Natasha Kaplinsky went to Cape Town, Rick Stein to China and Zoë Wanamaker to Ukraine. Whatever were they looking for?
The answer is ‘their roots’. In the BBC1 TV series Who do you think you are? celebrities trace their family trees, discovering secrets and surprises from their past — along with any skeletons that may be lurking in their ancestral cupboards.
Last September, for example, newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky travelled to Cape Town to explore the story behind her parents’ exile from South Africa in the 1960s, and learned about her father’s role in the anti-apartheid demonstrations.
Most people are intrigued by their ancestry. When Alex Haley’s book Roots was first published in 1976 it became a sensational best-seller. More than a mere book, it tapped deeply into the hunger of black America to know more about its African ancestral home.
Haley’s quest for his roots changed the way black folk thought about themselves and how white America viewed them. Why? Because our origins ultimately determine who and what we are.
But no amount of searching through dusty archives will reveal what really ought to excite out curiosity — the origin of humanity itself. The question ‘Who am I?’ can only be answered when we know the solution to another riddle: ‘What is man?’
And that’s nothing new. King David asked it 3000 years ago when he addressed God thus:
‘When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars which you have ordained,
What is man that you are mindful of him,
And the son of man that you visit him?’ (Psalm 8:3-4).
David or Darwin?
Today we are presented with two very different answers to our question — offered respectively by David in his psalm and Darwin in his theory. So who is right? Most people assume that Darwin’s ‘scientific’ account of human origins must be right and the Bible’s ‘religious’ teaching must be wrong. Man is not God’s creation, we are taught, but an accident of evolution.
In his book The descent of man, Darwin applied to mankind the evolutionary idea that all living creatures arose by natural selection from some first life-form that came into existence by chance (this is the theory of ‘common descent’).
So what was this first accidental life-form like? No one knows. Most assume it was some kind of bacterium because bacteria are the simplest living creature known today. But even the simplest bacterium is a very complicated creature.
It has a fully developed genetic ‘language’ and contains amazing ‘molecular machines’ which perform precision tasks — like manufacturing thousands of different protein molecules, using detailed instructions stored in DNA.
Having been a scientific consultant to the modern chemical industry for over 30 years I can assure the reader that even the simplest bacterium imaginable is far too complex to have just ‘happened’ by random chemistry.
From molecules to man
Since we have no idea how life began, the theory of ‘common descent’ actually has no scientific foundation. It is based on an assumption — that because all living things share the same genetic code they must all have a common ancestor.
But what would you say if I claimed that all wheeled vehicles, from wheel-barrows to bicycles and buses, had evolved from the humble skateboard without any help from human intelligence? You know very well that all such things use wheels because thinking humans discovered the wheel and then put it to use in many different ways.
In the same way, it makes much more sense to assume that an intelligent Creator devised one basic genetic mechanism and used it to form a huge number of different living things. That, essentially, is David’s view, not Darwin’s.
From monkeys to man
But aren’t there fossils that demonstrate how man emerged gradually from apes by evolution over a period of three million years or so? Again, that is what we are told.
An example — named Ardipithecus ramidus, or ‘Ardi’ for short — was described recently in the journal Science and trumpeted in the national press as a new discovery and ‘one of our oldest and most important ancestors’ (Times, 2 October 2009, p.9).
In fact, I have in front of me a book printed in 2000 that describes the find. The only new thing is that researchers have finally pieced together a reasonably complete fossil skeleton, assembled from 125 fragments.
The fossil is clearly that of an ape — a fact acknowledged by using the Latin word for ape (‘pithecus’) in its scientific name. Its brain ‘was only slightly larger than a modern chimp’s and considerably smaller than Lucy’s [Australopithecus afarensis or ‘southern ape’— another creature claimed to be in the human family tree]’.
So why should it be hailed as a human ancestor? Simply because the researchers claim it could walk upright. ‘The angle of her head relative to her spine and the position of her pelvis and hip show that Ardi would have been able to walk with a stooped posture’, says the Times article.
Well, maybe. When a skeleton is reassembled from fragments it is actually very difficult to decide the angles between different components — especially when the researchers are understandably keen to construct a creature resembling man.
But even if they are right, and the animal could walk upright, what’s new? Modern apes can do the same when they choose, but that doesn’t make them human.
The uniqueness of man
The unavoidable fact is that all so-called missing links between man and apes are classified scientifically either as ape (pithecus) or man (homo). No fossil find has ever raised the need to introduce a new intermediate genus of ‘ape-man’.
There are, of course, different races of man as there are of apes, but only man has the capacity for language, tool making, art, morality and self-knowledge. Not even the best-trained chimpanzee can say, ‘I think, therefore I am’.
Except in science fiction, there have never been any semi-human apes, and the gulf between man and animals is far too large to be papered over.
But if, after all, David is right and Darwin is wrong, there are important implications. If we are God’s creation, made in his image as the Bible claims, then we have a relationship with God that we cannot ignore.
Jesus Christ came to make sure that we do not ignore it — and to show us how we might ‘seek the Lord while he may be found [and] call upon him while he is near’ (Isaiah 55:6).
Edgar Andrews, BSc, PhD, DSc, FInstP, FIMMM, C.Eng, C.Phys, is Emeritus Professor of Materials at the University of London. Read his new book Who made God? EP Books; ISBN: 978-0-85234-707-2 (www.whomadegod.com)