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Human Exceptionalism Undermined? (Updated)

April 17th, 2007 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

While my brother and Wesley Smith discuss this brief analysis of the importance to human exceptionalism by Leon Kass at his place, this provocatively titled piece of news has started to make the rounds: Chimps are More Evolved than Humans.

Of course, what they mean by "evolution" is itself interesting:

The results, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were surprising. Chimps had 233 positively selected genes while humans had just 154, implying that chimps have adapted more to their environment than humans have to theirs.

"It's human egotism to put us on a pedestal," says molecular anthropologist Morris Goodman of Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. "I was attracted to the paper because it seemed to be chipping away at this desire to make us all that extra-special. At the molecular level, humans are not necessarily exceptional in terms of the adaptive changes."

The conclusion that Zhang's team draws--that chimps are more evolved than humans--are debatable, of course:

Not everyone is convinced that Zhang's team has drawn the correct conclusion from the gene analysis. Humans and chimps are so similar that it is difficult to determine whether the genes are the product of positive selection, says Bruce Lahn, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago who studies the genetic basis of brain evolution.

"It is very rare that there will be enough changes in such a short lineage to tell us there is positive selection," says Lahn. "I'm very surprised that they claim these are positively selected genes. I would guess if they tried to publish each of these genes as an example of positive selection, there wouldn't be enough supporting data for the majority of them."

The idea that having more "positively selected genes" erodes human exceptionalism is itself dubious. The idea that human exceptionalism stands or falls on the structure or development of the species' DNA seems overly reductionist. Why should we privilege the structure of the gene over the creation of the Mona Lisa? We must admit both (the latter of which has clearly not been approached by the best of chimps).

One thought: the attempt to undercut human exceptionalism by appeals to genetics seems driven by a desire to place humans and chimps on the same level. This would purportedly raise the status of the chimp. But if the doctrine of creation is right, such a distortion of the natural hierarchy of beings could only end up devaluing the role of chimps by giving them a purpose in the structure of creation that they do not have. What would this look like in practice? I have no idea, but it's an intriguing thought that I'm going to continue to consider.
One thing is clear: it's time to move How the Leopard Changed its Spots to the top of my reading list.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.