I’ll admit right off the top that I have a problem with the concept that “life is sacred,” not that I don’t feel that my life, and that of my wife and children and grandchildren aren’t sacred to me. But various religions justify various positions on social issues on the grounds that human life is “sacred.” I have to ask the question why human life, as opposed to other kinds of life, is particularly special – except to us.
Once upon a time, scientists and others claimed that Homo sapiens were qualitatively different and superior to other forms of life. No other form of life made tools, it was said. No other form of life could plan logically, or think rationally. No other form of life could communicate. And, based on these assertions, most people agreed that humans were special and their life was “sacred.”
The only problem is that, the more we learn about life on our planet, the more every one of these assertions has proved to be wrong. Certain primates use tools; even Caledonian crows do. A number of species do think and plan ahead, if not in the depth and variety that human beings do. And research has shown and is continuing to show that other species do communicate, from primates to gray parrots. Research also shows that some species have a “theory of mind,” again a capability once thought to be restricted to human beings. But even if one considers just Homo sapiens, the most recent genetic research shows that a small but significant fraction of our DNA actually comes from Neandertal ancestors, and that genetic research also indicates that Neandertals had the capability for abstract thought and speech. That same research shows that, on average, both Neandertals and earlier Homo sapiens had slightly larger brains than do people today. Does that make us less “sacred”?
One of the basic economic principles is that goods that are scarce are more valuable, and we as human beings follow that principle, one might say, religiously – except in the case of religion. Human beings are the most common large species on the planet earth, six billion plus and growing. Tigers and pandas number in the thousands, if that. By the very principles we follow every day, shouldn’t a tiger or a panda be more valuable than a human? Yet most people put their convenience above the survival of an endangered species, even while they value scarce goods, such as gems and gold, more than common goods.
Is there somehow a dividing line between species – between those that might be considered “sacred” and those that are not? Perhaps… but where might one draw that line? A human infant possesses none of the characteristics of a mature grown adult. Does that make the infant less sacred? A two year old chimpanzee has more cognitive ability than does a human child of the same age, and far more than a human infant. Does that make the chimp more sacred? Even if we limit the assessment of species to fully functioning adults, is an impaired adult less sacred than one who is not? And why is a primate who can think, feel, and plan less sacred than a human being? Just because we have power… and say so?
Then, there’s another small problem. Nothing on the earth that is living can survive without eating in some form or another something else that is or was living. Human beings do have a singular distinction there – we’re the species that has managed to get eaten less by other species than any other species. Yes… that’s our primary distinction… but is that adequate grounds for claiming that our lives, compared to the lives of other thinking and feeling species, are particularly special and “sacred”?
Or is a theological dictum that human life is sacred a convenient way of avoiding the questions raised above, and elsewhere?