This post was originally an Evolution Weekend devotional written for the United Church of Christ Science and Technology Network.
God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in [God’s] image,
in the image of God [God] created them;
male and female [God] created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” … God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good.
—Genesis 1:26-28, 31 (NRSV)
“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.”
I’m a firm evangelist for “Both/And” thinking. As I say in my blog profile, I think the world is far more colorful than even Kodachrome and Technicolor can show us, never mind the “black or white” world in which so many people—especially people of faith—often want to dwell. The theory of evolution is a prime example of something that provides insight into what kind of person one is, a “both/and” or an “either/or” thinker. I have no problem believing that God is responsible for the unique gifts of human beings AND knowing, because of the overwhelming evidence, that humanity evolved from a common ancestor of chimpanzees and bonobos.
But there are a lot of people who can’t hold both of those concepts in their heads at the same time and thus they default to one or the other. For either/or thinkers, it’s either that God created human beings (and ultimately, for many people, all the rest of life on earth without any evolution at all, though there is “special creation” within an older Roman Catholic theology that states all life evolved except human beings, who were created uniquely, with its more recent version that all life including human animals evolved but human beings exist because God “ensouls” each one uniquely) OR that we evolved from a common ancestor, no divine being required or desired.
Part of the conundrum comes, I think, from the fact that humans actually do occupy a unique space in the global ecosystem. We have been the apex predator for our entire existence as a species. Those who believe in Creationism, in any of its many forms including Intelligent Design, hold that this is our rightful place because God put us here. Those who hold strictly to the facts see our position as a natural outcome of the evolutionary process, the convergence of environmental challenges and biological adaptations that give us advantages unavailable to any other species on Earth. The Bible and other creation stories affirm the first; fossil records and the very DNA in every cell in our bodies affirm the other.
I have a different take on this. I’m a creationist (small “c”, please) to the extent that I believe God wrote the rules that led to the creation and evolution of the universe and everything therein. Unlike capital “C” Creationists, however, I don’t think God stuck God’s metaphorical fingers into the mix to make X instead of Y or trait A instead of trait B at any point in the 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang. Rather, I think God watched with joy as the universe unfolded according to the laws of physics (out of which come chemistry, geology, biology, and everything else), leading to the first instances of life here and likely on millions of other planets throughout the universe. And I think that written into those rules—the very rules that give us DNA—is the capability to lead to life that becomes aware of God’s existence.
I think from before time as we understand it (or don’t, but that’s another devotional topic) God intended the existence of sentient life that could choose to be in relationship with God. And I think that our physical bodies are in no way representative of God’s image, male or female. Rather, what I think—what I believe, because I don’t have evidence of this—is that what makes us sentient is the image of God as written into our DNA and come into full expression: the creativity and intellect to explore and discover the truth of our existence, the desire to learn and grow, the urge to go beyond Earth to Mars and someday, perhaps, to the stars.
I also believe that all life has the potential to evolve into sentience, given the right environmental circumstances and adaptations that allow for survival. Why? Because there’s growing evidence that animals much further “down” the evolutionary tree use tools to accomplish tasks. Because we’re discovering that animals communicate in complicated and amazing ways. Because animals we would never expect to have any cognitive ability at all can be trained to recognize people in photographs.
So far as we know, of course, Homo sapiens sapiens is the only sentient creature on Earth, but until we have conclusively proved that elephants and dolphins are just operating on instinct, can we really say that? 1Or mice, for that matter. Pinky and the Brain and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy both posit that mice are far smarter than humans, and you’re welcome if you have the theme song to the cartoon or the movie now stuck in your head.
Charles Darwin himself, whose 209th birthday was February 12, 2018, said that every feature of every animal can be attributed to small changes that accumulate in what we now know is the genome over time, and that if any is ever discovered that cannot be so attributed, then his whole theory “would break down.” In the 159 years since his theory of evolution, or descent with modification, was first proposed, nothing has yet been shown to negate his premise, despite numerous (and often foolishly repeated) attempts to claim otherwise. To the horror of Creationists and Intelligent Design believers everywhere, the human eye, the flagella on paramecia, and the ability of mammal blood to clot are not irreducibly complex in and of themselves but are instead built on numerous small changes that trace back through the genome millions or even billions of years. Our God is amazing to have written such wondrous rules as to allow this to happen, yes?
I invite you to celebrate with me the creative and generative nature of God that is written into our DNA. I invite you to celebrate human ingenuity that allows us to keep proving the theory of evolution to be a window into the creative activity of God. I invite you to dream with me: The fact that evolution is true is evidence enough for me to believe that, as long as we don’t annihilate ourselves first, human beings will someday evolve yet again, possibly to something a little higher than humans but not yet as high as the angels. And in the meantime, we who have achieved sentience are called to care for all the rest of life that is evolving and becoming into God’s image, as we already have.