Human Uniqueness: Genesis and Evolution in Dialogue

Infinite sharing is the law of God’s inner life. He has made the sharing of ourselves the law of our own being, so that it is in loving others that we best love ourselves. – Thomas Merton

What does it mean to be human? How do we differ from the animals? For centuries, philosophers have sought an answer. Aristotle thought it was human nature to seek knowledge. Descartes located human uniqueness in our reason, while Kant spotted it hiding behind our moral duty and free will. Hume and Darwin disagreed, naturally, and asserted that humanity was not exceptional, but differed from the animals only in degree.

In the decade since BioLogos debuted on the internet, the question of human uniqueness has only gained in importance. The evidence for evolution continues to mount, but many Evangelicals remain uncomfortable with its implications for human origins.

If God did not “specially create” Adam and Eve as the first of our species, what makes us special? Anything? Many Christians believe God had to intervene in human evolution because they understand it as a “purely natural” process, which removes God from the frame. But is that picture true? No. Evolutionary creation understands God’s involvement as a “both-and” proposition—just like the weather, and just like every individual’s physical origin. Christ said the Father “sends his rain on the good and evil alike” (Matthew 5:45), but believing that God controls the weather didn’t prevent Jesus from predicting rain using his “purely natural” understanding of clouds (Matthew 16:2-3). The Psalmist can praise the Lord for forming him in the womb (Psalm 139:13-16), but he certainly knew the “purely natural” way that he was conceived. Accepting the scientific narrative of evolution does not require rejecting God’s authorship of the story. Both can be true. Evolutionary creation is consistently a “both-and” proposition, not “either-or.”

It’s hard to imagine a group of any size reaching consensus on guilt or punishment without symbolic communication.

Jay Johnson

Still, the question remains: What does it mean to be human? How are we unique? The long and varied history of answers testify to the difficulty of the subject. Reason. Moral duty. Free will. Language. Creativity. Is there an answer? How should we proceed? Old Testament scholar J. Richard Middleton urges Christians to move beyond the old categories of the science-faith dialogue. Science should not be denied or ignored, but it also should not dictate the interpretation of the Bible. He suggests “an exploration of possible ‘resonances’ that might arise from a ‘cross-disciplinary conversation’ between the Bible and science.”1 Taking our cue from Middleton, we will read the biblical and scientific narratives together and see what they have to say to one another about human uniqueness.

Receiving the Breath of Life

Genesis 1-3 contain the biblical narratives of human origins. Genesis 1 tells of God’s creation of adam (“humanity”) in his image, but unpacking that metaphor would require the rest of this essay. Concentrating on the garden narrative in chapters 2-3, three things seem possibly related to our theme of human distinctives. First, God creates “the man” (ha’adam) from “the ground” (adamah) and breathes “the breath of life” into him (Genesis 2:7). Next, the man’s first act is the linguistic one of naming the animals (Genesis 2:19-20). Finally, the story climaxes with the acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:6-7).

Most Christians believe human beings have a dual nature—body and soul/spirit. Many people interpret Genesis 2:7 as God breathing a soul into the first man. If that’s the proper reading, God’s intervention obviously would be required. No natural process can create a human spirit, but the same holds true for every child born into this world. At what point between conception and birth does God “breathe a soul” into a person? No one knows. Scripture doesn’t say. But God’s intervention in that natural process doesn’t cause anyone to doubt the scientific explanation of conception and fetal development.

The possession of a unique soul/spirit obviously would be a human distinctive, but is this reading of Genesis 2:7 the best reading? The Hebrew phrases translated as “breath of life” and “living soul” in English are applied to both animals and humanity in the Bible. In the Old Testament, life is manifested in the breath, which comes from the Spirit of God. This is true of both people and animals, since both come from the ground (Genesis 1:24, 2:7) and both owe their lives to the spirit/breath of God (Genesis 7:21-22). In this context, Genesis 2:7 does not teach that “the man” was “ensouled” or “enlightened” at his creation. It simply teaches that humanity, like the animals, was made from the ground and given life (breath) by God, our Creator. That doesn’t tell us anything about human uniqueness, and it has little to offer for dialogue with science. Perhaps language and morality as discussed in Genesis 2-3 will be better candidates for illuminating human uniqueness in dialogue with science.

