Saturday, 24 April 2010


The sun is shining brightly on the cave this morning, slowly burning away the early mist and dew; there is promise of a glorious day ahead. What better circumstances could one wish for to start a new heresy?

David Oderberg, in chapter 5 of his excellent “Real Essentialism”, considers some of the standard criticisms against the metaphysical definition of human beings as rational animals. (Where “animal” is considered the genus and “rationality” provides the specific difference that defines the species). What then would we make of the discovery of a rational parrot? What would we make of the discovery of rational alien creatures (which Oderberg refers to as “ranimals”)? Would we have to revise our understanding of what it is that makes us human?

After going through the problems associated with what one might consider the obvious solutions, Oderberg arrives at the striking answer that we should consider such ranimals to be human beings. He points out that our initial resistance to such an idea derives from being used to thinking of biological classification in terms of historical evolution. What is really required is to think in metaphysical terms rather than biological terms. I can’t really do justice to his argument here, but thinking about striking up a conversation with a parrot might lead one to consider that what Oderberg argues is quite reasonable. After all, a lengthy conversation with a parrot about whether Wayne Rooney is really going to be fit for the world cup may convince one (Turing test style) that one is addressing a human being (especially if the physical characteristics of said parrot were disguised).

Would such ranimal human beings be subject to the consequences of the fall? Of course, all creation is subject to the fall, but I’m referring here to the consequences associated with man. At its fifth session, the Council of Trent taught that the sin of Adam was transmitted to the whole human race (among whom, presumably, we must now count ranimals). Moreover, the Council taught that this one sin was transmitted by propagation (propagatione, non imitatione transfusam omnibus). How then might we understand the “propagation” of original sin from Adam to non homo sapiens human beings? Perhaps the creation account in Genesis can be taken as ruling out the possibility of ranimals. Likewise, the constant teaching of the church against polygenism makes the idea of a ranimal problematic (see Humani generis, 37)

But are there ways of understanding the deposit of faith that do not do violence to the understanding that the Church has of that deposit, but which allow for and explain the salvation history of ranimals?

(n.b. If this speculation is heretical, the likelihood of it being a new heresy is small; there is nothing new under the sun.)


  1. You've read the Cosmic Trilogy? I think it's probably true that Lewis had some dodgy witchy-astrological tendencies, but I think some of the possibilities are nicely explored. I don't see that there is anything inconsistent with HG in the idea of alien ranimals - because the descent discussed is precisely the kind dealt with by palaeo-biology, whereas presumably aliens would not have any familial relation to us at all. As Lewis postulates.

    I don't think the account in Genesis necessarily rules out the creation of rational races on other planets. And they would only be "human" in one sense. For us, "human" means, or at least always includes, "being related by descent". We'd perhaps start using "ranimal" to include ourselves and martians, as we now use "human" to include men/woman, black/white, etc :)

    Have I missed the point?

  2. Sadly, the “Cosmic Trilogy” has passed me by…

    This question first arose a few months ago at one of our York Aquinas sessions: if rational space aliens were discovered, would they be subject to original sin and if so would Christ be their Saviour? (And if not, what then?) I was reminded of this question this morning as I read Oderberg’s account of essence and identity as he makes this claim that one should consider rational space aliens to be human beings (in the metaphysical sense of rational animals) even if they were not human beings (in the biological sense of homo sapiens sapiens).

    What struck me is that there seems to be a tricky little problem to do with the relationship between a metaphysical account (as provided by the perennial philosophy) of what human beings are and the account of the origin and transmission of original sin as assumed (and sometimes formally defined) in Christian doctrine. (That it doesn’t currently pose an actual problem arises from the currently presumed identity of metaphysical-humans and homo sapiens.)

    If we take a very wooden reading of Humani generis (and of various other teaching documents) the implicit(?) model for the origin and transmission of original sin involves biological processes originating from a specific pair of homo (sapiens?) However, this would preclude rational space aliens (who we are claiming to be human beings in the metaphysical sense) from being subject to original sin etc etc.

