The habits of Hobbits

Were I to show you the skeleton of an adult humanoid creature, standing about 40 inches in height, and with the brain capacity of a chimpanzee, you might immediately think of “Lucy”, a member of the hominid family, Australopithecus, which lived some three million years ago. Were I to tell you that these remains are in fact dated to about 18,000 years ago and were recovered from a small Indonesian island called Flores, you might perhaps want to revise your guess. You would probably settle for a surviving descendant of homo erectus, who first emerged from Africa about two million years ago, and may have been a direct forebear of homo sapiens. Restricted to their small environment, their brain capacity may well have shrunk to half its original size, a phenomenon not unknown in isolated non-human populations. Alternatively, the lack of challenge in a very restricted and safe environment may not have provided the evolutionary need for the brain, and skull, to enlarge.

This would have been mystery enough. The discovery of homo floresiensis (to be swiftly nicknamed the “Hobbit”) in 2004 presented us with a creature who should have been extinct millions of years ago, but was in fact our contemporary throughout most of human history. Indeed, if local legends are true, it might have survived as late as the 16th century. While you could be right about homo erectus, for the theory has respectable champions, the latest information suggests otherwise.

The bones of the legs and the pelvis show Hobbit to be bipedal, a characteristic of the homo line. But the feet are disproportionately long and lack proper arches. These primitive traits suggest an awkward, high-stepping, gait. But the big toe is aligned and not splayed out as it would be in an Australopithecine. The trapezoid bone in the wrist is ape-like in shape, and so less suited to tool making and similar operations than the normal homo version.

The skull is simply a mixture. The brain it encased was about the size of a grapefruit, similar to a chimpanzee, yet it has the narrow nose, brow arches and small teeth which suggest the homo line. Interestingly, the brain would have had an enlarged area which is believed to be associated with complex cognitive skills. This might explain the Hobbit’s ability to manufacture relatively sophisticated stone tools for hunting, and indeed may have influenced our homo sapiens ancestors in this regard. And they also used fire for cooking.

So a theory is gaining ground that the Hobbit is a newly discovered branch on the homo line which emerged before, and perhaps well before, homo erectus. Until this point the oldest hominid who moved out from Africa was thought to be homo erectus, and its remains, dating from about 1.8 million years ago, have been found in Georgia. But the Hobbit suggests the possibility that the first members of the human family spread out from Africa, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years before that, and survived until relatively modern times.

Tracing the hominid tree from the last ancestor we shared with the apes has always been a complex task. The separation took place about six mya (million years ago). The evidence is restricted to chance finds which have survived because conditions happened to have been conducive. And all too often these finds are no more than clues from which inferences have to be made. Nevertheless, broad patterns appear.

Perhaps the most telling of these is the increase in brain size. We first find this at an average of 450cc about 3.5 mya. By 2.5 mya (homo habilis) it has grown to 750cc, and at 2.5 mya, with the arrival of homo erectus, it has become 1000cc. At around 195,000 years ago, homo sapiens appears, with a brain capacity of 1330 cc.

There is a parallel pattern of apparent brain functionality. The first, and crude, stone tools appear at 2.5 mya, and the skill gradually develops to sophisticated blades and grinding stones about 100,000 years before homo sapiens (who will graduate to bronze tools about 95,000 years later, shortly before the first evidence of writing).

The use of fire, shared childcare, purpose-built shelters and cooking all appear before homo sapiens. And a report in December 2009 described the relics of sophisticated settlements (near the Dead Sea) dated to 750,000 years ago – half a million years earlier than we previously thought.

If we throw into the mix painted Neanderthal jewellery, made some 10,000 years before homo sapiens entered Europe, and take into account somewhat less secure evidence of burial practices, it becomes increasingly difficult to square the scientific evidence with the concept of the first ensouled hominids being members of our own species. By “ensouled” I mean with intelligence, a sense of right and wrong and a recognition of the sacred.

I am aware of the difficulty this causes with the concept of sin coming into the world through one man – which led to Pius XII to say: “Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual…” I do not pretend to reconcile the scientific evidence with the theological. I rest in the confidence that, when both are properly understood, they will be reconcilable. But you may well have a solution to give us on http://www.secondsightblog.com. I may return to this question in a future column.

