Theistic Evolution Pt. 4 – Meaning and Human Uniqueness

This is a longer post, so make yourself comfortable.


One of the objections against evolution is that if humankind arose from random chance, then life has no meaning. Young earth creationist and engineer Henry Morris states that “If man arose by chance, life would have no purpose or meaning.”

Teleological views of evolution were popular at the beginning of the formulation and investigation of evolution. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck saw evolution as a straight line of development, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin) saw evolution as moving from simplicity to complexity and eventually culminating in humans, and Herbert Spencer saw evolution and progress as being almost synonymous. Lamarck and Spencer saw the drive for progress as some kind of striving inherent in nature. Charles Darwin also espoused an idea of progress where human beings and especially Victorian humanity was the culmination of the long process of evolution. The agent of progress for Darwin was natural selection.

In modern times such ideas of progress or teleology have been dismissed. In the natural sciences it has been seen that sometimes organisms retrogress, that is, “revert to simplified conditions of specialization.” This retrogression is common among parasites, but also occurs in humans, with regard to our need to ingest vitamin C. Biochemist Jacques Monod stated that one can no longer speak of teleology, but rather teleonomy. This term was coined by evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr. Teleonomy means that although evolution has no goal, “evolutionary biology was concerned with identifying and clarifying the mechanisms underlying the evolutionary process.”  Conor Cunningham offers three possible reasons for the rejection of a view of progress: the first is that such ideas have been co-opted in the past by supporters of political agendas such as eugenics and fascism, the second reason is that the idea has theological connotations, and the third is that it is too difficult to establish the criteria for progress. From a scientific standpoint it is unacceptable to impose a priori ideas of causes and goals upon evolution, but one may, in retrospect, infer a kind of teleology as an a posteriori observation. Niels Gregersen states that “a teleonomy is workable as a highly generalised model saying that all that happens in the history of the universe lies within the possibility space created and selected by God’s creation,” which is a far cry from the imposed a priori concept of teleology.

Palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould used the image of a branching bush to describe the evolutionary process:  the branches spread out to fill available niches and we originated from “a tiny twig on an improbable branch of a contingent limb of a fortunate tree.” For Gould, all evolutionary branches are contingent and if one were to play the tape of evolution again, it would be completely different.  Jacques Monod also argues that humankind is an accident, that our existence is entirely contingent. This is because random chance plays a role in evolution. In disagreement with Gould, another palaeontologist,  Simon Conway Morris argues that, because of convergent evolution, it is likely that evolution would give rise to intelligent beings. When the tape is played again and again, certain trends would be noticed and sentient beings would not be as accidental as Gould thought. Cunningham points out that Gould’s idea presupposes that each step in evolution is dependent and that is not how it works. Simon Conway Morris points out that “the view that evolution is open-ended, without predictabilities and indeterminate in terms of outcomes is negated by the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence … this provides not only a degree of predictability but also more intriguingly points to a deeper structure to life, a metaphorical landscape across which evolution must necessarily navigate.” Convergent evolution is brought into the scenario again. There are many instances of convergent evolution and even intelligence emerged in different species and contexts. As examples, Morris mentions the intelligence of primates, dolphins, and crows. The brain structure in these examples differs greatly, yet they have the same kind of intelligence. Wentzel van Huyssteen states the fact simply: “There are not an unlimited number of ways of doing something. For all its exuberance, the forms of life are restricted and channelled.” Natural selection is constrained by a number of factors, which results in some adaptations being almost inevitable. Alistair McGrath uses the example of Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle to illustrate this point. If the Beagle had been lost and Darwin perished before even thinking of natural selection, the theory of evolution would have been discovered by someone else eventually. With regard to replaying the tape of evolution, evolutionary biologist Leigh van Valen states that one should “[p]lay the tape a few more times, though. We see similar melodic elements appearing in each, and the overall structure may be quite similar. … When we take a broader view, the role of contingency diminishes. Look at the tape as a whole. It resembles in some ways a symphony, although its orchestration is internal and caused largely by the interactions of many melodic strands.”

By playing and replaying the figurative tape, a form of relative progress can be deduced. This relative progress can also be construed from the history of evolution. Stuart Kauffman proposed that self-organization is a mechanism of evolution. This would mean that evolution tends to progress from less organized to more organized systems. On average the trend is towards more complex organisms. Although evolution cannot be seen as a teleological process, Rudolph B Brun states that it can be seen as a teleomorphic process: “Teleomorphic processes are oriented toward the generation of increasingly complex patterns the organization of which cannot be predicted.” Increasing complexity does not necessarily imply progress, but the “drive to increase complexity [is] integrating elements into new wholes.” On the basis of the tendency for increased complexity, Brun argues that “the history of the universe is thus neither predetermined (teleological) nor random.”

