Human Origins and Why it Matters

I’m a big reader. At any one time I find myself navigating between 3-4 books. As a child I’d spend hours devouring a good story. I read all the classics. By classics I mean works like The Uncanny X-Men, Daredevil, Web of Spiderman, and the entire Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub series. In between these time honored works I’d pick up Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, Dickens and whatever else was assigned in school. Genre aside, those parts of the story that made the most purchase on my imagination always revolved around the origin and character arc of the principle actors. People come from places and they experience inner transformation as they fumble through life’s difficulties.

The Book of Genesis tells my favorite origin story. The thin pages of my Bible are thick with answers to the big questions that keep us up at night:

Origin: Where did we come from?
Morality: How should we live?
Meaning: What’s our purpose?
Destiny: What happens after we die?

While Genesis tells my favorite origin story, it is not the only origin story from the Ancient Near East (hereafter ANE). The first readers of the Pentateuch were no doubt familiar with these competing origin tales:

  • The Atrahasis Epic– Tired of working for the higher gods, the lower deities create mankind to do the work, but when their noise becomes overwhelming, the gods send a flood to wipe them out. Atrahasis, the king of Shuruppak, is warned about the coming flood and builds a boat in which he and animals and birds are saved.
  • The Gilgamesh Epic– The story of the deluge is retold, but this time the “Noah” character is named Utnapishtim, who is given advanced notice of the flood by the god Ea. Utnapishtim is granted eternal life and the main character of the epic, a demi-god named Gilgamesh, goes on a quest to find Utnapishtim and discover his secret.
  • The Enuma Elish– This story charts the god Marduk’s ascension to the head of the pantheon. He opposes the primordial and chaotic god Tiamat (i.e the primordial sea) and uses her corpse to construct the cosmos.

When it comes to origin stories, it’s not the similarities that matter, it’s the differences. The God of the Bible is different from the gods of the ANE. The little gods of Mesopotamia and Egypt have needs. They need food and create people to work the fields. The God of the Bible has no needs (Ps. 50:12; Acts 17:24-25). As a result, He cannot be bartered with or held hostage. Little gods can be bought off and managed with the proper sacrifices and incantations, not so with Yahweh (the personal name of God in the Old Testament). The little gods of the ANE are just bigger versions of us: fickle, quick to anger and capricious; but the God of the Bible is utterly unique—He is not a bigger version of us and when we are at our best, we become like him. Genesis is not the only origin story from the Ancient Near East, but it is the only one that matters.

The Judeo-Christian story of human origins no longer competes with the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh Epics, but instead with the evolutionary “particles to progress” story spun on PBS channels everywhere. According to this origin story, man evolved from pre-existing hominids. Over the course of time we picked up advantageous “human” traits like bipedalism and skeletal changes that eventually led to bigger brains. Walking upright freed our hands from knuckle-dragging and allowed us to carry tools and spend less energy getting around. Bigger brains allowed for greater social learning and language acquisition. If you are tracking with this origin story, the most noticeably absent person in this tale is God.

Did we evolve from pre-existing hominids, as the “particles to progress” story tells it, or were we created by an immediate act of God? What does the Bible really say about our origins and does it really conflict with what science tells us?

In the next post we’ll examine the creation of man from the standpoint of Genesis and following that we’ll dig into the fossil evidence and the genetics issue, but before we do that I want to pose a question: So what? What’s at stake if there is no God and we simply evolved into bipedal people with big brains? It’s not like the “particles to progress” story is a threat to the future of iphones and the hope of self-driving cars. So what if we’re simply beasts?

If we are beasts, why not act like beasts?
Theodore was a handsome and charismatic young man. He was college educated and showed promise in law school. He was the kind of man that a young woman could feel good about taking home to meet mom and dad, but beneath his charming exterior, Ted Bundy was a monster. Before his execution at the age of 42 in 1989, Bundy confessed to murdering over 30 people. In a correspondence before his death, Bundy exposed his rational for the rape and murder of his victims (Warning: this is sick stuff):

Then I learned that all moral judgments are “value judgements,” that all value judgments are subjective,  and that none can be proved to be either “right” or “wrong.”…[There is no] “reason” to obey the law for anyone, like myself who has the boldness and daring… to throw off its shackles…Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer?…Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as “moral” or “ good” and others as “immoral” and “bad”?

I know, I know, Bundy was crazy! Most people who espouse atheistic philosophy are not psychopaths. Most people do not go around “Dexter-ing” their fellow humans, but his question won’t be buried: Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer?

