Sunday, April 13, 2014

Could Jesus have been a lizard?

Note: This is a thought experiment.  It might be wildly mistaken.  But my science career has demonstrated that fear of failed experiments might be the only limitation a quest for understanding can’t overcome.  So don’t take this too seriously.  But I wanted to see if it didn’t take us somewhere helpful. [1]

In his book Wonderful Life, Steven Jay Gould, proposed a paleontological thought experiment that he called “replaying the tape[2].”  It went like this: 

“Press the rewind button (on the history of life) and, making sure you thoroughly erase everything that actually happened, go back to any time and place in the past . . . . Then let the tape run again and see if the repetition looks at all like the original.”  

Gould then argued that it would not.  

He says, “any replay of the tape would lead evolution down a pathway radically different from the road actually taken”[3]

In other words, he argues, not only is the human condition accidental, it is unlikely, and non-repeatable.  Human existence was not inevitable.  The history of life is the sum of countless random events that moved the history of life in arbitrary directions rather than towards a pinnacle with human culture and consciousness as its inevitable glory.

So let me pose a theological question.  

What if Gould is right?[4]  

Would that be a problem for Christian theology?

One thing that bugs Christians about evolution is that it seems to undermine the ‘specialness’ of humans.  And Gould’s stochastic[5] formulation amplifies the non-uniqueness of humanity.[6]  If evolution itself is non-directional and there is nothing inevitable about where it ended up, what possible refuge could there be for human specialness?[7]

But let me answer this question with a a question:

What is it about a hairless bi-pedal primate that is fundamental to the ‘image of God?’

Or let me ask the question even more bombastically:

Could Jesus have been a lizard?

To set up my response, here is a brief synopsis of my working hypothesis about the integration of the Genesis narrative into early hominid evolution:[8]  

Creation was progressive along the lines of the evolutionary narrative.  And at some point, God ‘ensouled’[9] and entered into a special relationship with an early hominid[10] couple[11][12] in a pristine corner of a Mesopotamian floodplain.  He chose hairless primates to be the care takers of his creation and to a special relational status and spiritual reality.[13]  We became a chosen species, not unlike how he chose the Hebrews for a special purpose many many years later…  

But let me ask again…

What if our hominid nature is arbitrary?  

What if our mammalian form is arbitrary?

What if, when Gould’s tape ran, and Genesis described it in its particular metaphor of Hebrew poetry, a reptile emerged?  What if a lizard developed the cognitive raw material and communication capacity that prepared it to receive God’s gift of mathematically untenable altruism, artistic sense, and overlapping citizenship in God’s realm?[14][15]

What if we were ensouled lizards?[16]

Does that change the story even a little bit?

Wouldn’t God have still invaded his fallen creation of altruistic but selfish, creative but devious, benevolent but violent, artistic but oppressive lizards?

Couldn’t Jesus have been a lizard?

He would have still been the Truth, and the Light of the world, the second Person of the Trinity, and God made flesh…the atoning sacrifice for our leathery green brokenness.

He still would have shed his blood…it just would have happened to run cold. 
The ‘lamb that was slain’[17], would have been more like a gecko than a bonobo…but it wouldn’t have changed the spiritual reality one bit.  The details of our story might be different (e.g. Pharaoh’s army would have had to sun themselves on a rock before chasing the Hebrews to the Red Sea) but the fundamental narrative would have been mostly unchanged.[18]

If we were insects in-carn-ation would be in-chitin-ation…but it would still be atoning.
This little thought experiment suggests that the answer to the assertion:

‘Humans aren’t biologically special.’ 


‘So what?’ 

We could be God’s scaly reptilian image just as easily as we could be his ridiculous primate image.  And it would be just as astonishing for Jesus to take that form as this, just as sublime for him to eat bugs after his bodily resurrection as it was for him to eat bread.[19]

If species choice is functional rather than intrinsic - (say, like ‘choosing’ the children of Israel out of the early near eastern cultures[20]) - then lack of biological specialness is a non-factor.[21]  

Some of us cling to a form of specialness…which science has eroded.[22] But the Scriptures never attributed specialness to our phenotype.  We aren’t special because of our opposable thumbs or unique pelvic construction.  We are special because we are the only instance of God’s makings that have dual citizenship.  Everything else he made traffics either in material or spiritual realms.  

Only we walk both banks of that particular river.  

Only we inhabit both realities.

And that matters more than our phylum. 

This post was written while listening to Radical Face “The Branches” (still).

