God of the Gaps

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.

24 thoughts on “God of the Gaps

  1. Inquisitor said: “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.”

    Great point.

    Also, had man never evolved an alien examining life on earth would see a huge “gap” between chimp and rhesus monkey. Even greater between chimp and pigeon. Chimp and earthworm. Chimp and bacteria. But that alien would have no trouble deducing that ALL life was related.

    And to your points about life being evolved to have success in whatever environment it finds itself (you wishing you were a fish, if lost at sea) – ABSOLUTELY. I recently posted a video of chimp studies. In it, it’s apparent that chimps have actually evolved better short term memory than we have. They are pound for pound much stronger than us. They have natural resistance to certain diseases that kill us. Why? Because we evolved adaptations to suit success in our environment as they did in theirs. The only “gap” is the environment.

  2. Hey, SI, I used to be Spanish, and I’m still inquisitive…

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    Just commenting that your motives seem very ethical, but by quoting slabs of text, you made it very easy (one search, top hit) to find this blog you’re (naively?/genuinely?) attempting to obfuscate.

    The net is very accesible.

  3. Very nice post. I too love the study and discussion of evolution. You made some great points in your article but there was just one thing I wanted to comment on.
    You say “We are much further along in evolutionary development than chimps are”. This is one of my pet peeves, to imply that one species is “further” or “more highly evolved” than another. If by this statement you meant that we have more recently evolved, then I’d agree with that. But as John B. so nicely pointed out, chimps are incredibly well evolved for their own environment, as are sponges and ferns. One could even argue that because sponges and ferns are among the most ancient species, that they have had more time to adapt to their environment, making them more “highly evolved”. Anyway, its certainly an interesting discussion, as are a million other topics associated with evolution!

  4. Eh, it’s all Sun worship anyway. Why does it always have to be a battle between two dualities? Creation and Evolution? Why not Creational Evolution? 🙂

  5. I don’t know how people can really doubt that we are not just descended from apes, but are a type of ape. Every single major feature that distinguishes apes from all other forms of life, all other primates, is a feature that human beings have. We have individualized fingerprints: just like apes. The shape and number of teeth in our mouths are like no other animal on earth… except, of course, for other apes.

    Even creationists long before evolution realized this: creationist taxonomists listed us with the apes long before anyone suspected there was an ancestral connection.

  6. Oh you brought that blog back to life? I thought I killed it. I guess he likes you and will respond to you. He stopped responding to me.

  7. @mysterybea

    Good point! I agree. That’s where I think the “conceit” comes in. I mentioned in a comment on the Christian blog (that I didn’t link to but everyone seems to have found) that my cat obviously thinks he’s superior to me, so he clearly thinks he is more highly evolved than me.


    Or Evolved Creationism?


    Agreed. I know this guy down at the Y, who is an obvious primate.


    Yes. I couldn’t help myself. No response yet, though.


    I’ll be gone for a few days starting Sunday. Play nice.

  8. Yeah, well if we are a special creation of god, then god must have created us to fuck up his creation, because that is pretty much what we seem to be doing. Then again, if god is so powerful, why doesn’t he just fuck the planet up itself rather than using us as it’s proxy?

  9. If the folks in my own family are any model for this type of debate, you have gross ignorance to contend with. A lot of ministries out there seem to have their “experts” come in and spread disinformation via, lectures and videos which are swallowed by the flock as gospel. You cant fix stupid though, but on the “bright” side, evolution might just take care of those folks for us.

  10. Tut tut, SI, you said chimps are our closest ancestor. Surely you mean our closest relative? Chimps aren’t our ancestor at all.

  11. If humans have proven anything in the past couple of thousand years, they’ve proven that the dumbest animal is smarter than humans. Just watch the ice melt and the seas rise and you’ve got your proof of that.

    In any event, since everything is actually descended from algae and since bacteria actually rule the planet, the whole discussion about human descent and god is kind of silly. You guys need to talk about bacteria and god. Is god actually a bacterium? Or is it a algae? C’mon, get down to the real nitty gritty. Screw this namby pamby talk about chimps and apes. The real action’s in algae.

  12. Tut tut, SI, you said chimps are our closest ancestor. Surely you mean our closest relative? Chimps aren’t our ancestor at all.

    Being a pedant myself, (and I don’t mean that pejoratively) you are quite correct, and I thank you. 🙂

    I shall fix it immediately.

  13. Great post Span. Evolution is such a wonderful and fascinating topic (I’ve just written another article about it myself! 🙂 ), and it is depressing how ignorant people are of it. Even more so is those who actually use biology to prove god! Only a ridiculously subjective analysis of man could possibly make you think he was “special” creation.

  14. @Rob

    Yes, I heard similar arguments. Nonsense, all of them.

    But the man I was debating was more intelligent than that. He never said anything like that.

    Frankly, the most dangerous doubters are the one who admit to a certain level of understanding, but just not enough to allow it to create doubt about their god. Those like you mention are just plain stupid, can be seen as such, and easily dismissed.

  15. (I guess this begins with essentially the same point as mysterybea was making, but I have a follow-on point to make.)

    I think your discussion of evolution is actively misleading, appearing to advocate evolution as a process of “progress” to a definable pinnacle (ourselves).

    It’s a bit hard to take the fight to the anti-evolutionists when the pro-side keeps propagating errors like that.

    Evolution is not “progress” (except, perhaps, in the narrow sense that over long periods of time there is a broad tendency to greater complexity). That’s a consequence of evolution of organisms occuring in an environment of competing, already somewhat complex organisms, not a constant defining characteristic of evolution. It doesn’t mean that in particular niches, evolution won’t happily dump any complexity that the population of organisms can manage without and still reproduce just as well (lower complexity has many potential advantages, if you don’t need it).

    The fact that we tend to see increasing complexity is because frequently the changes that result in organisms which are better-adapted-to-their-environment make the organism more complex.

    There’s no sense in which evolution is “aiming” for anything.

  16. @Glen

    As a non scientist, I’m sensitive to this claim, because I tend to try to translate the science into easily understood layman’s terms, the way I understand it.Sometimes I may get it wrong. I actually sent the link to PZ Myers and asked him if I got it right, but never heard back (he gets a lot of email, I suppose).

    So if I misled anybody, I assure you it was not intentional.

    That being said, I don’t see much that can be construed the way you are construing it. I was speaking about the perceptions of gaps in the evolutionary record, which by its nature requires us to look back over the record, not forward through the record to imply some direction or aim to evolution. It’s a historical search, nothing more.

    My point was that just because things look, ummm…. “gappy”, doesn’t mean that there are gaps. The seamlessness of evolution was my main point, not its progress.

    I agree that the idea that we are more evolved than anything else is not accurate, in the sense of the implication you raise. But with a less stringent reading of what I wrote, you’d see that was not the point of the post. I did agree with Mysterybea in my reply.

    Readers have to take the post the way they see it. I think the more comments that help flesh it out, the better, and your’s is a good one. Thanks!

  17. Great post,

    But, when talking to creationists, I would avoid the use of “higher life forms.” To biologists that has one meanining, to creationists it means something entirely different (“Then why haven’t alligators become people?”).

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