Man, proud man

Three million years before the first homo sapiens appeared our ancestors were making stone tools with multiple uses. These were not just opportunistic broken flints but tools which had been knapped for the purpose. A recent find pushes back the record of such tools by some 700,000 years. It challenges us to consider the characteristics of the earlier members of our line.

Strictly speaking, Kenyanthropus, the possible toolmaker, may not have been an ancestor. It has only been in recent years that the experts have realised that there were many different members of the hominin group, the majority of whom must be regarded as cousins rather than ancestors. It would appear that evolution was exploring a wide range of progressive types before one of them survived to lead eventually to our own species.

Kenyanthropus platyops was a small brained hominin, with a mixture of modern and primitive features, in some ways less advanced than the famous “Lucy”. The skill needed to construct tools with sharp edges had previously been dated to a much later development in the hominin line, and represents a step change in human cognition.

Palaeoanthropologists have a difficult task. While they have developed sophisticated methods of measuring, dating and identifying, they can only work with the fossils and other evidence which happen to be available. Consequently new finds bring change – sometimes, major change — and many conclusions should be regarded as both provisional and arguable.

Our interest here is to consider whether there is earlier evidence of the characteristics which we are accustomed to regarding as unique to our own species. I think of a capacity for abstract reason and free will. Both are necessary to create a moral person. Free will may not help for we are unable demonstrate freedom in terms of hard evidence even in modern man. So we must look to abstract reasoning, and perhaps the possibility of art.

A clue may come from brain capacity which doubles, and doubles again, in the evolution of hominins. And size not only increases brain cells, it allows for increased connections between them. It is probable that living in society enabled humans to develop the first expressions of a modern mind, though it may have taken 100,000 years to achieve this. Sharing skills with our peers and building on accumulated knowledge enabled us to develop and refine our neural capacity. We had started to ask questions and to develop ways, in concert with others, to find the answers.

And this requires speech. Here, it appears, we have continuous development from the sophisticated but restricted communication of the chimpanzee to our full scale of settled syntax and vocabulary. The immediate predecessors of sapienshabilis and erectus – may well have developed a rudimentary “proto-language”. We, too, may have started with proto-language, which developed into modern speech by perhaps 70,000 years ago in tandem with our social progress.

And speech is important for our purpose. It requires abstraction. We must abstract from the particular and convert it to a concept both to talk about it and to think about it. Adam could not talk about the animals until he had named them. Nor could we. Speech, I would argue, is clear evidence of abstract reasoning. Did any other hominin use speech? The best candidate is the Neanderthal. It appears about 100,000 years before we arrived. Could Neanderthals speak?

We have no direct evidence. But both sapiens and neanderthalensis inherited from their immediate common ancestor the gene FOXP2 which is specific to speech. And the experts generally agree that both had the detailed anatomy required. If we grant to the Neanderthal a brain as large as ours, burial of their dead – possibly with grave goods, care for the sick and injured, decorative shells and ornaments, control of fire and small family groups, we are looking at a primitive, but undoubtedly human, culture, not essentially different from early sapiens. A strong case may be made that neanderthalensis was equipped, as we are, with reason and reflective consciousness. And this would imply the presence of morality.

Would we regard decorative shells and ornaments as art? They certainly approach it. But another clue, recently recognised, may be helpful. It is a deliberately engraved zigzag on a mussel shell. It is dated to 450,000 years ago, and was the work of our ancestor H. erectus. Whatever the scriber had in mind, he or she worked with meticulous care and proportion. We do not need to accept, as many do, that this qualifies as art, but we may agree with an expert from the archaeological team who reflected on “the growing realization that abilities such as abstract thinking, once ascribed to only H. sapiens, were present in other archaic humans, including, now, their ancestors.” If and how this relates to the history of salvation I leave you to speculate.

