Love your inner Neaderthal…

neanderthal_skull_big

 

Science keeps telling us little bits more about the origin of the beautiful creature…

A news story the other day took me back to Genesis chapter 4;

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. 4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.”[d] While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The story in question concerned the latest research about our genome;

Most people living outside Africa can trace up to 4% of their DNA to a Neanderthal origin, a consequence of interbreeding between the two groups after the great migration from the contintent.

 

Anthropologists have long speculated that early humans may have mated with Neanderthals, but the latest study provides the strongest evidence so far, suggesting that such encounters took place around 60,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East.

 

Small, pioneering groups of modern humans began to leave Africa 80,000 years ago and reached land occupied by the Neanderthals as they spread into Eurasia. The two may have lived alongside each other in small groups until the Neanderthals died out 30,000 years ago.

 

Scientists led by Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig took four years to sequence the whole Neanderthal genome from powdered bone fragments taken from three females who lived in Europe 40,000 years ago.

How are the two related?

My suggestion is that both are part of our continued attempt to make sense of what we are and where we have come from.

The passages in Genesis hinted at how our process of becoming was not just a process of rational logical progress, but that our history is shadowed by darkness, conquest, fratricide. It suggests that way back at the start of the humanity project we were capable of terrible things on a petty whim.

The science tells us that people contain within us the history of our becoming in genetic code. Including the overwhelming of our Neanderthal brothers and sisters, by violence of by sexual submission. Cain kills Abel.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not seeking to make the Bible some kind of code for history, more suggesting that the meaning of one informs our understanding of the other.

Are we more than just the sum of our biochemistry?

I have been thinking a little about a radio programme I listened to in the car yesterday- a discussion about the nature of our humanity on Start the Week on Radio 4.

The thrust of the argument came from Raymond Tallis- scientist, poet, philosopher, doctor and novelist (I wonder if he has time for origami too?) He is the author of this book-

Tallis’s argument goes something like this-

“To seek the fabric of contemporary humanity inside the brain is as mistaken as to try to detect the sound of a gust passing through a billion-leaved wood by applying a stethoscope to isolated seeds.” So argues the philosopher and clinical neuroscientist Raymond Tallis. He condemns the growing use of brain science to try to explain every aspect of human life. In his new book, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, Tallis attacks the idea that we can understand humanity through ‘biologism’ – the belief that humans are essentially animals and can be explained in biological terms. Although our existence was brought about by evolution, Tallis asserts that humans are profoundly different from animals. Moreover, he claims that biologism and ‘neuromania’ are dangerous for society, fuelling a belief that there is no hope of moral progress for humans.

Tallis is an atheist, who has no interest in the supernatural- but does appear to be driven by an deep interest in the nature of humanity- and of an appreciation of art. He also seems to like a bit of controversy.

In thinking about the discussion the other day (but not through reading his book) I was thinking about this thing called ‘humanity’- who we are, and what we are capable of.

Are we special?

Because we can reason and emote and deceive- does this make us different from the other animals?

And is the greatest evidence for the superior nature of humanity to be found in our libraries or our great galleries, or in our nuclear warheads?

Did God make us a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour, or is this just arrogance and self delusion?

And because we are able to even ask questions like this- does this make it so?

I believe in the possibility of humanity to rise- to become agents of truth mediated by grace. Our biochemistry seems to both confirm this and to conspire against it. We were made this way.

So although I want to agree with Doctor Tallis, I wonder whether it really matters- even if the ultimate human reality is biological, painted by electro-chemical dots and dashes, then is this all that we might ever hope for?

Or do we believe in the incarnation of spirit in body?

The spirituality to be found at a fireside…

This is a photograph taken on our recent retreat. I think the glow above the fire is an internal lens/filter reflection. Cheap filters are a problem I am told! But it looks like something has been created from our gathering- or perhaps the old truth that where we gather in his name, he is in the midst of us…

Gathering around a fire must be stamped somewhere in the middle of what it means to be human. After all, it must be just about our oldest form of social gathering.

There is a story about a micro technology project that visited a village in Africa, offering to install a solar powered lighting system. “Why do we need this?” asked the village elders. “What benefits would this bring to our people?” “Well,” replied the aid workers, “you will be able to work later in the evening, your children will be able to study and use computers and your wives will be able to prepare food more easily.” The elders considered for a while, then politely declined the offer of the electricity system. When asked why, they replied “There are enough hours in the day for work. In the evening, we gather round a fire and tell the stories that make us who we are.”

