Primate Thanatology and the Case for Human Exceptionalism

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By Fazale Rana – September 18, 2019

I will deliver this people from the power of the grave;
I will redeem them from death.
Where, O death, are your plagues?
Where, O grave, is your destruction?

Hosea 13:14

It was the first time someone I knew died. I was in seventh grade. My classmate’s younger brother and two younger sisters perished in a fire that burned his family’s home to the ground. We lived in a small rural town in West Virginia at the time. Everyone knew each other and the impact of that tragedy reverberated throughout the community.

I was asked to be a pallbearer at the funeral. To this day, I remember watching my friend’s father with a cast on one arm and another on one of his legs, hobble up to each of the little caskets to touch them one last time as he sobbed uncontrollably right before we lifted and carried the caskets to the waiting hearses.

Death is part of life and our reaction to death is part of what makes us human. But, are humans unique in this regard?

Funerary Practices

Human responses to death include funerary practices—ceremonies that play an integral role in the final disposition of the body of the deceased.

Anthropologists who study human cultures see funerals as providing important scientific insight into human nature. These scientists define funerals as cultural rituals designed to honor, remember, and celebrate the life of those who have died. Funerals provide an opportunity for people to express grief, mourn loss, offer sympathy, and support the bereaved. Also, funerals often serve a religious purpose that includes (depending on the faith tradition) praying for the person who has died, helping his or her soul transition to the afterlife (or reincarnate).

Funerary Practices and Human Exceptionalism

For many anthropologists, human funerary practices are an expression of our capacities for:

  • symbolism
  • open-ended generative manipulation of symbols
  • theory of mind
  • complex, hierarchical social interactions

Though the idea of human exceptionalism is controversial within anthropology today, a growing minority of anthropologists argue that the combination of these qualities sets us apart from other creatures. They make us unique and exceptional.

As a Christian, I view this set of qualities as scientific descriptors of the image of God. That being the case, then, from my vantage point, human funerary practices (along with language, music, and art) are part of the body of evidence that we can marshal to make the case that human beings uniquely bear God’s image.

What about Neanderthals?

But are human beings really unique and exceptional?

Didn’t Neanderthals bury their dead? Didn’t these hominins engage in funerary practices just like modern humans do?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then for some people it undermines the case for human uniqueness and exceptionalism and, along with it, the scientific case for the image of God. If Neanderthal funerary practices flow out of the capacity for symbolism, open-ended generative capacity, etc., then it means that Neanderthals must have been like us. They must have been exceptional, too, and humans don’t stand apart from all other creatures on Earth, as the Scriptures teach.

Did Neanderthals Bury Their Dead?

But, could these notions about Neanderthal exceptionalism be premature? Although there is widespread belief that Neanderthals buried their dead in a ritualistic manner and even though this claim can be attested in the scientific literature, a growing body of archeological evidence challenges this view.

Many anthropologists question if Neanderthal burials were in fact ritualistic. (If they weren’t, then it most likely indicates that these hominins didn’t have a concept of the afterlife—a concept that requires symbolism and open-ended generative capacities.) Others go so far as to question if Neanderthals buried their dead at all. (For an in-depth discussion of the scientific challenges to Neanderthal burials, see the Resources section below.)

Were Neanderthal Burials an Evolutionary Precursor to Human Funerary Practices?

It is not unreasonable to think that these hominins may well have disposed of corpses and displayed some type of response when members of their group died. Over the centuries, keen observers (including primatologists, most recently) have documented nonhuman primates inspecting, protecting, retrieving, carrying, and dragging the dead bodies of members of their groups.1 In light of these observations, it makes sense to think that Neanderthals may have done something similar.

While it doesn’t appear that Neanderthals responded to death in the same way we do, it is tempting (within the context of the evolutionary paradigm) to view Neanderthal behavior as an evolutionary stepping-stone to the funerary practices of modern humans.

But, is this transitional view the best explanation for Neanderthal burials—assuming that these hominins did, indeed, dispose of group members’ corpses? Research in thanatology (the study of dying and death) among nonhuman primates holds the potential to shed light on this question.

The Nonhuman Primate Response to Death

Behavioral evolution researchers André Gonçalves and Susana Caravalho recently reviewed studies in primate thanatology—categorizing and interpreting the way these creatures respond to death. In the process, they sought to explain the role the death response plays among various primate groups.

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Figure 1: Monkey Sitting over the Body of a Deceased Relative. Image credit: Shutterstock

When characterizing the death response of nonhuman primates, Gonçalves and Caravalho group the behaviors of these creatures into two categories: (1) responses to infant deaths and (2) responses to adult deaths.

In most primate taxa (classified groups), when an infant dies the mother will carry the dead baby for days before abandoning it, often grooming the corpse and swatting away flies. Eventually, she will abandon it. Depending on the taxon, in some instances young females will carry the infant’s remains for a few days after the mother abandons it. Most other members in the group ignore the corpse. At times, they will actively avoid both mother and corpse when the stench becomes overwhelming.

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Figure 2: Baboon Mother with a Child. Image credit: Shutterstock

The death of an adult member of the group tends to elicit a much more pervasive response than does the death of an infant. The specific nature of the response depends upon the taxon and also on other factors such as: (1) the bond between individual members of the group and the deceased; (2) the social status of the deceased; and (3) the group structure of the particular taxon. Typically, the closer the bond between the deceased and the group member the longer the duration of the death response. The same is true if the deceased is a high-ranking member of the group.

Often the death response includes vocalizations that connote alarm and distress. Depending on the taxon, survivors may hit and pull at the corpse, as if trying to rouse it. Other times, it appears that survivors hit the corpse out of frustration. Sometimes groups members will sniff at the corpse or peer at it. In some taxa, survivors will groom the corpse or stroke it gently, while swatting away flies. In other taxa, survivors will stand vigil over the corpse, guarding it from scavengers.

In some instances, survivors return to the corpse and visit it for days. After the corpse is disposed, group members may continue to visit the site for quite some time. In other taxa, group members may avoid the death site. Both behaviors indicate that group members understand that an event of great importance to the group took place at the site where a member died.

Are Humans and Nonhuman Primates Different in Degree? Or Kind?

It is clear that nonhuman primates have an awareness of death and, for some primate taxa, it seems as if members of the group experience grief. Some anthropologists and primatologists see this behavior as humanlike. It’s easy to see why. We are moved by the anguish and confusion these creatures seem to experience when one of their group members dies.

For the most part, these scientists would agree that the human response to death is more complex and sophisticated. Yet, they see human behavior as differing only in degree rather than kind when compared to other primates. Accordingly, they interpret primate death awareness as an evolutionary antecedent to the sophisticated funerary practices of modern humans, with Neanderthal behavior part of the trajectory. And for this reason, they maintain that human beings really aren’t unique or exceptional.

The Trouble with Anthropomorphism

One problem with this conclusion (even within an evolutionary framework) is that it fails to account for the human tendency toward anthropomorphism. As part of our human nature, we possess theory of mind. We recognize that other human beings have minds like ours. And because of this capability, we know what other people are thinking and feeling. But, we don’t know how to turn this feature on and off. As a result, we also apply theory of mind to animals and inanimate objects, attributing humanlike behaviors and motivations to them, though they don’t actually possess these qualities.

British ethnologist Marian Stamp Dawkins argues in her book Why Animals Matter that scientists studying animal behavior fall victim to the tendency to anthropomorphize just as easily as the rest of us. Too often, researchers interpret experimental results from animal behavioral studies and from observations of animal behavior in captivity and the wild in terms of human behavior. When they do, these researchers ascribe human mental experiences—thoughts and feelings—to animals. Dawkins points out that when investigators operate this way, it leads to untestable hypotheses because we can never truly know what occurs in animal minds. Moreover, Dawkins argues that we tend to prefer anthropomorphic interpretations to other explanations. She states, “Anthropomorphism tends to make people go for the most human-like explanation and ignore the other less exciting ones.”2

A lack of awareness of our tendency toward anthropomorphism raises questions about the all-too-common view that the death response of nonhuman primates—and Neanderthals—is humanlike and an evolutionary antecedent to modern human funerary practices. This is especially true in light of the explanation offered by Gonçalves and Caravalho for the death response in primates.

The two investigators argue that the response of mothers to the death of their infants is actually maladaptive (from an evolutionary perspective). Carrying around dead infants and caring for them is energetically costly and hinders their locomotion. Both consequences render them vulnerable to predators. The pair explain this behavior by arguing that the mother’s response to the death of her infant falls on the continuum of care-taking behavior and can be seen as a trade-off. In other words, nonhuman primate mothers who have a strong instinct to care for their offspring will ensure the survival of their infant. But if the infant dies, the instinct is so strong that they will continue to care for it after its death.

Gonçalves and Caravalho also point out that the death response toward adult members of the group plays a role in reestablishing new group dynamics. Depending on the primate taxon, the death of members shifts the group’s hierarchical structure. This being the case, it seems reasonable to think that the death response helps group members adjust to the new group structure as survivors take on new positions in the hierarchy.

Finally, as Dawkins argues, we can’t know what takes place in the minds of animals. Therefore, we can’t legitimately attribute human mental experiences to animals. So, while it may seem to us as if some nonhuman primates experience grief as part of the death response, how do we know that this is actually the case? Evidence for grief often consists of loss of appetite and increased vocalizations. However, though these changes occur in response to the death of a group member, there may be other explanations for these behaviors that have nothing to do with grief at all.

Death Response in Nonhuman Primates and Neanderthals

Study of primate thanatology also helps us to put Neanderthal burial practices (assuming that these hominins buried dead group members) into context. Often, when anthropologists interpret Neanderthal burials (from an evolutionary perspective), they are comparing these practices to human funerary practices. This comparison makes it seem like Neanderthal burials are part of an evolutionary trajectory toward modern human behavior and capabilities.

But what if the death response of nonhuman primates is factored into the comparison? When we add a second endpoint, we find that the Neanderthal response to death clusters more closely to the responses displayed by nonhuman primates than to modern humans. And as remarkable as the death response of nonhuman primates may be, it is categorically different from modern human funerary practices. To put it another way, modern human funerary practices reflect our capacity for symbolism, open-ended manipulation of symbols, theory of mind, etc. In contrast, the death response of nonhuman primates and hominins, such as Neanderthals, seems to serve utilitarian purposes. So, it isn’t the presence or absence of the death response that determines our exceptional nature. Instead, it is a death response shaped by our capacity for symbolism and open-ended generative capacity that highlights our exceptional uniqueness.