If you need a referenced text, email quentin@greenyonder.co.uk. (changing ‘green’ to ‘blue’)

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About Quentin

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

41 Responses to Man, proud man

  1. milliganp says:

    One of the challenges the church needs to face up to is the problem caused by what got called Modernism. At its root was the growing application of reason (including criticism) and scientific analysis to matter previously considered the domain of faith. In the area of scripture various critical methods were applied to the texts to question authorship, when and where they were written, the effect of redaction etc. In extremis the outcome was that some denied all miracles attributed to Christ as unhistoric, the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch was rejected and the Gospel of John reduced to a theological reflection rather than an historic account.
    In response to the theological difficulties we ended up with Syllabus of Errors and Lamentabili Sane but in this process almost all attempts at reconciling emerging scientific evidence or historical analysis of scripture were branded equally as modernism and the church retreated from engagement with the development of reason. Thus almost all philosophers or theological thinkers in the late 19th and early 20th century were branded as heretical.
    However these thinkers were trying to reconsider the theological impact of scientific progress. One such person was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who was a paleontologist and realised that scientific study of the origins of man are incompatible with the monogenesis necessary for Adam and Eve and thus the Adamic Fall and the theology of Original Sin. My understanding was that he tried to develop an evolutionary theory of salvation with Christ as exemplar – this was naturally condemned and his works added to the syllabus – however Pope Benedict has quoted him.
    A later theologian, Karl Rahner used similar language (i’m concerned at mentioning his name as it is held to be an axiom that anyone who says they understand Rahner doesn’t understand Rahner) with his ‘orientation to the ultimate other’.
    My point is that it seems essential the Church seriously considers the impact of human history and pre-history in reassessing what constitutes “The Fall” and thus “Salvation” because if the Adamic Fall is a myth then the “Christ Event” has to have a different signification.

    • milliganp says:

      PS, in case anyone feels the need to respond I realise that implying that “The Enlightenment” was the first time reason came into play would negate the reasonableness of Thomism and classic philosophy, that is not my intent but for many the enlightenment is co-terminus with the ascent of reason. It is certainly a watershed in the application and understanding of the natural sciences.

  2. Quentin says:

    Thank you, milliganp, for your very clear description of the genesis of Modernism. There is of course a practical problem here: grasping the subtleties of reconciling modern science with Revelation is often only available to those who have a philosophic turn of mind. I find myself operating on two planes. I am quite happy to discuss belief in terms of, say, Adam and Eve, while at the same time recognising it as an inspired ‘story’ which does not profess to record literal reality.

    Does the mythic truth of Adam and Eve require a different ‘signification’ for the Christ event? As I see it, our ‘fallen’ nature is the result of the unification of animal body and spiritual soul. Animal body is by nature focused on survival; it is selfish – but not in a strictly moral sense. It follows its instincts and passions. Our spiritual souls are oriented on the good. So there is now a moral contradiction between the two. It is this contradiction which I see as the Fall. Christ’s redeeming activity is the route through which grace enables us to follow the good, by harmonising the needs of the body with the aspirations of the soul.

    Does this make sense to you? Or do you have a different solution?

    • milliganp says:

      Your synthesis sounds entirely reasonable to me. However many Catholic traditionalists would regard it as at least heterodox if not heretical. For scriptural literalists (I know the term Bible Fundamentalist is considered pejorative) it is also unacceptable. One of my problems is that I believe the church need to develop a formal position that is reconcilable with this view of human history and I feel uncomfortable having to hold an intellectual position which is still at odds with the catechism.

      • Quentin says:

        The Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (para 151i) presents an opinion that Humani Generis does not close the question of universal descent from a single Adam. The context shows that this view is reversible. And some ‘big gun’ theologians think that it should be reversed. My view of the Fall would work with Adam alone or Adam and others. But if ‘Adam and others’ is so, then original sin carries the meaning of sin universal to mankind, rather than the ancestral sin of one couple from whom it descends. We do of course know that we all share a male and a female ancestor (calculated from mitochondria) but these are not our earliest ancestors.

      • RAHNER says:

        ” I feel uncomfortable having to hold an intellectual position which is still at odds with the catechism.”

        The CCC is a disaster. It largely fails to make any serious engagement with modern philosophy and theology. Anyone with a shred of intellectual honesty is bound to feel uncomfortable with it.

