Each Like No Other
Six in ten Americans do not view human life as "having unconditional, intrinsic worth," according to recent survey The study and report, conducted by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, revealed that sixty percent of evangelicals and born again Christians believed that human life was sacred by the definition supplied, but that the majority of Catholics, Protestants, and Pentecostals did not. The same group determined that only six percent of Americans espouse a biblical worldview. It is one percent among Catholics. This represents a dramatic shift in the way that Americans feel about one of life's most basic questions.
We identify life as that which is organic, that which comes from life, has respiratory processes, requires water and nourishment, grows, reproduces, changes, and at some point, dies. Forms of life vary in complexity, and organisms may live for the briefest moment or for thousands of years. All life is miraculous. Even the simplest, most insignificant one-celled organism is remarkable in that it lives.
Scientists believe the first life on earth was a simple life form, and a tiny bacteria could, in theory, destroy all life on earth. From an amoeba to a two thousand-year-old redwood, a fungus to a giant squid, a gnat to a Asian elephant, life exists and evolves on Earth, individual organisms and species ever changing. We marvel at the resiliency of life. We marvel at the fragility of life. We marvel at life.
Our Moment in the Cosmic Timeline
We see the loss of the passenger pigeon and dodo bird as tragedies. We work to save endangered tigers, cheetahs, pandas, gorillas, and other endangered animals we fear could be lost forever. We took measures to save the bald eagle, fearing the loss of our American national symbol. We know the ivory-billed woodpecker is likely gone, but we want to believe the occasional claim that it may be living quietly in a forest somewhere, hidden for nearly a century since the last photograph of the bird was taken. We list snail darters and kangaroo rats and Puerto Rican cave cockroaches as endangered, even though the fish is tiny, and the others are considered pests. We understand the loss of a species means that something unique and irreplaceable is no more and can not be again in our world.
Viruses are not exactly alive, depending on how we define life. But they have some characteristics of life. While we struggle to save vulnerable plants and animals, we work to extinguish or all but extinguish germs that take lives. Eradicating smallpox was a monumental task, taken on to rid the world of a scourge. Now, the germs, so deadly to mankind, still exist, but only in laboratory samples, and we struggle with the decision to maintain them. Even there, such a decision is so permanent. We work toward eradicating polio, having eradicated one strain and chasing the other from most of the world.
Some species die out, never interacting with man, and others we fear will die out despite our best efforts. We marvel at the creatures that have shared our planet, the dinosaurs and early mammals, the more recently extinct birds and mammals great and small. Our own little existence is such a little space of time in the 4.5 billion years that scientists believe the earth has been. P.D. James in Children of Men had the sobering thought, "Of the four billion life forms which have existed on this planet, three billion, nine hundred and sixty million are now extinct. We don't know why. Some by wanton extinction, some through natural catastrophe, some destroyed by meteorites and asteroids. In the light of these mass extinctions it really does seem unreasonable to suppose that Homo sapiens should be exempt. Our species will have been one of the shortest-lived of all, a mere blink, you may say, in the eye of time.” Some scientists believe there are eight million species on earth, and some say twelve million species share the globe with man. It is likely that 99% of all the species that have lived on Earth are extinct.
In Genesis, we read the story of Creation, an earth first, simple life next, more complex life forms over time, added upon the simpler forms. It takes billions of years, according to scientists, to prepare the environment in which mammals can exist for such a little moment in the cosmic timeline. During that time, we humans have had our time, created the human story, its joys and sorrows, triumphs and foibles, all that is human history. Our time features a planet rich in life of many varieties, including organisms we have not yet discovered. We live with our fellow life forms, dependent on other life for our survival.
Only a Human
We observe in some animals a personality. We don't know the extent to which animals have emotions, but we note uniqueness in our pets. There is an ongoing debate as to the extent to which what we see is emotion or not. But we've seen dogs wag their tails excitedly, pine when lonely, or growl when threatened. We've seen dogs rescue humans at risk of their own lives. We've trained animals to do tricks, to do work, to assist those with disabilities. One small monkey provided a form of physical therapy for her disabled human master without being trained to do so. A famous gorilla learned sign language.
We value a pet and mourn its loss. We go to zoos and watch nature shows, fascinated by our fellow creatures. We can love them individually. But the human being is something more than a dog, more than a gorilla. We are the only animal or form of life on earth that can wonder why. What makes us different?
What makes us different is that we can think and speak and create in a way that no other animal or lifeform on earth can. The human brain and larynx allow us to use language and speak in a complex way unique to us. We can make many sounds and speak in hundreds of languages. We can communicate through written and spoken language but also through tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and subtle behavioral cues.
Humans can think about things we can't see or feel or touch or smell or hear at the moment. We can think about principles and ideas. We can think concretely or symbolically or abstractly. We can imagine and can use our imagination to solve problems and create. We can evaluate options and make choices. We can make moral judgments. Only humans can write a symphony, build a cathedral, or appreciate humor or beauty. Only a human can do evil, and therefore, choose between good and evil. Only a human can regret or mourn the loss of a species or feel a sense of responsibility to save one. And only humans have the ability to try.
Six in Ten
Philosophers and psychologists grapple with what makes us human and why humans do the things we do. But each individual is one of a kind, unique. An individual human being is as unique as a species. With the loss of but one, the world loses something, someone, irreplaceable. To the six in ten Americans surveyed who felt that human life has no inherent value, though I'm sure do value life, I offer the words of Albert Schweitzer on all life. "I cannot but have Reverence for all that is called life. I cannot avoid compassion for everything that is called life. That is the beginning and foundation of morality. "'
Religious leader and physician Russell M. Nelson said many years ago, "No one can cuddle a cherished newborn baby, look into those beautiful eyes, feel the little fingers, and caress that miraculous creation without deepening reverence for life and for our Creator. " To the believer, the human soul derives infinite worth as the creation of God. The soul lives beyond the mortal existence, part of something eternal, something to outlive the earth and sun.
Abhijit Naskar, a neuroscientist believes in miracles no less. “Just imagine, among 8.7 million species, only one has become smart enough to ponder over the meaning of life. This simple evolutionary fact itself implies the gravitas of human life.” We look and have found no life but what is on our planet. We hope, and some fear, that somewhere else there is life, that we are not alone. Each human is rare and of worth by virtue of being part of the human family, the one like no other organism in the known universe, like no other living thing in the history of life on earth.