Sunday, March 12, 2017
"Paleontology: A Brief History of Life"
The Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology, and Science brings academics, students, and independent scholars together each month to wrestle with big issues, such as "what does it mean to be human?" We've been meeting for over a decade now and recently the group considered the work of Ian Tattersall, a curator in the Division of Anthropology at New York's American Museum of Natural History. Trained in archaeology, anthropology and vertebrate paleontology, Tattersall has specialized in the evolutionary analysis of the human fossil record and most especially the mysterious origin of human cognition.
His "Paleontology: A Brief History of Life" ($19.95 in paperback from Templeton Press; also for Amazon Kindle) is a lucid overview of the field. Part of Templeton's "Science And Religion Series," the book begins with the development of the "Tree of Life" and ends with an exploration of Homo sapiens.
Tattersall maintains that "the traditional paleo-anthropological expectation that human evolution has been a single-minded, unilinear slog from primitiveness to perfection" is just plain wrong. "At virtually all points in human evolutionary history," he writes, "several hominid species have coexisted (and at least intermittently competed). That Homo sapiens is the lone hominid in the world today is a highly atypical situation."
His final chapter considers "A Cognitive Revolution," and Tattersall writes about the identification of "symbolic artefacts," such as engravings, cave paintings, or necklaces, and the development of language, as pointers to a new kind of thinking. The bottom line: "Symbolic Homo sapiens is not a simple extrapolation of what had gone before; it is a qualitatively different entity, not an incremental improvement."
There is an important place, Tattersall says, for human spirituality, and the author considers science and religion to be complementary.
His conclusion, using the image of a rocket, encourages continued thoughtful conversation: "Starting firmly in the material world, you can ride the scientific first stage to the point at which its fuel is exhausted, the point that lies at the limits of testable knowledge. From there—if you wish, or feel the need, as most people seem to—you can ignite the spiritual second stage, and be transported to the limits of the human ability to understand."