      • milliganp says:

        Thank you Rahner, I feel a little less conflicted 😉

    • RAHNER says:

      “As I see it, our ‘fallen’ nature is the result of the unification of animal body and spiritual soul.”

      This view appears to be committed to a rather implausible dualistic anthropology. Did the souls exist before the fall and who or what was responsible for the “unification” of body and soul? A more plausible view would see the “soul” as a set of related non-reducible emergent properties that come into being when a body achieves a certain degree of complexity.

      • tim says:

        Thank you, Rahner. When you say ‘a body’, are you thinking in terms of individual human bodies? If so, would this imply that the foetus – or post-birth baby – only acquires a soul at a particular stage of physical development – and would we be able to work out when this has happened? And would this have implications for the way we treat developing humans before or after they have acquired souls?

      • St.Joseph says:

        RAHNER.
        I see it as a matter of conscience, and knowing right from wrong.
        That is not too difficult to do.
        A point to think about is the words of the ‘good thief ‘ at the end of his life,when realising right from wrong, gained his entry into Paradise. It is never too late to learn!

      • Quentin says:

        Ultimately a human being is a unity — with the soul being the form of the body. But I have no difficulty in seeing two levels of understanding. At the observable, scientific, level, the hominin’s brain develops through evolution so that it becomes capable of reason, and therefore, moral decision. At a spiritual level reason is a gift from God, necessary if man is to have a personal relationship with him, and with others.

        I tentatively essay a parallel in the matter of freewill. In principle a neuroscientist can track the action of every neuron involved in a decision. So much so that he may claim that freewill is always illusion. But, while granting all the influences, we still perceive that free decision is possible. We would (I would) see that free element as a facility granted directly by God. Does that stand up?

      • Nektarios says:

        Rahner
        I think you should read the first 14 verses of Ephesians chapter one. This is the facts of our faith, Christianity, life in Christ and the spiritual nature concerning man. This is what God has to say concerning man/ woman who is a Christian.
        Your speculations are all very interesting, but just speculations. What you have in this opening chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians are the facts.

      • milliganp says:

        I don’t see anything in the first 14 verses of Ephesians that relates directly to this discussion. It is a spiritual reflection on salvation through Jesus Christ which could be interpreted (taken alone) to imply pre-destination. I can understand an argument which says “scripture tells us sufficient for salvation” and that we should therefore be careful speculating outside it lest we loose our faith; however, with the exception of bible literalists, no major faith group now asserts that the OT is an accurate history of creation or the people of Israel. Rahners word’s state the bluntest interpretation of the current state of Biblical scholarship but the OT would receive similar treatment in any University and most European Seminaries.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Why do | see so much of Adam in some of this discussion.!

      • Quentin says:

        This is a tricky one. The bible (think of it as a library rather than a single book) is inspired, and so it always tells us the truth. However the presentation of truth varies in its form. Sometimes it gives us the literal, historical, truth – sometimes it gives us a truth through ‘stories’ (which was the ancient way of conveying truths). We are very dependent on the ‘experts’ to distinguish which form is being used.

        Take just one example: Eve being created through the extraction of Adam’s rib. I began to doubt the literal truth of this when, as a lad, I counted my own ribs and found both sides were equal. But it does tell us that men and women come from the same origin and have a tendency to cleave to each other.

        So it’s quite legitimate to discuss original sin in terms of Adam and Eve. But there are reputable theologians who suggest that it is really about the universality of our tendency to sin, rather than one couple sinning, and passing the effects on. Both thoughts are helpful in understanding God’s message.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Quentin.
        Quite so. but with respect!
        The story of Adam and Eve tells us of the ‘sins’ of this world the conflict ‘between God our Maker and of all things’ Good! Evil comes from the fall of man in ever century since then. Mostly pride, I will not serve!..

    • St.Joseph says:

      Quentin.
      Tell me if this sounds nonsense to you, I will ask it anyway.
      Do you think that a male ‘or’ a female evolved at the same , or one befor the other?

      • Quentin says:

        Who knows? But if I had to decide which one I would say that the woman came first. My reason is that the chromosome which causes the male gender (the y chromosome) is a cut down version of the x chromosome, which causes the female gender. Biologists have even suggested that eventually the y chromosome will be so weak that it disappears altogether.

