Over the years, I’ve encountered many objections to the reconciliation of Christianity to Neo-Darwinian evolution. One of the most common and forceful objections pertains to the alleged loss of human dignity that comes with a biology of common descent. As Christian rock singer Larry Norman sang in “God Part III,”
“I don’t believe in evolution. I was born to be free.
“Ain’t gonna let no anthropologist make a monkey out of me.”
In other words, the notion of common descent between human beings and other lifeforms presents a significant objection to Neo-Darwinism. Common descent is irreconcilable with human freedom, dignity, and the image of God.
But is it? In this article, excerpted from my 2011 book You’re Not as Crazy as I Think, I challenge the assumption that common descent is incompatible with human dignity. There may be some good objections to evolution, but in my view, this is not one of them.
Gather together as much evidence in favor of evolution as you like and some people will still reject it without a second thought for they are utterly convinced that evolution must be false. One reason for this certainty comes back to Hodge’s conviction that Darwinism is atheism, and if not quite atheism, then something in the neighborhood. This is the way Henry Morris put it: “One can be a Christian and an evolutionist, just as one can be a Christian thief, or a Christian adulterer, or a Christian liar. It is absolutely impossible for those who profess to believe the Bible and to follow Christ to embrace evolutionism.” Boiled down to essentials, the argument goes something like this:
(1) I am certain that Christianity is true.
(2) If Christianity is true then Darwinism is false.
(3) Therefore, Darwinism is false.
It is hardly surprising that people motivated by this type of reasoning are no more likely to consider evolution seriously than they are likely to consider polygamy, murder, or Wicca. But is the reasoning itself sound?
For many evangelicals, confirmation of their antagonism toward evolution came in the 2008 pro-intelligent design documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (a film that Ted first saw on the big screen at his church). In the film, the comedian Ben Stein determined to investigate the alleged marginalization of intelligent design by the scientific establishment. While concerns about academic freedom and censorship are prevalent in the film, we do not need to probe far beneath the surface to find the smoldering sentiment that Darwinian evolution is fundamentally incompatible with Christian convictions. To this end, Stein interviewed a number of atheists in the film who claimed that Darwin is irreconcilable with faith.
For instance, atheist Will Provine declared: “No god, no life after death, no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no human free will are all deeply connected to an evolutionary perspective. You’re here today and you’re gone tomorrow and that’s all there is to it.” If Provine is correct, evolution contradicts a number of essential Christian doctrines. This certainly is a startling claim, but rather than assess it critically, Stein simply accepted it with the observation that “Dr. Provine’s deconversion story was typical amongst the Darwinists we interviewed.” The point is further hammered home when Stein interviewed atheists Richard Dawkins and P. Z. Myers who are also well known for their unremitting hostility toward religion. And so Stein concluded, “It appears Darwinism does lead to atheism.” Hodge, it would seem, is vindicated.
While the perspective of Provine, Dawkins, and Myers deserves to be heard, we might wonder why Stein didn’t interview any of the thousands of Christian theologians and scientists who are Darwinians. In fact, he did. He just didn’t let the viewers know about it. In the film, Stein interviewed two theistic evolutionists, Alister McGrath and John Polkinghorne, both respected theologians with extensive training in science (indeed, Polkinghorne was once a theoretical physicist). Sadly enough, while Stein invited McGrath and Polkinghorne to share their views on the compatibility of Christianity and science, he never invited them to share their perspective on the compatibility of Christianity and Darwinian evolution.
Stein also interviewed Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education. While Scott is an atheist, she did not agree with Provine, Dawkins, and Myers that Christianity and evolution are incompatible. Indeed, she observed that “the most important group we work with is members of the faith community because the best-kept secret in this controversy is that Catholics and mainstream Protestants are okay on evolution.” Clearly, Stein was not happy with Scott’s claim and so her comment was immediately followed by journalist Larry Witham’s incendiary rejoinder that Christian evolutionists are “liberals” who side with Darwin simply because of their deep antipathy toward religious conservatives. When he made this startling claim, Witham added another charge to explain why some assent to Darwinism: irascibility. That is, they opt for evolution because they just trying to stir up trouble among the faithful, rather like soccer hoodlums pouring out of an English pub in search of a good brawl.
