“First Human” Discovered in Ethiopia: What It Means For Catholics

Villmoare  Early Homo.jpg

Last week, Professor Brian Villmoare’s team at the University of Nevada Las Vegas reported in Science the discovery and analysis of a fossil in Ethiopia, the partial lower jaw of what is thought to be the oldest known member of the genus Homo. The “hominin mandible with teeth” is identified as the left side of an adult jaw with partial and complete canine crowns and roots, both premolars, and all three molars. The specimen dates to about 2.8 million years ago.

This discovery is significant for three reasons:

1) It is about 400,000 years older than the other fossil evidence of the genus Homo, suggesting that the human family emerged earlier than previously thought.

2) Based on a careful study of the traits, it appears to be a different species, a transitional form between the genus Australopithecus (to which the 3.2 million-year-old hominin discovered in the same area in 1974, known as “Lucy,” belongs) and the genus Homo.

3) The earlier appearance has implications for hypotheses that humans evolved in response to a global climate change that shifted the African terrain to more open grassland with fewer trees, i.e. they evolved to walk more than climb.

Pallab Ghosh, the Science correspondent for BBC News reported about this discovery “‘First Human’ discovered in Ethiopia,” which might be confusing if not correctly understood. The scientific paper by VIllmoare’s team is titled, “Early Homo at 2.8 Ma (million years ago) . . .” not ‘first human’ although such language is not uncommon. Ghosh also wrote in the BBC article that the evolution of various early Homo lineages is “as if nature was experimenting with different versions of the same evolutionary configuration until one succeeded.” Professor Chris Stringer, an anthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London was quoted as saying, “These new studies challenge us to consider the very definition of what it is to be human.” This discovery and these statements need to be understood in their scientific context.

A Catholic Approach

The Catholic Church does not reject evolutionary theory, including the scientific discoveries of human evolution. Theologians consider these findings in the light of faith. In fact, Professor Yves Coppens, the anthropologist who led the 1974 expedition credited with the discovery of Australopithecus afarensis in Ethiopia known as “Lucy,” was named an Ordinary Member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences by Pope Francis last year. Professor Coppens was invited to present his findings on hominid evolution and the emergence of the genus Homo to the Academy.

The Academy knows it is beneficial to follow the work of researchers, and the Academy knows it is possible to follow research without denying that God created everything, that the human being is a special creation made in the image and likeness of God, that the human family is united, that God creates the human soul immediately out of nothing, and without denying the Fall and Original Sin. Those dogmas do not belong to the realm of physical or biological science.

Only a Jawbone?

What does belong to the realm of evolutionary biology and anthropology is the study of the human body and human populations. If a researcher discovers an ancient jaw with human teeth, it is absolutely reasonable for a team to examine, note, catalog, identify, and compare every possible detail of that fossil with previously discovered fossils to try to piece the new finding into the developing story of human origins. To throw the fossil down and go home? That would be unreasonable.

The language in the Science paper is exhaustively specific and precisely technical, as is typical. These details include radiometric dating, comparisons of the cross sections of the bone with other fossils, analysis of the way the teeth are worn to indicate range of motion and eating habits, and cataloging of the size of the teeth. A lot can be deduced from a jawbone, and it is not just any jawbone. It is 2.8 million years old with similarities in between older known primates and later ones. The understanding of the genus Homo in the time between 2.0 and 3.0 million years ago has been limited because the fossil record in this time frame is limited. To say this new discovery is an important piece of the puzzle is an understatement.

Is It Adam?

No, no one is suggesting that. The use of the term “first human” does not refer to the discovery of a single first individual because evolution deals with populations, not individuals, in time spans of hundreds of thousands of years. Speaking of evolution in terms of individual lifetimes is like trying to pick up a grain of sand with a bulldozer; it is the wrong tool. The use of the term “first human” only refers to the discovery of the earliest known specimen of a possibly new species from the genus Homo. It is worth noting that in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Professor Coppens also used the term “first Man” to refer to the first species of the genus Homo.

Anthropologists speak in terms of “genus Homo” because the human fossil record is cataloged by species in that genus. It is thought that lineages evolved in response to changing environments and spread out across larger and larger territory. As we know today, all of the other species in the genus Homo are extinct except ours. Since about 10,000 years ago, there has only been one human species and subspecies, our own, Homo sapiens sapiens. Our species appears to have moved to Europe about 50,000 years ago, which means our species most likely lived at the same time as other species.

