Spiritual Spelunking

Looking at the headlines it’s sometimes difficult to believe we’ve evolved. I still trust evidence-based science, despite official government policy, however. So when a friend sent me a story about a new human cousin I knew it was worth a look. Homo naledi bones date from much more recent times than they should. At less than 400,000 years old (which means they might fit GOP ideology pretty well) they are almost contemporary with Homo sapiens. And, apparently, they buried their dead. Now much of this is still speculation. The bones were found in caves with openings so small that onlyfemale spelunkers could fit in, and the question of whether dropping bodies in a hole counts as burial has raised its head. Still, the human family tree is being redrawn, and in a way conservatives won’t like.

I became interested in evolution because of Genesis. My mother gave us a few science books as children even though we were Fundamentalists. One of them talked about evolution and I was intrigued. Clearly it didn’t fit with the creation story—I was young enough not to notice the contradictions between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2—and yet scientist believed it. They likely weren’t Christians, I reasoned. College gave the lie to that deductive thinking when I ran into Christians teaching the required “Science Key” who believed in, and yes, taught, evolution. I’d missed something, obviously. Once I discovered evolution could coexist with Scripture I was eager to learn as much as a non-biologist could. In my teaching days I focused on the early part of Genesis and even began to write a book on it.

Image credit: Margaret A. McIntyre, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s much more honest to admit that we’re related to the rest of life on this planet than to set ourselves aside as something special. Evolution has done something that the Bible never could—brought all living things together. There are too many towers of Babel and chosen people themes in Holy Writ to allow for real parity with our fellow humans, let alone other creatures. Yet the human family tree is wondrous in its diversity and complexity. We now know that Neanderthals were likely interbreeding with Homo sapiens and I wonder how that impacts myths of divine chosen species. Did Jesus die for the Neanderthals too, or just our own sapiens sapiens subspecies? You can see the problem. For a literalist it’s just easier to crawl into a cave. But only if the opening is large enough to admit males, since the Bible says they were created first, right?

Interior Theodicy

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Speaking of theodicy, I have a dentist appointment today. Now, if you were raised with the Protestant guilt that used to be so pervasive in this nation, you’ll understand. I do brush my teeth twice a day. I even use floss and that mouthwash that burns away a layer of mouth lining every night. But there’s always more you could do. I’m not particularly good about visiting the dentist, though. Partially it’s a memory thing, partially it’s a pain thing, but mostly it’s a time thing. No matter how far back I jam the toothbrush, well beyond my gaging threshold, cavities seem to appear. And I don’t even have a sweet-tooth. What kind of deity allows cavities in a person who eats very little sugar and brushes so assiduously that last time the dentist told him to ease up a bit since he was scraping away the enamel? (People tell me I’m too intense.)

One of the real ironies of all this is that for all the trouble teeth give us during our lifetimes, they are our most durable parts after we die. Archaeologists find mostly teeth. In fact, it seems that Neanderthals might have practiced some primitive dentistry. I wonder what they thought of their neanderthal deity? So teeth are pretty useful, no matter whether the gray matter above them is dead or alive. I can explain this to my dentist, but he only seems interested in me as a specimen of carnassial curiosity. Maybe it all goes back to my belief that fillings were meant to last forever. Or all those root canals that seem to come in pairs that cost as much as a semester at a public university. Mostly it’s the memories.

In Edinburgh I had a tooth go bad. The Scottish dentist was surprised. “You’ve got a twelve-year molar erupting,” he said (you’ll have to imagine the accent). I asked if that was unusual. He owned that it was as I was a post-graduate student in his late twenties and the twelve-year molar was so precise in its timing that child labor laws used to be built around its presence. Years later in Wisconsin a different dentist asked about one of my fillings. I told him it was from Edinburgh. He called all the other dentists in announcing, “You wanna see a real Scottish filling?” Or maybe the fears go back to my earliest dental nightmares where the cheap doctor seemed unaware that teeth actually had nerves in them. I always left with a guilt trip. “You should brush —“ (more, better, longer, with a more gentle touch) you fill in the blank. I’m afraid of another kind of filling. And I know as it is with Protestant guilt, so it is with teeth. There’s always more you could be doing.