Cunningham reminds us that an increase in complexity is not without cost and risk: “…such progress involves more intense, acute pain, suffering, and so on. A stone doesn’t cry or scream. This wonderful adventure in mortality is forever accompanied by an increasing potential for destruction: the more sophisticated and refined the limb, the more broken it can become.”


Human Uniqueness

Wolfhart Pannenberg reminds us that one cannot really know the purpose of a process as a whole before that process has not been completed. It is too narrow in scope to think that the whole aim of evolution was to produce human beings or other intelligent life forms. Both in Genesis 1 and in the doctrine of the Resurrection it is made clear that the whole cosmos is contained in the scope and yet humankind does hold a special place in the cosmos.

For some, the theory of evolution and especially the evolution of our own species seems to rob humankind from the special place appointed to us in the Bible. Raymond Surburg wrote the following in 1959:

The Biblical account of man’s creation militates against the evolutionary theory which makes of man a primate, an animal, and nothing more. The philosophy of evolution seeks to rob man of his distinctive character by making him nothing more than a highly developed animal. Instead of regarding man as having been created in righteousness and holiness, with the capability of fellowship with God, evolution holds that man’s moral nature evolved from the law of the jungle.

Brun emphasizes that the human species was not put on Earth from outside, but that we “have emerged through the natural creative process from within creation.” Is it really such a terrible thing to be part of the animal kingdom? Southgate states that our relatedness to other organisms should not be seen as a threat, but rather a cause for celebration. We are part of the whole ecological sphere on Earth and we are dependent on many things, e.g. the bacteria in our bodies that help our digestion of food, the plants that photosynthesise oxygen, the organisms we use for food, etc. Cunningham states that finding repulsion in regard to our shared ancestry with other animals has more to do with ontological pride than Darwinism. It has more to do with our low regard of other organisms and “mere” matter. Jane Bennett states that “[t]he problem of meaninglessness arises only if ‘matter’ is conceived as inert, only as long as science deploys materialism whose physics is basically Newtonian. …matter has a liveliness, resilience, unpredictability, or recalcitrance that is itself a source of wonder for us.” When one sees the wonder of all that is, the knowledge that we are part of this great cosmos is not a negative idea, but a positive one. Bram van de Beek observes that it seems to have been a bigger shock that humans became animals than that God became human, as if there is a bigger distance between human and animal than between human and God. It is as if people regarded the difference between the human creature and all other creatures as greater than the difference between God and creatures. Van de Beek also states that we are bound to the cosmos with every fibre in our body and that it is as a human creature, which is a creature that cannot be separated from all other creatures, which God chose to come to Earth as.

We are part of the natural world and this does not destroy the doctrine that human beings were created in the image of God and that this has given humanity a unique place among all other forms of life. Jack Mahoney states that the doctrine doesn’t necessarily depend upon “revelation or on the immediate creation of every individual soul by God, as tradition has explained it.” Pope argues that we can accept that “the evolutionary process generated the development of important and distinctive human capacities, notably to understand and to love, that constitute the natural basis for the affirmation that we are made in God’s image.” We have more developed capacities than other creatures and that already sets us apart. It should be noted that no single capacity should be taken as the definitive capacity of human uniqueness. Darwin’s idea that the difference between human language and animal language is one of degree rather than kind seems to be correct. This is true for other human characteristics as well. John Haught states that “[n]ature is an emergent rather than a strictly vertical hierarchy, but it is nonetheless a hierarchy.” With humanity a new level of consciousness has emerged. In the words of geneticist and evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky: “A new level or dimension has been reached. … The transcendence does not mean that a new force or energy has arrived from nowhere. … No component of the humanum can any longer be denied to animals, although the human constellation of these components certainly can.” Southgate notes that the special significance of the human species is affirmed by the incarnation of Jesus Christ, “that it was as a human that God, in the words of the Gospel of John, took flesh and dwelt among us.”

The evolutionary history of our lineage can serve to add insight into the uniqueness of human beings. From paleoanthropology and archaeology, it has been revealed that our predecessors have “symbolizing minds,” which are linked to spoken language, mental symbols, thinking, feeling, reasoning, imagining, and planning ahead. The emergence of consciousness and symbolic behaviour in our lineage has been linked to the emergence of religious consciousness. Van Huyssteen states that an “imaginative, embodied interpretation of the imago Dei specifically directs us toward recognising that our very human disposition or ability for ultimate religious meaning is deeply imbedded in our species’ symbolic, imaginative behaviour, specifically in religious ritual as that specific embodiment of discourse with God and with one another.” This view of human uniqueness should be holistic. Van Huyssteen states that a “responsible Christian theological perspective on human uniqueness requires a distinct move away from esoteric and overly abstract notions of human uniqueness and a return to embodied notions of humanness where our embodied imagination, sexuality, and moral awareness are directly linked to the fully embodied self-transcendence of believers who are in a relationship with God.”


