Most religious people in the developed world have managed to retain a belief in their particular god as the creator, but they accept that the created world is subject to evolution, a position known as theistic evolutionism. This is the general consensus among theologians, which often surprises religious fundamentalists. The majority of Christian seminaries do not teach a Biblical literalist creation. It is in the Fundamentalist branches of religions that literalist beliefs are widespread, and these tend to be organisations where leaders have little or no formal theological training. The greatest challenge to our understanding of the past comes from these sects. Currently, this is manifest in so-called “scientific” creationism.
The term is obviously an oxymoron. ‘Science’ depends on the observation and testing of phenomena by hypotheses designed to explain them; ‘creationism’ starts from the premise that a divine creation took place as revealed in religious tracts and is therefore not in need of testing. The ‘science’ involved in scientific creationism consists of the collection of data to support the original assertion of divine creation and – in many ways, more importantly – to undermine the theory of evolution. This does not match the usual definition of science, of course, but it impresses believers by reassuring them that ‘science’ – seen by many as the ultimate authority for any non-religious statement – confirms their superstition. So-called scientific creationism became the main fundamentalist challenge to the orthodox view of the past during the 1980s and 1990s. The particular bugbear of the fundamentalists is evolution, especially the evolution of humanity, and this is what they attack with special vigour, but they will also seize on archaeological evidence to back up their claim that the Bible is inerrant. This is supposed to show that its account of creation is correct in every detail. Thus, recent radiocarbon dating that confirms the existence of an Edomite kingdom as early as 1000 BCE, confirming biblical accounts and overturning previous orthodox opinion, is presented as evidence for the reliability of Genesis. In other circumstances, though, radiocarbon dating is derided when it gives ages more than six thousand years old!
It is a fundamental principle of modern biology that all living things are interrelated because they all share a common descent from the first living cells on earth and have changed over the countless billions of generations that have passed since those first cells formed. In other words, all living things have evolved. It is a common mistake to assume that evolution means that organisms become more complex through time: the idea that evolution is progress towards ‘higher’ forms is a peculiarly Victorian view and one that was demolished in the twentieth century. There is therefore no mystery about ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ (or ‘primitive’ and ‘evolved’) forms living at the same time. If a ‘simple’ form is well adapted to its environment, there are no pressures on it that will lead to the preferential survival of descendants with mutations that will gradually develop into new species. Creationists show their ignorance of how evolution works when they often ask why apes still exist alongside humans when, if we descend from apes, evolutionary theory demands that they should have died out. This shows their fundamental ignorance of how evolution works: it is quite possible for a “parent” species to exist alongside its “child”. Homo sapiens has not descended from any species of ape alive today, anyway, but shares a common extinct ancestor with other ape species, a point made many years ago by Darwin.
Nor does evolution move at a single (linear or geometric) pace. Some changes can happen rapidly, while others take place slowly. While mainstream biologists no longer argue about whether or not evolution has taken place, because the evidence for it is so overwhelming, they do debate how it occurs and at what speed different evolutionary changes can happen. New discoveries, particularly from palaeontology and, increasingly, genetics, generate debates about long-held beliefs, lead to the formulation of new hypotheses and form the background to the gradual acceptance of ideas that originally seemed revolutionary. This is typical science, even if creationists do not understand it. Creationists, on the other hand, regard science as a fixed body of knowledge, just like their religious beliefs. They see the debate as one that can be conducted between two polar opposites and one that involves the discrediting of a monolithic, dogmatic ‘science’ (sometimes by using evidence that has long been discarded by scientists). This enables the creationists to accuse science of ‘suppressing’ or ‘ignoring’ evidence that does not fit. Instead, what they are doing is using ideas that are no longer accepted because they have been shown to be wrong, irrelevant to the question or of doubtful quality. The creationist viewpoint is a theological position, not a scientific one, as it is based not on evidence that can be debated, but on a religious conviction that cannot be in error. ‘Scientific’ creationism is therefore not science as it is defined by scientists. At the same time, the creationists’ view of what constitutes ‘science’ is suspiciously similar to the nature of their religious dogma.
The human fossil record
Much of the creationist debate focuses on palaeoanthropology rather than archaeology proper. Creationists believe that if they can destroy the belief that anatomically modern humans are the result of a long process of evolution, then we can also dispense with the idea of an ancient earth and can accept the Genesis account (including Archbishop Ussher’s chronology) as literally true. Why they believe this is not altogether clear, as it would evidently be possible to have an earth many billions of years old, but still have humanity created only six thousand years ago: there is no logical connection between the two ideas, just the account of ‘days’ in Genesis. The way creationists attempt to disprove human evolution is to deny that fossil hominids belong to extinct species of human, as such species cannot, in their view, have existed. By selective quotation from analyses carried out by scientists that emphasise the ‘modern’ features of one specimen and the ‘ape-like’ features of others, they try to show that some of the fossils belong to unfortunate antediluvian people drowned by the universal flood, while others are chimpanzees, gorillas or other apes. Their techniques are typical of Bad Archaeologists: concentrating on the anomalous, quoting only scientists who confirm the writers’ prejudices, taking sentences out of context and so on. They occasionally suggest deliberate fraud, the suppression of evidence and the existence of an academic conspiracy to prop up an ailing theory.
However, the broad outline of human evolution is fairly well established, although all palaeoanthropologists desperately want more fossil evidence. Both in terms of fossil remains, which extend back to the genus Orrorin, which lived over five million years ago, and genetic evidence, which suggests that the ancestors of humans and chimpanzees (our closest living relatives) diverged between seven and eleven million years ago, the picture is fairly clear and consistent. The earliest fossils that can be regarded as belonging to the specifically human branch fall into five or six genera: Orrorin, Ardipithecus, Kenyanthropus, Australopithecus and Homo, with some fossils regarded by many as belonging to Australopithecus perhaps really forming a separate genus, Paranthropus. The arguments among palaeoanthropologists are not whether these genera are related to us – they clearly are – but how many separate species can be defined within each genus and how these species are related to each other.
“Scientific” creationists, on the other hand, go as far as to deny that there are such things as human fossils, as there cannot be any forms intermediate between Homo sapiens and any other species (indeed, there can be no intermediate forms between any two species in their world view). To them, intermediate forms have to be deliberate frauds and hoaxes perpetrated by ‘evolutionists’ or errors of interpretation, or, more entertainingly, put there by god to test their faith. The errors of interpretation are supposed to be between fully human specimens and fully ape specimens. Creationists have sometimes gone to absurd extremes to demonstrate that some fossil hominids are in fact anatomically modern humans (such as the Homo erectus fossils from Trinil (Indonesia) often known as ‘Java Man’) or are apes (such as the Homo erectus fossils from Zhougoudian (China) often known as ‘Peking Man’); the irony is that both these examples belong to the same species. The former are declared modern because of the discovery of an anatomically modern femur at the same site (which does not, of course, mean that it is of the same date or from the same individual, as many creationists assume), while the latter are said to be part of an obvious hoax because the original bones are lost (they vanished during the chaos in China at the time of the Japanese invasion during the Second World War) and because the bones are associated with a stone technology. The fact that creationists disagree about whether fossils belonging to the same species are fully ape or fully human is good – and very obvious – evidence that the fossils are intermediate between the two!