The New Neanderthal

In a campaign speech several years ago, Ronald Reagan dared to say he harbored "doubts" about evolution. The American Association for the Advancement of Science went apoplectic. It insisted that the 100 million fossils in the world's museums constitute "100 million facts that prove evolution beyond any doubt whatever." Whoa, steady there. A fossil is just a piece of bone. It doesn't tell us where it came from or how it got there. Those things are matters of interpretation. And on interpretation, even scientists disagree. For example, in recent months, major newspapers have carried articles on the Neanderthals. How many of us remember as children seeing full-color illustrations of "Neanderthal Man," stooped over and hairy? Those pictures probably did more to persuade people of evolution than any real scientific evidence. But today the status of the Neanderthals is being hotly debated. The standard theory of evolution placed Neanderthals as an intermediate step between humans and their ape-like ancestors. But that schema has been challenged by a group of geneticists, who say Neanderthals and humans evolved separately. In this theory, early humans arose relatively recently in Africa and then migrated across the globe, wiping out less-developed forms like Neanderthal. This debate is still raging among scientists. And the lesson for the rest of us is that confident words about evolution being proved "beyond any doubt whatever" are sheer bluster. In fact, this isn't the first time scientists have debated about Neanderthals. It began around the turn of the century, when a famous anthropologist first depicted Neanderthals as the shuffling, ape-like creatures most of us knew from our childhood. But Neanderthal fossils discovered later didn't show those ape-like characteristics. So in the 1950s, two scientists examined the original fossil and discovered that it was from an old man who suffered from bone disease. It turned out that healthy Neanderthals walked as upright as you and I. A newspaper headline at the time announced "Neanderthal Man Straightens Up!" The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago had to re-do its wax models. It had shown a mother and father Neanderthal and two kids all hunched over. The models were redesigned to stand up straight. Today most scientists agree that Neanderthals were completely human, a species of Homo Sapiens. Their brains were even larger than our own. Recent research on their bone structure shows they could speak. Their culture was identical to that of early humans. Neanderthals did have a distinctive skeletal structure, with thick bones and heavy jaws. But that's easily explained as a result of genetic variation. In his book Genesis and Early Man, Arthur Custance says that within historical times Eskimos have undergone a similar change toward thicker skeletons as a genetic response to living in a harsh environment. So take away the extra hair and the thick lips painted on by artists, and Neanderthals were just another race of Homo Sapiens. The lesson we can learn from this is that Christians need never be intimidated by dogmatic pronouncements that science proves this or science proves that. Theories in science are often shaped by a bias against religion. But over time, as more data comes in, theories often change, as in the case of the Neanderthals. If we are patient, we will always find that there is no final conflict between science and Scriptures.    


Chuck Colson


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