Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins, by Ian Tattersal, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, $26.00
The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward O. Wilson, W. W. Norton, 2012, $27.95
Scholars who teach and write about “Big History” (such as David Christian, in Maps of Time or Fred Spier, in Big History and the Future of Humanity) incorporate scientific discoveries made during the twentieth century to demolish the young earth claims that Christians have made, based upon primitive calculations derived from genealogies found in the Bible. Rather than “give heed to fables and endless genealogies” (1 Timothy, 1:4) only to conclude that the world is no more than 5,000 to 10,000 years old, historians like Professors Christian and Spier use scientific evidence provided by geologists, archaeologists, paleontologists and astronomers who have demonstrated that the universe is some 13.7 billion years old and the earth is 4.5 billion years old.
For example, during the 1920s astronomer Edwin Hubble used the Mount Wilson telescope and redshift spectroscopic readings, to demonstrate that the most distant galaxies are moving away from our Milky Way galaxy at faster speeds (now thought to be approximately 90 percent of the speed of light) than the speeds at which most closer galaxies are distancing themselves. He also “showed that by measuring the rate of expansion, scientists should be able to estimate how long the universe has been expanding.”
Moreover, “if the universe is expanding, then it must have been much smaller in the past than it is now.” Doing the math working backwards, you get the probability of an infinitely small universe that got its start from a “big bang,” now thought to have occurred some 13.7 billion years ago. [Maps of Time, pp. 29-31]
Of course, that’s not to suggest that scientists have an answer to the question of what caused “nothing” to explode into something the size of a galaxy within a fraction of a second. Lee Smolin has speculated that our universe might have originated from a black hole in another universe, but that begs the question of the origin of the universe with the black hole. In reality, cosmologists are no more capable of explaining how nothing resulted in the big bang than monotheists are, when asked: “How was God created?” Scientists cannot even rule out the possibility that “time and space may have been created at the same time as matter and energy.” [Ibid, p.23]
Nevertheless, “beginning a tiny fraction of a second after the big bang, modern science can offer a rigorous and coherent story, based upon abundant evidence” [Ibid]. Scientists theorize that the big bang created hydrogen and helium atoms as well as the four fundamental forces, including gravity, which govern our universe. Further, they theorize that gravity subjected unevenly distributed clouds of hydrogen and helium to immense compression and, thus, immense heat until hydrogen atoms fused into helium. The resultant hydrogen explosions caused the formation of stars.
In support of their theory, they offer the following demonstrable facts: (1) the existence of omnipresent cosmic background radiation, (2) stars overwhelmingly composed of hydrogen and helium which (3) convert hydrogen into helium as stars age and die.
Long before our star – the sun – and our solar system were formed some 4.5 billion years ago, supernovae prepared the groundwork for both planet formation and life on earth by creating and blasting into deep space all of the chemicals found on our periodic table.
But, as is the case when attempting to explain how “nothing” exploded into something, scientists remain equally unable to explain how “chemical evolution” emerged into life on earth. They do not even agree on a basic definition of life.
Professor Spier defines “life” as, “A regime that contains a hereditary program for defining and directing molecular mechanisms that actively extract matter and energy from the environment, with the aid of which matter and energy is converted into building blocks for its own maintenance and, if possible, reproduction.” [Big History and the Future of Humanity, p. 77]
Notwithstanding their inability to explain how life emerged, Professor Christian, Professor Spier, and Ian Tattersall (curator emeritus in the Division of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History, whose book is under review here) accept the conventional wisdom that life emerged on earth some 3.5 billion years ago. As Mr. Tattersall puts it, “all life forms are ultimately linked at the genomic level to a single common ancestor that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago.” [p. xvi] Supporting their assertion are fossils of cyanobacteria (i.e., blue-green algae), which demonstrate that stromatolites existed as far as back as 3 billion years ago.
According to Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart (writing in The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma), evidence from fossils demonstrate that “representative animals of all but one of the 30 major modern phyla were present” as far back as 543 million years ago. [pp. 57-58]
Primates, argues Mr. Tattersall, emerged only 60 million years ago, soon after the extinction of dinosaurs. Chimpanzees and humans split from gorillas some 9 million years ago and humans split from chimpanzees some 5 to 7 million years ago. “But whatever the exact times of the divergence, this all means that if the common ancestor of the knuckle-walking chimpanzees and gorilla also walked that way, then so must the chimpanzee-human ancestor.” [Masters of the Planet, p. 13].
The first hominids (bipeds) appeared in Africa, probably some 7 to 6 million years ago. The genus Australopithecus emerged some 4.2 million years ago and appears to have been transitional, adapting from life in trees to life on land. Fossil evidence shows that Australopithecines were equipped with arms to swing from trees, but legs to walk long distances. They were using stone tools as far back as two million years ago. [p. 73]
Although Tattersall believes that the genus Homo evolved from one of the many species of Australopithecines, he acknowledges that “it is really hard to pinpoint where among these diverse creatures the origin of our genus lay.” [p. 85] Nevertheless, the fossil record demonstrates the existence of many species within the genus Homo, beginning and evolving since two million years ago: Homo habilus, Homo egraster, Homo georgicus, Homo mauritanicus, Homo erectus, Homo floresiensis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.
