Posted by: dacalu | 30 October 2010

The Soul and the Species

This week I’ve been thinking about human exceptionalism.  Are humans special and, if so, how?

While I normally have no difficulty navigating the boundaries between science and religion, this issue gives me pause.  I suspect that it lies at the heart of many creation/evolution debates and the more I think about it, the more I think that the answer will not be trivial.  I’m still working on this one, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m a little less polished than usual.  I know I’m treading on uneven ground.

Let us start with science.  My perspective as an evolutionary biologist is unequivocal: humans are unique – the same as every other species.  We may be well adapted omnivores and generalists, but cats are well adapted hunters, and E. coli are well adapted gut dwellers.  So humans are unique, but not in a way that forces us (as evolutionary biologists) to treat them differently.  Because this is a somewhat controversial question, I want to defend it both philosophically and empirically, so here goes.

Philosophically, evolution can only deal with mutually observable physical reality – things we all see in the same way (generally) and can measure.  Technically, this is methodological naturalism, and it says that we can only talk about things we can mutually observe and reasonably define.  It doesn’t mean other things don’t exist, only that we can’t talk about them when doing science.  A soul, a purpose, free will, morality – all off the table.  This type of thinking allows us to treat humans as animals (roughly multicellular Eukaryotes that move) and allows us to inquire into the biological species Homo sapiens.  This way of thinking has given us great insights into medicine and behavior that could never have been discovered had we not thought of humans as animals, particularly as vertebrates, mammals, and apes.  Should we make some non-physical aspect of humans essential to H. sapiens, we would be forced to remove them from evolutionary biology and lose this useful tool.

Does that mean humans don’t have that additional aspect?  No.  It does mean that from a scientific perspective, we can’t talk about it.  Further, it means we cannot, we must not talk about this particular aspect “evolving.”  Evolution is a scientific concept and just doesn’t go there – categorically doesn’t go there.  (Mind you, we might use the word “evolution” as we do when talking about stars, but we admit it means something different than natural selection, etc.)

On philosophical grounds, then human exceptionalism is ruled out in evolutionary biology – and therefore scientific evidence could not be found.  Is that expectation met in our experience?  Yes.  There do seem to be grounds for thinking humans are unexceptional when asking evolutionary questions.

We use tools, so do ravens.  We have architecture, so do beavers.  We have agriculture, so do ants.  We make art, so do bower birds.  We can identify self, so can elephants.  We have language, so do chimpanzees.  We have abstract thought, so do dolphins.  The list goes on, and the more research we do, the more we find that H. sapiens is just about as unique as any other species.  Mind you, our ability to abstract, externalize, and store knowledge goes far beyond any other known species.  But that’s beside the point.  No feature of the species tells us that the physical rules (and evolutionary rules) don’t apply.

Let us switch gears for a moment and talk about theology.  Christians and Jews believe that humans are made in the image and likeness of God.  That seems to imply that we have some exceptional features, usually associated with a soul.  We experience free will, sin, morality, and purpose and much of our faith relates to those concepts.  As a theologian I think humans have these features.  I’m not entirely positive that other creatures lack them, but I’m certain that they result in privileges and responsibilities for us.  God might have a plan for the otters, but God’s plan for humans is far more interesting to me, because I’m human.  I exercise an exceptional amount of power over creation.  So I must have exceptional responsibilities.  Theology demands a pragmatic exceptionalism for humanity.  We have a unique opportunity in Christ Jesus.  We have something that makes us special – regardless of how special other species might be.

So: evolutionarily H. sapiens are not exceptional; theologically humans are.

What is the relationship, then between the two concepts.  Let’s start with the easy answers.

1) Evolution could be wrong.  I’m a pragmatist and I don’t want to give up such an important tool, particularly in light of the fact that the alternatives have almost zero predictive power.  I want the evolutionary perspective, and I want it to be kept free from non-physical speculation so that it can do it’s job – giving us an understanding of the physical universe.

2) Theology could be wrong.  Maybe humans don’t have a non-physical component.  This fails on pragmatic grounds as well.  I experience choice, value, and morality.  I experience self and others.  Even if choice and value are illusions, they appear to be indispensable illusions.  And then there is my experience of God plus the testimony of other Christians in community, tradition, and scripture.  Option 2 is out.

Of course theology need not be insulated from science.  In fact, I’d prefer my theology to be all encompassing with regard to knowledge and experience, so it will need to incorporate scientific knowledge (and support scientific inquiry).

3) H. sapiens in some way communicates with this extra feature that we will, for the sake of brevity call a soul.  (You needn’t take all the baggage that you haul around with that word, just whatever makes humans exceptional to Christians.)  This begs the question of how they are related and how they came to be related.  It also begs the question of whether and how you allow theology to be a layer of explanation above science (not contradicting it, but commenting on it).

Notably, materialism and atheism are also operating at a level above science.  They are ontological assertions (having to do with reality) that go beyond methodological naturalism.  I’m a Christian, so I’ll stick with that for now.

3A) Animals evolved and at some point in the evolution of the great apes, God grafted in souls.  This seems to be the position of AH Strong and CS Lewis.  Apes were confected into humans by Divine intervention just as the bread and wine are confected into the Body and Blood of Christ.  I’m skeptical that it places humans so prominently apart from other species.  For a people so set on humility it smacks of egoism.

3B) The soul is an emergent property of organisms. Just as organisms have properties that inanimate matter does not, so souled organisms have properties that unsouled organisms do not.  We haven’t a clue how this happens, but we’re up against a rock on the origin of organisms too, so it seems a decent analogy.  I fear, however, that in both cases we’re avoiding the question by making life and ensoulment binary traits (you have it or you don’t).  Zero can become one by adding 1 (option 3A) or by creeping it’s way up, but if it creeps up, their must be partial numbers, ergo…

3C) there exist bits of souls in all things, but only in humans is there critical mass for full souls. Other things have partial souls.  This sounds suspiciously like mitochlorians, or for that matter Teilhard de Chardin.  I don’t buy it because it sounds like a quasi-scientific analogy to explain a non-scientific thing, without providing any particular utility (other than a vague hope for future development).

3D) there exist cousin souls in non-humans.  The cousin souls are somewhat like ours and somewhat different, so that souls were similar but not identical in our ancestors. This matches up with my understanding of Buddhism.  On the upside it gives us a great opportunity for understanding cross species ethics.  On the down side it suggests that there may be difference in degree and kind between different human souls.  That opens the door to all sorts of ethical problems.

In the end I find myself at a loss for a particular philosophy to tie my science and theology together.  For human-human ethics, I default to 3A), all humans “are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”  For interspecies ethics I default to 3D), how can I not show compassion to all things, when so many non-human things show compassion for me.

In the end I must confess that it is a non-trivial question.  I’m totally unwilling to give up science or faith.  To do either seems to be defying reality.  Neither am I willing to pretend this is not a real issue.  How does the evolutionary Homo sapiens line up with the theological image and likeness of God?  I have to run with humility and pragmatic defaults for the moment, but I’d be more than willing to hear suggestions.



  1. In considering the question of the exceptional human I find myself mired in the theology of Incarnation. Leaving behind the Platonic remnant of dualism that is intrinsic in any idea of “soul” how do we articulate clearly the notion that the physical body is part of (vital to) not only our humanness but our connection to and experience of the Divine as well. Further if we except that our biological selves are inseparable from our “soul” what then does that say about the Divine experience (presence) in other biological creatures? I don’t have time to bring in my thoughts on the relationship between biology and Eschatology but it is possibly relevant to this discussion.

    Lucas, thanks for giving me something to ponder on this dreary day in San Francisco.


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