Tough Questions Answered

A Christian Apologetics Blog

Why Is Man Unique?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

One of the chief answers that Christianity provides is the answer to the question: “Why is man unique?”  The Bible answers this question right at the start in the Book of Genesis.  Man is unique because man is the only earthly creature made in the image of the Creator himself.  No other creature can make this claim, or make any claim at all.

Among most anti-theists, there is the notion that the appearance of  man in history was merely a fluke of random mutation and natural selection, and that man is not actually that unique.  He is just slightly further along the evolutionary expressway than the rest of the animal kingdom.  Give the other animals time and they will catch up or even surpass man.  In fact, if we roll back the process of evolution and try it again, the results would have been quite different.  We can imagine other animals taking man’s place in the hierarchy of life. 

G. K. Chesterton, in his book Everlasting Man, runs the thought experiment of what it might have been like for other animals to ascend.

If there was ever a moment when man was only an animal, we can, if we choose, make a fancy picture of his career transferred to some other animal.  An entertaining fantasia might be made in which elephants built in elephantine architecture, with towers and turrets like tusks and trunks, cities beyond the scale of any colossus.  A pleasant fable might be conceived in which a cow had developed a costume, and put on four boots and two pairs of trousers.  We could imagine a Supermonkey more marvellous than any Superman, a quadrumanous creature carving and painting with his hands and cooking and carpentering with his feet.

We can certainly imagine a great many diverse evolutionary paths, but what actually happened is far more fascinating.  Chesterton reminds us:

Anyone thinking of what might have happened may conceive a sort of evolutionary equality; but anyone facing what did happen must face an exception and a prodigy. . . . [If] we are considering what did happen, we shall certainly decide that man has distanced everything else with a distance like that of the astronomical spaces and a speed like that of the still thunderbolt of the light.

The arrival of man on the scene is surely one of the greatest mysteries that faces us.  Most everyone, according to Chesterton, grants that there is a great mystery in the origin of the universe and another great mystery in the origin of life.  But Chesterton points to a third mystery:

Most philosophers have the enlightenment to add that a third mystery attaches to the origin of man himself.  In other words, a third bridge was built across a third abyss of the unthinkable when there came into the world what we call reason and what we call will.  Man is not merely an evolution but rather a revolution.  That he has a backbone or other parts upon a similar pattern to birds and fishes is an obvious fact, whatever be the meaning of the fact.  But if we attempt to regard him, as it were, as a quadruped standing on his hind legs, we shall find what follows far more fantastic and subversive than if he were standing on his head.


About The Author

Comments

  • Anonymous

    Give the other animals time and they will catch up or even surpass man.

    This is complete and utter nonsense which could only be written by someone who hasn’t a clue about the way evolution works.

  • Jeff C

    So Vinny,

    Please explain to the clueless Christians who visit this page exactly how evolution works.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/KYIDCEBE5MG7IY62UOGDP63MFU Eric Sawyer

    As a “clueless Christian” I’m not likely to agree with Vinny very often. But I do here. The portion of Bill’s post which Vinny quotes purports to speak from an anti-theist position.
    An yet it assumes that there is an evolutionary pressure towards an increasing perfection, which we, rather arrogantly, assume is more like us. This only makes sense if either there is a designer with his own idea of perfect (which I happen to believe), or we assume that we are the best thing that ever was or will be. Any a-theist who suggested either of these would have instantly lost his claim to a rational argument. He would have violated his own initial position.
    I don’t know what ideas are current. In Chesterton’s day, it may have been possible for his opponents to still be dragging shreds of popular theist ideas along subconsciously; but they don’t go together at all.

    For what it’s worth, I have never found Mr. Chesterton very compelling on the “Image of God.” I like him very much on the psychological insights that drive his fiction (Father Brown, or Manalive etc) but less so on his more formal excursions into theology. He starts sounding too much like a 1900 newspaper man.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Vinny, with evolution, anything can happen. It is a process based on environmental variables which nobody can foresee or predict in the distant future. That was my only point. If you want, I can rephrase the sentence to say, “Give the other animals time and they MAY catch up or even surpass man.” Again, the point is that no observer who lived 3.5 billion years ago could have predicted that human beings would evolve the way they have and out-distance all other animals. Likewise, looking forward, nobody can predict what course evolution will take.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Eric,
    My point was not that evolution is heading toward increasing perfection. It was that nobody knows what evolution will produce in the future. It’s a crapshoot, just like man’s evolution was a crapshoot.

