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Neanderthal Catechism

The Naturalist's Backward-Looking Tale of Homo Sapiens

Denyse O'Leary

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 36

Those of us who grew up with a catechism learned that answers to questions like "What is man?" might include that man is a being created by God, "male and female, after his own image," whose "chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever" (Westminster Catechism).

The catechism taught nowadays in tax-funded schools and popular media is quite different. It gives the "science" answer: Man is a bipedal, anthropoid ape, whose randomly directed history is turning up among the bones and stones and detritus, an ape whose mind differs only in degree, not in kind, from that of other apes.

Just as a fish doesn't "notice" water unless the creek dries up, we often do not notice the catechism underlying the news stories, which forestalls our asking critical questions. Consider the story from late last summer that announced that chimpanzees and monkeys "have entered" the Stone Age (BBC News, August 18, 2015).

The basis of the claim is that primates smash things with stones, even choosing the stones best suited to the task at hand. But then, so do some birds. Wild New Caledonian crows even twist sticks, so as to hook grubs out of tree bark more efficiently (Washington Post, December 24, 2015). Are these crows living in the Stick Age?

If the latter suggestion sounds ridiculous, why doesn't the former? Because we have a concept of a Stone Age in human history, a concept known only in retrospect by comparison with subsequent ages. Had there been no Bronze Age or Iron Age, we would not think in terms of a Stone Age. But we have no reason to believe that any similar progression is happening to primates or birds. They have probably been doing the same things, unnoticed, for millennia upon millennia.

Accepted Contradictions

Stories that illustrate the new catechism can contradict themselves without loss of credibility. For instance, we are told that the primate Stone Age could tell us a lot about our own primeval one, but then, "drawing conclusions won't be easy: early humans are very different from chimpanzees and monkeys."

Not only won't it be easy; under those circumstances it will be impossible.

People talk like this when they believe something so strongly (in this case, the virtual identity of humans and primate apes) that a supporting proposition need no longer make even outward sense. Anyone with a position to lose who has attempted to raise doubts about the naturalist catechism will understand why it need not: because the catechism is enforced by social exclusion, not evidence.

We are also enjoined to believe that there have been a number of separate intelligent human species in recent tens of millennia. The reason for the belief is not evidence but ideology. Darwin believed, as he said in his second widely known book, The Descent of Man, that

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla. (ch. VI)

The Australian writer and philosopher John S. Wilkins has dismissed as a "myth" the idea that Darwin thought "Australian aborigines were closer to apes than to Europeans," as he put it in his blog "Evolving Thoughts" (March 1, 2009). Wilkins's blog post is interesting because it is an exceptionally vigorous effort to avoid the obvious: Darwin, like many others of his newly naturalist set, was comfortable with the idea that Australian aborigines were closer to apes than the rest of us are. In fact, his and similar theories have provided key "scientific" support for racism and eugenics. That was not especially Darwin's intention; it is simply what his theory entails: a progression from less human to more human types.

Multiple Human Species?

One obvious outcome of the widespread acceptance of Darwin's theory has been an eager pursuit to discover the separate human species that supposedly lived in the remote past. The evidence base doesn't provide much support for this endeavor—unless the term "species" (notoriously hard to define in the science literature anyway) is so attenuated that there is nothing unusual about the discovery that modern humans have, by one 2014 count, 20 percent Neanderthal genes (Ed Yong, National Geographic, January 29, 2014).

Since we have Neanderthal man on the set, we might as well note that recent findings show little difference between Neanderthal culture and other early human cultures, and also show that he was not especially stupid.1 Flores man (Homo floresiensis) also appears to have lived similarly to other modern humans, but remotely and in small numbers, so it is unclear what weight the term "species" should bear.2 And now even Homo erectus is said to have been building boats!3

There is no firm evidence that there ever were separate human species, or that extant humans exterminated the other species. The Neanderthal genome map suggests that groups merged and cultures blended, with perhaps one culture emerging as dominant. But that's a hard sell because it provides no support for a long, slow continuum between humans and animals, which, as we have seen, is a fundamental tenet of the naturalist catechism. Differences between groups are what sell, and similarities are accepted with surprise (like the "bombshell" of Neanderthal art).4

Salvation in the Past

The naturalist catechism, of course, does not include God. One outcome of this is an endless search for the Big Fix, however apparently trivial, that makes us human.5 We are orphans in a random world we never made, that no one made, that doesn't make sense, and where our brains are shaped for fitness, not for truth. So even the idea of making sense is an illusion. But we do science anyway—to find evidence for these beliefs?

The naturalist catechism could be expounded upon at more length, to be sure, but here is a final note. Naturalism differs from other faiths in that salvation is not to be found in the future, as in a Resurrection of the Dead or even a Day of Doom. It is to be found in the past, among the bones and the stones and the detritus. That is what the Big Fix is, the messiah who made us what we are but promises no future.

We should hardly be surprised when cultural conflicts arise between naturalists and others. 


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