Nature Experimenting?

Saying that “nature was experimenting with different versions of the same evolutionary configuration until one succeeded” may sound as if it is being argued that nature is personified, but in this context such language only refers to the physical and biological laws of nature, somewhat like saying tributaries experimented with different paths before finding their way to the ocean. The reference is to genetic variation and natural selection. The genetic makeup and physiological expression of the early human populations responded differently to changing climates. There is no need to read any more into the statement than that.

There have been many kinds of hominin and mammalian fossils found in the region of Africa where both “Lucy” and this jawbone were found that date between 2 million and 3 million years ago. Lots of these animals were suited for terrain composed of wood patches and grasslands. Paleoclimatologists have argued that climate change sparked the evolutionary burst. Although it is premature for the new discovery to be named a new species, a burst of Homo species might fit with the developing theory.

What It Is To Be Human?

When a scientist says, as Professor Stringer did, that these studies “challenge us to consider the very definition of what it is to be human,” the reference is not the same kind of challenge as a Catholic philosopher or theologian might make. A Catholic philosopher or theologian might talk about human nature in terms of the powers of the soul, such as intellect and free will, and the practice of virtue. An anthropologist asks “what it is to be human” in terms of the evolution of human populations. Evolutionary theory includes ideas about how the brain evolved and how the human ability to innovate emerged. As these discoveries become better understood in the light of new discoveries, the research may indeed complement the developments of philosophy and theology by shedding more light on what it means to have a human body. For Catholics, to be human means to be both body and soul united.

What Do We Make of These Studies?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called creation and evolution “complementary realities.” The reality of the physical realm and the reality of the spiritual realm complement (go together) each other so that we can further our understanding of universal reality. There is no reason to be alarmed at these discoveries, nor is there any reason to be overly suspicious of the language that scientists use. The right approach is to seek to understand scientists as scientists.

Researchers readily admit that discoveries like this lead to more questions than answers, and that is good in science. Even though these findings have implications for the development of theological understanding, this particular finding adds nothing newly surprising. The idea that there were several species of the genus Homo is over 100 years old.

And when anthropology (or any other science) poses new questions, it is the work of trained theologians and exegetes to propose new ways to understand the science in the light of faith, which is why the Pontifical Academy of Science invites scientists to present their work. Theologians and philosophers go much slower than science though. It is futile to try to extract metaphysical conclusions from incomplete scientific theories.

Ultimately it is the role of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church to declare whether or not deeper understanding of Divine Revelation has been gained. The lay apologist’s job is to follow the developments of scholars and to communicate them, or to pursue a path of study to become a scientist, philosopher, or theologian if one is so inclined to contribute to new knowledge.

Make no mistake, there are ongoing challenges posed by anthropology to the understanding of philosophy and theology. Were other species of the genus Homo also rational? What was the first population of rational humans? How do we know if a species was rational? If the first humans were a population instead of a pair, as biology suggests, then how do we understand Genesis? How much of Genesis is meant to be interpreted literally? Did multiple populations of the genus Homo co-exist? And did they mate? (Evidence suggests some did.) If we evolved, then in what ways are we still evolving? Can we guide our own evolution? The answers to these questions simply are not all clear at this time, which is also kind of what it means to be . . . human.

The Bottom Line

We live on a temporal trajectory, and a very short one in the span of human existence. Just as our ancestors did not, neither will we find all the answers to all the questions, and neither will our descendants. If the science interests you, then follow the scholarship or even better, become a scholar. But—and this is monumentally important—do not read a single scientific paper about a single discovery as anything more than a discursive step to further understanding. The language in scientific papers is careful and provisional for just that reason, only offering conclusions as the basis for further work because scientists know their work is never done. It is, after all, this provisional nature that makes science so exciting to rational biological creatures such as ourselves.

Photo used with permission from Dr. Brian Villmoare. 

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About the Author

Stacy Trasancos is a wife and homeschooling mother of seven. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from Penn State University and a MA in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She worked as a chemist for DuPont in the Lycra® and Teflon® businesses.

She teaches Chemistry and Physics for Kolbe Academy Online and Homeschool Program and serves as the Science Department Chair. She is teaching a set of summer mini-workshops titled "Science in the Light of Faith" for students, parents, other educators, or any Christian interested in the nuts and bolts of navigating science.

Similarly, she is teaching a "Reading Science in the Light of Faith" at Holy Apostles College & Seminary next Fall (2016). The course is funded by a John Templeton Foundation grant through John Carroll University for teaching science in seminaries. She is on the Board of Directors for ITEST (the Institute for the Theological Encounter with Science and Technology) where the essays from the course will be shared with the public.

Also in the Fall of 2016, she will teach a "Theological History of Science" course at Seton Hall University, where her mentor, the late Fr. Stanley L. Jaki was a distinguished professor. She is the author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki.

Her new book, Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science is forthcoming with Ave Maria Press...

She teaches, researches, and writes from her family's 100-year old restored mountain lodge in the Adirondack mountains, where her husband and children (and two German Shepherds) remain her favorite priorities. Here is her website.

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24 Comments

  1. “How much of Genesis is meant to be interpreted literally?”

    The literal interpretation of Genesis is as a fable written for the purpose of teaching a lesson, probably taken from folklore and recorded in the first millenium BCE.

    1. Bill, whilst I admit that Genesis should not be taken to a Fundamentalist Protestant films, what evidence do YOU have that it is a “fable” sorry, if you are Catholic, you MUST believe Original Sin, and thus, Adam, this is not open for debate. Original Sin was defined as a Dogma during the Council of Orange, which I do believe was in the year 529 A.D., my guess is you are not a theologian.

      1. “if you are Catholic, you MUST believe Original Sin, and thus, Adam, this is not open for debate.”

        No one has the right to tell us what we MUST believe. We are all free to believe that which we see as truth.

        1. No one is forcing you to belive anything Bill. In any case it would beb impossible to force anyone to belive anything. But if you say that you belive the Catholic faith, and simulatneously deny the Catholic dogmas that all men are descended from one man and one woman and inherit Original Sin from them, then your first statement contradicts your second statement.

    2. What purpose do you hope to achieve by such a comment? Do you think there is anyone literate who has not heard precisely this claim many times, made at greater length? You do not even hint at evidence, to say nothing of proof: you give only an unsubstantiated assertion that proceeds from grounds that the typical reader of this blog has already considered and rejected. In other words, you do not so much give a comment as commit a minor act of vandalism, like an 8 year old drawing a mustache on the face of a woman on a poster. If you can do no better than that, please find a blog where you can fit in with other 8 year old vandals.

      1. Howard,

        We arrive at the truth through free inquiry. No one has any right to tell us what we can and cannot believe. That is not the vandalism of an eight year old. It is an important statement about the most honest way to seek the truth instead of being browbeat by dogma.

    1. “The traditional Catholic understanding of the authorship of Genesis is quite different, however. It holds that Moses wrote Genesis as he was inspired by God, and that every detail he put in Genesis 1 is the exact truth of what happened.”

      Robert. That you are incapable of seeing how silly it is to hold such a childish understanding of Genesis pretty much destroys your credibility. Bible scholars all know that Genesis was not written by Moses. In fact, they doubt that there even was a Moses and a mass exodus from Egypt.

      1. Bill, I’m not “incapable.” There just isn’t any evidence to persuade me otherwise, and I’ve been studying Scripture for 40 years. The JEPD theory you follow was made up out of whole cloth, and with the premise that Genesis could not be true as it was written. Pretty presumptuous, isn’t it? Of course, when atheists and agnostics are asked to give an interpretation of Genesis, what would you expect? Such was the case with Wellhousen and his colleagues.

  2. As with all other claims of finding ancestors to humans, it’sgood to wait for all the facts to fall out. It’s important to remember that “lucy” as an ancestor common to humans was disproved.

    1. It doesn’t matter if we are not direct descendants of Lucy’s particular species. It is known that humans, chimpanzees and bonobos descended from the Great Ape. The creation story in Genesis has been debunked by the theory of evolution.

  3. Stacy, this article highlights some of the things I don’t understand about evolution.

    One jawbone was found. I understand the significance of the age of the jawbone, but I don’t understand the assumptions that are taken from it. One jawbone. That tells us something about one person. How could scientists possibly take from that jawbone the idea that there were fewer trees and pre-man started walking upright instead of climbing? It seems like way too much to assume from such a small piece of information.

    And how many years are we talking about here? How long does it take for a species to go from being a climber to a two-legged walker? Several hundred years? A thousand? Or just two generations? And where is the proof to support any answer given to that question?

