by Stephen Lewis
for the NW region day conference, Nov 2007

Although I take my title from a fairly well known verse from Psalm 8, my aim is not to make any overtly theological pronouncements about the relationship between God and Man.

Instead, what I want to do is take a more scientific and analytical approach when it comes to considering the nature of Man to see how this might inform our understanding of this supposed Divine interest.

Here the Hebrew for 'Man' is enohsh. This can mean 'men' but here,  I am reliably informed, it refers to what we might call Mankind or even Humankind. When he wrote, the psalmist was not aware of the full extent  of the geographical spread of Mankind or Mankind's diversity. Nowadays, when we read the word Man, we perhaps immediately think in anthropological terms of all people - males and females of all ages everywhere in the world. The psalmist's outlook would have been much more parochial, however.

The psalmist's primary concern is in wondering why God should concern Himself with Man,  rather than the nature of Man per se. The nature of Man is left as understood.  The phrase 'What is Man that Thou art mindful of him' is used in wonderment. It is not a question in quite the way I have cast it. To express this wonderment, the psalmist resorts to contrasting Man with the vastness of the heavens. Although by comparison with certain other creatures he may appear more elevated, by comparison with the heavens he is small and insignificant.

The psalmist's sentiments were echoed in a more secular way by the cosmologist Carl Sagan. He was so struck by the picture christened the 'Pale Blue Dot' that he wrote a book with that title. This picture is just one of a mosaic of 60 taken in February 1990 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft from a distance of over 4 billion miles as it looked back into the solar system it was then leaving. The whole mosaic is known as 'The Family Portrait' because it is our family of planets (or rather six of them) and the 'Pale Blue Dot' is, of course, the Earth.

Sagan notes that ...

... if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you know, everyone you love, everyone you've ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines. Every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.
Carl Sagan (1994)

While the psalmist could only look up to the heavens, we are now able to look down from that vantage point. The Universe that the psalmist gazed up at was conceptually much smaller than that of which we are aware today. If the psalmist felt small and insignificant, how should we feel? But, this pre-supposes, of course, that this is the right way to look at things. It may not be. Why is it that the psalmist and Sagan assume that our size in relation to that of the Universe is of any significance at all?

When it comes to objects in the Universe, the different sizes of planets, stars and galaxies tell us something about the nature of those objects. When it comes to living beings, it is a different matter. Indeed, what are living beings? And, what is it that is special about them? Leibnitz asked 'Why are there beings at all... ?'

How we understand ourselves as living beings has been more radically re-shaped during the last two centuries than at any other time in our history. In just over a year's time (in 2009), there will a series of events celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of 'On the Origin of Species'. Because of this book, our view of ourselves has changed markedly in this brief period of time. However, there have been other 'worldview shifting' discoveries that now tend to go largely unremarked.

In 1828, the German chemist Friedrich Wöhler made a remarkable scientific discovery - albeit somewhat by chance. In an attempt to make ammonium cyanate from potassium cyanate and ammonium sulphate, he made urea instead. This substance was already well known. It gets its name from being found in urine. This led to Wöhler's interesting comment in a letter to a colleague in which he stated that 'I can make urea without the use of kidneys'. Perhaps this sounds a little odd to us today. However, at that time it was a quite dramatic realization. It was believed that all substances formed within living organisms were formed under the influence of some vital force - or vis vitalis - which these organisms were believed to possess. What organisms were made of and what they produced was, therefore, believed to be special.

By artificially synthesising the organic compound urea from inorganic compounds, Wöhler stumbled upon the fact that organic substances could be produced outside the body. Not an ounce of vis vitalis was necessary. In fact, not an ounce of vis vitalis existed.

Thus, although the notion has still not quite died out completely, vitalism - the belief that there is a vital force that animates the body - was dealt a serious (some would say mortal) blow. Man was quite literally made of dust, and what is more, any idea that there was something akin to a 'breath of life' animating that dust was called into question. Bodily, we are just a set of ordinary physico-chemical processes.

This is, arguably, a more dramatic realization than that offered by Darwin a little over thirty years later. Darwin only proposed a way in which already existent life forms changed over time. Wöhler demonstrated that life itself wasn't materially special.

If we are not materially special, perhaps there is some other way in which we are special. Just as Voyager 1 was able to look back across space, so we, through the benefits of archaeological and palaeontological techniques, can look back over time in a way that the psalmist never could.

Another major scientific discovery that predated Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species' was the discovery in 1856 of the fossil remains of a different type of Man. We now know him as Neanderthal Man after the river valley near Düsseldorf where these remains were discovered (although to be precise there had been other finds (in Belgium in 1829 and at Gibraltar in 1848) predating the Neander Valley find but their significance had gone unrecognised at the time).

The Neanderthals have gained an image of being the archetypal 'cavemen' - although the one shown here is clearly skilled in the manufacture of stone tools (an art few possess today) and he is wearing clothes against the cold - something no animal other than ourselves currently practises. Indeed, the Neanderthals appear to have had a fairly advanced culture. They even appear to have practised certain funeral rites, apparently burying their dead. There has even been the suggestion that flowers may have been put into the graves, although there is some debate about this. However, the debate about whether they had the ability to speak seems to be siding very much in favour of the belief that they could - they certainly had the anatomical structures necessary and a gene (the FoxP2) implicated in speech has recently been found in Neanderthal DNA. This is perhaps more dramatic than it appears. Having speech implies that there was a mind that had something to speak about. This does not necessarily imply deeply abstract philosophical reasoning but the use of words is something that we have tended to think was unique to Man - it clearly is not. The persisting 'caveman' image of the Neanderthals perhaps colours (or discolours) our opinion of them as brutish and sub-human but how might we have reacted to them as children?

We have considered the family portrait of planets. If we now consider our family tree, humans and gorillas are related through our last common ancestor who lived about eight million years ago. We are related to chimpanzees through our last common ancestor who lived about five million years ago. These millions of years of separate evolution may have led us to look very different yet we are able to study gorillas and chimpanzees and notice many behavioural similarities. When it comes to the Neanderthals, our last common ancestor lived only around 500,000 years ago. After our ancestors entered Europe about 40,000 years ago, they are known to have co-existed in various places with the Neanderthals, for about 15,000-20,000 years until the Neanderthals became extinct somewhere between 24,000-28,000 years ago. Why they became extinct is unclear. A number of hypotheses have been proposed including one which implicates our aggressive tendencies in their demise; another even suggests that our two species may have interbred.

When we go to the zoo, what do you see when you look into the eyes of a gorilla or chimpanzee? And what might you have seen if you had looked into the eyes of a Neanderthal? They might even have been able to tell you what they saw in your eyes.

We now know a lot more about ourselves than the psalmist ever did.  Our view of Man is very different - by our very nature we are arguably less special and further from God than the psalmist could ever have imagined. The Universe is much larger than he thought and Man is proportionately much smaller as a result. We have been able to explore our physical constitution and our family history and seen that qualities that we might have thought made us human are not at all unique.

We are clearly not unique in having consciousness. Nor in having developed culture or even in having a spiritual awareness. One might even go so far as to ask whether there are any Neanderthals in Heaven.

The more we know of ourselves, our place in the world and our place in space and time, the less special we appear. And all the while, the psalmist's question has not gone away: What is Man that Thou art mindful of him?

There is a story about the physicist Enrico Fermi. Having heard a visiting lecturer, he remarked that before he came to the lecture, he was confused about the subject. Now, having heard the lecture he was still confused but - he added - he was now confused at a much higher level.

The psalmist, with what he knew then, marvelled that God should be mindful of Man.  With what we know now, we can do no more than marvel but perhaps at a much humbler level.


Dr Stephen Lewis is a senior lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Chester.