Reading this fascinating account of the recent discovery of Homo naledi–“a baffling new branch to the [human] family tree”–I couldn’t help thinking that Christianity hasn’t really come to terms with the history of human (and proto-human) existence as it’s increasingly being revealed to us.
When evolution first began to be debated in Christian circles it was possible to accept evolutionary theory but still draw a bright line between humans and the rest of creation. Sure we may have developed from “lower” forms of life, but we possessed unique capacities that set us apart. We had a “soul”–perhaps divinely infused at conception or some other point during our prenatal development; we had “free will”; we could reason about abstract concepts; we could respond to God’s will and commune with the divine, etc. Other animals, particularly higher primates, might appear to possess some of these abilities in rudimentary form, but it wasn’t much of stretch to still see humans as standing on one side of a great divide, with the rest of animal creation on the other.
However, as paleontologists have started to fill in the blanks in the evolutionary record, a murkier–and stranger–picture has emerged. Various kinds of proto-humans existed–most of them for much longer than Homo sapiens has so far. Some of them–Neanderthals and now possibly H. naledi–coexisted (and interbred) with us. Some of them seem to have possessed at least some of the capacities we have traditionally identified as uniquely human. For example, the discovery of the remains of over a dozen H. naledi in a deep cavern in South Africa may indicate a ritualized burial.
The upshot is that modern humans are increasingly shown to be deeply woven into the fabric of nature–more so than most traditional theology has admitted. And in geological time (never mind cosmic time) the duration of our existence and prominence on Earth is less than a blink. Nonetheless, it’s still hard for us not to see ourselves as the pinnacle of life and the center of history.
But if, as Christians are supposed to affirm, God loves and cares for all of creation, what role do proto- or other-humans play in God’s economy? Are we so sure that God’s most important dealings with human-like creatures occurred during the handful of millennia covered by the Bible? (As a thought experiment, one can extend this in the other direction: our far-distant descendants may differ radically from us in any number of ways and may, for all we know, be spread out through the galaxy, interbreeding with other species to create previously undreamt of forms of life. Are we sure nothing of equal religious significance will occur during that time and under such radically different circumstances?)
In principle, adjusting to the idea that we aren’t at the center of human (or quasi-human) history isn’t that different from absorbing the notion that the Earth isn’t at the center (spatially or temporally) of the cosmos, or that other creatures have value independent of us. But I don’t know that Christianity (or maybe any of the world’s religions) has really incorporated the implications of this in its theology, not to mention its piety, liturgy, and ethics. Our worldview–at least the one that’s presupposed by much of the church’s teaching and practice–still seems to put all the big events in the past, and it assumes that things will continue in essentially the same manner till the end of time. But given how briefly humanity as we know it has existed, what reason is there to think it represents the “normal” state of affairs?
I certainly don’t know what changes in our thinking and practice (if any) are called for. But it may be that the radical contingency of human existence as we know it has implications we’ve barely begun to consider.