As we continue to consider the status of humans within creation, we may next take up the observation that the evolutionary process, since it is “ateleological” (not directed to a particular end or goal), would presumably allow for the development of species beyond humankind. This seems difficult to reconcile with the apparent biblical teaching that humans are the goal and culmination of God’s creation. We may respond to this difficulty in two ways.
We may first observe that according to the Bible, humans are able to serve as God’s vice-regents and superintend creation because they bear the “image of God.” But in what does this image consist? Theologians have disputed this point throughout the centuries, but the main positions in the current debate are that the image of God in humanity consists of either:
– Human possession of a soul, in addition to a physical body (that is, humans are “like God” in being spiritual);
– Human reception of a divine commission to superintend the earth (that is, humans are “like God” in exercising rule); or
– Human capacity for relationships (humans are “like God” in the way they exist essentially in relationship with other persons).
Whichever of these options we may prefer, and however we may elaborate it (e.g. in what does the soul consist?), the “image of God” does not depend on the way human biological characteristics might differ from those of other creatures. (This is true unless we choose the third option and also consider relational capacity to be essentially biological. But one weakness of the third option, from a strictly theological perspective, may already be that it does not sufficiently distinguish humans from other creatures that do not bear the “image of God” but which appear nevertheless to live in relationships and communities, at least of a sort.)
Thus an organism could theoretically emerge through the evolutionary process that had greater cognitive capacity than humans or in some other way seemed “better adapted” to life on earth. Indeed, there are already many kinds of organisms that surpass human capabilities in different respects. Birds fly, we can’t; dogs have better hearing; some birds see better than we do; many animals have a better sense of smell; many run or swim faster than we can; some have electro-receptors, while others see sound (such as dolphins, with their very sophisticated echolocation).
But no matter what its capabilities—and I am very aware of mixing religious and scientific categories here—if God did not give such an organism a soul, or commission it to tend the earth, or call it to live in relational community with it fellows (that is, however it might not bear the “image of God” as humans do), it would not “surpass” or “replace” humans in their essential purpose. In other words, while we must allow for the theoretical possibility, from an evolutionary perspective, of a creature “beyond” humans,* there would be no automatic grounds for this creature to usurp the special role for which God, according to the Bible, has chosen humans within creation, and for which God brought them into being uniquely equipped.
The second response we must offer to the observation that the nature of evolution as an ateleological process implies the possibility of a creature beyond humans is that it simply makes no sense to speak of “beyond” in an ateleological process. If there is no goal, then there are no grounds on which to argue that those who held that a goal had been reached at a given point were proven wrong when the process continued past that point.
It might be objected that those who claimed that a goal had been reached at any point were certainly wrong if they were observing an ateleological process. But this is actually a claim that can be made legitimately if it is made not from within the process, but from outside it, on the basis of insight into who initiated the process and for what purpose. From within the process, we cannot speak legitimately of “beyond” and “ateleological” at the same time. Our vantage point does not permit that. But from above the process, we can see that someone can have been at work to fulfill a larger purpose through a process that was not self-informed.
An example from my own life may be illustrative. In my young adult years, I met many women about my own age, through a variety of circumstances. Whom I met, and whom I didn’t meet, was not within my control and seemed randomly determined. But at one point I began to wonder whether one of the women I’d met was the wife that God had “chosen” for me. I prayed and received assurance that this was the case. I proposed, she accepted (this was further assurance!), and we were married. The seemingly “ateleological” process continued; I still met women about my own age through the rest of my life, through a variety of circumstances not under my control. But there was no “beyond.” As a Christian I believed that the covenant I had entered into was for life and I remained happily and faithfully married to my wife.
Seen from above, what was a random and ateleological process when seen from within actually had a definite purpose: to bring me together with my future wife. While from one perspective the process continued “beyond” this point, from another perspective it did not, because its purpose had been fulfilled. In the same way, even if at some future time creatures develop whose capacities exceed those of humans in significant respects, we have no biblical basis to believe that God will transfer his choice of a vice-regent on earth from humanity to these new creatures.
*Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, however, interestingly believed that there was virtually no chance that the human race would break up into several different species or evolve into a “better” new species. He observed that humans now “occupy all the conceivable niches from the Arctic to the tropics that a humanlike animal might occupy” and that there was “far too much contact among all human populations for any kind of effective long-term isolation that might lead to speciation.” He added that modern humans “constitute a mass society and there is no indication of any natural selection for superior genotypes that would permit the rise of the human species above its present capabilities.” What Evolution Is [New York: Basic Books, 2001], p. 261.