The Explanation Behind A Mysterious Revolution In Human Behaviour
By: Professor Nathan Aviezer
One of the most interesting subjects in our Holy Torah is the creation of Man. We read in Genesis 1:27: Elokim created man in His image; in the image of Elokim, He created him; male and female, He created them. However, the origin of Man is described again in the second chapter of Genesis (2:7): HaShem Elokim formed man from the dust of the earth, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living being. What does the second chapter contribute to our understanding of mankind’s origin beyond what is written in the first chapter? Verse 2:7 also raises another question. Unlike every other item that was created or formed by G-d, the Torah tells us what materials were used to form Man, namely ‘dust of the earth’. What is the purpose of including this information?
The first part of verse 2:7 describes the physical nature of Man (formed from the dust of the earth). The second part of verse 2:7 describes the spiritual nature of Man (He [G-d] breathed into his nostrils the soul of life). This verse expresses the dual nature of Man – the physical (dust) and the spiritual (soul). It is this combination – physical and spiritual – that constitutes the essence of Man.
We learn from verse 2:7 that Man was formed by adding spirituality (soul) to a physical creature (formed from the dust). The origin of the physical creature, mentioned first, is of minor interest. From the Torah perspective, the essential qualities of Man lie in his spirituality, which was infused into the already existing physical creature (He [G-d] breathed the soul of life into his nostrils). Therefore, it is not surprising that all Torah commentators define Man in terms of spiritual characteristics.
Rashi: “The soul of Man is highly developed because Man was granted understanding and speech.”
Ramban: “With his soul, Man reasons and speaks.”
Sforno: “When Man was created in G-d’s likeness, he became able to speak…Upon receiving G-d’s image, Man had the power of intellectual reasoning.”
Unkelus: “Man is the speaking being.”
“Created” (First Chapter) and “Formed” (Second Chapter)
There is yet another question. Why are two different verbs used to describe the origin of Man? In the first chapter, the Torah uses the verb “created” (vayivrah) – G-d created Man – whereas in the second chapter, the Torah uses the verb “formed” (vayitzer) – G-d formed Man.
The use of these two very different verbs can be understood in the following way: The first chapter deals with the spiritual aspects of Man (created in the image of G-d). Man is a creature endowed by G-d with completely new and unique features that are unlike those of any other creature. A fundamentally new creature deserves the verb created. By contrast, the beginning of verse 2:7 deals with the physical aspects of Man (formed from the dust of the earth). The physical aspects of Man are not fundamentally different from those of many other creatures. Therefore, the verb created would be inappropriate and the verb formed is used. In summary, the verb create relates to the formation of something fundamentally new. In the case of mankind, the fundamentally new feature is spirituality (created in the image of G-d).
Humans and Chimpanzees
Are there any signs that human beings possess spiritual features that are different from those of all other creatures? In fact, this notion has been vigorously contested by atheists who claim that human beings do not possess any spiritual uniqueness. They consider Homo sapiens to be just another of the two million species of animals thus far identified. Atheists do admit that we are different from other species, but every species possesses some special properties that set it aside as a separate species. They claim that it is only human pride that makes us think that we are unique creatures who were “created in the image of G-d.”
Consider the book “The Third Chimpanzee” by Professor Jared Diamond. The title refers to human beings, whereas the other two species are the common chimpanzee and the bonobo chimpanzee. His main thesis is that mankind lacks spiritual uniqueness. Diamond asserts that human beings have no special talents that are not shared, to some extent, by many other animals, including even our ability to think. Although he admits that we are more talented than other animals, he states that we are nothing unusual. In fact, the uniqueness of mankind is blatantly obvious and easily demonstrated. A Google search of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA, Professor Diamond’s home university) reveals that UCLA has a student body of 40 000 and their libraries contain over eight million volumes. But there is something amazing about these data. Not a single one of the 40 000 UCLA students is a chimpanzee! And there is something even more amazing. Not a single one of the eight million books in the UCLA libraries was written by a chimpanzee! These facts are especially surprising because of the close physical similarity between the two species. Diamond points out that 98.6% of the genetic material (DNA) found in humans is also found in chimpanzees. Since genes determine the physical properties of an animal, this close genetic similarity shows that physically, we are very similar to chimpanzees. This immediately raises the following question: If we are so very similar to chimpanzees physically, why are we so different intellectually, culturally, and spiritually? The idea of Divine input naturally comes to mind.
What about man’s physical capabilities? Humans cannot run like the deer, cannot fly like the bird, cannot swim like the dolphin, cannot climb like the squirrel, etc. It is obvious that G-d did not bestow special physical talents upon mankind. Thus, there is a clear distinction between spiritual and physical. In the spiritual, creative, and intellectual realms, mankind excels, whereas in the physical realm, we are quite ordinary.
