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What does it mean to be a “living creature”?

Organic ‘robots’ and a definition of life

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Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University, 2020cancerous-tumor-dinosaur-bone
Cancer on a dinosaur fossil bone
Published: 18 February 2021 (GMT+10)

In August 2020, news media reported about a dinosaur bone discovery that provided apparently clear evidence that the animal had had bone cancer—this is not really news, as some claimed,1 since evidence of cancer in fossils had been identified previously.2 One article carried an intriguing headline—This dinosaur lived with cancer, then died in a flood.3 If you had read only the headline, you might have thought that the article had been written from the recent creation perspective that CMI believes and teaches.4 However, the article refers to the animal having lived 77 million years ago. Despite the author’s intentions, he provides indirect support for the Bible’s teaching that animals began to suffer from diseases, carnivory, and death after Adam’s sin, and that the Flood recorded in Genesis 7–8 destroyed all the land-based animals which were not with Noah in the Ark.

Some Christians who hold to the idea that animals lived and died for many millions of years before mankind arrived on the scene, claim that the warning (Gen 2:17) and curse of death (Gen 3:17) pronounced by God on Adam did not apply to animals, such as pigs and dogs. They also claim that examples of carnivory evidenced in the fossil record are not inconsistent with the “very good” (Gen 1:31) creation that came from God’s act of speaking things into existence. However, it is difficult to defend the claim that the evidence of cancer observed on the dinosaur bone is consistent with a “very good” creation.

We do not need to deal in this article with the claim that animals described by God as “living creatures” (Gen 1:20, 21, 24; Gen 2:19) were dying before Adam’s sin and the curse upon the created order—there are many good resources on Creation.com that demonstrate that Adam’s sin also inflicted suffering, pain, and death on animals referred to in the Bible as “living creatures”.5,6,7,8,9,10 Rather, we will consider what it means for an animal to be a “living creature”.

Defining temporal life is not simple. For example, one dictionary definition states that life is “the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death”.

Boston Dynamics, Incrobotic-dog
Robotic Dog

To further define “living creature”, it may be helpful to consider the example of a robotic entity with artificial ‘intelligence’, such as the robotic ‘dog’ developed by Boston Dynamics. Imagine that computer scientists and engineers will be able to develop for an entity such as this robotic ‘dog’ flexible appendages (e.g., human-like fingers and opposable thumbs) and the ability to assemble copies of itself (i.e., ‘reproduce’) from information stored in its central processor’s static memory. Such an impressive entity would not be considered alive by anyone. It is only in science fiction that robotic creatures with artificial intelligence become alive and sentient.

Few people would consider disassembling an inoperable robotic ‘dog’ for spare parts to be problematic or shutting off the processor on one to be a form of roboticide akin to slaughtering a pig or euthanizing a pet dog. We know that an entity such as this robotic ‘dog’ is not a “living creature”. Even though the robotic ‘dog’ could meet most of the attributes of life in the dictionary definition, it is not alive.

The example of this robotic ‘dog’ may help us provide a better definition of what it means to be a “living creature”. It appears that there are at least three distinct levels (or types) of organic ‘life’. At the highest level are humans which meet every part of the dictionary definition referenced above—our bodies are composed of organic molecules and water, they grow from zygotes to adulthood, reproduce, are able to perform functional actions, and undergo continual change (e.g., decay and grow old) before they die. However, a missing component of this definition is the sentient capacity of the spirit (“breath of life”) with which humans were endowed by God at creation (Gen 2:7). Animals that are called “living creatures” are similar to humans since they also have a spirit component (Gen 1.30; Ps 104:27–30; Eccl 3:19–21). However, it is generally believed among Christian interpreters that their spirits are not of the same kind as that of humans, since they do not have the same rational capacities or moral accountability11 and probably are not immortal.

