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A challenge to human uniqueness and status?

It is clear from the Genesis account and the Bible as a whole that humans are at the centre of God’s plans for Creation and that they are distinct from the rest of Earth’s fauna. Humans were created separately, in the ‘image of God,’ as the last act on the last day of the creation week before God rested. The New Testament tells the story of Christ’s incarnation - as a human being - for the purpose of redeeming Adam’s descendents.

However, if we look at nature through the eyes of evolutionary biology we see a very different picture. Homo Sapiens Sapiens is just one more mammal that has branched off rather recently from other primates. Even today the most visceral reactions to Darwin’s theory are provoked by the implication that we are descended from ape-like ancestors. Few have been more eloquent in their repulsion at this suggestion than Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. In his anonymous review of Darwin’s Origin he famously stated:

Man’s derived supremacy over the earth; man’s power of articulate speech; man’s gift of reason; man’s free-will and responsibility... - all are equally and utterly irreconcilable with the degrading notion of the brute origin of him who was created in the image of God...."Is Mr Darwin a Christian?" Quarterly Review, vol. 108, July, 225-64.

While it is clear to everyone that humans are not identical with Chimpanzees or Gorillas, evolution did open the way for critics to question the theist’s claim that humans are unique and central to the cosmic scheme of things. Later developments in evolutionary biology and related fields would continue the challenge to theological anthropology. While nineteenth century commentators were horrified by our newfound commonality with apes, contemporary genetics has revealed that we share as many as 40% of our genes with the humble banana. Various disciplines have also begun to provide naturalistic accounts of the qualities that Wilberforce considered uniquely human and show how they are present to some degree in other animals.For a fascinating proposal concerning the development of language see Terrence William Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Human Brain (New York: Norton, 1998).

Evolutionary thinking also contradicted deeply rooted concepts of order in the cosmos such as the Scala Naturae or ‘great chain of being.’ Rather than occupying an elevated place in the scheme of things, humans were just one branch on the tree of life. In recent years Harvard palaeontologist Stephen J Gould railed against even the tree model since this still implies an upward, if diffuse, directionality: “I cannot understand our continued allegiance to the manifestly false iconographies of ladder and cone except as a desperate finger in the dike of cosmically justified hope and arrogance.”Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (London: Vintage, 2000) 45. Dennett considers this refutation of what he calls the ‘cosmic pyramid’ and humankind’s banishment from a privileged position within it to be one of the reasons Darwin’s idea is so dangerous.See Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995) 64-65.

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Go to Evolution Topic Index

A challenge to human uniqueness and status?

[1] Does Evolution ‘do the work of a friend’ for the Christian Religion?
Setting the scene - why focus on providence?
[2] Supposed challenges from the evolutionary sciences to theology
Intellectually fulfilled atheists?
A challenge to purpose in creation?
A threat to the veracity of scripture?
Evolution ‘explains away’ theology?
A challenge to Christian morality?
The challenges in wider context - Darwin as a scapegoat?
[3] The current state of the evolutionary sciences
Different ways of conceptualising Darwinian evolution
Evolution as chance and necessity
Evolution as an algorithm
Evolution as movement within a ‘fitness landscape’
Ongoing debates: contingency versus convergence
Ongoing debates: what are the key causal factors in biological history?
Ongoing debates: the environment as the principle cause?
Ongoing debates: convergence as the principle cause?
Ongoing debates: ‘Universal biology’ as the principle cause?
The importance of moving from evolution as abstraction to particular history
Ongoing debates: directionality and progress
Ongoing debates: the origin of life
Different levels and kinds of selection?
[4] Responses from theology
Evolution, probabilities and providence
Responses from contemporary theologians
Holmes Rolston III
Keith Ward
John Haught
Arthur Peacocke
An increased role for general providence?
Theology of Creation in the light of evolution: three scenarios
[5] Concluding remarks


Adrian Wyard
Adrian M Wyard MSt

See also:

The Relation of Science & Religion
Purpose and Design
The Argument From Design
The Anthropic Principle
Charles Darwin
DNA Double-Helix