  • Boz

    Bill Pratt, you are showing a severe misunderstandnig of how evolution works.

  • Anonymous

    Evolution isn’t a topic that I usually discuss in the blogosphere because I haven’t taken the time to familiarize myself with all the details. However, I’m confident that the idea of different species “catching up with” or “surpassing” each other is completely foreign to what scientists think is going on.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Well I guess if you start with a subjective goal, you could talk about one species ‘catching up’ with another – whether that is in size, longevity, or intelligence. One could speculate that other species may one day evolve into a new species that has close to the same or superior intelligence to us.

    I find Chesterton’s fancy here rather unlikely though: “We could imagine a Supermonkey more marvellous than any Superman, a quadrumanous creature carving and painting with his hands and cooking and carpentering with his feet”

    By all reckoning man himself evolved from ape-like creatures, and hence used to have pre-hensile feet. The loss of ability to use them ‘as hands’ may well have gone ‘hand in hand’ with our growing brain-power. There was quite possibly a trade-off in growth of intellect and loss of the physical abilities we admire in today’s monkeys.

    And I don’t quite understand this:

    “We can certainly imagine a great many diverse evolutionary paths, but what actually happened is far more fascinating”

    Why is it more fascinating? If, say, lizards had become the smart ones – building cities, cars, rockets, writing philosophical websites – why would that be less fascinating?

    Here’s another amusing thought to add to Chersterton’s – If another animal HAD got the intellectual upper hand, it would quite possibly now be imagining a ‘what if’ about those funny furry mammals (us) and what we’d be like if WE had been the smart ones.

  • Jeff C

    So Bill, does this mean you feel man has evolved from God’s original creation, of us in his image, an we are now “different” than his creation? Is God not sovereign, and thus why need to evolve us over time? As a Christian, where biblically do you trust in man’s evolution at God’s hand?

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com/ DagoodS

    Evolution is not my forte; so if the discussion progresses to any expertise, I will have to bow out. However, I am familiar with English language and “unique” is a word without qualification. Something cannot be “very unique” or “occasionally unique” and certainly “not actually that unique” is right out! Something is unique; or it is not.

    Homo Sapiens are unique. Before anyone gets too excited, so are brown recluse spiders, tiger sharks and dandelions. Saying something is “unique” is pretty pointless. Somehow meaning is being attached to what makes humans unique. Perhaps that is where the discussion ensues.

    Bill Pratt: He [homo sapien]is just slightly further along the evolutionary expressway than the rest of the animal kingdom.

    I do not know of any scientist (or “anti-theist”) who claims this. Perhaps a link so we can see context? Evolution is not a “path;” it is more like a bush. Where we are now is at the outer edge of the bush, along with the other life forms. Looking back a few million years, the bush was different. Presumably in a few million more years, it will likewise be different. Every single life form alive today is just as far along the “evolution expressway” as everyone else. We are all at the end of the bush.

    As Andrew Ryan states, one could subjectively determine a qualification, and scale one life form against another and claim it is “further along” on that scale…but that is semantics and sophistry. For example, goldfish are “farther along” than humans when it comes to swimming underwater. Swallows are “farther along” than goldfish when it comes to flying. Humans are “farther along” than other creatures when it comes to tool-making.

    So what? Simply picking a characteristic defining something’s uniqueness and then saying it is unique because it has that characteristic is circular.

    Bill Pratt: Vinny, with evolution, anything can happen. It is a process based on environmental variables which nobody can foresee or predict in the distant future.

    Well…yes and no. I may be misunderstanding what you are saying. It is predictable within certain parameters. You are correct, future environmental influences would impact evolution, as life pushes toward those members who either 1) live more productively and/or 2) produce more productively. If our atmosphere, for example, changed its make-up, a mutation allowing one to adapt to that change would be beneficial enough to promulgate.

    At times, I get the impression anti-evolutionists treat words like “random” or “crapshoot” as if it evolution claimed everything was truly arbitrary, and cats could give birth to dogs, or five-fingered creatures give birth to creatures with fins. That is not the theory at all. Bill Pratt, you are correct, 3.5 billion years ago no one could have predicted homo sapien. But within the parameters of evolution, a few million years ago, someone easily good. And a few million before that, someone could easily predict apes. And a few million years before that ape’s ancestors…and so on. (The same way one could trace the steps back on any life forms at the end of our bush.)