  3. RAHNER says:

    “When you say ‘a body’, are you thinking in terms of individual human bodies?”
    Yes.
    “If so, would this imply that the foetus – or post-birth baby – only acquires a soul at a particular stage of physical development”
    Yes.
    “and would we be able to work out when this has happened?”
    Possibly. It depends what you mean by “work out”!

    “And would this have implications for the way we treat developing humans before or after they have acquired souls?”
    Yes.

    Recall that for Aquinas full human ensoulment did not occur at conception. Of course, I acknowledge that all the main positions in philosophy of mind – substance dualism, property dualism (which I incline towards) and monistic materialism have problematic features so that in the end it is a matter of choosing the least implausible position.

    • Quentin says:

      The clue, I think, is that the Latin word for soul is anima. Thus it is seen as the principle of life and unity of the biological entity in question. When this entity dies it breaks down because the unity is no longer sustained. The human entity develops from conception through, both Aristotle and Aquinas thought, the succession of a vegetable anima, an animal anima, and finally a human anima.
      This understandable, but incorrect, description, was generally held until the advent of the microscope enabled a modern account of conception.

    • tim says:

      Rahner, thank you for a very clear and helpful answer. I must think about it – and maybe investigate the difference between substance and property dualism.

  4. milliganp says:

    On the matter of the soul, while searching on the internet I found a document by Bishop N T Wright in which he says “When I was teaching in Oxford twenty years ago, I had a student who wanted to study Buddhism; so I sent her to Professor Gombrich for tutorials. After a week or two he asked her to compare the Buddhist view of the soul with the Christian view. She replied that she didn’t know what the Christian view was. He wrote me a sharp little letter, saying, in effect, ‘You’ve been teaching this young woman theology for a whole year and she doesn’t know what the soul is.’ My reply was straightforward: we had spent that first year studying the Old and New Testaments, and the question of the ‘soul’ simply hadn’t arisen.” The soul was ‘invented’ by Plato but asorbed by Christianity; explaining it has created its own set of problems.

  5. RAHNER says:

    “we had spent that first year studying the Old and New Testaments, and the question of the ‘soul’ simply hadn’t arisen.”

    The question of the soul does not arise in the OT or NT because they are essentially pre-philosophical literary genres comprising quasi-historical narratives, myth, poetry and metaphors.

    • Peter Foster says:

      I have read, thoughI have mislaid the source, that some muslim thinkers maintain that the souls have always existed and before the people they have ensouled. As you imply the idea of the soul is only a theory.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Peter Foster.
        As catholics we are brought up with the word ‘soul’ . We have the Hymn Soul of My Saviour and others.
        My mother used to say about those who were unsympathetic or uncharitable etc,
        ‘They have no souls.. It seemed to fit in to what she meant, either no understanding or insight or no depth to their character, like something that exists outside but within ourselves!

      • milliganp says:

        St. Joseph, if we talk theology for a moment, with Christ we talk about the hypostatic union which describes how Christ can be both God and man in one single undivided individual. I think this may be a clue to what we call the soul in all men.
        From an evolutionary viewpoint (if we accept it) there must have been a point where the emergent man was cable of those things we identify as human:- self-awareness, introspection, the ability to choose freely (as opposed to animal reflex) the ability to reflect on existence itself and the thing we call conscience (an independent faculty that sits above the mere capacity for choice). If the story of Adam and Eve is a parable or metaphor there still has to be a point in the development of Man where the capacity to consciously relate to God was imbued into humanity. It is extremely unlikely that science or anthropology will ever give us a clear understanding of this point.
        When Jesus was put to the test over the Roman Occupation of Palestine and the payment of taxes to Caesar he replied “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. The interplay of science and faith requires a similar separation of matters relating to God and matters of the world. One can practice an enquiring approach to science and human history without relinquishing faith in the truth of the Gospel.

      • St.Joseph says:

        MilliganP.
        Maybe so.
        However There is no need for Rahner to just ‘sling insults’ at ‘faith’.
        It seems like bad breeding to me.!

