Assessing Evidences for the Evolution of a Human Cognitive Platform for "Soulish Behaviors"

By Stearley, Ralph F. | Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, September 2009 | Go to article overview
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Assessing Evidences for the Evolution of a Human Cognitive Platform for "Soulish Behaviors"


Stearley, Ralph F., Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith


During the past one hundred fifty years, a great number of fossil hominid specimens have been unearthed, providing an outline of hominid history extending back five million years. Associated with these hominid fossils are artifacts. Christians and others who have attempted to assess the humanity of these long-dead individuals have focused on evidences of cognition such as cave art, evidences of care given to injured or ill individuals, or burial. However, many more types of evidences as to cognitive abilities in these creatures are available.

Warren Brown has proposed that a cluster of interlinked cognitive capacities were elaborated over the past few million years of hominid history during an "evolutionary trajectory" which, in turn, undergird human "soulish behaviors." (1) These include language, a theory of mind, episodic memory, top-down agency, future orientation, and emotional modulation. This article is an attempt to put traction on Brown's proposal, through detailed examination of the paleoanthropological record. The ability to teach, and thus symbolically and rapidly transmit culture, is suggested as an additional capacity which is part of this cognitive platform. Primary data (anatomy, artifacts) and reliable inferences (based on comparative studies) support a notion of a stage-wise erection of a cognitive platform for soulish behaviors. A few significant, less-understood gaps remain in the cognitive trajectory.

Through the course of the past five hundred years, voyages of exploration, the development of a science of comparative biology, and revelations provided by the unearthing of fossil hominids have combined to establish that humans occupy a position in a genetic continuum of life on Earth. In addition, natural and human experiments on brain function have demonstrated that the human mind is, in turn, founded on this biological history. Many theologians, scientists, and lay Christians have pondered these discoveries during this interval. How should this historical continuity be juxtaposed to the Christian concept of the unique creation and calling of humanity? As cynically phrased by the paleontologist Stephen J. Gould, are humans "... only an afterthought, a kind of cosmic accident, just one bauble on the Christmas tree of evolution"? (2)

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, contact with hitherto unknown human groups posed some vexing theological questions for many Christian theologians, historians, and natural philosophers. (3) While most orthodox theologians agreed that these "new" human groups were descended from Adam, many realized that the (post-Noachic Flood) Table of Nations in Genesis 11 did not include the ancestors of the residents of the New World. Thomas Burnet (1681), for example, responded by suggesting "the Almighty, we may reasonably suppose, made provision for a saving remnant in every continent." (4) However, some Christians questioned whether these new peoples were indeed descended from Adam. Could there exist New World and other humans, patently bearing God's image, who yet did not descend from Adam and Eve? Could such beings as "Preadamites" have existed in the distant past? (5)

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, well-executed anatomical studies of apes by Nicolas Tulp, Edward Tyson, and Petrus Camper confirmed their strong similarities to human beings. (6) Carolus Linnaeus, pious Lutheran and astute biological organizer, in his first edition of the Systema Naturae (1735), included humans with baboons, other monkeys, and apes under Class Quadrupedia and Order Anthropomorpha. (7) In his tenth edition, he erected the Order Primates for monkeys, apes, humans, and bats; in his notes to the twelfth edition, he commented, "It is remarkable that the stupidest ape differs so little from the wisest man, that the surveyor of nature has yet to be found who can draw the line between them." (8) Many of Linnaeus's contemporary natural historians, including the Compte du Buffon, objected to Linnaeus's placement.

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