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Human Origins: The War of Trivial Explanations

Denyse O'Leary

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The overarching theory in biology has been, for over a century, Darwinian evolution: Natural selection acting on random mutation is the cause of all or most variation in life forms. As anyone who has monitored what the media says over the years will know, all evidence is either interpreted on its terms or ignored. Thus, humans are evolved primates, an unexceptional twig on the tree of life, though like other twigs, we are accidental outliers.
For example, the 11,500-year-old religious complex Gobekli Tepe, described by one source as like “a 747 built in the basement with an X-Acto knife,” must be a subset or outgrowth of the activities of primates like chimpanzees and bonobos. Barbara J. King explains at NPR that human religiosity

was primed by the meaning-making, imagination, empathy and rule-following of other primates (primates with whom we shared a common ancestor in the past, or those common ancestors themselves).

Science-Fictions-square.gifOther primates never built such a thing, or built anything. But it must nonetheless somehow be accounted for by our kinship with them.
The fact that such claims explain nothing about the world around us and fly in the face of evidence and common sense is not treated as a serious objection. That is what it means when we say that Darwinian evolution is an overarching explanation: It can explain everything and anything — and in the end nothing — and still be the accepted and defended explanation. To doubt is to invite intellectual rejection.
One result is that numerous trivial and often contradictory accounts of our existence are the only ones on offer: Human evolution, we are told, began in a genetic coding error (a doubling error) half a billion years ago. Or else accelerated gene regions (HARs), human specific regulation of neuronal genes, or just plain novel genes are invoked.
In other accounts, humans evolved to “outrun the fastest animals on earth.” Alternatively, parasites made us what we are. One source informs us that men evolved sturdier features due to fighting over women (and beards to demonstrate their ability). We learned to walk upright in order to hit each other.
Ah yes, walking. There is a “uniquely human” way of walking upright and there’s no shortage of theses as to why: carrying infants or scarce resources, and saving energy strut the stage. Or it is due to climate change or rough terrain? Don’t assume a “chimpanzee starting point,” counsels one expert. Talk about advice that peers would be reluctant to heed…
These explanations tell us that bipedalism offers considerable advantages. Yet humans were the only creatures to adopt it with no backward glance. If we ask why that is, we will be rewarded only with announcements of the discovery of further ancient advantages. And on that point, we are already convinced.
Bipedalism, we are told, also resulted in nakedness, because of our need to cool down. But we are assured elsewhere that nakedness evolved as a way of controlling parasites. And another source suggests that “hairier is better” for that purpose.
Similarly, the human hand is simply a byproduct of changes to the shape of our feet. Or maybe not. Did stone tools really change human hands? Darwin speculated on this, which makes the idea canonical today. Curiously, while many claim that apes use and shape tools like humans, few speculate why doing so had no such dramatic effect on their hands.
We are told by others that fighting “may have” shaped the evolution of the human hand. One academic offers, “I think there is a lot of resistance, maybe more so among academics than people in general — resistance to the idea that, at some level humans are by nature aggressive animals.” Resistance? Really? Among academics and pundits, that is surely the conventional view!
And the human brain? Some say we evolved large brains alongside small guts, but another research team found no such correlation. Alternatively, fluid societies (relative to chimps) explains it. And, according to some, mental illness helped. Chimpanzees’ improved skills throwing excrement are also said to provide hints about human brain development. (The ability to throw projectiles at very high speeds is apparently unique to humans.) Our ancestors had to grow bigger brains anyway, we are told, to make axes and hunt something besides elephants. Collective intelligence (“ideas having sex”), whatever that means, has been really important to human evolution as well.
The obvious problems with all of these disunited and discordant theses can be summed up for convenience as: 1) If some aspect of chimpanzee behavior explains matters, why didn’t it produce the same result in chimpanzees? 2) If mere advantage (which every primate seeks) explains a development like the human mind, why did only humans experience it?
The above is only a selection from the claims advanced for one isolated hook or another on which key parts of our fragile humanity are said to suspend. A vast, interlocking pattern of timed hooks forming a design would better account for the evidence, but it wouldn’t be Darwin. Darwinian theory, by its very nature, demands this zealous emphasis on isolated, randomly generated characteristics or events — warring trivia, basically. And we haven’t even got to language or society yet.
Editor’s note: Here are links to the whole “Science Fictions: Human Evolution” series to date.
Image source: Fraser Elliot/Flickr.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.