What does science teach us about humanity’s uniqueness, importance and place in the universe? Often, the sheer size of space and time are invoked to underscore our smallness and insignificance. But perhaps that has it backwards, says Marcelo Gleiser. Writing recently for NPR’s Cosmos & Culture blog, Gleiser presents the argument that the scope of the universe in fact underscores humanity’s exclusivity.
Gleiser begins by noting that humanity is unique in part because life on any planet is tied to the unique history of that planet. Thus, Gleiser contends, “We can state, with high confidence, that even if there are other intelligent creatures in the universe, even humanoid ones, they won't be like us. We are the only humans in the cosmos, the product of a very particular set of cosmic, geochemical and evolutionary circumstances.” Human life is intimately tied to life on planet Earth.
Interestingly, the text of Genesis captures this close connection between the earth and humanity in a way that is often lost on English-speaking readers. Genesis 2:7 asserts that God creates the Adam (a transliteration of the Hebrew word meaning “human”) from the adamah (meaning “earth” or “ground”). If an English translation really wanted to capture this wordplay, it would talk about the “earthling” being created from the “earth,” or about the first human, “Dusty,” being created from the “dust.” In any case, the connection in Genesis is clear: humanity is created from the earth for the purpose of caring for the earth.
Beyond this connection, what’s fascinating — and perhaps questionable from a scientific standpoint — is Gleiser’s conclusion, which associates who we are with a resoundingly moral claim about what we should do. Because we are unique, Gleiser calls us to re-evaluate how we treat other humans and our planet, a call that again has points of contact with Genesis 1 through 3. He notes that part of our uniqueness is the ability to choose how we will respond, implying that there is a right and wrong choice.
Humanity is created from the earth for the purpose of caring for the earth.
Some might ask: what justifies Gleiser, as a scientist, in moving from a purely material account of our biological uniqueness to opening the door to the deeper philosophical realms of ontology, epistemology and ethics? What justifies his movement from speaking of matter to explaining why we matter? What justifies moving from seeing humans as biologically unique to seeing humans as morally unique, positioned with the power of choice and called to act one way rather than another?
Gleiser is correct to resist a complete separation of science, wonder and ethics, as though each deals with a completely different realm. Purely materialistic explanations of who we are as humans always fall short. No matter our presuppositions, most of us simply cannot avoid the most basic of spiritual experiences: a sense of awe and wonder at the world around us and a sense of obligation to respond. Properly understood (and in contrast to the philosopher David Hume), then, the very facts of who we are do indeed inspire a sense of values, a sense of obligation about what we ought to do.
And what ought we do? Gleiser points out that we have a choice about how to relate to other humans and our world. But there’s a deeper choice in play as well. Will we give thanks or not? Will we give praise or not? And this is where Gleiser and Genesis part ways. In Scripture, proper worship, love and trust of God is the hinge on which our relationships to other humans and creation turns. Only when our awe at creation leads us into praise of the one true God can we be led back to see our proper obligations to our sisters and brothers and all creation. Only when we see ourselves and all creation as icons, pointers and signs of God will we be able to understand fully and truly the privilege and importance of being human.