Human Origins

What is Man that thou art mindful of him? asks the Psalmist in the King’s James Bible.

There is nothing more perplexing that to inquire into the origin, status and future destiny of our very being. Aristotle observed in his Generation and Corruption that babies are born, grow up and die as old people. But long before he wrote of this, humans from prehistoric times have probably pondered this for two reasons – to find a way to avoid the pain of suffering and the finality of death.

This anxiety bore the seed of religion. Today, every known religion which began as a human attempt to organize and institutionalize the metaphysical instincts we call spirituality is being called to question, not by skeptics but by the adherents themselves.

The ever growing diversity of doctrines and animosity among competing religions shames the faithful God-fearers who understandably ask, “How can the one true God allow such chaos?” This is the challenge of religious plurality for the Christian faith.

A second challenge identified by John Stott was the loomimg presence of science in our ways of knowing. Few kings or Prime Ministers, no matter how devout, make sacrifices to their gods to predict the outcomes of political or military battles. Potential mothers no longer seek divine favor when IVF is readily available and selecting the gender of your child is increasingly becoming common. Improvements in engineering saves lives and pharmacological discoveries and clinical trials determine who lives and who dies. In the light of this reality, which all of us live by, how shall we continue to read the Bible like a script of life to mimic?

Fire & Cooking

When Homo erectus first learned to control fire some 400,000 years ago, the burden of eating and digesting food was alleviated by a major cultural evolutionary step -cooking! Fire tenderized meat and sanitized vegetables. Fewer people died of food poisoning and more time could be spent thinking, travelling, making tools and learning – the age of big brains emerged. But our scientific study of what it means to be human had to await at least two important cognitive developments.


Writing

One of the breakthroughs in the 18th and 19th centuries that continue to dominate biblical studies is the complex artistic science or scientific art of archaeology. The French and the British led the way to recover two of the oldest writings on earth, hieroglyphs and cuneiform. For the first time, we can trace history (human writing) back to 3500 BC. We can now find out how our ancestors learned, what they thought and how they solved problems. We find that the single preoccupation that dominated the lives of people everywhere was spiritual expressions of connecting to their maker. Archaeology gave rise to modern scientific history.


Fossil hunting

A second breakthrough came with Darwin’s proposal that all humans arose from a single source. European adventurers began to look for fossil evidence of the first ancient humans in Asia and subsequently, in Africa. Today, we can safely trace bipedal upright walking humans to about 200,000 years ago. The field of paleoanthropology now includes prehistoric art, dating back to 100,000 years ago. But the break between our earliest hominin ancestors and those of the primates (great apes) happened around 7 million years ago, when the Earth was already well over 4.5 billion years old and the universe itself was inching to 14 billion years old. Such staggering numbers boggle the mind.

In the study of human origin and evolution, t=0 starts around 7 million years ago, with more detailed work around2 million years ago and things get really exciting when we reach the 200,000 years threshold.

So it is not surprising that in 2003, when skeletons (not just fossils) of 12,000 year old ‘Hobbits’ were discovered in Indonesia on the island of Flores, there was great excitement. This is so recent that they would have co-existed with us Homo sapiens. At the very least, there never was a time when we were alone among the human species. From a biblical perspective, did they also enjoy the identification of having been made in the image of God? Did they interbreed with us? What is the level of their moral status or spiritual consciousness?

What we can learn about the likelihood of human evolution and especially the evolution of the human brain can provide important theological tools to reflect on the biblical faith of Christianity. We need all the help we can get and I am immensely grateful to be alive during this, the golden age of paleoanthropology.