How the Animals Got Their Names

Gen 2:19-20 explains how animals got their names:

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field.

Let’s assume for the moment that the above passage was written by mere mortals (the Elohist source to be exact) who lived around 850 bce in the Land of Israel. The statement that Adam named all of the birds and land animals sounds reasonable enough – there simply weren’t that many different animals in that area which the writer would have been familiar with. Now let’s assume that the above passage was written under divine inspiration (the verbal, plenary inspiration theory) where God guided the author to transmit his divine message exactly as he intended it. Suddenly, the statement seems ludicrous because we would expect God to know how many animals he created. For example, God would surely be aware of the Giant Pandas he created that are native only to China, or the Capivara found only in Brazil, or Beluga Whales and Polar Bares found only in the Arctic Ocean, or the Platypus found only in Australia. Adam would have his work cut out for him naming the myriad of animals found world wide – and the Beluga Whales would have died of dehydration and heat exhaustion in the process! But it gets worse. What about trilobites that died in the mass extinction at the end of the Permian about 250 million years ago (there are more than 10,000 fossil species of just trilobites alone!)? Did Adam name them? What is the ancient Hebrew word for it (or a word for it in any ancient language)? What about all of the other millions of extinct species of animal? What about the microbes (e. coli, amoebae, extremaphiles, etc., etc.)?

Walk me through it one more time: why should I believe that the first chapter in Genesis (for starters) is the divine Word of God?


21 Responses to How the Animals Got Their Names

  1. kevin bussey says:


    Just because we don’t know every exact detail doesn’t mean it didn’t happen that way. From my understanding the reason Adam named all of the animals was because it showed that man was over animals.

  2. The Atheist says:

    Hey, Kevin! Glad you stopped by!

    There are compelling explanations about where the origin stories in the Bible come from (various older myths for example). That coupled with problems like those I mentioned make it difficult to believe that the stories have a divine source. So the question is not about knowing every exact detail as you say. The question is: why should anyone believe that the origin story in Genesis is divine?

  3. Christian says:

    Well, it could more rationally be accepted as the Divine Word of God (DWOG?) if you chose not to take it literally. Read METAphorically, it is easier to see the truth (what Kevin suggested) within the myth.

    • Durzal says:

      The problem is that a great deal of christians do take it literally, and when taken literally its often used to argue againts proven facts like evolution(the fact that it happens i mean)

  4. J.D. says:

    “Well, it could more rationally be accepted as the Divine Word of God (DWOG?) if you chose not to take it literally. Read METAphorically, it is easier to see the truth (what Kevin suggested) within the myth.”

    Kind of like with Aesop and the fable about the fox and the raven. Except the teaching in that can actually be applied to real life.

    I stated in another post “who or what decided what is to be read metaphorically and what is literal.” especially when the source and been edited, added to, removed from, and translated countless times. Especially when the text itself in contradictory, and especially if the stories are not even original.

    Even if you consider all the stories in the bible as truth, the bible and the Torah are not the inspirational word of god. Just a reprint of older religious texts or verbal stories. Maybe there is a book somewhere that is the word of god or inspiration of god, but it for sure the bible, quar’an or torah. So maybe there is some ultimate diety (more than sure that there isn’t) but is not the one found in the most prominent texts.

  5. The Atheist says:


    Well, it could more rationally be accepted as the Divine Word of God (DWOG?) if you chose not to take it literally.

    If I may, let me restate your point and then let you tell me if you agree: If we don’t take the story literally, then we can no longer claim, based on absurdity or contradiction, that the Bible is not the ‘DWOG’. And I would agree.

    On the other hand, what reason do we have, based on a metaphorical interpretation, to believe that it is the DWOG? Kevin’s interpretation was:

    Adam named all of the animals was because it showed that man was over animals.

    But the story explicitly states that man has dominion over the animals so the metaphor is not useful or enlightening. I would expect a divine metaphor to be enlightening, to reveal an otherwise difficult to understand truth, I would not expect a divine metaphor to restate the mundane.

