In post-retirement reverie I have imagined what my profession might be if given a second chance at a career decision. I have never regretted becoming a public school science teacher. Nevertheless, in retirement my opportunity to research diverse topics of science has yielded many opportunities to expand personal knowledge beyond the curricular requirements.
The subject of human origins has occupied my personal attention extensively. In the classroom my assignments related to physical science and earth science. Topics of human origins and organic evolution were not ordinarily part of my teaching responsibility. Retirement provided opportunity to study and discuss diverse views on human origins. Generally we are describing the discipline of paleoanthropology. Within each origins belief system, there are subtle and not so subtle differences. We have discussed major positions on human origins in our science/faith blog since 2007.
Human origins beliefs center on four major positions. (1) Young Earth Creationism: All things were divinely created six to ten thousand years ago including the physical universe with all its living things (2) Old Earth Creationism: The physical universe originated and life was created by God in divine supernatural acts since the beginning 13.7 billion years ago (3) Organic evolution: Since the beginning of the physical universe all life traces its origin to a common ancestor developing from previously existing life forms over time by naturalistic events (4) Theistic Evolution: At the beginning God endowed physical matter with the ability to transform itself into novel life. (In describing the four positions we have excluded variations of these belief systems and avoided discussions of origins processes.)
Adherents of positions (1) and (2) believe in the existence and action of an omnipotent Creator. Adherents of position (3) do not believe God is involved in the process of evolution and may not believe in God as a supernatural entity. (4) Adherents of position (4) are theists with varying degrees of belief in how God acts or does not act. (All positions except Young Earth Creationism accept a universe age of 13.7 billion years beginning with the Big Bang.)
During the course of our review of human existence we have realized that some readers may have been surprised by our assertions that anatomically and intellectually modern humans have inhabited our planet for upwards of 100,000 years or more. It also may be surprising that the creation of modern humanity, the flood of Noah, and the Tower of Babel account occurred in the distant past. Nonetheless we characterize these events as relatively recent, just a moment ago compared with the enormous time frames of the geological time scale. Evidence for time scales we cite is unassailable based on reliable scientific evidence.
It is surprising that certain advances of modern human societies occurred so late on the historical time scale. That humans were hunter-gatherers until 10,000 to 12,000 years ago may be unexpected or that thousands of fully human hunter-gatherers still exist in primitive, isolated locations in modern times. We may find it incredible that farming and domestication had not taken hold as a concomitant of human experience until relatively recently. Even after humanity’s embrace of agriculture, however, we wonder why intelligent humans did not develop writing skills to benefit their daily activities, to preserve more accurate and detailed records of their society, or to preserve their historical legacy for hundreds of generations to follow. Our kindergarteners and first graders learn writing and reading skills very early in their lives. Why was wheel technology not conceptualized in the intellectual and practical experience of modern humans before 3500 BC?
We have written about the startling massive, complex human-built structure of Gobeckli Tepe in ancient Turkey. Its challenging construction was begun in 11,600 BC, thousands of years before wheels and writing skills were imagined by their society of hunter-gatherers. It is obvious that a fully human population existed at the time and had existed for tens of thousands of years with impressive survival skills. Why, we may ask, were certain agricultural, technological, and linguistic skills painfully slow and sporadic in developing?
Let us leap forward in time several millennia to the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. Until then almost all the best minds of the civilized world could not determine the difference between real and apparent motion in the heavens. The result was the errant belief that Earth was located at the center of the universe with all heavenly bodies circling around us. This basic truth of physical reality was a difficult standard to achieve until the 16th century, thanks to Copernicus. On a different level of knowledge, why did basic hygiene practices, germ theory, and effective treatment of disease escape humanity for most of its tenure on the planet? The US Civil War claimed about 650,000 lives, a majority of them from disease and horrible practices of hygiene.
Our recent discussions relating to pre-historic humanity raise questions about the fully human characteristics of early man in the past 50,000 or 100,000 years. Secular paleoanthropologists acknowledge humans as distinct from some less than human members of the hominid family. Neanderthals and the recently discovered Denisovans are hominids falling short of full human characteristics. These creatures co-existed for a time with modern humans but went extinct several tens of thousands of years ago. They come up short on the scale of full anatomical and intellectual humanity created in the image of God but they are also products of God’s creation.
Returning to the subject of personal reverie expressed in our opening paragraphs, we have discovered that the issue of creation and the history of human origins deals with many unanswered questions and unresolved problems. There are no written records extending beyond five or six thousand years. The written genealogies in the book of Genesis are incomplete compared with modern genealogies. The exceedingly brief accounts of creation events and early humanity, reliable and trustworthy as far as they go, are supplemented by past, present, and future discoveries provided by scientists and archaeologists. Paleoanthropology holds fascination for its potential for truth discovery in human origins.
We wonder why anatomically and intellectually advanced humans did not achieve feats or make discoveries long ago that we now accept as a matter of course. Why did agriculture arrive so late? Could not a committee of the most intelligent ancient residents have figured out human writing skills or the simple technology of the wheel? Why could smart people not have figured out germ theory or healthy hygiene hundreds or thousands of years ago and saved many lives? The Green Revolution of the 1960s arguably saved a billion lives. Why was its arrival on the human scene delayed?
One may pose similar questions to the Apostle Paul, writer of the Book of Galatians. His expressions “But when the time had fully come” or “When the fullness of time had come” (Gal. 4:4) refer to the mystery of the timing of the arrival of Christ, Redeemer of man. Ultimately, the timing of that marvelous event was in the hands of the Father. Modern theological scholars search for answers. Likewise, paleoanthropologists search for answers concerning timing of landmark discoveries and inventions to benefit humanity’s physical existence. Perhaps theologians could offer additional insights. We look for many sources of knowledge to investigate unknowns and discover answers to our questions.