This article was first published in the Fall 1996 issue of Bible and Spade.
Nearly 3000 years ago David, king and Psalmist of Israel, puzzled over this question. Today that question still grips the minds of men. Theologians and anthropologists propose answers which could hardly be more diverse. On one hand we are told that man is an animal, similar to, and indeed related to, the other primates as chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas and baboons. On the other hand, we are informed that man is a uniquely created being, having no genetic relationship to any animal and possessing a spiritual nature unknown in the animal kingdom.
To answer the question “What is Man?” we must examine evidences on both a physical and a spiritual level. First, let us investigate the physical characteristics of humans to determine if any relationship does in fact exist between them and their so-called prehuman ancestors.
Taxonomists, scientists who study the relationships between various living things, have termed human beings Homo sapiens sapiens. The system of classification of plants and animals starts with a very broad designation, the kingdom. Humans belong to the animal kingdom by this definition. The next step is the phylum. We are labeled chordates or vertebrates, that is, animals with backbones. Next in the series is the class, of which man is said to be a mammal, breast feeding it’s young. Among the mammals, man is considered to belong to the order of primates, animals with flexible hands and feet having five digits. Man’s family is said to be hominid, primates with but two legs. Our genus is designated Homo, indicating man. The species of man is sapiens, wise man, with a subspecies designation of sapiens also, possibly meaning “wisest of the wise.”
It is evident, then, that taxonomy is the discipline which places living things into these various categories (taxons) based on physical characteristics. Animals which are more alike are grouped together and those which are less alike are separated. But, remember that the basis for taxonomic classification is always physical characteristics, be they anatomical, embryological, or biochemical, etc.
All living humans are designated Homo sapiens sapiens. The differences between living peoples are so slight as to evoke universal agreement that all, be they Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in Africa or Inuit (Eskimo) peoples of the Arctic, are essentially alike. This amazing unity of the human family strongly attests to the Biblical history of origins.
Fossil forms, however, present a more confused picture. Fossils are the remains of formerly living things which have been preserved and, in some cases, saturated with minerals so as to be hardened into an almost indestructible state. They can be the bones of those creatures, the imprint of the body in mud which then hardened, or even the tracks left by the animal as it moved along the ground. Plants often have left imprints of their leaves and other structures in softmud-like layers which later solidified. The petrified forest is a classic example of mineral deposition in plants. All are considered fossils. It is to the fossil record that one must go in order to find any connection between Homo sapiens and his sub-human ancestors, if any.
And so have done the paleoanthropologists, those who study early (fossilized) forms of man. As we try to analyze the fossil record of man we must first recognize several very essential points about the fossils themselves and the discipline of their interpretation.
First, we must recognize that the fossils were deposited without witnesses to the event. No one can reproduce the events that formed them. Nor can we say for sure exactly how they were formed.
Second, in classifying fossil material only the physical characteristics of the items and the nature of their locations is of any real value. Speculation and guesswork as to the relationships between them is just thatspeculation, which has no place in true science. As Carl Sagan once stated, “Not all scientific statements have equal weight” (1974). There are no direct observations that could confirm human evolutionary ancestry.
Third, one can arrange any series of objects to mimic an evolutionary sequence. A box of nails, tacks, brads, screws, pins, molly bolts, paper clips, etc., of various sizes could be arranged to present a graded series; small to large, simple to complex, general to specific in function. But that does not mean they actually evolved one from another. So it is with many of the fossils. The famous horse series, long touted as the pattern for horse evolution, is recognized today as having no more validity in an evolutionary sense than the box of nails, screws, tacks, etc.
Fourth, even paleoanthropologists themselves, possessing the academic credentials necessary to their profession, are, for the most part, denied access to the original fossil material. One of the most highly credentialed of these experts, Niles Eldredge, of the American Museum of Natural History, stated that he, along with a colleague, Ian Tattersall, has seen only a fraction of the available material. This is the rule, not the exception (Tattersall and Eldredge 1977: 207).
