"I ain't gonna let no Darwinists make a monkey outta me!" I bet you've heard this a few times. I know I have. Indeed, this used to be one of my favorite quips to rebut supporters of neo-Darwinism. But what exactly is meant by this statement? What exactly is the problem?
It seems to me that the underlying assumption of the statement is that if human beings share a common ancestor with the higher primates then human dignity is undermined. More specifically, the image of God -- that quality which sets human beings apart from all other creatures -- is undermined.
Clearly this is serious business and we should surely be very critical about any scientific theory that would undermine human uniqueness. But why would we think that common ancestry with a chimpanzee necessarily undermines human dignity?
The most visceral response is rooted in the humility of origins that this seems to presuppose: if we came "from animals" then we don't have to behave any better than animals. Consider as an analogy the story of the Cadillac Cimarron. Produced between 1982-1988, this rolling disaster was widely snubbed by Cadillac fans because of its humble origins: it was essentially a rebadged and overpriced Chevy Cavalier. It surely wouldn't take a genius to predict that the Cimarron was destined to join the Mustang II and AMC Pacer in automotive ignominy. And what of us? If we are simply from apes, then are we not likewise headed for disaster?
While the concern is understandable, in order to assess the legitimacy of the fear we need to be careful to frame the question in terms of the image of God, because this is indeed what is at stake. With that in mind, the claim is that if we share a common ancestor with monkeys then we cannot be made in the image of God.
In order to assess this claim we will first need a clear understanding of what the image is. Only if we first know what the image is can we then assess whether that image will be lost by sharing common ancestry with the higher primates. So what is the image?
Alas, theologians simply do not agree. Some argue that the image consists of a relationship both with God and with each other. But if the image is grounded relationally in this way then it would seem we could indeed have a unique relationship even while sharing common ancestry.
Another approach to the image is functional: it centers on unique abilities or responsibilities possessed by human beings. Again I cannot see a problem here. Human beings could indeed have a unqique function (e.g. as the image of God we are his unique regents or representatives, called to tend his creation) even while sharing common ancestry with primates. At the very least, we would need some argument on the behalf of the dissenter to explain why we could not have a relational or functional image with common ancestry.
The final major view is substantive, and this locates the image of God in unique properties or qualities possessed by human beings alone. Common candiates include reason, free will, creativity/imagination, the drive to worship, or some combination thereof.
Here there is a possible conflict, but it derives not from common ancestry per se. Rather, it derives from the assumption that the difference between human beings and the other higher primates is one of kind while evolution offers difference only of degree. In short: we cannot get from primates to us through random mutation and natural selection alone.
Perhaps this is the case. I am sympathetic with this reasoning myself. But that doesn't discount common ancestry. Rather, at the most it adds something to it: e.g. an infusion of "soul stuff" (or whatever) at some point between our common ancestor and us.
But it is not even clear that this would be required. In order to decide this, we first have to decide what the image is. Next, we have to decide whether the image could arise out of the functional complexity that is achieved through gradual successive steps (a classic case of the whole -- the image of God -- being greater than the sum of the parts -- the process of random mutation and natural selection).
Only when these questions are all addressed negatively will the rebuttal of common ancestry have any substance. Until that case is established, this is merely monkeying around with metaphors.