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Theological Notebook: AP Anthropology Story Confirms Religion Am Dum

Invincible ignorance? I was reading an otherwise-intelligent AP article on some new human-ancestor finds, when it shifted at one point to the probably-predictable commentary on how creationists might try to misuse the data. Having set up the old "science versus religion" dichotomy, the NYU anthropologist being quoted then proceeded to lump "religion" as a cateory in with the creationists and was then quoted as climaxing with a statement of stunning ignorance:
Susan Anton, a New York University anthropologist and co-author of the Leakey work, said she expects anti-evolution proponents to seize on the new research, but said it would be a mistake to try to use the new work to show flaws in evolution theory.

"This is not questioning the idea at all of evolution; it is refining some of the specific points," Anton said. "This is a great example of what science does and religion doesn't do. It's a continous self-testing process."
Naturally, I was shocked to discover that I'd put 20 years into what I thought was a "continuous self-testing process," only to find out here that such was not the case. Here I'm told that that old stereotype that "faith" means "blind belief" instead of "trust," where – like any other human trust – one usually has some sort of intellectual basis for it. Drat.

Now, I understand that the workings of philosophy and theology are largely unknown in a culture that leans against them, but I do think that with any other field, it would be a scandal to hear such a glib statement made that not only reveals an utter unfamiliarity with the methodologies of another science, but also gives a blanket insult to the intellect of everyone associated with some sort of religion, let alone just Christianity. I recognize that the field of Anthropology is locked into certain fundamental assumptions about the nature of religion that perhaps make it methodologically improbable for such scholars to take religions and their questions seriously on their own terms or to recognize the critical thinking and investigation going on within a religious intellectual community. But this kind of dichotomy of "all-or-nothing," with intellect being on the side of "science," is so ingrained here that even a professor in a well-known university can be quoted as such without either the reporter or the professor herself realizing how silly she sounds.

Sure, Christianity has "dogmas," as does any school of thought, not least evolutionary biology. Dogmas are fundamental starting points, first principles, results of decades or centuries of investigation. The use of "dogma" as a word just associated with religion, as a term often meant to negatively convey some sort of (once again) "blind belief," is an old, inaccurate slur, like a racist stereotype. As a technical term, it's equivalent to much more honourable terms in the physical sciences like "first principle." And while we have indeed even fashioned basic creeds long ago about the core points we're sure on (like any basic textbook), we still work on and engage in "continuous self-testing processes" with our dogmas: I, for instance, do quite a bit of work on the Trinity. Just because something's "settled," (like basic evolutionary theory) obviously doesn't mean that there isn't a lot of work left to be done with the topic.

I've been glib. I've said incredibly ignorant things and been smug where I had no grounds. But you learn so quickly in academia that when you assess something, you have to have reasons to support your conclusion, be they good or bad. Their worth is revealed in the conversation. But it's so trying in this field, to be smugly dismissed by people who have no idea what they're talking about, what's involved in the field, or even the grounds for determining truth. And worse, such people are often smug about their ignorance: that any use of reason in these directions is something to be avoided, like some mind-control they've nimbly evaded. I cannot imagine any other field where you regularly run into people who assume that the fact that they haven't studied the subject makes them more "neutral" and informed than you. The old Mike so wants to not be bothered to learn to love such people, and to just start the intellectual spankings. /rant

So what to do? Complain on my blog and explain so that anyone tripping across these words might get it? Just teach my students so that, believers or not, they don't grow up invincibly ignorant? Call this professor on her language? Write to her and the AP and try to be heard as an intelligent human being trying to lift public discourse, when I can be so reflexively written off? I could set this quote against the descripton of Theology on my UserInfo page as a piece of learnéd contrast....

Fossils Challenge Old Evoluton Theory
Aug 8, 5:57 PM (ET)


WASHINGTON (AP) - Surprising research based on two African fossils suggests our family tree is more like a wayward bush with stubby branches, challenging what had been common thinking on how early humans evolved.

The discovery by Meave Leakey, a member of a famous family of paleontologists, shows that two species of early human ancestors lived at the same time in Kenya. That pokes holes in the chief theory of man's early evolution - that one of those species evolved from the other.

