Humans as Creators
We are getting there, but if we want to know what separates humans from animals, we ultimately have to see what the scriptures say.

Last post, we talked about animals and their tool making abilities. While tool use used to be considered a trait that distinguishes humans from animals, the ability of animals to use tools has diminished that significance. It may seem like humans are only a “better” animal, rather than qualitatively different. However, we have not exhausted our comparison between the tools made by animals and those made by humans.

Do you know what humans do with their tools that no animal does? We label our tools with information. We also create blueprints to show the design of a tool. To use an example of the former, consider a tool with the name “Craftsman” etched on its surface. What does “Craftsman” mean? It is a company name, letting everyone know that the maker of the tool is the company Craftsman. It also means that the tool has a lifetime warranty guaranteed by Craftsman. Thus, we can learn both who the maker of the tool is and the warranty of the tool just by noticing the sequence of letters “Craftsman”.

I used the term “sequence of letters” very deliberately, because the letters “Craftsman” have no meaning in and of themselves. Instead, the letters have a meaning because we humans ascribe meaning to them. The letters represent sounds so that we can pronounce the word “Craftsman”. The name “Craftsman” has been applied to a specific company, and that company has adopted a policy regarding the warranty of its products. As such, the English language (which gives meaning to the letters) and our dictionary-definition of words and names (the meaning of the name) represent coded information. It is coded because the letters are arbitrary symbols that have no meaning other than was people have assigned to them. The letter “C” is pronounced as a hard “k” because somehow, somewhere, that is how people agreed it should be pronounced. The name “Craftsman” was chosen by someone or some group of people to represent their company. There is no natural relationship between the letters and their pronunciations and the names and their meanings: it comes down to arbitrary human choice. As such, language acts as a code to connect real things (a company) with an arbitrary sequence of symbols.

I am emphasizing that language is a code because using a code is a necessary component of information. Now, I need to be clear: I am going to be using a very specific meaning of information. As it is commonly used, information can be used to describe anything that is informative. For example, say a scientist finds a new fossil. This fossil is very well preserved and contains skeletal elements that have not yet been seen for its species. The paleontologist exclaims, “We are going to get so much information from this fossil!” Indeed, the paleontologist will learn a lot about the creature from this fossil. But that is not the meaning of “information” that I will be using. The fossil does not represent information because there is no code involved: the scientist simply studies the design of the fossil an infers lifestyle, behavior, and relationships.

The concept of information that I will be using is rather complex, but it can be simplified as such: information consists of a coded message sent by a sender to a receiver for the purpose of changing the behavior of the receiver.[1] Note that the message being in code is an essential part of information. A photograph, for example, does not represent information because it is a copy of reality. There is no code needed to interpret a photograph: a person interprets it the exact same way he interprets what he sees with his eyes. Something like a blueprint, however, is information, because symbols on the blueprint have meaning to them: they represent real objects without actually being a copy of the object itself. For example, a blueprint that includes an electronic diagram has symbols for resisters, diodes, batteries, and so forth. These are symbols that represent real objects, which is a type of code.

It is also significant that information has a purpose. It is sent from a sender with the intention of changing the behavior of the receiver. The information is intentional: it is not purposeless. This is why people sometimes say that a person who is rambling isn’t saying anything. Sure, words are coming out of the person’s mouth, but if they are incoherent, undirected, or repetitive, little information is actually being conveyed. Information is given for a purpose, it is not just a jumble of letters or sounds.

Now, animals can produce information. Animals have languages all their own. However, their languages and their use of them pales in comparison to humans.[2] Animal language is limited. Sure, vervet monkeys may have different calls to warn its troop of approaching predators. One call may signal the approach of an eagle while another call may express the approach of a leopard. The calls are information, because they are sent from a sender (the monkey who spied the predator), it uses coded information (the  differing calls), it has a receiver (the rest of the troop), and its purpose is to change the behavior of the receiver (flee for cover). However, that is about the extent of what animal languages can do. They cannot be used to create new thoughts and ideas. They cannot be molded to create complex thoughts. It is information, but it is inherently limited.

I might also add that animals have not been observed to create a language. In contrast, people can create languages all the time. Sure, the common languages, English, French, German, Mandarin, and so forth, all developed over time, but we humans can create languages at will. Sign language, for instance, was specifically created as a language to be used by deaf people. Braille is a written language designed for blind people. Some people create fictitious languages (for example, Tolkien creating Elvish). People design blueprints and maps with legends (the legends represent the code). Even children can create simple little codes to use among their friends. The point is, unlike animals that are limited in their language and use of their language, humans not only use much more complex languages, we can go out and make our own.

That, I believe, is what ultimately separates us from animals. It is not tool use, it is not our upright posture, it is not self-awareness, it is not even the use of a language. What sets us apart is our ability to create. We can assign meaning to arbitrary symbols (remember, “Craftsman” on a tool has a meaning given to it by humans). We can create blueprints that are then used by other people to replicate tools that we have designed. This is why our tools are fundamentally different from the tools of animals, because we put design into them, creative purpose into them, rather than simply modifying a stick or a rock for a specific end goal.

I believe that this ability to create is a unique attribute given to us by God. After all, when God created man, He said to Himself, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26). Since God is our Creator, He made us little creators ourselves, after His image. Sure, we cannot bring matter or energy into being, like He can, but we can create novel information, new designs, and patterns that never existed before. This characteristic of being little creators also extends to the Dominion Mandate. When He created humans, God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). We would not be able to exert dominion over the Earth and its inhabitants if we were not able to understand God’s creation and create our own designs to control and care for it.

The fact that we are little creators made in God’s image, that we have been given the Dominion Mandate which explicitly puts us as authorities over the animals, these things ultimately separate us from the animals, and no amount of equivocation between the behaviors of animals and humans can change that.

Thoughts from Steven

[1]This concept is a summary of the characteristics of information as described in Gitt, Werner (1997) In the Beginning was Information CLV, Bielfeld, Germany, pg. 50-82

[2]Ibid. pg. 215-218