Finding Meaning

One of the biggest issues that creationists have with evolution is that “then the only basis for value, the only source of purpose, the only foundation for meaningfulness would be lost” (Robert Pennock). Social psycholigists Stefan Schulz-Hardt and Dieter Frey suggest three main reasons for the importance and universality of the human quest for meaning:

  1. Meaning gives stability to existence, allowing humans to orientate themselves.
  2. Meaning offers a defense against the threat of meaninglessness.
  3. Meaning can be seen as the subjective response to an objective reality. It is part of the attempts of an individual to align their internal, subjective world to the deeper order of things, which is objective reality.

John Haught, using the analogy of words printed on a page, illustrates the point that one cannot deduct meaning from scientific investigation alone (my emphasis):

Just as a purely chemical analysis of this page cannot possibly detect the influence of the author’s intention in the specific arrangement of words and sentences, so also evolutionary biology and biochemistry could never by themselves discover any possible meaning inscribed in the cosmic story or in life’s unfolding. Meaning or purpose simply cannot show up at the level of scientific analysis. … My point is that every process or set of events can be read at different levels of comprehension, and each reading level leaves out content that others include.

While meaning might be absent when looking at one level, it might be found when one reads on a different level. Mark Isaak states that having a purpose is not dependent upon origins, e.g. the North Star arose by random chance, but people have used it for a purpose for ages. Origins and history are not the only places to seek meaning. Robert Pollack states that there is meaning to be found in free will: “the fact that we find within ourselves the capacity to choose – on any grounds at all, but especially on irrational grounds, against judgement, against data, against survival, against reason, even against death – to learn, remember, teach and act in this way and not another, returns meaningfulness to us.”

Haught provides four aspects in which a Christian theology can find meaning within the process of evolution:

Without in any way contradicting biology, a theology of evolution may take note, first, of the fact that the general drift of life has been in the direction of increasing complexity, consciousness, and freedom. And the movement of evolution toward such outcomes has occurred without any suspension of the set of “grammatical constraints” that go by the name of “natural selection.” Second, theology may attest that in its overall advance, what this drama is about is the liberation of nature from an endless imprisonment in lifeless and mindless determinism. Third, since the God of boundless love revealed in Jesus influences nature by way of attraction rather than force, a Christian theology of evolution may assume that God enlivens and gives meaning to the world not by pushing it forward from the past, but by calling it into the freshness of an always new future. And fourth, the “purpose” of the evolutionary drama consists, at the very minimum, of the intensification of creation’s beauty, a beauty that, to Christian faith, is everlastingly sustained and patterned anew within the life of God.

These four aspects of meaning exemplify the multi-layeredness of the interpretation of reality.



Brun R B. 2002. Cosmology, cosmic evolution, and sacramental reality: A Christian         contribution. Zygon 37(1): 175-192.

Cunningham, C. 2010. Darwin’s pious idea: Why the ultra-Darwinists and creationists both get it wrong. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans.

Haught, J F. 2010. Making sense of evolution: Darwin, God, and the drama of life. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Isaak, M. 2007. The counter-creationism handbook. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mahoney, J. 2011. Christianity in evolution: An exploration. Washington: Georgetown     University Press.

McGrath, A E. 2009. A fine-tuned universe: The quest for God in science and theology.    Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Morris, S C. 2006. The Boyle lecture 2005: Darwin’s compass: How evolution discovers the song of creation. Science & Christian Belief 18(1): 5-22.

Nichols, T L. 2002. Evolution: Journey or random walk? Zygon 37(1): 193-210.

Pennock, R T. 2002. Tower of Babel: The evidence against the new creationism. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Pollack, R. 2007. “Intelligent Design,” natural design, and the problem of meaning in the natural world. Crosscurrents, 125-135.

Ruse, M. 2006. Darwinism and its discontents. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Southgate, C. 2011. Re-reading Genesis, John, and Job: A Christian response to Darwinism, Zygon 46(2): 370-395.

Van de Beek, B. 2005. Toeval of schlepping? Scheppingstheologie in de context van het modern denken. Kampen: Uitgeverij Kok.

Van Huyssteen, J W. 2006. Alone in the world? Human uniqueness in science and theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.

Zimmerman, P A. 2009. Darwin at 200 and the challenge of intelligent design. CTQ 73: 61-75.