I have never had strong views about human evolution. But in recent years, I got a chance to look at hundreds of articles making claims for it. A summary of what I learned might be useful:
1. Real (and imagined) "human evolution" is now so integral to our culture that demand outpaces authenticity. The disappointing history of Sahelanthropus, Orrorin, and Ardi, all hailed in 2001 as human ancestors, attests to the frustrating search for "missing links." Sediba, another supposed ancestor, fared no better in 2013. A science writer at Wired, not known for intelligent-design sympathies, derides the ceaseless buzz as "ancestor worship." One outcome is that many "separate species of human ancestors" may never have really existed and "may now have to be wiped from the textbooks."
2. There are signals in the noise! As it happens, they are not the signals many hoped to receive. The half human creature we were originally seeking continues to elude us. From surprisingly early periods, we encounter special respect for the dead and a sense of the divine, along with familiar artifacts and organized activities.
3. Early human religion seems like a 747 built in the basement with an X-Acto knife. No one predicted anything like the recent Gobekli Tepe find in Turkey:
It consists of about twenty stone wall circles (only a few of which have been excavated). Two megaliths face each other in the middle of each ring. The rings are also surrounded by huge, T-shaped stone pillars, some adorned with carvings of dangerous animals. The tallest pillars are about 16 feet and probably weigh seven to ten tons.
All done with Stone Age techniques. No one knows for sure what prompted this enormous sacrifice of piety because, of course, no documents survive from nearly 12,000 years ago. Some think that the dramatic appearance of the star Sirius near the moon caused people to wonder. For sure, no animals wondered much or for long.
4. The field is infested with competing trivial explanations. Barbara J. King explains at NPR that human
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).
Other primates never built anything like Gobekli Tepe (or even a village shrine). But such events must nonetheless somehow be accounted for by our kinship with them? In other recent accounts, we are also told that human behavior stems from lower testosterone levels 50,000 years ago. So why did such a fall in hormone levels (by accident, we are expected to suppose) never lead to great achievements in any of the many other thousands of life forms?
In yet another account, telling stories makes us human. If what makes us human is simply a description of some things humans can do, we are not looking at an informative explanation.
5. No one seems to want to confront the obvious difficulty: If chimpanzee behavior was any use in understanding human attainments, why did those attainments never happen for chimpanzees? No one wants to accept the obvious fact that humans are different. On top of that, the claim that humans are chimp-pig hybrids has been taken seriously. No, this isn’t a feminist denunciation that men are pigs. It is a literal but impossible claim. But it is still "science," according to naturalism.
6. There is also a constant need for different human species that died out, leaving only ourselves, evidence for which would support Darwinian theory. "Flores Man" is an example. Supposedly, a new diminutive species of humans (discovered in 2004) arose, flourished, and died out from earlier than 18,000 years ago:
To get a sense of the breadth of positions in the controversy, see "Is the Hobbit’s Brain Unfeasibly Small?" (maybe not); "Compelling Evidence Demonstrates that ‘Hobbit’ Fossil Does Not Represent A New Species of Hominid"; "Researchers offer alternate theory for found skull’s asymmetry" (malformed individual); "’Hobbit’ Was an Iodine-Deficient Human, Not Another Species, New Study Suggests."
The latest article I’m aware of charges that "Homo floresiensis" is an invalid species classification, and the principal skeleton may have been of a woman who suffered from a genetic disorder, Down syndrome.
It hardly sounds like settled science to an observer.
7. The original "new species" was the "not-quite-modern-human" Neanderthal (first noted in 1856). The accepted Darwinian interpretation of humanity requires a long, slow transition from a rodent-like primate to us. No one has observed anything of the kind happening. But, fortunately, Neanderthals weren’t around as a distinct people group to complain about what was said about them — so for many decades, they stood in for the not-quite-moderns. Current humans have some Neanderthal genes and it is unclear that the group lived differently from the rest of ancient mankind. So any decisions about them are bound to be political or theological at this point.
Commenting on a dispute over a supposed human ancestor, Smithsonian paleoanthropologist Richard Potts told the Wall Street Journal, "Evolution is wonderfully messy." Few would dispute it, but a multitude of conflicting speculations does not add up to progress.
Maybe that is too challenging a way to put the question. How about, it comes down to what we can responsibly believe. More to the point, who are we?
One thing’s for sure: There is no reason, based on any of the above, to abandon a typical traditional religious or philosophical teaching on the origin, let alone the honor and dignity, of human beings. If anything, the sheer vacuity of claims made on behalf of "modern science" (not, in this case, to be confused with actual science) suggests the opposite.
Editor’s note: Here are links to the whole "Science Fictions: Human Evolution" series to date.