Evolution and Image Bearers, Part 1 | The BioLogos Forum

One of the challenging issues raised for Christians by the science of evolution is understanding what it means for an evolved human to be made in the image of God (imago Dei). Evolutionary theory implies that species are not neatly distinguished from one another in discrete categories. Instead, it posits that the ancestry of life on earth is better understood as a slow, continuous development with ever-changing lines differentiating species from one another. Species, including humans, have changed over time and continue to change. If, according to evolutionary theory, the human species has evolved from non-human ancestors over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, how might we understand humans as uniquely bearing the image of God?

In a previous BioLogos blog post, Dennis Venema suggests that modern homo sapiens have evolved along “different evolutionary trajectories.” While all modern homo sapiens share common ancestors from Africa, some homo sapiens also have Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestors. Who, then, were divine image-bearers – the common ancestors from Africa, Neanderthals, Denisovans, their mixed species children, or all of the above? In other words, if the lines differentiating species from one another are less clear and the development of a species is seen as an extended, continuous process involving the mixing of different related species, how are we to understand modern humans as divine image-bearers in comparison to the direct ancestors of humans who presumably were not?

One way of addressing this question is to consider the role divine image-bearers are given and the capacities required for that role. If bearing God’s image requires a particular role with particular capacities, those species that lack those capacities and therefore cannot act in that role are not image bearers of God. Those species that possess those capacities may then be considered potential image bearers, in the sense that these species have the necessary capacities for this role. In this way, a line may be drawn between direct ancestors of humans that most likely did not bear the image of God and those that may have. We believe this approach is compatible with existing interpretations of the imago—whether Christological, relational (i.e., being in relationship with God), functional (i.e. fulfilling God’s role or commission to humankind)—and also compatible with understanding how God could have used natural processes to enable humans to become unique image bearers. (Tomorrow’s post will address a different approach to understanding the image of God in the context of evolution as well.)

This method is, of course, somewhat complicated by disagreements concerning what it means to be made in the image of God. These disagreements, while certainly interesting, will not be resolved here. For the sake of this post, one well-established feature of the imago Dei will be focused on: the role of dominion or stewardship over creation. We will then consider which capacities are required for this role to be performed in a meaningful way. Two broad examples are the ability to learn about creation and flexibly care for different species with different needs and the ability to plan for the benefit of these species.

The ability to learn about creation is important for dominion because different species require different care. Here we may discuss various psychological capacities that enable this ability. Theory of mind—the ability to consider the intentions, desires, and beliefs of other minds—is greatly useful. In order for a divine image-bearer to exercise dominion, he or she must understand that gazelles prefer to eat grass and lions prefer to eat gazelles. Various aspects of intuitive biology may also be useful as they allow humans to understand the basic needs of species in general (e.g., food, water, shelter, etc.) and to differentiate between species and attribute specific needs to them. These abilities, in turn, allow humans to flexibly care for different species with different needs. The sheep can be led to pasture and the fish left in its pond where they may both respectively thrive, rather than applying one method of care to both.

In order to helpfully rule over creation, image bearers also need to plan ahead for the benefit of these species. Sheep taken to the same pasture too often may create an environment that can no longer sustain the life of the sheep or the life of other co-existing species. Here we may also speak of particular psychological capacities, such as a certain amount of self-control and the ability to delay gratification. Without these abilities, humanity may wreak havoc on ecosystems in order to pursue their own gain or obtain immediate rewards. Further, image bearers may need to examine potential futures, set goals, and implement these goals. In this way image bearers may foresee problems and helpfully avoid them.

To a degree, these capacities exist in other species as well, but the extent to which they exist in the human species is unique. This method may allow us to say that those groups of humans that possessed these capacities, such as theory of mind and self-regulation, were potentially image bearers, but those groups of direct ancestors of humans that lacked these capacities were likely not image bearers. For example, if Neanderthals lacked a number of necessary capacities for dominion, it may be accurate to say that they were likely not image bearers. But, if Neanderthals, like modern humans, possessed these capacities and were capable of exercising a meaningful amount of dominion over creation, it may be accurate to say they were potential image bearers.

This method does raise further questions about humans or groups of humans with limited capacities in these areas, and for this reason, this method may be better applied to species as a whole, rather than to individuals. Tomorrow’s post will address the different ways by which humans have borne the image of God across time.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/evolution-and-image-bearers-part-1

all or most of the homo family\genus are fully humans with variations. so there is no need to make theorys about what they was. see this for example:

“The ancestors of humans were hunting with stone-tipped spears 500,000 years ago, according to a new study – around 200,000 years earlier than previously thought.”-

its change all the time.

