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Ape-man – Looking for an evolutionary account of human origins

June 2000 | by David Tyler

Ape-man BBC2 television series
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Ape-man, the BBC2 television series, has brought the topic of man’s origin to prominence once again. Viewers were presented with a mixture of fossil data, scientific analysis and interpretation, together with dramatic reconstructions of various hominid species.

Some viewers found the level of speculation excessive, detracting from their enjoyment of the series. Others felt that each programme had only about 50% of worthwhile content, making the programmes slow and tedious to watch. The major concern expressed in this article, however, relates to the complete absence of any appreciation that God might just have had something to do with human origins!

Biblical principles

At the outset, it is useful to highlight some biblical principles that should inform our thinking on this topic. First, Adam and Eve were made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), something that cannot be said of any other living creatures. Every image is created by a designer, and the term has no meaning if it is divorced from purpose, intelligence and intent. If man is an image-bearer, he cannot be explained without reference to his intelligent Designer.

Secondly, the historicity of Adam, and of the entrance of sin and death into man’s experience, are given an important place in New Testament theology (Romans 5:12-21). In particular, human death is the consequence of sin (Genesis 2:17). Just as the historicity of Christ, the cross and the resurrection are foundational truths for Christianity, so also are the historicity of Adam, the Fall and the Edenic curse.

Thirdly, as image-bearers, Adam and Eve were endowed with a capacity for self-consciousness and spiritual response to God. They could converse and reason, and were entrusted with the responsibility to rule over (and care for) the Earth.

Their sons were farmers, both livestock and arable (Genesis 4:2). Very quickly, man developed skills in construction (Genesis 4:17), music (4:21) and working with bronze and iron (4:22). In short, basic civilisation dates from the time of creation.

Neither apes nor humans

Turning to the BBC2 series, we find that an evolutionary framework is assumed throughout. Continuity between man and ape-like creatures is taken for granted, with no attempt at proof.

With reference to Homo erectus, the narrator said: ‘[This was] the time when we were no longer apes, but not yet human’. Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalis were all presented as species which were ‘not us’, but which shared with us a common ancestry.

Furthermore, human death was never seen as anything other than normal. The thought that death (physical and spiritual) is the consequence of sin was not even considered. (Even if it had been, one suspects, it would have been presented as a fable, best consigned to oblivion.)

Making sense of the data

Rather than critique each episode, I want to consider some of the broadcast material and suggest how Christians, using biblical principles, can make sense of the data presented. Episode 1 is a good starting point. This programme looked at Stone Age cave paintings in Europe and found a number of striking parallels with the shamanistic wall-rock art of the Bushmen of South Africa.

The conclusion was that ‘these [stone-age] people had minds identical to our own. [They] were truly human’. This conclusion is reinforced by a host of other evidences. These ancient people are justifiably described as fully human.

Furthermore, the shamanistic elements reveal that these were fallen men, alienated from the one true God. They fit perfectly the biblical description of Adam and Eve’s descendants.

Since there is no trace of Noah’s flood subsequent to their remains, it must also follow that these people were descendants of Noah and his sons, occupying a time-slot between the Flood and the rise of settled civilisations.

Neanderthals

The final episode looked at the Neanderthals in Europe, and their sudden replacement by humans of modern appearance (like those responsible for the shamanistic cave paintings). Neanderthals were highly adapted to living in colder conditions, with a stocky build and great strength. Although modern man was less well physically adapted to cold conditions, he is thought to have been more innovative and better able to adapt his behaviour to climatic instability.

The programme concluded that the Neanderthals were ‘a separate parallel species of human’ and definitely not us. We can find common ground with much of this, and with the supporting genetic evidence from Neanderthals, DNA research, but still reach a different conclusion.

The episode returned repeatedly to the finding of the bones of a four-year-old child in Portugal. This child shows clear evidence of being a hybrid, having both Neanderthal and modern features. From a biblical perspective, this is immensely significant.

It means that Neanderthals and modern man have common developmental pathways and therefore belong to the same created kind. My understanding of Neanderthals is that they were a genetically-distinct group of humans that migrated away from the main community of humans prior to the confusion of tongues at Babel.

Ape-brained?

Episode 3 was concerned with Homo erectus, who was described as the missing link, ‘part human, part ape’. The human part is basically everything except the skull! His body had the proportions of humans adapted to warm climates, and was somewhat larger and stronger than modern man.

The alleged ‘ape’ part was his skull and brain, which were relatively small. Even here, however, there is evidence of a specifically human feature, Broca’s area, which is linked to the capacity for speech.

The programme makers failed to inform viewers that humans today have a very wide range of brain sizes, and that the alleged ape-brain of Homo erectus falls at the bottom end of this range (but still within it). By contrast, there is a clear gap between the size of Homo erectus brains and those of apes.

To say that Homo erectus was walking around with ‘a brain of a one-year-old baby’ was, therefore, completely unwarranted. The commentator was closer to the truth when he said: ‘The missing link appeared much closer to us than we had ever imagined’.

Furthermore, Homo erectus was an efficient hunter, an accomplished migrant (hardly the characteristics of a one-year-old). Like the later Neanderthals, they can be understood as a genetically distinct group of humans that split away from the main community before Babel.

Created kind

The idea that the various Homo species all belong to the same basic type is being viewed with increasing favour by biblically-minded scholars. This hypothesis harmonises with the concept of a human ‘created kind’ that experienced diversification, probably as a result of adaptation. Particularly marked variations would have occurred in the period immediately following the Flood.

This scenario makes sense of all the data presented in the Ape-man series yet, at the same time, does justice to biblical revelation regarding man’s origins.