And it further discredits that iconic illustration of human evolution that begins with a knuckle-dragging ape and ends with a briefcase-carrying man.

The old theory is that the first and oldest species in our family tree, Homo habilis, evolved into Homo erectus, which then became human, Homo sapiens. But Leakey's find suggests those two earlier species lived side-by-side about 1.5 million years ago in parts of Kenya for at least half a million years. She and her research colleagues report the discovery in a paper published in Thursday's journal Nature.

The paper is based on fossilized bones found in 2000. The complete skull of Homo erectus was found within walking distance of an upper jaw of Homo habilis, and both dated from the same general time period. That makes it unlikely that Homo erectus evolved from Homo habilis, researchers said.

It's the equivalent of finding that your grandmother and great-grandmother were sisters rather than mother-daughter, said study co-author Fred Spoor, a professor of evolutionary anatomy at the University College in London.

The two species lived near each other, but probably didn't interact, each having its own "ecological niche," Spoor said. Homo habilis was likely more vegetarian while Homo erectus ate some meat, he said. Like chimps and apes, "they'd just avoid each other, they don't feel comfortable in each other's company," he said.

There remains some still-undiscovered common ancestor that probably lived 2 million to 3 million years ago, a time that has not left much fossil record, Spoor said.

Overall what it paints for human evolution is a "chaotic kind of looking evolutionary tree rather than this heroic march that you see with the cartoons of an early ancestor evolving into some intermediate and eventually unto us," Spoor said in a phone interview from a field office of the Koobi Fora Research Project in northern Kenya.

That old evolutionary cartoon, while popular with the general public, is just too simple and keeps getting revised, said Bill Kimbel, who praised the latest findings. He is science director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University and wasn't part of the Leakey team.

"The more we know, the more complex the story gets," he said. Scientists used to think Homo sapiens evolved from Neanderthals, he said. But now we know that both species lived during the same time period and that we did not come from Neanderthals.

Now a similar discovery applies further back in time.

Susan Anton, a New York University anthropologist and co-author of the Leakey work, said she expects anti-evolution proponents to seize on the new research, but said it would be a mistake to try to use the new work to show flaws in evolution theory.

"This is not questioning the idea at all of evolution; it is refining some of the specific points," Anton said. "This is a great example of what science does and religion doesn't do. It's a continous self-testing process."

For the past few years there has been growing doubt and debate about whether Homo habilis evolved into Homo erectus. One of the major proponents of the more linear, or ladder-like evolution that this evidence weakens, called Leakey's findings important, but he wasn't ready to concede defeat.

Dr. Bernard Wood, a surgeon-turned-professor of human origins at George Washington University, said in an e-mail Wednesday that "this is only a skirmish in the protracted 'war' between the people who like a bushy interpretation and those who like a more ladder-like interpretation of early human evolution."

Leakey's team spent seven years analyzing the fossils before announcing it was time to redraw the family tree - and rethink other ideas about human evolutionary history. That's especially true of most immediate ancestor, Homo erectus.

Because the Homo erectus skull Leakey recovered was much smaller than others, scientists had to first prove that it was erectus and not another species nor a genetic freak. The jaw, probably from an 18- or 19-year-old female, was adult and showed no signs of malformation or genetic mutations, Spoor said. The scientists also know it isn't Homo habilis from several distinct features on the jaw.

That caused researchers to re-examine the 30 other erectus skulls they have and the dozens of partial fossils. They realized that the females of that species are much smaller than the males - something different from modern man, but similar to other animals, said Anton. Scientists hadn't looked carefully enough before to see that there was a distinct difference in males and females.

Difference in size between males and females seem to be related to monogamy, the researchers said. Primates that have same-sized males and females, such as gibbons, tend to be more monogamous. Species that are not monogamous, such as gorillas and baboons, have much bigger males.

This suggests that our ancestor Homo erectus reproduced with multiple partners.

The Homo habilis jaw was dated at 1.44 million years ago. That is the youngest ever found from a species that scientists originally figured died off somewhere between 1.7 and 2 million years ago, Spoor said. It enabled scientists to say that Homo erectus and Homo habilis lived at the same time.


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Tags: cultural, faith and reason, media, philosophical, secularism/modernity, theological methodology, theological notebook

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