God or Not, We Know Where We Came From

The  following  is  a  short  synopsis  of  just some of the main ‘characters’ in the history of mankind. It is by no means meant to be a complete or totally definitive view, rather a brief summary or thumbnail sketch of some of the background and forerunners of mankind. For a complete, simple and easy to understand overview of the full history of mankind, I strongly recommend the superbly illustrated, Human Origins, The Story of our Species by Yves Coppens, from which most of the following notes on mankind are summarised. There are many good books on the history of the Earth of course; and again, an easy to read and superbly illustrated version is Smithsonian’s Earth, The Definitive Visual Guide published in 2003 by Dorling Kindersley Ltd., from which the following notes relating to the Earth are summarised.

You can make our current knowledge fit a religious or scientific view; there is no conflict to the rational thinker. However, these are not speculative notes either; they make up the most recent position taken from scientifically proven evidence of what is the case. The actual point of this is that modern mankind (and therefore Adam) is at least 40,000 years old (unless, as some people suppose, Adam entered an already existing race); and that Joseph Smith’s pile of rocks could not have been Adam’s altar. I have tried to write this simply and make it easily readable, for those who may have no detailed knowledge of this area.

I will start with what happened before life appeared on the earth. It has only been within the last fifty years that the current accuracy of dating the Earth has been established and in the last twenty or so years that enough discoveries have been made to allow us to see a more complete picture of mankind than ever before, at last putting an end to the myths and contentious suppositions of the past. DNA and RNA have completed a basic picture of the ‘tree of life’.

People who still believe God created man in his own image and placed him on an empty earth in modern human form may decry the idea that DNA and particularly RNA now complete the jigsaw puzzle of life. Most probably have no idea that the phylogenetic tree of life can be confirmed from any discipline; comparative anatomy, embryology, developmental genetics, mutation studies, evolutionary ecology, population & quantitative genetics, transmission genetics… even palaeontology.

You can make an embryological assessment of all the organisms and construct a tree of life based on their evolution. You can do the same thing with genetics or comparative anatomy. They all line up correctly.

“Basically, organisms develop in a very specific way according to thousands of factors which allow their development to be examined, and placed on a phylogenetic tree.”

“Evolution unites all the disciplines as well as having useful applications in medicine and other fields.”

“Trees constructed from every gene in every organism on the planet all yield the same result… independently. Every single one!”

See: Proof of Evolution Part 2. (Summation). Don Exodus.

Life first appeared and evolved on our planet many millions of years after the planet itself had evolved sufficiently to actually produce and sustain life. Our own galaxy (the Milky Way) probably formed about 10,000 – 11,000 million years ago. Within our galaxy (cutting a very long story short), a nebula (a clump of gas and dust) began to condense into what became our solar system, some 4,560 million years ago. An object the size of Mars later collided with Earth around 4,500 million years ago, the debris from which, held by the Earth’s gravity; cooled and coalesced, ultimately forming a satellite that we call the moon. The intense bombardment that is still visible on the moons surface, which continued for 600 million years, continued more so on earth of course due to its size. The reason we cannot readily see it now is simply that the earth is covered with water and vegetation, whereas the moon has not significantly changed in its overall appearance since that time. Conglomerate rocks dated to 3,800 million years ago, show that the atmosphere and the oceans formed on earth at that time, thus hiding much of the visible evidence which would otherwise look similar to that which we still see on the surface of the moon.

[26 January 2009 update note]. New Scientist. “A SPECK of the mineral zircon that’s older than any yet found on Earth has been recovered from a rock sample brought back by Apollo 17 astronauts. The grain has helped pinpoint the age at which the molten moon solidified … is 4.42 billion years old, and came from the lunar highlands. …The moon is thought to have formed from debris ejected by a giant impact between Earth and a smaller body between 10 and 100 million years after the formation of the solar system, 4.57 billion years ago. Taylor reckons the lunar crust formed within 90 million years of the impact, which tallies well with the age of the zircon.”

The earliest evidence for life on Earth, which dates from about 3,800 million years ago, comes from hydrocarbon residues in metamorphosed sedimentary rocks in Greenland. By 3,460 million years ago, microbial photosynthesisers in warm shallow waters formed mounds known as stromatolites, while other microbes lived off chemicals generated by submarine hot springs. Chemical fossils suggest that the first eukaryotes (organisms with relatively complex cells that contain a nucleus) appeared about 2,700 million years ago, but the first direct fossil evidence for their existence does not appear until 2,200 million years ago from coiled filamentous microfossils called Grypania, found in Michigan, USA.

