The Corner

Wes vs. Derb

NRO friend and occasional contributor Wesley J. Smith paid me the compliment of taking up one of my God points on the First Things web site.  Rebecca Bynum over at New English Review pointed this out to me, and I sent her a rather rambling response, which (with my permission) she posted on the NER blog. I thought I might as well box the compass & post a brief response to Wesley here on The Corner, since I know some readers like this sort of thing.  (Some others hate it–but there, you can’t please everyone.)  Also because I can’t find any way to respond on the First Things site.  If they have a blog or comments section, I couldn’t locate it.

Wesley tackles me on “human exceptionalism,” the idea that we are distinct from the rest of brute creation by having been chosen and gifted by a supernatural being.  He doesn’t offer anything that I would call evidence for this, though.  He just says it’s so.  The nearest he gets to offering evidence is:  “Understanding that there is such a thing as evil action proves we are special in the known universe.”  I take this to mean that (1) we are special by virtue of having a moral sense, and (2) this specialness proves that we are special in the particular way Wesley says we are–chosen and gifted by God.

I don’t accept either proposition.  Even if you assume that our moral sense makes us unique, I don’t see how the supernatural element follows.  All sorts of creatures are unique in all sorts of ways.  The pangolin has its teeth inside its stomach–how’s that for unique!  The elephant has that unique trunk, etc., etc.  That we are special by virtue of possessing a moral sense does not prove that we are specially special in Wesley’s sense.  We may be; but he hasn’t proved it.

And in fact our moral sense does not look all that special to me.  Higher animals exhibit rudimentary moral sense–they care for their young, co-operate in social groups, and so on.  If you want to tell me that animals sometimes kill their young, and their social interactions sometimes end in lethal fights–well, ditto in both cases for humans.  Where’s the specialness?  And the moral sense of humans can by no means be depended on.  All too often “man is wolf to man.”  Where is the specialness?

Wesley does not really tackle the main point.  Everything we know tells us that mankind developed by small gradations from earlier forms.  With modern genomics we can even set approximate dates for the various changes.  At which point in this everlasting series of changes were we kissed by God?  Or:  How would we go about seeking an answer to that question?  And if, at some point in the series, God did indeed say:  “This is my favorite creature, this one I will bless with special gifts”–if that actually happened, why might not it un-happen?  If God can bestow His favor at some point in our phylogenetic development, why might He not withdraw it at some further point, for His own mysterious purposes?  How do we know this hasn’t already happened?  How, in fact, do you detect this specialness–this having been favored by God?  What would be the difference between a human being, or the human race, thus favored, and one not thus favored?  How would I tell which was which?

My main point about biology in my original piece was just that up until about 150 years ago practically everyone believed what Wesley believes–that we are a uniquely blessed and gifted creature.  All the big religions of the world are built around that notion.  It is now clear that we are not, after all, special in the way we thought.  And that weakens faith.  That’s all.  As I said in my piece, the creationists are perfectly correct to hate and fear modern biology.  Probably all religious people should hate and fear it.  If its discoveries pass the very strict evidentiary tests required by science, though, then to reject it is just obscurantist.       


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