30 October 2004

More than one human species?

The discovery of the skeletal remains of Homo Floresiensis is still sending shock waves through the scientific world. The fact that the remains are only 18,000 years old -- a mere yesterday by comparison with other proto-human remains -- has raised the tantalizing possibility that We May Not Be the Only Humans on Earth:

experts have not ruled out the possibility of her descendants, or other unknown human species, still hiding in the impenetrable forests and cave systems of South-East Asia. Mythical tales abound in the region of a race of little people that dwell on the islands of Indonesia. Dutch explorers who colonised Flores 100 years ago were told colourful stories of a human-like creature local inhabitants called 'ebu gogo'. The tales described how they could be heard 'murmuring' to one another, and how, parrot-fashion, they repeated back words spoken to them. Dr Henry Gee, senior editor of scientific journal Nature, said scientists who made the discovery were now having to think again about these stories' source. . . . Scientists are now looking to see if DNA samples can be extracted from the remains, which should shed new light on the creatures.

So what if another human species were discovered on Flores or one of the other islands in the East Indies? What would be the political and ethical implications of such a find? Would these three-foot hominids be issued passports and voting cards by the Indonesian government? If they did not possess every human capacity as we understand it, would we look on them as subhuman?

It is not so very long ago that existing variations of our own species were classified as though they were distinct and separate species, with light-skinned Europeans -- the ones doing the classifying, of course -- being thought a higher form of humanity than darker-coloured Asians and Africans. Laws were enacted in, e.g., South Africa and the American South, to prevent interbreeding. Of course, we now know that existing human genetic variations are very small indeed, with racial identity being literally only skin deep. Theories of racial superiority have been thoroughly discredited and find no support whatever in the mainstream of the media and the academy.

Yet if living communities of "hobbits" (as they are being christened) were found and if DNA testing demonstrated them to be a distinct human species incapable of breeding with Homo sapiens, would such theories make a come-back? Would Christians undertake to evangelize them and to build (very much smaller) church buildings for them? Or would they conclude that they "lacked a soul" or were not created in the imago Dei?

Of course, we can't know how such questions would be addressed in advance. But one thing does trouble me about the way such creatures tend to be portrayed in the absence of visual evidence. Note from Peter Schouten's illustration below that Homo floresiensis is dark-skinned and somewhat resembles an Australian aboriginee. Am I the only one to find it revealing that, when someone of European (Dutch no less!) origin undertakes a visual reconstruction of an apparently extinct human species, the latter ends up looking more like an African or Australasian than a European? No blond-haired, blue-eyed hobbits, it seems. It occurs to me to wonder whether this might indicate the persistence of earlier racial attitudes.

Incidentally there is already a Wikkipedia article on Homo floresiensis. And here are the reports from the journal, Nature.

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