Scientists, theologians and philosophers meet to discuss major issues surrounding human evolution
VATICAN CITY – Evolutionary science is still grappling with understanding how the human species, with its unique capacities for language, culture, abstract reasoning and spirituality, may have emerged from a pre-ape ancestor.
While the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that God “in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in His own blessed life”, the Church still considers the scientific investigation of the origins of humanity to be a valuable contribution to human knowledge.
In its continuing dialogue with renowned scientific experts, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences brought together evolutionary biologists, palaeoanthropologists, archaeologists, neuroscientists, theologians and philosophers to discuss the major physical and cultural changes that occurred during mankind’s evolution.
The working group on The Emergence of the Human Being met from April 19-21 to discuss topics such as the mastery and use of fire, the beginning of burial and funeral rites, and the emergence of language, culture and conscience.
Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the science academy’s chancellor, told the group that scientific truths are part of divine truth and “can help philosophy and theology understand ever more fully the status and future of the human person”.
Science investigates the external world and how it works, while religion is concerned with “the internal world of the self, which belongs to the spirit present in his being and to his relationship with God”, the bishop said.
As such, theology and philosophy “must not engage in a losing battle to establish the facts of nature that constitute the very scope of science”, he said.
“Philosophy and theology should ask themselves how they can find a meeting point with and become enriched by the naturalist viewpoint of science, starting from the assumption that the human being is already a speaking, questioning being,” he added.
How this being emerged from a five-million-year-long lineage of other primates is still a matter of much debate.
Along that evolutionary path, no species turned out to be more unlike its ancestors than the human species, said British-American palaeontologist Ian Tattersall, former curator of the anthropology division of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
What is so unusual is humans ended up with such “special and unique properties” even though they followed the same evolutionary mechanisms of genetic variation, adaptation and natural selection as all other species, he said.
That radical transformation “I think, was due to culture”, he said, which changed the way early humans responded to their environment. But how that transformation came about is still a mystery, he told Catholic News Service.
“It’s absolutely mind-boggling: How do you go from a non-linguistic and non-symbolic creature to a symbolic and linguistic successor?” he said.
Mr Wolf Singer, a neurophysiologist and founding director of the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies and co-director of the Brain Imaging Centre in Frankfurt, Germany, said, “The neurons are the same in our [human] cerebral cortexes as they are in the mollusc.”
Groups of neurons – called modules – in the brain cortex also did not experience any structural changes during evolution, so “a piece of cortex from a cat is exactly the same as a piece of cortex from a human being”, he said.
But the human brain radically diverged from other species in that it experienced a rapid and dramatic increase in volume, he said. While scientists know how neurons work and pass signals to one another on one hand, high-level human brain functions like reasoning, long-term memory and assigning meaning are enormously complex and “resist explanation”, he said.
Brain research has implications for topics that normally concerned only philosophy – such as free will, the boundaries of mind and body, and the nature of consciousness, he said.
“All of these are questions that neurobiologists can’t avoid anymore,” he said.
Bishop Sanchez said the evolutionary laws of heredity and genetic mutation pose no conflict to the Catholic faith and offer a biological explanation for the development of species on Earth.
However, he said, the beginning of the universe, “the transition from nothing to being”, is not a mutation; God is the first cause of creation and being. Human beings are not just biological creatures, but spiritual, too, whose “incorruptible soul”, he said, “requires a creative act of God”.
Msgr Fiorenzo Facchini, who is an anthropologist and palaeontologist, said evolution could have ended at the pre-human stage, but thanks to God’s will, humans emerged with the capacity for self-reflection and knowing the transcendent.
He has said that rather than picturing it as humans descending from the apes, humans ascended or rose up from the animal kingdom to a higher level, thanks to the hand of God. - By Carol Glatz, CNS