    • Peter Foster says:

      There is at least one reference to soul in the NT, Matthew ch.10:v.28, in an English version.

      • milliganp says:

        We need to be careful about words and their meanings. The Greek word (Psych) used in the NT is used to mean life or life force, so it is not automatically the same immortal, immaterial, soul of Catholic theology. We have to allow that people who dedicate their lives to the study of the bible might have a better understanding of the language used. Soul food and soul music are not necessarily about immortal life.

    • Nektarios says:

      Rahner
      OK, you say,
      `The question of the soul does not arise in the OT or NT because they are essentially pre-philosophical literary genres comprising quasi-historical narratives, myth, poetry and metaphors.’

      The fact of the matter is God has not changed, and man has not changed since the Fall.
      God called Abraham. Talked to him and declared, I am God Almighty, walk before me.
      It is said of Enoch, and Enoch walked with God.
      What you say is dangerous rubbish quite frankly, where you and you cronies would tell us what the truth is, by demolishing what Holy Scripture teaches and setting yourselves up as some authority. You may be deluded, but be careful, trying to attempt to delude the Children of God causing one of these little ones to fall, it would be better for you if you had not been born…..

      • Ignatius says:

        Nektarios:
        “It is said of Enoch, and Enoch walked with God.
        What you say is dangerous rubbish quite frankly, where you and you cronies would tell us what the truth is, by demolishing what Holy Scripture teaches and setting yourselves up as some authority. You may be deluded, but be careful, trying to attempt to delude the Children of God causing one of these little ones to fall, it would be better for you if you had not been born…..”
        This ‘dangerous rubbish’ of yours probably merits an apology, Nektarios, it doesn’t speak well of you. The issue we are discussing here is clearly out of your comfort zone but it is a good discussion nonetheless, and why should we not have it?
        Rahner: When David talks of his soul in the Psalms ‘Soul, praise the Lord’ etc I guess you interpret him as basically talking to himself, telling himself to ‘ cheer up’ as it were?
        ” A more plausible view would see the “soul” as a set of related non-reducible emergent properties that come into being when a body achieves a certain degree of complexity..”
        I agree with you about the plausibility but am not sure about the implications, nor that it says very much. Do we assume that this ‘soul’ goes out of being at death?

      • RAHNER says:

        Yawn.

  6. St.Joseph says:

    PS Also, My Soul Glorifies the Lord and my Spirit Rejoices in God My Saviour.
    The Magnifacat.( I think)

  7. Ann says:

    In Genesis 1 God breaths life into the man and he becomes a living being, I thought that was the Catholic teaching on how man becomes a spiritual creature. But I then wonder, since God breathed life (soul) into the man, the man then produces (with the female) more life, continuing the spirit and matter, but we don’t know how we get an individual soul.

  8. Ann says:

    Sorry I meant genesis 2!

  9. RAHNER says:

    Rahner: When David talks of his soul in the Psalms ‘Soul, praise the Lord’ etc I guess you interpret him as basically talking to himself, telling himself to ‘ cheer up’ as it were?
    ” A more plausible view would see the “soul” as a set of related non-reducible emergent properties that come into being when a body achieves a certain degree of complexity..”
    I agree with you about the plausibility but am not sure about the implications, nor that it says very much. Do we assume that this ‘soul’ goes out of being at death?

    I would interpret the Psalmists use of “soul” in this case as meaning something like “My whole being”.
    Many philosophical theories don’t say very much – their role is more regulative than descriptive. As regards the fate of the “soul” after death clearly anything we say is bound to be highly speculative. The soul could cease to exist but a memory of it could be retained in the Divine mind as it awaits resurrection or something like the resurrection could occur after death to provide a transformed physical base for the soul – but we will all have to wait and see or not see as the case may be!

    • ignatius says:

      Yes,
      I was at seminary a couple of months ago and we were looking at homiletics. The speaker was a Dominican Monk based in Oxford, a pretty bright chap he seemed. We were discussing the prologue of John’s gospel and of how the prologue is fundamentally a ‘best guess’ hymn of the time after the fashion of many later hymns: (Firmly I believe and Truly being the one that springs to mind as a musical theology primer).

