Does Darwinian Evolution Petrify God's Image?

Hello, human being, hummus from the soil. You are lowly, yet magnificent. You have been pulled up from the earth and breathed into life by YHWH. You are made in his image. Your wiry limbs and curious eyes somehow make visible the hidden things of God. Come, name the other creatures, those body-beings who are like you, but also not like you. You are the Namer; they are the Named. You come out of Eden, where there is a four-branched river that waters the land, and also several trees.

Human being, you come from Eden, yet you do not come from Eden. You come from Africa, from your mitochondrial mother. You are homo sapiens, of the genus homo. You are a bipedal hominid, a big-brained ape, with perhaps a trace of Neanderthal DNA.

You are made by God, in the image of God, and you have also been made by nature, through the engine of change, over the span of two thousand millennia.

How can this be?

The principle of unassailable human dignity is the foundation of Catholic Social Teaching. All the radical claims the Church makes about social justice, about life and death and sex, rest upon that principle, which in turn rests on the mysterious doctrine of the imago Dei—or so the Catechism tells us: “The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God” (§1700). We find this doctrine in the books of sacred scripture—but what can the book of nature tell us? Is it possible to hold onto the principle of human dignity, while accepting the insights of evolutionary theory? What can evolution reveal about the divine image?

The too-short answer is: nothing. From one angle, this is a preposterous question. Evolutionary theory, by definition, cannot speak the language of theology: “Whether human life has meaning, or dignity, is not a question that the theory of evolution can answer.”[1] This line of inquiry is out of bounds, and in any discussion of science and theology, it is prudent to remember where the boundaries lie. Many unproductive skirmishes between these two modes of knowing can be traced to a forgetting of what science can and cannot say. Science presumes certain truths about reality in order to function as science—like the laws of physics, for example, or the principle of cause and effect, or the very notion that reality is intelligible to our senses. Thus, science cannot scientifically give an account of those truths on which it depends, or why there is something rather than nothing in the first place. Science is only concerned with what is, with what empirically exists and how it behaves; value and meaning cannot be derived from within its focused field of vision.

If Darwin cannot speak directly to the question of human dignity, then, what is the point of regarding it at all, in a discussion such as this? Why not simply reverse our tread back to the sacred page, back to the familiar garden? In a series of radio talks delivered in 1968, then Professor Joseph Ratzinger urged a closer examination of the Christian creation account informed by evolution: “The theory of evolution does not invalidate the faith, nor does it corroborate it. But it does challenge the faith to understand itself more profoundly and thus to help man to understand himself.”[2] Evolutionary theory, which provides the reigning scientific consensus on human genesis, can give us a more accurate, up-to-date picture of the material origins of the cosmos and humankind. This picture does bring specific theological challenges, particularly on the question of human dignity: how can we understand human special creation not as a single moment in time, but as part of a dynamic, meandering process? And what can it mean for this evolved human being to be made in God’s image and likeness?

This essay, then, is not an attempt to force evolutionary theory to answer a question outside its purview. Rather, it is an attempt to theologically contemplate the genesis of the human being in light of evolution.

The mid-century encyclical Gaudium et Spes notes that, due to recent scientific discoveries, “the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one” (§5). This progression is not something to bemoan, from a theological perspective; the insights of evolution upend two tempting errors: the temptation to see God as a mere demiurge, a being in the cosmos who created the earth way back when, and also the temptation to see humans as disconnected from the natural world. Evolution pushes us toward notions of creation and Creator that are more in line with a robust Christian vision. Creation, in the Christian understanding, is not a singular, remote event that occurred once in the distant past, but an ongoing, ever-present endowment of being from the source of Being.