[1] Note: This is a companion piece to the talk I am giving (see MP3 page in a couple days) on reconciling the scientific and biblical origins narratives.  But it is also the final installment in a three part series on the overlap of theological and physical anthropology including:

[2] An quaint artifact from a time when we actually stored information on flimsy strips of magnetic tape. 
[3] This is why he calls is book on the Burgess Shale “Wonderful Life.”  He leverages the metaphor from the sappy Christmas special that there are no small changes in history.  A few random events set both human and natural history on dramatically different trajectories.
[4] And he may not be.  A little reflection on the nature of convergence in evolution evokes some dissonance.
[5] What he means is that evolution (like many many processes –er, economics) is driven more by small random events at important bottlenecks.  Therefore minor perturbations drive large changes in directionality. 
[6] There IS something about this added layer of the improbability to human existence (on top of the joint improbabilities of existence in general, the conditions for life, the actual generation of life, the collection of life into more complex forms in a relatively brief period in the early Cambrian, the conditions for consciousness, the development of self awareness, and the survival and eventual thriving of bipedal primates with altruism math that doesn’t compute) that gives the whole thing a gestalt of providence.
[7] The subtle argument is that humans aren’t special, therefore, God doesn’t exist…which is asserted in two ways: primatology (we aren’t distinct from animals) and the study of extra terrestrial life (we are not the only place this all happened).  But neither of those fields of study (or in the later case, speculation) support the syllogism when you really parse it. 
[8] This has shown up in a number of footnotes and I have referenced it parenthetically, but here I’ll just spell it out.
[9] “Formed from the earth” could be metaphor (he formed them out of the elemental and genetic material of previous hominids through a portfolio of direct and indirect agency) or he could have started from scratch, fashioning that particular pair to exist in an ecosystem in which hominid evolution had already prepared an ecological niche for something very much like them.
[10] A pair of early homo sapiens or their ancestors that emerged approximately around the time that Australopithecine was dominant. 
[11] So, yes, I guess you could say that I believe in a ‘historical Adam,’ and that the Genesis 2 and 3 narrative played out pretty much the way it is described.  But I don’t think you have to to claim a high view of Scripture.
[12] But they would not have had to be the only ones.  The idea that God started with more than just 2 makes ecological sense and also addresses the otherwise puzzling ‘where did Cain’s wife come from’ question.  Also moving the Genies narrative back into the early days of our species and adding the realization that modern humans have Neanderthal DNA (from what appeared to include a time of limited cross-breeding) could elicit a pretty non-traditional reading of the Nephilim passages in Genesis.
[13] What John Walton describes as ‘God’s half way creatures,’ unique in the universe because of our complete citizenship in both the material and spiritual realities (unlike the animals OR the angels who both hold a single ontological passport).
[14] There is no agreement about what aspect of humanity is the ‘Imago Dei,’ the Image of God that connects our species to Yahweh in a unique way.  I feel like the context asserts two things: language and creativity…word and art (or engineering).  But there is no serious theologian that thinks it is any part of our phenotype.
[15] The soul.  Regardless of the philosophy of mind you adhere to (I am still a dualist…like a freaking dinosaur but I can’t seem to find anyone persuasive enough to move me off it).   The soul doesn’t have to be the seat of personality (though, I kind of think it is).  It can simply be a trans-dimensional existence…the brute fact that we exist in the material world and in God’s ‘parallel and intersecting’ dimension…the part of us that has citizenship in a non-material reality.
[16] What if Jurassic Park was about clever but non-verbal mammals running away from us?
[17] A decidedly non-anthropomorphic image.  I have another post that I’m not going to run…but it makes the technical textual case that the Scripture is careful and even emphatic about upholding the non-hominid nature of spiritual realities.   I can send it if you are interestd.
[18] I actually think this is what Lewis was getting at with both Narnia and his Space Trilogy.  He maintained (in a personal letter to an American child, which is the only place I know of where he explains this) that neither series is allegory.  Instead they are thought experiments about “What if there was one God but many worlds?”  Essentially he is investigating the idea that there are aspects of human life that are arbitrary, and that God is still loving and just and self giving with his creation even if the creation is very different and his relationship takes on a different tone.
[19] What I am really trying to do here is a little bit Chestertonian.  “Only when we realize that the apple could have been gold are we astonished that it is red.”
[20] Not because they were fundamentally special or intrinsically more lovable but because they were uniquely equipped to be the agents of redemption.
[21] But if the analogy with the Children of Israel holds, it also means that being selected as the bearer of God’s image also bears a responsibility for the rest of creation.
[22] Gould’s original point is that there are both spiritual and secular narratives of our specialness (the latter as the ‘pinnacle’ or ‘goal’ of evolution) that the actual stochastic nature of the process cannot support.


