What is humanity? Has modern evolutionary biology destroyed Christian views of humankind as made in God’s image? What about Adam and Eve? Can those informed in biology take the Bible’s message seriously? Was the genesis of humanity through evolution? In this article I explore whether belief in evolution rules out key Christian claims about humanity.
The Uniqueness of Human Beings
Are human beings distinct from other animals in any interesting way? A Christian view seems to suggest so, but can we still believe it? Of course, every species is, by definition, distinct from others in some way. What, then, will count as a relevant ‘interesting’ difference? This is not a strictly empirical question; ultimately the interesting differences are normative – the really crucial question is whether we are purposed for something different than other animals. So, biology is not the only or even the best place to go when considering human’s place in the cosmos. Speaking of the cosmos, a recent article in the Atlantic summarises the surprising current state of knowledge in this way:
“it’s really hard to square humanity’s status as perhaps the only intelligent species in all of time and space with the idea that we are insignificant. To the contrary, the everyday breath of the least of us contains meaning in so concentrated a form that a cup’s worth of it could be doled out to a dozen star systems, transforming the arid matter into a garden of significance.”
Expanding on this and bringing it back to Earth, some empirical differences between us and the rest of creation seem to me to resonate with biblical claims about humanity. Here I consider two kinds of empirical differences which I find interesting.
One area is cognitive differences and differences in self-conception. It is discussed in depth across multiple books by secular humanist philosopher, physician and polymath Raymond Tallis. No-one can accuse him of having a religious bias, but he is strongly committed to the empirical and philosophical case for human uniqueness. He argues through various lines of evidence that we are self-conscious agents in a unique way which vastly exceeds the capacities of other creatures in this area. As an example, he argues that the human hand’s unique sensitivity and dexterity contributed to us having a unique awareness of ourselves as agents interacting with an external world. A specific case is tool use; Tallis argues that we alone have the ‘concept’ of a tool, well illustrated by making tools with other tools (secondary tool use); we also rapidly acquire pass on new tools, whereas chimpanzees haven’t developed in this respect over the last few million years. In summary, he says, “the point is that our difference from beasts is wall to wall, permeating every moment of our day.” While many details will be contentious, the overall fact that humans have many remarkable traits which make us stand out amongst the animals seems here to stay.
The second area, at least as controversial as the former, is functional genetic differences. The total percentage similarity between human and chimpanzee genomes is approximately 95% or so, although perhaps a little lower. There is a new Science paper out on the topic, but they don’t put a nice simple figure on it – exactly how to count it is disputable. Many young Earth creationists, as well as old-Earth creationists, have been seriously misled on this point however, erroneously believing the similarity to be much lower. The actual state of affairs is helpfully explained by young Earth creationist genomics expert Todd Wood, e.g. here. The interesting question though, is not so much DNA similarity, as how much human DNA is functional and how much is junk. This is much more controversial, with estimates of the fraction which is functional at the nucleotide level ranging from perhaps 10-15% to over 35%. For instance, Dan Graur suggests an upper limit of approximately 20%-25% functionality, while others (e.g. John Mattick and Martin Smith) have argued for significantly higher values. Whether alternative splicing produces a lot of functional products is another open-ended debate. My bet is on the higher percentage, on the basis of findings from the ENCODE project, and others arguing for conservation of many sequences transcribed as RNA. This debate is hard to separate from ideology, as recognised by people on both sides (neither denying evolution) e.g. here and here. There are a range of unanswered questions if functionality is in fact high, and the evidence is still disputable; there are large swathes of the genome which do not show evidence of being important to function. The best current answer appears to me to be that we don’t really know how much is functional, and a lot more careful work is needed – but that there is some reason to think we are at the upper limit of what is possible. We live in very interesting times for understanding the human genome.
What Does the Bible Say?
For serious commentary on this, it’s probably best to go to commentaries written by serious scholars of the biblical text. So, instead of that, I will note a few things that have stood out to and influenced me as I’ve wrestled with the text and with people’s interpretations of it. As a Christian, I take the text to be authoritative – but I am not an expert on it. And, as with all datasets, it’s not equally clear in all aspects. Our best science also communicates truth, but it is always our best attempt rather than the final word.
Firstly, whether the text is referring to ‘mankind’ or ‘Adam’ at some points in the first two chapters is not always clear. Similarly the relationship between Genesis 2:5 onwards and the events of the first chapter is not obvious; this also leaves room for differing interpretations. In what sense is chapter 2 a ‘retelling’ of the final events of chapter 1, and to what extent is it separate? These together leave open the possibility, on even a literalist or concordist reading, that the first humans existed as a group, and that Adam and Eve either came later or were representatives of the simultaneously existing wider group.
Secondly, the genealogies of the first few chapters of Genesis do not fix a date for the events. It is quite well known that such biblical genealogies often telescope history and include implicit gaps. But also, and perhaps more fundamentally, the extent to which we should take the first 11 chapters of Genesis as straightforward history is up for debate. One minor reason for thinking that they are not normal history is that the ages listed, e.g. age at death, tend to be ’round’ numbers (in the Hebrew context); either multiples of five, or with seven added on – as a consistent pattern it’d be a rather unusual coincidence if these were literal historical numbers.
Thirdly, I take the text to teach conditional immortality – that immortality (the tree of life) was on offer for Adam and Eve and their descendants, but was rejected and death was the result. The text doesn’t teach that animal death is the result of the fall of man, it is silent on that question. It teaches, I think, that Adam and Eve and their descendants, in losing the access to the tree of life (whether conceived of literally or figuratively), lost the offer of immortality.
Fourthly, there are many symbolic elements in the text, one of which may be the reference to God making Adam out of the dust. To be made from dust in the rest of the Bible is a description of our state as mortal. Also, pertaining to evolution more broadly, the idea that species are taught in Genesis to be fixed appears to be based on a misunderstanding of what the phrase “according to their kind” (Genesis 1:25) means. Interestingly, the ‘Answers in Genesis’ model now affirms rapid evolution of all species within taxonomic Families, or possibly even larger groups such as Orders, but still ultimately appears to hold to ‘kinds’ being impermeable barriers. That the term ‘min’ (kind) does not in fact imply fixity (whether of species or a larger group) however is accepted by commentators from both Biologos and young Earth creationist perspectives. I find no difficulty with the Earth being enabled to bring forth the various kinds of lifeforms over deep time, and this being God’s creative process.
Evolution and Genesis 1-3
The origin of humans is more difficult, as we are told a lot more about humans than other species, and the origin of humans is taken to be significant later in the Biblical narrative. In view of the points highlighted, how exactly might we read Genesis 1-3, while aware of the extensive evidence for evolutionary development? I’ll briefly sketch four broad views which all seem legitimate possibilities based on the science, while the latter three appear particularly credible options for Christians with a high view of Scripture’s reliability. There are various versions of each of these models, so if you’re interested to explore further I encourage it, and welcome comments. A similar way of splitting the currently scientifically plausible options has very recently been posted by Dr Joshua Swamidass at Peaceful Science (my last three options for Adam as ‘Representative’, ‘Genealogical’, or ‘Ancient’ basically correspond to what Dr Swamidass terms ‘Genetic Interbreeding Progenitorship’, ‘Sole Genealogical Progenitorship’, and ‘Sole Genetic Progenitorship’ respectively) – I have been very influenced by discussions he has been part of.
‘Ahistorical Adam’. This view sees early Genesis as a ‘myth’, in the technical sense of the word. On this view it is a highly stylised account intended to teach truths about the nature of humans and their relationship to the world, without necessarily having any historical dimension. The story of the fall, for instance, might be a tale of something re-enacted on a daily basis in normal fallible human responses to God. This of course raises no scientific problems, but faces challenges from New Testament references; the apostle Paul for instance really seems to take Adam as historical.
‘Representative Adam’. Perhaps Adam and Eve were members of a larger group, representing them before God, and their sin was taken to affect the whole. Something like this view is associated with influential evangelical theologians Derek Kidner and John Stott, and is popular among British evangelicals. There is a lot of room here for different models of when and where this might have taken place; if we take this group to have been small and to be the sole genetic ancestors of all humans since, then current genetic evidence suggests they must have lived a long time ago, on the order of hundreds of thousands of years ago. I’m not familiar enough with the anthropological evidence to put a minimum date on it, but it would be interesting to know.
