren’t created in God’s image…in whose image were they created?
    Aren’t animals – all creation – beloved by God?
    It seems that humans – and all creation – reflect something of God and are beloved by God. We are all loved differently, because we are not all the same, but there is no hierarchy in God’s love.

  • Hi Kevin,
    Thanks for commenting. I love your question.
    In Genesis 5:3, Adam and Eve make a son in their own image. This suggests that procreation is one possible way of making another in your image, so in that sense perhaps the animals are made in their own image. Squirrels in the image of other squirrels. But there was something special about Seth, because he was both in his parents’ image and in the image of God.
    I certainly agree with you that all of creation is loved by God (“God so loved the WORLD that…”) but Scripture indicates that there is something special about the relationship between God and humans. Humans are invited into a relationship and given responsibilities that are different than those offered to other animals. When God entered into Creation, God did so as a human being (not a nebula or a neutrino, not an elephant or an electron). I agree with N.T. Wright when he argues that God set up creation with a grace filled plan to allow creation to flourish under the wise leadership of humans. That call to leadership is my understanding of what it means to be in the image of God. Humans have bungled that task, but God is faithful to the plan, hence Jesus is the faithful human who allows all of creation to flourish.
    You write, “We are all loved differently, because we are not the same, but there is no hierarchy in God’s love.” In the case of the image of God, the difference is one of leadership, which I admit, is a type of hierarchy. But it doesn’t have to be a hierarchy of love. If all of creation is loved to infinity, then humans cannot be loved more than earthworms, but humans are still invited into loving leadership over God’s creation.
    Part of the way God loves earthworms and squirrels is through the rule of image bearers, humans. And only by the grace of God and through wisdom of the Spirit can we learn to serve in that role better.

  • It is good to rememeber that the Imago Dei is not a matter of function but definition. Humans who have never developed characteristically human function or have lost it are in the image as much as the most capable. Also, it is good to remember Matthew 6:26 “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” As imager bearers we are of much greater value. This does not diminish the value of the creature or of the creation. Ps 8 is also a reminder, “we are created a little lower than the angles.
    Remember, with rank (have dominion, be fruitrful and subdue, Gen 1:28) comes great privilage and responsibility. Being human is not just a matter of degree, but also Identity.