How Science Destroys Human Dignity

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.


8 Responses to How Science Destroys Human Dignity

  1. DTE says:

    I liked this one a lot, particularly that you didn’t back down from the fact that humans are but highly evolved animals.

    Very good question as to whether it’s more “demeaning” to be highly evolved or depraved.

  2. Sirius says:

    Humans are not highly evolved animals. Asserting so is merely begging the question. A little more proof and a little less posture, please.

    I find the question as to whether it’s more “demeaning” to be highly evolved or depraved interesting. It’s argumentative, of course. Let me rephrase the question:

    Is it more demeaning to think of man as a higher form of animal with no purpose or meaning to his existence other than, um, procreate until something better comes along OR is it more demeaning to think of man as having been formed in the image of God but now being fallen is depraved but of such worth to God that He would send His Only Son to redeem said depraved man back to his former glory?

    –Sirius Knott

  3. forknowledge says:

    Humans are not highly evolved animals. Asserting so is merely begging the question. A little more proof and a little less posture, please.

    Actually, you’re absolutely right! (Take those jaws from the floor, people!) Humans certainly aren’t ‘highly evolved’ animals, since every animal currently alive today is equally as ‘evolved’ as any other. So actually, we’re just plain old animals. (Unless you want to start quantifying individual traits, in which case we’re really, really, really intelligent animals).

    The God stuff I’m not going to comment on, because…well, do I even need to say?

  4. DTE says:

    Thanks, forknowledge. I apologize for failing to speak with scientific precision. “Really, really, really intelligent” is what I intended.

    Now, here is a newsflash for the Gryffindor: Man [sic – religious sexism] doesn’t appear to be in a state of glory, including, and perhaps particularly, redeemed religious men [sic – religious sexism].

    Apparently, Jesus failed. (Cue the “It’s all going to happen in the future!” excuse for a failed dead, run of the mill insurrectionist.)

  5. jeffsdeepthoughts says:

    I’d like to politely disagree.
    Using the existence of Altruism as a proof of God’s existence isn’t a fallacious appeal to consequences.

    When done correctly (and of course, sometimes it is not, just as some atheistic arguments are sometimes poorly done.) the focus is on the idea that people do in fact act altruistically.

    If the only way that we could end up with cars in the world was via car factories, it would be quite natural to infer that somewhere a car factory exists if cars are on the road.

    Similarly, the fact that altruistic acts do occur is taken as proof that there must be some cause of altruism. In my experience, this recognition usually leads to a debate around the potential causes of altruism. Atheists typically posit that there are causes for altruism other than a loving God. Theists who buy this argument suggest that there is not any other cause.

    It seems to me that a burden that a Darwinian bares in such an argument is to demonstrate in particular why altruism exists to those who are not direct decendents. It’s easy enough to see how sacrificing myself for my own children might lead to my genes propogation. The challenge, I think, is explaining why I might sacrifice myself for somebody else’s kids or a friend.
    I want to be clear that I’m not making the claim that atheists are less altruistic. I just don’t think that they can provide any convincing, philosophically consistent reasons for their altruism.

  6. forknowledge says:

    What is a ‘Darwinian’?

    What you’re describing is not what I was talking about – I specifically meant an appeal to consequences, where somebody says ‘If X, then Y, which is undesirable, therefore X’. your argument, that altruistic behaviour is only explainable via God, is completely different.

    However, that argument is one that I’m just not interested in getting into right now; I’ve had it many times before, and it’s long since stopped being enjoyable.

  7. jeffsdeepthoughts says:

    As you probably know, the suffix -ian often goes at the end of a set of beliefs to denote someone who believes a set of ideas. It’s quite similiar to the suffix -ist. There is sometimes, though not always, an implication that the person is over using or placing too much stock in the belief system.

    I’ll take your word for it that some people do engage in the fallacious argument you describe. I think quite often though, the argument being made is the one I describe though… and perhaps it is wrong but it is clearly not fallacious.

  8. saber156 says:

    “our ‘lowly’ origins” I don’t know why creationists have such a problem with the fact that our species evolved from what they view as “lesser animals”. Every living creationist (and every other person obviously) came from an egg and sperm, one could argue this is more of a humiliating origin. Men spill countless amounts of this magical mucous every day.

    You really can’t get much lower than coming from glorified snot 😉

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