    Your thoughts?

  6. Christian says:

    Agreed. First, let’s remember that this was originally an oral history, it was not compiled into biblical format until much later and even then there were no distracting numbers or chapters assigned to the scripture until modern times. These scripture verses weren’t intended to be taken by themselves, extracted from the remainder of the story, analyzed and interpreted. Reading these stories in their entirety we begin to see the overarching theme – the meta narrative. It is within this meta narrative (perhaps told over a span of centuries) that we can see the ‘truth’, which like life itself is not so easily quantified and contained.

    The problem (IMHO) with the perspective that both opposing camps have (the literaliists who insist all scripture is factual and the skeptic who insists that it is all fiction) is that they are both missing the forest for the trees. They are looking for firm concrete, black and white answers. But that is not how the scriptural authors (particularly Jesus) taught. Apparently it is better for us to grow into an understanding rather than being taught by rote.

    BTW – I do not agree that all scripture, if any is the DWOG. I do think that much of it is the telling of how a particular people responded to God. Their response was not always sophisticated and at times at odds with God’s will.

  7. The Atheist says:


    let’s remember that this was originally an oral history…

    I agree here too. And we should also keep in mind that the various oral traditions developed over a long periods of time and against very diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. And in many cases, it even borrowed from much older traditions like Mithraism, Eqyption mythology, etc. I think the fact that more recent writers built on earlier material is the reason for the apparent meta-narrative; newer writers weren’t replacing the old tradition with new, rather they were reinterpreting earlier material to make sense to them in their time and culture, and also adding to it. Over time, the process of reinterpretation, redaction, and augmentation produces a somewhat coherent story.

    …the literaliists who insist all scripture is factual and the skeptic who insists that it is all fiction…

    We agree on a lot! Many skeptics have the idea that books of the Bible were intentionally written to deceive. I don’t think that’s the case at all; though I do think that deception occurred in specific instances, I don’t see it as the overall primary motive. I think that like you say, the books of the Bible (as well as the extra-biblical sacred writings) were for the most part a compilation of the traditions and beliefs of the day. In many cases, new traditions were born out of competing traditions as a way to keep the piece and to unify the society. Some of the content is historically valid and some is not. All of it is historically valuable from the perspective of documenting what the ancient communities believed, and what the conflicts were that the text helped resolve.

    The place where we might disagree would be whether any of the oral traditions indicate that the authors or their communities actually had any knowledge of God, beyond the traditions that they themselves inherited.

  8. Christian says:

    We might not disagree much there either. I don’t think the people in the Bible had any more ‘knowledge’ of God than I do (sacrilege!). I think that there were people that were much more receptive to God’s presence than I am, but that has occurred right up unto this day, and they were not all Jews or Christians. I also think that the traditions can also get in the way of spiritual knowledge. Religion is often the death of spirituality.

  9. Jackson Wood says:

    Brilliant. I name this style of fisking the Bible-Fisk.

    Bible-Fisk: A devout atheist selects a passage of the bible and convincingly shows that it is not rational, logical or based on fact. While the Atheist or middle of the road agnostic might be awed by this, it ultimately does not challenge the belief system of the theist thus leading to a Jesus-Fisk in reply.

    Good work Atheist.

  10. Christian says:

    Gosh, and I thought is was called conversation.

    “My love is like a red, red, rose” is also not rational, logical or factual. Yet knowing this does not dispel one from reading poetry, nor the fact that it conveys much more information (truth) than if one tried to put forth a rational explanation of how they love (which of course, is impossible).

    Fisk, tisk.

  11. The Atheist says:

    Jackson Wood,

    Welcome to the blog!

    I wonder if I’m too late to coin: “mincing the Word.”

  12. The Atheist says:


    Religion is often the death of spirituality.

    I think you’re right. I think religion is a poor man’s philosophy that simplifies (and in the extreme, it trivializes), then codifies some subset of the challenging issues that thinkers have wrestled with since the dawn of civilization. At best, it’s sort of the Cliff’s Notes ™ of spiritual thought.

