Ahead of the Evidence

This book, by the holder of a chair in theology and science at Princeton Theological Seminary, addresses exactly the question given in its title: What do theologians and scientists have to say about what makes us unique among creatures? And, does juxtaposing what they say help us understand and answer the question better?

It’s a question of interest to almost everyone. You, like me, are a member of the species Homo sapiens, which is to say the only one of the dozen or so hominid species with any living members. You, like me, do things to and with members of your species that you wouldn’t try with nonhumans-such as write love letters to them and tell lies to them. And you do things to and with nonhumans that would be certifiable if tried with humans-such as breed them for food and make pets of them. We all behave as if members of the species we belong to are importantly different from anything else accessible to our senses, and different not just in a practical way but also in a moral way.

But to say that we all think humans unique in some important ways is not to say that we take everything about ourselves to be unique (there are many other mammalian vertebrates with big brains), nor that we take everything unique about ourselves to be desirable or valuable (genocidal tendencies? television? pornography?). No, it’s to say that among the qualities that make us unique, there are some that we see as providing value and therefore justifying us in giving preferential treatment to those with whom we share species membership. But what are these qualities, and are they really unique-really capacities that separate us from all other species?

This is van Huyssteen’s question, and he addresses it by providing a learned guide to what scientists (especially paleoanthropologists) are at the moment saying about it, and also to what Christian theologians have said and are saying about it. Along the way, he provides pictures: the book contains some of the most gorgeous photographs you’ll see of Cro-Magnon cave art from Gargas, Niaux, Pech Merle, and Lascaux, cave sites in what is now France and Spain whose walls have dramatic, beautiful images of animals, people, and artifacts painted between thirty and forty thousand years ago. These photographs are important to van Huyssteen’s argument because they represent the earliest evidence for what he takes to be the most important distinctively human property, which is the capacity to think and imagine symbolically and thereby to perform symbolic representation of various kinds. This, thinks van Huyssteen, is what marked members of Homo sapiens sapiens off from other hominids between perhaps fifty and a hundred thousand years ago.

This view is consonant with what, according to van Huyssteen, is becoming the dominant position among paleoanthropologists. There is still some dispute about just when and where Homo sapiens sapiens emerged as a morphologically and genetically distinct subspecies, and about how rapidly the cognitive and behavioral changes that permitted the production of artifacts like the cave paintings of the late Middle Paleolithic followed upon this emergence. But there is broad agreement, van Huyssteen claims, about the fact that the cave paintings provide evidence of something new and different in the social organization and cognitive and imaginative capacity of whoever made them. One of the great strengths of van Huyssteen’s book is its provision of such a detailed and careful guide to the contemporary scientific literature on these matters. For theological readers of this book, I suspect, much of what he sets forth will be new and fascinating.

But van Huyssteen wants to do more than just summarize paleoanthropology for the delectation of theologians. He claims that the cave paintings provide evidence not only of the human capacity for symbolic imagination and representation but also for the indissoluble link between this capacity and religiosity. We humans, he thinks, have always been not just symbol users but also religious symbol users: religion is thus natural to us in the same way as language-use or art. In order to support this view, van Huyssteen endorses a particular interpretation of the meaning of the cave paintings: he sees them as belonging to shamanism. On this reading, the caves in which the images are painted are antechambers of the heavens to which the shamans’ visionary ascent leads them. And the images themselves (spotted horses, unicorns, extravagantly slaughtered bovines, bird-men) are partial representations of what the shamans see during that ascent.

This is van Huyssteen’s evolutionary version of the creation stories of Genesis. There, humans were created by God in his image and likeness, to name and have dominion over the rest of creation. Here, with Cro-Magnon cave paintings as talismanic evidence, Homo sapiens sapiens emerges from the crowd of hominids with a specialized cognitive and imaginative capacity that provides language and art and a sense of the cosmos as neither self-founding nor self-explanatory. This is the yield, in his view, of bringing theology and science together on the question of human origins and human uniqueness: theology teaches us that we are imago Dei; paleoanthropology teaches us that our particular evolutionary history has made us-by nature and from the beginning-religious visionaries.

It’s a beguiling story, but it’s also one with problems. The first is that the interpretation he offers of the Cro-Magnon cave images is highly speculative: it far outruns the evidence. All we have are a few dozen images with no collateral evidence whatever as to their setting in life or their meaning for those who made them. Van Huyssteen makes this point several times himself but seems to forget it when he elaborates his preferred interpretation. Imagine that forty thousand years from now the only material remnants of our culture are a few dozen graffiti images in ruined subway tunnels. Future scholars would have little chance of arriving at accurate conclusions about what the images meant to those who made them and what their setting in life was. If they were rational, the scholars would realize this and maintain a chaste interpretive silence. So should we. We can, of course, admire the beauty of the images. We may, if we wish, treat them as icons open to the God who made their makers. But if we did that, we’d be doing theology. Any more specific historically grounded interpretation of the images-like those offered by van Huyssteen and the paleoanthropologists he comments on-is an exercise of the imagination.

There’s a second difficulty. Attempts like van Huyssteen’s to bring together theology and science typically treat the contemporary findings of science as if they were the truth. This is natural enough. Most of the particular sciences are enterprises in which knowledge and understanding develop and change over time. Sometimes the changes are gradual and involve adjustments, modifications, and developments of what earlier scientists thought. But sometimes, especially in fields where evidence is scarce (like paleoanthropology) or where the questions of interest are at a very high level of abstraction or generality (astrophysics, perhaps), progress tends to be not so much cumulative and gradual as revolutionary. The findings of previous generations of scientists are as likely to be rejected root-and-branch as to be modified and extended. In such cases, what today looks like dialogue with the cutting edge will in a generation or two look like dialogue with theories fit only for the trash heap. Van Huyssteen tells us enough about the history of interpretation of the Cro-Magnon cave images to make it clear that paleoanthropology is exactly like this. For example, some of the more eminent authorities working on these materials at the end of the nineteenth century thought they were modern fakes. The point is not that they may have been right; the point is that the history of the discipline shows its interpretive positions to be subject to dramatic change or even reversal. Van Huyssteen doesn’t see this clearly enough. The result is that he treats his paleoanthropologists with undue reverence. The truth is that paleoanthropology as interpretive science is too speculative to warrant the attention van Huyssteen gives it. It is incapable of warranting-or even supporting-theological positions.

Nevertheless, one can perhaps reasonably disagree with these judgments. (I’m sure van Huyssteen would disagree with them.) And even if I’m right, it doesn’t alter the fact that his book exhibits considerable learning and great intellectual energy. Alone in the World? deals with a question of intrinsic interest and discusses materials of fascinating beauty. Its answer to the question of what makes us unique is one that merits serious discussion. We are, the author thinks, embodied possessors of symbolic imaginations ordered to God. Yes. But didn’t we-we Christians, we theologians-already know that this was one of the likely candidates for an answer?

Published in the 2007-01-26 issue: 

Paul J. Griffiths is a longtime contributor to Commonweal and the author of many books, most recently Regret: A Theology (University of Notre Dame Press) and Why Read Pascal? (Catholic University of America Press).

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