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The biological classification of humans

Is it legitimate for Christians to classify mankind as a mammal?

Published: 30 June 2013 (GMT+10)

Dr Don Batten answers a thoughtful query from a young teenager about whether Christians should classify humans biologically according to our creaturely characteristics.

ape human hands


‘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.

Dear ‘Diane’,

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.

Every blessing,

Don Batten

Helpful Resources

If Animals Could Talk
by Dr Werner Gitt
US $10.00
Soft Cover
Contested Bones
by Christopher Rupe, Dr. John Sanford
US $24.00
Soft Cover

Readers’ comments

Pat G.
Personally, I would classify human beings in our own biological kingdom. Although we have many biological characteristics in common with mammals, our mental and spiritual characteristics are completely new. We are sapient, unlike any animal. It would be wise, I think, to insist that we have our own kingdom. Otherwise, it just muddies the waters. We aren't descended from any other life form, and God made a point of telling us that He particularly shaped us from the earth. "Nephesh" in Hebrew means "spirit" or "breath", and "chayah" means "living, life". We are living spirits, having the breath of life. In no way does this imply that we belong in the animal kingdom.
Don Batten
I appreciate your heart in this, but it seems that you have not read the article very carefully. The term 'living soul' (nephesh chayah) is also used in the Bible of animals (having the breath of life).

Of course we are not 'just animals', but something much more, as the article spells out, because we are made in the image of God. References to articles were given that 'flesh out' what this means.
Judith S.
Well done, 'Diane', for asking.
It may be worth remembering that apes are primates AND mammals. Being a primate does not stop them from being mammals, but they are not JUST mammals.
All primates are mammals, but not all mammals are primates (obviously). In the same way, all humans are, but not all primates or mammals are human.
Similarly, humans are primates and mammals, but we are not JUST primates or mammals.
R. S.
Kevin wants the “image of God” to only apply to the spiritual. However, for it not to apply to the physical also runs into trouble. Otherwise, why is our dear Savior even now sitting at the right hand of his Father having taken our form first? And don’t forget, he will remain that way forever. If we go by your “spiritual-only” rule, then our God ultimately took on our physical image while we only adopted his spiritual. So, there is a mystery still to the “image of God” creation. However, a good rule might be: If we do not understand it, then leave it a mystery. We certainly don’t need any more weird theology going around.
Marc P.
Don't you think the image of God in man means more than spiritual characteristics? The Son of God became a man, and it also has to do with his physical body. Thanks.
Vernon K.
"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."

It would seem this definition does not fully apply until AFTER the fall when Adam and Eve had eaten of the tree of Knowledge?
Samy F.
But what man, in his natural condition, has not got, is Spiritual life the higher and different sort of life that exists in God. We use the same word life for both: but if you thought that both must therefore be the same sort of thing, that would be like thinking that the 'greatness' of space and the `greatness' of God were the same sort of greatness. In reality, the difference between Biological life and Spiritual life is so important that I am going to give them two distinct names. The Biological sort which comes to us through Nature, and which (like everything else in Nature) is always tending to run down and decay so that it can only be kept up by incessant subsidies from Nature in the form of air, water, food, etc., is Bios. The Spiritual life which is in God from all eternity, and which made the whole natural universe, is Zoe. Bios has, to be sure, a certain shadowy or symbolic resemblance to Zoe: but only the sort of resemblance there is between a photo and a place, or a statue and a man. A man who changed from having Bios to having Zoe would have gone through as big a change as a statue which changed from being a carved stone to being a real man.
C. S. Lewis
Samy F.
A statue has the shape of a man but is not alive. In the same way, man has (in a sense I am going to explain) the 'shape' or likeness of God, but he has not got the kind of life God has. Let us take the first point (man's resemblance to God) first. Everything God has made has some likeness to Himself. Space is like Him in its hugeness: not that the greatness of space is the same kind of greatness as God's, but it is a sort of symbol of it, or a translation of it into non-spiritual terms. Matter is like God in having energy: though, again, of course, physical energy is a different kind of thing from the power of God. The vegetable world is like Him because it is alive, and He is the 'living God'. But life, in this biological sense, is not the same as the life there is in God: it is only a kind of symbol or shadow of it. When we come on to the animals, we find other kinds of resemblance in addition to biological life. The intense activity and fertility of the insects, for example, is a first dim resemblance to the unceasing activity and the creativeness of God. In the higher mammals we get the beginnings of instinctive affection. That is not the same thing as the love that exists in God: but it is like it - rather in the way that a picture drawn on a flat piece of paper can nevertheless be 'like' a landscape. When we come to man, the highest of the animals, we get the completest resemblance to God which we know of. ... Man not only lives, but loves and reasons: biological life reaches its highest known level in him.
C. S. Lewis
peter H.
i notice in the article that you give gen 1 v 20 as an example of "nephesh chayah".i though that this hebrew wording had been elsewhere described as meaning ,having the breath of life. but gen1 v 20 is aquatic life which i understand would not have been on the ark.
i am slightly confused.
Don Batten
Those on the Ark not only had the breath of life but also breathed through nostrils. Genesis 6:17 is qualified by 6:20 and 7:22.
Victor B.
"On being human" - a very important thing for all humans to think about. Without a grounding in the existence and truth of a Creator and "mankind" being created "in his image" to have a right relationship with him - We can miss the meaning of what it is to be "human".

This biblical spiritual aspect of being human cannot be ignored and informs our thinking on matters such as the recent article "Brain split between atheism and theism" or "The God spot" in the brain - kind of explanation.
kevin B.
I believe that it must be emphasised that the image of god refers only to the spiritual aspect, otherwise we could get ourselves into all sorts of trouble. God bless your work.

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