02 November 2004

Flores man: what if?

The discovery of the remains of several one-metre-tall human beings in the Indonesian island of Flores has prompted this editorializing from The Guardian:

[Charles] Darwin and [Alfred Russel] Wallace would be delighted to see their theories illustrated in a manner showing that humans are not immune to natural selection. This is bad news for creationists who insist on the literal truth of the Bible. The existence of Florence shows the fact of species diversity, and the difficulty of separating human from ape on the evolutionary scale.

Henry Gee similarly opines in his analysis for Nature:

If it turns out that the diversity of human beings was always high, remained high until very recently and might not be entirely extinguished, we are entitled to question the security of some of our deepest beliefs. Will the real image of God please stand up?

David Wilkinson, a theologian at England's University of Durham, is unshaken by this momentous discovery:

Being made in the image of God is about being given the gift of intimate relationship with God, and a certain kind of responsibility in the natural world. That human beings are special in terms of relationship allowed early astronomers such as Huygens to speculate about other worlds without having nightmares about his Christian faith. The fact that God may have created many other species in the Universe does not diminish the relationship he has given to human beings.

Further, as many historians have pointed out, the Christian worldview encouraged the growth of empirical science - the Universe had to be observed to see what God had done. The diversity and unpredictability of the cosmos or natural world was therefore a reflection of a God who gives the Universe the potential for extravagance. Finally, the gift of responsibility brought with it the need for care and compassion to others, the animal kingdom and the environment. So as a Christian, in common with many other religious believers, I don't see LB1 [Flores man] as a threat to religion.

I am fascinated with what more we might find out about the diversity of the natural world. And if Homo floresiensis still exists then they need to be treated with respect and care whether the anthropologists class them as human or not. I still see the special status of humanity in the gift of relationship with God, a relationship affirmed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Let's begin with The Guardian. As far as I know, no one -- not even the christian "fundamentalist" -- argues that human beings are "immune to natural selection." The evidence for it is all around us. Although the genetic variations within humanity are exceedingly small, one can hardly deny that at the very least skin colour appears to be correlated with climate. A person with more epidermal pigmentation is obviously better suited to equatorial Africa or the Amazon basin than someone with lighter skin prone to burn easily. Darwin's theory accounts for this quite nicely.

Furthermore, given that the early books of the Old Testament tell of such mysterious beings as the nephilim, which have heretofore been seen as mythological by mainstream scholarship, I imagine that the inventive believer in biblical literalism could draw a connection between these giants and the apparently extinct non-Homo sapiens species of humans beings. Moreover, the fact that so many peoples have tales of quasi-human beings, such as elves, fairies and the like, could be taken as evidence of a collective memory of a time when other homidid species walked the earth, alongside man.

As for Wilkinson, I believe he is correct in his understanding of the imago Dei. It is not rationality or some such, as the old scholastic theologians would have argued. To be created in God's image means to be created with the capacity to commune with God and to respond to his call. Of course, the following statement settles little: "And if Homo floresiensis still exists then they need to be treated with respect and care whether the anthropologists class them as human or not." True. But we do not treat human beings and animals exactly alike. Which is why it matters very much how we would classify a living example of Flores man. We care for our cattle and presumably treat them with the respect befitting cattle. Yet we eat hamburgers and steaks and we wear leather shoes. We do not treat our fellow human beings this way.

My own sense of the matter is that, if examples of Flores man are found alive, and if they worship something or someone believed divine -- or even deny the existence of the divine -- then they are fellow human beings. If they have no capacity to comprehend a transcendent being on which they are utterly dependent and to respond to his call, then they are not, after all, human. Yet even if existing examples of Flores man were to prove not to be human, they should be treated with the respect due the higher primates at the very least. And, as Wilkinson affirms, they would have to be recognized as one more piece of evidence of the sheer diversity God has built into his cosmos.

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