Most students of human fossil material work with casts made from the original fossils. The quality of these casts varies greatly. Those made of Peking Man are said to be very good, though no one can verify that since the original fossils have disappeared. The Piltdown casts, on the other hand, were very poor. There were file marks on the original material but not on the casts (L. Leakey 1960:v-vi). (As a dentist I can only gasp in shock at the ineptitude of whoever made those casts! To me it is highly probable that the poor quality was deliberate.) The mounts for the 1984 exhibit of fossils of man in the American Museum of Natural History were constructed from casts, not the originals. When they arrived to be placed on those mounts most would not fit! Thus the very scientists who study and write about this material are working with flawed data at best! (Delson 1985:4–5)
Now let us turn to the actual material itself. Contrary to public opinion, there has been a rich harvest of hominid fossils. The British Museum in 1977 listed over 4000 individuals in its Catalog of Fossil Hominids. To these must be added those discovered since 1977a considerable number. Most people assume that there is very little material available for study. This opinion is fostered by such statements as, “the human fossil record is short and scant” (Bryant and Williams-Dean 1975: 100), and “the entire collection barely covers a billiard table” (Reader 1981: 802).
To what can this discrepancy be attributed? The paleoanthropologists claim a severe paucity of fossils while the Catalog lists a rich supply of them. (One estimate today states there are over 6000!) The answer lies in the fact that most of the fossil material is considered too modern to be ancestral to man or else does not fit well into the evolutionary pattern. Marvin L. Lubenow, author of Bones of Contention, from which much of the material in this article has been gleaned, states that the difficulty is not in finding fossils; it is in finding fossils which demonstrate the evolution of humans.
For any evolutionary scenario to be considered valid there must be demonstrated not only a sequence of fossils showing the steps by which one form of life progressed into another, but it also must show that those steps came at the proper time intervals. To illustrate: In order to cross a creek, sufficient stepping stones must be present. But it does no good for all of the stones to be bunched near one side of the creek. They must be correctly placed at proper intervals leading, one to another, across the stream. It is a source of considerable embarrassment for paleoanthropologists that many, in fact the vast majority, of fossil hominids do not support evolution. These fossils are found at the wrong place, or in the wrong time frame, to be considered of any value in establishing the correct sequence of “stepping stones” from ape-like ancestor to modern man.
A few examples will suffice to illustrate this point. Stones which should be near the far side of the creek (that is, fossils of modern man) have been found to be located on the near side, close to the ape-ancestor bank. Many anatomically modern fossils have been discovered, some dating (using evolutionary time scales) back over 4 million years. Lubenow lists 63 individuals dating from 30, 000 years ago to about 4.5 million years ago. One cannot over stress the fact that these fossils appear to be no more “primitive” or “ape-like” than the bone structure of many humans alive today. The very characteristics which cause taxonomists to classify Homo sapiens as such are found in these “ancient” fossils. To be sure, there are certain differences between many of these fossils themselves as well as between them and modern humans. But those differences are smaller than the differences between individuals alive today!
They certainly are not relevant in distinguishing these fossils from modern man. In fact, if one were not already committed to an evolutionary philosophy one would readily see that even the most ancient of these fossils is totally human.
A striking example of this is the famous skull 1470. Discovered in 1972 by Richard Leakey, this fossil skull was designated KNM-ER 1470. The leg bones associated with it are known as KNM-ER 1481. (Kenya National Museum, East Rudolph site, catalog numbers 1470 and 1481.) Before its discovery, the rock layers (volcanic tuff) above it already had been dated at 2.6 million years ago. Because of that, the original age of the fossil was assigned at 2.9 million years. But skull 1470 presented the scientists with a very difficult problem. This skull has a very modern appearance! The brain cavity was large, about 800 cc., with a high dome and thin walls. This is much like your or my skull structure when we were younger. It certainly is not at all similar to the ape-like ancestors proposed to have been in East Africa 2.9 million years ago!
Richard Leakey himself said of skull 1470,
Either we toss out this skull or we toss out our theories of early man. It simply fits no previous models of human beginnings (1973: 819).
In addition to size, shape and bone thickness, skull 1470 shows distinct evidence of Broca’s area, a distinctive pattern of the bone next to the part of the brain which controls speech. This strongly indicates that the individual represented by skull 1470 could, and indeed did, speak in a manner similar to modern humans. Based on size shape and cranial thickness, there is no reason to suppose that skull 1470 was anything other than a full-fledged member of the genus Homo and the species sapiens. This is unthinkable, however, to evolutionists. There is a whole history of efforts to “water down” the modernity of this skull and the post cranial bones associated with it, so that it seems to be less than fully human. Reconstructions of the face usually show an ape-like form. The skull material, however, permits facial features either ape-like or humanlike depending on how they are pieced together. One can place the maxillary and zygomatic bones either more vertically below the cranium (human-like) or more obliquely angled forward (ape-like). One’s bias determines the way one sees that face. Roger Lewin reports on the examination of skull 1470 by Alan Walker, Michael Day and Richard Leakey. “You could hold the maxilla forward, and give it a long face, or tuck it in, making the face short,” he recalls. “How you held it really depended on your preconceptions. It was interesting watching what people did with it.” Leakey remembers the incident too: “Yes, if you held it one way, it looked like one thing; if you held it another, it looked like something else” (Lewin 1987: 160).