This lack of any sign of spirituality is not restricted to chimpanzees. It also applies to all species of prehistoric man. The species of prehistoric man most similar to modern human beings is Neandertal Man, “who had brains as large and as complex as our own” (Eric Trinkaus, The Neandertals, 1993, p. 418). What were the artistic achievements of Neandertal Man? What great cities did he build? What profound writings did he leave for posterity? What important moral teachings did he expound? What marvellous paintings, stirring musical compositions, magnificent sculptures, moving poetry, breath-taking architecture, beautiful gardens, and profound scientific discoveries remain from the Neandertals’ 300 000-year-long sojourn on our planet? This seems like enough time to have accomplished something. However, their meagre cultural legacy contains not a single one of the above items! One might attribute the lack of cultural accomplishments of the chimpanzee to his smaller brain size, but this argument does not apply to Neandertal Man, whose brain size and development were equal to those of contemporary Modern Man.
Regarding artistic achievements, it is important to mention that the magnificent cave paintings found in south-western France, Spain, and elsewhere, were all the work of Modern Man. No cave painting has ever been discovered that was produced by a Neandertal. For unknown reasons, all Neandertals disappeared from the fossil record about 30 000 years ago whereas these cave paintings are more recent. What are the reasons for Neandertal Man’s lack of culture? Why was Modern Man able to revolutionise all aspects of his environment, while Neandertal Man hardly left a trace of his existence? Archaeologists search hard to find remnants of Neandertal Man, in spite of the fact that the Neandertal brain does not suggest any differences from the brain of Modern Man in intellectual capabilities. The archaeological data strongly suggest that contemporary humans are fundamentally different from all prehistoric men.
It is very interesting to note that the many unique features of human behaviour appeared quite suddenly, only a few thousand years ago. In fact, the appearance of civilization was so sudden and dramatic that the archaeologists speak of a revolution in human behaviour – the Neolithic Revolution – whose causes remain a mystery to this day. The sudden recent appearance of civilization is in complete harmony with Genesis 1:28: “G-d blessed mankind and commanded him to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the land and subdue it.” Every archaeological site testifies to the fulfilment of this Divine blessing.
I have emphasised that the Torah characterisation of Man as having been created “in the image of G-d” refers to the unique spiritual, creative, and intellectual qualities of contemporary human beings. I will now discuss three main aspects of man’s uniqueness.
1. Language and Communication
The past several thousand years have witnessed enormous progress in all areas of human endeavour. An essential ingredient of this progress is the unique ability of human beings to communicate ideas with each other through speech. This ability enables human beings to benefit from the ideas of others. The distinguished physicist Isaac Newton once remarked: “If I have seen farther than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Human speech should not be confused with the speech of parrots. Humans have the ability to communicate ideas, meaning to convey abstract and complicated ideas in science, technology, philosophy, art, etc. Parrots cannot convey ideas.
The importance of the communication of ideas cannot be overemphasised. The many technological innovations that have revolutionised human society resulted from the cumulative efforts of many talented people. Because man can communicate ideas, one need not “reinvent the wheel” before making new discoveries. Building upon the work of others has led to the rapid technological progress that is the hallmark of civilisation.
Man’s ability to communicate with his fellows is an important aspect of man’s having been created “in the image of G-d.”
2. Intellectual Curiosity
Man is the only creature that displays intellectual curiosity regarding abstract matters that do not enhance his chances for survival. These include philosophy, art, history, music, mathematics, aesthetics, theology, science, psychology, sociology, and many others. All other creatures concern themselves only with food, shelter, safety, and mating, for themselves and their family or colony. Only human beings express intellectual curiosity and devote much time to the pursuit of knowledge that has no practical consequences whatsoever.
An excellent illustration of this phenomenon is the article that you are now reading. Reading this article will not increase your salary, will not put better food on your table, and will not improve your physical situation in any way. Nevertheless, in spite of the absence of any practical benefits, you continue to read in order to satisfy your intellectual curiosity.
Man’s intellectual curiosity is another aspect of his having been created “in the image of G-d.”
3. Conscience and Morality
The most striking feature of man’s spiritual uniqueness lies in the realm of conscience and morality. Only human beings are capable of making decisions based on the principles of right and wrong. Human beings often sacrifice their personal welfare in the cause of morality. For example, newspaper stories of starving people generate a worldwide appeal for help. These hungry people usually have nothing in common with the average American or European – neither race, nor religion, nor language, nor ideology, nor life-style. Yet, the sight of starving people touches our hearts, and our conscience demands that we help alleviate their suffering.
Only mankind deals with moral problems and only human beings possess the spiritual ability to make moral judgments. This Divine privilege and its accompanying responsibility are ours alone, because we were created “in the image of G-d.”
“I have set before you this day, life and good, and death and evil…therefore, choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19)
[Bio (photo sent separately)]
Nathan Aviezer is Professor of Physics at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel. In addition to his scientific research, Aviezer has a long-standing involvement in the relationship between Torah and science. He is the author of three books on this subject: “In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science”; “Fossils and Faith: Understanding Torah and Science”; and, most recently, “Modern Science and Ancient Faith”. He has recently developed a teaching unit on Torah and science for Jewish high schools. For more details, visit: www.aviezer.org