Science in Christian Perspective
The Image of God and Human Biology
Robert E. Ecker
Hinsdale, IL 60521
From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 50: (December 1998): 284-285.
"...So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27, RSV)
As a biological scientist who believes that God's Word has some significant things to tell us about ourselves, I have always found it appealing to contemplate the prospect of finding a correspondence between biblical revelation on human origins and the growing body of evolutionary evidence accumulated by paleoanthropologists. However, it was not until I recently began to research the evolution of human cognition that the possibility of making that connection began to show some signs of hope.
For most of my professional life, I have held to the theory that the origin of humans as biological beings came about by an entirely different creative process than did that which we identify as the human soul. That is, there is no legitimate reason to presume that the revelation from Genesis 1 quoted above must be interpreted to suggest that the unique status modern Homo sapiens possess in relationship to the Creator was acquired in parallel with the physical attributes that distinguish them from other creatures. The image of God is a uniquely human attribute that most probably came about as the result of a unique, nonevolutionary creational event. How and when that event may have taken place has remained a matter of considerable debate.
The literature of paleoanthropology provides a prospective time line for the evolutionary development of modern humans from our earliest hominid ancestor. This time line suggests a period of about six million years for the process. No fossil evidence is currently available dating as far into the past as the proposed "first hominid," but data are available beginning about 4.5 million years ago. Using those data, and noting the progress of developing mental function with time (using advances in hominid technical skills to measure developing cognitive capacity), it is possible to picture how mental capability increased among our prehuman ancestors as evolutionary development progressed.
For example, the simplest stone tools did not even appear on the scene until hominid development had been underway for more than three million years. After that, it required another 2.5 million years for paleolithic technology to advance from fragments of smashed quartz pebbles to fashioned prismatic stone blades. Clearly, the development of technical skill was progressing consistently over those millions of yearsóbut at a painstakingly slow pace.
Looking even farther back in evolutionary time, and imagining the progress of events over the several billion years that led from the primordial soup to the emergence of the first hominid, the rate of development of human mental capacity (at least throughout most of the six million years over which it is presumed to have occurred) does not appear to be out of line with that of developmental progress over all of evolutionary time. Evolution has been a slow and consistent process, exhibiting measurable progress only because the times involved were so very large.
With these facts in place, we can look at the kinetics of evolutionary progress and draw some conclusions about any anomalies that may exist. The assumptions implicit in evolutionary theory suggest that itólike many processes it engenderedóis essentially autocatalytic. That is, the rate of evolutionary change would be expected to be generally proportional to the occurrence of prior change. Progress begets progress. The kinetics of such an autocatalytic process yield a relationship in which evolutionary advances would be expected to proceed along a curve that increases exponentially with time. Obviously, it is not possible to plot explicit quantities on a graph to derive a relationship between evolutionary progress and evolutionary time. Yet, a clear sense of the kinetics involved can be pictured in concept, and if any significantly large anomalies are observed, it should be possible to draw some valid conclusions about when those anomalies occurred.
The fossil record over most of evolutionary history is too fragmentary to allow, even in concept, an analysis of the kinetics of evolutionary progress. However, when we consider the observed advances in cognitive capability among the immediate progenitors of modern humans, the evidence is totally consistent with the suggestion that, over all but a minutely fractional period at the end of those six million years, the developmental kinetics of human cognition were autocatalytic. That is, paleolithic technology was essentially unmeasurable for the first half of that period, and then increased slowly in rate as hominid evolution progressed to produce modern Homo sapiens.
Then, about forty to sixty thousand years ago, the rate of evolutionary progressóat least as it relates to human technological capabilityóexperienced a discontinuity of colossal proportions. The rate constant increased by orders of magnitude in what has to be considered an evolutionary instantóperhaps even an instant in real time.
Given the obviously minute rate constants that were operative over all but this final moment of evolutionary history, there is no easy way to explain the explosive increase in human cognitive capacity documented over the last forty or so millennia. Certainly, any explanation of how it came to be has to acknowledge that its occurrence was historically anomalous. Speculations about possible mechanisms that invest modern humans with their unique capacity for such things as creativity, self-image, logical thought, and aesthetic appreciation must allow the very likely possibility that these faculties came into being because of an instantaneous acquisition in the recent past, rather than as the result of a slow, methodical evolutionary progression.
This event was, in a very real sense, a "cognitive big bang"óthe sudden and dramatic appearance of a sophisticated human capacity for cognition at a time when evolution had finally invested Homo sapiens with the necessary biological equipment to sustain it. That point in time in which this kinetic anomaly is observed to have occurred may be the instant in human history at which humans were uniquely invested by the Creator with imago Deióthe image of God. There is nothing new, of course, in the idea that this imageóthe soul of a humanóexists, at least in part, in the human capacity to think in abstractions and to communicate in metaphors. However, the suggestion that this capability was granted to humans by God at a specifically identifiable instant in recent evolutionary history is a bit more radical.
For the neuroscientist, the implications of such a suggestion are monumental. If the unique cognitive capability of modern humans exists only because some relatively recent progenitors were touched at a specific point in time by the finger of God, then it is very possible that the (molecular?) mechanisms that give expression to that capability will forever remain beyond the grasp of those investigators who are seeking to understand them.
Of course, there may be an experimentally defensible, physical explanation for the kinetic discontinuity I have described. Yet, when and if such an explanation is offered, it must be able to demonstrate in physical terms how a developmental process that had been in infinitesimally slow progress for billions of years suddenlyóin a single tick of the evolutionary clockóendowed one of its products with the capacity to paint the Mona Lisa, to design a moon rocket, to imagine the alpha-helix...and to perceive God.
Suggestions for Further Reading
D. Johanson and B. Edgar, From Lucy to Language (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).
S. Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind (London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 1996).
C. Wills, The Runaway Brain (London: HarperCollins, 1994).