Subsequently, multicellular life existed 2,200 million years ago and red alga called Bangiomorpha existed 1,200 million years ago. By 1,000 million years ago, towards the end of the Proterozoic era, following a prolonged evolutionary gestation, the “big bang” of eukaryotic gestation had started. Evidence of the evolution of multicellular organisms with sexual reproduction (evidence of fossilised embryos have been found in China dating from about 600 million years ago) paved the way for larger and more diverse organisms. By 580 million years ago the first large animal fossils (known as Ediacarans) appear, followed by the first shelled animals, Cloudina, in 555-million-year-old marine sediments from Namibia.

Shark fossils date to 355 million years ago but it is thought they may actually have been in existence up to 528 million years ago. For 150 million years, from the late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous, terrestrial life was dominated by reptiles. There were over 900 genera in the group known as dinosaurs alone. Some 50% of all species and 90% of all life died out at the end of the Cretaceous in an event known as the K-T extinction event. This coincided with the impact of a huge meteorite in the Caribbean sea and the Deccan lava eruptions 650 million years ago. Effectively life, to a large degree, started again after this.

We now know and it is scientifically proven that the first true mammals appeared some 70 million years ago. After the great saurians became extinct, the mammals took over the ecosystem. They evolved and diversified. The first bipeds came about between 7 and 4.5 million years ago. Then 4.5 to 2.5 million years ago, several groups of hominids, collectively known as Australopithecus spread from Chad to southern Africa, scattered across three regions. Australopithecines were not just represented by A. aferensis, as in this period there were at least five related species. It is most likely that A. anamesis is the prime candidate for the title of our true ancestor.

The first “representative” of the human race, a new hominid, was Homo Habilis – (the handyman) the first toolmaker, some 2.5 million years ago. He was still much unlike us but he had a much larger brain than previous bipeds and used it to advantage. They were nomads wandering the savannah in groups. They had the ability to think and made shelters from large stones and branches between 1.8 and 1.3 million years ago. If Adam was the first of this race, unfortunately he lived in Africa and did not look much like us. If he arrived then and was in the image of God, then God also looks nothing like us; so if you are prone to imagine God actually looks ‘white’ and as ‘human’ as us, perhaps Adam came along somewhat later.

Homo Ergaster came on the scene around 2 million years ago. Hunter-gathers, they migrated and roamed the world. They stood tall and had a wider range of tools. Clearly a more likely candidate to include Adam, as no doubt they were in what we now know as the Americas, but again, facially very unlike today’s humans. H. ergaster enjoyed unparalleled thinking power and fresh neural networks arose, developing specific zones of the brain, such as those associated with language. Their brain capacity of 55 cubic inches (900 cm³) was almost as much as some modern H. sapiens. With other developments they became the beginnings of society. Was this the time of Adam? They were still quite ugly compared to modern man but quickly gaining intelligence.

Homo erectus (man on the move) had not only learned to walk upright, he had learned to think and organise. He lived from about 1.5 million years ago, mastering fire about 500,000 years ago. This led to cooking and inevitably to the further evolvement of the brain and their society. Closer in resemblance to modern man, but with still a long way to go, they had brains twice the size of their cousins, the great apes. Their height was about 5’ 3” – 5’ 9”, almost the same as us. Along with the brain, the larynx and other developments took place; such as the vocal chords and the ability to sweat, meaning man no longer had to breathe by panting, which meant a coherent set of sounds could evolve which would be the forerunner of speech. Adam would have looked a bit more human now but probably had to wait to arrive when speech would be properly formed and man could reason more.

Neanderthal man (homo neanderthalensis) 200,000 – 40,000 years ago, was not as some still seem to believe, a forerunner of homo sapiens. Indeed it is now clear that there have been several species of essentially what are termed homo erectus – those who stand on two feet. For many years, Neanderthals and H. sapiens lived side by side. There is little if any conclusive evidence that they ever interbred. A child found in a Portuguese cave showing signs of both Neanderthal and H. sapiens characteristics is perhaps all there is to date. We do know however that they co-habited the planet for a long time.

Considered for years to be ancient brutes, we later discovered that Neanderthals actually had quite modern brains, although they looked somewhat different to us facially. In the opinion of some palaeoanthropoligists, the Neanderthals descended from populations of H. habilis, or at a later period from H. erectus who arrived in Europe prior to 1 million years ago. Neanderthals were apparently well adapted to colder or even freezing climates. As they appeared to not easily technologically adapt to climatic changes that created a warmer environment, they became isolated into restricted geographical zones, mainly in Europe and were in competition with H. sapiens for territory and natural resources. H. sapiens were technologically more advanced and eventually and inevitably Neanderthals, who could not easily adapt to change, reduced in number and finally died out completely around 25,000 years ago. The process took many thousands of years.

Neandethals coexisted with H. sapiens. Homo sapiens (which means “The Wise One”) appeared some 200,000 years ago.  Between 100,000 and 30,000 years ago they were migrating across the planet and some 40,000 years ago this new type of human appeared in Europe before rapidly inhabiting the globe. Often referred to as Cro-Magnon man, whether originating from Africa or the Middle East, this new actor appearing on the stage of human history would inherit the earth. If not appearing before; Adam would surely have had to have been the first of these people who were essentially; us.

