One of Christendom’s “lost realities” is the conviction that humanity stands in a totally unique category of being, separated from all other forms of life as the “image of God” (imago Dei in Latin; ikon Theou in Greek). This theological conviction long governed the way the West looked on itself and the rest of the world. But in the nineteenth century, as modern biology displaced theology, a rival assertion about human being appeared. The new conviction was that man was simply an animal deserving a taxonomy like any other animal. Accordingly, he is not imago Dei but Homo sapiens. And though he might be superior to the earth’s other animals, he is, in the end, only an animal. This conviction marked the West’s greatest anthropological revolution since Pentecost.
The transition from imago Dei to Homo sapiens was not the only anthropological revolution since the first century, of course, and readers of this blog are familiar with that which resulted in the rise of anthropological pessimism following the Great Division. The rise of a secular anthropology, however, was even more momentous for the history of Christendom.
The term Homo sapiens was coined in the eighteenth century, but appears to have gained wide currency only in the nineteenth century.
Darwin was simply its most accomplished and convincing advocate. By the time Descent of Man was published in 1871, the human being as rational animal had become a newly established anthropological reality. Many, of course, would reject the idea that “natural selection” and the related theory of “sexual selection” were the only forces worthy of consideration in the rise of the human race. Some, like Darwin’s antagonist Samuel Wilberforce, would retain the conviction that man is a divine creation. Nevertheless, the idea took hold and became as unassailable as the strident scientists like Thomas Henry Huxley who advocated it.
After all, it fit well with the utopian cult of Prometheus, the vision of man liberated from divine subjugation and enjoying complete autonomy. And in this sense, a biological rather than theological anthropology was the fulfillment of secular humanism. Ever since the Italian quattrocento, humanists like Pico della Mirandola had set as their central project the loosing of man from the curse of anthropological pessimism. As secularization took hold, man as rational animal may not enjoy the dignity of a divinely directed provenance, but he could still claim the dignity of moral autonomy. This had been the dream of eighteenth-century deists like Voltaire and Rousseau.
However, nineteenth-century evolutionism proved a poor foundation on which to erect an edifice of human dignity. Before Darwin had died, his followers had begun to redefine man in ways that would lead, within a century, to the most dehumanizing events the West has ever seen.
In the series of articles that follows, I will try to show how this happened.