The Human Difference: How Humans are Unique Compared to All Other Animals
by Rich Deem


Are Humans Unique?

Evolutionary biology proposes that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors. If this is true then we are nothing more than glorified apes. However, compared to our closest "relatives", scientific research indicates that humans are unique on many fronts, including creativity, personality, abstract thinking, and moral judgment.

Rich Deem

The Bible makes the claim that humans alone are "created in the image of God."1 What exactly does this mean? Some have equated the image of God as being the physical characteristics of our bodies that make up the way we look. In fact, the Mormons have taken this interpretation to extreme by saying that God is just an exalted man, who has "a body of flesh and bones."1 However, the Bible says that both males and females are created in the image of God.2 Unless God were a hermaphrodite (having both male and female sexual organs), this phrase could not refer to just physical characteristics. In addition, there are various verses in the Bible that describe God as having non-human physical characteristics, such as feathers and wings.3 Should we think of God as being an overgrown chicken? Certainly not! God is so unlike humans physically, that the Bible often paints word pictures to give us a glimpse of what God is like.


So if the "image of God" does not refer to physical characteristics, what does it refer to? It is certainly likely that part of the "image of God" refers to the ability of humans to be creative. Anthropology tells us that sophisticated works of art first appeared in the fossil record about 40,000-50,000 years ago,4 at the time that moderns humans first appeared. No other species of animal, including the apes, are able to create and understand images of art and drawing.


Human consciousness is a mystery that has evaded decades of intensive research by neurophysiologists. According to a recent article:

When an organism's neural pathways grow sufficiently complex, materialists insist, their firings are somehow accompanied by consciousness. But despite decades of effort by philosophers and neurophysiologists, no one has been able to come up with a remotely plausible explanation of how this happens--how the hunk of gray meat in our skull gives rise to private Technicolor experience. One distinguished commentator on the mind-body problem, Daniel Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained, has been driven to declare that there is really no such thing as consciousness--we are all zombies, though we're unaware of it.5


Another thing that makes humans unique is personality. According to Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at New York University:

"We have no idea how our brains make us who we are. There is as yet no neuroscience of personality. We have little understanding of how art and history are experienced by the brain. The meltdown of mental life in psychosis is still a mystery. In short, we have yet to come up with a theory that can pull all this together."6

Abstract thinking

Is the human brain that much different from that of our closest "relatives," the chimpanzees? According to Daniel J. Povinelli, from the University of Louisiana's New Iberia Research Center

"Humans constantly invoke unobservable phenomena and variables to explain why certain things are happening. Chimps operate in the world of concrete, tangible things that can be seen. The content of their minds is about the observable world."7

Who Was Adam?: A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of ManInsight into how chimpanzees really think can be seen in some recent experiments performed by Dr. Povinelli. In these experiments, the researchers used the chimps' natural begging gesture to examine how they really think about their world. They confronted the chimps with two familiar experimenters, one offering a piece of food and the other holding out an undesirable block of wood. As expected, the chimps had no trouble distinguishing between the block and the food and immediately gestured to the experimenter offering the food. Next, the researchers wanted to see if the chimps would be able to choose between a person who could see them and a person who could not. If the chimpanzees understood how other animals see, they would gesture only to the person who could see them. The researchers achieved the "seeing/not-seeing" contrast by having the two experimenters adopt different postures. In one test, one experimenter wore a blindfold over her eyes while the other wore a blindfold over her mouth. In the other tests, one of the experimenters wore a bucket over her head, placed her hands over her eyes or sat with her back turned to the chimpanzee. All these postures were modeled after the behaviors that had been observed during the chimpanzees' spontaneous play. The results of the experiments were astonishing. In the tests involving blindfolds, buckets and hands over the eyes--the apes entered the lab and paused but then were just as likely to gesture to the person who could not see them as to the person who could. In several cases, the chimps gestured to the person who could not see them and then, when nothing happened, gestured again, as if puzzled by the fact that the experimenter did not respond. In the case of experimenters facing with their backs to the chimps, they performed as if they knew that those facing way from them could not see and offer them food. However, subsequent experiments proved that the chimps had merely responded to conditioning from the initial experiments, since they had only received food from those experimenters who faced them. This was proven by having experimenters facing away from the chimps, but then turning to look over their shoulders. The chimps were just as likely to gesture to the experimenters facing away as the one who turned to look at them. Chimpanzees have no clue that humans must face them in order to see. It is obvious from these experiments that chimpanzees lack even a simple understanding of how their world works, but merely react to conditioning from directly observable events.8

Other researchers have noted that chimpanzees do not understand the cause and effect of their actions. Apes will climb onto a box to reach fruit, but if the box is absent, will place on the ground beneath the fruit a sheet of paper and stand upon it.9

