Proof of not so intelligent design

Human evolutionary branches settle the record, definitively


By Kumar David

The debate about Intelligent Design (ID) as an alternative to neo-Darwinism has been going on for some decades, that is ever since creation theory was debunked by the fossil record and geology. ID does not have a foothold in the scientific community or among lay people except in the US where a strong Christian fundamentalist ethos has given it a sizable following. I do not imply that every ID adherent is a Christian fundamentalist, but that ethos fertilises it. I cannot hope to cover the whole of this debate in a newspaper article so I have set myself a narrower task today, to show that recent evidence in the human evolutionary record deals a knock out blow to ID theory.

This piece is for simple lay folks like you and me who agree that an understanding of the basics of philosophy and science is the rightful preserve of every educated person and who are not cowed by seers and experts. For example, not everyone needs to be conversant with the mathematics of Special Relativity or intricacies of quantum uncertainty to have a general grasp of what these things mean. They can be explained in words and made intelligible to laymen prepared to put in a little effort.

I need to make a start by defining my terms. In this essay ‘humans’ stands for homo sapiens, our species, which first appeared in east Africa at the earliest 195,000 years ago and migrated out to the rest of the world starting about 70,000 years ago, the so-called Out of Africa Two event. Pompous Indo-Lankan nationalists and semi informed archaeologists, who flatulate that there have been humans in Sri Lanka and India "for millions of years", are, of course, trumpeting through their butts.

I will confine the word hominid to a variety of species and immediate predecessors of humans on the evolutionary ladder, but exclude humans. Strictly, humans are also hominids but for convenience not in this essay. Hominids first emerged in Africa over two million years ago and one branch evolved into humans. They include Homo Erectus, Homo Habilis, Homo Heidelbergenis, Homo Robustus and a few more species which largely overlapped each other in time. Though some had ancestor-descendent relationships others were separate evolutionary branches pocketed into different parts of Africa; dead-ends, evolution is a bush not a tree. Hominids used stone and sick tools, used fire, had modest vocal ability short of language, and may have practised social rituals like burial of the dead. Prior to the hominids, and linking them to a now extinct ape species, were bipedal creatures with smaller brains, Austrelopithicenes, which lived three to five million years ago, but lie outside today’s storyline which starts with hominids.

What kicks off my story line is the Out of Africa One event. From about a million years ago these hominids migrated out of Africa and their fossil remains and sites have been found as far apart as the famous Java Man, Peking Man and Heidelberg Man and in Siberia, Europe (Spain, France, Germany), China (Yuxian, Dali and Jinshan) and in Narmada, India. This, of course, is apart from the hundreds of fossil sites that dot Southern and Eastern Africa. None have been found in either of the American continents or in Australia. The earlier Austrelopithicenes did not live anywhere outside Africa.

Do you want to date the X-woman?

If you want to date her, you’re in luck; she was around just a while ago. One of the most fascinating discoveries made at the Denisova cave, in a southern Siberian part of Russia bordering Central Asia, were ornaments and a tiny fragment of bone. DNA analysis of the fragment concluded that it belonged to a species that was neither human nor Neanderthal and lived just 30 to 50 thousand years ago. That is, X-woman was contemporaneous with modern man and the two may have met and mated as this was long after Out of Africa One (sorry, someone surely dated her before you). The findings were reported in Nature and New Scientist in March 2010 and concluded that this was a species whose ancestors diverged from human ancestors about a million years ago. The ancestors of the Neanderthals diverged from our ancestors only about 400,000 years ago.

This conclusion was drawn from the evidence that human and Neanderthal DNA differ at 200 points but X-woman’s DNA differs from us at 400 points. Nevertheless a minority of scientists have a different opinion because only mitochondrial-DNA was decoded; the fuller evidence bearing nuclear-DNA was inaccessible. They believe that the X-woman species was actually a latter day spin-off from humans. These researchers opine that the X-woman species originated from a group of humans who became isolated and set off on a different evolutionary track. Even if this theory turns out to be false, merely conceding this latter day branching off even as a possibility has huge philosophical and spiritual-religious implications. I will tie several such threads together in the concluding paragraphs.