Postscript. My friend Edmund Adamus points out that the view of the Congregation for the Clergy, quoted in my last column, that the faithful had no business advising the hierarchy, was shortly to be reversed by the 1983 revision of Canon Law. So thank you to him for refining the point I was making.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The habits of Hobbits

  1. claret says:

    We seem to be returning to previous discussions on the genesis versus science debate which if I recall Quentin correctly he was amazed that anyone still believed in the creation biblical account that had long since been disproved by science.
    Now it would seem there is further evidence to support science with the discovery of an ‘Hobbit’ on one particular Island in the whole world. (Perhaps the little people joined together to kill the bigger people. The bigger ones being pygmies.)
    Lets be clear here . No Genesis then No original sin.
    Vague interpretations of sin somehow coming into the world at some point or other between 10 minutes and 100 million years can be jettisoned along with the whole creation account, unless one beleives in Genesis.
    The more complicated it gets. The more added millions of years are thrown into the equation. Then the more I cherish my ignorant simplicity.
    It seems to me that despite Quentin’s optimism that science and theology will be reconciled at some point I do not share it. Both have their place, their beauty, and their essence of mystery, and its best left like that.

  2. claret says:

    I should have added that science will always have the ‘edge’ over Genesis because it is still evolving itself and so will never reach a final conclusion. It can therefore shift its position whereas Genesis is written down for anyone to read in its entireity and pick holes in.
    Even the Hobbit has been succeeded by another ‘discovery’ of a creature ( I cannot remember the name given to it,) that is being regarded as the ‘missing link’ between sea animals and earth animals. (Interestingly even this creature is complete. When are we going to discover an evolving head without a body and an evolving body without meants of excretion?)
    So. Let science be science and Genesis a spititual account of creation. Not all scientists are atheists.

  3. Superview, you have put your finger on an important element with the idea of Genesis being a spiritual account of creation. Among the major ways in which exegetes tackle the Bible is the examination of the spiritual truth which is there. The spiritual truth about Creation was accessible to the reader in ancient times, and it remains accessible to the reader today. One of the central purposes of my column is to try to understand how established science and our faith are not only compatible but often complement each other.

    Certainly new fossil remains are continually being found, and occasionally they provide a missing link in the sense that scientists may be clear that fossil A and fossil C are related. Should they find the missing fossil B, which comes between, that is always going to be a triumph. But there still plenty of gaps.

    What they can’t, and will never, find is the biological evolution of spiritual soul. Body, yes; brain, yes; soul, no.

  4. st.joseph says:

    There is good Science and bad Science. It is good when it is for the benefit of mankind.We need science and it is a gift from God.We are made to think,by the power of the Holy Spirit .I am not sure but I believe St Albert the Great is the patron Saint of Scientists. I dont know anything about Hobbits in fact I have never heard of them before until now, but I dont think I have missed out on anything. I suppose they have their place, as they must have been made by God in the beginning. My thoughts are only what the Lord has measured out for me. I would prefer to try and find solutions to the present problems in this world as that is what takes us into the future, the Spiritual inheritance we leave for our children. If we can leave this world a better place by the small part we acheive whilst we are here and do it for the love of God and our neighbour ,and remember what He did for us on Calvary. We then hope to have everything revealed to us in Heaven.My grandson is studying science at Uni, I hope he will be blessed to use it for the Lord

  5. Ion Zone says:

    Unfortunately, it is a case that when science is good, it is very good, and when it is bad, it oversteps its capabilities and tells us it has done away with God, which it, assuredly, can’t.

  6. st.joseph says:

    Quentin. In response to your comment on the last site)and with all due respect as I know these are only discussions and I appreciate your point of view. Neverthless, how far will we descend in the scientific understanding of our Faith. When it is proven if ‘ever’ if we originated from animals ,will the experts disagree then with the infallability of the Church(thats not new)and try to disprove The Immaculate Conception,Incarnation ,Transubstantiation The Resurrection, The Ascension,, Pentecost,Power of the Sacraments, Heaven, Hell,Purgatory etc etc etc.As a church we are under a great deal of attack from the media, and it will be worse when the Holy Father visits Britain. We need now a strong faith to combat the disbelievers,even in our own Catholic Community. The Holy Father will need all the prayers we can say for him.One may ‘not’call themselves an athiest to disbelieve in what the church teaches- and they will probably still call them selves Catholics. We have to think for ourselves but show God the Worship He deserves, and I am not saying we dont in these discussions.The Holy Sacrifice of The Mass is the strongest power to keep our faith intact ,and I am sure we already know that as catholics.

