Pay No Attention to That Data Behind the Curtain!

Within the Christian community, there tends to be a certain degree of polarization when it comes to questions of origins–the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of species, and the origin of mankind.  There are some who believe that the scientific community cannot be trusted on matters of origins, that human scientists cannot draw reasonable conclusions from the relevant data alone, and that the Darwinian agenda taints the situation so severely that we should dismiss all of it wholesale and rely on a plain reading of Genesis for our information about origins.  At the other end of the spectrum, there are Christians who have embraced most all of the conclusions of the [currently] reigning Darwinian paradigm, and criticize dissenters as being either A) anti-science or B) narrow-minded about orthodox boundaries for Scripture interpretation.

In my view, both of these extremes fall short of what should be our true goal. If we are to love God with our minds, as Jesus Christ commanded us, we must commit ourselves to thoughtfully examining the scientific and philosophical arguments (from ALL SIDES) that have bearing on origins issues before adopting any position. Even then, we should hold our view with a good measure of humility and a willingness to continue learning. I’m not saying that this is an easy task or that everyone who sincerely attempts it will eventually agree with one another. But, those who take this wiser route to their conclusion will have a better understanding of the views with which they disagree and an appreciation for the information we can glean from creation itself.

One particular facet of the origins debate that has been getting a lot of press in recent years is the question of human origins. The related field that tends to fascinate us the most is paleoanthropology (the study of the human fossil record), because fossils are evidence we can visually examine and compare with what we know about humans living today. When evaluating the fossil record as a whole, there are some creationists who claim that that there are ape fossils and there are fully human fossils, but no good evidence for anything intermediate–anything “in between.” Christians who embrace an evolutionary history of mankind interpret the data very differently, seeing a branching tree of descent rooted in very ape-like ancestors that slowly progressed through many transitional forms before Homo sapiens finally emerged. I would like to argue that both of these views discount very important fossil data in order to preserve the theological or philosophical commitments that underpin their position.

Paleoanthropology is a complex field of study where even small nuances in the data can cause a major reworking of human evolutionary models. The general public has been given the perception that the human fossil record shows an elegant progression of hominid forms leading up to us. That’s the point of the famous graphic that is still so prevalent–the one showing a man with decreasingly modern hominids trailing behind. This picture isn’t exactly true; the evidence isn’t so telling.

I wish to focus on the very top of the alleged tree of human evolution, which (in its currently popular form) shows a species dubbed Homo heidelbergensis giving rise to Homo sapiens (mankind). This is the currently popular view in paleoanthropology. The Smithsonian museum of natural history says:

Although we did not evolve from any of the apes living today, we share characteristics with chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans (the great apes), as well as other apes. We most likely evolved from Homo heidelbergensis…who are our closest extinct relatives. (Smitihsonian website)

Take a look at the diagram below. I have underlined and placed a star beside of Homo heidelbergensis, our alleged closest ancestor.

human origins tree

Now, take a look at this photo. It shows a skull of H. heidelbergensis (left) alongside of a H. sapiens skull (right).

H and H

Fossil dating indicates that H. heidelbergensis existed from about 400,000 years ago almost up until (perhaps even until) the appearance of H. sapiens, sometime after 200,000 years ago. There is no significant time gap during which H. heidelbergensis could have gradually transformed into an anatomically modern human being. You don’t have to take my word for it. Dr. Ian Tattersall, a famous paleoanthropologist and the emeritus curator of the American Museum of Natural History, has this to say about the situation:

A number of hominid crania are known from sites in eastern and southern Africa in the 400- to 200-thousand-year range, but none of them looks like a close antecedent of the anatomically distinctive Homo sapiens…Even allowing for the poor record we have of our close extinct kin, Homo sapiens  appears as distinctive and unprecedented…there is certainly no evidence to support the notion that we gradually became who we inherently are over an extended period, in either the physical or the intellectual sense. (Masters of the Planet, 2012)

Tattersall, to my knowledge, is an atheist, so what does he make of this data? He thinks that dramatic genetic changes occurred abruptly and all together to make us physically and intellectually human. He bases this on two things: 1) his conviction that naturalistic evolutionary change MUST have occurred, because no other alternative is philosophically acceptable and 2) the fact that modern humans are the only ones who have left behind compelling evidence for symbolic behavior such as language, art, and music. So, something extraordinary happened in natural history that produced anatomically modern human beings with (unprecedented) language and creative aptitude. Given the expected number of genetic mutations needed and the known mutation rate, it seems to stretch the bounds of credulity to suppose that several thousand years (or ten or twenty thousand) would be nearly sufficient.

Given the fact that H. heidelbergensis did not leave behind evidence of symbolic behavior and their marked physical differences from modern humans, I don’t think they can be lumped in with modern humans, as some creationists try to do. [Referring back to the tree diagram above, the red arrow indicates the point at which some creationists divide “humans” from “apes.”]

What is a reasonable conclusion, then? At the least, we should recognize that something MAJOR occurred to bring mankind onto the scene. Was it an act of divine special creation of man? I personally believe it was. The evidence doesn’t rule out an evolutionary progression during which God suddenly intervened to bring about the physical and spiritual being he called Adam. That scenario causes more difficulties for the biblical text, but some Bible scholars argue that it doesn’t do fatal damage to essential doctrine. I disagree, but that is for another post.

By no means do I think all questions have been answered, and some of the data is puzzling in light of the scope of Scripture. But I will continue to wrestle with the data that emerges as I maintain the unshakable belief that God desires us to know truth and blesses our endeavor to uncover it. I certainly recognize that our knowledge about some things won’t be complete in this life. I trust in the inspiration and authority of Scripture, but what I wonder is, how much does Scripture not tell us about natural history? There is at least some room for speculation without going outside the bounds of orthodoxy.

Those embracing a very strict form of creationism AND those holding to a gradual, naturalistic version of evolution are brushing aside (purposefully ignoring?) important, observable facts from the fossil record. The main point I’ve tried to make is that we should deal with the data–no matter how uncomfortable we may be about it. Furthermore, (and I know the statement I’m about to make is somewhat controversial) we should interact with the entire spectrum of arguments instead of dogmatically maintaining a position formed more for the sake of preserving one’s preferred philosophy or scriptural interpretation.