Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!
John Derbyshire, the popular writer for National Review Online , recently published a "self-interview" disclosing how and why he lost his faith . Generally, I would not comment on such a personal matter or criticize anyone’s internal struggles. But Derbyshire went further than just to reject his former Christianity. He also attacked the crucial notion that human beings have a special status in the universe, a concept sometimes called "human exceptionalism." Derbyshire writes that his growing understanding of biology became the primary corrosive that undermined his self-described "watery" Anglican faith. He believes we are still evolving from what we once were, to the post-human species that we will eventually become. And he wondered; if humans are truly made in the likeness and image of God, how could our genome have changed over the millennia: "So which human being was made in God’s image?" he asks. "The one of 100,000 years ago? 10,000 years ago? 1,000 years ago? The one of today? The species that will descend from us? . . . The genomes are all different. They are not the same creature ." I am no theologian, but this line of argument seems nonsensical to me. If we are indeed made in the likeness and image of God, our physical nature is not what reflects the divine. God, unlike the human body, is not made of "star stuff," as Carl Sagan used to put it. That part of us that Christians believe is made in God’s image is incorporeal¯which means that it is certainly not a matter of genomic makeup. Derbyshire next concluded (falsely) that, since all iterations of the human genome are deemed to "have been made in God’s image somehow, then presumably so are all other species, and there’s nothing special about us at all." And here is where his analysis goes completely awry: "We are part of nature¯an exceptionally advanced and interesting part, but . . . not special ."

What I think Derbyshire lost along with his faith is the realization that human beings are much more than the mere sum of our parts and functions. We, unlike any other species, have taken a bold step outside the Darwinian realm of genetic impulse, instinct, and reflex. We are moral and intellectual beings with the ability to create, civilize, project over time, and transcend. Recognizing our special status is essential, in my view, to the creation of a better world. Take, for example, our moral impulse to prevent cruelty to animals. This is certainly not genetically determined. Indeed, it seems to me that preventing cruelty to animals is distinctly un-evolutionary¯in the purely materialistic sense of that term. Why should we even concern ourselves with what happens to other species so long as it does not harm us? Elephants care very much whether a lion tries to kill one of the herd’s calves but are quite indifferent when the same lion rends the zebra. It takes a special and exceptional species to care enough about "the other" that we will sometimes even protect them from human harm when it makes our own lives more difficult. (For example, California sea lions are protected in law despite the fact that they compete fiercely against us in exploiting the salmon fishery.) This is not to say, of course, that we aren’t part of nature. We are indeed physical beings, specifically mammals, with a unique and, apparently, evolving genome. We eat, eliminate, copulate, fight, feel pain, and die¯just like every other mammal on the planet. Indeed, if we want to go all the way in pursuing Derbyshire-style human reductionism, we could even say that we aren’t special when compared to carrots and rutabagas, since we are all merely collections of atoms made up of carbon molecules. The idea that we are just part of nature and nothing to celebrate is gaining traction in these nihilistic times. But beyond the esoteric, there are practical reasons to reject Derbyshire’s perspective. The way we act often depends on how we perceive ourselves. If we are nothing special, Jefferson’s assertion that all men are created equal¯by which he means we have equal moral worth¯becomes essentially untenable. Indeed, if we are nothing special, we are thrust back into a purely materialistic Darwinian world of tooth and claw, where might makes right. And that opens the door to all the evils that have plagued human history. Indeed, understanding that there is such a thing as evil action proves we are special in the known universe. Thankfully, one need not have faith to understand that.

(Access contributors’ biographies by clicking here .)

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles