Monday, 23 June 2008

Sangiran 17 and intelligent design

I’ve been prompted to write this post in reaction to a post by Skepchick, who quite bizarrely for a skeptic I think, actually says that she supports the notion of intelligent design!


Now what gets me is the picture on her blog showing the monkey transforming into a human. A classic picture – but one which ultimately makes the supporters of intelligent design look very silly indeed.

Okay. Take a look below:

What you can see is only one of two nearly complete skulls of Homo erectus in the whole world. This one is called Sangiran 17 and comes from Java in Indonesia. The other one was found in Africa. Carbon dating shows that the Sangiran 17 skull is more than 1 million years old.

Now it’s not clear or not whether we – Homo sapiens – evolved from Homo erectus or not.

But that is NOT the point.

Because even as a proponent of intelligent design you still have to account for these Homo erectus humanoids. They were not particularly clever – their brain size suggests an IQ of a child – but they were still capable of producing tools to hunt with. And that clearly puts them in the same category as us, and differentiates them from all the other creatures in the animal world. So the obvious questions then arise: did they believe in a Supreme Being? And did they have “souls”? And if not why not? Because they were clearly part of the human race and we can’t imagine the Ultimate Creator of the Universe (who “designed these Homo erectus”) from failing to find a place for them in Nirvana can we?

So, if you are a believer in intelligent design, then you’d better get ready for one thing:

To meet some people like this when you get to heaven!


Del Sydebothom said...

Well, I'm something of what they call a "progressive creationist". I accept the general outline that modern science lays out for biological evolution. However, I differ from them inasmuch as I do take the account of Adam's creation in the book of Genesis at face value. That is, I hold that humans are one of possibly several "special" creations of God outside of the normal sphere of biological evolution.

For me, then, the question of whether or not Homo Erectus was a "person" is an interesting, but probably unsolvable mystery. Personhood is not, in a Thomist sense, dependant on brain size or cleverness. A person is someone who has an immaterial soul capable of immaterial knowledge. That is, an intellectual being capable of having ideas that are distinct from any particular thing. This would include the ability to treat, say, "horseness" as a subject unto itself, distinct from any particular horse. This is different even than having a complex system of words, each respectively associated with similarly shaped objects.

Such knowledge (viz., of universals) could not reside in the brain at all, because the brain is material. If immaterial knowledge resided in the material brain, it would cease once the brain ceased to function. However, we know this is not the case because we know that immaterial things cannot be destroyed. A line can be destroyed, but a point cannot. A point is immaterial; it lacks quantitative extension. In contrast, that which is continuously extended in a quantitative manner is destructible, because it is, in theory, infinitely divisible.

Genetic or physiological similarity to humans will not make an entity a person--for that matter, neither would physiological or genetic dissimilarity preclude us from ascribing personhood to an entity. If it did, we would not be able to tell at what point an entity became a person. After all, how much similarity is required before we grant an entity legal rights; when does it become murder to hunt?

Or worse, how much dissimilarity is required before it is morally permissible to destroy an entity for sustenance? That would depend on what genetic or physiological measurements we have decided to erect as the "standard" of humanity.

Thus, we ought to make this the standard of personhood: a rational nature.

We do not know the nature of Homo Erectus. We do know the nature of Homo Sapiens--we are a rational animal. That doesn't mean that all humans are capable of utilizing their rational faculty at all times. Nevertheless, the species "Homo Sapians" has a rational nature. That is to say, we have an immaterial aspect which--like a point--is indivisible, and thus immortal.

Having said all of that, my personal opinion--judging from what I've read--is that Homo Erectus was not a person. It seems they made stone axes and maybe even kindled fires. That is neat, and very interesting. But I've also read that they merely repeated this sort of activity for millennia on end, with little to no variation. If they were human, they were culturally stunted. If they were culturally stunted, then there must be some explanation as to why. For instance, primitive tribes of modern humans often remain culturally stunted because their environment never forces them to innovate. On the other hand, even these cultures show development in artistic innovation.

If on the other hand Erectus was not human--if he merely made stone axes and lit fires like a beaver makes a dam--then he probably was not a person. However, I'd be happy to meet one who could correct me on this point!



MJ said...

thanks for your comments Del.

but Homo Erectus were definately humans but with v. low IQ.

You also say:A person is someone who has an immaterial soul capable of immaterial knowledge.

But then again what about severely mentally disabled people? Surely they are human too even if their cognitive abilities are badly damaged?


Del Sydebothom said...

"You also say:A person is someone who has an immaterial soul capable of immaterial knowledge.

But then again what about severely mentally disabled people? Surely they are human too even if their cognitive abilities are badly damaged?"

That is a very good question. Of course the reason we are able to recognize someone as "mentally disabled" or perturbed in any way is because we have the example of an entire species through which we can judge "disability". We recognize that this person is a member of a species that has a certain nature. The fact that their brain hinders their ability to acquire knowledge does require some explanation. This, incidentally, is related to the philosophy of the more intellectual forms of pro-life ethics.

First, we ought to note that human knowledge depends upon the senses; we are not born with any "innate" knowledge to speak of. A human being who never saw, tasted, felt, smelled. or heard anything would probably never know anything--not even that he or she existed.

Consider the analogy of a car. This won't be a perfect analogy, because man is a single entity, but it may help express my thought here. If you are driving a car, you depend upon that car to move you from place to place. If the car is destroyed (and you are still alive), then the only way you will be able to move is if you get out of the car and walk.

Similarly, our immaterial nature--our intellect, or "spirit"--depends upon this material body to acquire knowledge. It depends upon the senses. If these don't work, or the processing system of the brain does not work, then knowledge will be limited. Once the person dies, this immaterial aspect would no longer be attached to the body. It would still have "location" in the sense that a point has location, but not much else.

Now, if we never acquired immaterial knowledge during our stay on earth, our spirit would be unable to acquire any after death as well--we would have not senses with which to learn. If we have acquired immaterial knowledge, we will retain it, but lose all material knowledge. That is, we will know what "motherness" is, but we won't be able to conjure any image of a particular mother. We will know what a "circle" is, but we won't be able to imagine any particular circle. We won't even know any particular words.

Knowledge qua knowledge may be able to enlighten us after death, however. We know knowledge exists because we see beings that participate in it. I know, for instance, that I am typing this.

Knowledge, taken as itself absolutely, is knowledge of everything, including--logically--knowledge itself. Self-knowledge is a sign of sentience, which would make "Knowledge" an identifiable entity. Without going deeper into this, we could hypothesize that this entity could wilfully enlighten a soul with knowledge of particulars via a complete knowledge of particular species. My faith tells me that this is, in fact, the case--although this is outside the scope of our subject.

My point is this: in order for an entity to receive such enlightenment, it has to be a being which has a nature compatible with such enlightenment. People have such a nature. If Homo Erectus was a person, then he had (and, in fact, still has) such a nature. However, there are none of them around to observe anymore. For me to be convinced one way or the other, I'd have to interact with Homo Erectus--perhaps as a clone--personally. I'd have to see what a normal Homo Erectus would be like if raised around modern humans. I'd like to ask him questions like, "What does it mean to have an idea?", or "Why are there bad men?" If he understood these questions, I would be certain that he was a person, and probably also a human person. Mere genetic similarity, however, would not convince me. Contrariwise, I would hold that he was a person even if he was radically different than humans genetically. Heck, if something that looked like a salmon swam up to me and started discussing Shakespeare with me, I would be happy to confess that he was a person, even if his conversation sounded fishy. (Rim-shot... Ah, you'll laugh later. You'll see.)



MJ said...

Your reply warrants being a blog posting in itself. Thanks again for your comments - they've got me thinking at least! Regards del...

Del Sydebothom said...

:) I always like it when someone tells me that I made them think. Thank you!!

Wizard said...

Some people are product of intelligent design and some not. To think otherwise would be an insult to God.
Other people have obviously eveolved from monkeys and for other to think that they have evolved from monkeys would be an insult for the monkeys.