Modern humans really do seem to stand apart compared to all other creatures in a way that aligns with the biblical claim that human beings uniquely possess and express the image of God.

RTB’s biblical creation model for human origins, described in Who Was Adam?, views hominins such as Neanderthals as creatures created by God’s divine fiat that possess intelligence and emotional capacity. These animals were able to employ crude tools and even adopt some level of “culture,” much like baboons, gorillas, and chimpanzees. But they were not spiritual beings made in God’s image. That position—and all of the intellectual, relational, and symbolic capabilities that come with it—remains reserved for modern humans alone.

Resources for Further Exploration

Did Neanderthals Bury Their Dead?

Nonhuman Primate Behavior

Problem-Solving in Animals and Human Exceptionalism

Endnotes
  1. André Gonçalves and Susana Caravalho, “Death among Primates: A Critical Review of Nonhuman Primate Interactions towards Their Dead and Dying,” Biological Reviews 94, no. 4 (April 4, 2019), doi:10.1111/brv.12512.
  2. Marian Stamp Dawkins, Why Animals Matter: Animal Consciousness, Animal Welfare, and Human Well-Being (New York, Oxford University Press, 2012), 30.

Reprinted with permission by the author

Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/11/21/vocal-signals-smile-on-the-case-for-human-exceptionalism

Does Transhumanism Refute Human Exceptionalism? A Response to Peter Clarke

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BY FAZALE RANA – APRIL 3, 2019

I just finished binge-watching Altered Carbon. Based on the 2002 science fiction novel written by Richard K. Morgan, this Netflix original series is provocative, to say the least.

Altered Carbon takes place in the future, where humans can store their personalities as digital files in devices called stacks. These disc-like devices are implanted at the top of the spinal column. When people die, their stacks can be removed from their body (called sleeves) and stored indefinitely until they are re-sleeved—if and when another body becomes available to them.

In this world, people who possess extreme wealth can live indefinitely, without ever having to spend any time in storage. Referred to as Meths (after the biblical figure Methuselah, who lived 969 years), the wealthy have the financial resources to secure a continual supply of replacement bodies through cloning. Their wealth also affords them the means to back up their stacks once a day, storing the data in a remote location in case their stacks are destroyed. In effect, Meths use technology to attain a form of immortality.

Forthcoming Posthuman Reality?

The world of Altered Carbon is becoming a reality right before our eyes. Thanks to recent advances in biotechnology and bioengineering, the idea of using technology to help people live indefinitely no longer falls under the purview of science fiction. Emerging technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing and brain-computer interfaces offer hope to people suffering from debilitating diseases and injuries. They can also be used for human enhancements—extending our physical, intellectual, and psychological capabilities beyond natural biological limits.

These futuristic possibilities give fuel to a movement known as transhumanism. Residing on the fringe of the academy and culture for several decades, the movement has gone mainstream in the ivory towers of the academy and on the street. Sociologist James Hughes describes the transhumanist vision this way in his book Citizen Cyborg:

“In the twenty-first century the convergence of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and genetic engineering will allow human beings to achieve things previously imagined only in science fiction. Lifespans will extend well beyond a century. Our senses and cognition will be enhanced. We will gain control over our emotions and memory. We will merge with machines, and machines will become more like humans. These technologies will allow us to evolve into varieties of “posthumans” and usher us into a “transhuman” era and society. . . . Transhuman technologies, technologies that push the boundaries of humanism, can radically improve our quality of life, and . . . we have a fundamental right to use them to control our bodies and minds. But to ensure these benefits we need to democratically regulate these technologies and make them equally available in free societies.”1

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Figure 1: The transhumanism symbol. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

In short, transhumanists want us to take control of our own evolution, transforming human beings into posthumans and in the process creating a utopian future that carves out a path to immortality.

Depending on one’s philosophical or religious perspective, transhumanists’ vision and the prospects of a posthuman reality can bring excitement or concern or a little bit of both. Should we pursue the use of technology to enhance ourselves, transcending the constraints of our biology? What role should these emerging biotechnologies play in shaping our future? What are the boundaries for developing and using these technologies? Should there be any boundaries?2

All of these questions revolve around a central question: Who are we as human beings?

Are Humans Exceptional?

Prior to the rising influence of transhumanism, the answer to this question followed along one of two lines. For people who hold to a Judeo-Christian worldview, human beings are exceptional, standing apart from all other creatures on the planet. Accordingly, our exceptional nature results from the image of God. As image bearers, human beings have infinite worth and value.

On the other hand, those influenced by the evolutionary paradigm maintain that human beings are nothing more than animals—differing in degree, not kind, from other creatures. In fact, many who hold this view of humanity find the notion of human exceptionalism repugnant. In their view, to elevate the value of human beings above that of other creatures constitutes speciesism and reflects an unjustifiable arrogance.

And now transhumanism enters into the fray. People on both sides of the controversy about human nature and identity argue that transhumanism brings an end to any notion about human exceptionalism, once and for all.

One is Peter Clarke. In an article published on the Areo website entitled “Transhumanism and the Death of Human Exceptionalism,” Clarke says:

“As a philosophical movement, transhumanism advocates for improving humanity through genetic modifications and technological augmentations, based upon the position that there is nothing particularly sacred about the human condition. It acknowledges up front that our bodies and minds are riddled with flaws that not only can but should be fixed. Even more radically, as the name implies, transhumanism embraces the potential of one day moving beyond the human condition, transitioning our sentience into more advanced forms of life, including genetically modified humans, superhuman cyborgs, and immortal digital intelligences.”3

On the other side of the aisle is Wesley J. Smith of the Discovery Institute. In his article “Transhumanist Bill of Wrongs,” Smith writes:

“Transhumanism would shatter human exceptionalism. The moral philosophy of the West holds that each human being is possessed of natural rights that adhere solely and merely because we are human. But transhumanists yearn to remake humanity in their own image—including as cyborgs, group personalities residing in the Internet Cloud, or AI-controlled machines. That requires denigrating natural man as unexceptional to justify our substantial deconstruction and redesign.”4

In other words, transhumanism highlights the notion that our bodies, minds, and personalities are inherently flawed and we have a moral imperative, proponents say, to correct these flaws. But this view denigrates humanity, opponents say, and with it the notion of human exceptionalism. For Clarke, this nonexceptional perspective is something to be celebrated. For Smith, transhumanism is of utmost concern and must be opposed.

Evidence of Exceptionalism

While I am sympathetic to Smith’s concern, I would take a differing perspective. I find that transhumanism provides one of the most powerful pieces of evidence for human exceptionalism—and along with it the image of God.

In my forthcoming book (coauthored with Ken Samples), Humans 2.0, I write:

“Ironically, progress in human enhancement technology and the prospects of a posthuman future serve as one of the most powerful arguments for human exceptionalism and, consequently, the image of God. Human beings are the only species that exists—or that has ever existed—that can create technologies to enhance our capabilities beyond our biological limits. We alone work toward effecting our own immortality, take control of evolution, and look to usher in a posthuman world. These possibilities stem from our unique and exceptional capacity to investigate and develop an understanding of nature (including human biology) through science and then turn that insight into technology.”5

Our ability to carry out the scientific enterprise and develop technology stems from four qualities that a growing number of anthropologists and primatologists think are unique to humans, including:

  • symbolism
  • open-ended generative capacity
  • theory of mind
  • our capacity to form complex social networks

From my perspective as a Christian, these qualities stand as scientific descriptors of the image of God.

As human beings, we effortlessly represent the world with discrete symbols. We denote abstract concepts with symbols. And our ability to represent the world symbolically has interesting consequences when coupled with our abilities to combine and recombine those symbols in a nearly infinite number of ways to create alternate possibilities.

Human capacity for symbolism manifests in the form of language, art, music, and even body ornamentation. And we desire to communicate the scenarios we construct in our minds with other human beings.

For anthropologists and primatologists who think that human beings differ in kind—not degree—from other animals, these qualities demarcate us from the great apes and Neanderthals. The separation becomes most apparent when we consider the remarkable technological advances we have made during our tenure as a species. Primatologist Thomas Suddendorf puts it this way:

“We reflect on and argue about our present situation, our history, and our destiny. We envision wonderful harmonious worlds as easily as we do dreadful tyrannies. Our powers are used for good as they are for bad, and we incessantly debate which is which. Our minds have spawned civilizations and technologies that have changed the face of the Earth, while our closest living animal relatives sit unobtrusively in their remaining forests. There appears to be a tremendous gap between human and animal minds.”6

Moreover, no convincing evidence exists that leads us to think that Neanderthals shared the qualities that make us exceptional. Neanderthals—who first appear in the fossil record around 250,000 to 200,000 years ago and disappear around 40,000 years ago—existed on Earth longer than modern humans have. Yet our technology has progressed exponentially, while Neanderthal technology remained largely static.

According to paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall and linguist Noam Chomsky (and their coauthors):

“Our species was born in a technologically archaic context, and significantly, the tempo of change only began picking up after the point at which symbolic objects appeared. Evidently, a new potential for symbolic thought was born with our anatomically distinctive species, but it was only expressed after a necessary cultural stimulus had exerted itself. This stimulus was most plausibly the appearance of language. . . . Then, within a remarkably short space of time, art was invented, cities were born, and people had reached the moon.”7

In other words, the evolution of human technology signifies that there is something special—exceptional—about us as human beings. In this sense, transhumanism highlights our exceptional nature precisely because the prospects for controlling our own evolution stem from our ability to advance technology.

To be clear, transhumanism possesses an existential risk for humanity. Unquestioningly, it has the potential to strip human beings of dignity and worth. But, ironically, transhumanism is possible only because we are exceptional as human beings.

Responsibility as the Crown of Creation

Ultimately, our exceptional nature demands that we thoughtfully deliberate on how to use emerging biotechnologies to promote human flourishing, while ensuring that no human being is exploited or marginalized by these technologies. It also means that we must preserve our identity as human beings at all costs.

It is one thing to enjoy contemplating a posthuman future by binge-watching a sci-fi TV series. But, it is another thing altogether to live it out. May we be guided by ethical wisdom to live well.

Resources

Endnotes
  1. James Hughes, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Humans of the Future (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2004), xii.
  2. Ken Samples and I take on these questions and more in our book Humans 2.0, due to be published in July of 2019.
  3. Peter Clarke, “Transhumanism and the Death of Human Exceptionalism,” Areo (March 6, 2019), https://areomagazine.com/2019/03/06/transhumanism-and-the-death-of-human-exceptionalism/.
  4. Wesley J. Smith,“Transhumanist Bill of Wrongs,” Discovery Institute (October 23, 2018), https://www.discovery.org/a/transhumanist-bill-of-wrongs/.
  5. Fazale Rana with Kenneth Samples, Humans 2.0: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Perspectives on Transhumanism (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2019) in press.
  6. Thomas Suddendorf, The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 2.
  7. Johan J. Bolhuis et al., “How Could Language Have Evolved?” PLoS Biology 12, no.8 (August 26, 2014): e1001934, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001934.

Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2019/04/03/does-transhumanism-refute-human-exceptionalism-a-response-to-peter-clarke

Timing of Neanderthals’ Disappearance Makes Art Claims Unlikely

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BY FAZALE RANA – MARCH 27, 2019

In Latin it literally means, “somewhere else.”

Legal experts consider an alibi to be one of the most effective legal defenses available in a court of law because it has the potential to prove a defendant’s innocence. It goes without saying: if a defendant has an alibi, it means that he or she was somewhere else when the crime was committed.

As it turns out, paleoanthropologists have discovered that Neanderthals have an alibi, of sorts. Evidence indicates that they weren’t the ones to scratch up the floor of Gorham’s Cave.

Based on recent radiocarbon dates measured for samples from Bajondillo Cave (located on the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula—southwest corner of Europe), a research team from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology and several Spanish institutions determined that modern humans made their way to the southernmost tip of Iberia around 43,000 years ago, displacing Neanderthals.1

Because Neanderthals disappeared from Iberia at that time, it becomes unlikely that they were responsible for hatch marks (dated to be 39,000 years in age) made on the floor of Gorham’s Cave on the island of Gibraltar. These scratches have been interpreted by some paleoanthropologists as evidence that Neanderthals possessed symbolic capabilities.

But how could Neanderthals have made the hatch marks if they weren’t there? Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: the perfect alibi. Instead, it looks as if modern humans were the culprits who marked up the cave floor.

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Figure 1: Gorham’s Cave. Image credit: Wikipedia

The Case for Neanderthal Exceptionalism

Two of the biggest questions in anthropology today relate to Neanderthals:

  • When did these creatures disappear from Europe?
  • Did they possess symbolic capacity like modern humans, thus putting their cognitive abilities on par with ours as a species?

For paleoanthropologists, these two questions have become inseparable. With regard to the second question, some paleoanthropologists are convinced that Neanderthals displayed symbolic capabilities.

It is important to note that the case for Neanderthal symbolism is largely based on correlations between the archaeological and fossil records. Toward this end, some anthropologists have concluded that Neanderthals possessed symbolism because researchers have recovered artifacts (presumably reflecting symbolic capabilities) from the same layers that harbored Neanderthal fossils. Unfortunately, this approach is complicated by other studies that show that the cave layers have been mixed by either cave occupants (either hominid or modern human) or animals living in the caves. This mixing leads to the accidental association of fossil and archaeological remains. In other words, the mixing of layers raises questions about who the manufacturers of these artifacts were.

Because we know modern humans possess the capacity for symbolism, it is much more likely that modern humans, not Neanderthals, made the symbolic artifacts, in these instances. Then, only through an upheaval of the cave layers did the artifacts mix with Neanderthal remains. (See the Resources section for articles that elaborate this point.)

More often than not, archaeological remains are unearthed by themselves with no corresponding fossil specimens. This is the reason why understanding the timing of Neanderthals’ disappearance and modern humans’ arrival in different regions of Europe becomes so important (and why the two questions interrelate). Paleoanthropologists believe that if they can show that Neanderthals lived in a locale at the time symbolic artifacts were produced, then it becomes conceivable that these creatures made the symbolic items. This interpretation increases in plausiblity if no modern humans were around at the time.

Some researchers have argued along these lines regarding the hatch marks found on the floor of Gorham’s Cave.2 The markings were made in the bedrock of the cave floor. The layers above the bedrock date to between 30,000 and 39,000 years in age. Some paleoanthropologists argue that Neanderthals must have made the markings. Why? Because, even though modern humans were already in Europe by that time, these paleoanthropologists think that modern humans had not yet made their way to the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula. These same researchers also think that Neanderthals survived in Iberia until about 32,000 years ago, even though their counterparts in other parts of Europe had already disappeared. So, on this basis, paleoanthropologists conclude that Neanderthals produced the hatch marks and, thus, displayed symbolic capabilities.

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Figure 2: Hatch marks on the floor of Gorham’s Cave. Image credit: Wikipedia

When Did Neanderthals Disappear from Iberia?

But recent work challenges this conclusion. The Spanish and Japanese team took 17 new radiocarbon measurements from layers of the Bajondillo Cave (located in southern Iberia, near Gorham’s Cave) with the hopes of precisely documenting the change in technology from Mousterian (made by Neanderthals) to Aurignacian (made by modern humans). This transition corresponds to the replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans elsewhere in Europe.

The researchers combined the data from their samples with previous measurements made at the site to pinpoint this transition at around 43,000 years ago—not 32,000 years ago. In other words, modern humans occupied Iberia at the same time they occupied other places in Europe. This result also means that Neanderthals had disappeared from Iberia well before the hatch marks in Gorham’s Cave were made.

Were Neanderthals Exceptional Like Modern Humans?

Though claims of Neanderthal exceptionalism abound in the scientific literature and in popular science articles, the claims universally fail to withstand ongoing scientific scrutiny, as this latest discovery attests. Simply put, based on the archaeological record, there are no good reasons to think that Neanderthals displayed symbolism.

From my perspective, the case for Neanderthal symbolism seems to be driven more by ideology than actual scientific evidence.

It is also worth noting that comparative studies on Neanderthal and modern human brain structures also lead to the conclusion that humans displayed symbolism and Neanderthals did not. (See the Resources section for articles that describe this work in more detail.)

Why Does It Matter?

Questions about Neanderthal symbolic capacity and, hence, exceptionalism have bearing on how we understand human beings. Are human beings unique in our capacity for symbolism or is this quality displayed by other hominins? If humans are not alone in our capacity for symbolism, then we aren’t exceptional. And, if we aren’t exceptional then it becomes untenable to embrace the biblical concept of human beings as God’s image bearers. (As a Christian, I see symbolism as a manifestation of the image of God.)

But, based on the latest scientific evidence, the verdict is in: modern humans are the only species to display the capacity for symbolism. In this way, scientific advance affirms that humans are exceptional in a way that aligns with the biblical concept of the image of God.

The Neanderthals’ alibi holds up. They weren’t there, but humans were. Case closed.

Resources

Endnotes
  1. Miguel Cortés-Sánchez et al., “An Early Aurignacian Arrival in Southwestern Europe,” Nature Ecology and Evolution 3 (January 21, 2019): 207–12, doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0753-6.
  2. Joaquín Rodríguez-Vidal et al., “A Rock Engraving Made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 111, no. 37 (September 16, 2014): 13301–6, doi:10.1073/pnas.1411529111.

Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2019/03/27/timing-of-neanderthals-disappearance-makes-art-claims-unlikely

Does Animal Planning Undermine the Image of God?

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BY FAZALE RANA – JANUARY 23, 2019

A few years ago, we had an all-white English Bulldog named Archie. He would lumber toward even complete strangers, eager to befriend them and earn their affections. And people happily obliged this playful pup.

Archie wasn’t just an adorable dog. He was also well trained. We taught him to ring a bell hanging from a sliding glass door in our kitchen so he could let us know when he wanted to go out. He rarely would ring the bell. Instead, he would just sit by the door and wait . . . unless the neighbor’s cat was in the backyard. Then, Archie would repeatedly bang on the bell with great urgency. He had to get the cat at all costs. Clearly, he understood the bell’s purpose. He just chose to use it for his own devices.

Anyone who has owned a cat or dog knows that these animals do remarkable things. Animals truly are intelligent creatures.

But there are some people who go so far as to argue that animal intelligence is much more like human intelligence than we might initially believe. They base this claim, in part, on a handful of high-profile studies that indicate that some animals such as great apes and ravens can problem-solve and even plan for the future—behaviors that make them like us in some important ways.

Great Apes Plan for the Future

In 2006, two German anthropologists conducted a set of experiments on bonobos and orangutans in captivity that seemingly demonstrated that these creatures can plan for the future. Specifically, the test subjects selected, transported, and saved tools for use 1 hour and 14 hours later, respectively.1

To begin the study, the researchers trained both bonobos and orangutans to use a tool to get a reward from an apparatus. In the first experiment, the researchers blocked access to the apparatus. They laid out eight tools for the apes to select—two were suitable for the task and six were unsuitable. After selecting the tools, the apes were ushered into another room where they were kept for 1 hour. The apes were then allowed back into the room and granted access to the apparatus. To gain the reward, the apes had to select the correct tool and transport it to and from the waiting area. The anthropologists observed that the apes successfully obtained the reward in 70 percent of the trials by selecting and hanging on to the correct tool as they moved from room to room.

In the second experiment, the delay between tool selection and access to the apparatus was extended to 14 hours. This experiment focused on a single female individual. Instead of taking the test subject to the waiting room, the researchers took her to a sleeping room one floor above the waiting room before returning her to the room with the apparatus. She selected and held on to to the tool for 14 hours while she moved from room to room in 11 of the 12 trials—each time successfully obtaining the reward.

On the basis of this study, the researchers concluded that great apes have the ability to plan for the future. They also argued that this ability emerged in the common ancestor of humans and great apes around 14 million years ago. So, even though we like to think of planning for the future as one of the “most formidable human cognitive achievements,”2 it doesn’t appear to be unique to human beings.

Ravens Plan for the Future

In 2017, two researchers from Lund University in Sweden demonstrated that ravens are capable of flexible planning just like the great apes.3 These cognitive scientists conducted a series of experiments with ravens, demonstrating that the large black birds can plan for future events and exert self-control for up to 17 hours prior to using a tool or bartering with humans for a reward. (Self-control is crucial for successfully planning for the future.)

The researchers taught ravens to use a tool to gain a reward from an apparatus. As part of the training phase, the test subjects also learned that other objects wouldn’t work on the apparatus.

In the first experiment, the ravens were exposed to the apparatus without access to tools. As such, they couldn’t gain the reward. Then the researchers removed the apparatus. One hour later, the ravens were taken to a different location and offered tools. Then, the researchers presented them with the apparatus 15 minutes later. On average, the raven test subjects selected and used tools to gain the reward in approximately 80 percent of the trials.

In the next experiment, the ravens were trained to barter by exchanging a token for a food reward. After the training, the ravens were taken to a different location and presented with a tray containing the token and three distractor objects by a researcher who had no history of bartering with the ravens. As with the results of the tool selection experiment, the ravens selected and used the token to successfully barter for food in approximately 80 percent of the trials.

When the scientists modified the experimental design to increase the time delay from 15 minutes to 17 hours between tool or token selection and access to the reward, the ravens successfully completed the task in nearly 90 percent of the trials.

Next, the researchers wanted to determine if the ravens could exercise self-control as part of their planning for the future. First, they presented the ravens with trays that contained a small food reward. Of course, all of the ravens took the reward. Next, the researchers offered the ravens trays that had the food reward and either tokens or tools and distractor items. By selecting the token or the tools, the ravens were ensured a larger food reward in the future. The researchers observed that the ravens selected the tool in 75 percent of the trials and the token in about 70 percent, instead of taking the small morsel of food. After selecting the tool or token, the ravens were given the opportunity to receive the reward about 15 minutes later.

The researchers concluded that, like the great apes, ravens can plan for the future. Moreover, these researchers argue that this insight opens up greater possibilities for animal cognition because, from an evolutionary perspective, ravens are regarded as avian dinosaurs. And mammals (including the great apes) are thought to have shared an evolutionary ancestor with dinosaurs 320 million years ago.

Are Humans Exceptional?

In light of these studies (and others like them), it becomes difficult to maintain that human beings are exceptional. Self-control and the ability to flexibly plan for future events is considered by many to be the cornerstone of human cognition. Planning for the future requires mental representation of temporally distant events, the ability to set aside current sensory inputs for unobservable future events, and an understanding of what current actions result in achieving a future goal.

For many Christians, such as me, the loss of human exceptionalism is concerning because if this idea is untenable, so, too, is the biblical view of human nature. According to Scripture, human beings stand apart from all other creatures because we bear God’s image. And, because every human being possesses the image of God, every human being has intrinsic worth and value. But if, in essence, human beings are no different from animals, it is challenging to maintain that we are the crown of creation, as Scripture teaches.

Yet recent work by biologist Johan Lind from Stockholm University (Sweden) indicates that the results of these two studies and others like them may be misleading. In effect, when properly interpreted, these studies pose no threat to human exceptionalism in any way. According to Lind, animals can engage in behavior that resembles flexible planning through a different behavior: associative learning.4 If so, this insight preserves the case for human exceptionalism and the image of God, because it means that only humans engage in genuine flexible planning for the future through higher-order cognitive processes.

Associative Learning and Planning for the Future

Lind points out that researchers working in artificial intelligence (AI) have long known that associative learning can produce complex behaviors in AI systems that give the appearance of having the capacity for planning. (Associative learning is the process that animals [and AI systems] use to establish an association between two stimuli or events, usually by the use of punishments or rewards.)

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Figure 1: An illustration of associative learning in dogs. Image credit: Shutterstock

Lind wonders why researchers studying animal cognition ignore the work in AI. Applying the insights from the work on AI systems, Lind developed mathematical models based on associative learning that he used to simulate results of the studies on the great apes and ravens. He discovered that associative learning produced the same behaviors as observed by the two research teams for the great apes and ravens. In other words, planning-like behavior can actually emerge through associative learning. That is, the same processes that give AI systems the capacity to beat humans in chess can, through associative learning, account for the planning-like behavior of animals.

The results of Lind’s simulations mean that it is most likely that animals “plan” for the future in ways that are entirely different from humans. In effect, the planning-like behavior of animals is an outworking of associative learning. On the other hand, humans uniquely engage in bona fide flexible planning through advanced cognitive processes such as mental time travel, among others.

Humans Are Exceptional

Even though the idea of human exceptionalism is continually under assault, it remains intact, as the latest work by Johan Lind illustrates. When the entire body of evidence is carefully weighed, there really is only one reasonable conclusion: Human beings uniquely possess advanced cognitive abilities that make possible our capacity for symbolism, open-ended generative capacity, theory of mind, and complex social interactions—scientific descriptors of the image of God.

Resources

Endnotes
  1. Nicholas J. Mulcahy and Josep Call, “Apes Save Tools for Future Use,” Science 312 (May 19, 2006): 1038–40, doi:10.1126/science.1125456.
  2. Mulcahy and Call, “Apes Save Tools for Future Use.”
  3. Can Kabadayi and Mathias Osvath, “Ravens Parallel Great Apes in Flexible Planning for Tool-Use and Bartering,” Science 357 (July 14, 2017): 202–4, doi:10.1126/science.aam8138.
  4. Johan Lind, “What Can Associative Learning Do for Planning?” Royal Society Open Science 5 (November 28, 2018): 180778, doi:10.1098/rsos.180778.

Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2019/01/23/does-animal-planning-undermine-the-image-of-god

Did Neanderthals Start Fires?

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BY FAZALE RANA – DECEMBER 5, 2018

It is one of the most iconic Christmas songs of all time.

Written by Bob Wells and Mel Torme in the summer of 1945, “The Christmas Song” (subtitled “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) was crafted in less than an hour. As the story goes, Wells and Torme were trying to stay cool during the blistering summer heat by thinking cool thoughts and then jotting them down on paper. And, in the process, “The Christmas Song” was born.

Many of the song’s lyrics evoke images of winter, particularly around Christmastime. But none has come to exemplify the quiet peace of a Christmas evening more than the song’s first line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . . ”

Gathering around the fire to stay warm, to cook food, and to share in a community has been an integral part of the human experience throughout history—including human prehistory. Most certainly our ability to master fire played a role in our survival as a species and in our ability as human beings to occupy and thrive in some of the world’s coldest, harshest climates.

But fire use is not limited only to modern humans. There is strong evidence that Neanderthals made use of fire. But, did these creatures have control over fire in the same way we do? In other words, did Neanderthals master fire? Or, did they merely make opportunistic use of natural fires? These questions are hotly debated by anthropologists today and they contribute to a broader discussion about the cognitive capacity of Neanderthals. Part of that discussion includes whether these creatures were cognitively inferior to us or whether they were our intellectual equals.

In an attempt to answer these questions, a team of researchers from the Netherlands and France characterized the microwear patterns on bifacial (having opposite sides that have been worked on to form an edge) tools made from flint recovered from Neanderthal sites, and concluded that the wear patterns suggest that these hominins used pyrite to repeatedly strike the flint. This process generates sparks that can be used to start fires.1 To put it another way, the researchers concluded that Neanderthals had mastery over fire because they knew how to start fires.

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Figure 1: Biface tools for cutting or scraping. Image credit: Shutterstock

However, a closer examination of the evidence along with results of other studies, including recent insight into the cause of Neanderthal extinction, raises significant doubts about this conclusion.

What Do the Microwear Patterns on Flint Say?

The investigators focused on the microwear patterns of flint bifaces recovered from Neanderthal sites as a marker for fire mastery because of the well-known practice among hunter-gatherers and pastoralists of striking flint with pyrite (an iron disulfide mineral) to generate sparks to start fires. Presumably, the first modern humans also used this technique to start fires.

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Figure 2: Starting a fire with pyrite and flint. Image credit: Shutterstock

The research team reasoned that if Neanderthals started fires, they would use a similar tactic. Careful examination of the microwear patterns on the bifaces led the research team to conclude that these tools were repeatedly struck by hard materials, with the strikes all occurring in the same direction along the bifaces’ long axis.

The researchers then tried to experimentally recreate the microwear pattern in a laboratory setting. To do so, they struck biface replicas with a number of different types of materials, including pyrites, and concluded that the patterns produced by the pyrite strikes most closely matched the patterns on the bifaces recovered from Neanderthal sites. On this basis, the researchers claim that they have found evidence that Neanderthals deliberately started fires.

Did Neanderthals Master Fire?

While this conclusion is possible, at best this study provides circumstantial, not direct, evidence for Neanderthal mastery of fire. In fact, other evidence counts against this conclusion. For example, bifaces with the same type of microwear patterns have been found at other Neanderthal sites, locales that show no evidence of fire use. These bifaces would have had a range of usages, including butchery of the remains of dead animals. So, it is possible that these tools were never used to start fires—even at sites with evidence for fire usage.

Another challenge to the conclusion comes from the failure to detect any pyrite on the bifaces recovered from the Neanderthal sites. Flint recovered from modern human sites shows visible evidence of pyrite. And yet the research team failed to detect even trace amounts of pyrite on the Neanderthal bifaces during the course of their microanalysis.

This observation raises further doubt about whether the flint from the Neanderthal sites was used as a fire starter tool. Rather, it points to the possibility that Neanderthals struck the bifaces with materials other than pyrite for reasons not yet understood.

The conclusion that Neanderthals mastered fire also does not square with results from other studies. For example, a careful assessment of archaeological sites in southern France occupied by Neanderthals from about 100,000 to 40,000 years ago indicates that Neanderthals could not create fire. Instead, these hominins made opportunistic use of natural fire when it was available to them.2

These French sites do show clear evidence of Neanderthal fire use, but when researchers correlated the archaeological layers displaying evidence for fire use with the paleoclimate data, they found an unexpected pattern. Neanderthals used fire during warm climate conditions and failed to use fire during cold periods—the opposite of what would be predicted if Neanderthals had mastered fire.

Lightning strikes that would generate natural fires are much more likely to occur during warm periods. Instead of creating fire, Neanderthals most likely harnessed natural fire and cultivated it as long as they could before it extinguished.

Another study also raises questions about the ability of Neanderthals to start fires.3 This research indicates that cold climates triggered Neanderthal extinctions. By studying the chemical composition of stalagmites in two Romanian caves, an international research team concluded that there were two prolonged and extremely cold periods between 44,000 and 40,000 years ago. (The chemical composition of stalagmites varies with temperature.)

The researchers also noted that during these cold periods, the archaeological record for Neanderthals disappears. They interpret this disappearance to reflect a dramatic reduction in Neanderthal population numbers. Researchers speculate that when this population downturn took place during the first cold period, modern humans made their way into Europe. Being better suited for survival in the cold climate, modern human numbers increased. When the cold climate mitigated, Neanderthals were unable to recover their numbers because of the growing populations of modern humans in Europe. Presumably, after the second cold period, Neanderthal numbers dropped to the point that they couldn’t recover, and hence, became extinct.

But why would modern humans be more capable than Neanderthals of surviving under extremely cold conditions? It seems as if it should be the other way around. Neanderthals had a hyper-polar body design that made them ideally suited to withstand cold conditions. Neanderthal bodies were stout and compact, comprised of barrel-shaped torsos and shorter limbs, which helped them retain body heat. Their noses were long and sinus cavities extensive, which helped them warm the cold air they breathed before it reached their lungs. But, despite this advantage, Neanderthals died out and modern humans thrived.

Some anthropologists believe that the survival discrepancy could be due to dietary differences. Some data indicates that modern humans had a more varied diet than Neanderthals. Presumably, these creatures primarily consumed large herbivores—animals that disappeared when the climatic conditions turned cold, thereby threatening Neanderthal survival. On the other hand, modern humans were able to adjust to the cold conditions by shifting their diets.

But could there be a different explanation? Could it be that with their mastery of fire, modern humans were able to survive cold conditions? And did Neanderthals die out because they could not start fires?

Taken in its entirety, the data seems to indicate that Neanderthals lacked mastery of fire but could use it opportunistically. And, in a broader context, the data indicates that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to humans.

What Difference Does It Make?

One of the most important ideas taught in Scripture is that human beings uniquely bear God’s image. As such, every human being has immeasurable worth and value. And because we bear God’s image, we can enter into a relationship with our Maker.

However, if Neanderthals possessed advanced cognitive ability just like that of modern humans, then it becomes difficult to maintain the view that modern humans are unique and exceptional. If human beings aren’t exceptional, then it becomes a challenge to defend the idea that human beings are made in God’s image.

Yet, claims that Neanderthals are cognitive equals to modern humans fail to withstand scientific scrutiny, time and time, again. Now it’s time to light a fire in my fireplace and enjoy a few contemplative moments thinking about the real meaning of Christmas.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. A. C. Sorensen, E. Claud, and M. Soressi, “Neanderthal Fire-Making Technology Inferred from Microwear Analysis,” Scientific Reports 8 (July 19, 2018): 10065, doi:10.1038/s41598-018-28342-9.
  2. Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “Timing of the Appearance of Habitual Fire Use,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 108 (July 19, 2011), E298, doi:10.1073/pnas.1106759108; Paul Goldberg et al., “New Evidence on Neandertal Use of Fire: Examples from Roc de Marsal and Pech de l’Azé IV,” Quaternary International 247 (2012): 325–40, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2010.11.015; Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “On the Role of Fire in Neandertal Adaptations in Western Europe: Evidence from Pech de l’Azé IV and Roc de Marsal, France,” PaleoAnthropology (2011): 216–42, doi:10.4207/PA.2011.ART54.
  3. Michael Staubwasser et al., “Impact of Climate Change on the Transition of Neanderthals to Modern Humans in Europe,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 115 (September 11, 2018): 9116–21, doi:10.1073/pnas.1808647115.

Vocal Signals Smile on the Case for Human Exceptionalism

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BY FAZALE RANA – NOVEMBER 21, 2018

Before Thanksgiving each year, those of us who work at Reasons to Believe (RTB) headquarters take part in an annual custom. We put our work on pause and use that time to call donors, thanking them for supporting RTB’s mission. (It’s a tradition we have all come to love, by the way.)

Before we start making our calls, our ministry advancement team leads a staff meeting to organize our efforts. And each year at these meetings, they remind us to smile when we talk to donors. I always found this to be an odd piece of advice, but they insist that when we talk to people, our smiles come across over the phone.

Well, it turns out that the helpful advice of our ministry advancement team has scientific merit, based on a recent study from a team of neuroscientists and psychologists from France and the UK.1 This research highlights the importance of vocal signaling for communicating emotions between people. And from my perspective, the work also supports the notion of human exceptionalism and the biblical concept of the image of God.

We Can Hear Smiles

The research team was motivated to perform this study in order to learn the role vocal signaling plays in social cognition. They chose to focus on auditory “smiles,” because, as these researchers point out, smiles are among the most powerful facial expressions and one of the earliest to develop in children. As I am sure we all know, smiles express positive feelings and are contagious.

When we smile, our zygomaticus major muscle contracts bilaterally and causes our lips to stretch. This stretching alters the sounds of our voices. So, the question becomes: Can we hear other people when they smile?

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Figure 1: Zygomaticus major. Image credit: Wikipedia

To determine if people can “hear” smiles, the researchers recorded actors who spoke a range of French phonemes, with and without smiling. Then, they modeled the changes in the spectral patterns that occurred in the actors’ voices when they smiled while they spoke.

The researchers used this model to manipulate recordings of spoken sentences so that they would sound like they were spoken by someone who was smiling (while keeping other features such as pitch, content, speed, gender, etc., unchanged). Then, they asked volunteers to rate the “smiley-ness” of voices before and after manipulation of the recordings. They found that the volunteers could distinguish the transformed phonemes from those that weren’t altered.

Next, they asked the volunteers to mimic the sounds of the “smiley” phonemes. The researchers noted that for the volunteers to do so, they had to smile.

Following these preliminary experiments, the researchers asked volunteers to describe their emotions when listening to transformed phonemes compared to those that weren’t transformed. They found that when volunteers heard the altered phonemes, they expressed a heightened sense of joy and irony.

Lastly, the researchers used electromyography to monitor the volunteers’ facial muscles so that they could detect smiling and frowning as the volunteers listened to a set of 60 sentences—some manipulated (to sound as if they were spoken by someone who was smiling) and some unaltered. They found that when the volunteers judged speech to be “smiley,” they were more likely to smile and less likely to frown.

In other words, people can detect auditory smiles and respond by mimicking them with smiles of their own.

Auditory Signaling and Human Exceptionalism

This research demonstrates that both the visual and auditory clues we receive from other people help us to understand their emotional state and to become influenced by it. Our ability to see and hear smiles helps us develop empathy toward others. Undoubtedly, this trait plays an important role in our ability to link our minds together and to form complex social structures—two characteristics that some anthropologists believe contribute to human exceptionalism.

The notion that human beings differ in degree, not kind, from other creatures has been a mainstay concept in anthropology and primatology for over 150 years. And it has been the primary reason why so many people have abandoned the belief that human beings bear God’s image.

Yet, this stalwart view in anthropology is losing its mooring, with the concept of human exceptionalism taking its place. A growing minority of anthropologists and primatologists now believe that human beings really are exceptional. They contend that human beings do, indeed, differ in kind, not merely degree, from other creatures—including Neanderthals. Ironically, the scientists who argue for this updated perspective have developed evidence for human exceptionalism in their attempts to understand how the human mind evolved. And, yet, these new insights can be used to marshal support for the biblical conception of humanity.

Anthropologists identify at least four interrelated qualities that make us exceptional: (1) symbolism, (2) open-ended generative capacity, (3) theory of mind, and (4) our capacity to form complex social networks.

Human beings effortlessly represent the world with discrete symbols and to denote abstract concepts. Our ability to represent the world symbolically and to combine and recombine those symbols in a countless number of ways to create alternate possibilities has interesting consequences. Human capacity for symbolism manifests in the form of language, art, music, and body ornamentation. And humans alone desire to communicate the scenarios we construct in our minds with other people.

But there is more to our interactions with other human beings than a desire to communicate. We want to link our minds together and we can do so because we possess a theory of mind. In other words, we recognize that other people have minds just like ours, allowing us to understand what others are thinking and feeling. We also possess the brain capacity to organize people we meet and know into hierarchical categories, allowing us to form and engage in complex social networks.

Thus, I would contend that our ability to hear people’s smiles plays a role in theory of mind and our sophisticated social capacities. It contributes to human exceptionalism.

In effect, these four qualities could be viewed as scientific descriptors of the image of God. In other words, evidence for human exceptionalism is evidence that human beings bear God’s image.

So, even though many people in the scientific community promote a view of humanity that denigrates the image of God, scientific evidence and common-day experience continually support the notion that we are unique and exceptional as human beings. It makes me grin from ear to ear to know that scientific investigations into our cognitive and behavioral capacities continue to affirm human exceptionalism and, with it, the image of God.

Indeed, we are the crown of creation. And that makes me thankful!

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Pablo Arias, Pascal Belin, and Jean-Julien Aucouturier, “Auditory Smiles Trigger Unconscious Facial Imitation,” Current Biology 28 (July 23, 2018): PR782–R783, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2018.05.084.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/11/21/vocal-signals-smile-on-the-case-for-human-exceptionalism

When Did Modern Human Brains—and the Image of God—Appear?

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BY FAZALE RANA – NOVEMBER 14, 2018

When I was a kid, I enjoyed reading Ripley’s Believe It or Not! I couldn’t get enough of the bizarre facts described in the pages of this comic.

I was especially drawn to the panels depicting people who had oddly shaped heads. I found it fascinating to learn about people whose skulls were purposely forced into unnatural shapes by a practice known as intentional cranial deformation.

For the most part, this practice is a thing of the past. It is rarely performed today (though there are still a few people groups who carry out this procedure). But for much of human history, cultures all over the world have artificially deformed people’s crania (often for reasons yet to be fully understood). They accomplished this feat by binding the heads of infants, which distorts the normal growth of the skull. Through this practice, the shape of the human head can be readily altered to be abnormally flat, elongated, rounded, or conical.

