Since the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” during the 1920’s—which involved the state of Tennessee’s effort to punish John Scopes for teaching evolution in a public high school—Americans have largely come to believe that science and religion (or specifically evolutionary biology and contemporary Christianity) offer strikingly different answers to the question of our beginnings. This is no doubt true if the conversation solely concerns whether humans were the direct and instantaneous creation of God or evolved precariously from a lowly anthropoid ancestor. But when the question is framed in terms of what attributes make us “human” and how these traits both differentiate us from and link us to animals, the lines between religion and science on the issue of our origins become blurred.
For example, when present day Christian thinkers and geneticists pursue evidence pointing to the uniqueness of man, their commitment to human distinction from animals is in many ways shared. Several contemporary Christians hold fast to claims such as those made by Saint Augustine that, “God made man in his own image, by creating for him a soul of such a kind that because of it he surpassed all living creatures, on earth, in the sea, and in the sky, in virtue of reason and intelligence.” Interestingly, Christians who place great emphasis on how humans alone posses the capacity for moral reasoning have much in common with population geneticists on quests to decipher unique gene expressions not found in other primates but crucial to human brain development. The “HAR1F” and “Pax6” genes, for instance, are thought to be prime candidates for explaining how and why the human brain differs from the chimpanzee and other mammals.
On the other hand, many geneticists focus not on our break from other life forms but on the degree of relatedness between us and other species. After all, every mammal is comprised of the same four DNA base pairs. With this emphasis on our link to animals, contemporary geneticists have much in common with early Christian thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas who argued that the human soul, body, and intellect overlapped with that of other species. Aquinas famously wrote, “Man’s superiority to beasts in animal shrewdness and memory […] results from an affinity and closeness to intelligence, which, so to speak, flows into them. These powers in man are not so very different from those in animals, only they are heightened.”
If we refrain from buying completely into the belief that secular science and religion are wholly at odds when it comes to the truth of human origins, we can actually see that scientists and Christians both appear capable of using information about biological life either to highlight our break from animals or focus on our connection to other species. Recently this overlap has presented itself in the search for evidence of interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals. Indeed, the latest discovery by the Neanderthal Genome Project that Asians and Europeans are the only two populations who posses up to 4% Neanderthal DNA, forces us to rethink the line between human and non-human descent that has buttressed religious and scientific beliefs about the novelty of our species (see my essay on “Neanderthal Genes, Religion, and the Unique Identity of Modern Humans” in the current issue of Gene Watch). It will also provide those interested in the conceptual history of modern religious thought with an opportunity to revisit often overlooked histories where ostensibly secular science and religious thinking converged on issues pertaining to human racial difference.