The upper Palaeolithic, from 40,000 years ago was the beginning of a period dominated by innovation, either technical or cultural. When he arrived in Europe some 40,000 years ago, this ‘anatomically modern Man’ as he is described scientifically, was very different from the native Neanderthals. His unique skull was somewhat rounded with a vast cranial capacity averaging around 88 cubic inches (1450 cm³) but sometimes as large as 122 cubic inches (2000 cm³). The evolutionary developments between the skulls of archaic and modern H. sapiens took place very quickly, that is over only 100,000 years. The skeleton of H. sapiens also acquired a more gracile form, especially the legs which were proportionally longer and less bandy. H. sapiens walked with the flat of his foot on the ground and therefore more efficiently. His arms were longer in proportion. This streamlining gave better balance, as the centre of gravity of his body was now measurably closer to the axis of his spine.

There were many “eras” during the last 40,000 years and such things as the first musical instruments date back 45,000 or even 60,000 years in Central Europe. Art and religious ritual developed. Cave art over a 25,000 year period suggests strong links between populations and a structured and defined means of communicating knowledge, myths and representations of the world, based on some form of religion.

Yves Coppens says “One of man’s innate characteristics is spirituality. He could visualise an afterlife, ceremonially daubed cadavers with red ochre (the colour of blood, i.e. life) and arrayed them with jewels, rather than leave them to the mercy of carnivores. He was able to portray symbolically the relations between men and animals and idealise those of man and woman. These activities reveal mental and psychical processes unique in the story of life on Earth.”

Whilst researching details about a different subject, I came across the following:

New data derived from studies done on living elephants and reported by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (BioScience, April 2006, Vol. 56 No. 4, pp. 292-298) suggests that though human hunting may not have been the primary cause toward the mammoth’s final extinction, human hunting was likely a strong contributing factor. Homo Erectus is known to have consumed mammoth meat as early as 1.8 million years ago.

So, we know that Homo Erectus was around 1.8 million years ago. What we have to decide in the religious sense is when and IF Adam, the first MAN is supposed to have appeared. Was it 1.8 million years ago or was it at some later time when the brain was more evolved and after speech developed. What time period do we choose for the appearance of Adam on the scene? The choice is yours but it really cannot have been much later than 40,000 years ago as “modern” man with speech was around by then. Perhaps the Mormon Church will one day say “Well, Adam was clearly placed on the Earth as a unique species even though all other life evolved.” Considering that is the equivalent of the way they now treat DNA evidence against original Native American (Lamanite) tradition, it is perfectly plausible that it could happen when there is nowhere left to go (i.e; apologists propose that Lehi et al may have integrated into an already populated continent, as an escape route from the original claim, now DNA closes that door).

For those who still cry out “so you believe man came from monkeys then”, read the above again, as clearly this is not the case, as scientifically established. The great ape is genetically a kind of cousin in palaeoanthropological terms. We had a common ancestor. Everything evolves; the last hundred years has seen our own species evolve beyond imagination, in our culture, abilities and lifespan. As a Mormon prophet put it, “What are you doing with those extra thirty years?” The universe and our planet are on an evolutionary path that is proven. Life on this planet is most certainly a complex evolutionary system and process that has already spanned many millions of years and yet we tend to look at only a few thousand and sometimes only a few hundred years in our reasoning of life, any religion or belief system.

However, all the above is basic scientific fact and it can be fitted (by the Church’s own admission), into religion if you want it to. The Church does not, at the highest levels, adamantly state that Adam was the first and only living being ever on the planet. It actually steps back from that, admitting that there is much we do not know and that the story of Adam as told in the Bible may just be an explanation in a form we can understand and all we need to know for now, in place of the ultimate and perhaps more detailed truth. They just do not know for sure.  It is an ever changing feast with the Church. It also leaves an opening to change the story if need be; always a good option, as has been seen with DNA and the Book of Mormon.

The Church will ultimately have to accept the DNA evidence, not only regarding the Book of Mormon but more especially DNA and RNA confirmation of the ‘tree of life’ which has now been mapped for all life forms from the beginning of time. If there is a God; He, She or It used evolution to develop life on this planet and what God ended up with appears to be sheer chance rather than design. That much is fact! It is only in relatively recent years that we even began to look as we do now, so how could humans possibly be in God’s image?

The bigger question is, if there is a supreme being, why would he populate a planet using such a random basis, which had to even include a cataclysmic event to wipe out dinosaurs before it was possible for modern humans to ever have a chance to evolve at all. Surely there would be a better way for a God? That takes us back to the fairy tale book called the Bible which attempts to create a supreme being when there never was one to begin with.