There appears to be at least one level of organic ‘life’ that is less than that of the life of animals which God refers to as “living creatures”. This could include entities such as viruses and single-celled organisms (e.g., bacteria and amoebas) and some multi-celled organisms (e.g., plants). This level of ‘life’ may also include insects. These entities meet the dictionary definition of ‘life’ mentioned above, but they do not appear to have been endowed with spirits. Entities at the lowest level of ‘life’ operate entirely by something akin to instinct and do not have sentience. They are essentially organic ‘robots’. It seems likely that in the near future it will be possible for engineers to assemble an entity made from metals and silicone-based and organic-based (e.g., plastics) components and program it to behave in the same way as a virus, bacterium, or even an insect. It might even be possible, in time, for engineers to use entirely organic molecules to assemble such an entity—at that point, if achieved, humans would have manufactured organic ‘robots’. However, we should be skeptical about the claim that someday humans will be able to manufacture entities from raw materials which the Bible refers to as “living creatures”.

This distinction in the levels of ‘life’ is important. Before Adam had sinned in the Garden of Eden and had eaten a banana (Gen 1:29–30) or had pruned a tree (Gen 2:15), his digesting the food and putting the skin of the banana and the pruned leaves on a compost pile, would not have resulted in the death of “living creatures”. The action of decomposing plant cells is, in principle, no different from an engineer disassembling a robotic ‘dog’. Decomposition of organic entities at the lowest level of ‘life’ is not death any more than a battery losing its charge is death (even though we may refer to batteries without energy as ‘dead’) or clouds shedding their water molecules as rain is death.

God could have designed mankind to be recharged electrically much like we plug in an EV. However, He chose in His great wisdom to provide the ‘electricity’ used in our cells through the consumption of organic materials. Thus, when Adam consumed fruit from one of the trees in the Garden of Eden from which he was permitted to eat, nothing died because plants are not “living creatures” in the Biblical sense.

Many proponents of biological evolution may not understand the importance of this distinction, particularly if they are philosophical materialists—that is, they support the theory that nothing exists except matter and its motions and that there is no spiritual dimension to “living creatures”. However, we know from God’s word that eating or using plant-based products does not result in the death of these entities because they were never alive in the Biblical sense but are organic ‘robots’ that can be disassembled to provide energy and sustenance for “living creatures”.

There was no death of “living creatures” before Adam’s sin. Thus, all evidence of suffering and death (e.g., dinosaur bones in the fossil record) must be the result of the curse placed on the created order (Gen 3:17–18) because of Adam’s sin. Thank God, that the curse will be finally lifted in the new creation, where there will be no more death (Rev 21:4).

References and notes

  1. Neilson, S., A dinosaur has been diagnosed with cancer for the first time. Here’s how the scientists did it, Business Insider, 5 Aug 2020; www.businessinsider.com/dinosaur-diagnosed-with-cancer-first-case-2020-8. Return to text.
  2. As reported in: Smith, Calvin, Is cancer ‘very good’? Does the Bible allow pre-Fall animal death? December 2014. Return to text.
  3. Wehner, M., This dinosaur lived with cancer, then died in a flood, 4 August 2020; bgr.com/2020/08/04/dinosaur-cancer-bone-tumor. Return to text.
  4. CMI, What we believe – Doctrines and Beliefs; creation.com/what-we-believe. Return to text.
  5. Gurney, Robert J. M., The carnivorous nature and suffering of animalsJournal of Creation 18(3):70–75, December 2004. Return to text.
  6. Bell, Philip, The problem of evil: pre-Fall animal death? March 2011. Return to text.
  7. Cosner, Lita, ‘No death before the Fall’? The importance of the distinction of nephesh chayyah life, June 2012. Return to text.
  8. Cosner, Lita, Was there really no death before the Fall? April, 2016. Return to text.
  9. Price, Paul, Animal death before the Fall: Cruelty to animals is contrary to God’s nature, March 2020. Return to text.
  10. Sarfati, Jonathan, Questions arising from an old earth talk Responding to old-earther Eric Gustafson, June 2020. Return to text.
  11. Cosner, Lita, Do animals have spirits? August 2020. Return to text.

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