Not long ago I drove to a college in Georgia to hear Jane Goodall speak live in person. If you haven't heard of her, she's the "chimp lady" who's spent decades of her life living among and researching chimpanzees in the Gombe reserve in western Tanzania. Her work and findings are important to the scientific fields of primatology (study of primates), anthropology (study of humans), and paleoanthropology (study of human origins). Before Jane's discovery that chimps use tools to help find food, the scientific definition of what it means to be human included the ability to make tools. Upon Jane's discovery of chimpanzee toolmaking, the famous paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey said (and I paraphrase) that we either have to redefine man, redefine tool, or conclude that chimps are also human!
Jane's worldwide fame, contributions to science, and intriguing stories of life in East Africa were enough to draw me, but the real reason I went was more personal. I have at times struggled with the temptation that science can explain everything in the universe. Obviously science has explained a lot because we rely on tools and inventions everyday that were made possible by scientific knowledge. But the real trouble comes when science is assumed to be able to answer all the important questions of life: questions of meaning, morality, and mystery.
Jane Goodall represents a cadre of people who believe that the ultimate answers to what it means to be human lie in scientific pursuits. They make a great deal of how similar humans are to other animals, specifically primates, or the 'higher apes'. Viewing the evolution of humankind from an atheistic or agnostic point of view, the 'meaning of life' for humans tends to be sought in areas like biology and ecology and is left at that level.
I believe that much can be learned about what it means to be human by looking at our similarities with other animals (e.g. chimps, with whom we share 99% of our DNA code). That's great, but what about how we are different? The 1% of DNA is the source of such amazing characteristics as language, thought, consciousness, self-awareness, art, music, dance, and religion. Science is making advances in studying these uniquely human characteristics but still does not even come close to explaining them.
The truth is, even though people like Jane Goodall make a career of defining man through science, they also recognize the spirituality of man and seek spiritual expression. Jane Goodall came to Georgia to preach a gospel (though I'm sure she'd never put it that way). Her plea to us was for us to preserve animals and the environment and do good things for our 'human community'. This will lead to 'global peace', she claimed. That's it. That was her $50,000 message. I admit I have been tempted to seek ultimate answers to life's deep questions through the lens of science, but when I heard the empty, naive, and hopeless gospel proclaimed by one of anthropology's greatest icons, I realized, again, that there's a lot more to it than that.
I want to know what it means to be human because I want to be fully human. I want to be fully human because to be so is to be in the image of God. Being reflections of God is our calling; it is both a privilege and a responsibility. First we were made biologically in the image of God through Adam and Eve (this is where I believe we can learn from science). Second we have the opportunity to be recreated spiritually in the image of God through faith in Jesus Christ. That is what it means to be fully human and so to fulfill our destiny as a God-imaging species.