Bone collectors


When one is inculcated with a biblical worldview, the first few chapters of Genesis provide the bedrock foundation. Genesis 1 describes the beginning of Creation, and then all of cosmic history unfolds between there and the last chapter of Revelation. When the biblical worldview was no longer working for me, I felt the need to find another story of how the cosmos began and how humans came into being. First I engaged with Christian theologians who accepted the plausibility of an ancient universe (billions of years old) versus one 6-8,000 years old (as biblical chronology would have it). Eventually I found even their approach too restricted by their adherence to Christian dogma, and so I branched out even farther into the world of the bone collectors, the paleoanthropologists. If the Bible-as-God’s-Word had been my source of cosmic and human history up till that point, then reading Nature-as-God’s-Word would require me to look at available scientific creation stories.

Discovering Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a major milestone in my evolving worldview. Chardin was raised in the French countryside by his devout Catholic mother. He grew up with the twin influences of Christian spirituality and intimacy with the natural world. As a young man he became a Jesuit priest and later earned a doctorate in paleontology. On March 23, 2010, I wrote in my journal: “I cracked open two new books yesterday: The Phenomenon of Man by Teilhard de Chardin and [a biography of Jane Goodall]. In the former I believe I may have stumbled upon a kindred spirit who I hope will become a guide for me. Chardin was both a scientist and a mystic, an evolutionist and a devout Catholic, one who saw that science, philosophy, and religion are all convergent yet distinct angles on the truth. His perspective is universal, holistic, comprehensive, and synthetic.” Reading Chardin’s books was like breathing high mountain air. His point of view was vast enough to accommodate my questions at the time and even offer an alternative narrative that fused evolutionary theory with Catholic theology. He was a role model of someone who maintained their love for science and spirituality and sought to integrate the two.

During this time of my life I became briefly obsessed with human origins from an evolutionary perspective. Just as the Bible – being a quasi-historical document – brought the past to me as a way to make sense of the present and future, I felt that understanding our human evolutionary origins would perform a similar service. I found many of the characters involved in the study of human origins to be quite colorful and fascinating, imbued, I suppose, with the mysterious aura of a murky evolutionary past. I read books by Louis Leakey, the notorious white Kenyan anthropologist, and Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist known for her lifelong devotion to the chimpanzees in Tanzania. Their work, their ideas, and the lives they led were enthralling. When I had the chance in February 2010 to drive 380 miles to Georgia to hear Jane Goodall speak in person, I took it. She seemed to me like a sort of prophet or muse for a secular, humanistic creation story. I needed to hear her in person, to see whether I too could be drawn into her primatophilic spell.

Reflecting on her speech, I wrote the following:

I am still trying to sort out my thoughts and feelings about Jane Goodall. This trip was hugely significant for me personally. It wasn’t just about hearing a famous person live on stage; it was about a larger question: what does it mean to be a human being? I want to be a human being, a great human being who leaves a world-impacting legacy. To know what it means to be a great human beings means knowing first what it means to be a human in the first place. Hence my interest in (paleo-) anthropology…

I expected to be inspired by Jane’s message. But I wasn’t. Her message was weak. It was basically: be nice, play nice, be nice to the animals and the environment, and we’ll all have global peace. I didn’t expect any reference to God or morality, but I really came to see whether this humanistic gospel was really any gospel at all, as I’ve been tempted to believe in the recent past. It isn’t. Jane’s message of wildlife conservation and global peace is admirable enough, but not adequate to ‘change the world’ as she implies….

Still in a kind of ‘paleo-mania’ when we returned to Uganda in early 2010, I put the word out to the Ik that I was looking for human fossils. I had the ridiculous fantasy that I would put me and the Ik on the ‘map’ by being credited for the next major human fossil discovery (no doubt as a huge new source of narcissistic supply!). On April 6, 2010, I jotted down that “I just got a call from Aramasan saying he has found the human fossils (!) and brought them to this home. Hopefully I will go there this week and pay him $50 for them!” Three days later, Aramasan showed up with the highly anticipated treasure:

For four months I have been imagining what it would be like to finally see the fossilized human skull I had been tantalized with [by an Ik man claiming to know its location]. Yesterday I got my chance. Aramasan came and led me down the hill a ways to see it. I should have known it was too good to be true. The skull he brought was adult human alright, but not more than 50 years old. I spent half an hour explaining to him why I wasn’t interested and couldn’t pay him $50 for something I didn’t want. I did pay him for his time looking. Later in the evening an Ik brought me ANOTHER recent human skull. This is now pure madness as I’m at risk of being labeled a witch doctor.

Years later I am still fascinated by deep human origins, but over time I saw less and less value in the study of bone fragments alone as a way to grasp our essential nature as Homo sapiens sapiens. On the flip-side, I am also drawn to speculations on how our species might continue to change in the future. Now, with the past and future as imaginative bookends, I am focusing instead on humanity as we are in the present. Neither skeleton nor cyborg, the Human Being of today is that still enigmatic amalgam of mind and body, flesh and spirit, creator and creature that embodies the cosmos and never ceases to inspire awe.

It is to this beautiful mystery that I devote my learning and consecrate my love.


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