Archives For Charles Darwin

The Uniqueness of Man

Mark Beuving —  September 29, 2014 — 2 Comments

Julian HuxleyI recently read a very old article because I was intrigued by the title: “The Uniqueness of Man” by Julian Huxley. Huxley (1887–1975) was an evolutionary biologist who received many awards for many things and headed many prestigious societies. He even came from a famous family—his father was a respected writer, his grandfather was pals with Charles Darwin, and his brother was the Aldous Huxley who wrote Brave New World.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about humanity—who we are, what our purpose is, and why we matter—these are all questions I’ve been contemplating. So when I happened upon this outdated article (originally published in 1941) by such an interesting figure, I was drawn in.

According to Huxley, humanity is unique because we are “the culmination of that process of organic evolution which has been proceeding on this planet for over a thousand million years.” We are the accidental product of chance, the unintentionally personal mistake of an impersonal universe. Do human beings have dignity? There is no dignity in our origins, but Huxley sees dignity in our current standing: “After Darwin, man could no longer avoid considering himself as an animal; but he is beginning to see himself as a very peculiar and in many ways a unique animal.”

Huxley spells out some of the features that make humanity unique. We are unique because we have developed the ability to think conceptually, we have learned to draw upon the learning of previous generations, we have learned to domesticate the animal kingdom, we have developed great diversity within the human race, and a few other features. Primarily, humanity is unique because of our unparalleled capacity for gaining and processing knowledge.

In Christian theology, humanity is significant because God made humanity in his image (Gen. 1:26–28). And Huxley agrees that humanity is unique, but this uniqueness is not theological; it is biological: “Biology thus reinstates man in a position analogous to that conferred on him as Lord of Creation by theology. There are, however, differences, and differences of some importance for our general outlook.”

Vitruvian ManWhere does this leave us? According to Huxley, “the goal of the evolutionary maze…is not a central chamber, but a road which will lead definitely onwards.” Evolution leads to progress. But there’s no specific goal (how could an impersonal process have a goal?)—we’re simply headed onward, whatever that might entail. All we can be sure of is that changes will continue to happen.

Yet humanity’s uniqueness will play a major role in where we go from here. For Huxley, we have wasted too much time by failing to embrace our unique status. Instead of taking our proper seat at the pinnacle of the universe, we have instead “projected personality into the cosmic scheme.” Instead of valuing our own greatness, we have turned aside and attributed greatness that is duly ours to a non-existent God, we have attributed a personal will to the impersonal forces and matter that alone govern this world.

Huxley’s solution is to take the evolutionary bull by the horns: “progress has hitherto been a rare and fitful byproduct of evolution. Man has the possibility of making it the main feature of his own future evolution, and of guiding its course in relation to a deliberate aim.” In other words, our accidentally achieved greatness has granted us the capacity to choose where we go from here.

Huxley waxes eloquent as he closes the article:

“Let us not put off our responsibilities onto the shoulders of mythical gods or philosophical absolutes, but shoulder them in the hopefulness of tempered pride.”

It’s significant that Huxley was a member of the British Eugenics Society, whose goal was to encourage reproduction amongst people with more desirable genetic traits and discourage reproduction amongst people with undesirable genetic traits. Huxley advocated taking the next phase of evolution upon our own shoulders: the impersonal universe has placed us on the throne, let’s recreate this world according to our ideals.

To be clear, Julian Huxley’s article is now 73 years old and should not be taken as a cutting edge statement on anything. What I find fascinating about it, however, is the acknowledgement that humanity is unique. In the naturalist, Darwinist scheme, humanity is simply the biggest accident in an infinite string of accidents. We’re not meant to be here. No one invited us. No one fashioned us. We simply showed up—uninvited, unannounced, unwelcome. Yet Huxley, like Darwin before him, still saw humanity as significant. Unique. Dignified.

You will have to be the judge of whether or not we should be proud of our significance as presented by Julian Huxley. But there is a point of continuity between Huxley and the Christian tradition: humanity matters. We are unique. Yet, as Huxley said, there are differences, “and differences of some importance for our general outlook.”

Michelangelo - God and Man

Biblically speaking, we matter in the universe because we matter to God. He crafted us in his image, “crowned us with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5), and gave us a mission to fulfill. God further dignified the human race by taking on flesh and blood, becoming fully human. Our significance will carry on when he raises our bodies from the grave to reign forever over the recreated earth.

We may well ask with David, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” But we do indeed recognize our significance. And unlike Darwin and Huxley, we acknowledge that our significance comes not in spite of our origins, but precisely because of them.

