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What does it mean to be human?

By David Wilkinson - posted Wednesday, 10 November 2004

Anthropologist Desmond Morris suggested the discovery of a human "Hobbit" on Flores would force many religions to examine their basic beliefs. The suggestion provoked quite a reaction.

"The existence of 'Mini-Man' should destroy religion," claims Desmond Morris.

Desmond Morris: Eton or the Zoo? 

I can't help thinking we've been here before. Indeed, Richard Dawkins the evolutionary biologist, still cannot understand why religion survived Darwin.


Yet as science progresses, despite the decline of allegiance to traditional Christian churches in Western Europe, religion continues to grow worldwide in many different forms.

This should not surprise us. Contemporary science, far from solving every question, often highlights the big questions which are central to human existence. This is the case with the discovery of LB1, the 18,000-year-old specimen of the new species Homo floresiensis.

The find of this so-called "Hobbit" on Flores Island excites me both as a scientist and a Christian theologian, for it poses the big question of what it means to be human.

Frankly naive

People have always been fascinated with this question, in particular what makes humans different.

LB1 becomes part of this contemporary question alongside developments in science such as human cloning and the growth of artificial intelligence where what it means to be human is seen in Star Trek's Mr Data and Kubrick's AI.

Some have tried to separate human beings in terms of physical, mental or genetic characteristics.


The trouble with this, as LB1 demonstrates, is that these are simply often different points on a spectrum rather than absolutes.

While some religious people believe humans were created 6,000 years ago, or view humans as the sole possessors of souls, it is quite frankly naïve and ignorant to characterise the depth of all religious thinking in this way.

Natural world

Within the Christian tradition, some have suggested that the key to being human is our ability of rational thinking, freewill, our moral sense or our capacity to face our own death. The fact that God may have created many other species in the universe does not diminish the relationship he has given to human beings

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First published on the BBC News Magazine on November 1, 2004.

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About the Author

David Wilkinson is currently Wesley Research Lecturer in Theology and Science in the Department of Theology at the University of Durham, England.

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