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3/6/2015 » 3/8/2015Fourth Annual Conference on Medicine and Religion, Cambridge, MA
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You raise many important issues to discuss. Let me focus here on one of your original issues that started this topic. You state that " In any case a single individual will always be responsible for getting a new gene going that will make the new organism substantially different than the others." But I think what Craig and Keith and I were trying to say is that while it is true that a mutation, or small set of mutations, can occur in one individual and eventually propagate to 100% of the population, such mutations in complex organisms seldom, if ever, define a species or subspecies of the type that might differentiate humans from non-humans. Of all the characteristics that biologists and paleontologists use to identify a "human", I don't think there is any single one where they would define a precise value above which is a human and below which is non-human. In other words, the transition from non-human to human is more than a single, or several, generation's worth of changes. It may be more helpful to think of a continuum in each characteristic trait.
As a result, if one differentiates human from non-human in purely biological terms, then the notion of a "first human" or a "first couple" is hard to sustain in light of our observations and understanding. That leaves a spiritual definition, which is an interesting option and which raises its own set of questions.
Hello Dennis, from another Dennis. Welcome to the ASA.
Between Craig, Randy and Keith you've had good answers to your original questions, but I fill in a bit here and there.
One thing to note is that "new" mutations are not the only way to produce novelty in a population, nor the most common way. It is far more common to have recombination of previously existing mutations (genetic variation in a population) into new combinations. For humans and chimpanzees, for example, many of the differences we see between our two genomes were likely present as alternate alleles in our common ancestral population. These differences then sorted down to our two modern populations unequally - an effect known as incomplete lineage sorting.
Another thing to note is that single mutations do not, in general, produce large effects. Many mutations, combining and recombining over time in a population, can shift averages. When we compare the human and chimp genomes, for example, scattered small differences are the rule, not the exception. Yet these differences combine to give the differences we see.
I've written about these issues in more detail over on the BioLogos site (search under my name as an author search) and look for the "Understanding Evolution" series.
One last comment about your statement that "God-awareness" is either there or not there - what about our own development from infants to adults? Did we not become aware of God gradually through that process? Would not a similar progression be possible for our species over time?Best,
There is a major aspect to your questions that I did not address in my earlier post. One assumptions you seem to be making is that their must be a physical (biological) component to being human in a theological sense (that is be able to be in communication with and image God). I believe that this in only the case in that there must be certain intellectual capabilities (self consciousness, empathy, awareness of past and present, creativity, logical reasoning, etc.) in place so that a creature has the potential to be in conscious fellowship with God. However, those mental capacities are not what make us God’s image bearers. It seems clear to me, that what defines our image bearing is relationships. That is we image God in that God has chosen to establish a relationship with us, and that relationship then extends out to other humans, and to the entire creation. The image is relational, not biological. It is not a consequence of our biology, but of God free grace in putting us in relationship.Because of this understanding of being made in God’s image, I think that it is futile to try to discern the beginning of humanity in a theological sense from the fossil and anthropological record. I don’t see why there need be any biological difference at all between those individuals that God revealed himself to and made His image bearers. Becoming human was not a speciation event -- it was a divine act of grace. I do not think that it is possible to define the beginning of the image of God through anthropology. It is also not a biological function that we can identify and that a person might lose through injury or genetic defect. We are images of God only because God is in special relationship to us. All the best,Keith
Hello again Keith,
