Lucy, Bubbles the Chimp and Human Origins

DISCLAIMER: I am not a scientist. My disciplines are steeped in the interpretation of Sacred Scripture and its communication, including Biblical theology, systematic theology, hermeneutics, apologetics and evangelism. That said, since the Bible makes claims that touch on the disciplines of science, history, etc., most pastors are required to have a broad knowledge in these areas. This post will address some of the scientific issues touching on human origins, as best as I understand them. I am not a scientist, but I do love science fiction!

Hands down the best Star Wars movie ever made is episode five, The Empire Strikes Back. The story takes place three years after Luke and the Rebel Alliance destroyed the Death Star. In Empire, Luke journeys to a murky planet called Dagobah to train with Jedi Master Yoda. Years earlier, Yoda defeated a dark Jedi on Dagobah and the cave where he died became saturated in the dark side of the force. After a force-training session, Yoda leads Luke near the mouth of the cave:

Luke: There’s something not right…I feel cold.
Yoda: [Pointing in the cave’s direction] That place is strong in the dark side of the force. A domain of evil it is. In you must go.
Luke: What’s in there?
Yoda: Only what you take with you.

Investigating the fossil evidence of human origins is a lot like journeying into the cave on Dagobah—what you find is what you take with you. This was certainly the case with many of the early fossilized remains discovered by Darwinian enthusiasts. In 1912 a lower jaw and part of a skull was unearthed in a gravel pit near Piltdown, England. The mandible was ape-like, but the skull was very much like a modern human. For almost a half century, “Piltdown Man” was afforded a place in the family photo album of humanity, but in 1953, scientists discovered that the the skull was “human-like” because it was human and the jaw was “ape-like” because it was the jaw of female orangutan. In 1922, not long after the “Piltdown Man” hoax was foisted on us, a prehistoric tooth was discovered in the Upper Snake Creek area of Nebraska. “Nebraska Man” was soon heralded as a man-like North American ape, but later analysis proved that the tooth belonged to neither man nor ape—“Nebraska Man” was an extinct pig! See what I mean? What you see is what you take with you.

The fossil evidence is still a grave yard littered with contention and presupposition. Creationists tend to see human traits like bipedalism as owing to a shared design feature. The God that designed us to flourish in grasslands and forests also designed apes and chimps to thrive in similar terrain. Meanwhile, Darwinian evolutionists take any anatomical and genetic similarities as evidence for family resemblance. Where we see shared design features, they see shared family origins. What follows is a brief look at some of the fossil and genetic issues surrounding the subject of human origins. In you must go.

What about Lucy?
Lucy is the name given to a species of extinct ape called Australopithecus. Darwinian Evolutionists tend to see Lucy as a precursor to modern humanity. In addition to being a tree-climber (arboreal), there is evidence that she had bipedal capacity. Bipedalism is the center of the debate. In the book Who Was Adam? by Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross, Dr. Rana notes that Lucy’s bipedalism was “facultative”, meaning that Lucy, unlike modern humans, was not obliged to walk upright (p. 37). The rest of Lucy, including cranial and facial features and teeth is distinctly ape-like. There is no evidence of distinctly human culture. Creationists from both Old Earth and Young Earth persuasions tend to see Lucy’s bipedalism as a shared design feature from a loving Creator. The ability to walk upright for extended periods of time enabled her to flourish in a mixed habitat of trees and open savannas.

What about Chimps?
Chimps possess human-like behavioral traits and make great companions for eccentric pop stars. Michael Jackson’s chimp Bubbles slept in a crib at Neverland and even drank tea with the Mayor of Osaka Japan during the King of Pop’s Bad Tour in 1987. Unfortunately, as chimps mature they become too aggressive to serve as human companions. Bubbles was moved to an animal sanctuary and has outlived the King of Pop. He now resides in Florida at the Center for Great Apes. Wikipedia is amazing!

Creationists like me expect some overlap between human and chimp behavior due to shared design features. Like humans, God designed chimps to live in communities that bond together for their survival. Chimps seek shelter from extreme weather in caves and even make crude weapons to hunt their prey. It has even been postulated that chimps fear death, a very human trait. Rana and Ross write:

Chimpanzees grieve the loss of community members and have some fear of dying. This sense of loss and fear need not be understood in evolutionary terms. It could be viewed from a biblical vantage point. As Hugh Ross discusses in Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job, birds and mammals are “soulish” creatures created with a capacity for emotion. All such creatures grieve the death of a companion with whom they have formed a strong emotional bond (p. 332).

What about genetic similarity? It has been said that chimps and humans share 99% similarity. Recent studies have reduced the similarity from 99% to 97%, but the gulf is wide. Rana and Ross “bottom-line” it for us:

Though humans and chimpanzees share a high degree of genetic similarity, several recent studies demonstrate that even subtle genetic differences can manifest themselves dramatically in terms of an organism’s anatomy, physiology and behavior (p. 223).

Meanwhile, YEC scientists like Nathaniel Jeanson and Jeffrey Tomkins widen the genetic gulf even more. In an article on the genetic similarity between people and chimps, they write, “Humans and chimpanzees are not 99% identical. They are only 88% identical, which means that the two species differ by nearly 400 million (400,000,000) DNA letters! (p. 296).

