Homo Naledi: Evolution and God

‘When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining that God was a magician, with such a magic wand as to be able to do everything. However it was not like that… And thus creation went forward for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia until it became what we know today, in fact because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives being to all entities.’ Pope Francis

The recent announcement of the discovery of Homo Naledi, a new species of hominid, has been headline news in South Africa. I have been struck however by some of the concerns that I have heard raised in the wake of the WITS announcement.

Primary amongst them is the resurrection of the tired old debate about the supposed incompatibility between religious belief and modern insights of evolution.  For me one of the most helpful ways of thinking about the relationship between religion and science comes from thinking about their purpose. Evolutionary theory attempts to answer the question ‘how?’ The role of theology is to answer the question ‘why?’

If we were to look briefly at the Genesis accounts of creation, firstly, the emphasis is clearly on showing us the right relationship between the human person and God, that God is the creator, and we are the creatures. Secondly, it explores the right relationship between human beings, that we are all, ‘male and female’ created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore we all have equal dignity. Thirdly, it lays out the right relationship between us and the rest of creation, a role of stewardship and responsibility.

The emphasis is not on a coherent account of how creation came about. It is a theological text about dealing with the questions of meaning and purpose. The explorations of the scientific community and their search for confirmable proof of the origins of creation and of our human evolution are a completely different undertaking. Most importantly the nature of the scientific method is that it must be open to scrutiny. It must be possible to prove that their particular theory is incorrect in some or all of its parts. Whereas the statements of how to live presented in Genesis are normative, and therefore are not proven with facts or data as in science.

However there is a great deal to be added by theories of evolution to our theological understanding of who we are and how we are called to live. As Professor Adam Habib (quoting Prof Phillip Tobias) pointed out in his talk at the announcement of Homo Naledi, ‘This work (of palaeoanthropology) is essentially about establishing the scientific foundation for a common humanity’. The evolutionary notion of a common human ancestry helps us to see past superficial differences of language and culture to the underlying theological reality that we are all created with equal dignity. Prof Tobias speaking about palaeoanthropology under apartheid, was pointing to the scientific reality that all human beings irrespective of race have a common ancestry, and that the central ideas of apartheid, that we are created profoundly different, lack validity in terms of our evolution.

By Frances Correia

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