Remembrance of Things Past – and not Past


As I follow it (from Prehistory by Colin Renfrew, or Professor Lord Renfrew), the current thinking of historians and scientists is that human evolution from the apes became complete about 200,000 years ago in Africa and that the main dispersal of humanity out of Africa took place about 60,000 years ago. All of us human beings are ultimately descended not from Adam and Eve but from our African ancestors in or about the area that we now call Ethiopia who were living about 200,000 years ago. They in turn had evolved over a much longer period of millions of years from the apes.

Human beings arrived in Europe and Australia about 40,000 years ago – well after they had reached the Middle East.

Any physical differences between peoples – if you must, racial or ethnic groups – follow after the dispersal from Africa. They are not genetic – they are socially or culturally induced. A child born today would be very little different in its DNA from one born, say, 60,000 years ago.  There is no reason why they could not do as well as our kids with the same upbringing.

The two big events in moving away from the Stone Age were the development of agriculture and the formation of towns. These in turn led to gods, writing, and laws. They also led to inequality. Religions tended to sanctify central power – the pharaoh, emperor or king had a divinely ordered status. Historians think that they can now trace phases of the development of the mind that ultimately became human over millions of years. Those phases bear some resemblance to the phases of legal development that our ancestors went through that were identified by Sir Henry Maine in his book Ancient Law.

Lord Renfrew makes a comment that does not surprise us.  ‘The key to inequality lies in worldly goods…..the adoption of a money economy marked the end of prehistory in so many parts of the world that we could take it as the best indicator of the dawn of history.’

Some landmarks may help with scale.  Our predecessors used a form of hand-axe before they had become what we would call human. The first jewellery and decoration appears to come from South Africa about 75,000 years ago. There are bone flutes and drawings of lions in France that are about 32,000 years old. Some of our Aboriginal rock art is at least 28,000 years old. There is a sculpted stone in Turkey that is about 11,000 years old. There are traces of permanent settlement around Jericho going back to about 9000 BC – we trace what we call the ‘agricultural revolution’ to that period. The idea that gold had some value emerged in Bulgaria around 4500 BC. Stonehenge was created between 3000 and 2000 BC and represents about 30 million work hours. Moses was born about 1400 BC. Coins were first introduced in Turkey after 1000 BC.

What we see as civilisation started in Athens in the fifth century BC. It took us more than 2000 years after that to establish that the earth was not the centre of the universe.  A lot of people who believed in Aristotle or God were horrified – much as they would later be horrified by Darwin.

If the Genesis account were applied to our creation, the earth was created not millions of years ago, but about 6000 years ago, and mankind was created, full-blown, at the same time. Science has proved that to be impossible.

If this account is correct, all human beings come from the one common stock, and any differences that some may wish to characterise as ethnic or racial are not genetic. They have come about because people have lived different lives. My humanity is the same as the humanity of the blackfella. Any differences between us come only from the way in which our ancestors have lived.

I find that view to be immensely comforting. It puts a big dent in the views of those who want to say that people are intrinsically different. At least genetically, all humans are born equal.

All this makes it hard for us humans to be sanely racist. It makes it hard for God, too.

In the last century and a half or so, we have made big discoveries in the way that we see ourselves and the universe. I regard all those discoveries as being neutral on the question of whether God exists.  God is no more or less of a mystery to me than the Big Bang, or our evolution from the apes over millions of years, or a universe that goes for millions of light years.  We can put all those terms into grammatically correct and apparently logically sound sentences, but in the end we have no real idea what is entailed by these ungovernable notions.

But the discoveries and proofs of mankind are not neutral on the history of any such God that we may choose to believe in. We now know that God could not have done what the Bible says that he did. And we now know that the people that the Bible says that he chose to make a covenant with did not have the history – that is, they were not the people – that the Bible says that they had; they were not the people that the Bible said they were.  They had come out of Africa, and down not from Adam and Eve, just over the hill, and not so long ago, and with a traceable ancestry.

You would not want to go to a bank and ask for money on the basis of a security whose title rested on a covenant given by a God that did not exist to a people that did not exist.  Or at least where the root of title of your documentary security seriously misrepresented the parties to the relevant covenant and was out of whack in its historical timing to the tune of 200,000 years or so.

Lord Renfrew quotes from a distinguished anthropologist who wanted to give a definition of religion that avoided any mention of the supernatural. He came up with this definition: ‘a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating concepts of a general order of existence and clothing these concepts were such an aura of flexibility that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.’ As the learned author remarks, a frivolous reader could see in this definition not so much a description of ‘religion’ as ‘of another powerful and ubiquitous presence in our society,’ that is, money.  Our movement from the apes has in truth had its ups and downs.

There is probably enough there for some people to digest without passing on the suggestion that our evolution from the apes was finally induced by climate change in the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia.  That might be the last straw for some of our Republican brothers and sisters over the Pacific, or for readers of The Australian Spectator.

Speaking of remembering times past, I wish you a happy new year, although I am myself coming to prefer the Chinese model.