  7. Ion Zone says:

    Evolution doesn’t do away with God, some people think showing the method answers everything, it does not, some people think Occams Razor does away with God, but that is just ridiculous, Occams Razor is, recently, a logical tool for deciding the next step in an experiment, all it does is point a direction for research. Testability of the hypothesis essential as the razor is designed to plough through hundreds of thousands of experiments. It is *can’t* provide a ‘right’ or ‘correct’ or ‘logical’ answer to whether or not there is a God, because it isn’t designed to handle anything which is not testable.

    In a theological environment it is totality unsuitable, but gives the impression of providing an absolute answer. Originally, it was devised by a monk, and presupposed God, but since then it has changed.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occams_Razor

    http://www.uwgb.edu/dutchs/PSEUDOSC/WhyNoMiracles.HTM

    That is possibly the biggest hurdle, though you need to ask of anything said: “Is this a Straw Doll argument, or other false logic?” (Usually is), “Is that ‘fact’ correct?”. Most arguments against religion are really about two hundred years old.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_atheism

    With many people, though, what they know about us is corroded by apathy. We need to stand strong and be good people to prevent them falling into the river of hate directed at us.

  8. Horace says:

    Considering Quentin’s statement “it becomes increasingly difficult to square the scientific evidence with the concept of the first ensouled hominids being members of our own species”; I am reminded of a lecture on Medical Ethics that I attended as a medical student. The lecturer, a religious – probably a Fransiscan – My University in Ireland was at that time a ‘Catholic University’ – stated that the human person came into being when the sperm fertilised the egg. I rose and asked “Why?” (a somewhat unusual response in the Ireland of that time). When he had recovered from the shock, he curtly replied “Because St Thomas said so!”.

    It was about 40 years later that I was credibly informed that St Thomas said nothing of the sort – in fact he argued that the developing embryo became ensouled ‘when the organism was sufficiently developed’. I have not been able to find a definitive reference in the works of the Angelic Doctor (perhaps someone reading this blog could enlighten me) but it seems a very reasonable proposition.
    Applying this argument to the ‘Hobbit’, the question becomes “could the brain of the Hobbit have been sufficiently developed to merit a spiritual soul?”.

    P.S. st.joseph
    You really should read “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R.Tolkien (a well known writer and convert to Catholicism). I first heard of the Hobbit as a child in boarding school (about 1938) described as “a fairy tale for grownups” but I never actually read the book until my daughter gave me a copy as a Christmas present a few years ago!

    I appreciate your worries “When it is proven if ‘ever’ if we originated from animals”; but remember that being ‘originated from animals’ does not deny that we were created by God.
    As I stated in an earlier comment (14 Sep 2008) :-
    “Evolution is simply a way of understanding HOW God created (or might have created) animals and man. The theory parallels the account in Genesis (1) quite closely.”

  9. st.joseph says:

    Horace thank you for your kind suggestion for me to read The Hobbit. If I may say so I believe in evolution of the same species -from climate to climate but not animal to man.The thing I find most diffucult to understand is that mankind is trying to find the cause and reason for their own existence when we have a perfectly good explanation in Genesis.I dont believe that anything one says will be able to deny the existence of God, He is Almighty and what ever way He chose to bring everything into being from nothing .I am sure He knew what He was doing.Thank you for appreciating my worries. It is not a worry for the loss of my faith or others who have a strong faith, but for those who haven’t ,or who have none at all , that is a big concern to me. We have a society today who rejects God and they are not given a chance to believe in anything, When as religious I feel it would be only right to show them especially the young, that we have a conviction to Holy Scripture, and it is not all fairy tales, like Santa coming down the chimney.We as Christians believe in The Holy Trinity , we have with the Coming of Jesus the Light of the world who has opened our minds to the Truths for our Salvation’ Without understanding the New Testament it would be difficult for us to understand the old-that is why we needed a Saviour to show us the way and release us from our sins and He did that with Love ,His Love, and after all is said and done that has more power than faith-that doesnt mean we dont need it. I respect your thoughts on evolution, and thank you for respecting those who believe in the Creation story. When we have that and love ,it shows we are truly His desciples. I will not be blogging for a while as I am going away for two weeks, that doesnt mean I have nothing more to say.
    I heard somewhere Horace that St Thomas said that the soul entered at implantation, we have more Biological knowledge to know it is not the case.. When the ovam and the sperm is fertilized in a glass dish and transferred back into a womans womb- it doesnt become a cat or a dog.We are all unigue at the moment of conception, where soul and Spirit unite.
    I am open to disagreemnet and wont be offended.

