I’ve been having a discussion on a Christian blog that I thought I’d bring over here. I’m not going to link to the blog, because I want to start anew here, and because I don’t want to start a two front war. Some of you may already know where he is, but it doesn’t matter.
He posted about a topic near and dear to my heart, one of great interest to me – Evolution. Here’s what he said, in part.
Humans, we are told by Darwinians also arose from that same primordial accident and subsequent beneficial mutations. They like to remind us that our nearest animal relatives, the chimpanzees, differ from us by only a tiny amount of DNA (we share 98%!). Be that as it may, the more obvious differences are so vast as to render the words, “amazing,” and “awesome” as terrific understatements.
He then opines that we humans seem so much more intelligent, so much better than chimps, in comparison, that:
Even though we frequently don’t behave like it, everything about humans screams “special creation.”
He ends by scoffing at the notion that apes are “almost us”.
Of course, I objected to his understanding of evolution in early comments and we had a lively discussion, along with other commenters, over our respective positions. We then seemed to get off on tangents, but recently got back on track, when he posted this:
The gap between humans and the rest of the animal world is vast. No one denies that. What accounts for that? No one really has a definitive, factual answer. My speculation is that man is a special creation of God.
After meandering a bit, with him thinking that I was denying any difference between higher and lower life forms, I tried to clarify myself thusly:
I’m not saying that there is no gradation in life from lower to higher forms. Clearly, as one who marvels at evolution, that’s almost self evident. In fact, evolution is based on the premise of just such a gradation.
I think where I take umbrage is in the idea that there is a gap between one form of life, and the next. The concept of “gaps” seems to me to be a simple mental construct, something to help us understand, but in the process actually making it less understandable. I just don’t think it’s helpful to think about our differences in terms of the concept of gaps, just because we exhibit characteristics that we conceitedly feel are superior to the next surviving lower form. In many ways we may be superior, but only relatively so, as my lion’s den example illustrates. In one setting we are superior. In another, we’re not. Drop me in the middle of the ocean a thousand miles from shore, and I’d wish I was a fish.
There is a gap between us and chimps, but it’s not helpful or useful to think that gap is significant. There is no gap between us and our immediate predecessor in evolution (which incidentally are not chimps), and there is no gap between our immediate predecessor and it’s immediate predecessor back through the chain of evolution, ad finitum. Evolution is a seamless process, that does not produce gaps. We may not have a total history of lifeforms based on samples of every change (this would be impossible) but we have enough evidence of the method of evolution to know it’s true, that it is seamless.
It’s this misunderstanding of evolution, and the insistence that there are gaps, that gives rise to religious folks such as yourself feeling the urge to fill those gaps with God. Hence the term “God of the Gaps“. However, if you understand the seamless nature of evolution, as most evolutionary biologists, zoologists, and paleontologists do, then you realize there are no gaps for God to fill.
The perceived Gap between Chimps and Humans is the same as the gap between one limb of a tree and the next one. The connection between the two is way down there on the trunk of the tree, where they diverged, but by the time you get to the tip of each limb, there is no connection, and only superficial similarity, between them, because they grew separately from the point of divergence, in response to their own needs.
Likewise, chimps and humans evolved from a common ancestor, that had some similarity to both of us, but that was neither chimp nor human, as we now know both. We then went our own ways, over some 6-7 (some are saying now 10) million years to become what we are now. Hence the perceived gap.
I seems to me that this is the essence of the Christian misunderstanding of evolution, or at least one of the major ones. Christians think that we evolved from monkeys, apes, chimps, or some other bipedal primate. We did not. We evolved from a creature that was close to both humans and apes, but then apes and human diverged along independent evolutionary lines, until they ended up where we are now.
They look at chimps (lets stick with one primate for the sake of argument) and see a vast degree of difference between them and us, and assume that something as mundane as evolution can not account for that difference. They are assuming that because chimps are our closest relative, that chimps are also our most immediate relative, when this is not the same thing. Our most immediate evolutionary ancestor was a closely related human type, nothing like a chimp. (Homo heidelbergensis? There’s a nice chart of Early Human Phylogeny here). And our next closest was also more human like, but less so than we are now. In terms of immediacy, chimps are way down the line. And, most importantly, all those previous ancestors of humans are extinct, leaving chimps as our most closely related relative.
Comparing chimps to humans will accentuate a perceived gap in development between them and us, and, in fact, it does exist. We are much further along in evolutionary development than chimps are, from brain capacity, to communication skills, to speech, to tool making (though we aren’t able to swing through the trees as well as we used to). However, that’s not the same thing as saying there is a gap in evolution.
As I mentioned in my comment, evolution is a seamless process. One species seamlessly evolves into the next, and it’s not a matter of something that would be noticed in one generation. It may be that any given mutation is so small and inconsequential than a current observer could not see it, but when spread through a population, over time, it become noticeable. It can be said with accuracy that, in order to even notice evolution, you need the hindsight of looking back over multiple generations.
This is why Christians, indeed all theists who believe in a creator, have to fight so hard to deny the truth of evolution. There is no room for any god, or any intelligent designer, in evolution. Evolution explains how we got here from a single cell, through plants, amphibians, dinosaurs, lower mammals, and primates, to the exquisite complexity of the human being, without the necessity of invoking a supernatural, magical interlude anywhere in the process.
In short, God is superfluous.