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Reading on my back deck on an unconscionably warm winter day, I’m distracted by our outdoor cat, Butter, as he skitters, leaps, pounces, and slides across the dead leaves strewn on the planks. I can’t see what he’s after, but I figure it’s a moth or a skink, both regular parts of Butter’s diet. We feed Butter well enough, and he doesn’t need to supplement with insects, reptiles, or rodents. He appears to enjoy the chase for its own sake, as a welcome relief to the ennui that creeps over felines on a sultry afternoon. He seems playful, and purposefully so.

“Fanciful anthropomorphic projection,” some will say. Ask your average biologist, and he’ll tell you the theory of evolution eliminated every jot of purpose and every tittle of teleology from natural science. Living things are machines run by chemical and physical processes, which emerged from the purposeless mechanism of natural selection. Animals don’t have purposes; they don’t play or experience joy. At best, Butter’s behavior expresses an instinct for hunting that is hard-gened into the species.

In his 2017 New Atlantis essay “Evolution and the Purposes of Life,” Stephen Talbott begs to differ, at length and devastatingly. We see living things acting with purpose all the time, Talbott observes. A robin tugs a worm from the earth and swallows it, because, we say, she has an instinct for survival. But sometimes she doesn’t swallow it, and instead carries it back to the nest to feed to her chicks. Robins don’t make decisions with the same self-aware freedom as human beings, yet the robin chooses her aims and decides how best to achieve them. Evolutionary dogmatists like Richard Dawkins admit living things look “as if” they’re acting with purpose, but no one probes that “as if”: “How,” Talbott asks, “might we distinguish between an organism capable of expressing wise intention and an organism capable of conjuring an overwhelming illusion of wise intention?” Evolutionary theory has become a black box that gives us facile permission to ignore the evidence of our own eyes. We can’t tell the story of the robin without talking about purpose.

By the end of his essay, Talbott is suggesting we need to revive all those old-fashioned Aristotelian notions of ends and purposes, not out of metaphysical necessity, but to account for the things we see living beings do every day. “Without interpretive activity—activity through which meanings are apprehended,” he concludes, “there is no story to be told, as opposed to a set of physical causes and consequences. And without a story, there is no organism.” More succinctly: An “organism is not so much something with a causal, physical origin as it is a power of origination—or a power of storytelling.”

This power of origination is what the Bible calls a “living soul.” Christians often think possession of a soul is a distinguishing mark of human beings. But that’s not how the Bible speaks. By the time Adam becomes a nephesh chayyah (“living soul”), the world already teems with souls—cattle, fish, and birds (Gen. 1:20, 24). Nephesh is used about 170 times with reference to animals. Yahweh’s declaration, “The soul of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:10–14), supports his prohibition against eating animal blood. 

In Scripture, “soul” is a complex reality. The Hebrew word has an etymological connection with breath and breathing. Every nephesh is a breathing-creature. Souls are self-moving, with a capacity for reproduction (“be fruitful and multiply”) and the need for outside sources of food (Gen. 1:29–30). Soul is a faculty of desire and repugnance. Souls hunger and thirst and are satisfied with food, drink, and sex (Prov. 27:7; Isa. 55:2; Jer. 2:24). Souls grieve, rejoice, fear, love, and hate. Souls are sometimes linked with “higher” powers, as the source of speech and the organ of knowledge, wisdom, and thought. “Soul” is sometimes linked with “will” and choice. The soul is the focus of identity; “my soul” is equivalent to “me,” and beings with souls are capable of self-consciousness. Souls answer to the voice of the Creator.

Each of these powers pertains, in some degree, to animals. While maintaining the distinction between animal souls and human souls, the Bible also highlights their commonalities. Both animals and men consist of soul and flesh, both share Sabbath, both die. By naming animals, Adam not only exercises dominion over them, but establishes the possibility of address and mutual relationship. Animals don’t name, but they learn their names and respond to our commands and enticements. Animals are punished for acts of violence in the Torah, and, in response to Jonah’s warnings, the cattle of Nineveh repent along with their owners. God’s covenant with Noah encompasses “every living soul with all flesh” (Gen. 9:16). Animal sacrifice underscores this kinship. As Joshua Moritz puts it, “As our silent stand-ins and faithful friends, animals liberate and rescue us as they pay with their lives for the covenants we break.” As junior members of the company of living souls, animals are summoned, along with human beings, to worship God (Ps. 148:10; 150:6).

Who would have guessed that Christopher Smart’s apparently whimsical consideration of his cat Jeoffry—that “servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him,” who “worships in his way,” who greets other cats with a kiss of kindness, who plays with his prey “to give it a chance,” who “knows that God is his Saviour”—was written with perfect bio-theological precision?

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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