Saturday, June 01, 2013

Adam, Eve, and chimpanzees

Recently, an increasing number of professing believers has decided to jettison the historical Adam. The clincher has been the degree of similarity between humans and chimpanzees.

Now, the specific comparisons have been challenged by Intelligent-design theorists. However, it’s still the case that humans are more like chimps than salamanders.

According to evolution, we account for the similarity based on common ancestry. As a rule, similarity reflects affinity. Degrees of similarity mirror degrees of kinship. Organisms that are more alike are more closely related while organisms that are less alike are more distantly related. By “related,” I mean in terms of common ancestry.

Is there an alternative explanation consistent with special creation? Take the principle of plenitude. According to Christian thinkers like Leibniz, Aquinas, and Augustine, God made a world with maximal diversity. God made a world which would combine as many variations as possible.

(In addition, Aquinas thinks organisms have a hierarchical arrangement–from highest to lowest.)

Although that’s theological, there are secular versions of the principle, viz. the multiverse and the modal realism of David Lewis.

And on the face of it, the natural world does look like just about every conceivable strategy is represented. So this isn’t just an abstract postulate.

Now, assuming that organisms range along a continuum (i.e. degrees of similarity or dissimilarity), it’s inevitable that humans will be more like some animals, and less like others. And if that’s the case, then there may well be one animal that humans are more like than other animals.

That isn’t due to common ancestry, but graded diversity. If God made a full-spectrum world, then humans will resemble some creatures more than others–for the world was designed to exhibit a wide range of biological similarities and dissimilarities. Every feasible or compossible permutation will be represented.

Incidentally, when I speak of a scale (spectrum, continuum) of diversity, I don’t mean that in strictly linear terms. That’s an incidental connotation of the spatial metaphors. I don’t think all organisms can be arranged according to a single principle of continuity and discontinuity. In comparing two organisms, they may be alike in one or more respects, but unalike in other respects. My argument doesn’t require linearity.

To take a comparison, consider all the different styles of chess sets. Some chess sets are more alike, while others are less alike. That’s because humans value artistic diversity. And the world we inhabit seems to reflect God’s artistic diversity.

Another example is musical variation. Classical composers would demonstrate their ingenuity by ringing the changes on a particular theme. Notable examples include Pachelbel’s Canon, Handel’s The Harmonious Blacksmith, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn, and Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

I’m reminded of Paul’s statement about “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known…” (Eph 3:9-10).

As Hoehner says, this carries the connotation of “most varied.”

This is not an ad hoc alternative. It’s a comprehensive explanation, based on one overarching principle. That’s economical. It antedates the creation/evolution debate, so it’s not a stopgap that was pressed into service to stave off the Darwinians. And there’s no presumption that God wouldn’t, shouldn’t, or didn’t design a world with maximal variation.


  1. The only problem with this is, being theological, it's more based in philosophy and appearance, than in scientific study of the biological internal genetics of organisms. That is to say, it might be a convincing explanation for some believers, having explanatory power, but no real persuasion to those who are not already defending theological presuppositions.

    1. Well, that cuts both ways. Theistic assumptions are unconvincing to atheists while atheistic assumptions are unconvincing to theists.

      Moreover, this is not the kind of issue that can be settled purely by scientific analysis, precisely because any explanation of the relationship between biological organisms will be external to the organisms. That's really a teleological question.

  2. This seems also restating the ideas of cladistics.

    This Guardian UK article is full of this hopeful comparisons.

    I thought it was so similar to your ideas as I read it.