One criticism frequently levelled at evolution (and by extension ‘evolutionists’) is that it damages or destroys human dignity. Creationists don’t put it like that, of course; they claim that evolution teaches that we humans are ‘just animals’ or ‘just monkeys’, and that we therefore have no reason not to become rampaging psychopaths.
Before I get into whether or not they have a point, I’d like to mention one of the most annoying Creationist fallacies, and one that’s widespread among theists in general. Ask yourself how many times you’ve seen someone say ‘If God isn’t real, there’s no reason to act altruistic’ – then ask yourself whether the unspoken end of that sentence is ‘therefore God must be real’. The answer is yes, it always is, even if nobody will actually come out and say it. The exact same ‘reasoning’ holds true in relation to evolution – ‘If evolution is real we’re just apes [therefore evolution must not be real]’.
Ignoring for a moment the arguments for/against atheistic morality, theists for some reason completely discount the possibility that God does not exist and that we therefore have no reason to be altruistic (which I believe is wrong) or that we really are ‘just animals’ (which is absolutely correct). This is exactly the same as saying ‘nuclear war would kill millions of people, therefore nuclear war will never happen’ or ‘the sun’s expansion wouold wipe out all life on Earth, therefore our ideas about stellar development must be wrong’. This is clearly nonsensical (not to mention dangerous) thinking, yet Creationists and general theists alike seem strangely devoted to it.
The proper name for this is ‘appeal to consequences’, and is more of an emotional appeal than anything else. If you remain unconvinced of its fallacious nature, consider what happens if you simply switch the point of view: ‘If nuclear war doesn’t break out, millions of people won’t die, therefore nuclear war will definitely break out’. This argument posed by someone in support of killing millions of people is just as valid (or invalid) as the Creationist one.
With that in mind, let’s move on to the question of whether science (and evolution in particular) actually damage human dignity. The answer is yes, depending on how much of a pedestal you like to put humanity on.
Throughout history, humans have almost always thought of themselves as ‘above’ other life on Earth, and that’s not an entirely unreasonable position to take; we are after all the most intelligent species around. But many people deny that evolution is real because they claim that it’s simply unthinkable that we come from such ‘lowly’ origins.
As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, humans not only evolved from animals, but are animals themselves, and apes to boot. Furthermore, we didn’t only come from animals – go back far enough and we ‘came from’ single celled organisms. (And further still from organic chemicals, but let’s stay within the bounds of evolution.)
Even more confusing are complains that our status as animals means that our children (think of the children!) will immediately begin to ‘act like animals’, but what does this actually mean? Animals spend their days grazing in fields. Animals climb trees and swim through the ocean and snap insects out of the air mid-flight. Animals do a lot of different things, but of course the Creationists are only talking about the stereotype of the ‘wild animal’, apparently forgetting that we humans are more than capable of causing death and destruction if we want to. I certainly wish I could do some of the things that other animals do, but alas I’m stuck with the hand that God evolution dealt me.
So, the Creationists are being unduly alarmist, but that’s to be expected when they’re constantly making appeals to consequence. But it is true that the theory of evolution has a wonderful way of destroying our human pretences, and I think that ability is definitely a good thing. Children could do with learning that they’re not the centre of the Universe, and that the degrees of seperation between them and ‘the animals’ are small indeed.
The field of biology is replete with humbling facts, from our ‘lowly’ origins to the size of our genome in comparison with some other, more ‘simple’ creatures. Yet I’m confused as to why this offends Creationist sensibilities so much. I’ve been told dozens of times that we humans are sinful, ‘fallen’, even downright evil in the eyes of God, totally incapable of saving ourselves from damnation and deserving only to cook forever in the most hellish conditions imaginable. If Creationists really believe this, swallowing a few hard truths from us evolutionists should be a walk in the park by comparison.