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Common Ancestry and Human Uniqueness


Washington University biologist S. Joshua Swamidass has posted an interesting essay about human uniqueness that is worth reading. Swamidass makes the point that just because one accepts common ancestry for humans and apes doesn’t mean one has to embrace the claims of those who debunk human uniqueness. I agree with him.

A good example of someone who adopted this approach is Alfred Russel Wallace, who co-developed the theory of evolution by natural selection with Charles Darwin, and whom Swamidass cites in his article. Wallace accepted common ancestry, but he came to believe that the human mind as well as many other features of nature could not be explained purely as the result of unguided natural selection. Wallace likely would have agreed with G.K. Chesterton’s quip that “man is not merely an evolution but rather a revolution.”

Regular readers of Evolution News will know already that proponents of intelligent design have a special affinity for Wallace, and that University of Alabama, Birmingham historian Michael Flannery has recounted Wallace’s purpose-driven version of evolution in his biography, Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life. To see a biologist like Swamidass mention Wallace, as well dissent from the mindless denials of human uniqueness so common among scientists today, is refreshing.

Of course, I’m more skeptical than Swamidass about some of the data he thinks points to human common ancestry with other mammals (for some of the reasons, see here). But I applaud Swamidass for making the point that belief in common ancestry in and of itself need not entail a rejection of human uniqueness or human dignity. It’s a point I wish more scientists in the evolutionary community would come to appreciate.

In our culture, supporters of Darwinian theory have too often been at the forefront of reductionist attacks on human uniqueness and human dignity. Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould asserted that Darwinian “biology took away our status as paragons created in the image of God.” Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer avers that “Darwin’s theory undermined the foundations of [the]… entire Western way of thinking about the place of our species in the universe” by showing us “we are simply animals.” Eco-activist Christopher Manes claims that “Darwin invited humanity to face the fact that the observation of nature has revealed not one scrap of evidence that humankind is superior or special, or even more interesting than, say, lichen.”

These ideas have had an impact on popular attitudes. According to a survey conducted earlier this year, 43 percent of Americans agree “Evolution shows that no living thing is more important than any other,” and 45 percent of Americans believe “Evolution shows that human beings are not fundamentally different from other animals.”

Some of the debunking of human uniqueness among evolution supporters goes back to Darwin himself, and it’s hard to deny that there is a certain logic here — if the mechanism of evolution is Darwin’s blind material process of unguided change. If such a process provides an exhaustive explanation for mind as well as for morality, then the special authority of both human rationality and human ethics comes into question for reasons articulated by C.S. Lewis, Alfred Balfour, Alvin Plantinga, and Thomas Nagel.

The good news is that one can embrace a theory of common ancestry without having to embrace unguided natural selection as an all-encompassing explanation — although it may require going against the flow to do so.

Photo: Black gorilla, Apenheul Zoo, Antwerpen, Belgium, by frank wouters (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.