In God's Image

The Importance of Being Human

(Genesis 1: 26-31)

A seldom-noticed difficulty with the theory that humans evolved from animals is its inability to explain how human beings can do what animals cannot.  In this message, sixth in a series on 'Beginnings', Rob Yule, minister of St Albans Presbyterian Church, argues that the irreversible qualitative difference between humans and animals cannot be explained by naturalistic evolution, but is accounted for by divine creation. Given in St Albans on 26 March 2000, Rob’s address emphasises the capacity of humans for artistic creativity and abstract thought, and defends the value and responsibility of science.


What Caveman Did

The popular idea of early man, found in countless books, magazines, comics and films, is of a rough, stooped, hairy biped, whose main occupation in life was going around with a club dragging his wife about by the hair and treating women with contempt. His type appears in fiction and psychology, and as an adversary in feminist literature. I have never been able to discover any scientific evidence for his uncouth behaviour, what primitive diaries or prehistoric divorce-reports it is based on. Indeed, it always seemed odd to me that the caveman when courting should have behaved in a more brutal manner than the brutes from which he was supposedly evolved. His courtship practices seem thoroughly regressive compared with the mating rituals and dances we observe in birds and animals.

The fact is, as Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton once pointed out, that ‘people have been interested in everything about the caveman except what he did in the cave.’ (The Everlasting Man, [London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1925], p. 25). It so happens that we do have some evidence of the real caveman and his cave, as opposed to the fictional caveman and his club. In 1940, in the Dordogne region of France, four boys searching for a dog found a mysterious and magnificent cave, with a main cavern and several steep galleries. What they discovered, in its deep recesses, was not a gory club with matted blood, not the scattered bones of hapless victims, not rows of female skulls on a ledge all cracked in like eggs. What they found were drawings and paintings of animals - paintings by someone who was a consummate craftsman and an artist.

The paintings were done on a light background, executed with bold black outline filled in with various shades of yellow, red or brown, shading off towards the underparts of the animals depicted. They include red deer, horses, the head and necks of several stags, which appear to be swimming across a river, and, most wonderful of all, three huge aurochs (now extinct long-horned wild oxen), their horns portrayed in twisted perspective. The artist was obviously someone who found great delight in observing animals. His technique is excellent, attempting difficult things like the motion of a stag when he swings his head around toward his tail. His palette shows a mastery of pigments: natural oxides of iron and manganese supplied hues of red and black; iron carbonate gave yellow; manganese oxides provided dark-brown and blue-black.

This, then, is hard evidence of what the real caveman did. The cave paintings of Lascaux - like those in the Sahara which featured in the film The English Patient - provide a true portrait of young man as an artist. They call in question the whole evolutionary theory of human origins. When you actually look at the cave, you see something grand and unique; something so obvious you would have to be blinded by a preconceived notion to miss it. The caveman was close to animals. He knew them and observed them intimately. But he is qualitatively different from the animals. There is no animal depicted on those walls that could exchange places with the caveman; no animal anywhere that could observe the conduct of human beings, descend into the depths of a cave, make light, mix pigments, and draw sketches from memory of those strange upright bipeds it had seen on the surface. Animals are magnificent. But not one of them is an artist. The caveman could draw, but the aurochs and the stag could not.


What Animals Cannot Do

The qualitative difference between animals and humans cannot be accounted for by naturalistic evolution, the theory that humans have evolved, over time, from the higher primates. Indeed, if anything, evolutionary theory makes the artistic feats of which early man was capable appear even more inexplicable, the oddity of human beings still more odd. For if the theory of evolution is correct, and the caveman was really as much an animal as the animals depicted on his cave-wall, then it is all the more remarkable that he could do what none of them could do, and create such stunning works of art. If humans are only animals, and came only from animals, the riddle of their creativity is truly inexplicable. If early man ‘was an ordinary product of biological growth, like any other beast or bird,’ says Chesterton in his discussion of human origins, ‘then it is all the more extraordinary that he is not the least like any other beast or bird. He seems rather more supernatural as a natural product than as a supernatural one.’ (op. cit., p. 33).

