Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Did Lucy Have a Soul?

What is it about religion that makes otherwise sensible people lose control of their faculties of reasoning? I recently came across a post in a discussion of archaeological evidence relating to toolmaking and the evolution of our species in which the most clearsighted thinking on the significance of what has been found is tail-ended by the weirdest segue into batty theological speculations. Below is an excerpt of the most significant parts of the post in question:

One of the valid criticisms of my view has concerned the lack of cultural remains found in times earlier than when the genus Homo first appeared, around 2.4 million years ago. In the recent years, this gap has begun to disappear. Tools have been found at African sites such as Gona, Ethiopia, as old as 2.6 million years, with only Australopithecus being present. This raises the possibility that a being not of our genus, much less our species, was making and useing stone tools.

One of the interesting things about these finds is the light they shed on the mental capacities of these early hominids. First, obviously, these creatures had the ability to know that stones could be fashioned into tools. Secondly, they had more knowledge of rock mechanics than chimpanzees are able to master. Toth tried to teach a bonobo, Kanzi, how to make stone tools. Kanzi never mastered the ability to strike the stone tool at the optimum angle for the maufacture of a sharp edge. He took to smashing stones on the floor and looking for sharp flakes produced by accident. But the early tool maker from 2.6 million years ago had the knowledge as his tools are not made by accident.(Ian Tattersall, The Fossil Trail (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p.207; Kathy D. Schick and Nicholas Toth, Making Silent Stones Speak, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), p. 136)

Secondly, it meant that the creature had to know WHERE to find appropriate rocks and what rocks were suitable for making stone tools and which weren't. Limestone is not good for making stone tools. Neither is sandstone. Thus, this being 2.6 million years ago needed to be able to tell the difference between igneous and other fine grained rocks and coarse sandstones, conglomberates and limestone--thus he was the first primitive mineralogist.

Thirdly, these beings acted like you and I do in the presence of abundance--they are wasteful in the presence of abundance. One sees great
outdoor fountains in rainy areas but rarely in dry deserts where water is precious. I will cite Heinzelin et al,

"At the nearby Gona site, abundant Oldowan tools were made and discarded immediately adjacent to cobble conglomberates that offered excellent, easily accessible raw materials for stone-tool manufacture. It has been suggested that the surprisingly advanced character of this earliest Oldowan technology was conditioned by the ease of access to appropriate fine-grained raw materials at Gona. Along the Karari escarpmetn at Koobi Fora, the basin margin at Fejej, and the lake margin at Olduvai Gorge, hominids also had easy access to nearby outcrops of raw material. In contrast, the diminutive nature of the Oldowan assemblages in the lower Omo [made on tiny quartz pebbles] was apparently conditioned by a lack of available large clasts."
Jean de Heinzelin et al, "Environment and Behavior of 2.5-Million-Year-Old Bouri Hominids" Science 284(1999):629

Fourthly, there is evidence of great planning abilities and forethought, which is the most important trait we can find in these hominids because it is precisely this which allows us to follow moral commands (see Morton, G. R. (1999) Planning Ahead: Requirement for Moral Accountability, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 51:3:176-179 )

When the Bouri hominids, that Hinzelin et al are describing and which are of the same age as the Gona hominids, are faced with scarcity, their behavior is different in a typically human way. There are no great heaps of thrown away tools at Bouri, just an occasional tool. Yet we know that they were using stone tools to butcher animals because they left cut marks on the bones.


If these creatures, whoever it is, were carrying tools 59 kilometers, that is about a 2 day walk and means that the creature could plan 2 days in advance. For comparison, a chimp can plan only about 20 minutes ahead. That is the longest time they have been observed carrying a stone with which to break open coula nuts. Clearly the people living 2.5 million years ago, were far away more advanced than a chimp. And given their ability to plan ahead for at least 2 days, it strongly implies that they would have understood consequences (i.e. make tool, carry tool to Bouri lake, kill animal, use tool to butcher animal) They didn't miss sight of the consequence of killing the animal and then going to Gona to make a tool and come back with it to butcher the animal. The animal would have been eaten or rotted by the time they came back.

The fact that they carried their tools away with them means that they understood the consequence of not having the tool and planned ahead for future kills.

Interestingly, the only creature found at Bouri, was Australopithecus garhi--a creature not of our species but whose hands were very human like in their abilities:

“This new Australopithecus hand seems, like that of the modern human, to be relatively unspecialized in that it has a short palm and fingers compared with those of apes.” Ron Clark, “Discovery of Complete Arm and Hand of the 3.3 Million-Year-Old Australopithecus Skeleton From Sterkfontein,” South African Journal of Science, 95(1999):477-480, p. 480

What is the importance of this planning ahead? It implies that this
creature, one we don't even allow into our genus, was capable of understanding moral imperatives and the consequences of not obeying a
command of God. I have long argued that Adam was much longer ago than most theologians want to accept. Here is evidence that a creature existed 2.5-2.6 million years ago who could manufacture complex tools, who could plan ahead, who could act like a human in response to plenty, and who could understand consequences be they physical or moral. What more is needed to be able to call this creature, Man (or Adam in the Hebrew)?
(emphasis added)

Here's a fellow who's making insightful, persuasive points about what conclusions can be drawn about the mindsets of late australopithecines, given evidence for their usage and curation of stone tools, and all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, he starts leaping to conclusions about the supposed capacity for morality of said creatures, and the existence of the biblical Adam. What is going on in such a person's head? Tool use and the capacity to plan ahead say nothing whatsoever about one's capacity for moral thought and behavior - the average sociopath seems to get along just fine with the mechanical aspects of life despite lacking anything in the way of an internal moral compass.

The need to believe in the religious precepts one is taught early in life seems to be so great in many people that they're willing to surrender their critical faculties at the first hurdle in order to keep believing. If we say the likes of Lucy and the Turkana Boy were moral creatures in the same sense as most of us are today, we might as well throw in the towel and grant the same right to all of the other great apes right now. There's very little that distinguishes an australopithecine from a chimpanzee other than the ability to walk upright.