On the “pragmatic” argument for special creation

[Job training has distracted me from blogging for several weeks. It appears I might be back.]

[I’ve been on an evolution kick. Read Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” if you can. It covers all the angles and reads like a novel.]


We’ve all heard the sentiment that our having evolved from “lower” animals is less ennobling than special creation by deity; that it decreases our special worth or dignity.

Sometimes this sentiment is worked up into an argument—as when Darwin’s contemporaries said that one had only to look at the queen to know she just couldn’t have come from a monkey. This is “pragmatic creationism”-proper.

Today, this idea rarely appears as an explicit plank in the creationist’s case, but the feeling persists that evolution degrades humanity, existentially speaking. And I suspect this feeling motivates the creationists: Among this group, there is a broad spectrum of evolutionary phenomena that is admitted: Young-earthers accept no evolution whatsoever; more liberal types accept micro-evolution; others accept macro-evolution nearly across the board; still others (the “irreducible complexity” folks) accept that species macro-evolve, but deny that biochemical cellular processes do. But every creationist stops short of human (macro) evolution.

Two responses leap to mind:

First, it is simply wrong equate the origins of a thing with the thing itself—or the goodness or badness of the one with the goodness or badness of the other. (This is the logician’s “fallacy of origins.”) To say that B came from A is hardly to say that B is A, or is even like A. Granted, Bs often look like their As, and not by accident; sons are somewhat like their fathers, and so forth. But the quality and degree of this identity, and what worth to attach to it, must be investigated, not merely assumed.

Second, “wishin’ don’t make it so.” Assuming we would be made “lower” by lowly origins—why should the facts succumb to our feelings about them? Our origins do not become one way because we would be uncomfortable with alternative scenarios. I may be upset at being the product of an alcoholic father, or an incestuous relationship, but this emotion hardly changes the case.

Darwin weighs in

Darwin himself gave a cleverer answer in the conclusion to his The Descent of Man:

“I am aware that the conclusions arrived at in this work will be denounced by some as highly irreligious; but he who denounces them is bound to shew why it is more irreligious to explain the origin of man as a distinct species by descent from some lower form, through the laws of variation and natural selection, than to explain the birth of the individual through the laws of ordinary reproduction.”

In other words, if it is off-putting that our entire species should have emerged from a “lower” form, it should be at least as off-putting that each individual human develops from a lower form in the womb—a form much lower than any adult “ape” (i.e., pre-human hominid). And yet this development is something no creationist would deny, nor feel particularly bad about.

Worse, on the road to “higher” humanity, the human embryo has to escalate through multiple lower forms: We begin as fish do, with gills, a tail, and a fishlike branchial circulatory system. Then we go through an amphibious, then a reptilian stage. Before becoming recognizably human, we have a brief “lower primate” stage, when the fetus becomes entirely covered with a coat of fine hair called “lanugo.” (We shed this before birth, while monkeys retain it.)

* * *

Our embryonic staging is itself evidence for evolution, in the sense that the story makes better sense on an evolutionary view than on a theory of special creation. Per Haeckel’s famous “ontogeny replicates phylogeny” dictum, the sequence of embryonic stages mimics the sequence of major evolutionary stages through which our species evolved. First we were fish, then amphibians, reptiles, etc. (All other evolved organisms show this pattern also.)

Evolution typically proceeds by addition, or accretion; it is easier (that is, more conducive to fitness and survival) if nature “tacks on” a new feature than to remove one and hope that the remaining ones work around the gap. Of course, this means tacking on a new gene which codes for the feature. In the womb, we develop in ways our “lower” ancestors did (or do) because we have inherited strings of their old genes, the ones that code for their development. We don’t keep the reptilian, etc. features because we have acquired other genes which turn the old ones off before birth.

It is weird enough on technical grounds that a creator would place genes for gills, fur, etc., inside us, only to deactivate them before birth. Instead, s/he could have started us as Aristotelean homunculi: tiny, intact humans that do nothing but grow in size.

On moral grounds, it is pointless that a creator would, in a bid to secure our “specialness,” forbid us as a group to develop from lower beings, only to force each of us individually to develop this way.

Conclusion: The aesthetics of descent versus special creation

The main error of the “pragmatic creationists” is to mistake an aesthetic preference for reality. This aside, is it really preferable on aesthetic grounds that we should have been created, rather than to have evolved?

We are the culmination of a vigorous natural epic, billions of years in the making, one that could have gone in a billion other ways, but didn’t, and that will continue beyond us in ways that we help determine. This is simply more interesting than our having been dropped here, without papers, without biography, without a legacy. For all the reasons “God did it” is a scientific non-starter, it also makes for a piss-poor narrative.

Perhaps our being formed by the same processes as hagfish, dung beetles, and leeches decreases our “specialness” among them. But “being the best” is hardly the only value. And it isn’t always that valuable. It’s lonely at the top. To believe ourselves fundamentally, irreducible set apart from the world can be—it should be—profoundly alienating. An evolutionary story recovers for humans a sense of “at-home-ness” in the world. It permits us to belong and identify.

Not to say that our special place totally dissolves. For we among all “beasts” can reflect upon our mutual heritage. We alone can write the story down. (We alone can blog about it.)

Finally, in poetic terms, our evolution represents a kind of achievement. “We” have struggled, and triumphed. Typically, we praise and admire achievements over charity. (For this reason, heirs and contest winners are always resented by those who “earned” it.) To sit atop this long struggle is arguably more “special” than to have been given the damn thing. Again, this could be said of other species, too, but again, only we can appreciate it.


3 responses to “On the “pragmatic” argument for special creation

  1. This is a point that an incredible number of people don’t seem to get. Expelled’s greatest fault (among many) is that it never once deals with the actual evidence for evolution, instead focussing entirely on arguments like the ones you’ve highlighted above. Actually, this kind of weak reasoning can be found everywhere in theistic arguments, and it never ceases to be extremely annoying.

  2. Related is the argument against Materialism, that we cannot be just ‘robots made of meat’ or ‘walking bags of chemicals’ (two phrases I’ve actually heard from theists), because this would be inconsistent with our ‘special’ status.

  3. Oh yeah, that’s another ‘good’ one. Usually I’m all for polite discussion, but seeing an argument like that always makes me want to slap someone.

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