Were the Australopithecines fully human? Does this look fully human to you?

Have a look at these skulls and tell me you honestly think they’re all the same.

We also know from genetic evidence that Neanderthals were different enough from humans to be able to clearly tell them apart. Have a look at this image. The green area shows the variation we see between living humans today. The blue area shows the variation between humans and chimps. The red area showing the variation between humans and neanderthals is clearly distinct and well outside the range of modern human variation.

Here’s the post that image was taken from

This is a very, very important topic. I’m glad BIOLOGOS has started the conversation. It needs A LOT more discussion. To me, this is at the heart of neo-Darwinian Christian study. For instance, humans experience deep emotion while viewing an avant-garde, surreal painting. For some people, music, like Bach for example, can give them a kind of transcendent experience. Thanks BIOLOGOS!

ace, australopithecines isnt homo. i talk about homo genus. most of them(if not all) are fully humans. one good way to check this is by cheking the toes in there legs. in huamn they close to each other. in apes they are not.

about variations- humo eractus for example “evolve” a brain size 2x from is original size. but its still humo eractus. so even a big variation (generic or morphological)doesnt prove any evolution.

At this point it is important to let the Bible lead. Genesis 5 speaks specifically of the “generation” in which man was created in the image of God, male and female. Chapter 5 is pointing out that this image begins with Seth.

Since the Bible text of Genesis 1:1 (before the “days”) and all of Genesis 2 omit the matter of “image of God” the text is clarifying that there were earlier “generations” of man not yet in the image of God. The physical image of God began with Seth, not Adam.

This problem is complicated even further if we postulate that any created being that merits the designation ‘God’s Image Bearer’ has now acquired an immortal soul. Perhaps some evolved creatures prior to Homo sapiens had mortal souls, but there is no gradual transition from mortal to immortal. Thus basing the question: ‘When did we become human?’ on some advance in our evolved physiology, or our genetic makeup, is misleading. Instead we should ask: ‘When did our ancestors behave as if having the potential to become Image Bearers?’ There is good evidence to believe that Homo sapiens existed for over 100,000 yrs. before they suddenly acquired language and culture, and buried their dead reverently in anticipation of an afterlife. Now the Homo sapien genome is not gaining survivability in the Biosphere via Darwinian evolution. For example, now medical science allows human carriers of the genes for diabetes, cystic fibrosis, ALS, etc. to live long enough to reproduce. Now human survival for the long run depends on what Teilhard de Chardin dubbed the Noosphere (realm of ideas) and the evolution of ‘cultural genes’ (Dawkins calls them ‘memes’). Science cannot yet explain (it may soon) just how the Homo sapien Brain was ‘programmed’ to become Mind, but it seems reasonable to postulate that when that occurred suddenly some 40,000 yrs ago is when humans became Image Bearers.

ace, australopithecines isnt homo.

Fine. What about the other skulls which are all clearly distinct. You don’t find anything close to that level of variation amongst modern humans.,

I note that you haven’t responded to the clear genetic evidence showing that modern humans and neanderthals are clearly distinct from one another either.

A couple of points that I feel must be understood before these type of discussions can be shown to have any theological relevance. (a) God created man in His image - he did not make an image someone can then carry with him - so image bearers is wrong terminology. (b) God breathed into man the breath of life (from God Himself) and then man became a living soul - mankind has a spirit which enables him to understand spiritual matters. There is no eternal soul out there - eternal life is only possible through and in Christ.

If we reflect and contemplate on these matters, we may understand that the totality of what it means to be a human being may be understood when we better understand the message in the Bible.

Most of the matters brought up deal with a perceived (and mostly unknown) idea of brain activity and skull size. On a slightly humorous note, I noticed a report that compared the learning ability of a baby chimp with that of a comparable human baby - the report stated the chimp beat the human ‘hands down’. What can I say? Is this skull size? I guess it is back to the drawing board again!

ace, some of them apes and some of them can be humans. i gave you one trait to check what is human and what isnt. very simple. actually the dogs for example have more variations then those skulls. but they are still dogs.

about the genetic evidence- i can give you examples of traits that are more close in humans and bird then in humans and chimp. does its prove that humans and bird are closer to each other then humans and chimp?

Which are apes and which are humans? You need to be more specific if you’re going to propose some ground breaking new science.

This might help you decide. Notice how different creationists have different ideas about what is an ape and what is human. This is because they have no evidence, rather they make up unsubstantiated nonsense as they go along. This is where that table comes from.

about the genetic evidence- i can give you examples of traits that are more close in humans and bird then in humans and chimp

Please do, this happens to be my area of interest. I’m highly skeptical about this claim, so I would definitely like to see your evidence.

