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.
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.
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.