Arguments for God’s existence that appeal to a First Cause or a First Mover are too easily misunderstood as moving backward in time, rather than downward in the present—a finger once flicking the first domino versus a hand continually turning a set of gears. Evolution challenges us refine our analogies for God’s creative action:

And so, today, perhaps we can understand better what the Christian dogma of creation was always saying but could hardly bring to bear because of the influence of the model of antiquity: creation should be thought of, not according to the model of the craftsman who makes all sorts of objects, but rather in the manner in which thought is creative.[3]

What if we were to think of God’s relationship to creation in this way, like creative thought from a divine mind, or perhaps as an epic song sung by a bard. Creation is happening now, in this very instant, or else the cosmos would simply lapse into non-being. Creation is not a divine act at the beginning of time; it is a constant unfurling through time.

Likewise, God is not a tinkerer, dipping into cosmic processes here and there to keep the engine humming—this notion reduces the creative and sustaining power of God, rather than amplifying it, and sidelines the generative complexity of the natural world. Even in the first creation account of Genesis, we read that God does not create vegetative and animal life directly. Instead, the text describes the earth and the waters as generating new life forms: let the earth put forth vegetation; let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures; let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind. God does not merely create nature; he endows nature with its own creative potential. This understanding of God, by definition, is not something that can be disproved or verified by scientific inquiry, because this God is beyond the cosmos as the very source of its existence.

Moreover, the very process of evolution is only intelligible to a scientific eye because it unfolds in accordance with the laws of nature. Evolution is not a neat, linear progression, but nonetheless tends toward greater order, optimization, and complexity. Though web-like and non-linear, the development of life in the universe “from the Big Bang down to the human being” appears to be a “unified cosmic process.”[4] The fact that this process occurs within the material world and is governed by “its inner laws” does not oppose the Christian understanding of creation, but is rather “the hallmark and demonstration of its divine origin.”[5] This is the mark of the Logos, the divine Word who creates and gives order, through whom all things were and are made. In sum, to quote Ratzinger once more: “the Christian picture of the world is this, that the world in its details is the product of a long process of evolution but that at the most profound level it comes from the Logos. Thus it carries rationality within itself.”[6]

And yet, according to Christianity, the human being is unique, awarded a special kind of dignity and value. She is an animal, but more than an animal; she is a creature than alone bears the divine image. If we consider her natural genesis as a primate, an advanced ape, how can we make sense of this supernatural claim?

The traditional answer, offered by philosophy, is rationality. Man is the rational animal. In Aristotle’s Categories, this is the species-defining difference between humans and the other members of the genus animalia: the capacity for reason. But what characterizes this rationality? Many species exhibit basic problem-solving skills. Chimps use rocks as tools to open nutshells. Crows, in real life as in Aesop’s fables, will drop stones into water to raise it to a drinkable level. Alpha male chimps will ensure meat from a fresh kill is distributed evenly among the tribe. While all these examples indicate a certain kind of higher-order thinking among animals, human cognition differs from animal cognition in its ability to abstract specific concepts from sensory data.[7] Perhaps the parade of animals in the second chapter of Genesis points toward this unique capacity. YHWH calls upon Adam to name all the animals, to categorize them, to extrapolate from their appearances a kind of form and function that can be linguistically expressed. The power of naming indicates a dual capacity for both abstract, categorical thought, as well as a capacity for language—the ability to organize sounds in such a way that they make the silence of interior thought intelligible to an external audience. This is one sense in which Christ is the divine Word—the tangible expression of an insensible divine reality.

This capacity for language and abstract thought signals another uniquely human ability: perceiving what is invisible. The human being “passes through visible realities to those which are unseen” (§15). Human intelligence is “not confined to observable data alone,”[8] but can leap from the sensory world into the noumenon, where it wrangles with transcendent concepts like justice, knowledge, beauty, goodness, and God. This ability to discern and pursue the good indicates a moral dimension of human rationality—the capacity for abstract thought enables moral reasoning and the emergence of a conscience, the “most secret core and sanctuary of a man,” where he can be “alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.”[9] Within the human person is an infinite interior world, where one human consciousness can probe the hidden mystery of things, plunging the depths of his own heart; “God, who probes the heart, awaits him there.”[10]

And now we have found the heart of the matter. According to the Catechism, as I noted earlier, the Christian understanding of human dignity is rooted in the imago Dei, but there is an additional, crucial aspect of human dignity emphasized there—this dignity “is fulfilled in [man’s] vocation to divine beatitude” (§1700). Humans are not ultimately distinct from animals by rationality per se, but by a capacity to enter into friendship with the Creator and Sustainer of all things. As Gaudium et Spes puts it, “the root reason for human dignity lies in man's call to communion with God” (§19).