  13. Christian says:

    “Mincing the Word.” I like that, but this is not an activity exclusive to skeptics.

    Actually, I see it almost exactly in the opposite way. I believe that the relationship that is meant to exist between man and God is designed to be quite simple. It is, however counterintuitive to the animal nature of man (one reason that Genesis emphasizes the superiority of man over the animals – his Godlike capacity for selfless love). Rather than change his own perspective (and ego) and engage in this simple relationship with God, man instead works ceaselessly at trying to get God’s plan to comfit to his own selfish desires. This results in ‘religion’, the piling upon and piling upon new theologies, doctrines,dogmas with all the rituals, rules and incoherent and contradictory language that comes with it.

    A Cliff’s note of spiritual thought, I think, would say ;” Love God and love others as you would love yourself”, something which is at the core of all the world’s ‘great’ religions.

  14. The Atheist says:


    I believe that the relationship that is meant to exist between man and God is designed to be quite simple.

    What is the reason for your beliefs (that God exists and that God designed the relationship to be simple)? I would also expect the ideal relationship between a personal God and man to be simple and straight forward, but how is that possible when God does not reveal himself to man? Or perhaps you believe that God does reveal himself – if that is the case, how do you feel that he does?

    What do you mean by the term, relationship? I think of a relationship between two entities as a sharing of thought and feelings through a form of expression, like language or touch for example. It’s a two-way communication.

    one reason that Genesis emphasizes the superiority of man over the animals – his Godlike capacity for selfless love

    As an aside, our closest animal cousins like chimps and bonobos exhibit a capacity for selfless love toward others as well. Most mammals exhibit a capacity for selfless love toward their young. But I agree that man is superior to other animals in many respects.

    Returning to your comment about Genesis, I agree that the writer presumes that man is superior and the presumption is reflected in the origin story, possibly even intentionally. But I don’t see that as the main point of the story, even if it is a facet. The main point seems to be an explanation of how nature, and man in particular, came to exist.

    Rather than change his own perspective (and ego) and engage in this simple relationship with God, man instead works ceaselessly at trying to get God’s plan to comfit to his own selfish desires.

    I agree; people often use religion to justify their a priori positions rather than changing their positions to align with the religious teaching. Conversely, others blindly and recklessly align their positions to conform with religious dogma.

    Regarding my Cliff’s Notes comment, I see spirituality (using the term in the loose sense) as thought that transcends the mundane; it is thought that looks for a more fundamental understanding. Loving others as one’s self can be a profound recognition that self and others are the same at a most fundamental level. The Cliff’s note would be that one should love God and others because it pleases God; it trivializes the questions about the existence or nature of God, and what it means to love, and it obscures the profundity of the sameness of self and others. So when I said that religion is the Cliff’s Notes, I presumed that the thinkers that contemplated the concepts upon which religions were built actually did reflect on these types of things. But the religions themselves no longer retain the same depth of reflective thought.

  15. Christian says:

    Well, I think it is simple much in the same way Jesus thought it was simple. To love others as you would have them love you is, as he said, the summation of all the law and the prophets. In other words, all those scriptures (and all the theological treatises, books and sermons of today) would not be necessary if we could only just get a handle on that.

    After 25 years of atheism/agnosticism I stumbled upon some pedestrian books about quantum mechanics, telling me about scientifically accepted phenomena which are no more logical or verifiable than the existence of God. Which allowed me to open my mind enough to revisit Christianity.

    It is experiential and cannot be explained and I would not expect anyone to be convinced by anyone’s arguments or attempt to provide evidence for God. Part of it is allowing this transcendence of the mundane to be part and parcel of one’s life. Brother Lawrence called it ‘practicing the presence of God’. The willful determination to ‘see’ God in nature as well as in the faces of other human beings is akin to any exercise which becomes easier with practice. I think it first is necessary to want to see God, although I know of people who say that God demanded their attention.