    Another question I have is, if other species of the genus Homo were rational, are you saying that other species had souls like we have now? Can you help me understand how, if the soul did not evolve, rational abilities did evolve? I thought that rational thinking was a property of the human soul, as in the soul made in the image and likeness of God, which we may not believe evolved.

    I’d really appreciate if you could help me understand these matters better!

    1. Sharon, thank you for your comment. I’ll try to answer, but you’re right, there are more questions than answers.

      The paper reported in Science covers the significance of the jawbone. The team details exactly how they analyzed it. The theory about climate change is a larger topic. This finding has “implications” in that it could add support to the theory, but those are ongoing discussions. Personally, I enjoy following them, but I’m not the one doing the research so my role is only to communicate from what I read.

      All the questions you asked are great ones, but there is no simple answer (well, except that no, not in a few generations). The Smithsonian site is good. http://humanorigins.si.edu/ Also the paper by Prof. Coppens given to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is good to see how he presents his work to a general audience. http://www.casinapioiv.va/content/dam/accademia/pdf/sv121/sv121-coppens.pdf Last, I recommend Pope Benedict’s book linked and discussed here, http://www.integratedcatholiclife.org/2015/03/trasancos-pope-benedict-creation-evolution/.

      Pope Benedict covers rationality in his book, but not from a scientific perspective. Those questions are developing ones. Not everyone even agrees on how to determine if one species vs. another were intelligent. Scientists look for signs of intelligence (tool-making, art, burying the dead). Estimates I’ve read place the emergence of intelligent humans from 45-77 thousand years ago with our species, Homo sapiens.

      Don’t approach it looking for the one right answer; approach it as a journey. Some of these questions require years (decades? centuries?) more scholarship, discovery, and research.

      1. Dear Stacy. Which is more likely to happen; a Catholic traditionalist is named to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences or a Japanese woman named, Midori, is elected pope?

        O, as regards our putative evolution, just how did two animals reproduce and deliver unto the world a creature that had one or more organs its progenitors did not have?

  4. Once we realize that DNA contains the data for the color of the eyes, shape of the nose, etc., it then becomes evident that if God created people with eyes, noses, etc., they are going to have something in common with other animals who also have eyes and noses. This does not mean, however, that similarity of eyes or noses, etc. indicates that they are actually related through a common ancestor. Some supporting evidence might be found as in the Piltdown man where a human head was artificially united to an ape’s jawbone to show a (fake) “missing link.” But nothing that is genuine like this has been found by any scientists so far. They simply see some common traits with no real sign of a immanent transition to something like modern man. Darwin’s disciples have a very long way to go.

  5. Ultimately it is the role of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church to declare whether or not deeper understanding of Divine Revelation has been gained

    Since it successfully sued for divorce from Sacred Theology, science has been whoring around with the so-called enlightenment and has produced an uncountable number of bastid children whom we are dutifully expected to adopt and baptise as our own kin.

    Umm thanks, but no thanks.

    O, and the deeper understanding is rarely aught but a different understanding but there is no shortage of men willing to abandon Divine Revelation so as to be considered acceptable in this most fallen and corrupt of all ages.

  6. Relying on the PAS for true science makes as much moral sense as referring your sick Mother to The Hemlock Society.

    Why is the Holy See so averse to Christian Catholic scientists ?

    There are scores of them who should be members of that Academy and because they are not (check for your own self to see who it is those Academy members do not believe in) but owing to their absence, it is reasonable to question the motive of the PAS itself.

    What is it that they seek, truth or acceptance by the world?

    This is an interesting read re the Academy

    http://doxacommunications.com/newkolbe/?p=596

  7. There are a few things I’ve never understood about evolution:
    1) I always thought death was supposed to be one of the punishments of original sin, but clearly with evolution there was death before original sin, since God wouldn’t have stepped in with the soul for quite a long time.
    2) All these dating methods are interesting, I learned about them in college a long time ago (and admittedly forgot more than I remember), but since there are no controls, how can they be sure? Carbon 13 dating, for example, depends on a constant level of C-13 being present in the environment for the last 35,000 years or so, and as I understand it, that is debated. I would assume the same holds for argon etching, or whatever method it is they are using at the moment. The bottom line, without a control, how can one be sure?

    1. @JPMedico

      “I always thought death was supposed to be one of the punishments of original sin, but clearly with evolution there was death before original sin, since God wouldn’t have stepped in with the soul for quite a long time.”

      That’s probably the best theological argument I’ve ever heard against evolution. I’ve never heard of that or thought of that. Great point.

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