I said that humans must have certain physical capacities, that there is a minimum of intellectual abilities necessary for humanness. I agree with you that this is only a necessary and not a sufficient condition to have humanness. Any organism lacking these abilities and the genetic code needed to produce these mental abilities cannot be human unless God somehow miraculously intervenes to allow such abilities. Yet one who has these intellectual capacities is still not necessarily human. One may have the capacity to be aware of God and still not be aware of God should God not choose to allow one this awareness. This awareness need not be anything like what we might think of as a religious experience. It could be nothing more than the awareness that God could be there and that one has a moral obligation to this God should this God exist. This is more of a moral awareness though we might also call it a spiritual awareness. So yes, it seems that God does have to specially act to give us our humanness, the image of God, and having all the right mental abilities is not enough. I could be wrong, but it does seem to me that this kind of moral awareness cannot result from mere physical capacities of the brain. I would certainly claim this of human consciousness (as well as animal sentience insofar as we can assume that animals do have sentience). J. P. Moreland, for example, develops an argument for God’s existence from human consciousness. No increase in complexity or in new arrangements of complex neural parts can produce consciousness in humans any more than making Star Trek’s android, Commander Data, more complex can actually give him consciousness. To claim otherwise is a category mistake. What I am questioning concerning moral awareness is whether, given human consciousness, this awareness can result naturally from some feature of human intelligence which in turn results from our complex brain structure. As I say, I don’t think it can.You make the point that it would thus be very difficult to determine from studies in population genetic or archeology when the first humans came to be. But even if the characteristics I’ve suggested to be sufficient for humanness are genetically determined—that once we are physically made a certain way and behave and think accordingly, we must be human—it would still be just as difficult to say when the first human came on the scene. Might one in the line of common ancestors for the chimp and human line have been human? I claimed earlier that humans and non-human primates might have interbred until one line was left and the other became extinct or that both became distinct species. If all it takes to be human is a sense of God’s existence (or an awareness of the possibility of God’s existence), and an awareness of the obligation to relate to this God in a certain way (worship, obedience, etc.), and maybe a more general moral awareness also, then it seems very possible that the first human could be very early. I had mentioned the Upper Paleolithic Revolution as a likely starting point for humans because it seems that here the artifacts and other evidence indicate clearly modern human behavior whereas for any previous primates we can hardly tell the difference between their behavior and artifacts and that of any other higher animal. And I still think this is the more likely point at which humans appeared. But as I say, if we truly consider humanness to consist of moral and spiritual characteristics like those I’ve suggested, the first humans could have existed much earlier. You have suggested some other characteristics such as creativity, logic, etc. which might put some rough limits as to when humanness could begin. But as you say, with this it is "futile to try to discern the beginning of humanity in a theological sense from the fossil and anthropological record.” I’m not sure if you are saying that to be human in a theological sense requires one to be in relationship with God. It should at least require the potential of relationship with God, that one may choose that relationship and God may allow it. But certainly those who refuse this relationship are (and were) no less human than those who choose it. You say, "I don’t see why there need be any biological difference at all between those individuals that God revealed himself to and made His image bearers. Becoming human was not a speciation event -- it was a divine act of grace.” Well, so long as they all have those minimal mental abilities and yet they still have that relationship with God (or, as I suggest, even the potential for that relationship), they certainly should all be considered human even though they be of different biological species. If there ever were more than one biological species of humans, then all must have become extinct except one.
I will make only one comment.
You stated: "But as you say, with this it is "futile to try to discern the beginning
of humanity in a theological sense from the fossil and anthropological
record.” I’m not sure if you are saying that to be human in a
theological sense requires one to be in relationship with God. It should
at least require the potential of relationship with God, that one may
choose that relationship and God may allow it. But certainly those who
refuse this relationship are (and were) no less human than those who
Yes, I believe that being human (having the image of God) is based upon God's relationship to us. We are human in the theological sense because God has graciously chosen to be in a special relationship with us. However, that does NOT mean that it is dependent on our response. We are God's image bearers regardless of whether we acknowledge or respond to that relationship or not. That is why there is an historical redemptive story - God pursues those with whom He has established a relationship.
Our biology is NOT the basis of our humanity (except in the sense of possessing certain mental and social capabilities). A creature capable of interacting with God could have as easily been evolved from the dinosaurs. I think we place far to much emphasis on our biology in understanding our unique status before God and the rest of creation.
All the best,