Examining the origins debate, part 6

This is part 6 in a series exploring Gerald Rau's book Mapping the Origins Debate. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1234, 5, 78.

The origin of humans

To be successful, each origins model must credibly address the origin of humans, which in one sense is a subset of the origin of species. Models that are strictly creationist view humans and all other species as created fully developed by God. Models that are strictly evolutionist view humans as one species among the many that arose through evolutionary processes. Theistic evolutionist models see humans as arising through mechanisms that involve both creation (supernaturalistic forces) and evolution (naturalistic forces).  

Adding to the complexity to the origins debate is how each model defines what it means to be human. Are humans qualitatively or only quantitatively different from animals? Do humans have a soul (spirit) and in some way bear the "image of God"? Of course, some of these questions are beyond the realm of science. However, science does address physical evidence related to human origins, and Rau does an admirable job of summarizing that evidence, which often is highly technical and thus not well understood outside of scientific circles, I'll summarize some of that evidence here, but encourage you to read Rau's book for greater detail.

The physical (scientific) evidence

According to Rau, most of the physical (scientific) evidence for the origin of the human body comes from examining fossilized remains, noting structural similarities between humans and apes. Part of the complexity in considering this evidence is how fossils of human-like creatures are classified since classifications, in itself is an interpretive act that reflects certain presuppositions. To add to the complexity (and confusion), the terminology of classification has changed considerably over the years. Today the same words are used to mean different things among different groups.

Skulls of our Ancestors 3
Skulls of our Ancestors by Ryan Somma from Occoquan, USA (Wikimedia Commons) 
Since Darwin, evolutionists have sought to find the bones of human ancestors. The desire to do so, says Rau, has been so strong that "there have been hoaxes and incorrect identification of totally unrelated bones as human" (p132). Though creationists are fond of pointing to such mis-firings, this does not mean that true finds have not been made, though as Rau notes, the number of remains accurately identified as being from primates is quite limited and their state of preservation generally is poor, making identification and interpretation quite difficult. Rau comments: "There are less than a hundred significant fossils identified as human-like that are dated at more than 200,000 years old, mostly partial skulls. Only four...are anywhere near complete skeletons... Another fifty are more recent, all identified as modern human or Neanderthal" (p133).

Some of these oldest remains have characteristics that are both ape-like and human-like. Most of the origins models (other than young earth creation) acknowledge these as intermediate between apes and humans. However, most evolutionists agree that a distinct path of sequential change from ape to human has not been established in the finds to date. As a result, there is an unresolved debate among scientists as to how the development from ape to human actually occurred, and what are the key identifying features that separate apes from humans.

Part of the complexity is that many of the identifying characteristics of humans are not limited to humans. Like humans, many use tools and have reasoning and language abilities. In these characteristics, humans are only quantitatively different from animals--a difference, say scientists, due largely to brain size, social structures and other physical and social factors (p135). Those coming from a religious perspective typically point out that humans are qualitatively different in that they alone seem to have an ability for abstract thought and spiritual awareness.

Recent scientific research examining physical differences and similarities between apes and humans has emphasized molecular characteristics, looking principally at genetic markers. For example, it is noted that apes have 24 pairs of chromosomes compared with 23 in humans (though the second longest of the human chromosomes has the appearance of being two chromosomes joined end to end). Also, humans and chimps have DNA that is nearly identical in many respects (though in some there are marked differences). This genetic/molecular evidence leads many scientists to conclude that there is common ancestry among apes, chimps and humans (pp137-142). However, for  many scientists, the jury is still out.

Interpreting the evidence

Each model interprets the evidence related to human origins based on that model's underlying presuppositions (as we've noted before in this series, faith/belief plays a large role). In particular, one "comes at" the evidence either accepting or rejecting the idea of supernaturalism (and thus of creation), thus framing in advance an answer to three important questions:
  1. Is there such a thing as a human soul or spirit?
  2. Does God interact with his creation and, if so, how?
  3. How is the book of Genesis (the first 11 chapters in particular) to be understood?
Of the six models of origins reviewed by Rau, only naturalistic evolution believes that the natural world is the only reality and thus there is no such thing as a human soul (p143). The other five models, to one extent or another, allow for God's intervention in the origin of humans (though they vary as to the extent and timing of that intervention). Some see God using evolution to create humans--varying from merely starting up the evolutionary process (then staying "hands off") to being active in directing all the steps in evolution as it progresses, with perhaps times of special/focused intervention (special creation). Some of these models affirm that humans have a non-physical component (soul/spirit) that is essential to making humans human. However, others do not. seeing the difference between humans and apes/chimps as due principally to a larger brain.

Strict creationists who disallow any evolutionary explanations for human origins tend to take the first 11 chapters of Genesis as actual (literal) history (as we would understand that concept today) and thus believe that Adam and Eve were the progenitors of all humans, brought into being through special creation. Strict evolutionists reject the Genesis accounts as "myth." Theistic evolutionists see the first 11 chapters of Genesis as utilizing poetic narratives to convey important truths about God's involvement in creation, including human origins. Theistic evolutionary models tend to believe that "there was a specific point at which our progenitors became human, whether God chose one pair of individuals from an evolving population of pre-humans and imparted to them his image, or imparted his image at a point in time to a whole population of pre-humans" (p146).

What difference does it make?

Rau asks, "What difference does it make whether humans have a soul (spirit), whether there was a historical Adam or how we interpret the first chapters of the book of Genesis?" Answering this question involves areas of difference theologically, personally and socially.

Theological issues. Again we are confronted with the reality that all the origins models are grounded in presuppositions that have a decidedly faith-based nature. Among Christians, the presuppositions include how the Bible is interpreted. Christians who accept a theistic evolutionary model tend to point to overwhelming scientific evidence that a "literal" (meaning narrowly or woodenly literalistic) approach to interpreting the Bible cannot be correct, particularly in interpreting the meaning of the first 11 chapters of Genesis. Clearly, this is not an issue that will be resolved easily.

Personal issues. Those who embrace naturalism (thus rejecting supernaturalism), necessarily believe that the meaning of life is only what humans construct for themselves. However theists (those who accept the reality of the supernatural) see a meaning/purpose to life defined by God that is beyond humanity and the physical realm. This too is a difference not easily bridged.

Social issues. As Rau notes, "Our view of what it means to be human has social implications.... If we are created in the image of God, whether by direct action or a gradual process, we have inherent worth beyond that of animals" (p151). Rau also points out that, though it often is denied by proponents of the strict evolutionist models, naturalistic Darwinism often leads to social Darwinism.

In summing up his discussion of human origins, Rau offers this insightful remark:
It is clear that the origins debate is not restricted to questions of science. Because it strikes at the heart of what it means to be human, it has ramifications in many areas of society. But the greatest distinction isn't between evolution and creation, as often simplistically portrayed. Within theistic positions there are many different interpretations of the scientific evidence, including several variants of both evolutionary and creationary models... All agree that there is a a God and that people, made in God's image, have innate worth. A non-theistic position cannot affirm this but must conclude that we are no more than sentient animals, important to ourselves but of no inherent value in the broader picture (pp151-152).
Next time we'll look at Rau's assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of each of the origins models.