Cooperation in Human Evolution

Human language involves two kinds of sharing. First, everyone must agree what words mean and how to use them, and second, we must agree that the information we share is truthful. Without meeting both conditions, human languages could not function. This might seem to create a problem for the evolutionary explanation of the development of language. Isn’t evolution based on the natural selection of individuals or their genes in which survival of the fittest forces competition? But the evolution of language doesn’t seem to fit that pattern, since language relies on cooperation rather than competition.

Human cooperation seems even more difficult to explain when compared to the social lives of other primates. The basic building blocks of primate society are deception, manipulation, and social status/power. If human language arose under those conditions, we would expect it to allow more complex forms of deception and manipulation. What we would not expect, according to linguist and psychologist Michael Tomasello, is a communication system that relies on sharing and has as its basic motivation “the desire to help others by providing them with the information they need.”3 Perhaps it is our understanding of evolution that is not correct. If language really is a human distinctive as suggested by Genesis 2, then this ought to inform the way we interpret evolution and look more carefully at the elements of cooperation involved in it.

Besides language, two other unique features of human sociality rely on cooperation. The first is “intersubjectivity,” which is an umbrella term for a suite of capacities that require joint action, a joint frame of reference, or empathy. To work together, humans must agree on a common goal, which involves a bit of “mind reading” that other primates can’t duplicate. Chimps don’t hold up objects for other chimps to consider, but humans will say, “Look at that beautiful sunset.” When we use such joint frames of reference to share our experiences and emotions with another person, we call it “empathy.” The second is morality, which requires people to agree on what constitutes “right” and “wrong” behavior (joint frame of reference) and what to do when those standards are violated (joint action). Where does language come into play? Even the earliest expressions of human morality relied on “shared values” and “joint action.” It’s hard to imagine a group of any size reaching consensus on guilt or punishment without symbolic communication.

sunset over water

The Community of Infinite Sharing

Returning to Genesis, we identified language and morality as key human distinctives in the garden narrative. When we followed the linguistic trail, the clues led from cooperation to intersubjectivity, empathy, and morality. Clearly, science and Scripture have something to say to one another on this topic.

From a scientific perspective, this key development in human evolution was not the result of a “red in tooth and claw” contest for individual survival, much less the byproduct of a “selfish gene” in our DNA. Instead, the “purely natural” explanation involved a counterintuitive turn toward sharing, empathy, and truthful communication. When we consider this triad of traits from a Christian perspective, they surely reflect the loving heart of the Triune God—a community of infinite sharing between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The evolutionary journey from a primate-like society of deception, manipulation, and competition to a society based upon truthful communication, empathy, and cooperation was not accomplished overnight. It began with Australopithicus 4 million years ago, and according to Christian theology, it will not end until the consummation. More than 350 years ago, the great scientist, mathematician, inventor, and philosopher Blaise Pascal asked, “What, then, will man become? Will he be equal to God or the brutes? What a frightful difference!”4

Here lies the crux of the human condition, buried deep within our evolutionary past: Do we move in a Godward direction, or remain rooted in the soil from which we sprang?

Jay Johnson
About the Author

Jay Johnson

Jay Johnson spent 15 years as a journalist and publishing executive before embarking on a second career teaching English in the juvenile justice system, an experience he described in a 2004 article, School of Hard Knocks. Jay’s love of kids and education brought him to BioLogos in 2016 to research the connection between evolution, Young Earth Creationism, and the alarming loss of faith among the younger generation. Jay lives in New Mexico with his wife, Sue’llen, and a black German Shepherd named Luca.
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