29 January, 2010

Just How "Special" are We?

One of the many trite arguments often advanced by religionists is that their belief system "elevates humans to a position just a bit below the angels", while skeptics place humans "barely higher than the apes". Humankind in other words occupies a unique position, standing above the rest of earth's fauna.

There are of course a number of key errors in this clumsy syllogism, not the least of which is that rather than being "barely higher than apes", we indeed are apes. A bit brighter perhaps, somewhat more creative in some areas undoubtedly, gifted with language to be certain; but apes non-the-less. As for angels, show me one and then we'll talk.

The mistake flows of course from the logically and scientifically indefensible premise that humans are somehow special, sitting as it were at the pinnacle of "creation". The very fact of evolution, its processes blind to any particular outcome and totally lacking a goal, should be enough to dissuade all but the most credulous from such an obvious solipsism, but oft it is not. One cannot fairly place all the blame on government schools for this failing given the influence of family and clerics, but the lion's share certainly rests there.

Today I'd like to offer a somewhat different view of the problem however, positing what for me is a fascinating "what if", and soliciting the reader's willingness to pursue a bit of a thought experiment. Specifically, regardless of on which side of the argument you find yourself, I challenge you to contemplate the following:

Most folks are at least vaguely aware of the scientifically incontrovertible fact, even if they find it inconvenient for their cherished beliefs, that Homo sapiens (we) migrated from Africa roughly 50,000 years ago and proceeded to slowly colonize the rest of the globe over the following 25,000 years or so.

What most people are not aware of however is that when we emerged from Africa we were but one of four surviving hominid species. Far from being alone, we shared earth with three "cousins" as it were: Homo neanderthalensis in the Levant and much of Europe, Homo erectus throughout eastern Asia, and Homo floresiensis in a corner of the East Indies.

Over the course of a number of millennia we either outcompeted or simply annihilated all three (depending on one's perspective), leaving us the last ones standing. Which brings me to my thought experiment.

What if we were not the last ones standing? What if today we still shared earth with one or more of our hominid cousins? How then might we view ourselves and the evolutionary process?

Exactly how special would we, could we, claim to be? More interestingly still perhaps, how might our view of god(s) and our relationship with he/she/it/them be altered?

Certainly we would view things differently. How could we not?