But this additional option hardly helps us dismiss the carefully reasoned scientific and theological support for Darwin’s theory offered by thoughtful scientist-theologians like McGrath and Polkinghorne. Witham followed his implausible irascibility charge by affirming Provine’s claim that Darwinism and atheism are linked: “Implicit in most evolutionary theory is that either there is no god or god cannot have anything, any role in it. So naturally, as many evolutionists will say, it’s the strongest engine for atheism.” It may well be that some Christians are attracted to Darwin because of their antagonism toward conservative Christianity. But can that plausibly explain the temperate and well-articulated position taken by McGrath, Polkinghorne, and tens of thousands of other Christians?
As I said at the beginning of this section, some Christians are apparently moved to adopt sweeping condemnations of evolution (and its sympathizers) based on the assumption that it is simply incompatible with Christian faith. In addition, it also seems to be assumed that acceptance of Darwinian evolution will lead to great evil and suffering. For evidence of this, we need only observe that many dissenters from Darwin have linked the theory with the horrors of Nazi Germany, and there is no more rhetorically effective charge than this. This shocking link should give us a sense of the seriousness with which many view the rise of Darwinian evolution.
To get a sense of the urgency, put yourself back into Germany in the 1930s for a moment. Imagine that you are a witness to the rise of the Third Reich. Although many of your Christian friends are enthusiastic about Hitler, you are convinced that his political ideology will lead to the proliferation of evils like fascism, neo-paganism, and anti-Semitism. Once you have drawn these conclusions, the fact that a pro-Nazi consensus emerges in the German Lutheran Church would carry no persuasive force for you whatsoever. Indeed, you would be insulted by a friend who would attempt to persuade you to join the Nazis by appealing to a long list of pro-Nazi theologians and church leaders. Consequently, you would not shy away from dismissing all those in this pro-Nazi consensus list as being either ignorant of Nazism’s true nature or as culpable supporters of a truly demonic regime.
Against that extreme backdrop, imagine a 1930s Bill Maher interviewing a Nazi-fighting Ken Ham. Nazi Maher points out that “scientists line up overwhelmingly on the pro-Hitler side of this issue. It would have to be an enormous conspiracy going on between scientists of all different disciplines to have such a consensus. That doesn’t move you?” To this, Nazi-fighting Ham offers his resolute reply: “No, not at all, because from a biblical perspective I understand why the majority would not agree with the truth. Man is a sinner. Man is in rebellion against his Creator.” While Ham’s sweeping dismissal of current scientific consensus is indefensible, when we place it against the backdrop of a fear tantamount to Nazism, it becomes understandable, even admirable. We should keep this in mind when we countenance the overwhelming support that apologists like Ham receive from many in the mainstream conservative Christian population.
But even if that is the way crusaders like Ham are often perceived by their devotees, it merely begs the question of whether there are good reasons to believe that the theory of evolution will lead to evils akin to those committed by the Third Reich. Could it really be, as Expelled implies, that Darwinism clears the way for horrifying ideologies like Nazism? Obviously, Darwinism is not anti-Semitic per se. So insofar as we see a link, it would arise from the perception that Darwinian evolution undermines human dignity generally, thereby clearing the way for abuses of human dignity like anti-Semitism.
The concern is summarized in the title of Moody Adams’ little booklet Don’t Let the Evolutionist Make a Monkey out of You. This title implies that Darwinian evolution is stupid since to make a monkey out of somebody is to show them to be stupid or gullible, in this case by convincing them that something absurd is true. (The guy who convinced you that you could become a millionaire by investing five hundred bucks in his pyramid scheme made a monkey out of you. The Darwinist who aims to convince you that you’re descended from monkeys is angling to do the same.) The title also has another, more somber, implication: Darwinian evolution undermines human value or dignity. In this sense, the Darwinist makes us into monkeys by undermining human worth. In other words, if we are merely animals then we might as well live like animals.
