In the midst of the innumerable stars

Now the Children of Ilúvatar are Elves and Men, the Firstborn and the Followers. And amid all the splendours of the World, its vast halls and spaces, and its wheeling fires, Ilúvatar chose a place for their habitation in the Deeps of Time and in the midst of the innumerable stars. — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

At the risk of bor­ing the read­er, I’m writ­ing again about Ivan the cat. There are things that Ivan and I share. Many of our bio­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics are the same. Accord­ing to the Dalai Lama, we both seek peace, com­fort and secu­ri­ty. Togeth­er, we devel­oped our habits and pat­terns, and there is def­i­nite­ly some com­mu­ni­ca­tion going on. The dif­fer­ences are also clear: Ivan is ath­let­ic and has a hunt­ing instinct; I can enjoy music, I am (usu­al­ly) sus­cep­ti­ble to rea­son and I have the abil­i­ty to worry.

Cat in Jerusalem

Cat and Maaike in Jeruzalem

I have this tal­ent because peo­ple are able to ask: “What if?”. Accord­ing to most the­o­ries, our con­scious­ness is what makes us such a spe­cial species. It has made us aware of our mor­tal­i­ty. And imag­i­na­tion is a pow­er­ful weapon because you can exper­i­ment in your mind before exe­cut­ing your plans. It leads to expres­sions of cul­ture, such as the use of sym­bols and language.

How did all of this come about? Pale­on­tol­o­gists and geneti­cists dig into the past, look­ing for fos­sils and DNA. The fos­sil record of hominids is still small. A sim­ple pedi­gree can­not be deter­mined, and each piece of bone that is found fuels a dis­cus­sion about its place in the evo­lu­tion­ary bush. Often, it leads to the def­i­n­i­tion of a new species. The old­est known human ances­tor is now a fos­sil from Chad that is 7 mil­lion years old.

Out of Eden Walk - National Geographic

About 60.000 years ago, Homo sapi­ens start­ed to spread across the world.
Jour­nal­ist Paul Salopek is now walk­ing this route.

Charles Fos­ter (in this book) con­nects the emer­gence of the moral­ly con­scious man to the ‘fall’ of man. Except that he does not inter­pret the sto­ry this way. Orig­i­nal sin is a con­cept that does not appear in the Bible and comes from Augus­tine. Fos­ter sees the ‘eat­ing of the tree of knowl­edge’ as the tran­si­tion from a human species with­out sym­bols (he men­tions Nean­derthals) to mod­ern humans. Accord­ing to him, the sto­ry may even have been an his­toric event. In any way, the effect was that man got a mature con­scious­ness and became respon­si­ble for his actions, unlike the animals.

I find this view of human evo­lu­tion a lit­tle shaky. It is like­ly that Nean­derthals buried their dead and wore jew­el­ry; expres­sions of under­stand­ing of sym­bols. The bound­aries between apes, extinct hominids and humans are some­times very vague, as described in the lat­est book by Frans de Waal. Is it nec­es­sary for the­ol­o­gy to have a clear dis­tinc­tion between moral­ly neu­tral and moral­ly respon­si­ble beings? 

Per­son­al­ly, I can live with the idea that my fam­i­ly is not lim­it­ed to Homo sapi­ens. At the same time, the large brained human has an unprece­dent­ed influ­ence on the plan­et. Every­where he goes, he leaves his cul­tur­al mark on the envi­ron­ment. This means a respon­si­bil­i­ty to care for the land and the water and all liv­ing beings. Includ­ing our fel­low human beings. For this, we need love — some­thing out­side the domain of sci­ence. We do not need to look for the source of self­less love in old sed­i­ments or our own DNA.