Bundy’s logic was simple: It’s not wrong to slaughter animals. People are animals. Therefore it is not wrong to slaughter people [There is no right and wrong]. Did you note Bundy’s appeal to the “age of scientific enlightenment”? Ideas have consequences. If there is no God, there is no timeless, objective moral “ought to” or “ought not to.” Morality becomes radically subjective and nothing more than a social construct. As a daring and sophisticated beast, Bundy simply chose not to follow the construct.

I can almost hear some of my atheistic and agnostic friends getting apoplectic. Surely morality has evolved past “tooth and claw.” We have come a long way from Bronze age morality baby and we know better now. But without an objective moral standard, how do we know what goes on the “naughty list” and stays on the “naughty list”? More than that, as a sophisticated beast, wasn’t Bundy just doing what came natural to him? In his book How to Be An Atheist, Mitch Stokes writes:

According to the evolutionary story, our moral beliefs are merely survival tools, not the apprehending of eternal truths. But it’s plausible that certain currently untoward behaviors aid our survival: rape, aggression, xenophobia, and male promiscuity. These are not only natural but arguably advantageous. Yet they now offend us. Since morality is up to us, however, we can choose to put rape and aggression on the immoral list. This is the good news. But the bad news would be that morality seems to merely a matter of preference. We can choose our standards.

Bundy chose his standards. In this age of scientific enlightenment, he was just connecting the dots. No God—No Objective Morality. No God and man is merely a sophisticated beast. If we are beasts, why not behave like beasts? I’m not saying that it has to go there, I’m saying that without God there’s no rational reason why it ought not.

If we are beasts, why not “do it” like beasts?
The 1980’s was a magical time for music. The Brits brought us the dulcet introspection of Morrissey fronting the Smiths and the happy/sad songs of the Cure. In America, Van Halen popularized the alchemy of screaming guitars and synthesizers. No one has to apologize for the music of the ’80’s. But if the ’80’s was a party, the ’90’s was its hangover: Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby”, Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Acky Breaky Heart.” Somebody stop, I want to get off! The decade had a few stand outs from the emerging alt rock scene, but a time period inaugurated with the lyrical pap and dribble of “Stop. Collaborate and listen. Ice is back with a brand new invention (Actually, he ripped off Freddy Mercury and David Bowie) and ending with, “You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do it on the Discovery Channel” desperately needs a re-write!

The music was bad and the lyrics worse, but bands like The Blood Hound Gang were just connecting the dots of a godless philosophy: If we are beasts, why not “do it” like beasts? If humans have no intrinsic moral worth, then sex is not sacred. Why not “do it” like they “do it” on the Discovery Channel? The answer, of course, is that we are not beasts and sex is something special. The clash of atheistic philosophy and the sacred are put on garish display in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe. Crowe plays Ronald Nash, a socially awkward and filterless mathematician. In one scene he approaches an attractive and available young woman sitting at the bar. He blunders badly and she suggests, “Maybe you wanna buy me a drink?”

Nash leans in with blunt philosophical honesty, “I don’t know exactly what I’m required to say in order for you to have intercourse with me. But could we assume that I said all that? I mean, essentially all we’re talking about is fluid exchange, right? Could we just go straight to the sex?”

Nash was just connecting the dots, but his request was met with a prompt slap to his face. Really, the slap says it all. Deep down inside, we know that sex is transcendent and much more than the “animal-act”! In fact, upon further examination, when it comes to humanity, there is no animal act. In his book Rumors of Another World, Philip Yancey reminds us:

Human beings experience sex as a personal encounter, not just a biological act. We are the only species that commonly copulates face-to-face, so that partners can look at each other as they mate, and have full body contact. Unlike other social animals, humans prefer privacy for the act.

The way we “do it” gives us away. We do not act like beasts because we are not beasts.

If we are beasts, what happens to equality?
The Declaration of Independence grounds human rights in the benevolence of the Creator:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Our dignity comes from God, not from the opinions of others. Our rights comes from God, not from kings and governments. These potent words are founded on the belief in God. Remove God and you lose the inherent dignity of people. Natural selection and philosophical naturalism could never arrive at such a proclamation. When it comes to natural selection it is NOT self-evident that all men are equal: Some are smarter than others, some more attractive, some stronger, etc. These truths are only self-evident from a Judeo-Christian framework.

Ideas have consequences. The evolutionary “particles to progress” story reduces us to sophisticated beasts without an objective moral ought or ought not. We don’t have to act like beasts, but in this origin story there is no rational reason why we shouldn’t. If we are beasts, why not act like beasts? Think about it.

Next Week: Genesis and the creation of man.