  10. RMBlaber says:

    Regardless of the precise relationship between ourselves and H. floresiensis, there can be no doubt that we are descended from ape-like ancestors, or that our nearest living relatives in the animal kingdom are bonobo chimpanzees. We share a common ancestor with them that lived about a million years ago.

    St Thomas Aquinas did not, as Horace rightly points out, believe that ensoulment took place at conception, but only after the embryo had become sufficiently well developed to be capable of embodying the soul. It was his medieval Franciscan rival, John Duns Scotus, who held the contrary view, and the debate was closely related to the issue of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which the Franciscans accepted, but the Dominicans denied. This dispute was not finally settled until the dogma was defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854, in the Apostolic Constitution ‘Ineffabilis Deus’. See: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05194a.htm.

    Quentin is undoubtedly right in saying, or implying, that the archaeological evidence, whether from the Blombos Cave in S Africa, or from the various recent excavations of Neanderthal remains and artefacts in Europe (http://esciencenews.com/sources/scientific.american/2010/01/08/heavy.brows.high.art.newly.unearthed.painted.shells.show.neandertals.were.homo.sapiens.s.) points to a level of behavioural sophistication in now-extinct ancestral or related species of genus Homo that we would consider to be indicative of intelligence comparable to our own, or not far from it. This cannot be said of chimps, either Pan paniscus or P. troglodytes, nor can it be said of any other great ape species (Order: Primata; Suborder: Haplorrhini; Infraorder: Simiiformes; Parvorder: Catarrhini; Superfamily: Hominoidea; Family: Hominidae*. [Taxonomic nomenclature, 1825: John Edward Gray, 1800-75.)

    As to Adam, well there was a Most Recent Common Patrilineal Ancestor, or ‘Y-Chromosomal Adam’, but he wasn’t the Biblical one, anymore than ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ (the Most Recent Common Matrilineal Ancestor) was the Biblical Eve. For one thing, they lived at different times – thousands of years apart. Y-chromosomal Adam lived circa 90-60,000 years BP (Before the Present), and Mitochondrial Eve lived 200,000 years BP. For another, neither of them has a claim to being the first human – they both had parents, and there were lots of other people alive at the time. However, the lineages of all those other people eventually either died out or merged with the ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ lines, so that we all have some of their DNA in our genomes (in Eve’s case, specifically in our mitochondrial, as opposed to nuclear, DNA).

    What this means for theology – whether evangelical Protestant or Roman Catholic – seems to me to be pretty clear: namely, that both (I am not talking of the fundamentalist variety in either case here) need to be emancipated from the idea that ‘Adam’ is in any sense a historical, or rather pre-historical, figure, and that Romans 5:12 & 1 Cor.15:22 do not need to be interpreted on the basis of that assumption.

    What is unsustainable, I fear, is any kind of ‘two-truth’ solution: the idea that there is religious truth and scientific (or ‘worldly’, or ‘philosophical’) truth, ‘and ne’er the twain shall meet’. No: that simply will not do. As the Catholic Church itself has affirmed more than once, there is one and only one truth, not a multiple-choice version. The alternative ‘double truth’ theory, propounded by the Averroists led by Siger of Brabant and Boetius of Dacia in the 13th Century, was roundly condemned. It is, interestingly enough, a significant part of Buddhist philosophy.

    Of course, if Professor Dawkins and his fellow scientific materialists are right, then none of us has a soul, original sin does not exist, and the whole of the Christian religion is pure fantasy. A strange fantasy indeed, that has managed to fool billions of people over the last 2000 years, including some of the finest minds that have ever lived, and led to the creation of beautiful works of art, sculpture, music and architecture, educated millions, and relieved the suffering of millions more.

    *We belong with the various species of gorilla and chimpanzee to the Sub-Family: Homininae; and with the chimps (P. troglodytes and sub-species and P. paniscus) to the Tribe: Hominini; we are the only extant members of the Genus: Homo (Gray, 1825).