Evolving in Place

ImprobablePrimateEnvy is not a word I would use to describe how I feel about those trying to piece together the earliest stages of humanity. Evolution, naturally, is a given. Once beyond that, however, the landscape gets dicey. Clive Finlayson is an author I don’t envy. I just finished his The Improbable Primate: How Water Shaped Human Evolution, and it felt like he had to put this immense puzzle together while missing about nine-tenths of the pieces. Early human fossils are rare and it doesn’t take much to throw a laboriously constructed scenario into yesterday’s mistaken hypothesis bin. The central premise of the book, as stated already in the subtitle—human evolution followed water—seems about as firm as any idea. We need water daily and our bodies evolved to help find it efficiently. It’s a fascinating story. Along the way I learned that much of what I’d previously learned about ancient human development was probably wrong. I’m only a casual evolutionist.

Finlayson suggests—and not all biologists would agree with him—that all humans living on earth at any one time (with one possible exception) were of the same species. That is to say, the model I grew up with of separate species (Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon were the usual suspects) duking it out over scarce resources doesn’t match growing evidence very well. We Homo sapiens seem to share some Neanderthal DNA and that paints a somewhat more romantic encounter between the species than the violent one I learned. The same goes for other human ancestors, according to this little book. Our first instinct may not be to kill the stranger. We may have lived apart for a few thousand years, but when populations come back together they “share genes,” if you get my drift. This still happens, of course. The difference is today we’ve become politicized and entitled. We don’t want people not from around here to share our stuff.

Part of that is natural, I suppose. Finlayson points out that the feeling of belonging in natal territory is something we share with other primates. We feel that we belong where we’re born. That seems to me a difficult thing to quantify, but I feel it nevertheless every time I venture back to my hometown. It just feels right. Not that we can’t adjust to elsewhere, but our nature rewards us, in some measure, when we come home. This is a wide-ranging study for such a small book. I don’t envy all the meticulous jigsaw staring without a box-top that students of human origins must do, but the results are still quite interesting. Even if the picture, when enough pieces are finally found, ends up being something different than we thought it was.

The Philosophical Neanderthal

HumansExtinctExtinction. It’s a depression concept, but one that nevertheless constitutes a reality in evolution’s world. When applied to members of our own species we term it genocide and declare it an evil. Our perspective—not to dispute the value judgment—is hopelessly foreshortened. Our brains have evolved to promote individual survival, not to see the longue durée. How often do we worry about the extinction of Homo erectus? Or the australopithecines? Without them we wouldn’t be here, and yet, they’re gone. The case of the Neanderthals is perhaps closer to home. We now know that Homo sapiens overlapped with Neanderthals. Some of the questions raised by Neanderthal extinction are given serious consideration by Clive Finlayson in his study, The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died out and We Survived. To get a sense of how this works out, and how it applies with our current contribution to global warming, we must be prepared to view the extreme longue durée. Duration beyond comprehension.

One thing that becomes clear from the very beginning here is that climate has driven evolution perhaps more than we often think. Species, which tend not to live through the relatively long reach of climate change timescales, adapt to the circumstances of their environment. They either do, or they go extinct. Climate, however, is a balancing act teetering toward equilibrium. Hot and cold, evening each other out. Over an even longer duration, our sun will run out of metaphorical steam and things will get quite a bit chillier out there. For the meantime, however, shifts between ice ages and periods of warming will continue to seesaw across time and our race, among many, will need to adjust to survive. Perhaps acknowledging our own role in the current global warming might be a way to start. Our species tends to be short-sighted.