    Why one thinks this is answered by “image of the Creator” is beyond me. Of course humans would envision a God similar to themselves—as famously said, “If a fish could make a god, it would be in the form of a fish.”

  • Anonymous

    Darwin’s watershed book On the the Origin of Species by Natural Selection contain a key word: natural, as in an unguided, unplanned, physical process without any end goals or purposes. To many of the religious who believe in a personal interventionist deity, such a notion is intolerable.

    Over the last 150 years, this hypothesis has since become a scientific theory of how life has developed and is now a pillar of modern biology. This keen insight has yielded tremendous knowledge upon which we now enjoy such byproducts as modern medicine, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and genetic applications. It is better informed by multiple avenues of mutually supportive evidence than the theories of germs, gravity, and atoms… all of which do not earn the same level of religious interference that biology is subject to. This is why many of the most active atheists are biologists fed up with the tremendous ignorance about their field of study.

    Man is as unique as carrots, as pathogens, as molluscs. Each is well adapted to their environment as man but we are also particularly adept at altering our environment. We are not unique in this but the scope and scale of our engineering ability has far-reaching consequences that severely tests the notion that we are elevated in a natural hierarchy because of it. This ability on the one hand allows us to achieve higher survival rates in the short term but imposes significant changes to what were naturally sustainable environments in the long term. Carrots and molluscs don’t alter and use their environments to the point of being unsustainable for future generations; man does. This is not a virtue nor a sign of superiority. It’s a result of arrogance and ignorance and convenience.

    When we introduce evolution into man’s future, we have to remember that what we’re comparing is a natural process with what is now widely lived within an artificial environment. In other words, our current abilities intervene with evolution all the time. That’s why you wear corrective lens, receive vaccinations, use contraception, take medications, undergo surgeries, all to thwart blind and unguided natural selection. And we are extending this intervention throughout the world, managing food, extracting resources, processing goods, supplying services, because our intervention is now on a global scale. Our activities are changing the planet’s climate and altering planetary cycles like ocean currents and cloud cover.

    The real question is whether or not we can survive our own intelligence or if we will bring about our own – as well as the biosphere’s – extinction. Not many other critters can lay claim to be as ‘superior’ as this. ‘Go forth and multiply’ is recipe for global disaster.

    So the idea that some other critter might emerge depends on what we do. In a geological time frame, what will life on earth look like in fifty million years? It depends very much on what we do as a species in the next fifty years.

  • Anonymous

    This is a good starting point.

  • http://www.SecularThinker.com/ The Secular Thinker

    “Man is unique because man is the only earthly creature made in the image of the Creator himself. No other creature can make this claim, or make any claim at all.”

    If a bear was to come out of the woods and claim that he was in fact made in the image of god, and that Christians were wrong, how would we know the difference? It seems dishonest, to me at least, to make the claim that no other creature can make this claim because A. there are no other animals on earth that are (currently) capable of any sort of meaningful communication with humans and B. the fact that a claim can be made in know what speaks to the truth of that claim. An assertion is judged on its merits and evidence alone, nothing else.

    “Among most anti-theists, there is the notion that the appearance of man in history was merely a fluke of random mutation and natural selection, and that man is not actually that unique. He is just slightly further along the evolutionary expressway than the rest of the animal kingdom. Give the other animals time and they will catch up or even surpass man. In fact, if we roll back the process of evolution and try it again, the results would have been quite different. We can imagine other animals taking man’s place in the hierarchy of life. ”

    Yes, this is correct that humans appearance on this planet is a product of natural selection and evolution. However, we are not “further along the evolutionary expressway” than anything else. In fact, many animals have had millions of years more of adaptation and natural selection than us, sharks for example, yet we are currently at the top of the food chain. It is not simple a matter of “who’s evolved longer”.

    You are also correct to point out that, were it possible to go back to the beginning of life on planet earth, it is entirely possible that a completely different set of outcomes would occur, and perhaps humans would never have come about at all, or they would have been wiped out during as massive asteroid collision or extended ice age. Either way, there is nothing special about the human race that gives us our “place in the hierarchy of life” other than the fact that we have evolved very advanced features such as complex social organization and a detailed consciousness (and brain to inform and structure that consciousness).

    To me, it seems arrogant for Christians, or any religious believers for that matter, to posit that humans are somehow innately special. In order to think that a god created the entire universe just for us, well wow, that really must mean we are especially deserving. What exactly did we do to earn this reward?

SEO Powered by Platinum SEO from Techblissonline