It is worth reflecting on what animals can and cannot do. A number of experiments have been carried out to train chimpanzees and gorillas to use elementary tools and rudimentary sign language. For ten years in the 1970s a lovable gorilla named Koko was trained by Stanford psychologist Francine Patterson to recognise some six hundred symbols of American Sign Language. She was credited with such speech acts as bantering, cursing, arguing with her trainers, pretending to smoke a stick, lying about poking holes in the screen mesh of her trailer home, holding pretend tea parties, reacting to childhood stories such as ‘The Three Little Kittens Who Lost Their Mittens’ and other kinds of humour.

The achievements of Koko and other chimps have been evaluated by linguists. Firstly, Koko tended to forget her words quickly and like a fourth-rate actor had to be prompted frequently about words she was already supposed to have learnt. Secondly, and more fundamentally, while apes can be trained to associate a surprisingly large number of actions with sign language gestures or keyboard keystrokes, showing that they are intelligent animals, they are not able to use abstract representations or enter the distinctively human realm of abstract thought. Trained apes cannot ask questions. They cannot distinguish the simplest elements of sentence structure such as nouns and verbs, as normal infants and young children do when learning their first language. Apes cannot practise what linguists call ‘recursion’, which is the ability to comment on a comment or talk about what has been talked about - the basis of both story-telling and analytic thought. (John W. Oller and John L. Omdahl, ‘Origin of the Human Language Capacity: In Whose Image?’, in J. P. Moreland, ed., The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer [Downers Grove, Illinois, Inter Varsity Press, 1994], pp. 257-65).

No one denies that a human being is an animal. But a human being is a qualitatively different kind of animal. The qualitative difference between humans and even the most advanced animals can be seen if we were to do an Einsteinian thought experiment and reverse the relationship. We simply cannot imagine Koko the gorilla setting up a research project to train a Stanford University psychologist to learn the communication skills of apes. Not even the most advanced apes and chimpanzees shows a capacity to be a craftsman, a hobbyist, an abstract thinker, a research scientist, an artist - in short, to be a creator - as our friend the caveman undoubtedly was.


What a Consummate Artist Did

The qualitative difference between animals and humans cannot be accounted for by the theory of naturalistic evolution. But it is exactly accounted for by the biblical record of divine creation, as described in Genesis 1: 26-31. The Bible recognises humanity’s closeness to the animals, for it depicts humans as being created in close juxtaposition with them on the sixth day. But the Genesis account clearly differentiates man from the animals, in four instructive features of the very precise language of this passage:

1. The use of the word ‘create’

The Hebrew word ‘to create’ (bara) is used sparely in the creation account in Genesis 1. Bara is the only available Hebrew word to mean create out of nothing, to bring into existence something quite unique and unparalleled that did not exist before. It occurs here three times. It is first used in Verse 1, of the creation of the inanimate universe or of matter. It is used a second time in Verse 21, when animate life first emerges. And it is used a third time in Verse 27, when human beings come into existence.

Each of these occurrences of the word is significant, because it corresponds to the three critical transitions in cosmic development that the theory of naturalistic evolution cannot explain. The first is the transition from nothing to something, explaining how the universe exists at all. The second is the transition from non-living matter to living organisms, explaining the miracle of life. The third is the transition from the biological to the human, explaining the mystery of human creativity, intelligence and spiritual awareness.

These three levels of existence can be called the physical, the biological, and the anthropological. They correspond to what evolutionist Sir Julian Huxley described as the three phases of the evolutionary process: the inorganic, the organic, and the human cultural or psycho-social (‘The Human Animal’, in The Humanist Frame [London, Allen & Unwin, 1961], p. 72). But a process of evolutionary development following the course of natural processes cannot account for the quantum transitions that take place between the phases. Only a special act of God’s creation can adequately account for the jump from one level to the next: that there is something and not nothing, that life began so suddenly in the Cambrian era, and that humans are so uniquely creative in relation to the animals.