In the mean time, I’m still waiting for you to address the clear genetic differences between modern humans and Neanderthals.

ace- look at their hands and toes to know the answer (separate toe= ape). not skull. but be careful to look at authentic and complete skeletons.

about bird and humans- see this for example:

. Genes tell story of birdsong and human speech -- ScienceDaily

““This means that vocal learning birds and humans are more similar to each other for these genes in song and speech brain areas than other birds and primates are to them,” Jarvis said.”

the har1 region is also more closer between chimp and chiken than in human and chimp.

and this is also answer to the claim about the differences between humans and neanderhals. there is genes that are more closer between humans and gorila then human and chimp(gulo pseudogene for example). does its mean that gorila is more close to human then to chimp?

Which expert decided that toes are more reliable than skulls? Can you show me the paper you deduced this from?

about bird and humans- see this for example:

Genes tell story of birdsong and human speech | ScienceDaily

““This means that vocal learning birds and humans are more similar to each other for these genes in song and speech brain areas than other birds and primates are to them,” Jarvis said.”

You really need to take a look at the original research when making wild claims instead of the press release which often gets things wrong.

Here is the paper. As I suspected, you’ve completely misunderstood what they found. What they found were correlations in gene expression for birds that are vocal learners. In other words, certain genes which are highly expressed in the brains of birds that are vocal learners also play a rol;e in speech in humans and are highly expressed in certain regions of our brains. See this table for example. They didn’t find that human DNA was more similar to birds than chimps. You completely made that part up.

Once again, I’m still waiting for you to address the clear genetic differences between modern humans and Neanderthals.

No, it means that you don’t understand population genetics. I suggest you go back and read Dennis’ explanation on incomplete lineage sorting.

Once again though, you are changing the topic and failing to answer my challenge. Why are there clear genetic differences between modern humans and Neanderthals?

hi ace. first- you right. the article claim is different from the original paper. i take it back, but it still hold water because the main claim is similarity= commondescent. so there is more similarity (in gene expression)between bird and human then in human and chimp= phylogenetic contradiction. and i also gave you example of the har1 region.

about variations among humans(neander and modern humans) see this for example:


“Comparison to humans shows the diversity of the chimpanzee sequences to be almost four times as high and the age of the most recent common ancestor three times as great as the corresponding values of humans”

and yet they are still chimp. so variation mean nothing.

about the ils model. where is the line that you will say that the evolution is falsified?

You’re wrong about this too. The only similarity here is a similarity in gene expression. That means how much of a gene produces proteins in a given tissue type. In other words, this similarity had to do with transcription factor binding sites that promote certain proteins. They didn’t have to have a similar sequence, they just had a similar effect upon transcription. This is no different to the many other examples of phenotype convergence (e.g. dolphins and plesiosaurs both had flippers and fins. Wolves and Thylacines both have sharp teeth). I’m sorry to tell you that this doesn’t disprove evolution. Even though they might look like they have similar structures, these similar structures are produced by different genetic sequences.

and i also gave you example of the har1 region

I didn’t deal with the HAR1 thing because after looking into the sequences I found that it wasn’t even true and my post had already grown too long at that point. How about you show me these papers that make claims about HAR1 and I will show you where you’ve misunderstood what they’re actually talking about.

Chimps have diversity 4 times as high… so variation mean nothing

Actually this argument might work if we saw high levels of variation between modern humans today - but we don’t! If I compared two modern humans with the most possible variation between them: e.g. A San person from Southern Africa to an Aboriginee from Australia. The amount of variation we see between them would still be nothing compared to the variation we see between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals. So why is there such a big difference in variation? Can you please explain why humans and neanderthals are much more different when compared to San and Aboriginees?

about the ils model. where is the line that you will say that the evolution is falsified?

Humans should be more similar to Gorillas than Chimps about 15% of the time and they should be more similar to Orangutan than Chimps or Gorillas about 3% of the time. It’s all in the math. It becomes increasingly unlikely for ILS to have an effect that goes back further than that.

first- remember that phylogeny also included phenotypic traits and not just genetic one(in our second debate). so any phenotypic similarity can be evidence for or against evolution. and again- here is the har1 region:


"The 118 bp HAR1 region possesses the highest rate of acceleration of the HARs: 18 substitutions occurred since the human–chimpanzee ancestor, whereas HAR1 is well conserved across other amniotes with only 2 nucleotide (nt) changes between chicken and chimpanzee "-

so does it mean that chicken are more close to chimp than chimp to human? not at all. evolution just solve this by “acceleration”. so even if some genes are more close between humans and far species- evolution dont have any problem. the problem is that this kind of logic isnt scientific. because any evidence can be accept.