Anonymous said...

This just about made my head explode. I like to keep things as simple and straightforward as possible. The idea that Jesus could have been a lizard seems to tread a little too closely to the thinnest point of the ice on the pond in terms of giving place to the Enemy. The Seed of the Woman insinuated as the Seed of the Serpent and equated as such? Maybe I'm not keeping up too well, and I know this was an intellectual exploration, but I really did not need to see this on Palm Sunday.

stanford said...

That is fair. The holy week timing of this exploration was sub-optimal. That is just the way the schedule worked out for me to talk about evolution this week. Sorry you stumbled on it at this time of reflection.

But in some ways, the beauty of the incarnation is that God condescended to take human form... is a ridiculously beautiful story precisely because the human form is so low and crass and beastly. By understanding how earthly the human form is (and even a little arbitrary) we understand how incredible the act of God taking it, not for 33 years…but into eternity future is.

We have gotten used to the idea that God taking on human form is something he did easily and logically, because we ‘bear his image’. But that is just because we are used to being us. By thinking – what if it was a form we weren’t used to – we can imagine how sublime the incarnation is. The point of the exploration was not so much ‘Jesus could have had a different form’ as it is ‘Isn’t it phenomenal that God became something as absurd as hominid for our atonement…how great is his love for us.’

The act of solidarity and love…and then a second act of experiencing the suffering that our form is capable of in an atoning sacrifice…kind of is what the story we celebrate this week is about.

Anonymous said...

So much for the initial reaction...The trains on your main-line seem to be running a good bit faster than the narrow gauge spur that I'm stuck on. Don't know if you're on to it-you probably are, but I seem to remember that C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy deals with this sort of stuff and in much the same terms.

stanford said...

Yes! I think Lewis made precisely the case I am trying to formulate better and earlier in the Trilogy and even Narnia (I even buried a tip of the hat to this in my ridiculous footnotes [see 18]).

Thanks for offering me the chance to clear up a muddy argument a bit. And thanks for stopping by this eccentric little blog.

Justin Bower said...

Fantastically mind-blowing as usual. Pointing out the less lofty perches of my mindset, I have to admit my first thought on seeing this was "The Jesus Lizard was a pretty good alternative band, for being from Austin...".

Noah Elhardt said...

Great question! Using only the first 2 chapters of Genesis as our source text, I think lizards would have to fulfill three functions in order to qualify as human-replacers:

1. "in Our image, according to Our likeness" 1:26a
2. "have dominion over... fish... birds...cattle... all the earth..." 1:26b
3. Be able "to tend and keep [the garden of Eden]" 2:15

The first you have dealt with in your post, and I think your treatment is fair. At first I'm tempted to say: "But only humans mirror God's ability to think and create and...," but this thought quickly sounds absurd, both in light of God's infinitely superior intelligence, and in light of our other shortcomings compared to other creatures (flight, etc). We probably have little idea of what it really means to image God anyway, and most of that probably could be theoretically imbued into any creature, as you argue.

The second and third components are more ecological in nature. It seems, for some reason, that God decided to grant spiritual dimensions to the same creatures to whom he imparted the ability and responsibility to "tend" creation, to rule over and take care of the complex ecosystems He created. "Why?" merits its own separate study.

But could lizards have fulfilled this role? Here I'm tempted to say no. Even if lizards were imparted with altruism, free will, and artistic inclinations, they are not physically (or mentally? not sure on this) suited for ecosystem management, or ruling over cattle. As humans, we are (uniquely?) suited for the task, even though we are (mostly) terrible at it. And I think cranial capacity and opposable thumbs do enter into the equation here.

What other creatures would be equally well suited? Ants? Elephants?

Or perhaps lizards could be better suited than I think? Could God have made lizards capable of, alone or in groups, shaping ecosystems to the extent that we can? I suppose there are many extinct speudolizards that God skipped over that could have seriously dominated over cattle.

(This raises a hypothetical question that doesn't require "playing back the tape." What if God HAD made lizards in His image, and rather than send Jesus as a Spinosaur, He sent the Cretacous-Paleogene extinction event (A Great Flood sans Noah) and started over? Is there any reason this couldn't have happened?)

One thing's for sure: if God had imbued Amboina sailfin lizards with his image, Jesus walking on water would have been a lot less impressive.