Do Evolutionists Believe in Human Exceptionalism ?
One evolutionary psychologist demonstrates human exceptionalism while denying it.
Nick Haslam is an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Melbourne who occasionally writes for The Conversation. We know he’s an evolutionist, because in a 2015 article he matter-of-factly states that the human body and brain have evolved. We also sense that his views probably mirror secular academia—which is profoundly Darwinian—because he wrote an anti-Trump article decorated with the iconic image of man evolving from apes. While we don’t want to take one man and make him a spokesman for all evolutionists, we can ponder his words in a new piece on The Conversation and judge whether his opinions are representative of evolutionary philosophy or not.
Strikingly, Haslam never mentions evolution in his article, “Why it’s so offensive when we call people animals,” but the subject matter lends itself to a debate about human exceptionalism. Is it real? Is it moral? Is it reasonable? If humans are exceptional, in what ways are they?
Although only some animal metaphors are highly offensive, most appear to be somewhat negative in their connotations. One study found a clear majority to be judged uncomplimentary – especially those most often addressed to men – and another showed animal metaphors primarily represent negative attributes.
Our research suggests the most common of these negative attributes are depravity, disagreeableness and stupidity. In essence, when we call someone an “animal” in the general sense, we are ascribing these flaws to them. Humans are moral, civil and smart; animals are not.
Indeed, it has been argued animal metaphors reveal a deep sense of hierarchy in nature. According to the ancient idea of the scala naturae or “great chain of being”, humans sit one step above animals, who themselves sit above plants and then minerals. Just as we are on the third rock from the sun, we are on the third step from the top of the ladder, with God and angels above us.
In this hierarchy humans have supposedly unique powers of reason and self control, whereas animals represent unrestrained instinct. To call someone an animal is therefore to demote them to a lower rung of existence, a more primitive state of being where they lack human virtues.
In this excerpt, Haslam gently avoids stating what he believes. He states what other people believe about human exceptionalism, and why most people find comparisons with animals generally offensive. He dodges saying that he himself believes humans are moral, civil and smart. A tipoff that he denies human exceptionalism is in that last paragraph, where he says that humans have “supposedly unique powers of reason and self-control.”
In this hierarchy humans have supposedly unique powers of reason and self control
Can an evolutionary psychologist really consistently believe that humans have unique powers of reason and self-control? According to evolution, humans are a species of upright-walking ape. Our use of tools, our behaviors and our apparent moral decisions are historical accidents, mere adaptations of a blind, unguided process that only had survival in mind. They may be particularly successful for human survival, but do not differ in kind from other adaptations in nature. There cannot be true reason or morality in this view, because it would imply something beyond nature: something eternal, timeless, and certain.
And yet Haslam is employing these in his article, as if they are special! He uses advanced tools like computers and keyboards. He behaves in a non-selfish way, wishing that his fellow upright-walking apes would stop the put-downs of comparing people to animals (see his last paragraph). He uses reason to try to explain a proposition. And he exercises self-control in the way he tries to be civil. People should not dehumanize other people, he concludes. But why? We don’t see birds trying to debirdify other birds. We don’t see reptiles trying to dereptilize other reptiles. We don’t see chimps trying to dechimpify other chimps. There is something exceptional about humans: morality, reason, and self-control. Haslam cannot escape it. He proves it by exercising these exceptional traits while denying that they are real, by describing them as mere evolutionary adaptations.
But if dehumanizing other humans is merely an evolutionary adaptation, who is Haslam to stand in the way? That degrading behavior must aid human survival somehow. That makes it good. That makes trying to stop it a barrier to higher fitness. Haslam should go back to the jungle and work on his mating calls. That’s all that matters to an evolutionist.
Sometimes what an evolutionist doesn’t say is just as revealing as what he does say.
Now that we know that evolutionary beliefs about humanity are self-refuting, let’s see what the Bible says. David, the shepherd boy who spent many nights under the stars, wrote in Psalm 8:
1 O Lord, our Lord,
How excellent is Your name in all the earth,
Who have set Your glory above the heavens!
2 Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have ordained strength,
Because of Your enemies,
That You may silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
4 What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
5 For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
7 All sheep and oxen—
Even the beasts of the field,
8 The birds of the air,
And the fish of the sea
That pass through the paths of the seas.
9 O Lord, our Lord,
How excellent is Your name in all the earth!
The author of Hebrews comments on this Psalm in Hebrews 2:5-9:
5 For He has not put the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection to angels. 6 But one testified in a certain place, saying:
“What is man that You are mindful of him,
Or the son of man that You take care of him?
7 You have made him a little lower than the angels;
You have crowned him with glory and honor,
And set him over the works of Your hands.
8 You have put all things in subjection under his feet.”
For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him. 9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.
10 For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, 12 saying:
“I will declare Your name to My brethren;
In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You.”
13 And again:
“I will put My trust in Him.”
“Here am I and the children whom God has given Me.”
14 Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. 16 For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham. 17 Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.
Such promises are not given to your dog or cat or parakeet. Much as we may like some animals, we deplore being called animals, because we are exceptional. We are eternal souls made in the image of God. We dwell in mammal bodies, but even our bodies are exceptional in many, many ways – not the least of which is our brains. Our bodies and brains will return to dust in this fallen world, but our souls will live on, until housed in new bodies in the resurrection. We will each live somewhere forever: either in God’s joyful and awesome kingdom, because of what Christ has done, or apart from him in outer darkness and despair. Only a beast would choose the latter. “Come now, and let us reason together,” the Lord said; “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18). Christ’s death washes away sin. Receive him today, be cleansed, and start on the path of discovering all that your Maker intended for his image bearers.