    Could it be that this desire to see God is a natural psychological byproduct of the human condition, perhaps even genetically encoded into the species, something that many have evolved out of? That this desire leads to spiritual delusions? Perhaps, but if so, what have I lost? Meanwhile, there is much that I have gained. My life is immensely enriched with my experience of God. It is a two way experience, but not as one would expect to have with other people. God is everywhere I look (when my eyes are open) and he also resides within me. I think no two spiritual journeys are completely alike, so someone else may respond differently.

    You are right, that is only one small part of the Genesis story. It is about Creation but also about man’s response to God and how he took the gift God gave him, sentience and free will (necessary for us to love), and chose the ‘wrong’ path, the basic self centered ‘animal’ path ( chimps and bonobos,Lassie and Rin Tin Tin excepted). I think the Cliff Notes of Genesis can be found in the opening sequence of Clark/Kubrick’s 2001 – no accident there – except rather than cutting out for the cosmos God had better follow through.

    I think that some of these early religious thinkers, though no doubt brilliant, were in many ways troubled with the ‘mundane’ that they could not transcend, which resulted in great distortions of simple truth. The religions just took the balls they were handed and ran with them.

  16. The Atheist says:


    Very interesting outlook! It’s particularly refreshing to hear a Christian (or any theistic) perspective this is not simply a tired repetition of “party-line” dogma. I hope you understand that my questions and comments reflect a genuine interest in your outlook and are not an attempt to dissuade you from your views. As an aside, I wonder what fundamentalist Christians that read this blog think of a Christian outlook that doesn’t require a view of the Bible as the infallible Word of God. I am curious because fundamentalists often express a fear that conceding that the Bible is not the infallible Word of God is tantamount to renouncing Christianity.

    The relationship you describe seems at odds with the Christian understanding of God: that eternal life (or more generally, God’s favor) is dependent upon belief in God’s existence. The relationship you describe, that some people are “called,” and others are simply more attuned, and still others don’t perceive God, is not particularly troubling if there were no consequences attached to doubt or belief; that is if God didn’t particularly mind if we perceived him or we did not. After all, if God wanted each of us to perceive him, he could make himself known (as you believe he already has made himself known to you and others).

    The belief that you cannot convince someone of God’s existence also seems at odds with the Christian understanding: if you believe that Jesus commanded his followers to preach the gospel (you may not necessarily believe that since you and I both look at the Bible as human a work that may not be historically accurate), then you would have to believe that it is possible to point your finger toward God in a way that another may train his gaze in that direction and see God.

    I think that looking at the world with a certain disposition, to willfully perceive God has merit, as long as we recognize that it is we who are projecting our own meaning (I say this without regard for whether the projected meaning happens to be right or not). And it must be our own projection if the practice is something that has to be learned and mastered rather than something that comes naturally. If we recognize that the projection is our own, then we would also recognize that there are other equally valid ways to perceive the world and to understand it in different ways. For example, Taoists see the perceivable world as artificial distinctions that arise from the void, which is the only thing that really exists. Buddhists see the world as a constant co-creation between the object and the observer. Each of these ways of looking at the world get easier with practice.

    I do think that our religious tendencies have a genetic basis as you suggest. For example, our theory of mind and our recognition of agency are products of evolution and are found in virtually all higher-level animals. Recognition of agency is the ability to distinguish between mindless actions, like a leave blowing in the breeze, from mindful actions by an agent – like a mouse scurrying across a field. Theory of mind is the ability to predict another agent’s behavior by presuming that it has a mind like ours, and projecting on it how our own minds work onto the agent. For example, we surmise that a mouse will run from us if we approach it because it will be fearful. That is, it will act as we would act if we were in its position and being approached by a large predator. And if it is running from us, we guess it is looking for a safe place to hide, because that’s what we would do. But these same abilities which are beneficial for our survival, recognition of agency and theory of mind, have side effects. We err on the side of safety – it’s safer to erroneously believe that something is a predator than to not recognize a real predator. So we might see a shadow or hear a noise and believe it is caused by an agent when it really was not. Or we might ascribe a theory of mind to inanimate objects (like children do with their favorite stuffed animal – or like the ancients did with thunder). I think that these errors in agency recognition and theory of mind is the root of animism, which in turn is the beginning of imagining a spirit world, which is finally at the root of religion.