On our recent retreat, we gathered round a fire. It was tricky- there were no trees on the island and a fast tide race sweeping the shores clean, so we had to gather wood from nooks and crannies all over the rocky shores. We told stories of hopes and dreams, and prayed using incense that we scattered on the fire (to symbolise the fragrance of Jesus) and iron filings that sparked us into awareness of the power of the Spirit.

My your fireside be equally warm and welcoming, and may great stories be told…

Reflecting on the losing of humanity…

Thank the good Lord for Friday. It has been another long hard week.

Regular readers and friends will know that I earn a living by working as a mental health social worker- for around 20 years now. Or to be honest, these days I do not do a lot of social work (although I still practice as a Mental Health Officer)- I do this other thing called ‘management’.  Some days I am not sure how much longer I can do it.

What has allowed me to survive so long working within a large bureaucratic institution has been two things- firstly the need to provide for my family, and secondly the hope that I might be able to genuinely make a difference to the lives of the people I work with. In management, it is possible to fulfil the first, but the second- well the evidence is not as strong.

Being in contact with people in the extremes of distress and crisis on a daily basis does something to you. It is impossible to stay as emotionally engaged as we do when we first begin these encounters. The best of my colleagues hold on to their compassion however- we nurture it by making it shape our language, our small talk and the way we treat everyone we come across. We have learnt that kindness in the small things, despite terrible external circumstances, can indeed make a difference.

And sometimes that is the only thing we have to offer.

Images by Fred Kleinberg

In the course of my work, I come across people who have done terrible things. People who others would say have lost all sense of humanity.

People who have harmed children, or killed and dismembered people.

Others who have locked themselves away (or been locked away) and have lost or forgotten almost all basic skills of human interaction.

Perhaps most striking is watching people slowly destroyed by addiction. To see them in the later stages of this- near to death- and wonder what incredible life force keeps a person alive when skin is bright jaundice-yellow and all organs are playing discords.

Sometimes it seems that almost all that makes us human is gone.

Almost- but not all.

Because in all of these people, despite their brokenness, what is left- what is most visible, is… their humanity.

Unhidden, undefended, right on the surface like an open flesh wound.

And should we lose sight of this, the danger is that it is not their humanity that will be at risk- but rather our own.

I wrote this in response to a recent event…

Deep in the soup and the stew of him

In the ooze and glisten of his grey matter

Some synapses spark and flicker

Sending out electro-chemical dots and dashes

.

And he- wired almost to breaking point

Is all strung out

Senses dulled

But deadly receptive

.

So bone becomes knuckle

Muscles turn to gristle

And poisoned sinew moves like a snake

Ready to strike

.

Later some said he was evil

That some dark thing was in him

Others called him mad

A flesh machine gone wrong

.

Still others bayed for his blood

-as if enough had not been spilt already

They want eyes put out for the eyes he closed

And every broken tooth smashed in return

.

Me, I stand over a stain in an old carpet

Through which something human has fallen

And feel a little of myself

Drain away

Landmarks

A few weeks ago, we took the canoes out to Loch Striven, round the other side of the Cowal peninsular. We paddled for a while out along the loch, until we found a landing spot next to a raised beach of soft stones. A perfect spot for a picnic.

As with all our coast line, the tide had left its usual selection of plastic, old rope and broken fish boxes on the beach- but I do not think anyone had been there for years.

William and I saw what looked like some old walls in the distance, and went off exploring.

what we found used to be someone’s house. A crofter perhaps, or a fisherman- now long gone.

Much of our small crowded planet can no longer be regarded as true wilderness. As you walk to the hills, you will almost certainly walk over a landscape marked everywhere by man.

Fields and field boundaries – some new, some ancient, shaping the subsequent developments.

Hedgerows and dry stone walls.

Old signs of settlement, perhaps still in use, perhaps now redundant, abandoned, remaining only as a growth of bracken and nettles, rising in ground fertilised by the nitrates left behind in the passing.

The very paths we walk upon have been made by the passing of other feet walking their own walk, into their own unknown uncertain futures, now past and gone.

We humans have transformed the planet in the last few thousand years of our ascendancy. Forests gone, rivers diverted. Roads made straight across mountain and valley. Many of these marks are irreversible, at least in the foreseeable future. The land may clothe them in green, but the marks will remain for thousands of years to come.

As I write, the debate about how our patterns of living might have contributed to accelerating climate change continues to rage.

Humans have been of significant influence on my islands for a mere 5000 years or so. In some parts of the world, they can trace the mark of man further, in many, much less. What a legacy we inherit from our forebears – both great, and fearful.

Our lives have been shaped by this legacy too. We stand on the shoulders of those who gave the land its present shape.

Others will stand on ours.