Yesterday I wrote about the existence of the external world. This is something that every person has to wrestle with. We can’t deny the existence and the form of the world around us, though some have tried. Even those who deny the external world are still forced to live within it. This unflinching reality is an absolute that all people must take into account. They can believe what they want, but they still have to account for the world’s existence and form.

Vitruvian ManIn this post I will explore a second reality that no one can deny—a concept that Francis Schaeffer referred to as the “mannishness” of man. As ridiculous as that phrasing sounds, all Schaeffer was saying is that human beings are unique. We know we are. There’s something special about us, and we have to wrestle with what makes us special and why we can’t shake the feeling that we are somehow qualitatively different than the rest of the natural world.

As an example, take the human personality. What exactly is a personality? Why do we each have one? Why are we able to relate to one another in a personal way? If this world were nothing more than the product of time plus chance, then there would be absolutely no way to account for the existence of personality. There is simply no way to get something personal out of something impersonal. It doesn’t matter how much time you give it or how creative you believe chance to be.

Nor can personality be accounted for in a pantheistic worldview. If God is everything and everything is God, then God is ultimately impersonal. We may well believe that everything is connected, that we are all part of the “infinite everything,” but if we choose to believe this we are forfeiting any hope of explaining human personality. The best we can do here is believe that personality is an illusion that must be overcome.

Unless our worldview adequately explains the personality of mankind—his ability to relate personally with other personal beings, his ability to love, to show compassion, his moral motions, his will, etc.—then our worldview does not fit the world that exists.

From a Darwinian perspective, it has been said that personality can be accounted for in terms of survival of the fittest. People developed emotions because they saw that this would help them survive and master the other creatures. But this is a stretch. It is not at all clear that the first person to develop emotions would have an evolutionary advantage. In fact, if you developed compassion in a world in which no one else felt compassion, you would be at a huge disadvantage. If you developed the ability to love, but no other being on earth possessed the ability to love you in return, you would be digging yourself a whole. Personality simply cannot be accounted for in a Darwinian framework.

The Christian worldview, on the other hand, offers a satisfying explanation of the unique nature of humanity. This world began with a personal God, and this personal God created personal beings according to his image. Man is a created being like everything else in creation. But the Bible is clear that man is unique in that he alone is made in God’s image. This explains the indefinable qualities of human beings, and it perfectly explains the existence of personality.

As I said in yesterday’s post, this undeniable “mannishness” of man is on our side, working on our behalf in the minds of those we are reaching out to. We want them to see the world as it truly is. They can choose to believe in a non-Christian worldview, but they still have to live in the world that God made. This means that at every turn they are living in a world that was formed by the God of the Bible, and they find in themselves and in the people around them an undeniable quality that cannot be explained apart from the personal God who exists and lovingly formed them. They will attempt to suppress this truth (see Romans 1), but it will continue to fight its way into their consciousness, like a thorn in the brain that points them always to the Truth.

 

“God is dead, “ Nietzsche’s madman declared, “God is dead and we have killed Him!” Through his parable of the madman, Nietzsche was delivering a powerful social commentary. Speaking to a society that no longer believed in the existence of God yet still lived according to the memory of Christian morality, Nietzsche warned that things would certainly change.

You have done away with the concept of God, Nietzsche was saying, now do the necessary work to develop a system of morality that is not based on deity. Those who still held to the Christian form of morality were clinging to a morality of weakness, of servitude. We don’t want any of this love your enemy, turn the other cheek, the last shall be first nonsense. What Nietzsche proposed instead was a morality of power, of self-assertion. Be strong. Dominate. Pursue “the will to power.” If it tends toward weakness, throw it out. If it increases your sense of power, go for it.

Follow this course, Nietzsche said, and we will arrive at something called the Superman. Philosophers are typically careful to explain that Nietzsche’s German word would be better translated “Overman” than “Superman.” Superman, they tell us, conjures up images of capes and underwear worn on the outside of the pants. It carries a sense of superpowers and inhumanity. Well, so what if it does? I’m not a philosopher, so I don’t need to be as careful with my categories. It seems like this is exactly the sort of thing Nietzsche was proposing (cape and exo-underwear aside).

Nietzsche’s Superman was the next phase for mankind. Man has a certain dignity because he has risen above the animals. But man is not the last word. He is more of a transition. If we can make it, if we can assert ourselves and continue to develop, then we will arrive at the Superman. Our caped-crusader Superman is a superhero precisely because he is an improved form of humanity.  Nietzsche’s Superman may as well be a superhero, because he embodies the improvement that needs to be made in order for mankind to reach his destiny.