But how does Darwinian evolution undermine human value exactly? Presumably the core problem is that of humble origins: once we accept that human beings share common ancestry with chimps (and indeed with the sea cucumbers at the city aquarium and even the algae growing in that kiddie pool sitting in your neighbor’s backyard), it is impossible to retain any notion of our unique dignity and value.
Perhaps we might illustrate the problem by considering the sobering story of the Cadillac Cimarron. Back in the early 1980s, Cadillac decided to develop an entry-level automobile to introduce people to the marque, the idea being that after a good experience with the car, these customers would trade up to a higher priced model. Based on that reasoning the Cadillac Cimarron was unveiled in 1982—to an appalled public. The central problem was that Cadillac decided to develop the Cimarron on the cheap by basing the car on the Chevy Cavalier, a vehicle so bland that it would have blended right in on a communist-era East German car lot. In retrospect, the whole project was doomed from the start, for no serious, brand-conscious Cadillac consumer would ever buy a rebadged and overpriced Cavalier. Once the Cimarron’s humble origins were known, its fate was effectively sealed.
According to the argument, the same problem of humble origins that sealed the fate of the Cadillac Cimarron besets the human being who is revealed to have a humble origin. If we conclude that we share common ancestry with nit-picking monkeys (let alone freaky sea cucumbers and scummy algae), we lose our special worth as surely as the much-loathed Cimarron. At best we are, as Desmond Morris infamously put it, The Naked Ape, while at worst we are little more than overpriced bags of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. As for “image of God,” you might as well put a Gucci label on a garbage bag. Not surprisingly, severe consequences follow, for once human beings lose their intrinsic worth, the way is open for the descent into genocidal mutinies and other untold horrors: Hitler, here we come.
Sounds extreme you say? Well, consider that the London Zoo gained headlines in the summer of 2005 when it unveiled a display featuring eight human beings living “in their natural habitat” (though mercifully not “au naturel”—they were sporting swimsuits with pinned on fig leaves). The people were free to walk around the enclosure, sun themselves on the rocks, and wave to passersby. The sign on the enclosure identified the strange creatures as homo sapiens and it went on to describe their natural habitat and diet. The zoo spokeswoman explained the subversive point of the display as follows: “Seeing people in a different environment, among other animals . . . teaches members of the public that the human is just another primate.”
It is that “just” that is so worrisome: just another primate; just another biped; just another mammal; just another creature. And once you have dehumanized humanity, we have set the conditions to treat human beings as objects. This, in turn, clears the way for the resurgence of demonic ideologies like Nazism. And if Darwinian evolution makes smooth the road to Nazism, we ought to fight it with unqualified vigor, even if that means dismissing Darwin’s many supporters either as hopelessly uninformed baboons or the Devil’s henchmen.
I agree that we ought to be extremely careful about any scientific theory that seems to undermine human dignity and thereby make possible the rise of militaristic and genocidal ideologies. But does evolution really do this? That is, does the claim that human beings share common ancestry with monkeys, sea cucumbers, and even lowly algae lead to a fatal denigration of human value? Frankly, I find this charge to be puzzling. After all, each one of us came from a sperm and an egg, neither of which is of much value in itself. Nobody laments the egg lost at every menstrual cycle, let alone the millions of sperm doomed to perish with each coital act. And yet, despite the terribly low status of egg and sperm, nobody worries that our humble origins in the union of the two somehow denigrates human value.
Surely the answer is obvious: however lowly our origins, we are not mere ova or sperm. Nobody would argue that because we come from the union of sperm and egg, we are nothing but glorified sperm and egg. But then why think that if we come from an evolutionary process from primitive single cellular organisms that we are therefore nothing but glorified primitive single cellular organisms? Surely our extraordinary achievements provide ample empirical evidence of humanity’s unique status. Just consider the sonnets of Shakespeare, the art of Angelico, and the physics of Feynman (not to mention the ganache cake of celebrity chef Ina Garten).
