The Elimination of Intermediate Varieties: How Evolution Lays the Groundwork for Assigning Rights

Just because humans have evolved doesn't mean that we aren't distinct from other species.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at
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Thank you, Mr. Suarez (and Jim) for making these thoughts available to provoke comment here.

Your thoughts under the heading of “Evolution lays the groundwork for assigning rights” was what caught my attention. It is captured I think in this paragraph:

The fact that the human species is distinctly separated from other forms of life, even from great apes, is the fundamental condition allowing us to assign rights on the basis of belonging to humanity: If all the extinct ancestors were still alive, the ascription of “human rights” would be a question of arbitrary decision (and perhaps racism would become more widespread).

I was reminded in all this of something that C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere in which he mused on what would have happened had many similar lineages (but with varying intelligence capacities) survived concurrently – how would we all treat each other? His conclusion was that, based on how we actually have treated each other even just with different skin colors/cultures/temperments (much less being a different species!) that the prognosis would be pretty grim. Our track record for not exploiting those not like us (much less merely tolerating!) is not good. So it may not be by accident that only one “strain” of hominids with presumably dominant “intelligence” [such as that has come to mean in this context] has survived.

In that line of thinking, I have great pause before I would see evolution or any natural processes as contributing much anything of significance (beyond the material groundwork, of course) towards an ethical system. This seems to me to be fraught with non-hypothetical dangers. Our not-too-distant past includes many attempts at enlisting science towards many evils --I can hear those who are Satanically inclined toward notions of “racial purity” trying to extend this principle out from the distant past and insisting that such “groundwork” is still being laid today towards some utopian good of their own racist visions.

Isn’t it safer to keep that hermetic seal in place in which science can help us see “what is” but can never even crack the door on “what ought to be”? Not that we, in our evil selves don’t find any and every tool and excuse we can to justify our evil – but I kind of see the acknowledgment of the severe limitations of science as a kind of safeguard against such ideological co-option.



Thank you for the excellent thoughts. This essay dovetails quite beautifully with my own thinking about how God created humans in God’s own Image to govern God’s world.

Genesis 1:27-28 (NIV2011)
27 So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Note that God gave humanity the whole earth to be our habitat. Other species have a more narrow ecological niche, but the unique genius of homo sapiens is that we are able to adapt to a wide variety of habitats using our unique mind which is able to adjust our environment using a wide variety of tools and the ability to work with others.

Other species branched off with many variations as they physically adapted to a changing environment. Humans changed too, but we basically stayed one family. Homo sapiens merged with the Neanderthals even as they surpassed them. This could be the reason why archaic humans were found recently in South Africa that seem to date to a time when other forms already existed.

In summary, the ecological niche of humans is the whole earth, not some narrow environment. Evolution took a while to fill this niche and did it uniquely by growing into it though the use of the human mind. This process called for humans to grow into our role through cooperation, not by conflict.

The problem now is that too many people are putting themselves and their faith over the unity of humankind and are making competition more important than cooperation with others and nature.

Lots of food for thought in your post, Mervin. Your first quote expresses the fear that science could be enlisted in the misguided effort to achieve “racial purity” for example. Of course, achieving that evil end does not need the help of science, as Hitler’s efforts showed all too horrendously.

The second quote seems to suggest that none of the ends of science can justify the means. (I know that is NOT what you intended.) Medical scientists said that humans ought to be free of the scourge of smallpox. And, with considerable effort, they brought this about–pleasing God in the process, I’ll wager. Same for cancer–it’s largely a defect in the environmental mechanism to which we owe our human nature–but science should make every effort to free us from this scourge. However, the CRISPR technology that offers so much promise in achieving that end, could conceivably be used to steer the human race to become exclusively blue-eyed blonds. Obviously the ends would then not justify the means (science) used to attain them. This puts an immense burden on the ethics committees that are being set up to guide science. They deserve our prayers.
Al Leo

Indeed. Hitler is the poster child for using anything, be it science or Christianity toward perverted ends. Perhaps such people don’t need science, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t make it useful, such as it became in their hands. [quote=“aleo, post:4, topic:27852”]
Medical scientists said that humans ought to be free of the scourge of smallpox.

True enough. I would add though that the “ought to” part of that did not come from their science but from a wider world-view or philosophy that is not in any way rooted science. They borrow from that philosophy as we all inevitably do to come to such value judgments. As this very OP (I think) helps make clear, science by itself does not help us decide whether saving some or all groups we can is the “good” thing to do, or whether letting them succumb so that weaker ones die off and the ones left are of stronger stock since they are survivors. Our compassion (and Christian imperative) directs us toward the former of those options, but science [especially the evolutionary biological sort] has nothing to say about which attitude should be preferred. And even if one of those options could be scientifically shown to increase our “species-wide” flourishing in the long run, it still has to borrow that imperative (that flourishing of our own species is paramount) from outside itself to reach that conclusion too!

