Humus Sapiens, Part II

Filed Under philosophical fragments | Comments Off on Humus Sapiens, Part II

  creation-handsWhat are man and woman made of?    What makes them alive?


       These are very different questions.  The first can be answered in a word, dust,[1] or in a long string of words that amount to as much.  We might, for example, describe a human as “a physical arrangement of chemical elements and molecules, arranged into pattern-carrying structures of proteins, enzymes, genes, DNA, cells and so on…”    Now, this is a highly complex bio-physical structure, to be sure, and it displays remarkable talents; nonetheless, it’s still just dust, of one form or another, and death proves that point.  Humans and animals are made of the same stuff, and they all return to dust.

But the second question–What brings life to this dust?– is not so easily reduced to the barest elements.  Sure, the human body is made of dust, but what makes this complicated structure of dust come to life?  This second question requires a different sort of answer.  Mere physical description isn’t enough.  Nouns and adjectives don’t seem to be able to define what makes a human being human.  The answer to the second question seems to require the use of some verbs, which complicates things, of course, because verbs implicate relationships between subjects and objects.

 When you hide your face, they are terrified;  when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.

When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.    [Psalm 104:29-30]

The verbs used in the Psalms to answer the question of life include “send”, “create” and “renew”.  And then there’s “breath”, which of course comes from the verb, “breathe”.  Breath is a crucial word in the poetry of the Psalms, because the same ancient Hebrew word for breath (ruach), which here refers to “that activity which makes creatures alive”, is the same biblical word for the Spirit of God, their creator.  Thus, the difference between death and life is the literally the breath of God.

 Since dust–that is, material, physical stuff–can be studied in a scientific laboratory, whereas the breath of God cannot, some people prefer to believe that the material, physical stuff is all there is.  Donald MacKay calls this idea, “Nothing Buttery”.[2]  In other words, a person is “nothing but” dust.

 As it turns out, the “nothing buttery” idea is not as simple, nor as easy to live with, as might be desired.  “Nothing buttery” ideas have a hard time explaining life, thought, human relations, and human behavior.

 Take religion, for example: Why does religion seem to be so human?  And perhaps the tougher question is: Why would creatures evolve to believe in something that doesn’t exist? What is the evolutionary advantage of believing a lie?  Some researchers are thinking up answers to that question, and the latest ideas suggest that “religion is an inescapable artifact of the wiring of the brain” which evolved over time due to the advantage of having gullible children who would believe what their elders wanted them to believe.[3]  Thus, the gullibility of creatures to believe in the lie that there is anything meaningful in life turns out to be an evolutionary advantage.  Based on this explanation, Richard Dawkins claims that “slavish gullibility” emerged as an advantageous hereditary selection in the origin of our species.[4]

 If that’s the case then the better name for our species homo sapiens would not be humus sapiens, as I suggested previously, but rather, humus perfidiaens.[5]  It kind of makes sense.  After all, can dust really amount to anything? Of course, that would mean that faith, hope, love, humanity, culture, morality, religion, and yes, even science, which is based on the belief that our minds can discern reality, are all nothing but a meaningless pack of lies,as worthless as dust, and as meaningless as a random pile of it. Hmmm.  Really? How gullible can a person be?

[1] See “Humus Sapiens, Part I” below.

[2] Donald MacCrimmon MacKay presented the 1986 Gifford Lectures, and wrote widely on the mutual implications of brain science, theology and metaphysics. He presented a paper in 1976 for the American Scientific Affiliation titled, “Basic vs. Piecemeal Integration; Economy vs. Nothing-Buttery; The Deterministic Bogey”.

[3] Michael Brooks surveys current research on this topic in “Born Believers: How your brain creates God”, New Scientist, 4 February 2009.  If Dawkins is right about this, we can only praise him for his valiant publishing efforts to reverse the tide of natural selection which has so favored gullible creatures as to place them at the top of the food chain.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Latin for faithless, treachery or falsehood

Humus Sapiens

Filed Under Edifying Addresses | Comments Off on Humus Sapiens

Humus Sapiens: Part I

 What is a human being made of? 

planet-forming dust being blown by stellar winds in the W5 region of Cassiopeia

planet-forming dust being blown by stellar winds in the W5 region of Cassiopeia

The scientific answer would be: the same stuff that everything else is made of–the same fundamental sub-particles, particles, elements and molecules which can be found in the earth, the stars, the dust of the earth and the interstellar dust as well.  Indeed, the dust of the earth was originally stellar dust.  It took billions and billions years and stars to make up enough of the stuff to form the earth from the heavier elements like carbon, oxygen and iron, so that soil, water, rocks and humans could exist.

Thus, the scientific name, homo sapiens, derives literally from the Bible.  There’s a profound truth here, supported both by the physical sciences and the Bible: a human being is made out of the same stuff that makes up everything in the universe.  As the Bible puts it in the poetry of ancient Hebrew–

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.                   [Genesis 2:7]

That’s what we are made of: dust.  Literally, the star-dust from which the earth was formed.

Being formed of the dust of the earth, it’s fitting that man should also be named after it, as indeed he was.  Adam is the name taken from the biblical Hebrew word Adamah, meaning “earth”.  Thus, “Adam” is literally the word for “earthling”. And it’s likewise fitting that the scientific name for us earthlings, homo sapiens, would also derive from the ancient Latin word for dust, soil, and earth: humus.  This is the etymological explanation for the word homo as representing mankind.[1]  Thus, homo sapiens is Latin for sapient earthling, literally, “thinking earthling”: the earthling that has enough consciousness to think about things like etymologies and interstellar dust.  We might as well call it “thinking dust”, or humus sapiens, since that’s what we’re made of.

“Thinking dust” doesn’t sound too impressive, perhaps.  But oh, what dust it has become!  Dust that is capable of writing and enjoying Mozart’s symphonies.  Dust that wonders why there is beauty and strangeness in things.  Now that’s something to think about.  humus_hands1


[1] Jürgen Moltmann, for one, notices this etymology in Man: Christian Anthropology in the Conflicts of the Present, trans. by John Sturdy, (London: SPCK, 1971), p. 12.