  11. Fariam says:

    i agree with Ion Zone on this one:
    “I appreciate your worries “When it is proven if ‘ever’ if we originated from animals”; but remember that being ‘originated from animals’ does not deny that we were created by God”

    I think a major part of the perceived conflict is how we have come to preceive Original Sin and the nature of animals. I think of OS much like the spread of lice and do not see that evolution eliminates it, quite the contrary. All it needed was for one living soul in the course of evolution to freely act against its nature and the sickness spread though the whole of creation… In this regard, I think we could learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters, and their understanding of sin.

    Likewise, I think we need to put more emphasis on their understanding of animals: living beings – souls – who are also included in the psalms and the Covenant of Noah… Science is teaching us ever more about the similarities between animals and humans: intelligence, capacity for pain, social needs, basic living needs, emotions… just as it is also teaching us how the abuse of animals is often the start to abuse of humans. I think people would do well to plunge into the writings and vision of saints like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Basil the Great. If they did so, they would realize that evolution does not necessarily pose a threat to Christianity, rather it is the refusal of Christians to recognize animals as living souls and God´s beloved creatures who share this earth with us.

  12. Ion Zone says:

    I wish I had put it that eloquently! But it is my thought that saying that the ‘how’ answers the ‘why’ is a very silly one.

  13. RMBlaber says:

    I would like to ask Fariam how much difference it would make to her if Noah was un-historical, and the Flood narrative (and therefore the Noachic Covenant) mythological?

    St Thomas Aquinas acknowledged that animals had ‘animal souls’ (plants had ‘vegetative souls’). The Aristotelian hylomorphic theory he was, in part, basing his systematic theology on, required this. Human beings – and human beings alone, of all members of the animal kingdom – had, in addition, _anima rationaliter_, rational souls, which were immortal and survived the death of the body.

    Fariam’s picture of original sin as lice, an infestation multiplying away and infecting the body, being passed on by contact, reminds me of the young (and not so hygienic) 19th Century French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, who was covered in them. I am glad not to have been his gay lover, the poet Paul Verlaine, who ended up shooting him (Rimbaud was only injured, not seriously). I’m not sure her metaphor works, though.

    The problem is, there is _original sin_ and _original guilt_, both of which are the inheritance (in Augustinian theology) of Adam. We are, he held, cleansed at baptism of the latter, and are no longer held accountable for the sin Adam and Eve committed in the Garden of Eden, but we retain the propensity to commit sin which is the lot of fallen humanity. This must be removed gradually, through the process of sanctification, which may not be completed in our Earthly lifetimes. We thus move from the state St Augustine describes as ‘posse non peccare’ (‘it is possible to refrain from sinning’) to ‘non posse peccare’ (‘it is not possible to sin’). Before baptism, held in the deadly grip of sin’s power, our state is ‘non posse non peccare’ (‘it is not possible not to sin’).

    What happens when you take away the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve, and substitute, say, the Mesolithic Kebaran Culture of the Eastern Mediterranean coast (the Kebara Cave is S of Haifa, some 10 km NE of Caesarea), which has been identified by Professor Colin Renfrew and Allan Bomhard as the ‘ur-heimat’ (original homeland) of the proto-Nostratic language family, dating back to 18,000 BC?

    Proto-Nostratic is ancestral to many of the languages spoken today, languages as different as English, Arabic and Hebrew. The Tower of Babel story is, obviously, an aetiological myth accounting for how the original unity of language broke down. The Garden of Eden story is, likewise, an aetiological myth, accounting for painful childbirth, the struggle for existence, and the existence of evil and death.

    Whatever folk memories of their distant ancestors the ancient Israelites may have had (even if one could say for certain that the Kebarans and their successors the Natufians [12,000-9,500 BC] _were_ ancestral to the Israelites), the fact is that the Kebarans would almost certainly have been animists and/or ancestor worshippers, and certainly _not_ monotheists. They would have had no personal relationship with the deity of the kind depicted in Genesis 2-3.

    As for the Flood: whereas Flood stories are almost universal, geological evidence for a Universal Flood is not. There were floods (plural) in ancient Mesopotamia, which would have been catastrophic to the inhabitants at the time, and all or any one of these may explain the Flood accounts in the Atrahasis Epic, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Bible and Greek myth (both the story of Deukalion and the Atlantis myth, although the latter may be a separate event, linked to a volcanic eruption that destroyed Cretan civilisation).

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