Human uniqueness, and are humans the pinnacle of evolution?

Huxley_-_Mans_Place_in_Nature-2-300x179I 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…


13 thoughts on “Human uniqueness, and are humans the pinnacle of evolution?

  1. ”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…”

    J. F. Haught in his essay (Christianity and human evolution, Padgett and Stump 2012) advances two main scientific ideas that could be argued in favour of human uniqueness; conscious self awareness and awareness of cosmic emergence. Haught also refers to the writings of T de Chardin (1964) from a cosmological perspective suggesting there is something special about humans , along these lines…..not withstanding the dangers of anthropomorphism, the cosmological perspective has the potential to renew our confidence in the special place for humans….

    Are these ideas worth consideration?

    • Thanks for this. Yes, I’ve read this piece, and I know that some find it helpful to see humans as uniquely spiritually aware in a cosmic sense, a la Teilhard. I am still not convinced myself though, largely because we know so little about the spiritual awareness of other life forms, either on earth or (perhaps) elsewhere.

        • Depends on what you mean by “soul”. I shocked last year’s MSc students by telling them that I don’t believe that humans have a soul! There’s an article about it on this blog from a few months ago…

  2. To go back, briefly, to the uniqueness question I feel it is more nuanced than can be easily contained in words. I feel that we humans are the pinnacle of evolution (and it is only a feeling) but that does not stop me having the greatest respect for the wonders of biology around me. The young swallows fly low and in perfect tandem across our front field swooping and diving in a display which no Red Arrows will ever equal. They return to my garage from South Africa every year without using satellites and looking down at devices that they are carrying with them. Our old sheepdog would instantly prick her nose up if you even thought of going outside (without her:the greatest of sins! ). Meaning is woven into biology and many other animals are better at perceiving it than us but that does not stop us being responsible for nature’s destruction: in my youth we came within 15 minutes of a nuclear war which would have heralded a nuclear winter let alone the radiation effects.The baleful effects of rising CO2 levels are playing out now. I feel there is more danger to our fellow creatures by us having too low an opinion of ourselves rather than too high a one.

    • Yes, I would tend to agree – if there is any sense in which humans are specially unique it must be that we alone have developed the capacity to obliterate most of life on this planet. This is hardly something to boast about!

  3. You describe the idea that human beings are the pinnacle of evolution as an idolatrous hubris ‘raising humans above all other created beings so that we are practically god-like in comparison’.
    You appear to be attaching the label ‘proud idolaters’ to all of us who believe the truths about our human existence revealed in the Bible, namely:
    God created humanity as male and female in his image.
    They were given god-like status to rule over all the natural world.
    Their rebellion against God resulted in the corruption of that natural world.
    The whole creation is restored through the coming of Christ, not as ‘the Creator-becoming-a-creature’ but specifically as a man, the second Adam, to repair the damage caused by the failure of the first Adam.
    We await a new heaven and a new earth – ‘a divine transformation of the entire universe’ – but it comes about through the obedience of the man Jesus.
    Do you know the ‘Hymn to Evolution’ by C. S. Lewis? (to the tune of ‘Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us, o’er the world’s tempestuous sea’)

    Lead us, Evolution, lead us
    Up the future’s endless stair;
    Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us.
    For stagnation is despair:
    Groping, guessing, yet progressing,
    Lead us nobody knows where.

    Wrong or justice, joy or sorrow,
    In the present what are they
    While there’s always jam-tomorrow,
    While we tread the onward way?
    Never knowing where we’re going,
    We can never go astray.

    To whatever variation
    Our posterity may turn
    Hairy, squashy, or crustacean,
    Bulbous-eyed or square of stern,
    Tusked or toothless, mild or ruthless,
    Towards that unknown god we yearn.
    Ask not if it’s god or devil,
    Brethren, lest your words imply
    Static norms of good and evil
    (As in Plato) throned on high;
    Such scholastic, inelastic,
    Abstract yardsticks we deny.

