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Are humans special?

What (if anything) makes humans special?

Once there was a time when many humans thought that their home, the Earth, was at the centre of the Universe – but that changed when at last humans became persuaded that the Earth is orbiting a star.

There was a time too when most humans thought that our species was very different to the other species on Earth. Can we still claim this special status in the light of what science says?

Professor Mark Pagel is a Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Reading. He spoke to Year 10 students at a recent event for young people to address this very question.

In this video, he fills in the picture from science and highlights that when a human is compared – genetically – with some of the other species on our planet, the similarities are striking.


Panel Debate

Professor Pagel then joined a panel of five more experts to take up the challenge of looking at what science and religion tell us about what it means to be human.


• Professor Mary James, President of the British Educational Research Association (Chair)
• Professor Mark Pagel, Evolutionary Biology, Reading University
• Peter Hancock, Bishop in the Church of England.
• Jay Lakhani, Head of the Hindu Academy, Education Director for the Hindu Council UK
• Dr Stephen Law, Philosopher and Atheist, editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal THINK (Heythrop College in the University of London)
• Dr Andrew Moore, Theologian (Oxford University)

A Summary of What was Said

Theologian Dr Andrew Moore proposed that for Christians, a central question is “Who is Jesus?” and that by researching and considering this question we can inch a little closer to understanding why humans exist and what being human really means. Andrew argues that religious ideas are not inferior to scientific ideas; instead, science and religion are each exploring different aspects of the bigger question, “who do you think you are?”

Philosopher Dr Stephen Law drew attention another type of question that is outside the realm of science. While science has provide the insights that have enabled humans to produce amazing technological applications, science cannot tell us whether what can be done, should be done. As to the question of whether science and religion make conflicting claims, Stephen noted that it depends on what science and religion are considered to say. In particular, if a religion makes a claim about the age of the Earth – he pointed out – this can be readily examined by science.

Bishop Peter Hancock developed this theme further by pointing out that in his view it is not the role of religion to make claims about the age of the universe. His view of the first few chapters of Genesis is that the style of writing is literary and not literal. Science, he says, has profoundly changed how people today think about what it means to be human but in the Bishop’s view, the message from religion remains in-tact. This message, argued the Bishop is that what makes humans special is that humans have been called to have a relationship with God – so our specialness in religious terms is all about whether we hear and respond to God’s call and is not a question about whether there is something different about us that can be identified scientifically.

Hindu and Physicist, Jay Lakhani talked about the religions in the Indic Traditions – Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. In these religions there are many different ideas about whether there is a God or gods or no god at all. These ideas, explained Jay, are narratives that people work with while trying to fathom out what being human means. For Jay, there is no conflict between the ideas of evolution and his religion. As a Hindu and also as a scientist he believes that humans have emerged from the animal kingdom. In his view, it would be wrong, however, to assert that just because ‘being human’ has a biological explanation, our existence cannot also have a spiritual significance.

Finally Stephen Law talked about why, in his view, it seems to make more sense to say there is no God than that there is a god who matches the description that many religions present. He noted that if he were to claim that the Universe was created by an all-powerful, all-evil god who wished nothing but harm and misery for everyone, people would immediately reject that claim. They would point to all the good things in the world to show that the claim is preposterous. Reversing this argument, Stephen said that, similarly, the amount of misery and misfortune there is here on Earth is surely very good evidence that neither was the universe made by an all-powerful, all-good benevolent god.

It is interesting to see that at the end of this vigorous debate, the greatest challenge to religion came not from any new finding by science but from an age-old challenge – and one that is still very real now. This challenge is the question of how religions that ask us to believe in a Creator account for the existence of suffering and natural disasters.

Find out more

A Powerpoint show to explain these ideas further is available here.

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