Darwinism & the Value of Human Life
Many years ago, I watched a video of a debate between Phillip Johnson (1940–2019) and William Provine (1942–2015). Johnson was a professor at UC Berkeley and the author of the 1991 book Darwin on Trial. Provine was a professor at Cornell University who specialized in evolutionary biology and genetics. The debate which was held in 1994 at Stanford University was on the subject of Darwinism.
At one point in the debate, Dr. Provine made a statement that I found intriguing. Here is the comment as it appears in one transcript of the debate:
“Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear -- and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.”
After watching the debate, I decided to contact Dr. Provine to see whether I completely understood his point. I found his email address on the Cornell University website, and sent an email introducing myself. I asked if he would mind me sending a question about something he said in his debate with Johnson. He responded quickly and very kindly invited me to send my question.
First, I summarized what I understood him to be saying in the comment I cited above. I then said, “If I am understanding you correctly, Darwinism is saying is that the life of a human being is no more or less significant than the life of a mosquito. And if that is true, then would it not also be true that the death of a human being is no more or less significant than the death of a mosquito?”
Dr. Provine responded and said that this was true. The death of a human being is no more or less significant than the death of a mosquito.
I then sent a follow-up question. I said, “If it is true that the death of a human being is no more or less significant than the death of a mosquito, would it not also be true that the death of six million human beings is no more or less significant than the death of six million mosquitos?”
That question upset him, and his response reflected this. He was an extraordinarily intelligent man, so my guess is that he knew where I was going with this line of questions. That ended the email exchange.
I’m writing this not because I want to talk about Dr. Provine, per se. I'm writing because of his comments concerning the necessary implications of atheistic Darwinism, specifically the idea that the life and death of a human being is no more or less significant than the life and death of a mosquito. As Provine noted, this is the necessary implication of an atheistic Darwinist view of life. Humans are one twig on the evolutionary tree. Mosquitos are another. One twig is no more or less significant than another in this view.
When I compared one human being to one mosquito, Dr. Provine granted that the death of one was no more or less significant than the death of the other. I suspect that this is because he was still thinking of human and animal life very abstractly – through the lenses of the scientific theory.
His reaction when I compared six million human beings to six million mosquitos was very, very different. But why should it be on the view he holds? If the death of one human being is no more or less significant than the death of one mosquito, why would that fact change if those deaths happened ten times, a thousand times, or six million times?
The answer to both of my questions should have been the same, but they weren’t because of the connotations of the number “six million.” He and I both knew the significance of the number “six million.” We both knew that it is the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. So, when I asked in my follow up question whether the death of six million human beings is any more or less significant than the death of six million mosquitos, he knew that if he responded consistently with his first response, my next question was going to take us back to World War II Germany. He had a gut-level emotional response because he knew deep down that the killing of six million Jews is more significant than the killing of six million mosquitos.
Millions of mosquitos are killed all the time in attempts to prevent the spread of serious diseases such as Dengue, West Nile virus, and Malaria. If the life and death of human beings is no more or less significant than the life and death of mosquitos, as atheistic Darwinism entails, then the Holocaust is no more or less significant than the spraying of mosquitos for disease control. If atheistic Darwinism is true, genocide is no more or less significant than pest control.
If someone believes atheistic Darwinism to be true and yet genocide and other atrocities against human beings still upsets them, that’s good. Those things should upset them. But as Dr. Provine made abundantly clear in his part of the debate, that response is completely inconsistent with the basic premises of atheistic Darwinism. It is consistent, on the other hand, with a view that sees human beings as unique. The gut-level response the majority of self-professed atheistic Darwinists have to something like the Holocaust points to that law of God they know but suppress. Thankfully, most are happily inconsistent. Those who aren’t, those who are completely consistent with atheistic Darwinian premises and believe that the killing of six million Jews is no more significant than spraying mosquitos are dangerous if they gain possession of power and/or weapons.
Every human being is created by God in the image of God. The life of every human being is, therefore, significant. As Christians, we confess this to be true. Let us strive also to act and speak in a way consistent with that belief. When atheistic Darwinists behave or speak in a way inconsistent with their stated views, it shows the flaws in their views. How do you think unbelievers will respond if they see Christians behaving in ways inconsistent with their stated views? Do we really want our words and actions to be a reason why the name of God is blasphemed among unbelievers (Rom. 2:24)?