Fieldwork on the west side of Lake Turkana (Kenya) in 1984 turned up a skeleton of a Homo egraster – “Turkana Boy” – who appears to have lived some 1.6 million years ago. “The Boy was tall, with long legs that contributed importantly to basic body proportions that are close to our own.” [p. 93]
But it was brain size, according to Tattersall, that distinguished the evolution of the genus Homo. “Among the australopiths, we’re in the fairly tight range of about 450 cc to 550 cc. Among the earliest species of Homo, in the period following about two million years ago we’re looking at a range of some 600 cc to 850 cc; and by around half a million years, give or take, the range has broadened to around 725 cc to 1,200 cc.” [p. 130]
According to Tattersall, “the initial dispersal [of hominids] out of Africa appears to have occurred as early as 1.8 million years ago.” [p. 119] The change in body form (witnessed in Turkana Boy) and environmental change appear to have enabled and prompted the move.
Beginning approximately 600 thousand years ago Homo heidelbergensis emerged from Africa to roam the old world for the next 400 thousand years, as evidenced by fossils found in Ethiopia, Zambia, Greece and China. “They were adroit hunters who pursued large game using sophisticated techniques, built shelters, controlled fire, understood the environment they inhabited with unprecedented subtlety, and produced admirable stone tools that at least occasionally they mounted into composite implements.” [p. 142] But their intelligence was probably intuitive and non-declarative. [p. 143]
Homo heidelbergensis appears to have lost out to Homo neanderthalensis approximately 200 thousand years ago, but Neanderthal man appears to have been eradicated by Homo sapiens approximately 30 thousand years ago.
Although both Tattersall and Edward O. Wilson (whose book is also under review) agree that Homo sapiens finally emerged out of Africa some 60 thousand years ago, they differ as to what is was that allowed our species to dominate (and despoil?) the earth.
Tattersall credits our ability to manipulate symbols. He believes “the invention of language is the obvious candidate for the stimulus that tipped our ancestors over the symbolic edge.” [p. 216] Thus, given the evidence of symbolic activity dating back 100 thousand years ago, language must be at least that old. Tattersall wouldn’t be surprised if origin of our symbolic capacity emerged from some children at play.
But, the eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson disagrees. He credits the extremely rare phenomenon of eusociality: “group members containing multiple generations and prone to perform altruistic acts as part of their division of labor.”
In his enormously influential book, Sociobiology (1975), Wilson asserted that social behavior has a biological foundation. In his latest book Wilson again asserts that behavioral traits are hereditary, but also that “hereditary altruists form groups so cooperative and well-organized as to outcompete nonaltruistic groups…” [p. 166] He calls it “group selection.”
As Charles Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, “The most skillful breeder, Sir John Selbright, used to say with respect to pigeons that ‘he could produce any given feather in three years, but that it would take him six years to obtain head and beak.” [Christian, p. 87] Darwin simply demonstrated that nature, operating over immense periods of time, performed the same function as breeders like Selbright who engage in artificial selection. Darwin called it “natural selection.” Wilson’s controversial theory of eusociality claims that natural selection also operates at the group level. In fact, he argues for an “iron rule” in genetic social evolution: “Selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals” but “groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.” [Wilson, p. 243]
Thus, contrary to Tattersall’s claim, Wilson asserts, “language did not create the [symbolic] mind, but the opposite. The sequence in cognitive evaluation was from intense social interaction in early settlements to a synergism with increasing ability to read and act upon intention, to a capacity to create abstraction in dealing with others and the outside world and, finally, language.” [Ibid, p. 228]
Central to Wilson’s theory of eusociality is his rebuttal – both mathematically and biologically — of the generally held theory of inclusive fitness. But, his rebuttal has been contested by some 150 biologists. (For a critique of Wilson’s theory, see “How Fit is E. Wilson’s Evolution?” by Steven Mithen, New York Review of Books, June 21, 2012, pp. 26-28).
Nevertheless, Wilson scarcely differs from Tattersall in believing that language developed at least 60 thousand years ago. Thus, if language developed some 100 thousand years ago (Tattersall) to some 60 thousand years ago (Wilson), then it is safe to conclude that the first religions developed during that time period.
Why? Because, as Robert N. Bellah has observed, in Religion in Human Evolution, “religion becomes possible only with the emergence of language.” [p. xiv]
Tattersall not only doubts that the Neanderthals had language, he also doubts that their invention of burial constitutes proof of symbolic thought and belief in an afterlife. Thus, although he has little to say about religion in his book, the reader can infer that Tattersall credits Homo sapiens with the invention of religion.
Although Wilson believes that Neanderthal man “may well have had a language,” like Tattersall he sees little to suggest that the species had “costumed shamans” of the sort that Homo sapiens had 30 thousand years ago. [pp. 220-223]
In his chapter, “The Origins of Religion,” Wilson argues that the creation myths, which cannot exist without language, are not only the foundation of every religion, but also Darwinian devices for survival.
“The evidence that lies before us in great abundance points to organized religion as an expression of tribalism. Every religion teaches its adherents that they are a special fellowship and that their creation story, moral precepts, and privilege from divine power are superior to those claimed in other religions…The goal of religions is submission to the will and common good of the tribe.” [pp. 258-259]
Wilson believes religion emerged when Homo sapiens began to reflect upon their own mortality and when, in dreams or drug induced states, they saw their deceased relatives – as well as enemies, gods, demons and monsters. [p. 264]
Had Robert Bellah’s book been available to him, Wilson would have learned that the earliest tribal religions practiced rituals that made sacred ancestors seem real, but they had no gods or supernatural beings. More significantly, Wilson would have encountered evidence suggesting that such rituals and religions emerged, not to serve Darwinian purposes, but from the rules “sheltered to some degree from selectionist pressures” [Bellah, p. 112]: governing child’s play.
It is to Bellah’s magisterial book that I turn in Part Two.
By Walter Uhler
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