‘Genealogical Adam’. This option was recently placed on the discussion table. In brief, it is scientifically possible that every single human currently alive shared an ancestor just a few thousand years ago, while other existing human lineages went extinct. This surprising statement builds on the distinction between genealogical and genetic science. For more detail, see ‘Peaceful Science’. I quote “it is possible Adam was created out of dust, and Eve out of his rib, … the first beings with opportunity to be in a relationship with Him. … their offspring blended with their neighbors in the surrounding towns. In this way, they became genealogical ancestors of all those in recorded history. Adam and Eve, here, are the single-couple progenitors of all mankind.” If that doesn’t intrigue you, I don’t know what will.
‘Ancient Adam’. It has recently been discovered that genetic science does not appear to definitively rule out (contrary to common belief in the scientific community) a single couple giving rise to all of humanity – so long as they existed at least approximately 500,000 years ago, with current population genetic data and modelling. Scientifically this may be considered absurd, but it appears to be possible; similar speciation events presumably happen fairly often when small populations transition to new environments.
What’s my view? I don’t have one, or if I do it changes week to week – I could happily adopt any of the latter three broad possibilities, or perhaps additional options I’m not aware of; and I’m waiting to see how some of the data (both fossil and molecular) pans out. If I had to pick I currently incline slightly towards a representative Adam and Eve, part of a larger but connected population a couple of hundred thousand years ago, with the population (but perhaps not the representative couple themselves) descended from earlier hominids, in line with the strong genetic evidence for common descent.
So, What is Man?
Dr Andy Gosler, Associate Professor in Applied Ethnobiology and Conservation at Oxford came to Christian faith while an adult and an established academic. A crucial question he came across in his journeys, is “what is the ecological niche of humans?” He suggests that the Bible is the only place that really gives us an answer. Especially when it comes to the normative sense in which we’re really interested as humans, I suspect that he’s right. We only have a ‘proper place’ if we were intended to be here. In a purely biological sense, we seem to have gone far beyond whatever our early ecological circumstances were. Evolution by itself will be of little help in telling this ape, this worshipping, thinking, teaching, culture-making, and sinning ape, its proper place. The Christian concept of stewardship offers a profound alternative story, I think well illustrated in the story of Gondor in the Lord of the Rings – an ancient city ruled for many years by a line of stewards, with the royal line in absentia. One of my favourite images is the white tree of Gondor, a tangible illustration of a powerful narrative of the glory and yet tension of years of service spent awaiting the King.
Ultimately, the true purpose of humanity is not found in abstraction or symbolism or even our biological origins, whatever they were exactly, but rather in the concrete reality of Jesus Christ. Humanity was made as the crown jewel of creation, and given high honour and responsibility. But we find ourselves unable to live up the dignity of our job title, as the King’s steward. The famous question ‘what is man that thou art mindful of him?’ comes from the magnificent Psalm 8, a song reflecting on creation, and in particular humanity’s place in it. The fulfilment of this creation song is explained in Hebrews 2 to be the Lord Jesus, the only one who could meet the job description. And paradoxically he did so by dying – there is a lot of depth here to unpack; enough to build your life on. The true man died that we may all participate in the full life he offers. This is where Genesis and creation are ultimately pointing.
Summing it All Up
I have argued across this series that the biblical text does not force a young Earth creationist model, and is instead compatible with a model of guided evolutionary development over long ages. As the Hebrew song Psalm 90 puts it, a text referencing creation and perhaps not coincidentally written by the same author as the more famous creation texts, “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.” Humanity’s special place in nature is also not necessarily challenged by evolutionary science, because it is not a scientific claim, and as it turns out, we are empirically distinct from other species in interesting ways. Further, I have argued that Darwinian evolution is logically compatible with divine guidance. Most controversially I have argued that awareness of God’s role is available to us not just as a fact which is hidden or only discoverable by ‘faith’, but is a claim for which evidence can be provided, in the form of a range of separate arguments for God’s existence, and pointers from biology itself as well as related areas of study.
There are many important issues that I haven’t addressed adequately or at all in this short series. Hopefully these essays will help you reflect on the implications of this world’s status as created, our responsibilities as stewards of it, and our need for redemption in the light of the mess which we’ve made of it, both corporately and personally.
Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary – Derek Kidner
‘Peaceful Science’ discussion board – where many related issues are discussed peacefully