By the phrase ďthe first true humansĒ I mean human beings just like us, both physically and mentally, people we could readily accept as our direct ancestors and the founders of the human race.
A Paleoanthropological Hypothesis
Some paleoanthropologists have come up with a fascinating hypothesis. Around 50,000 years ago hominids anatomically identical to us but whose culture had remained static for thousands of years, underwent a profound and sudden mysterious change. They began an intense stage of creative innovation and migration that has lasted until today, and has been called, among other things, the great leap forward. But the details of this transformation is as yet unsure:
Time. Did this change take place 50,000 years ago, or sometime between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, or even earlier?
Location. Where did it take place? Africa is the prime contender because studies point to greater genetic variation there than elsewhere. It would, of course, be exciting if we had a timeline that stretched back in orderly increments to Africa, and then in Africa a cluster of the locations of the earliest sites which we could triangulate, as it were, to arrive at a point of origin for these first true humans. Unfortunately, we donít appear even close to such a picture.
Evidence. Just what can be accepted as evidence that a site was once inhabited by genuinely true humans, and not some earlier hominid? The kinds of evidence suggested is art, including jewelry, the burial of the dead with some ceremony, and advanced tool-making and the exploitation of the environment.
We may summarize the matter very tentatively like this:
1. 150,000 to 200,000 years ago anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa.
2. 45,000 to 55,000 years ago culturally modern humans were creating magnificent cave art and a wide range of tools in Europe.
3. Evidence has now accumulated that somewhere between 55,000 to 70,000 years ago there was a cultural transformation in Africa in which modern human behavior emerged. It is this transformed population that left Africa to settle in Europe and Asia.
4. Unfortunately this intriguing picture faces all sorts of serious challenges in terms of interpretation and chronology as we have been seeing. It is not easy to determine what evidence should be taken as definitive of modern cultural behavior. Nor is it clear where or when in Africa this cultural transformation took place, or even how long the process took. Nor is it easy to integrate in this picture certain Middle Eastern sites where modern cultural behavior seems indicated, but for which the dating is earlier than many African sites. The reasons for such a cultural transformation are hotly debated in terms of whether they are due to environmental forces like a climate shift, or to a genetic mutation. Was the possibility of such a cultural transformation long dormant, waiting for the right outer conditions, or did it represent a dramatic change within? Paleoanthropologists are deeply engaged in these issues, and more discoveries, no doubt, are on the way.
A Philosophical Hypothesis
Letís take as our hypothesis that culturally modern humans emerged in Africa within a short period of time, perhaps some 70,000 to 100,000 years ago, and then spread throughout Europe and Asia. What does this hypothesis suggest to philosophy? We have to leave it to the scientists to decide if the hypothesis of the great leap forward is correct, and just when and where it may have taken place, but the very fact that such a hypothesis exists is philosophically stimulating, and we can ask just what, from a philosophical perspective, could have caused such a dramatic transformation. For a classical philosopher who still believes it is possible to be nourished by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, an intriguing possibility comes to mind: the human spiritual soul. Here is how this philosophical hypothesis unfolds. The hominids who existed before the first true humans were probably considerably smarter than the dolphins and the chimpanzees of today. Their intelligence, however, was still an animal intelligence focused on particular objects, and this might explain why their culture was a static and repetitive one.
The great leap forward philosophically came about when the offspring of these most advanced of the hominids received spiritual souls. The spiritual soul would have left in place all that existed before, including that advanced animal intelligence, but transformed it from within by a new kind of intelligence, an intellectual or spiritual intelligence that could abstract ideas from this or that concrete situation, and subject these ideas to reason. This kind of intelligence which springs from the very nature of the soul is the foundation of self-awareness and free choice. Because of it, these new hominids, now the first true humans, would have exhibited a never-ending creativity in regard to their material culture, developed genuine languages, pondered the question of the immortality of the soul and life after death, and expressed the depths of this spiritual soul in their art.
The spiritual soul of its very nature is not made up of parts. It can fold back upon itself, as it were, in self-consciousness, and if it is all of one piece, it cannot come into being piece by piece, but only all at once. There is an unbridgeable gap between the first true humans and even their most advanced hominid ancestors, including the very ones who gave birth to them. This is a gap which would have restrained the first true humans from trying to form one community with other hominids. They would have immediately seen that the eyes of their hominid ancestors and cousins did not sparkle with the light of self-awareness. This once and for all character of the spiritual soul also explains why there would not be a gradual transition, but a great leap forward taking place most probably at a particular point in time and in space.
Both the paleoanthropological and the philosophical hypothesis converge, and begin to look like two sides of the same picture. If this is true, new perspectives to explore open up. While it is possible to say that human beings in the wide sense of the term have been slowly evolving for millions of years, it is also possible to reflect on the possibility that the first true humans appeared quite recently. But in order to truly contemplate our paleoanthropological-philosophical hypothesis, we need to avoid the roadblocks that litter our cultural landscape. Such a hypothesis would avoid a scientific view that comes wrapped up in materialistic presuppositions by which scientists go out of their own fields and assert that spiritual realities donít and canít exist. Likewise, it has to avoid a certain literalism on the part of some Christians who want to read Genesis as science and history, and it even needs to avoid the ultra-progressivism of some Christian philosophers and theologians for whom talk of a spiritual soul is the archaic remnant of a superseded world view, and therefore an embarrassment, especially when talking with their scientific colleagues.
In actual fact it is entirely possible and reasonable to hold that the first true humans are the result of millions of years of evolution, and at the same time, in regard to their spiritual souls, are recent creations coming forth from the hand of God.