The physical characteristics by which fossils are judged to be either more or less “primitive” or “modern” are quite readily identified. Skull size used to be a major criterion by which these fossils were judged. Today it no longer is. That is because modern humans (living) have skull volumes ranging from 700 cc. to over 2200 cc., with no difference in intelligence. Thus skull size alone is not a criterion for human or ape-likeness. Skull morphology (shape) does present a significant means of judging between human and non-human characteristics. But care must be exercised in deciding which morphological characteristics are significant. Among the least distinguishing are skull thickness. This is because both thick and thin forms are frequently found in both human-like and ape-like fossils. Among the Australopithecine (Southern Ape) fossils there are both gracile (thin)and robust (thick) types. The sequence of these fossils in the rock layers and thus the dates assigned to them do not present a gradation from either thick to thin or thin to thick. Among the genus Homo the same thing is noted. The standard evolutionary sequence is habilis to erectus to sapiens, but the skull thickness goes thin to thick to thin.
Another characteristic commonly thought to reflect human or ape-like status is the relationship of facial bones, including the jaws, to the skull. Normally one could say with considerable confidence that a forward jutting face with a large jaw structure relative to the cranial size is a good indicator of ape-likeness. A flatter, shorter facial profile with smaller jaws indicates more human-likeness. However, when dealing with casts and reconstructions of fossil material, one cannot always be sure that the fossil facial profiles do, in fact, reflect the actual state of the living creature. Remember skull 1470?
A quite striking example of the bias associated with reconstructions is seen in the exhibit of a Neanderthal child’s skull in Berlin. The LeMoustier child’s reconstruction on display shows a forward jutting profile. Yet, Dr. John Cuozzo, an orthodontist and teacher, made radiographs of the original skull which included the lower jaw. Those radiographs show that, when the jaw bones are correctly related to the cranial bones, the facial profile is that of a normal modern child. The reconstruction has the lower jaw disarticulated, with the head of the condyle (hinge) placed about 1 1/2 inches forward of its normal socket, the glenoid fossa (Cuozzo 1995).
Other features of cranial anatomy which can be used to distinguish apelikeness from human-likeness are the presence or absence of a sagital crest, the position of the widest portion of the skull, and the height and roundness of the dome of the skull.
The sagital crest is a bony ridge running front-to-back down the center line of the skull. In apes it is well developed and serves as the anchor for strong and large jaw muscles. It is absent or minimally developed in humans. A basic feature of physiology often ignored is that bones develop in response to the pull of muscles upon them. Bony anatomy is indicative of the musculature which it supports. Where large strong muscles are present, there will be large anchoring features in the bones. Inuit (Eskimo) peoples who used their teeth as tools (as clamps or for softening hides, etc.) would be expected to have well developed jaw musculatures. The muscles, in turn, would produce strong anchor points in the bone. Thus the presence of a sagital crest alone is not diagnostic, though the totality of all features, including the crest, may be.
Another feature, much more diagnostic of human or ape-likeness, is the position of the widest part of the skull, near the top, middle or bottom. All apes living today have the widest part of their skulls near the bottom. All living human skulls are widest near the middle. Also apes have rather flat, wide and shallow skulls while humans have more narrow, higher, rounder and deeper domes.
It is not difficult to distinguish apelikeness from human-like features in fossil material. Lubenow constructed a chart listing anatomically modern Homo sapiens fossils. Only those dated at more than 30, 000 years ago are included. This is because the younger ones are too numerous and are irrelevant to the present discussion. Lubenow also included in his chart extensive documentation of each fossil, attesting to its basic morphology.
The oldest (by an evolutionary time scale) is the Kanapoi arm fragment (KP-271). It was discovered in 1965 by Bryan Patterson of Harvard University. In an excellent state of preservation, the anatomy of the lower (distal) end of an upper left arm bone (humerus) is, to quote Patterson and Howells, “strikingly close to the means of the human sample” (1967:65). The comparison was made not with ancient humans but with modern ones! Another analysis by H.M. McHenry of the University of California, Davis, concluded that KP-271 is, “indistinguishable from modern Homo sapiens” (1975:428). This fossil, by all accounts indistinguishable from modern man, is not given the status of Homo sapiens, but Australopithecus africanus. Some 16 years after its discovery Howells wrote,
The humeral fragment from Kanapoi, with a date of 4.4 million, could not be distinguished from Homo sapiens morphologically or by multivariate analysis by Patterson and myself in 1967 (or by much more searching analysis by others since then). We suggested that it might represent Australopithecus because at that time allocation to Homo seemed preposterous, although it would be the correct one without the time element (1981:70–71).
The next oldest listed is the Laetoli footprints from Tanzania. These were discovered starting in 1978 by Mary Leakey. The stratum above them was dated at 3.6 million years ago and the one below at 3.8 million years ago by the potassium-argon method. The discoverer described the prints as “remarkably similar to those of modern man” (1979:446). They were assigned to Australopithecus afarensic because of the age of the rock associated with them. Russell H. Tuttle (University of Chicago) observed the footprint features of habitually unshod Machiguenga Indians of Peru in order to assess what the prints of modern man would be like if he did not wear shoes. He did this in order to assess the Laetoli prints. His conclusion was:
If the G footprints (Laetoli) were not known to be so old, we would readily conclude that they were made by a member of our genus, Homo (1990:64).
Elsewhere he wrote,
In discernible features, the Laetoli G prints are indistinguishable from those of habitually barefoot Homo sapiens (Tuttle and Webb (1989: 316).
One of the strangest finds in East Africa was a circular stone structure 14 ft. in diameter. Technically an artifact, not a fossil, the stones of this structure did not originate near where it was located, but were transported from several miles away. Such structures, a circular ring of stones piled one on another with higher piles at intervals along the ring, are used today as wind breaks by the Turkana people in northern Kenya. The startling fact about this structure is that its floor is dated by evolutionary standards at 1.8 million years ago, using potassium-argon methods. Revised dates for the structure put it at 2 million years ago (Walter et al. 1991:145–49). The ability to carry large stones several miles, the fact that similar structures are in use today, not to mention the intellectual ability to plan and execute the design of this structure, strongly indicate that it was humans, not animals, who made the shelter.
These, and other examples listed by Lubenow, are sufficient to establish the fact that many fossils which are said to be those of human ancestors are, in reality, fully human themselves. It is evident from the fossil record that fully human beings existed as far back in time as their hypothetical ape-like ancestors. To return to our illustration of the stepping stones across the stream, there are many stones on the near bank (ape side) which should be on the far side (modern man). Could modern man be present 4.5 million years ago if, as evolutionist say, he did not emerge until less than 500,000 years ago? Yet the fossil evidence indicates just that. Man was always man. As far back as fossils of humans are found they are fully modern forms. For an evolutionary sequence to occur the more primitive must give way to and be succeeded by the more advanced type. The fossil record, however, indicates just the opposite. Fully human types existed parallel with fully ape-like types. Australopithecus and Homo sapiens were contemporaries.
As far as physical characteristics are concerned man is, and always was, man; apeis, and always was, ape. There is no evidence of one evolving from the other, nor from a common ancestor.
Let us turn now to the other dimension necessary to explore in order to understand what man is. That dimension is spiritual, not physical. What spiritual characteristics does man have which distinguish him from the animals?
That man is different is readily apparent to any observer. Apes jump from tree to tree; man soars through space. Man builds thermonuclear power plants; apes flee from fire. But is the difference merely quantitative, or is there a real qualitative distinction?
One immediately recognizes (almost intuitively) that man is capable of abstract thought. Animals have never demonstrated this ability. Though animals can be taught to mimic certain acts of man, ostensibly even to answer questions involving arithmetic, it has been shown that they only repeat what they were trained to do. Subtle body language by the trainer is the cue for the animal to perform acts which sometimes give the appearance of cognition. But no real abstract thought has ever been involved. Man composes music, builds bridges, constructs computers and writes articles. Animals do not.
Many animals do, however, communicate on a basic programmed level. The beaver slaps its tail on the water to alert other beavers to danger. Squirrels chatter madly, expressing displeasure at an intruder in their feeding ground. Bird songs are an especially beautiful assertion of territorial claims. But it is probably the dance of the honey bee that is the most sophisticated transfer of information in the animal world. A bee, upon returning to the hive after discovering nectar and pollen-bearing flowers, performs this dance. It conveys the direction and the distance of the flowers from the hive. It is a sun-oriented direction and changes throughout the day with the changing location of the sun. The dance itself, in a figure eight or a circle, the bee’s body position, head up or down, and the speed of movement, conveys to the hive the necessary information to locate the flowers. The bee doesn’t think through all the coordinates of the flower, nor the movements it performs. Rather, its genetic instincts compel it to do them. A bee raised away from the hive with no contact with other bees will, when placed in the hive, correctly interpret the dance. It is genetically programmed both to perform (if a scout) and to interpret (if a worker) the dance. It has no choice in the matter. All animals do what they do because of what they are.
Man is different. He can make decisions based, not on genetic programs, but on moral choice. For instance, an animal is programmed to fight or to flee depending on the circumstances. Man can make the same choice but beyond that can also decide how to fight. The good guy fights according to the “rules.” The bad guy fights dirty. The animal is programmed to eat when hungry. Man can decide to forego food for other reasons than the absence of hunger. He can give his food to another to his own loss or can fast for political or religious reasons. It is the “rules” which make the difference.
Man’s ability to learn, understand and transmit information (the “rules”) distinguishes him from all animals. He alone communicates in true speech. He alone can acquire knowledge beyond his genetic program and transmit it to future generations. It is this ability to receive and pass along information which separates him from animals and gives him dominion over all the earth. It is the moral basis for human behavior. Man can choose to obey or to ignore the “rules.”
We read in Genesis 1:26–27 that God made man in His own image. What is that image? One of its features is, I believe, the ability to receive, understand and transmit knowledge in verbal form. It is the “Word.” John 1:1–3 identifies the Word as the Creator. God placed in man the ability to relate to Himself. Man has not only self consciousness, but God consciousness. It is part of the image of God. Another part of God’s image in man is his ability to choose. We have seen that animals do not make moral choices. But men do. The basis for the morality of those choices is the set of “rules” God has given man. Those rules transcend the genetically programmed instincts and impulses of the physical body. Man can and does make real choices, moral choices, and he will be held accountable for the choices he makes.
God does hold man accountable for his choices. He can do this because He made man capable of understanding His instructions and, at the same time, capable of deciding to obey or to disobey them.
The God Who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He Himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men should seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. “For in Him we live and move and have our being.” As some of your own poets have said, “We are His off spring.” Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the Divine being is like gold or silver or stonean image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the Man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:24–31, NIV).
What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet. In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because He suffered death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone (Heb 2: 6–9, NIV).
What is man? The only created being capable of knowing, obeying and loving God on a voluntary basis in response to God’s own love. Have you done so?
Recommended Resources for Further Study
Bryant, V.M., and Williams-Dean, G.
1975 The Caprolites of Man. Scientific American 232: 100–109.
1995 Neanderthal Children’s Fossils. Creation 17.1:40–44.
Delson, E., ed.
1985 Ancestors: The Hard Evidence. New York: Alan R. Liss.
1981 Homo Erectus in Human Descent: Ideas and Problems. Homo Erectus: Papers in Honour of Davidson Black, ed. B.A. Sigmon and J.S. Cybulski. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
1960 Adam’s Ancestors, fourth ed. New York: Harper and Row.
1979 Footprints in the Ashes of Time. National Geographic 155: 446–57.
1973 Skull 1470. National Geographic 149: 819–29.
1987 Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins. New York: Simon and Schuster.
1992 Bones of Contention. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Book House.
1975 Fossils and the Mosaic Nature of Human Evolution. Science 190:425–30.
Patterson, B. and Howells, W.W.
1967 Hominid Humeral Fragment from Early Pleistocene of Northwestern Kenya. Science 156:64–66.
1981 Whatever Happened to Zinjanthropus? New Scientist.
1974 Velikovsky’s Challenge to Science. Washington DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science Tape 186–74.
Tattersall, I. and, Eldredge, N.
1977 Fact, Theory, and Fantasy in Human Paleontology. American Scientist 65:204–11.
1990 The Pitted Pattern of Laetoli Feet. Natural History 99:60–65.
Tuttle, R.H. and Webb, D.M.
1989 The Pattern of Little Feet (abstract). American Journal of Physical Anthropology 78.2:316.
Walter, R.C. et al.
1991 Laser Fusion Dating of Bed I, Olduvai George, Tanzania. Nature 354:145–49.