The behavioral and genetic similarities between chimps and humans pose no threat to the Genesis origin story, but should a viral-based drug called ALZ-112, originally designed by a scientist trying to save his failing father from Alzheimer’s disease, be unleashed on humanity, it could lead to the end of humanity and the Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

What about Neanderthals?
The Darwinian evolutionary approach to these big game hunters is that they lived anywhere from 400,000 to 40,000 years ago. Unfortunately their existence overlapped with modern Homo sapiens and they were somehow wiped out. Theories about their extinction include everything from climate change, displacement and genocide from their Homo sapien neighbors. They live on in Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum trilogy and, due to interbreeding, some human populations. According to Swedish Biologist Svante Paabo, Neanderthal DNA makes up 1-2% of the genome of modern people. You could be part Neanderthal!

The Creationist response to these findings is mixed. Old Earth Creationists like Rana and Ross view Neanderthals as non-human hominids created by God. They walked upright and made simple tools, but at the end of the day they were nothing more than sophisticated beasts. Rana and Ross argue that they lacked distinctly human traits like the production of clothing, jewelry and sophisticated tool making (i.e. combining two materials in a process called hafting). They also note some differences in cranial features and suggest that Neanderthals lacked the “smarts” of humanity. What about interbreeding? Rana and Ross acknowledge this, but see it as the result of man’s slide into depravity, “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Gross!

Young Earth Creationists, on the other hand, are surprisingly enthusiastic about the recent findings on Neanderthals. YEC’s tend to view Neanderthals as an extinct group of humans. In an article titled “Neanderthals: Our Worthy Ancestors”, Marvin Lubenow cites Neanderthal expert Svante Paabo, “Many would say that a species is a group of organisms that can produce fertile offspring with each other and cannot do so with members of other groups. From that perspective we have shown that Neanderthals and modern humans were the same species” (Searching For Adam p. 265).

Like other people groups, Neanderthals were driven to extinction through displacement and genocide. Lubenow cites the example of the Aboriginal Tasmanians, an indigenous people group from Tasmania (a state in Australia). It is estimated that their population ranged anywhere from 3,000 to 15,000 people before British Colonization in 1803. About thirty years later, thanks to disease, displacement and violence, the Tasmanian population was reduced to 200 people. Those remaining were exiled to the Furneaux Islands where disease took its toll. By 1847 the population had dwindled to 47 people. The last person to claim sole Tasmanian descent died in 1905. Aboriginal Tasmanians now live on in mixed descent as some Tasmanian women married outside the tribe. Many YEC’s view Neanderthals in a similar historical light.

What about other tests of humanity? Neanderthals pass the bipedal test and the fertility test (i.e. the ability to mate and produce non-sterile children), but what about cultural tests like clothing and more sophisticated tool making? OEC’s like Rana and Ross see Neanderthals as less-than-human because they appear to have roamed naked and fossil sites lack evidence for needles, awls, ropes, etc. Human sites nearly always show evidence of cloth making materials and jewelry. Interestingly, from the stand point of Genesis, clothing has been a mark of humanity since the Fall of man, “The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them” (3:21). But Lubenow likens the lack of distinctly human culture to other human cultural outliers, like the Fuegian Indians off the tip of South America. Citing indigenous researcher Ashley Montagu, the Fuegians:

…live in perhaps the worst climate in the world, a climate of bitter cold, snow, and sleet, and heavy rains a great deal of the time, yet they usually remain entirely naked. During extremely cold weather they may wear a loose cape of fur and rub their bodies with grease (p. 279).

The Fuegians are fully human, but nomadic and before modernity knocked, often went about buck naked. Perhaps Neanderthals were cultural outliers like this remote tribe?

What about Genetics? Pair or Population?
Today’s scientific community argues that humanity arose from a population of several thousand, not the pairing of Adam and Eve. Once again, ask “What’s in there?” and you will hear the voice of Master Yoda, “Only what you take with you.” Rana and Ross lament:

Most biologists begin their study of human origins with the assumption that humanity evolved from a preexisting lineage of hominids. And if humans evolved, then, by definition, our origin must have started with a population, not two individuals because, according to the tenets of neo-Darwinism, evolutionary transformations are a population- level, not individual-level, phenomenon (p. 350).

Darwinian evolutionists find it hard to believe that two people could account for the vast amount of genetic diversity displayed in humanity. Most creationists believe that God created Adam and Eve with genetic differences and that, following the Fall, mutations added to the diversity we see around us. Is it really possible that two people (or eight if you trace humanity back to the great deluge) can account for it all? Interestingly, a window into this possibility has opened up for us through the discipline of conservation biology. In Who Was Adam?, Rana and Ross report on the findings of a research team exploring the genetic diversity of sheep on a remote island in the southern Indian Ocean. In 1957 two Mouflon sheep were introduced to the isle of Haute. By the 1970’s the population had grown from the two yearlings to 100 sheep, reaching a population peak of 700 by 1977. Rana writes, “The researchers discovered that when they measured [the original population size], the [genetic] diversity exceeded model predictions by a factor of 4.” Perhaps the models geneticists are now using to measure genetic diversity in human origins are also in need of recalibration?

Next Time: Where was the Garden in Eden located and what about the tree of life?