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Figure 1: Deformed ancient Peruvian skull. Image credit: Shutterstock.

It is remarkable that the human skull is so malleable. Believe it, or not!

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Figure 2: Parts of the human skull. Image credit: Shutterstock.

For physical anthropologists, the normal shape of the modern human skull is just as bizarre as the conical-shaped skulls found among the remains of the Nazca culture of Peru. Compared to other hominins (such as Neanderthals and Homo erectus), modern humans have oddly shaped skulls. The skull shape of the hominins was elongated along the anterior-posterior axis. But the skull shape of modern humans is globular, with bulging and enlarged parietal and cerebral areas. The modern human skull also has another distinctive feature: the face is retracted and relatively small.

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Figure 3: Comparison of modern human and Neanderthal skulls. Image credit: Wikipedia.

Anthropologists believe that the difference in skull shape (and hence, brain shape) has profound significance and helps explain the advanced cognitive abilities of modern humans. The parietal lobe of the brain is responsible for:

  • Perception of stimuli
  • Sensorimotor transformation (which plays a role in planning)
  • Visuospatial integration (which provides hand-eye coordination needed for throwing spears and making art)
  • Imagery
  • Self-awareness
  • Working and long-term memory

Human beings seem to uniquely possess these capabilities. They make us exceptional compared to other hominins. Thus, for paleoanthropologists, two key questions are: when and how did the globular human skull appear?

Recently, a team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, addressed these questions. And their answers add evidence for human exceptionalism while unwittingly providing support for the RTB human origins model.1

The Appearance of the Modern Human Brain

To characterize the mode and tempo for the origin of the unusual morphology (shape) of the modern human skull, the German researchers generated and analyzed the CT scans of 20 fossil specimens representing three windows of time: (1) 300,000 to 200,000 years ago; (2) 130,000 to 100,000 years ago; and (3) 35,000 to 10,000 years ago. They also included 89 cranially diverse skulls from present-day modern humans, 8 Neanderthal skulls, and 8 from Homo erectus in their analysis.

The first group consisted of three specimens: (1) Jebel Irhoud 1 (dating to 315,000 years in age); (2) Jebel Irhoud 2 (also dating to 315,000 years in age); and (3) Omo Kibish (dating to 195,000 years in age). The specimens that comprise this group are variously referred to as near anatomically modern humans or archaic Homo sapiens.

The second group consisted of four specimens: (1) LH 18 (dating to 120,000 years in age); (2) Skhul (dating to 115,000 years in age); (3) Qafzeh 6; and (4) Qafzeh 9 (both dating to about 115,000 years in age. This group consists of specimens typically considered to be anatomically modern humans. The third group consisted of thirteen specimens that are all considered to be anatomically and behaviorally modern humans.

Researchers discovered that the group one specimens had facial features like that of modern humans. They also had brain sizes that were similar to Neanderthals and modern humans. But their endocranial shape was unlike that of modern humans and appeared to be intermediate between H. erectus and Neanderthals.

On the other hand, the specimens from group two displayed endocranial shapes that clustered with the group three specimens and the present-day samples. In short, modern human skull morphology (and brain shape) appeared between 130,000 to 100,000 years ago.

Confluence of Evidence Locates Humanity’s Origin

This result aligns with several recent archaeological finds that place the origin of symbolism in the same window of time represented by the group two specimens. (See the Resources section for articles detailing some of these finds.) Symbolism—the capacity to represent the world and abstract ideas with symbols—appears to be an ability that is unique to modern humans and is most likely a manifestation of the modern human brain shape, specifically an enlarged parietal lobe.

Likewise, this result coheres with the most recent dates for mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam around 120,000 to 150,000 years ago. (Again, see the Resources section for articles detailing some of these finds.) In other words, the confluence of evidence (anatomical, behavioral, and genetic) pinpoints the origin of modern humans (us) between 150,000 to 100,000 years ago, with the appearance of modern human anatomy coinciding with the appearance of modern human behavior.

What Does This Finding Mean for the RTB Human Origins Model?

To be clear, the researchers carrying out this work interpret their results within the confines of the evolutionary framework. Therefore, they conclude that the globular skulls—characteristic of modern humans—evolved recently, only after the modern human facial structure had already appeared in archaic Homo sapiens around 300,000 years ago. They also conclude that the globular skull of modern humans had fully emerged by the time humans began to migrate around the world (around 40,000 to 50,000 years ago).

Yet, the fossil evidence doesn’t show the gradual emergence of skull globularity. Instead, modern human specimens form a distinct cluster isolated from the distinct clusters formed by H. erectus, Neanderthals, and archaic H. sapiens. There are no intermediate globular specimens between archaic and modern humans, as would be expected if this trait evolved. Alternatively, the distinct clusters are exactly as expected if modern humans were created.

It appears that the globularity of our skull distinguishes modern humans from H. erectus, Neanderthals, and archaic Homo sapiens (near anatomically modern humans). This globularity of the modern human skull has implications for when modern human behavior and advanced cognitive abilities emerged.

For this reason, I see this work as offering support for the RTB human origins creation model (and, consequently, the biblical account of human origins and the biblical conception of human nature). RTB’s model (1) views human beings as cognitively superior and distinct from other hominins, and (2) posits that human beings uniquely possess a quality called the image of God that I believe manifests as human exceptionalism.

This work supports both predictions by highlighting the uniqueness and exceptional qualities of modern humans compared to H. erectus, Neanderthals, and archaic H. sapiens, calling specific attention to our unusual skull and brain morphology. As noted, anthropologists believe that this unusual brain morphology supports our advanced cognitive capabilities—abilities that I believe reflect the image of God. Because archaic H. sapiens, Neanderthals, and H. erectus did not possess this brain morphology, it makes it unlikely that these creatures had the sophisticated cognitive capacity displayed by modern humans.

In light of RTB’s model, it is gratifying to learn that the origin of anatomically modern humans coincides with the origin of modern human behavior.

Believe it or not, our oddly shaped head is part of the scientific case that can be made for the image of God.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Simon Neubauer, Jean-Jacques Hublin, and Philipp Gunz, “The Evolution of Modern Human Brain Shape,” Science Advances 4 (January 24, 2018): eaao596, doi:10.1126/sciadv.aao5961.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/11/14/when-did-modern-human-brains-and-the-image-of-god-appear

Further Review Overturns Neanderthal Art Claim

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BY FAZALE RANA – OCTOBER 17, 2018

As I write this blog post, the 2018–19 NFL season is just underway.

During the course of any NFL season, several key games are decided by a controversial call made by the officials. Nobody wants the officials to determine the outcome of a game, so the NFL has instituted a way for coaches to challenge calls on the field. When a call is challenged, part of the officiating crew looks at a computer tablet on the sidelines—reviewing the game footage from a number of different angles in an attempt to get the call right. After two minutes of reviewing the replays, the senior official makes his way to the middle of the field and announces, “Upon further review, the call on the field . . .”

Recently, a team of anthropologists from Spain and the UK created quite a bit of controversy based on a “call” they made from working in the field. Using a new U-Th dating method, these researchers age-dated the artwork in caves from Iberia. Based on the age of a few of their samples, they concluded that Neanderthals produced cave paintings.1 But new work by three independent research teams challenges the “call” from the field—overturning the conclusion that Neanderthals made art and displayed symbolism like modern humans.

U-Th Dating Method

The new dating method under review measures the age of calcite deposits beneath cave paintings and those formed over the artwork after the paintings were created. As water flows down cave walls, it deposits calcite. When calcite forms, it contains trace amounts of U-238. This isotope decays into Th-230. Normally, detection of such low quantities of the isotopes would require extremely large samples. Researchers discovered that by using accelerator mass spectrometry, they could get by with 10-milligram samples. And by dating the calcite samples with this technique, they produced minimum and maximum ages for the cave paintings.2

Call from the Field: Neanderthals Are Artists

The team applied their dating method to the art found in three cave sites in Iberia (ancient Spain): (1) La Pasiega, which houses paintings of animals, linear signs, claviform signs, and dots; (2) Ardales, which contains about 1,000 paintings of animals, along with dots, discs, lines, geometric shapes, and hand stencils; and (3) Maltravieso, which displays a set of hand stencils and geometric designs. The research team took a total of 53 samples from 25 carbonate formations associated with the cave art in these three cave sites. While most of the samples dated to 40,000 years old or less (which indicates that modern humans were the artists), three measurements produced minimum ages of around 65,000 years, including: (1) red scalariform from La Pasiega, (2) red areas from Ardales, and (3) a hand stencil from Maltravieso. On the basis of the three measurements, the team concluded that the art must have been made by Neanderthals because modern humans had not made their way into Iberia at that time. In other words, Neanderthals made art, just like modern humans did.

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Figure: Maltravieso Cave Entrance, SpainImage credit: Shutterstock

Shortly after the findings were published, I wrote a piece expressing skepticism about this claim for two reasons.

First, I questioned the reliability of the method. Once the calcite deposit forms, the U-Th method will only yield reliable results if none of the U or Th moves in or out of the deposit. Based on the work of researchers from France and the US, it does not appear as if the calcite films are closed systems. The calcite deposits on the cave wall formed because of hydrological activity in the cave. Once a calcite film forms, water will continue to flow over its surface, leeching out U (because U is much more water soluble than Th). By removing U, water flowing over the calcite will make it seem as if the deposit and, hence, the underlying artwork is much older than it actually is.3

Secondly, I expressed concern that the 65,000-year-old dates measured for a few samples are outliers. Of the 53 samples measured, only three gave age-dates of 65,000 years. The remaining samples dated much younger, typically around 40,000 years in age. So why should we give so much credence to three measurements, particularly if we know that the calcite deposits are open systems?

Upon Further Review: Neanderthals Are Not Artists

Within a few months, three separate research groups published papers challenging the reliability of the U-Th method for dating cave art and, along with it, the claim that Neanderthals produced cave art.4 It is not feasible to detail all their concerns in this article, but I will highlight six of the most significant complaints. In several instances, the research teams independently raised the same concerns.