There is an irony here. History and prehistory have shown that, as Finlayson points out, that those best equipped to survive radical changes are the poor. Extinctions—some of them quite dramatic—have occurred before. They will surely come again. When times get tough, it seems, the comfortable get going. Going extinct, that is. Those who climb the corporate ladder the highest have the longest distance to fall when things go bad. The poor, who have to struggle every day to survive, are the ones who know how to get along in circumstances that turn sour. I have called this an irony for what might seem obvious reasons. There is another as well; here we have science pointing again in the direction of the Bible. There it was noted long ago that the meek would inherit the earth. And that’s a bit, it seems, that should be taken literally.

Neander Valley

Because we can—but should we? This is technological ethics in a nutshell. While we are still debating what it means to be human and the majority of people in the world address that question in religious terms, is it right to play with our own genetics? This is an unavoidable question when considering George Church’s search for a volunteer. Church, currently at the Harvard School of Medicine, would like to grow a Neanderthal baby. With DNA extracted from fossils, it is theoretically possible to clone a Neanderthal with a loving mommy. The usual argument against human cloning is, well, it’s human. Neanderthals are often considered not-quite-human, although our common ancestors hung together in the biological family tree much longer than our chimpanzee cousins. I still recall from my school days that a Neanderthal dressed in a suit and put on the streets of New York City would pass for a large, barrel-chested human. I think I may have seen him on my way to work once or twice, in fact.

Genetics are ethically frightening because they go down to the level of what used to be called essences. Some scientists today dispute that there is anything called an essence; all we have is building blocks. What you make of those blocks contains no essence—you can’t see it in a microscope or cyclotron, or spin it out of DNA. Therefore it must not exist. If there is no human essence, what is the problem with experimenting around a bit? Funnily enough, the question of natural selection enters into this equation. In the arboreal climes of Pleistocene Europe Homo sapiens sapiens bested their big-breasted cousins in the struggle for survival. Would the same be true in our technological era of easy obesity where work is considered tapping on a keyboard all day? After all, Neanderthals had bigger brain capacity—are we ready for that kind of competition? Neanderthal economics might take care of the one percenters even.

I have no insight to offer on such a thorny ethical issue. I do, however, believe in essences. I’ve never seen or measured one, but even concepts like good and evil are meaningless without their essences. What is the essence of a Neanderthal? I suppose it is such a question that leads Dr. Church to seek a volunteer to bring one back into the twenty-first century world. I have to admit I’m a little curious too. Just think of all the opportunities for cute commericals. Still, if natural selection already vetoed the race, maybe we should abide by that decision. This time around we might find ourselves on the losing end—who knows what Neanderthal ethics consist of? Secretly I think their essence might just be trickle down economics and they’ve been among us all along.

Me, on the way to work.

Me, on the way to work.

The Politics of Dentistry

A story from the Associated Press on NPR this week announced the discovery of some teeth. No ordinary teeth, these perhaps belonged to Homo sapiens at 400,000 BP (“Before Present,” no apologies to gas-guzzlers). And they were found in Israel. Archaeologists from Tel Aviv University are quoted as stating this could rewrite the story of human evolution, suggesting that modern humans emerged some 200,000 years earlier than thought, and in Israel instead of in Africa. Now those are some ambitious choppers! Coincidentally, the discovery was announced the day I was discussing the earliest human occupation of the Levant in my Winter Term class. Of course. One of my students pointed the article out to me.

One of the endlessly fascinating aspects of archaeology and paleontology is the constant surprise of discovery. Often I have to remind myself that the past only exists in reconstruction. Once the moment is over it is lost forever, only to be rebuilt by specialists in documents and artifacts. Reconstruction, however, often comes with a political price tag. Anyone who follows the claims based on archaeological finds knows the folly of discovery. In disputed territories the work of archaeologists is used to stake claims to modern land ownership. Who in the world would not want to own the first location where modern humans emerged on the planet? What staggering claims could be made!