This Superman is the one who does what he wants—not in such a way that he is helplessly driven by his lusts, for that too would be a sign of weakness, but in such a way that he does exactly what he means to do. The Superman would be free, unconstrained by obligation, servitude, and especially deity. His life would be a declaration of independence, an autonomous hero to surpass what mankind has been able to achieve.

Personally, I can’t imagine a worse future for humanity. Is that what we really need, a post-human being who is more assertive and dominant? Who stands on her own autonomy and does exactly what she means to do at every moment? That’s a terrifying thought.

Nietzsche’s line of thinking fits well within a Darwinian view of life. But if there is any truth to the biblical statement that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9), then Nietzsche’s Superman would be the equivalent of a Super Villain. From the time of the ancient Greeks (and even before), people have assumed that what they needed was a more powerful version of themselves. And thus the Greek gods were basically amplified humanity: superhero versions of themselves, with all of the desires and vices of their human counterparts. Yet this didn’t work out very well in Greek mythology, and we have ample evidence from the history of the world that man cannot be his own savior.

We need a better superhero to rescue us. Someone who has the power to do not just whatever he wishes to do, but the power to transform. Power over the natural world, for example. Or how about power over death? Power to take the dead and raise them back to life. Power to take this clearly broken and hurting world and turn it into something truly and eternally wonderful.

I could get behind a superhero like that.

 

Charles Darwin saw glory in this world. He couldn’t help it. His vocation as a scientist forced him to stare at all of the crazy and beautiful things in the world on a regular basis. You can’t look at this world for any length of time without seeing the glory all around you.

Something special is going on here. We can’t deny it. But if there was ever a person who might try to deny the specialness of this world, wouldn’t you think it would be Darwin? After all, he is famous for declaring that this world is nothing more than a huge accident. Or more accurately, a near-infinite series of infinitesimally small accidents that taken together form one mammoth accident. This accident is the sum and substance of everything we have ever known. Should we really expect the world’s biggest mistake to be glorious?

You wouldn’t think so. Especially when you consider the type of mistake the world is supposed to be. It’s not the kind of mistake that Van Goh might have made. You can imagine Van Goh painting something breathtaking, then accidentally mixing his colors a bit wrong or letting his brush slide just a hair, only to discover that his mistake added something intangibly wonderful to the painting.

"Starry Night Over the Rhone" by Vincent Van Goh

No, the world is not this type of mistake. If Van Goh made a mistake like that, it would still have the power of personality behind it. You still have a volitional being—a master artist, actually—bending his creative powers toward the production of something beautiful. A mistake in the painting process might come as a pleasant surprise, and it would quickly become a part of the painter’s new vision for the painting.

But according to Darwin, the world is a different type of mistake entirely. It’s purposeless. There is no personality behind it. It churns accidentally, thoughtlessly, and its productions are not appreciated or valued by the impersonal forces of chance. It simply is what it is. An accident whose non-existent creator cannot recognize it, let alone categorize it as beautiful or ugly.

You wouldn’t think that this type of world would be glorious, nor would you think that the biggest accident in this near-infinite line of accidents would possess the desire or the categories to see it as glorious.

Yet Darwin looked at the world and saw glory. He saw that something special was happening. But when no one is behind that specialness, when all this beauty is a huge mistake, you have no one to praise but the accidents themselves. So Darwin proclaimed:

“When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.”[1]

Ennobled! Really? When I recognized that these things were big accidents, I realized how noble they were. Hmmm. He says it again:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”[2]

Grandeur! Really? When I saw that these beautiful things were the unintentional exhaust of a mindless machine, I saw glory. Hmmm.

Darwin saw it, but he couldn’t explain it. His system simply did not have categories to account for what he was seeing. So how should we respond to the beautiful mess we are accidentally floating in? We should be proud of our accidental selves:

Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future…We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system—with all these exalted powers—Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”[3]

Be proud of yourself for being the biggest accident of all, but recognize that you still kind of look like the crap from which you were mistakenly spawned.

For some reason, that doesn’t do it for me. Van Goh probably could have made some beautiful mistakes, but I don’t think that Nothing can do the same. All I’ve ever seen Nothing do is nothing. Go ahead and deny purpose and craftsmanship, Darwin, but I know that you know. I can see that you can see it. Your statements about the glory of it all simply confirm what God has already told me:

“The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things…they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (Romans 1:18-25)

 


[1] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (New York: Avenel, 1979) 458-459.

[2] Ibid., 459-460.

[3] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: Penguin Classics, 2004) 689.