A more recent study examined the ability of human infants and young chimpanzees to help human adults.10 18-month-old human infants and young chimpanzees were presented with four categories of problems: out-of-reach objects, access thwarted by a physical obstacle, achieving a wrong (correctable) result, and using a wrong (correctable) means. While human infants could perform all four tasks, chimpanzees could only perform the first task. As in previous studies, chimpanzees were unable to discern when an individual failed at a simple task and how he could help. The researchers concluded:

"A number of theorists have claimed that human beings cooperate with one another and help one another (especially non-kin) in ways not found in other animal species (26–28). This is almost certainly so, and the current results demonstrate that even very young children have a natural tendency to help other persons solve their problems, even when the other is a stranger and they receive no benefit at all."10

Body, soul, spirit

Besides the rather obvious differences in the way animals process information in their brains, the Bible (and science) confirm that there are major differences in the ways humans make moral judgments (animals don't make such judgments, as we shall see). Part of what is meant by the term "in the image of God" can be found in chapters immediately following its first usage (Genesis 1) in the Bible. Both Adam and Eve had a personal relationship with God in the Garden of Eden. Such a personal relationship is not described, nor seen, for any other animal species. It is the presence of a spirit that was instilled into humans11 that separates us from the animals. There are three kinds of life that God has created in this universe:

Creature: Examples:
Body only Lower life forms, including reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates
Body and soul From the Hebrew nephesh, or soulish creatures, including birds and mammals
Body, soul and spirit Humans12 and angels

The soul is best described as the characteristics that make up the advanced brain, including mind, will and emotion. Only birds and mammals exhibit these characteristics, which is why humans can form mutual relationships with birds and mammals.


The spirit is that part of humans that is able to love and experience God directly.13 It is found in no other animal species, since no other species can experience God or form a relationship with Him.14 Is there any evidence that humans possess a spirit? Recent attempts have been aimed at trying to identify the part of the brain involved in "religious" experiences. Unfortunately, the current studies are restricted to an examination of meditative experiences,15 since the specific subjects used in the research were Tibetan Buddhist meditators. During meditation, the goal is to completely divorce oneself from external sensory stimulation. The ability to do so, apparently leads to some sense of "oneness with the universe", since the brain is deprived of sensory input while still remaining active.

The leaders of these studies, Andrew Newberg M.D., Eugene G. D'Aquili Ph.D., and Vince Rause, claim to have discovered the biological basis for belief in God.16 However, according to Daniel Batson, a University of Kansas psychologist:

"The brain is the hardware through which religion is experienced. To say the brain produces religion is like saying a piano produces music."15

The problem with the theory is that such "religious" experiences do not apply to Christianity, although Newberg tries to make the connection through the reported experiences of a few Christian mysticists. The plain fact is that Christianity does not teach any kind of meditation that leads to the kind of experiences taught in the Eastern religions. Even in prayer, I have never experienced the kind of things described as occurring during Buddhist meditation. God does answer my prayers, but the answer is in the form of fully formed, specific ideas - not any kind of "oneness with the universe". Any kind of non-specific feelings would be completely useless, since it does not provide advice that would be necessary to help one's spiritual walk with God.

Even if there were an area of the brain that might be involved in religious experiences, this idea does not prove that God is a creation of our brains. If God did create us, we would expect that He would provide a means by which we could experience Him. This area of the brain might be part of God's design to make us realize that we are more than just physical creatures. The Bible says that God has given us this knowledge of eternity, possibly involving some sort of "hard-wired" knowledge.17

Moral judgments

After Adam and Eve had sinned, they became like God in that they could distinguish good from evil.18 The ability to make moral judgments is also a characteristics that is found only in humans. Even the higher apes cannot make moral judgments about the behavior of other animals. As Dr. Jerome Kagan points out in Three Seductive Ideas, "Not even the cleverest ape could be conditioned to be angry upon seeing one animal steal food from another."19 In addition, there are no non-human animal models for human pride, shame, and guilt.20 Recent studies have also shown that only humans, among the primates, are capable of certain forms of sin. Although a chimpanzee will exact revenge against another chimpanzee that steals food from him, they are not spiteful, no matter how researchers tried to elicit the response.21 Even dominant male chimpanzees will not punish or prevent a chimpanzee from stealing food from another. Christianity says humans alone are in need of redemption because of their sin.

Social skills and learning

An experiment was designed to test the hypothesis that humans have special skills in social cognition.22 Two and one half year old human toddlers were tested against adult chimpanzees and orangutans for cognitive abilities in spatial, quantitative, and causality processing, along with social cognitive abilities in social learning, communication, and theory of mind (gaze following and understanding intentions). Although toddler humans and adult apes had about the same capabilities in spatial observation, counting, and causality, humans were far superior in areas of social cognition. In social learning, humans averaged close to 100%, whereas apes averaged less than 5%. The study discredits the general intelligence hypothesis that human cognition differs from that of apes only in general cognitive processes such as memory, learning, or perceptual processing. Immature human brains operate quite differently from those of mature apes, suggesting that there are some fundamental differences in the structure and/or function of human brains. Evolutionary theory would claim that these markedly enhanced social skills were just due to some random mutations that conferred some kind of survival advantage, even though the supposed ancestors of human beings lived in habitats similar to those of the great apes. However, the Bible says that humans were designed to be different from all other animals, especially in their ability to excel at social learning and communication.

