How are Humans Unique?

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“Drew, I am not related to a monkey.”

My wife’s first full-time call to ministry was a wonderful neighborhood church in Philadelphia. It was one of those churches that for years was held together by a handful of dedicated, hard-working individuals. One of them was Inger. For many decades she was the matriarch, so for something to happen or change, it was essential to have Inger’s stamp of approval.

I never knew if my faith and science classes, done almost every year, really had Inger’s approval. She pulled me aside after each one and said thank you, that was interesting, but “Drew, I’m not related to a monkey.”

As so often happens, our faith and science classes drifted into discussions about origins and evolution. We had several newer members, including PhD scientists and grad students, so I took a missional approach. I would honestly consider the issues and try to offer a plausible option that respected those uncomfortable with common ancestry but also welcome those who accepted human evolution and were curious about the gospel.

The imago Dei

Any plausible Christian response to the question of human uniqueness must, of course, account for Genesis 1:26: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” The opening chapter of the Bible is clear: God created us, and there is something like God in us.

Centuries of interpretation of this key text show that there is not clarity around what that something is. Might it be substantive? Maybe a physical trait or mental capacity unique to humans? Or is it something more behavioral, like how we relate to God, one another, and the rest of creation? Or is it a function or responsibility? Remember, Genesis 1:26 continues: “… and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

Regular readers at Science for the Church know we like to consider the ways science complements scripture to illuminate questions like this. How to understand human uniqueness offers a bountiful banquet for dialogue between scripture, theology, and science.

Let me offer a taste. First, most contemporary biologists I have read agree that humans are unique, including atheists like Richard Dawkins. In The Selfish Gene, he writes: “We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” [emphasis mine].

Scientists and persons of faith start in agreement—there is something in or about humans alone that is not found in other animals. From there, it is like the wild, wild west with a plethora of theories and hypotheses about what is unique in Homo sapiens. Here are some candidates: bipedalism, our opposable thumbs, consciousness, rationality, language, tool use, creativity, the way we relate/cooperate/socialize, how we create and pass down culture, our capacity for empathy/love/altruism, our spiritual or religious sensibilities, morality, and a soul.

Some of these so-called unique traits translate better than others to discussions around the imago Dei. My hunch is that God is not bipedal and does not grasp things with an opposable thumb. However, as one who believes love is the primary trait of God, it would not surprise me at all if something like our capacity to give and receive love has something to do with the imago Dei in each and every one of us.


  • I addressed human evolution for Orbiter before their content migrated to Big Think.
  • A 2018 Pew survey found that 81 percent of American adults believe humans evolved over time.
  • Dive significantly deeper with Uniquely Unique, a six-part podcast series from BioLogos.
  • Eugene Peterson’s The Message offers a helpful translation of Genesis 1:26-28a.
  • Bible scholar Joel Green tackles science and the imago Dei for Fuller Studio.
  • Do you want to discuss themes like human uniqueness in your church? Later this year, we will release a church curriculum that draws on videos like this one on human evolution.

Difference of Kind or Extent?

Where these conversations get tricky is that while we nearly all agree that humans are unique in some way, scientific studies find many of our supposedly unique traits are present in other animal species. Songbirds and humans share genes that helps birds sing and humans speak. Corvids use tools in remarkable ways. Many other primates show something like compassion or empathy.  There are even surprising accounts that suggest other animals have spiritual experiences or exhibit behaviors similar to human rituals.

The question becomes: are humans unique in kind or only in extent?

I don’t find an answer to this question in scripture. Genesis does not tell us we are more loving, or better at co-creating, or more social/cultural/religious than any of those other swimming, flying, or creeping things. Nor does it say the imago Dei is wholly unlike anything we find in other animals.

What the Bible does tell us is that we are not God; rather, God created us. God makes us just like God makes every other thing in our universe. The living things, including us, are made of the Earth’s dust (Genesis 2:7). We may be different from the rest of creation, but we also share much in common.

Science suggests that we are much the same in terms of biology or behavior. We share many genes and every trait I have seen identified as unique to humans appears to have a prototype elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Our difference does not appear to be so much in kind although it is certainly in extent.

This does not trouble me. I accept I am both created and fallen. My daughters will tell you that I am prone to exhibit animal-like behaviors. There is a connection between myself and other species. Unlike Inger, for myself, the possibility that I am related to a monkey seems plausible.

Does that make the scientific story of human evolution and a difference in extent accounting for the imago Dei necessarily true? Of course not. Human uniqueness and the imago Dei are areas where we all speculate—both the science and our theological reflection continue to evolve. Our beliefs, whatever they may be, must be held with humility.

Still, the church must be cognizant that 8 out of 10 Americans find human evolution to be plausible. That 80 percent includes, I suspect, many “nones” and “dones.” Our small Philly church had both Inger and folk who were still trying out church. Collectively, there was skepticism of both the science and of Christian faith. My goal was to create a space for open, honest, and respectful conversation between faith and science that valued multiple perspectives and still offered a plausible option for those who trusted science but still doubted the gospel.

I will never know if Inger approved of my approach, but a good many of those trying out our church continued to come. That, I know, had her approval.

Cheers,
Drew

 

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