    Far too long have sages vainly
    Glossed great Nature’s simple text;
    He who runs can read it plainly,
    ‘Goodness = what comes next.’
    By evolving, Life is solving
    All the questions we perplexed.

    On then! Value means survival-
    Value. If our progeny
    Spreads and spawns and licks each rival,
    That will prove its deity
    (Far from pleasant, by our present,
    Standards, though it may well be).

    • Thanks for your comment. In response, I agree with your first ‘truth’ revealed in the Bible, since this is nearly word-for-word from Gen.1:26-7. I don’t think that then means that humans have stopped evolving though, nor that we were given a ‘god-like status’. This depends very much on how you understand ‘dominion’. Your other ‘truths’ are very much open to interpretation, although I agree with the general tenor of what you say about the incarnation. I just don’t think it’s necessary to insist that the humanity of Christ (in particular) then exalts humanity (in general) above other created beings, except by the grace of God, and I see nothing in the Bible that suggests otherwise.

      And no, I didn’t know that piece by C S Lewis, and I’d be interested to know what you feel it adds to the debate.

      • The C S Lewis piece is an amusing comment on the idea of human progress through evolution directed by chance rather than God, and the idea that morality can be derived from evolutionary processes rather than from divine commandment.

        • Yes, I guessed that, but I was wondering what was the point you were making by quoting it. Are you arguing against evolution in general, or against Darwinism (i.e. no purpose/progress in evolution) more particularly?

  4. Re: your Evolution and Incarnation contribution to ‘the Edge’ SEC magazine.

    II was thinking about your article during our church’s thanksgiving liturgy, when it reads thus:
    Worship and praise belong to you, God our maker.
    Out of nothing you called the worlds to be,
    and still you draw the universe to its fulfilment.
    Dawn and evening celebrate your glory
    till time shall be no more.
    In Christ your Son, the life of heaven and earth were joined,
    sealing the promise of a new creation,
    given, yet still to come.

    Your article gave me a refreshing perspective on our faith, giving me much food for thought. Thank you for this.
    I did wonder though, about the implications of your words, specifically on the
    relationship between creator and the created. Is God renewing a broken universe (including us)? How did this come to be? Or are you describing a panentheist universe, where everything is imbued with the presence of Godhood?
    Also, where do you locate in this perspective the evidence of evil in the universe?
    (By that I mean not the absence of the good, but a palpable force of deliberate wrong doing).
    Finally, have you come across Dr. James Le Fanu’s book entitled ‘Why us’? It is a scholarly book which discusses ‘how science rediscovered the mystery of our selves’.
    Many thanks for reading this.

    • Thanks for your comment. You are right that I say nothing about evil in my short article, simply because I was addressing one particular issue (human uniqueness), and didn’t have the space to think through the perspective of evil too. I must confess that I do not have a clearly formulated response to the question of evil, largely because it seems to me to be too complex to sum up in a few sentences, and that almost everything we say about evil will be inadequate for those who suffer from it. Nevertheless, I am happy to affirm with the majority of Christian tradition that the human race is ‘fallen’, and that whatever evil is in general terms, Christ holds the key to its reversal. Also, I am not a panentheist, although I do believe in the activity and presence of God the Holy Spirit in the whole world (this is orthodox theism). I hope that helps. Thanks for pointing me to the Le Fanu book by the way.

  5. Thank you Dr. Harris for this Interesting article!

    Quoting from your comment on Charles Green “we know so little about the spiritual awareness of other life forms, either on earth or (perhaps) elsewhere”… It make me wonder what if an extra-terrestrial creatures studied life on earth for hundreds of thousands of years and observed the evolution of man, and came to answer the article’s question; “are human being the pinnacle of evolution?”
    I guess their “theological” background – if there is- will be different, which makes their comprehension based on observation and analysis,, i guess 🙂

    Now, can we imagine how they’ll respond?

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