Conclusion Top of page

In conclusion, it seems likely that "in the image of God" refers to the characteristics of the human spirit and the ability to make moral judgments - things that are not found in any animal species, even those to whom we are said to be closely related. Even evolutionists are beginning to recognize the uniqueness of human beings. Dr. Ian Tattersall, in Becoming Human - Evolution and Human Uniqueness, says humans represent a "totally unprecedented entity" on Earth, and "Homo sapiens is not simply an improved version of its ancestors - it's a new concept." It is the ability to make moral judgments that convinces us of our inability to "measure up" to the intended moral standards laid down by God.23 However, it is the spirit of man that allows us to communicate with God's Spirit through Jesus Christ24 so that we can once again be in fellowship with a Holy God25 and experience the ultimate relationship in the universe.

Who Was Adam?: A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of ManWho Was Adam?: A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Man. Are humans just advanced apes or have they been specially created in the image of God? Publications by scientists almost never ask the question, whereas publications by theists seldom examine the scientific data that relates to the question. However, two scientists raised in non-Christian homes, Fuz Rana (Ph.D. in chemistry) and Hugh Ross (Ph.D. in astronomy), have written a new book (Who Was Adam?: A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Man) that examines the question of human origins by comparing biblical and evolutionary models.

Origin of the Human Species

References Top of page

  1. God the Father - The old guy with the white beard"The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us." (D&C 130:22)
    "This is the way our Heavenly Father became God. Joseph Smith taught: 'It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the character of God. . . . He was once a man like us; . . . God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did' (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 345-46)."
    Accordingly, Temple Mormons can progress to Godhead, just as God the Father did:
    "If we prove faithful to the Lord, we will live in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom of heaven. We will become exalted, just like our Heavenly Father. Exaltation is the greatest gift that Heavenly Father can give his children (see D&C 14:7)."
    "These are some of the blessings given to exalted people:
    1. They will live eternally in the presence of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ (see D&C 76).
    2. They will become gods."
    Gospel Principles
    , 1997. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, Chapter 47 "EXALTATION".
  2. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
  3. Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed. (Psalm 57:1)
    I will say of the LORD, "He is my refuge... He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. (Psalm 91:2-4)
  4. Klein, R.G. 1992. Evolutionary Anthropology 1: 5-14.
    Balter, M. 1999. Restorers reveal 28,000-year-old artworks. Science 283: 1835.
  5. Jim Holt. 1997. Science Resurrects God. The Wall Street Journal (December 24, 1997), Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
  6. Horgan, J. 1999. The Undiscovered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation
    Horgan, J. 2000. The Undiscovered Mind. HMS Beagle, BioMedNet 71: essay (requires free registration).
  7. Tuma, R.S. 2000. Thinking Like a Chimp. HMS Beagle, BioMedNet 90: feature 2 (requires free registration).
  8. Povinelli, D.J. 1998. Animal Self-Awareness: A Debate Can Animals Empathize? Scientific American.
  9. A. M. Woodbury. 1951 Natural Philosophy, Treatise Three, Psychology, III, Ch. 40, Art. 2. Sydney: Aquinas Academy, p. 447.
  10. Warneken, F., and M. Tomasello. 2006. Altruistic Helping in Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees. Science 311: 1301-1303.
  11. And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)
  12. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:23)
  13. The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, (Romans 8:16)
  14. Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth? (Ecclesiastes 3:21)
    and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. (Ecclesiastes 12:7)
  15. Vedantam, S. 2001. Of mind and spirit from the Washington Post.
  16. Newberg, A., E.G. D'Aquili, and V. Rause. 2001. Why God Won't Go Away : Brain Science and the Biology of Belief
  17. Eternity in their HeartsHe [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) For evidence that God has put this knowledge of Him into even primitive cultures, see Eternity in their Hearts by Don Richardson
  18. Then the LORD God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever"-- (Genesis 3:22)
  19. Kagan, J. 1998. Three Seductive Ideas. Harvard University Press. ISBN: 0674890337.
  20. Shweder, R.A. 1999. Humans Really Are Different. Science 283: 798.
  21. Keith Jensen, Josep Call, and Michael Tomasello. 2007. Chimpanzees Are Vengeful But Not Spiteful. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 104: 13046-50.
  22. Riedl, K., K. Jensen, J. Call, and M. Tomasello. 2012. No third-party punishment in chimpanzees Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 1203179109v1-201203179.
  23. Herrmann, E., J. Call, M. V. Hernández-Lloreda, B. Hare, and M. Tomasello. 2007. Humans Have Evolved Specialized Skills of Social Cognition: The Cultural Intelligence Hypothesis Science 317: 1360-1366.
  24. For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish. (Romans 7:19)
  25. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:22-25)
  26. What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3)

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