I have always sensed a comfort when thinking of human origins in Africa. Far from the (modern) industrialized mayhem of “civilization,” early hominids took their first tentative steps in Africa. Cut off from the rest of the post-Pangean continents except via the narrow passage of the Sinai, Africa harbored our pre-sapiens ancestors. Once they reached Asia and Europe, they interacted with Neanderthals, as genetics now demonstrate. Interaction led inevitably to extinction, so politics had to have been involved. To find the pre-political Garden of Eden, we need to cast our eyes on Africa. Anthropologists are even now disputing whether the teeth are of Homo sapiens or not. I find, when I’m in the dentist’s chair, it is best to leave politics out of the discussion.

From the Associated Press

Not My Daddy!

They spy each other across a crowded room. He sure is big: barrel-chested and even a bit brutish. She’s cultured and refined, but there’s no denying that spark…

Today’s issue of Science announces the startling news that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens once interbred. The theological implications are enormous. I used to tell my students that the earliest evidence of religion falls not only among the artifacts of the Cro-Magnon branch of the hominid tree, but also among the remains of Neanderthals. If they had religion, and if they weren’t “human,” what happened to their souls when they died? I received a lot of puzzled looks from seminarians and more than one or two angry stares. The Bible, after all, claims that each was made according to its own kind. Seems like Adam and Eve might have been sleeping around with the non-Eden set. Looks like we’re in for another theological conundrum!

Neanderthals and Homo sapiens diverged once the human lineage left Africa, but once they met in a smoky Paleolithic bar, well, nature took over once again. And if these two hominid species interbred, who is to say what went on back in the days of Lucy? What happened in prehistory stays in prehistory, religions must needs proclaim. If we are honest with the evidence, our bonobo cousins share ancestors so do they share souls?

Some of the present human race, according to the DNA evidence, is walking around with Neanderthal blood, while others are not. I suppose gene sequencing might reveal which camp you are in. Will there be a Church of the Neanderthals? And will non-Neanderthals be allowed to share communion? And were the founders of the world’s great religions all Cro-Magnon or not? If they were of a slightly differences species, can I still join? Theologians, it is time to grab your pencils!

Maybe your dad, but not mine!

Memento Mori

This is the end, my friend, my only friend, the end

This is the end, my friend, my only friend, the end

Those of you who’ve listened to my podcasts have no doubt noticed my reference to George Pendle’s, Death: A Life (Three Rivers Press, 2008). This fictitious account of Death’s memoir, all things considered, is a fun read and a wild romp through various ancient religions. Postulating a loveable, if somewhat obtuse, God (no more obtuse, however, than the supreme being in Harold Bloom’s Book of J) Pendle populates his mythological world with a vast array of embodiments, personifications and supernatural beings, all slightly neurotic, and more or less on an equal playing field. Although the book is intended as fun, it does offer some serious consideration to the phenomenon of death.

One of the earliest intimations that Homo sapiens had begun to consider religious sensibilities is burial, the concomitant state to death. Burial serves an important biological function of preventing the diseases borne of putrefaction from infecting others, but it also serves as a condensed statement of a fledgling belief in an afterlife in some form. Even Neanderthal burials have been discovered with rudimentary grave goods. Concern for the wellbeing of the departed is surely a religious sentiment. Death and religion are never far from each other. Even the early Mesopotamians trembled at the etemmu, their version of a ghost, and marked it with the divine determinative on their clay tablets. Religion has been a fine-turned handle that humans have used to get a grip on death.

That is not to say, of course, that death is religion’s only concern, but there is some wisdom in that old saying that people seek out their religious leaders when they are “hatched, matched, and dispatched.” Mesopotamian (and Hebrew Bible, for that matter) afterlife was a gloomy prospect, yet it was certainly brighter than the alternative of the simple cessation of biological functions. Death as a concept inserts meaning into the all-too-natural act of dying. Not a religion exists that does not address itself to this great leveler of all human aspirations. If at times it seems that my posts tend toward the macabre, peopled with vampires, werewolves, zombies and Republicans, bear in mind that such creatures of the night are expressions of the essentially human and indisputably religious preoccupation with death. Its unbeating heart transfuses life to religion.