Thanks for the continued thoughts.

What a clever insight in the article! Instead of getting all bogged down in the disputes about a lack of intermediate forms… the author boldly digs in and points out what, heretofore, has not be so obvious!

Evolution lays the groundwork for assigning rights
"The fact that the human species is distinctly separated from other forms of life, even from great apes, is the fundamental condition allowing us to assign rights on the basis of belonging to humanity: If all the extinct ancestors were still alive, the ascription of “human rights” would be a question of arbitrary decision (and perhaps racism would become more widespread). In this light the extinction of intermediate varieties between humans and chimpanzees appears like an effect that is highly useful to the end of founding a coherent human moral and legal order…"

So, for those who think God exists and that God has a plan … we can see that the absence of these intermediate forms is a brilliant intention! And notice… it is not a complete absence. it’s an absence of LIVING forms of intermediate types. Evolution provides all sorts of examples of non-living examples through fossils and their anatomical structure.

So, for the other part of the usual argument … what about the intermediate forms in the animal kingdom that have nothing to do with primates?.. we can acknowledge a whole catalog of “intermediate” forms of non-living examples:

Thanks Mervin for this comment which addresses the philosophical foundation of the essay!
By contrast to David Hume I advocate the view that explaining “what is” requires statements about “what ought to be”: science and metaphysics cannot be separated from morality and law, knowledge always involves “knowledge of good and evil”.

Consider ‘species’ concepts: “they are the mental illness of biology” [Mark Thomas]. The motivation to introduce the concept of “human species” does not come from biologists. It comes from the will to assigning rights. When I claim that the others have to respect me, I mean first of all that the others have to respect my body, even if they have physical power to kill or harm me. Thus I have coherently to respect all others exhibiting a body like my body. And behold evolution has created the conditions allowing me to clearly distinguish which creatures have a body like me! These are the creatures we define as humanity or “human species”. Thus we first characterize humanity as ‘species’ mainly motivated by the desire of assigning rights coherently, and then apply the ‘species’ concept to other animal living forms, that is, we explain the world outgoing from personal humanity (Homo sapiens personalis).

From a strict biological perspective ‘species’ concepts are arbitrary and evolution has no purpose (is not teleological). But as a matter of fact, evolution through “natural deletion” (the overlooked flip side of “natural selection”!) laid the groundwork to distinguish between humans and chimps. Notice that the gap between non-humans and humans existing at the time when the first human persons were created is the same we observe now, and is the standard calibration we use for defining what is human: we define “human DNA” on the basis of analysis of tissues coming from individuals we acknowledge as belonging to the “human species” before we perform the analysis.

I fully share C.S. Lewis’ conclusion. Evolution has done a magnificent work that allows us to define personal rights through the belonging to humanity. It would be silly on the part of humans to use science for blurring the boundaries between humanity and non-human species and destroy evolution’s work.

You expand very well on my line of thinking. So I dare to continue:

When God transforms human animals into human persons He commanded them to behave according to the foundational principle of morality and law, that is: Personhood is inseparably united to humankind; the fundamental rights of a person cannot be established by belonging to a subgroup of humankind, be it by race, religion, nation, stage of development, political class. This is actually the content of the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments.

The fall (original sin) involved a trespass against some particular content of this primeval commandment. Thereafter the will to act according to the foundational principle of law was strongly weakened. Even if since the very beginning of humanity every legal order rest implicitly on this foundation, the “right of the strongest” often prevails over the Golden Rule. One could say that our moral senses evolve as far as our behaviors fit more and more with the foundation of law (the Golden Rule).

In this sense codes like that of Ur-Nammu and Hammurabi clearly reveal awareness of moral and legal responsibility. The Ten Commandments encompass undoubtedly the foundations of morality and law. According to Christian faith Jesus Christ is the incarnated Son of God. This means that God assumed a human body and thereby dignified each human body and the whole humanity. It is obvious that this teaching means a tremendous reinforcement of the foundations of morality and law: The foundations of Christian faith and the foundations of law overlap [see this Reference]: Christianity is a commitment to promote the unity of humankind. Religious and Civil Authorities deserve this name as far as they keep to the foundation of law.

