William P. Brown is Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary and the author of The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. The book looks at the ongoing debate between religion and science which forces many people of faith to feel forced to choose between evolution and the Bible’s story of creation. Brown challenges this division and argues for a new way of reading the Bible in light of current scientific knowledge. In Brown’s argument, both scientific inquiry and theological reflection are driven by a sense of wonder, which unites the two paths. In the excerpt below Brown looks at the evolution of man.
One unavoidable collision between the biological account of humanity’s genesis and the Yahwist’s anthropogony is the order of appearance: in the biblical account the ‘ãdãm is created before the animals (2:7, 19). From an evolutionary perspective, humanity is, so far at least, the endnote to the sweeping sage of life’s development, beginning with the microbial. Yet credit is due this ancient narrator for recognizing the common ground of life.
The fact that all organisms we know share the same kind of genetic coding (DNA), with only slight variation, is itself testimony that life on Earth descended from the same group of primitive bacterium-like cells. These rudimentary cells eventually evolved from simple prokaryotic cells to the more complex eukaryotic variety, which features a tightly organized nucleus contained within a porous membrane. The next major evolutionary advance was the emergence of multicellular life, manifest in such forms as crustaceans and mollusks, each bearing sense organs and a central nervous system. And, finally, “to the grief of most preexisting life forms, came humanity.” One could say that the Yahwist conflates in one fell swoop the sweeping sage of evolution by claiming that humans, with their unmatched complexity, emerged from the ground up, whether one calls such “ground” primordial stardust, organically rich soil, microbial material, or simply “slime.” By any name, the “ground” constitutes our humble beginnings, whether told by a Darwinian or by a Yahwist.
By claiming such a simple, bottom-up beginning, both the ancient narrator and the evolutionary biologist acknowledge the linkage of all life. The basic biochemical and genetic unity of life suggests a single biological (specifically “monophyletic”) origin for all known living beings. Gene counts between human beings and much simpler organisms such as “worms, flies, and simple plants” all fall in the same range, “around 20,000.” Among primates, humans (homo sapiens) and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) are 96 percent identical at the DNA level, making chimps humanity’s closest non-human relatives. While the human has twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, the chimpanzee (along with the gorilla and the orangutan) has twenty-four. The difference lies in the fusion of two ancestral chromosomes shared by chimpanzees resulting in Chromosone 2 of Homo sapiens. Among the primates, the human is the genetic results of a simple fusion of two short chromosomes.
“Fusion” also pertains to humanity’s evolution in another way. Recent DNA research conducted at the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggest a picture of human origins far more detailed than what the fossil record reveals. When the ancestors of human beings and those of chimpanzees parted ways some 6.3 million years ago, it was by no means a clean break. There was extensive interbreeding for more than a million years before going their separate ways for good. As geneticist James Mallet comments: “We probably had a bit of a messy origin.”
The messiness of genetic kinship between humans and other primates extends into the social and perhaps even the ethical realm. Chimpanzees, for example, exhibit a remarkable range of behavior and skills. They employ and even build tools, hunt in groups, engage in violence (including a primitive form of warfare), form alliances, and reconcile after quarrels. They are by nature social creatures and appear to exhibit empathy, self-awareness, cooperation, planning, and learning. The linage between humans and chimps includes far more than just expressive faces and opposable thumbs.
Behavioral similarities, however, are not limited to chimps. Rhesus macaques exhibit what primatologist Dario Maestripieri playfully describes as “Macachiavellian” behavior, the primatological counterpart to Machiavellian conduct: everything from nepotism to competitive politics. “For most of our evolutionary history we probably acted a lot like rhesus macaques, and we still do in our everyday lives,” Maestripieri observes. Frans de Waal of the Yerkes Primate Research Center, however, sees more than just self-centered social maneuvering among primates. The antecedents of human morality, he claims, can be found in nonhuman primate behavior. Consolation, for example, is universal among the great apes.
De Waal has observed several common forms of ethical behavior among certain primates: cognitive empathy (empathy combined with appraisal of the other’s situation), reciprocity, and fairness. They are, in his words, “moral sentiments.” With regards to empathy, the bonobo exhibits more affinity to humans than the chimp. De Waal is convinced that the evolutionary origin of the ape’s ability to take another’s perspective is to be sought not in social competition but in the need for cooperation and community concern, the results of group living and social pressure. To be sure, the capacity for moral judgment applies only to humans, but as de Waal rightly notes, such abstract reasoning is not all that definitive for Homo sapiens in practice.
Recent experiments have shown that when faced with a dilemma requiring a moral decision, we tend to act situationally or emotionally rather than logically. The rational mind is used sparingly in situations that call for a quick decision. Reasoning typically comes after the decision is made, “as the brain seeks a rational explanation for an automatic reaction it has no clue about.” In situations of argumentation, the brain is like a lawyer: it “wants victory, not truth; and, like a lawyer, it is sometimes more admirable for skill than for virtue.”
To sum up: “While it is true that animals are not humans, it is equally true that humans are animals.” To deny this is to commit “anthropodenial,” de Waal’s term for a species-centric hermeneutic that is equally careless as unchecked anthropomorphism. “Even if human morality represents a significant step forward, it hardly breaks with the past.” For the Yahwist, the past points to the common ground of all life.