2. The reference to God’s ‘image’

The second element that differentiates humans from animals is the fact that God created us in his own image (Genesis 1:26 & 27). By our physical constitution we are related to the material universe and the animals. But there is an additional dimension to human existence that the Bible describes as God’s image, which distinguishes us from everything else in the universe and relates us to the Creator who made us. The Bible, with one exception which I will describe shortly, does not define what the image of God is. This is because the image of God is the totality of what makes us human.

The image of God includes our intelligence, our ability to think, reason and communicate. It includes our moral conscience, spiritual awareness and artistic creativity, as already mentioned. Above all it includes our freedom, that great but dreadful capacity to transcend our nature, reshape our nature and, misused, deface and destroy our nature. It is because of the image of God in us that we feel strangers in the very universe which is our home. It is this, as Augustine said at the beginning of his Confessions, which makes our hearts restless till they find rest in the one who made us.

3. The presence of the plural number

A third sign in the Genesis text of the difference between humans and animals is the instructive use of the plural in verses 26 and 27. According to Genesis 1, as we have seen, God brought into existence the sub-human orders of creation simply by issuing commands. But before creating human beings God is represented as having a conversation with himself: ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.’ Then, when God has carried through his intention and brought human beings into existence, we read: ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’

This implies that there is a relationality in God which is hidden from the rest of creation but is replicated in the structure of our humanness by virtue of our being created in God’s image. Genesis 1, in the highest evaluation of human gender and sexuality in world literature, says that the relationship of male and female in our humanity corresponds to the relationship of persons in the Godhead. Far from dragging women around by their hair and asserting his dominance with a club, what we could truly call ‘sensitive early New Age man’ experienced under God a perfectly nuanced partnership of male and female, masculine and feminine. 

4. The content of God’s blessing

The fourth sign of humanity’s difference from the animals is the content of God’s blessing, which consists in their being given dominion over the animals. ‘God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ (Genesis 1:28). This is not unlimited authority over the earth, still less a license to abuse it. It is a delegated authority, under God, within God-given limits.

It is fashionable to censure the Judaeo-Christian world view for our modern environmental crisis (Lynn White, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,’ Science, 155, [1967], pp. 1203-7). It would be more correct to blame it on the rejection of the biblical world view by the European Enlightenment, with the imperialistic and exploitative attitudes to nature that it spawned. It is not belief in God and respect for God-given authority that has caused today’s ecological crisis, but rejection of God and of God-given restraints. One need only contrast the polluted, ravaged, landscapes that emerged from the collapse of Communism, with the exquisite landscapes of medieval Christian Europe, reflecting sustainable agriculture, a partnership of humans with their environment, and landscape elevated to an art-form, to see the striking difference of values.

God is Creator of the universe; but he has made man creator in the universe. This explains why humans can domesticate animals, run safari parks, teach apes American Sign Language, save whales, rescue kiwis and kakapo, breed livestock, improve crops, make wines, cook meals, transmit radio signals, split atoms, shine lasers, make tiny electronic switches in slivers of silicon. God now rests (Genesis 2:1-3). But creation does not stop, because the Creator has made one creature, alone among all other creatures, to be creative in his image. To these creatures, and to them alone, has been given the unimaginably high calling of developing the universe for God and representing the universe to God.

We humans are unique, the only place in the universe where the universe becomes aware of itself and intelligible to itself. We dwell at once within the universe and beyond it. We embody the universe in ourselves and mediate the universe to God. Like a tensile concrete arch we link the vast galactic macrocosm beyond with the minute genetic microcosm within. Like a towering suspension bridge we span the void between the space-time universe and a supra-temporal Creator.

We do not know whether the cave man wove rushes or wore makeup, whether he climbed trees, built pole huts, or crossed rivers in tiny coracles. We don’t even know if he lived in his cave, or just used it as a studio or gallery. But we do know that he was human, because we know that he was an artist. His magnificent cave paintings are testimony to something absolute and unique, the property of a human being and nothing else, a difference in kind and not a mere difference of degree. An ape cannot draw like this. As Chesterton said, ‘A line of some kind has been crossed before the first faint line can begin.’ (op. cit., p. 45). Before a creative artist drew animals, a Consummate Artist had drawn him.


© 2000, St Albans Presbyterian Church