      The Monk went on to say that in his opinion the writers of the New testament were doing pretty much the same as we are today…piecing together stuff as best they could to try and explain a mystery, using whatever core beliefs were to hand for them that could help.

      Though the Monk’s (very learned) view caused a bit of consternation here and there I found it immensely consoling somehow, we are doing the same as them.

  10. G.D. says:

    My understanding of the ‘Adam and Eve story’ is allegorical. But if it’s a literal telling then nothing is lost.
    Correct me if I’m wrong but I thought God created all creation – and it was good – and then the fall ‘happened’? Then (s)Soul and (b)Body, as united being, ceased.
    This physical diversified ‘appearance’, that we now experience creation as, is the result. Our turning away from creation-as-God-made-it.
    But …..
    Christ, existing eternally, reconciled eternally.(?) Or did reconciliation, in Christ, in God, only take affect when Jesus lived and died?
    And if so, was creation ever perfect prior to the fall?

    We (and as ‘Church’) may need to let go of our post-fall allegorical ‘conscious reasoning’ take on existence and allow the eternal presence (Grace if you will) of the reconciliation in Christ to manifest in us and for us. (Collectively and individually).

    Soul & Body (collective or individual) separation is our way of seeing/experiencing due to the effect of the fall. In reality is it still as God created it – eternally reconciled in Christ?
    Faith is ‘acceptance’ of that unity in Christ, no matter how imperfect we remain due to the affects of the fall; our need to Justify our subjective individual conscious perceptions.

    “We are so used to what is relative rather than absolute ….. it may often seem that any absolute response is only an ideal, not a practical possibility …. but it is the only way to come into contact with reality.” (The Spiritual Letters of John Main. p.136). And so, embrace the presence of the Absolute God.
    (And all creation is capable of doing so because God has done so; always does so; and ever shall be so).

    The fall is our relative duality response. Faith is absolute.

    • St.Joseph says:

      GD I like your comment.
      You say ‘My understanding of Adam and Eve is allrgorically’
      Yes it is like some other of the OT.
      For example the 10 Commandments. Was that written in stone, obviously ‘stone’ had another meaning.
      Jesus explained the meaning of them, he said ‘Love the Lord Thy God with your whole heart and your whole soul, and your whole mind and your neighbour as yourself. only two are necessary! I think the word soul is what was said, even if it wasn’t it is a euphenism for some thing else
      This says it all to me- Judge not and we shall not be judged.
      Pope Francis used that statement and has come under a lot of criticism and misunderstanding.(Who am I to judge) He was not letting us off the hook!
      I believe. when the Church teaches the truth it is not to condemn the sinner but to save us.But we have free-will.
      I read a quote today St John of the Cross,OCD (1542-1591)
      ” And I saw the river over which every soul must pass to reach the Kingdom of Heaven, and the name of the river was suffering. And I saw the boat which carries souls across that river, and the name of that boat was Love..

      Jesus is Love. He leaves the 99 sheep to search for the 1.He came to save sinners,He loved us so much.
      As I have said in the past, I was never brought up to study the OT only ever listened to quotes.We ought to be able to see the meaning behind them. now since God sent His only Son, and the Holy Spirit to enlighten us to make sense of it all.
      Still we are confused, we have Holy Mother Church, still we are confused.
      Now we have science, still we are confused.Our Blessed Mother gives us messages, still we are confused,
      Jesus appeared to St Faustina with a message to ‘Trust in Him’!
      He will not abandon us. If the world blows up tomorrow, what have we to lose, only to gain.Hopefully the new Life promised in Heaven for all eternity!
      (Jesus I trust in You).

      • Peter Foster says:

        St Joseph: In relation to your earlier comment on the hymn Soul of my Saviour. That the concepts of the soul and original sin and purgatory etcetera are metaphors or theories to explicate the mysteries arising through revelation or an awareness of the spiritual aspect of man does not detract from the grandeur of their related social constructs such as hymns and paintings.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Peter Foster.
        Thank you.

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