    This would seem to be a problem. So as a purely speculative idea, can we understand the deposit of faith as understood and taught by the Church to be consistent with some sort of metaphysical (rather than strictly biological) propagation of original sin? After all, much of the magisterial teaching concerning the propagation of original sin is aimed at ruling out theories that are based on imitation or on metaphor rather than denying that things may be happening at the level of real essences and nature. (Or so it seems to me; please correct me if I am wrong!)

    Am I making sense?

  3. Why would it be a problem for rational non-homo-sapiens (=non descendents of Adam) animals not to be affected by original sin?

    The Cosmic Trilogy.

  4. It offend my sense of justice! Why should one set of human beings have all the fun to the exclusion of another set?

    More metaphysically, if it was human nature that was damaged in the fall, then the circumstance of one part of (metaphysical) humanity suffering original sin and another part not would appear to give us one set of human beings with natures radically different from another lot...which seems to put into doubt whether it was human nature damaged in the fall rather than something more particular.

    Sort of reminds me of those medieval debates about whether Christ would have become incarnate had Adam not sinned.

  5. I think it's a non-problem.

    Original sin is clearly inherited in some way from Adam. We don't know exactly how, but it is some way that allows the use of the word "inherit" without twisting it beyond reasonable recognition.

    In what way could a Martian be descended from Adam, assuming he's not a descendent in the obvious sense?

    I think O's idea is interesting, and correct in one way. But the puzzle it has raised for you shows how it has to be understood. The rationality of animals doesn't cancel out their animality - would we celebrate man-parrot marriages? No.

    Human being would, in this scenario, be a genus, not a species. So far, since homo sapiens is the only rational animal we've come across, we think of it as a species. (it's been eight or nine years since I waded painfully and resentfully through the Organon, so I could be getting things mixed up, but I hope the idea is clear.)

    If there are other rational animals, their animality will surely make them different from us in the same way as , but presumably to a greater degree than, being male or female does among us. A lot about us seems to be determined physically, characterwise, or possibly so, and that's just within our species. It's one of points Lewis illustrates in the Cosmic Trilogy, but also in the Narnia books, talking about the "dogginess" of rational dogs, etc. He's not the world's greatest writer, but he does do the imaginative work for some interesting "what if" scenarios.

    All creation suffers - I've never thought about this, but - what effect did/does the sin of Adam have on the angels? Rational creatures not descended from Adam.

  6. I'll reply more fully tomorrow, but for now:

    "would we celebrate man-parrot marriages? No."

    Er...I'm not sure how to break this to you, but, you know, we're not judgemental in this country any more...

  7. Yes indeed, this may simply be a non-problem; I may be chasing moonbeams here. But I’m just intrigued by the possibilities of maintaining the human=rational animal equation in the face of new rational (biological) species.

    Oderberg does consider the solution involving treating “rational animal” as defining a genus rather than a species (and he quotes and considers Elizabeth Anscombe’s remark to the effect that the definition “rational animal” only works because we are currently the only exemplar biological species). But as Oderberg discusses, once one has settled on a generic rational animal, coming up with candidates for what would be specific differences (such as biological species) are not without their difficulties. I suppose that another possible solution would be to reconsider the notion of rationality, perhaps providing different species of rationality within the genus “animal”.

    In addition to the desideratum of maintaining simplicity of definition, perhaps some additional motivation is provided by considering the possibility that new species of rational animal might be so very like us in certain ways that their differences in biological terms pale into insignificance compared to the metaphysical similarities. I would be surprised, for example, if upon the discovery of a new species of rational animal (alien or otherwise) we did not consider them to be “moral persons”, with all the baggage that goes with that.

    Still, as I suggested above, this nice simple definition seems to have problems in terms of Christian doctrine, so maybe it doesn’t work.

    Concerning the fall and subsequent suffering of creation, alas, we have very little data with which to build any theories. Genesis 3:17-19 and Romans 8:19-22 (plus various bits and pieces of extra-scriptural stuff) are pretty much all we have to go on. Similarly, the fall of the angels and its relationship with the fall of humanity are obscure (other than it was a fallen angel who was the tempter in the Garden of Eden).