Saturday, February 26, 2011

Rejoicing in my ape ancestry

My first real job was teaching in a very rural school in the tiny University town of Roma in Lesotho. The learners were still called “pupils” in those days. It was a Roman Catholic school, run by monks and discipline was high.

I taught a miscellany of subjects, ranging from English to Biblical studies and the examining body, was Cambridge. Never mind the students, it was I who learned a huge amount! I was a naïve white boy. My contact with black people had been – up to that point - rather limited. And here I was, suddenly confronted with an entire class of children who were all of them, black. Or brown. Or a fairly uniform dark colour – or so it appeared to me.

But it soon became clear that black people saw things that I simply didn’t. When someone at the back of the class made a noise while I was writing on the board, I would round on the class and demand to know who was the culprit. “It was that black one at the back!” a chorus would shout. I would look at the back row and see a row of black kids – all of whom looked pretty much the same to me and be simply none the wiser.

Similarly, I realised that the boys in the school class didn’t see the kind of signifiers I saw in white people. A boy would come and tell me that someone had been looking for me. I would ask for more description. They would look blank. “She was white”, they would say. I would ask if she had dark hair or light hair? They would stare at me blankly. It was something they simply did not seem to notice. But the tiny differences in skin shade between themselves, that they would be acutely aware of.

The problem started when I was teaching them about the two creation narratives in the Genesis story – the first (and more recent one) from the Priestly source and the second and earlier one from another entirely different source, called “J” (or the Jahwist). They were two entirely different writers, writing in different contexts and with different objectives. Their stories differ from each other fairly seriously. It would be very difficult to see them as the same story, written by the same author. (Try reading from Genesis 2 vs4b and tell me it isn’t the start of an entirely new narrative, different from Genesis 1.1ff)!

I was teaching them, in the light of the genesis myths, the scientific view of the universe – of the slow march of evolution – where branches of ape-like creatures start to walk upright and whose brains start expanding and being used in artifacts and technology. They looked extremely puzzled. Was I saying we were descended from apes, they wanted to know?

Well, yes, in a way, I was. I talked about the various kinds of hominid which we knew about from the fossils, Paranthapus, Australopithecus, Homo Ergaster and so on. They listened intently, but I was getting nowhere. “:Look”, I said, getting creative and unbuttoning my shirt, “see how hairy I am!” – revealing my ample chest hair. “That comes directly from my ape ancestry!”

The children stared at me, horrified. “Well”, they said finally, “You might come from ape ancestry – but we certainly don’t!”

I found much the same kind of attitude with well-meaning (but ill-educated) religious people when I was running the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in Gauteng. They seemed to find it extremely hard to believe that Homo Sapiens Sapiens (which is what anatomically modern humans are) is just another formulation of ape, along a long and bushy chain of ancestry. Somehow, because we are now describing our species – we are wanting some special dispensation. Some unique quantifier that makes us special and different. There isn’t one. We are, quite simply, what we are. And what we are is because of where we come from. (Where we will journey to from here, is an entirely different matter!)

From our perspective then, two things seem to me to be extremely interesting. Firstly, the colour of our skins – an extremely recent development in our make-up - is the least important (from a genetic point of view) thing about us.

And secondly, the development of speech and language, and much later down the line, the development of symbol and religion is also something relatively extremely recent. It is neither helpful, nor accurate to imagine that these things were with us from the very beginning. They are latecomers in the slow millennial trudge of human development. (That trudge has now, of course, evolved into something close to the speed of light in this, the information and communication age, but it is all based on the same developmental linage).

I have this amazing thing in my possession - a stone tool. I picked it up amidst the huge earth-moving excavations which were being done, just outside of what is now called the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site - which is the project I used to work on.

A scientist told me that it was probably a "core" from which flakes were chipped off. Because of the excavations, it was completely displaced from where ever it would have originally been, and therefore not of worth much from a scientific point of view.

When I hold it in my hand, it fits extraordinarily snugly. And I can imagine, just dimly, that creature before me, working on it, some 2 million years ago, which held it in the hand as well. It is an extraordinary feeling, this link between me typing on a computer and that creature (probably Homo Habilis, a distant ancestor of modern humans known now as "the tool-maker").

So, when I hold in my hand, a stone tool that I picked up one day in modern Gauteng and I feel the weight of it, the cut of it and I know, the probable last creature to hold it lived 2 million years ago. I can see the direct line between that kind of ancient Oldowan technology tool-making and the computer on which I am typing this article, strange as that may be. It is a wonderful, extraordinary linage. The link is those elements of consciousness and ingenuity which makes us today what we are, and made them what they were.

That, and nothing else, needs to be the basis on which we exegete the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2 – and indeed, any other creation narratives which may be around! If we don’t – if we try to mask this obvious reality – we simply expose ourselves as intellectual clots.

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