    To respond to your question: “what have I lost,” I guess that depends; you may gain more than you loose. I think that holding any belief so close that one can no longer consider new evidence or alternative views is a loss. On the other hand, I don’t think that everyone holds their beliefs so closely and so they do not suffer this loss. For the record, I don’t get the impression that you hold your beliefs so closely that you are unwilling to consider alternative views. And as you say, you gain comfort. Whether comfort is more important to knowing or knowing is more important than comfort I guess is a question of personal values. If there is a conflict, then I personally would favor knowledge but I recognize that that is only my personal value and is no more valid than other preferences. I’m reminded of the movie, The Matrix, where Cypher decides to return to the matrix to an imaginary life of comfort rather than stay in the misery of the reality.

    Which quantum mechanics book did you read? What phenomena did you find troubling?

  17. Christian says:

    “In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat” and the “Dancing Wu Li Masters”. I’d already been looking into Zen and Taoism for some time so the blending of physics and metaphysics (really one and the same) appealed to me. I never had any ‘problems’ with any of it just that certain premises i.e. that a particle can occupy two spaces simultaneously, that a particle can travel immense distance instantaneously, that matter is made up of energy waves, that observing an experiment effects the outcome….sounded just as fantastic as a spiritual realm.

    I was raised Catholic and had been agnostic/atheist for 20 years so I gravitated toward Christianity on my search for God. (The Dali Lama once told a Christian women who asked if she should convert to Buddhism; “No, go back and work on being a better Christian”, so that’s what I attempted to do). Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) I fell into a fundamentalist community and was (not quite) thoroughly indoctrinated. I can say that the fervent attachment to Biblical innerency, infallibility and the idea that only Christianity is a true religion is based primarily on fear, insecurity and poor self esteem. There are large doses of a selfish attachment to comfort (which I certainly still have) in that Christianity in the USA is a uniquely American religion devoted to maintaining the status quo and holding on to what one has, even if others have nothing. I believe this is a natural by product of Western religion because so much of it’s doctrine was developed with controlling the masses and acquiring wealth in mind. Most of my old friends firmly believe that I have lost my way.

    Comfort is not something that I have gained on my journey. Quite the contrary. It is comforting to stay shuttered up in safe churches, among the same people as yourselves, knowing that you are ‘saved’ because of joining the right team. It’s quite unsettling to realize that what God wants of us, of me, is to “seek justice, lover mercy and walk humbly with my God”. I can’t sit out the game, watching it on the big screen. letting the paid actors (clergy, missionaries, theologians) show us how it’s done. Jesus states in the Gospel that what he wants is not sacrifice and adulation. What he wants is for me to visit the sick and imprisoned, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. Occasional charity is not what he wants but a life devoted to changing the world, confronting the systems that benefit some at the expense of many others. Not a very comfortable thing for an ex- right wing Republican whacko, one reason why I have not done as much as I could.

    What I have gained is freedom. No longer enslaved to the systems, the religions nor the cultural imperatives of the day. The freedom to use my mind and not be afraid of discovering new things. I believe that the human thirst for knowledge, beauty and love are three of the characteristics of God (and no, I don’t think he knows the future – that would be like knowing the number of hairs on Donald Duck’s head)

  18. The Atheist says:


    Very nice description! Thanks for clarifying.

    From your description, I think you are right: that you have gained freedom for freethought. To me personally, Freethought is of paramount importance; the resulting conclusions are only secondary.

  19. doug says:


    Read my latest post on “Why do atheist argue….”

    Best wishes & God bless yawl,

  20. transgenic animals…

    […]How the Animals Got Their Names « Ask an Atheist[…]…

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