All of the above markers of human cognition—abstracting from the senses, perceiving the invisible, discerning the good—are prerequisites for an I-Thou relationship between humankind and God. God’s hiddenness shows us that he not merely a part of the material world, but beyond it entirely—yet humans must have the ability to conceive of the numinous in order to enter into God’s friendship, or even be aware of God at all. And if God is the source of Goodness itself, communion with the Good requires that we have the capacity to discern and pursue what is good, and avoid what disrupts our connection to it.

In the Christian tradition, union with God has both an individual and communal dimension. God’s descent into human history occurs through a covenantal relationship with a particular people that he takes as his own. Friendship with God on a communal level can only occur through wisdom that is passed from one generation to the next—and the capacity for culture, for transgenerational knowledge and custom, is unique to human beings. Certain species of animals can make elaborate dwellings and wield objects as instruments—but humans alone build cities, religions, traditions that can outlive the present, enabling a lasting friendship with God as a community, an ecclesia.

Philosopher Kenneth Kemp, in his essay “Science, Theology, and Monogenesis,” makes a three-fold distinction between man as a biological being, a philosophical being, and a theological being.[11] Evolutionary theory, for the time being, provides the most accurate picture we have of man’s coming-to-be as a biological entity. Genesis, and the Christian tradition that guides its interpretation, is concerned primarily not with humanity’s biological origins, but with its theological origins:

The clay became man at that moment in which a being for the first time was capable of forming, however dimly, the thought “God.” The first Thou that—however stammeringly—was said by human lips to God marks the moment in which spirit arose in the world. Here the Rubicon of anthropogenesis was crossed. For it is not the use of weapons or fire, not new methods of cruelty or useful activity, that constitute man, but rather his ability to be immediately in relation to God.[12]

In the depths of each human person is an infinite space that God comes to inhabit, where the soul can mysteriously, insensibly encounter the very source of love and life. Regardless of a person’s stage of development or state of health, she has been “willed by God in a specific way, not merely as a being that is there, but as a being that knows him.”[13] This is why human life has unparalleled dignity, why it is unjust to kill a human being, or to reduce a person to mere use-value, a means to some other selfish end. Because of the unique kind of animal we are, conscious participation in the divine life has been opened to us; God has called us forth from the earth to become the kind of being that might know and love him.

If we understand the moment of becoming human not as a biological transformation, but a theological one—that moment the clay man, or the ape, first faintly raised his thoughts toward God—there is no conflict whatsoever between Darwinian evolutionary theory and Christian anthropology. While theological questions, including that of human dignity, are outside the precise scope of scientific knowledge, evolutionary theory helpfully goads us into deeper reflection, challenging us to clarify what we mean by creator, creation, and the human creature’s infinite worth.

 [1] S.D.S Stephan Horn (ed.), Creation and Evolution: A Conference with Pope Benedict XVI in Castel Gandalfo (Ignatius Press, 2008), 12.

[2] Qtd. in ibid., 16.

[3] Ibid, 13.

[4] Ibid, 58.

[5] Ibid, 169.

[6] Ibid, 22.

[7] Kenneth Kemp, “Science, Theology, and Monogenesis,” American Catholic Quarterly 85.2 (March 2011): 235.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, I.16.

[10] Ibid, I.14

[11] Kemp, 230.

[12] Ratzinger, quoted in Creation and Evolution, 15.

[13] Ibid, 15.

Featured Image: Sir Joseph Boehm, Statue of Charles Darwin in the Natural History Museum [detail], 1885, Photographer: Patche99z; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Abigail Favale

Abigail Favale is a writer and professor in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory.

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