Nowadays, it may not seem like this blog is entirely about atheism anymore, and maybe it’s not. However, one could argue that atheism colors my view of the world and what I write, even if it’s not explicitly mentioned. This is especially the case as I write more and more about paleoanthropology, or the study of human origins. Last week when I wrote my book review of Ian Tattersall’s The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack, I felt that I had crawled into the cave of a very niche topic that is paleoanthropological politics, and I never mentioned God or religion or atheism one time, and I wondered if that was what my readers wanted when they visited my domain.
But I don’t think I should feel that way.
I believe that paleoanthropology is intrinsically an atheistic field of study. Interest in human origins should be more widespread regardless of which worldview it entails, because it is the study of where we came from. Especially for anyone who was once religious and entranced by the story of God creating Adam and Eve, your curiosity about our origins should increase, not decrease, significantly, when you leave the religion and discover that only science can answer your questions.
It probably seems obvious as to why paleoanthropology conflicts with religion at a surface level. It’s pretty clear that scientists have determined that our apelike ancestors first began showing human-like characteristics and making the trek up to two feet around seven million years ago. On the other hand, Genesis claims that God created Adam from dirt and Eve from his rib at what many creationists believe was six thousand years ago. Of course, there are a lot of Christians who take issue with the doctrine of a young Earth, who believe in evolution, and who interpret the creation accounts as poetry or metaphor. This makes room for the lives of our beloved hominid ancestors, who at the very least deserve to have their existences acknowledged.
The schism between paleoanthopology and religion goes deeper yet. Even if you reconcile the timelines between evolution and the bible, I think that these two ideologies are fundamentally irreconcilable. The problem, though, is that paleoanthropology itself isn’t an ideology. There are dozens of conflicting opinions within the field, but the field itself is just a matter of the things that people discover. Those things are real, tangible fossils that people pick up and hold in their hands and see with their own eyes, that they can date using dozens of methods, and that they can place anatomically into a skeletal structure. (Meanwhile, you can’t touch creationism.)
Most of what paleoanthropologists disagree on seems to usually deal with the names of species, but they all know that the fossils exist. That is undeniable. It’s set in stone, if you will. Those fossils tell you how their owners were built, how they moved, what they ate, and how they lived. The areas and objects surrounding where they were found can often tell you when they lived and what tools they used. What these scientists have found is that evolution didn’t have any end goal in mind.
Whether evolution is random is difficult to explain, because it depends on what you mean by random. The mutations are random, but the traits that they give a creature and whether that creature survives as a result of them are not random. Survival is determined by the creature’s environment. Likewise, ancient human species evolved as a result of their environments, their predators, and their own food sources, but they weren’t intending consciously (or even genetically mutating purposely) to walk or talk or think. Those traits were literally all side effects of the hominids’ environments. Each change built upon the last and what was already there.
Similarly, as much as you may have thought that The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack had nothing to do with atheism, at the end, Tattersall wrote,
So, despite what we might have been taught, we are the pinnacle of nothing. Instead, we are simply one more twig on what was until very recently a luxuriant evolutionary tree. The recent pruning of this tree—a product of our accidental uniqueness—has given us an entirely false view of our place in Nature. To keep our self-image in proper proportion, we should never forget that what succeeds in evolution is usually not optimization in the engineering sense, but simply whatever it is that happens to work in the current environmental marketplace. Special as we Homo sapiens like to think ourselves, no impartial observer would dispute that, after many millions of years of evolution, we are notably imperfected—and will almost certainly remain that way. This, above all, is why we should always remember that we are no exception to Nature’s rules. Odd we may be; but we are nonetheless an odd primate.
It might sound like Tattersall is refuting a creationist principle, but he’s not—at least not explicitly. He fought throughout the book against the old paleoanthropological idea of humans being feats of engineering crafted by nature over millions of years, with each form getting closer to perfection. And I think that this week, more than most, we know for a fact that humans are not perfect: in reality, we are probably closer to the opposite.
Even though paleoanthropologists obviously believe in evolution, that linear progression of improving forms is as close as they get to creationism, and it’s not a far stretch to get there. All theistic religions believe in a creator god. They don’t all believe that humans are perfect, but they believe that they were created with and for a purpose, by someone with a plan and an end goal of what he wanted to make. Religion teaches that we were engineered.
Paleoanthropology literally undermines all of that.
It hasn’t always been that way (because, you know, science changes as new information is uncovered), but the more that we discover about our origins, the more clear it becomes that we didn’t have anything in mind as we evolved. No one did: not us, or God, the universe, or even nature itself. Versatile hominid species just kept branching off and filling different ecological niches, and either dying out or continuing to change. To us, it would look like whichever one ended up becoming Homo sapiens did so because it progressed toward us, but truly, it was just luck.
So even when I write exclusively about paleoanthropology and its areas of contention within the field, I could argue that it all goes back to atheism. It’s all connected. Human evolution taking a wandering and “random” path isn’t an ideology, it’s literally what nature is telling us, and we can’t ignore that.