I have been caught up in many conversations over the summer, at science-religion conferences and meetings with theologians, where the future of human evolution has come up. Almost invariably in these conversations, someone expresses the opinion – as though everyone there takes it for granted – that humans are the end point, the goal, or the pinnacle of evolution. A related viewpoint that I’ve heard said is that we humans have managed to extricate ourselves from the evolutionary struggle: our technological prowess has enabled us to raise ourselves above the survival of the fittest; we are, quite simply, the fittest. And another related viewpoint is that we humans were somehow the inevitable outcome of the evolutionary process. The final related viewpoint (the most explicitly theological) says that God directed evolution so that humans would be the end result. All of this is related to a much-debated idea in theology, of ‘human uniqueness’.
I hold none of these viewpoints myself, and I am amazed at their ubiquity, along with the ubiquity of the two connected beliefs that undergird them, that humans are the goal of evolution, and that humans have somehow transcended evolution. So, despite the great Darwin debates of the nineteenth century, which established the point that humans are as much a product of evolutionary processes as any other animal (and that humans are therefore different in degree not kind from other animals), it seems that we still find it necessary to set humans apart qualitatively, as these many conversations I have been caught up with demonstrate. But whether science can support this conviction of ‘human uniqueness’ is another matter, and the oft-made claim that humans are somehow more special than other species finds flimsy support from the biological and cognitive sciences. For sure, we are highly advanced in cognitive terms, and this has allowed us to achieve many technological wonders, but whether this sets us totally apart from other animal species (which also display cognitive powers of a lesser but related kind) is a debatable question. On the one hand, all species are unique in a trivial sense. But on the other, we humans like to believe that we are ‘uniquely unique’. For many Christians, this issue is inextricably tied up with the idea that humans are ‘made in the image of God’.
I have several objections to this conviction that humans are uniquely unique.
First, we have no idea what future evolution has in store for humans. Biologically, modern humans have only been in existence for about 200,000 years, a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms; culturally and technologically, advanced human societies have only arisen in the last 4000 years or so, an even more miniscule timespan when placed against the history of life on earth. Thinking historically then, it is premature at best, and the height of hubris at worst, to assume that we are now in control of our evolutionary destiny, or have removed ourselves from evolution based on this evidence alone. In theological terms, this hubris becomes almost idolatrous, raising humans above all other created beings so that we are practically god-like in comparison.
Second, research into human origins has revealed more and more continuities with our ancestors, and our biological cousins, the other modern apes. The realisation that the majority of modern humans contain Neanderthal genes indicates that there was inter-breeding in our (relatively) recent past, and that any special privileges we grant to humans might also need to be extended to our relations too. And the search for extra-terrestrial intelligent life raises related questions about the degree to which those qualities we value so much in humankind are really so unique when seen against unknown life beyond this planet.
And third, even the main Christian reason for believing in ‘human uniqueness’ is open to other perspectives. For many Christians ‘human uniqueness’ finds its justification in the core doctrine that God became human in Christ. The worry is that if humans are not the pinnacle of life in the universe it would be seen to undermine the incarnation. But my own feeling is that a firm belief in the incarnation actually provides a reason to believe in ‘human un-uniqueness’. Consider a slight change in perspective, whereby the incarnation is not so much God-becoming-a-human as the Creator-becoming-a-creature. This second view of the incarnation – equally as orthodox as the first – means that human redemption is not the sole reason for Christ’s advent so much as a divine transformation of the entire universe. There are biblical resources to support this more universal perspective, not least the final vision of Revelation 21, where the final apotheosis is a new heaven and a new earth, not just a new humanity.
I will continue to ponder the current popularity of ‘human uniqueness’, but from a distance. If anyone can convince me of it, I would be delighted to hear any new arguments, especially if they are science-based…