  1. The U-Th method is unreliable because the calcite deposits are an open system. The concern that I raised was reiterated by two of the research teams for the same reason I expressed. The U-Th dating technique can only yield reliable results if no U or Th moves in or out of the system once the calcite film forms. The continued water flow over the calcite deposits will preferentially leech U from the deposit, making the deposit appear to be older than it is.
  2. The U-Th method is unreliable because it fails to account for nonradiogenic Th. This isotope would have been present in the source water producing the calcite deposits. As a result, Th would already be present in calcite at the time of formation. This nonradiogenic Th would make the samples appear to be older than they actually are.
  3. The 65,000-year-old dates for the three measurements from La Pasiega, Ardales, and Maltravieso are likely outliers. Just as I pointed out before, two of the research groups expressed concern that only 3 of the 53 measurements came in at 65,000 years in age. This discrepancy suggests that these dates are outliers, most likely reflecting the fact that the calcite deposits are an open system that formed with Th already present. Yet, the researchers from Spain and the UK who reported these results emphasized the few older dates while downplaying the younger dates.
  4. Multiple measurements on the same piece of art yielded discordant ages. For example, the researchers made five age-date measurements of the hand stencil at Maltravieso. These dates (66.7 kya [thousand years ago], 55.2 kya, 35.3 kya, 23.1 kys, and 14.7 kya) were all over the place. And yet, the researchers selected the oldest date for the age of the hand stencil, without justification.
  5. Some of the red “markings” on cave walls that were dated may not be art. Red markings are commonplace on cave walls and can be produced by microorganisms that secrete organic materials or iron oxide deposits. It is possible that some of the markings that were dated were not art at all.
  6. The method used by the researchers to sample the calcite deposits may have been flawed. One team expressed concern that the sampling technique may have unwittingly produced dates for the cave surface on which the paintings were made rather than the pigments used to make the art itself. If the researchers inadvertently dated the cave surface, it could easily be older than the art.

In light of these many shortcomings, it is questionable if the U-Th method to date cave art is reliable. After review, the call from the field is overturned. There is no conclusive evidence that Neanderthals made art.

Why Does This Matter?

Artistic expression reflects a capacity for symbolism. And many people view symbolism as a quality unique to human beings that contributes to our advanced cognitive abilities and exemplifies our exceptional nature. In fact, as a Christian, I see symbolism as a manifestation of the image of God. If Neanderthals possessed symbolic capabilities, such a quality would undermine human exceptionalism (and with it the biblical view of human nature), rendering human beings nothing more than another hominin. At this juncture, every claim for Neanderthal symbolism has failed to withstand scientific scrutiny.

Now, it is time for me to go back to the game.

Who dey! Who dey! Who dey think gonna beat dem Bengals!

Resources:

Endnotes

  1. L. Hoffmann et al., “U-Th Dating of Carbonate Crusts Reveals Neandertal Origin of Iberian Cave Art,” Science359 (February 23, 2018): 912–15, doi:10.1126/science.aap7778.
  2. W. G. Pike et al., “U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain,” Science 336 (June 15, 2012): 1409–13, doi:10.1126/science.1219957.
  3. Georges Sauvet et al., “Uranium-Thorium Dating Method and Palaeolithic Rock Art,” Quaternary International 432 (2017): 86–92, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2015.03.053.
  4. Ludovic Slimak et al., “Comment on ‘U-Th Dating of Carbonate Crusts Reveals Neandertal Origin of Iberian Cave Art,’” Science 361 (September 21, 2018): eaau1371, doi:10.1126/science.aau1371; Maxime Aubert, Adam Brumm, and Jillian Huntley, “Early Dates for ‘Neanderthal Cave Art’ May Be Wrong,” Journal of Human Evolution (2018), doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2018.08.004; David G. Pearce and Adelphine Bonneau, “Trouble on the Dating Scene,” Nature Ecology and Evolution 2 (June 2018): 925–26, doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0540-4.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/10/17/further-review-overturns-neanderthal-art-claim

Can Evolution Explain the Origin of Language?

canevolutionexplain

BY FAZALE RANA – OCTOBER 10, 2018

Oh honey hush, yes you talk too much
Oh honey hush, yes you talk too much
Listenin’ to your conversation is just about to separate us

—Albert Collins

He was called the “Master of the Telecaster.” He was also known as the “Iceman,” because his guitar playing was so hot, he was cold. Albert Collins (1932–93) was an electric blues guitarist and singer whose distinct style of play influenced the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Robert Cray.

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Image: Albert Collins in 1990. Image Credit: Masahiro Sumori [GFDL (https://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], from Wikimedia Commons.

Collins was known for his sense of humor and it often came through in his music. In one of Collins’s signature songs, Honey Hush, the bluesman complains about his girlfriend who never stops talking: “You start talkin’ in the morning; you’re talkin’ all day long.” Collins finds his girlfriend’s nonstop chatter so annoying that he contemplates ending their relationship.

While Collins may have found his girlfriend’s unending conversation irritating, the capacity for conversation is a defining feature of human beings (modern humans). As human beings, we can’t help ourselves—we “talk too much.”

What does our capacity for language tell us about human nature and our origins?

Language and Human Exceptionalism

Human language flows out of our capacity for symbolism. Humans have the innate ability to represent the world (and abstract ideas) using symbols. And we can embed symbols within symbols to construct alternative possibilities and then link our scenario-building minds together through language, music, art, etc.

As a Christian, I view our symbolism as a facet of the image of God. While animals can communicate, as far as we know only human beings possess abstract language. And despite widespread claims about Neanderthal symbolism, the scientific case for symbolic expression among these hominids keeps coming up short. To put it another way, human beings appear to be uniquely exceptional in ways that align with the biblical concept of the image of God, with our capacity for language serving as a significant contributor to the case for human exceptionalism.

Recent insights into the mode and tempo of language’s emergence strengthen the scientific case for the biblical view of human nature. As I have written in previous articles (see Resources) and in Who Was Adam?, language appears to have emerged suddenly—and it coincides with the appearance of anatomically modern humans. Additionally, when language first appeared, it was syntactically as complex as contemporary language. That is, there was no evolution of language—proceeding from a proto-language through simple language and then to complex language. Language emerges all at once as a complete package.

From my vantage point, the sudden appearance of language that uniquely coincides with the first appearance of humans is a signature for a creation event. It is precisely what I would expect if human beings were created in God’s image, as Scripture describes.

Darwin’s Problem

This insight into the origin of language also poses significant problems for the evolutionary paradigm. As linguist Noam Chomsky and anthropologist Ian Tattersall admit, “The relatively sudden origin of language poses difficulties that may be called ‘Darwin’s problem.’”1

Anthropologist Chris Knight’s insights compound “Darwin’s problem.” He concludes that “language exists, but for reasons which no currently accepted theoretical paradigm can explain.”2 Knight arrives at this conclusion by surveying the work of three scientists (Noam Chomsky, Amotz Zahavi, and Dan Sperber) who study language’s origin using three distinct approaches. All three converge on the same conclusion; namely, evolutionary processes should not produce language or any form of symbolic communication.

Chris Knight writes:

Language evolved in no other species than humans, suggesting a deep-going obstacle to its evolution. One possibility is that language simply cannot evolve in a Darwinian world—that is, in a world based ultimately on competition and conflict. The underlying problem may be that the communicative use of language presupposes anomalously high levels of mutual cooperation and trust—levels beyond anything which current Darwinian theory can explain . . . suggesting a deep-going obstacle to its evolution.3

To support this view, Knight synthesizes the insights of linguist Noam Chomsky, ornithologist and theoretical biologist Amotz Zahavi, and anthropologist Dan Sperber. All three scientists determine that language cannot evolve from animal communication for three distinct reasons.

Three Reasons Why Language Is Unique to Humans

Chomsky views animal minds as only being capable of bounded ranges of expression. On the other hand, human language makes use of a finite set of symbols to communicate an infinite array of thoughts and ideas. For Chomsky, there are no intermediate steps between bounded and infinite expression of ideas. The capacity to express an unlimited array of thoughts and ideas stems from a capacity that must have appeared all at once. And this ability must be supported by brain and vocalization structures. Brain structures and the ability to vocalize would either have to already be in place at the time language appeared (because these structures were selected by the evolutionary process for entirely different purposes) or they simultaneously arose with the capacity to conceive of infinite thoughts and ideas. To put it another way, language could not have emerged from animal communication through a step-evolutionary process. It had to appear all at once and be fully intact at the time of its genesis. No one knows of any mechanism that can effect that type of transformation.

Zahavi’s work centers on understanding the evolutionary origin of signaling in the animal world. Endemic to his approach, Zahavi divides natural selection into two components: utilitarian selection (which describes selection for traits that improve the efficiency of some biological process—enhancing the organism’s fitness) and signal selection (which involves the selection of traits that are wasteful). Though counterintuitive, signal selection contributes to the fitness of the organism because it communicates the organism’s fitness to other animals (either members of the same or different species). The example Zahavi uses to illustrate signal selection is the unusual behavior of gazelles. These creatures stot (jump up and down, stomp the ground, loudly snort) when they detect a predator, which calls attention to themselves. This behavior is counterintuitive. Shouldn’t these creatures use their energy to run away, getting the biggest jump they can on the pursuing predator? As it turns out, the “wasteful and costly” behavior communicates to the predator the fitness of the gazelle. In the face of danger, the gazelle is willing to take on risk, because it is so fit. The gazelle’s behavior dissuades the predator from attacking. Observations in the wild confirm Zahavi’s ideas. Predators most often will go after gazelles that don’t stot or that display limited stotting behavior.

Animal signaling is effective and reliable only when actual costly handicaps are communicated. The signaling can only be effective when a limited and bounded range of signals is presented. This constraint is the only way to communicate the handicap. In contrast, language is open-ended and infinite. Given the constraints on animal signaling, it cannot evolve into language. Natural selection prevents animal communication from evolving into language because, in principle, when the infinite can be communicated, in practice, nothing is communicated at all.

