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Biblical Brains

And the serpent was more cunning than all the creatures of the field that the Lord God created. And he said to the woman, “Did God say: You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’”

— Genesis 3:1

And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”

— Numbers 22:28

And the Lord spoke to the fish and it spat Jonah out onto the dry land.

— Jonah 2:11

“The evolution of the cerebral hemispheres is the most spectacular story in comparative anatomy.”

— A. S. Romer, “The Vertebrate Body”

If the brain, in all its species-related permutations, is Creation’s most stunning achievement, then language is its glory. But there is a hierarchy to this glory of the brain.

A great debate rages among scientists on the cognitive abilities of animals. Do they have language or some sort of complex communication system? What is the extent of their language? Do they have consciousness? What is the evidence from the Bible? There may be theological and political implications. Do we humans grant ourselves souls because we are language-endowed, because we believe we are the only conscious creatures? What of other language-using creatures and their implied conscious lives? Do they have — because their abilities and choices are more limited — tinier souls? Is there an afterlife to compensate for their suffering? If a serpent can dissemble with the subtlest phrasing, if a donkey can speak out with righteous indignation, if a fish can obey God’s words, does this animal perhaps have rights? If the Bible is correct, then animals may have greater cognitive abilities than we generally care to grant them. If so, where might these higher faculties reside in their brains? I can only speculate using these simple illustrations and with my added belief that these characteristics are shared across species and genders.

Aryeh Lev Stollman, a neuro-radiologist, is the author of two novels, “The Far Euphrates” and “The Illuminated Soul,” and a story collection, “The Dialogues of Time and Entropy.”

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