Meet little brother Floresiensis

Another truth is stranger than fiction discovery was made less than a decade ago on the Indonesian island of Flores. There had been grandmother’s stories about little hobbit men in the folklore of remote villages but nobody took notice. Therefore the discovery of extensive fossil remains of a species distinct from modern humans came as a shock to science and proved the worth of ancient folklore. Since Homo Floresiensis became extinct only 12,000 years ago, that is about 40,000 years after humans (homo sapiens) arrived in the Indonesian archipelago, it is certain that early humans would have encountered these midget men. Floresiensis had a smaller brain and was really midget sized; an adult was about three feet tall, much shorter than a modern pygmy.

Speciation, that is the emergence of a new species, happens when a group from a parent population is isolated in a separate region and left to evolve for, say a thousand generations. Then special characteristics acquired by random mutation of a few members of the group can become specialised within the group till the cumulative changes add up to a new species. The laymen’s definition of species differentiation is that different species cannot interbreed, or if they do, as donkeys and horses do, the offspring are sterile mules – no offence meant to the UPFA parties. The consensus among scientists is that humans and Floresiensis are separate species. However there is no absolute guarantee that Floresiensis is not the speciation of a colony of humans, left isolated on the island of Flores, for tens of thousands of years. This view, though unlikely, has to be admitted as a hypothesis since it is not scientifically impossible. If you agree to play with this possibility even as a mind game, then it has devastating implications for religion and the Intelligent Design thesis.

Did we eat the Neanderthal men or just rape their women?

It is now understood that there was no unique, one and only one, Out of Africa One event. Over the two million year time span of the Hominids there would have been many waves of Hominid migration out of Africa. Some went into the Middle East and as far as India, China and Indonesia quite early, the fossil record is strong and I have already spoken of their descendents. One or more branches turned towards Europe somewhat later, or just hung-out in the Levant. Their descendents were Neanderthals who emerged in Europe and migrated as far as Palestine and Russia. This Neanderthal chap was no early hominid; no he was more recent and showed up just one hundred thousand years or so before we humans appeared. We humans started in Africa, Neanderthals in Europe. Our brains were comparable in size and he had art, a social life, buried his dead and almost certainly had language.

Then 30,000 years ago he completely disappeared; that is a few thousand years after our Out of Africa Two branch turned west and penetrated Europe. We were more agile though physically less robust, and smarter. Neanderthals lost out on the survival struggle for land, water and hunting grounds; it is also pretty well established that we ate them.

There has been a ‘no-interbreeding thesis’ in the scientific community that classified Neanderthals and us as so far apart that we could not interbreed. However the thesis seems to have been thrown into doubt recently by the discovery of small amounts of Neanderthal genes in humans in some regions. So clearly we indulged in some unprotected bed-hopping with Neanderthals and the telltale signs are still around. Now get that silly grin off your face, this is serious; the religious and spiritual implications are weighty. For example, if the Saviour came down to redeem us humans does the insurance-cover extend to Neanderthals? The genetic distance is small enough to warrant a credible claim.

Secondly, the Intelligent Design (ID) thesis says some higher intelligence, call it God, designed a being called Man, in his own image and with moral accountability. Then, does this spiritual gift extend to Neanderthals with whom we have mated, and next, naturally, the question needs to be asked; does consciousness extend to our consanguineous progeny? If the ID thesis is to make sense it must take a position on the question: "Do Neanderthals, the X-species, Floresiensis, and issue that humans may have had with any of them, have souls?"

The can of worms

In summary, recent discoveries in human and hominid evolution, interbreeding, the progeny thereof, and at least the theoretical possibility of post-human species, open a dilemma for the ID thesis. If there is a higher intelligence which worked out a sagacious template to which humans fit, he made a pretty untidy job of it. Very likely the other species I have recounted today did have higher consciousness, for example abstraction, marvelling at the wonder of the universe, and deeper sensibilities which I am perfectly willing to call spiritual, so long as you don’t tack a whole lot of unlikely mumbo jumbo onto it.

Furthermore, the design was far from perfect, so why call it intelligent? The record shows that plenty of mistakes were made along the way and many corrections attempted all along the evolutionary track. To critique the imperfections of the divine design of man will take me another essay so I will close with one example. The human is the only species that needs to wash its arse; all other mammals for example have better designed sphincters which retract after defecation leaving the creature clean and without residue. If the Great Designer did a fine job at the top end of our anatomy, he did a lousy job at the other end.

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