Thursday, May 1, 2008

Humans Did Not Descend From Apes

I ran across a post by John Shore of the Suddenly Christian blog titled, "If We WERE Descended From Apes, At Least I Wouldn’t Have To Work." His commentary is meant to be humorous, detailing how he is personally averse to labor and how this relates to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. But I thought the premise itself was worth a reply, as so many Christians I speak to are confused about this point of our relation to the apes (and all life, for that matter). And some seem just downright fearful of the prospect.

For example, I attended a Whitworth College alumni event (my pastor told me about it - I am not an alum) titled, "Christian Evolutionist: An Oxymoron?" Whitworth biology professor Craig Tsuchida gave an excellent explanation of how evolution works and various ways Christians can reconcile their faith with science. Afterward, a member of the school's board repeatedly asked Professor Tsuchida questions about our relation to the apes. She had a pained look on her face, and misunderstood his answers, rephrasing the question in an attempt to be told there was no connection between ourselves and the apes. If she had spoken her true feelings, I suspect the line of questioning would have been more of a plea, "Just tell me I'm not related to those damn, dirty apes!"

I think this particular aversion is based in [misplaced] pride, and it seems to extend from the same mindset that put Earth at the center of our first planetary models. But I don't buy the premise - that being related to apes, or being classified as animals, makes us somehow less valuable. First, imagine the worst possible human being (yes, I know who we're all thinking of). We are far more closely related to him than to any modern ape, but does that really affect the way we see and define ourselves? Surely, the horrible acts committed by humanity are a blight upon us all, but that just means that we are capable of both good and evil. No one wakes up and says, "I am distantly related to a criminal, so I might as well go murder and steal."

My second observation is that being a subset of the category "animal" need not sully the word "human." Why not simply expand our understanding of the word "animal" to encompass all that we find good about humans? I remember my sister and I trying to convince our mom that people were animals. My mom would say, "I just don't like that word." My sister had a quick repartee, "Well, we're not vegetables or minerals."

I should also make the third point that animals in general (and apes in particular) and not necessarily so bad. They, too, perform acts both good and evil by our standards. Chimps, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans all demonstrate love for their children, reciprocal altruism, and some even aid hurt members of other species. There is much more to be said about this, but I will briefly recommend Frans de Waal's book Our Inner Ape.

So, in the comment section of John's blog, I wrote the following:
Just a technical note for clarification… we are not descended FROM modern apes. We share a common ancestor WITH modern apes, the same way you share ancestors with your cousins, rather than being descended from your cousins. As to whether our shared common ancestors would be classified as apes, well, that’s simply a taxonomy question. The various species, genera, families, and other categories we place animals in are convenient groupings that help us organize, but do not capture the continuum of evolution. If you held your mother’s hand, and she held mother’s, and so on for about 300,000 generations back (approximately the time we split from chimps and bonobos), you’d have a chain about 216 miles long, and the individual at the other end would not be called human. However, you would never identify two individuals along the chain for whom you could say that one was human and the next was not.

It’s well enough to find inspiration from ancient tales like those in Genesis, and apply the insights of their authors and their times to our lives, but I’d recommend making that endeavor part of a fuller and more robust outlook. We are storytelling animals, and we want to be part of a narrative. What better narrative is there than the one that shows us where we REALLY came from, and demonstrates that we are cousins with all life? It is not merely a beautiful, humbling and awe-inspiring story, but one that is demonstrably true.