Curious “Creatures”

crea·turecreature walks among us

an animal, especially a nonhuman: the creatures of the woods and fields; a creature from outer space.
2. anything created, whether animate or inanimate.
3. person; human being: She is a charming creature. The driver of a bus is sometimes an irritable creature.
4. an animate being.

I avoid using the word “creature” to refer to the beings whom we share the planet with because it implies creation and hence creationism.   And creationism, in addition to being intellectually bankrupt, is also a rather unsatisfying story when compared with the story currently being told by Darwinian evolution.

But there is another interesting question to ask about the term “creatures” and that is: who is included?

In my experience, “creatures” tends to be used so as to include only animals but plant species are no less a part of creation (if that is the story we are working with).  Why then do dandelions have less of a claim to the label than do Dalmatians?  Perhaps when we speak of our fellow creatures we should include those who, quite literally, are rooted in the soil.  Such a change may make us more open to learning from them.

Yet even limiting “creatures” to members of the biotic community—the community of life—may be too narrow.  Creation includes everything and so every individual (no less difficult a term) is a creature.  Plants are creatures but planets are presumably also creatures.  Leopards and lemurs are creatures but maybe landscapes are too?  Rivers no less than ravens.

Pushing further still, creatures may not need to have resulted from an original act of Creation but perhaps could be the result of more mundane creative acts.  Billiard balls may be said to be unique creatures traversing across terrains of green felt.  The second definition listed above suggests that “creature” can be applied to “anything created, whether animate or inanimate” and so by this standard billiard balls are indeed appropriately described as creatures.  In fact, if we discard creationism, billiard balls may have a better claim to being described as creatures than human being s do.

The objection may be advanced that by employing such an expansive or inclusive definition of the term “creature” that it ceases to be of any practical value for communicating.  If a term applies to everything—rather than picking out particular objects or individuals amongst a larger field—then arguably it isn’t very helpful.  But perhaps the value in such an all-embracing term is rather in calling our attention to the similarities that are found even amongst such a brilliant diversity.  It provokes questions that might not otherwise arise such as how we respectfully engage with other creatures whatever form they might take.  It may draw our attention to the fact that the stuff of billiard balls is no less part of a living earth than the stuff that makes up our own bodies.  There is a significance to that which is unlikely to be discovered if we cannot fathom a single commonality.

A second objection—or more accurately—curiosity might be why someone such as myself who admittedly avoids the word “creature” and will probably continue  to do so would trouble oneself with such questions.

The only answer that I can currently muster in response to this would be that I am hopeful that there are other terms that offer the advantages of the term “creature” without implying creationism.  I would like a term that reinforces our kinship with others and is equally all-embracing (including human others, nonhuman others, and perhaps even inanimate others).  Perhaps that term is “beings” which I tend to use but, in my opinion, is deficient is some way that I cannot quite name.

Alternatively, perhaps there is a way to save rather than surrender the term “creature” that is not currently clear to me.  In defending his use of the word “spiritual,” prominent atheist Sam Harris insists that “we must reclaim good words and put them to use.”  Harris explains that his fellow atheist Christopher Hitchens “believed that “spiritual” was a term we could not do without, and he repeatedly plucked it from the mire of supernaturalism.”

Is “creature” a good word that needs to be reclaimed?  Or is it something we can do without?


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