"Actually this argument might work if we saw high levels of variation between modern humans today "-

we actually not need this. because if high variation can be in chimp and they are still chimp- then high variation can be in human too. add this to the phenotypic similarity between neander and human and there is no problem at all. and we also have the foxp2 case:

I want you to think for a minute about why this is stupid. This HAR1 region doesn’t disprove evolution.

Think about this for a moment - it’s going to require some very basic logic.

Imagine a short four letter sequence that you inherit from your parents

Great Great Great grandparents: ATAG
Great Great grandparents: ATAG
Great grandparents: ATAG
Grandparents: ATAG
Parents: ATAG

See how you underwent accelerated evolution and got a mutation!?

Does this imply that your parents are more closely related to your Great Great Great grandparents than they are to you just because they have an identical 3 letter sequence but you have one letter different?

Take a moment now to think about how drawing that conclusion would be ridiculous

This is how we know that you are more closely related to your parents: You share common mutations that others don’t

Great Great Great grandparents: ATAGAGAC
Great Great grandparents: ATAGAGAC
Great grandparents: ATAGAGAC
Grandparents: ATAGGGAC

Because you, your parents and your grandparents share a mutation, it’s likely that you form a clade.

Because you and your parents share another mutation that others don’t, it’s likely that you also form a subclade.

Do you understand the difference now between overall similarity and p

atterns of relatedness? Now apply this reasoning to the HAR1 region and you will see the fault in your logic.

You still haven’t understood the problem. I suggest you go back and read it again. What is there a GAP in disparity between Humans and Neanderthals when no such GAP exists between even distantly related humans today. The amount of variation between members of a species should form a continuity - there should be no large gaps UNLESS tribes have been separated for hundreds of thousands of years. Chimpanzees have a lot of variation but if there is ever a large GAP between communities of chimps (e.g. Chimpanzees and Bonobos) then it implies that they have been separated for hundreds of thousands of years. How do you explain this?

On this I agree with dcscccc logic. The fact that there is greater variation in the chimps without designating different species for chimps, certainly implies that humans could have greater variation at one time in the past, some of which did not get passed on in large quantities. There is a link between neandertal and human in that some parts of the human population have what appear to be a few neandertal genes(or markers) in their genome. In spite of the few neandertal genomes available, there is still not a complete gap, but there is a small overlap. However, it is true that there is a significant difference based on the very few neandertal samples. (Although my understanding is that only one neandertal genome has been used for comparison, so far).

You ask why there is such a difference (gap) between neandertal and humans when modern human populations do not have such a difference. That is a good question… so how or why did the populations get separated and why did one type go extinct? But it is not therefore necessary to postulate that they went extinct because they were a different species. (Keeping in mind that the definition of species is somewhat plastic and not applied consistently.)

Back when we had only sequenced a single Neanderthal, this was once, a conceivable conjecture. But further study has disproved it; all the subsequent Neandertal mtDNA sequences which have been recovered have been similar to each other, and dissimilar to modern humans. To date, there is nothing in between.

This requires an explanation. Why would there be a dramatically larger difference in variation between Neanderthals and humans than there is between distantly related modern humans (e.g. San and Aboriginee)? And why would there be no continuation of variation between Neanderthals and humans? They occupy completely distinct regions on the graph.

It’s not the total amount of variation between Neanderthals and Humans that is a problem for creationists - it is the relative amount of variation that poses a problem. Relative to humans, Neanderthals are far more different than humans are relative to each other.

This is perfectly analogous to what we see between Chimpanzees and Bonobos. Even though within Chimpanzee populations there is a lot of variation, there is a large distinct gap in variation separating them from Bonobos. This gap is what tells us that they aren’t just one large diverse species but rather that they have been evolving separately from each other for roughly 2.9 million years.

In the same way, the only reasonable explanation for why there is a distinct gap separating Humans from Neanderthals is that they have been evolving separately from each other for roughly 1/2 million years.

some parts of the human population have what appear to be a few neandertal genes(or markers) in their genome

This has been shown to be because of a limited amount of interbreeding.

(Although my understanding is that only one neandertal genome has been used for comparison, so far)

This is incorrect. As of 2009, 15 mtDNA sequences had been obtained from 12 different Neanderthals showing that they were divided into three different subgroups spanning from western Europe through to central Asia.

You ask why there is such a difference (gap) between neandertal and humans when modern human populations do not have such a difference. That is a good question

This is the key question and you seem to have hit on the correct answer. Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens were kept separate from each other for a few hundred thousand years and so their populations started to diverge genetically.