Antoine, this is the core of the Christian message, and one must wonder why it has not been universally embraced, since it would transform the lives of all humankind for the better. Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan (Matt. 37-40) to illustrate this truth, but so many of us do not believe it applies to each and everyone of us. Why should we, safe and comfortable in the U.S., care about families fleeing Syria from the dual plague of a brutal dictator and bloody terrorists? Aren’t we products of an evolution that dictates Survival of the Fittest?

@Relates makes a good argument that the evolution employed by our Creator also rewards cooperation, but that seems too easily overlooked. We would rather stick to the Selfish Gene argument. It satisfies our need for immediate gratification. A century ago Pierre Teilhard de Chardin proposed a world view that we humans are the sole inhabitants (on this Earth, at least) of a new sphere in the Universe, the Noosphere–a sphere which proceeds from the Cosmosphere and Biosphere–a sphere which began with the appearance of a creature with Mind and Conscience. Personally, I have found this a very convincing way of viewing the Christian message that human fulfillment can best be attained through love of God and love of neighbor combined. I am in a very small minority in this regard, for even the church Teilhard so loved so much turned its back on him and considered his views at least semi-heretical. Is there a way to reach consensus on this vital point? Or is that just an illusion?
Al Leo

Thanks gbrooks9 for addressing these two interesting points.

“And notice… it is not a complete absence. it’s an absence of LIVING forms of intermediate types.”
Excellent remark!
In fact “natural selection” and “natural deletion” are two sides of the same coin. Nonetheless evolution is mostly explained using a “biased” coin: the “deletion” side remains mostly ignored! Search in Google gives: 17.900.000 results for “natural selection” vs 5.620 results for “natural deletion” (mostly in the context of genes not varieties) or 22.100 results for “natural extinction” (mostly related to the extinction of species living currently).

For which reason did the intermediate varieties disappear? Richard Dawkins states: “If all the ancestors were still alive, then there will be a complete continuum between every creature and every other”, and he call this fact “a fortunate accident“. This amounts to say that the extinction of intermediate varieties is a big biological mystery. And it is indeed a “fortunate” mystery because it allows us to define rights on the basis of the belonging to humanity. The mystery is even bigger if one considers that “hybridization” plays an important role in evolution and acts as a force against “deletion”. So evolution is an explanation which invokes a great amount of “good luck” and not merely “pure chance”. By the way, we are taught by quantum physics that in nature there is not such a thing as “pure chance”, quantum randomness is always inseparably united to nonlocal coordination, that is coordination which cannot be explained in materialistic terms, by any story (information) recorded in space-time.

So it is not clear why Dawkins’ “fortunate accident” should be a better “scientific explanation” than your “God’s brilliant intention”. Notice that by supporting the later you fall in no “god-of-the-gaps” fallacy, you simply state that evolution, like any good scientific theory, by closing certain “gaps” in our knowledge it opens other larger ones. Quantum physics and Computer science prove that when we accept the fact that we will never be able of knowing all, then we can explain and compute the world much better than when we delude ourselves presuming science will one day be able of predicting all. The trouble with invoking an “accident” as explanation, instead of a “brilliant intention” coming from outside space-time, is that at the end of the day you fall into a super-deterministic mental illness which destroys your freedom and your personal identity (but this is another story).

“Natural deletion” has been highly efficient in fashioning the genus Homo: We are the only extant species of genus Homo while there are two species of Pan, at least four of Gorilla, four of Pongo etc. A quick check in Wikipedia of the taxa mysticetes, odontocetes, hippopotamus appearing in one of your examples illustrates very well the difficulty of applying the concept of species to non-human living forms [“species are the mental illness of biology”!]. Nonetheless as you very well state, “deletion” has shaped the whole animal kingdom. This seems to support what I state in the essay: The claim that God “infused the spiritual capabilities” in humans should not be understood in the sense that “natural” is distinct from “what God does”. God acts as naturally to create human persons as to create non-human animals. The difference is that He endows the former with the sense of law and moral responsibility, and calls them to become His image by following the Golden Rule instead “red in tooth and claw”.

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There is positive selection and negative selection for alleles. And an allele can become fixed, eliminating the other alleles in the process.

Extinction eliminates entire species, both for our modern era and ages gone by. There have been multiple mass extinctions and smaller ones. Scientists think that over 99% of species that ever lived have become extinct.

Thanks for this challenging remark. For an accurate answer it had been useful a textual quotation of the “scientists” you are referring to.

Anyway, the formulation in your post fits to the view that ‘species’ is a well-defined biological concept that can be applied to any stage of evolution: so for instance “at an older age there were many species A,B,C,D,…G,H; most of them B,C,D,…G went extinct and a few A, H evolved till our modern era.”

