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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Wrestling with the idea of human evolution

Did the earliest forms of human beings, as created by God in God’s image, have smaller brains and body frames and more body hair? Are humans constantly adapting to the changing world through evolution?

At the Sterkfontein Caves outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, paleoanthropologist Ronald Clarke has spent nearly 10 years excavating Little Foot—the oldest Australopithecine skeleton yet discovered and the first that is almost complete. The find is significant in the field of paleoanthropology and the study of human evolution as Little Foot is thought to be an early ancestor of modern humans.

The Sterkfontein Caves lie in a valley dubbed the “Cradle of Humankind” and designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Since the discovery of the Taung Baby in 1925, this region has yielded more than 1,000 fossil specimens of the predecessors to modern Homo sapiens, especially Australopithecus africanus, translated as the “southern ape of Africa.” Could this really be where humanity began, so far from the rivers Pishon, Havilah, Tigris and Euphrates and the supposed location of the Garden of Eden?

Central to the theory of evolution is speciation, the term used to describe the origin of new species. Macroevolution involves the dying out or extinction of certain species and the origination of new species. In comparison, microevolution consists of small, genetic changes in a population over a period of time, such as human beings becoming taller or more adaptable to live in a warmer climate. Microevolution also may lead to variation below the species level, which explains differences in skin pigmentation and genetic disposition among human populations around the world.

Throughout Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe, early ancestors of modern humans have been discovered. This has led to the naming of more than a dozen different hominid (human-like) creatures, which have roamed the Earth throughout the past 4 million years, although the evolutionary history of primates may be traced back more than 60 million years.

Australopithecines, whose remains have predominantly been found in southern Africa, walked upright, had smaller brains and considerably more body hair than modern humans. Homo habilis, who lived around 2 million years ago and whose fossil remains were discovered by anthropologist Louis Leakey in Kenya along the shores of Lake Turkana, constructed tools from stone and animal bone. The remains of Homo erectus, dating back to up to 1.5 million years ago, have been found in parts of Africa, Asia and Europe, along with evidence that they used fire, practiced religion and buried their dead.

Are these each separate species, now extinct, or are these earlier forms of modern humans constantly adapting to our changing world through microevolution? The answer may never be known. In fact, partly the reason for so many separate species of early humans is the separate discovery of fossil remains by many different paleoanthropologists, each with slightly different variations.

The concept of macroevolution has been disputed within the scientific community because it has never actually been directly observed. This has led to strict creationists questioning the credibility of the theory of evolution in its entirety. However, macroevolution could also be seen as microevolutionary changes over a long period, which have led to changes in the genetic disposition of a species to adapt to a changing environment.

One cannot doubt the subtle physical differences between humans today and those from even a few hundred years ago. Doors in 18th-century homes are too short for a 6-foot-tall person to even enter. A person no longer needs an appendix, although it may have proved useful earlier. Microevolution accounts for such physical differences, as well as social and cultural differences between peoples and cultures throughout the world. The discipline of anthropology seeks to examine human physical and cultural evolution through time and through space, as there is so much about our present and past that is yet unknown.

Charles Darwin was a student of theology at the University of Cambridge in England when he was invited to take part in a voyage to South America aboard the HMS Beagle. This journey would inspire him to become a lifelong naturalist and biologist. His experiences on this international voyage led him to write seminal works in the theory of evolution—On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871). Throughout his lifetime, Darwin remained a committed Christian and avoided making claims that evolution conflicted with the Christian principle of creation. In his earliest work he wrote: “Endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” and that “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”

A universal certainty of humanity is the curiosity to know all from which we come and all to which we are headed. But God’s grand design and all that has occurred since the creation of heaven and Earth may never be known. Human knowledge is constantly evolving.

Is it a question of evolution versus creationism? Not necessarily. Surely the complexities involved in creating the world and its inhabitants must have been guided by some higher power that is continually shaping the world into new forms and evolution is God’s method of creationism.


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