Based in part on fieldwork he conducted in Ethiopia with the Dorze people, Dan Sperber concluded that people use language to primarily communicate alternative possibilities and realities—falsehoods—rather than information that is true about the world. To be certain, people use language to convey brute facts about the world. But most often language is used to communicate institutional facts—agreed-upon truths—that don’t necessarily reflect the world as it actually is. According to Sperber, symbolic communication is characterized by extravagant imagery and metaphor. Human beings often build metaphor upon metaphor—and falsehood upon falsehood—when we communicate. For Sperber, this type of communication can’t evolve from animal signaling. What evolutionary advantage arises by transforming communication about reality (animal signaling) to communication about alternative realities (language)?

Synthesizing the insights of Chomsky, Zahavi, and Sperber, Knight concludes that language is impossible in a Darwinian world. He states, “The Darwinian challenge remains real. Language is impossible not simply by definition, but—more interestingly—because it presupposes unrealistic levels of trust. . . . To guard against the very possibility of being deceived, the safest strategy is to insist on signals that just cannot be lies. This rules out not only language, but symbolic communication of any kind.”4

Signal for Creation

And yet, human beings possess language (along with other forms of symbolism, such as art and music). Our capacity for abstract language is one of the defining features of human beings.

For Christians like me, our language abilities reflect the image of God. And what appears as a profound challenge and mystery for the evolutionary paradigm finds ready explanation in the biblical account of humanity’s origin.

Is it time for our capacity for conversation to separate us from the evolutionary explanation for humanity’s origin?

Resources:

Endnotes

  1. Johan J. Bolhuis et al., “How Could Language Have Evolved?” PLoS Biology 12 (August 2014): e1001934, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001934.
  2. Chris Knight, “Puzzles and Mysteries in the Origins of Language,” Language and Communication 50 (September 2016): 12–21, doi:10.1016/j.langcom.2016.09.002.
  3. Knight, “Puzzles and Mysteries,” 12–21.
  4. Knight, “Puzzles and Mysteries,” 12–21.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/10/10/can-evolution-explain-the-origin-of-language

Neuroscientists Transfer “Memories” from One Snail to Another: A Christian Perspective on Engrams

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BY FAZALE RANA – SEPTEMBER 26, 2018

Scientists from UCLA recently conducted some rather bizarre experiments. For me, it’s these types of things that make it so much fun to be a scientist.

Biologists transferred memories from one sea slug to another by extracting RNA from the nervous system of a trained sea slug and then injecting the extract into an untrained sea slug.1 After the injection, the untrained sea snails responded to environmental stimuli just like the trained ones, based on false memories created by the transfer of biomolecules.

Why would researchers do such a thing? Even though it might seem like their motives were nefarious, they weren’t inspired to carry out these studies by Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Moreau. Instead, they had really good reasons for performing these experiments: they wanted to gain insight into the physical basis of memory.

How are memories encoded? How are they stored in the brain? And how are memories retrieved? These are some of the fundamental scientific questions that interest researchers who work in cognitive neuroscience. It turns out that sea slugs belonging to the group Aplysia(commonly referred to as sea hares) make ideal organisms to study in order to address these questions. The fact that we can gain insight into how memories are stored with sea slugs is mind-blowing and indicates to me (as a Christian and a biochemist) that biological systems have been designed for discovery.

Sea Hares

Sea hares have become the workhorses of cognitive neuroscience. This creature has a nervous system that’s complex enough to allow neuroscientists to study reflexes and learned behaviors, but simple enough that they can draw meaningful conclusions from their experiments. (By way of comparison, members of Aplysia have about 20,000 neurons in their nervous systems compared to humans who have 85 billion neurons in our brains alone.)

Toward this end, neuroscientists took advantage of a useful reflexive behavior displayed by sea hares, called gill and siphon withdrawal. When these creatures are disturbed, they rapidly withdraw their delicate gill and siphon.

The nervous system of these creatures can also experience sensitization, which is learned by repeated exposure to stimuli, resulting in an enhanced and broad response by the nervous system to stimuli that are related—say, stimuli that connote danger.

What Causes Memories?

Sensitization is a learned response that is possible because memories have been encoded and stored in the sea hares’ nervous system. But how is this memory stored?

Many neuroscientists think that the physical instantiation of memories (called engrams) reside in the synaptic connections between nerve cells (neurons). Other neuroscientists hold a differing view. Instead of being mediated by cell-cell interactions, others think that engrams form within the interior of neurons, through biochemical events that take place within the cell nucleus. In fact, some studies have implicated RNA molecules in memory formation and storage.2 The UCLA researchers sought to determine if RNA plays a role in memory formation.

Memory Transfer from One Sea Hare to Another

To test this hypothesis, the researchers sensitized sea hares to painful stimuli. They accomplished this feat by inserting an electrode in the tail regions of several sea hares and delivering a shock. The shock caused the sea hares to withdraw their gill and siphon. After 20 minutes, they repeated the shock protocol and continued to do so in 20-minute intervals five more times. Twenty-four hours later, they repeated the shock protocol. By this point, the sea hare test subjects were sensitized to threatening stimuli. When touched, the trained sea hares would withdraw their gill and siphon for nearly 1 minute. Untrained sea hares (who weren’t subjected to the shock protocol) would withdraw their gill and siphon when touched for only about 1 second.

Next, the researchers sacrificed the sensitized sea hares and isolated RNA from their nervous system. Then they injected the RNA extracts into the hemocoel of untrained sea hares. When touched, the sea hares withdrew their gill and siphon for about 45 seconds.

To confirm that this response was not due to the injection procedure, they repeated it by injecting RNA extracted from the nervous system of an untrained sea hare into untrained sea hares. When touched, the gill and siphon withdrawal reflex lasted only about 1 second.

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Figure: Sea Hare Stimulus Protocol. Image credit: Alexis Bédécarrats, Shanping Chen, Kaycey Pearce, Diancai Cai, and David L. Glanzman, eNeuro 14 May 2018, 5 (3) ENEURO.0038-18.2018; doi:10.1523/ENEURO.0038-18.2018.

The researchers then applied the RNA extracts from both trained and untrained sea hares to sensory neurons grown in the lab. The RNA extracts from the trained sea hares caused the sensory neurons to display heightened activity. Conversely, the RNA extracts from the untrained sea hares had no effect on the activity of the cultured sensory neurons.

Finally, the researchers added compounds called methylase inhibitors to the RNA extracts before injecting them into untrained sea hares. These inhibitors blocked the memory transfer. This result indicates that epigenetic modifications of DNA mediated by RNA molecules play a role in forming engrams.

Based on these results, it appears that RNA mediates the formation and storage of memories. And, though the research team does not know which class of RNAs play a role in the formation of engrams, they suspect that micro RNAs may be the biochemical actors.

Biomedical Implications

Now that the UCLA researchers have identified RNA and epigenetic modifications of DNA as central to the formation of engrams, they believe that it might one day be possible to develop biomedical procedures that could treat memory loss that occurs with old age or with diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Toward this end, it is particularly encouraging that the researchers could transfer memories from one sea hare to another. This insight might even lead to therapies that would erase horrific memories.

Of course, this raises questions about human nature—specifically, the relationship between the brain and mind. For many people, the fact that there is a physical basis for memories suggests that our mind is indistinguishable from the activities taking place within our brains. To put it differently, many people would reject the idea that our mind is a nonphysical substance, based on the discovery of engrams.

Engrams, Brain, and Mind

However, I would contend that if we adopt the appropriate mind-body model, it is possible to preserve the concept of the mind as a nonphysical entity distinct from the brain even if engrams are a reality. A model I find helpful is based on a computer hardware/software analogy. Accordingly, the brain is the hardware that manifests the mind’s activity. Meanwhile, the mind is analogous to the software programming. According to this model, hardware structures—brain regions—support the expression of the mind, the software.

A computer system needs both the hardware and software to function properly. Without the hardware, the software is just a set of instructions. For those instructions to take effect, the software must be loaded into the hardware. It is interesting that data accessed by software is stored in the computer’s hardware. So, why wouldn’t the same be true for the human brain?

We need to be careful not to take this analogy too far. However, from my perspective, it illustrates how it is possible for memories to be engrams while preserving the mind as a nonphysical, distinct entity.

Designed for Discovery

The significance of this discovery extends beyond the mind-brain problem. It’s provocative that the biology of a creature such as the sea hare could provide such important insight into human biology.

This is possible only because of the universal nature of biological systems. All life on Earth shares the same biochemistry. All life is made up of the same type of cells. Animals possess similar anatomical and physiological systems.

Most biologists today view these shared features as evidence for an evolutionary history of life. Yet, as a creationist and an intelligent design proponent, I interpret the universal nature of the cell’s chemistry and shared features of biological systems as manifestations of archetypical designs that emanate from the Creator’s mind. To put it another way, I regard the shared features of biological systems as evidence for common design, not common descent.

This view leads to the follow-up rebuttal: Why would God create using the same template? Why not create each biochemical system from scratch to be ideally suited for its function? There may be several reasons why a Creator would design living systems around a common set of templates. In my estimation, one of the most significant reasons is discoverability. The shared features of biochemical and biological systems make it possible to apply what we learn by studying one organism to all others. Without life’s shared features, the discipline of biology wouldn’t exist.

This discoverability makes it easier to appreciate God’s glory and grandeur, as evinced by the elegance, sophistication, and ingenuity in biochemical and biological systems. Discoverability of biochemical systems also reflects God’s providence and care for humanity. If not for the shared features, it would be nearly impossible for us to learn enough about the living realm for our benefit. Where would biomedical science be without the ability to learn fundamental aspects of our biology by studying model organisms such as yeast, fruit flies, mice—and sea hares?

The shared features in the living realm are a manifestation of the Creator’s care and love for humanity. And there is nothing bizarre about that.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Alexis Bédécarrats et al., “RNA from Trained Aplysia Can Induce an Epigenetic Engram for Long-Term Sensitization in Untrained Aplysia,” eNeuro 5 (May/June 2018): e0038-18.2018, 1–11, doi:10.1523/ENEURO.0038-18.2018.
  2. For example, see Germain U. Busto et al., “microRNAs That Promote Or Inhibit Memory Formation in Drosophila melanogaster,” Genetics 200 (June 1, 2015): 569–80, doi:10.1534/genetics.114.169623.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/09/26/neuroscientists-transfer-memories-from-one-snail-to-another-a-christian-perspective-on-engrams