The emerging view I emphasized text endorse is different: ‘species’ is a concept humans create to characterize humanity (species H) and the other extant living forms as they appear today, that is, clearly separated from each other. But evolution does not always play along with such ‘species’. Actually ‘species’ emerge through elimination of intermediate varieties. At an older age there were many varieties a,b,c,d,…g,h which were not distinct and there was hybridization among them. The deletion of b,c,d,…g is a necessary condition for the varieties a and h to become the species A and H (humanity), which are distinct and do not interbreed with each other. This deletion makes it possible to clearly distinguish whether a creature is human or not.

From a biological-evolutionary perspective the moment when humanity begins is arbitrary: there was never a first Homo sapiens. Establishing the beginning of humanity requires a non-biological ingredient and in my view this is the emergence of moral responsibility and sense of law. For this we have evidence at the origins of civilization, a time when it was possible to establish unambiguously whether a creature belongs to humanity or not. This moment marks the appearance of the species Homo sapiens personalis, that is, the moment when God transformed the non-personal human animals into the human persons. Hence, there was a first Homo sapiens personalis, a first human person!

Thanks for this challenging remark. For an accurate answer it had been useful a textual quotation of the “scientists” you are referring to.

I don’t have the names of particular scientists (sorry), but about 99% is the number that is generally given in scientific articles.

I found this article, Extreme Extinction, from the American Museum of Natural History in NYC.

I also just emailed Denis Lamoureux, a science and theology guy who has written articles for BioLogos. I will update this post when I hear from him.

And, we have scientists here we can ask.

Hey @benkirk and @DennisVenema, what percentage of all species that have ever lived are estimated to have gone extinct?

Of course, it can only be an estimate, but 99% seems like an underestimate.

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This thread is pretty well focused on the Human context of intermediate varieties. So it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise if we realize Humans can work AGAINST this theme intentionally …

Creating “intermediate” forms all across the animal kingdom - - avoiding the Primates:

The list of genetic hybrids includes Llamas (of South America) with Domesticated Camels… called a CAMA. There are only 4 of 5 in the world currently. And there are millions of years separating these two forms from their common ancestor - - which based on fossils appears to have first emerged in North America!

They are being cultivated to produce a larger wool-bearing phenotype… combined with the milder personalities of the Llamas.

The fact that these two very different animals can create hybrids demonstrates that after millions of years of drift and natural selection … some gene pools are STILL sexually compatible with each other!

Thanks, @benkirk!

Bro. Antione,

I certainly basically agree with you, but I do theology differently.

The Fall is the relationship of trust between God and humanity consciously broken by sin. God was very good the original couple ( who were more than physically or genetically human,) but t
hey rebelled against God when the evil one suggested that God was cheating them.

Humans turned against God for no good reason and failed to accept their mistake. My theology is covenantal and relational, and it seems to be a different approach from the usual one that you are following.

One thing that tweaks my interest is your short bio says you are interested in quantum phyasics and philosophy. My exploration of the philosophy of current physics reveals the relational nature of Reality, that is Matter, Energy, Time, and Space based on E = mc squared. Also relationality is based on Emma Noether’s understanding of the role of symmetry in physics. The Stamford online Encyclopedia of Philosophy comes to the conclusion that quantum mechanics is relational, not absolute.

What do you think?

I find this idea fascinating from an evolutionary point of view. The author is correct about his characterization of species as a human construct with lots of leakage. The finding of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans does not prove that Neanderthals were the same species as humans, but it is another example of hybridization between very genetically close species. We know that the genetic barrier against hybridization is not at all a firm wall, but depends on exactly where genetic incompatability resides in the genomes of the two “species”.

I dont see what difference it makes that 99% of more or less species have gone extinct. As I read it, the point of this essay is to remind us of a number of things, such as that it is we who define biological terms such as species, humans, alive, etc. And that natural deletion (which is one specific form of natural selection) has helped us define ourselves.

But there is an important caveat here, I believe. Our current definition of human is cultural and historical. During the age of Discovery, many Europeans believed that certain natives of the Americas, Africa were not humans but hybrids of apes and humans, or just another species. other groups initially thought that European conquerors were god like creatures, with their strange appearance and technology. There is still a hint of this attitude among modern day racists. One of them, Nicholas Wade, even recently published a horrible book, in which he postulated that evolution by natural selection had made many populations inherently different (subpopulations) genetically from the standard (which he defined of course, as British) human.

All of this goes to the importance of this post. It not only posits a very original biological idea, namely the importance of evolutionary mechanisms in the distinction of certain species by extinction of close relations, but it also relates this to the theological question of God’s purposes in the creation of humanity.

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Being human sometimes means that you point at other humans and declare them to be not quite human. The pygmies are a good example.

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