The biological classification of humans
Is it legitimate for Christians to classify mankind as a mammal?
Dr Don Batten answers a thoughtful query from a young teenager about whether Christians should classify humans biologically according to our creaturely characteristics.
‘Diane’ [not real name], from Australia, recently wrote:
Our family has just had a recent discussion, about humans and mammals. Mammals are a clade of warm blooded amniotes. Are amniotes animals, and if so why are humans classified even in Christian material as a mammal? According to Genesis, God created man in his own image and animals are not created in the same image. I believe that we have the same features of a mammal, but I am just curious to know as a Christian should people be classified as a mammal? So are we really mammals? Or do we just have the same features of mammals, should we have our own classification on the taxonomy scale? It would be most helpful if you could explain this case to me, and if you have done a study on this case before could you tell me where to find it on your website. If my opinion has been confused, may you please advise me so, so that I can understand this stuff. I am only 13 and desiring to have a true biblical understanding on this matter.
God bless and thank you for your time.
Thanks for thinking about these things and asking this important question.
There is a box entitled “Is man an animal?” in the article Furry little humans? that deals briefly with this question. The Bible itself indicates that on one level we are creatures (living creations) and in that sense classified with other living creatures:
Genesis 2:7 The LORD God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
“Living being” is a translation of the Hebrew, nephesh chayah (נפשׁ חיה), which is variously translated, such as living being, living creature or living soul, etc. The same description is used of some animals (Genesis 1:20 and elsewhere), which we might broadly think of as vertebrate animals. So, for example, we share this earthly nature with birds, cats, monkeys, and elephants. So on the one hand we are ‘made in the image of God’ but on the other we are creaturely, made from the earth like the animals.
Of course only humans are made in the image of God; no animal was created so. But the distinction is not in the nature of our earthly bodies but our ability to think, reason, worship, understand moral standards, including experiencing real moral guilt for our sin, etc. See Made in the image of God, or this older article by a godly Professor of Pediatrics, who had given considerable thought to what it means to be made in the image of God and how that distinguishes us from the animals: Man: The image of God
Therefore, we can be legitimately classified as mammals and primates in the sense of our earthly bodies, but not ‘just mammals’, or ‘just primates’, because of our having been made in God’s likeness.
Interestingly, Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), the Christian creationist founder of the basic concepts of biological classification, classified man with primates and mammals on the basis of man’s physical similarities. Linnaeus argued that it was not man’s physical features that stood him apart from the animals but his other attributes that ennobled him.
There is also a higher purpose in the visible connection we share with the rest of the created world. The similarities that we share with other creatures shows that we all had one Creator, not many creators; there is one divine mind behind the whole of creation. This is a ‘message’ from God’s creation so that no-one has any excuse for disbelieving in the only God who is the Creator of all (Romans 1:18ff).
I hope this helps.