Is it possible to get beyond the visceral “yuck factor” of thinking of chimps and algae as distant cousins? Can we find a more robust argument to demonstrate how common ancestry might be incompatible with human uniqueness? In order to answer that question, we should begin by identifying that set of qualities that are seen to distinguish human beings as having unique dignity and worth. Within biblical theology that unique status is commonly identified as the image (and likeness) of God. So the humble origins objection really amounts to this: the notion of human beings sharing common ancestry with other life forms is incompatible with at least some of the unique characteristics of the image of God. Just as being married is incompatible with the concept bachelor, so the claim goes, sharing common ancestry is incompatible with the concept of the image of God.
Now here lies the difficulty. While the contradictory nature of a married bachelor is clear enough given the lucidity of the concept of bachelor, the concept of “commonly descended divine image bearer” does not likewise seem obviously contradictory. This is hardly surprising given that there is so much controversy on what the image of God even is. In Scripture, we have only a smattering of texts that refer to the image or likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-7; 5:1; 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7; 15:49; James 3:9). What is striking about these texts is that they provide no clear picture of what the image (that is, the essence of human uniqueness) consists. As a result, there is no reason to believe that common ancestry is incompatible with the image. These texts simply do not provide sufficient grounds to conclude with confidence that a creature made in the image of God could not share common descent with other creatures that do not.
One final point is worth mentioning. Even if there was evidence that image and or likeness of God was somehow incompatible with common descent, we could still countenance the possibility of evolution, while adding that God intervened in the evolutionary process (perhaps uniquely at the creation of Adam) in such a way that he brought human beings a quantum leap beyond our nearest ancestors so that we could be divine image bearers. When we consider this additional possibility I simply find no evidence to think that Darwinism necessarily undermines human dignity. And that means that I find no ground to justify the sweeping dismissal of the Darwinist in a way parallel to the sweeping dismissal of a Nazi-sympathizer.
Much remains to be said of course. One remaining elephant in the room concerns the way to interpret Genesis 1-3. Is it to be read as a straightforward historical narrative, as so many Christians assume? Here I will simply observe that many Old Testament scholars believe that Genesis 1-3 is not a historical narrative with scientific implications and thus that there is no conflict between this ancient text and contemporary Darwinism. Here again, my point is not that this type of non-historical reading is necessarily the best one. Rather, it is simply that many Christians adopt such a reading of Genesis with knowledge of the text and without any wicked intentions.
 Henry Morris cited in R.J. Berry, God and Evolution: Creation, Evolution, and the Bible (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2000), 13.
 See my article “It’s just like Nazi Germany . . . ” at http://www.christianpost.com/blogs/tentativeapologist/2009/09/its-just-like-nazi-germany-30/index.html
 (Evangelistic Association, 1981).
 This rhetorical tactic has been around for awhile. As historian Michael Lienesch observed of the fundamentalist controversies in the 1920s, “Debates on evolution were littered with satiric references to ‘monkey business,’ ‘monkeyshines,’ ‘monkeyfoolery,’ and the like. But while both sides made use of such phrases, antievolutionists used them more easily and effectively, particularly in casting derision at the alleged biological relationship between monkeys and humans.” In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 100.
 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967).
 Cited in Kevin Kechtkopf, “Humans on Display at London’s Zoo,” (August 26, 2005), CBS News online at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/08/26/world/main798423.shtml, emphasis added.
 There are three main types of theories on the image of God: substantive, functional and relational. I do not see how any of these theories support the intrinsic incompatibility between the image of God and common descent.
 Interestingly, respected historians Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue that one reason Darwin set forth his evolutionary views was moral: he saw common ancestry as the basis to argue for abolition of slavery. See Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).
 See Lamoureux, Evolutionary Creation, chapters 4-7.