In these days of Out of Africa genomic hegemony, it is easy to forget that until recently, and despite Darwin and Huxley’s early intuition, the African origins of our lineage were controversial, and for a long time, even considered a fringe theory. It isn’t so long ago that multiregional evolution of modern humans was on equal footing with monogenesis, and even that wasn’t usually rooted in Africa. Howells’ 1942 survey of theories for the origins of humans did more than its fair share to modernize paleoanthropology, but Africa rates only three mentions and none of them as a candidate cradle for modern humans. By the mid-1970s, following two solid decades of massive fossil discoveries, and building on even earlier but initially discredited work by Dart, J. Desmond Clark (1975) could still say that the by-then obviousness of the African origin of humans was shocking to those of his generation. Extensive critiques of the Out of Africa model, Total African Replacement, as it was sometimes derisively called by critics, were published in leading journals into the 1990s (Frayer et al 1993).
The idea of an earliest ancestor from Europe remains attractive both to Western science and to the Western public. This week Graecopithecus was presented as a candidate. Unlike the recent Cerutti Mastodon claim, this one is appropriately cautious and does no more than describe “potential hominin affinities” of a fossil that has been known for over 70 years, along with some new dating. The claim may be muted and cautious, but after a slow start, the media coverage has been rather more enthusiastic. Clearly, even the remote possibility of a European origin to our lineage still captures the Western imagination.
From 1912 until the early 1950s, the orthodoxy of the European origin of humans was protected by the Piltdown finds, despite significant doubts, from the start, by a number of researchers. Not only was Piltdown attractive because it kept human origins in Europe, and away from other claimants such as Asia, with Dubois’s much maligned Java Man, but it conformed with key paleoanthropological and evolutionary expectations of the time. Because it confirmed that humans originated in Europe, it established that Europeans had had the longest time available to travel down the path of evolutionary progress and were therefore, as expected, the most advanced group. It fit perfectly with the big-brain first model of human development. If human intelligence was the key to human evolution and had driven the rest, then we should expect the first humans to have had a more modern cranial anatomy and more primitive post-cranial traits. This ruled out small brained but bipedal potential ancestors, such as the ones which were cropping up in Southern and East Africa by the 1920s, even with their more modern dentition. Interestingly, Darwin’s belief that the human moral capacity was the ultimate expression both of natural selection and of providence, should have suggested that the modern brain was a relatively late development, and should have made Africa’s small-brained bipeds attractive as potential ancestors. But Keith and his contemporaries were not Darwinians in our sense of the term. Or perhaps the lure of the European ancestor was just strong enough to defeat the need for theoretical consistency.
After even Hooton (1954) had grudgingly and bitterly acknowledged the Piltdown hoax, the making of the acceptance of the African origin of humans into normal science was only a question of time. The biblical logic of a middle-eastern origin, with the Skhul fossils at Mt Carmel, at first serious candidates, then merely proposed hybrids, compelled some for a while and offered a culturally and geographically acceptable face-saving compromise. But even that was a fleeting prospect. In the end, the need for a comforting narrative was no match for the weight of the evidence. It still isn’t.
The most recent book devoted to ancient Egypt I have read was Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. Synthesizing extensive written material with archaeology, perhaps the most impactful argument in Wikinson’s narrative was the persistence of the temple based institutions from the Old Kingdom down to the Ptolemaic era. Religious institutions carried on even with the shocks of Nubian and Libyan conquest in the post-New Kingdom period, down to Late Antiquity. The temple at Philae in southern Egypt was an active center of the traditional religion, and therefore the culture which dates to the Old Kingdom in continuous form, down to the 6th century A.D. (when it was closed by Justinian in his kulturkampf against ancient heterodoxies).
For various ideological reasons though many people are very curious about the racial characteristics of the ancient Egyptians. There are two basic extreme positions, Afrocentrists and Eurocentrists. Though I have not done a deep dive of the literature of either group, I’ve read a few books from either camp over my lifetime. In fact I believe the last time I read the “primary literature” of Afrocentrist and Eurocentrism was when I was an early teen, and it was rather strange because both groups seem to be recapitulating racial disagreements and viewpoints relevant to the American context, and projecting them back to the ancient world.
What’s worse, when we look at the earliest hominins, very few scientists have actually examined the evidence. Ann Gibbons wrote in 2006 that only one scientist at that time had seen all the key fossils, and for all anyone knows that may still be the case – since one of the most important specimens remains unpublished fifteen years after its discovery. Most scientists have been mere spectators, forced to look at cartoon images of skull and pelvis reconstructions that have never to my knowledge been examined by any independent scientist.
I don’t want to take away from the value of the study of Graecopithecus here. It’s pretty cool that Fuss and colleagues were able to find some hidden morphological clues in these very fragmentary specimens. That mandible has only one good tooth in it!
Fauna, sediments, and stratigraphy all point to a late stage of the Lower Pleistocene for Layer 11. The new dating technique of electron spin resonance gave a figure of 670,000 years, probably the Günz-Mindel interglacial, for Layer 10 and dated the stalagmite of Layer 1 to between 250,000 and 350,000 years. Before the formation of this top stalagmite, probably by the end of the Mindel glacial, the cave had been abandoned and had closed up. The uranium/thorium method dated the stalagmite of Layer 10 to a minimum of 400,000 B.P. (the upper limit of this method) and suggested a true age of ca. 600,000. Palaeomagnetic studies of the sediments have shown an inversion of the earth’s magnetic field in layers below 11, but such studies are fraught with problems. In short, the cave’s stratigraphy spans at least half a million years, corresponding to the late Lower and early Middle Pleistocene, Archanthropus having died more than 700,000 years ago, is the most ancient European yet known.
The fragments of post cranial skeleton salvaged from the “mausoleum” suggest that this hominid was a short (about 157 cm), muscular, mature individual. Thought it is classified as Homo erectus, many features of the skull and skeleton fall within the modern human range. Fragments of up to 15 other individuals have so far been found in different parts of the cave.
The first ten layers contain bone tools, pebble tools, and handaxes; this stone industry has been dubbed Petralonian. A cruder industry, the Crenian, is found in Layer 11 and below. The type of tool technology used here was not known in Europe until these finds; . . .
In the New Testament (King James version) it says Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.
If you take that literally, it means that christianity alone is the correct religion. There are numerous variations of the translation, and it is not clear (to me) what the precise context and meaning should be.
Firstly, I am not confident that we can rely upon the words as being an authentic verbatim account, because the text was written down years after the supposed incident. I’ve posted this video before, I think it’s important and interesting, the Didache says that after Jesus’ death, his teaching was hijacked by others, and his own family complained at that time that his message was being corrupted.
But even if the statement is exact, was it meant as Jesus being the sole way, in contrast to the local jewish tradition, or was it intended to apply universally, everywhere, for all time ?
John is usually dated to AD 90–110. It arose in a Jewish Christian community in the process of breaking from the Jewish synagogue. Scholars believe that the text went through two to three redactions, or “editions”, before reaching its current form.
John, which regularly describes Jesus’ opponents simply as “the Jews”, is more consistently hostile to “the Jews” than any other body of New Testament writing. Historian and former Roman Catholic priest James Carroll states: “The climax of this movement comes in chapter 8 of John, when Jesus is portrayed as denouncing ‘the Jews’ as the offspring of Satan.”
In John 8:44 Jesus tells the Jews: “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and he stood not in the truth; because truth is not in him.”
In 8:38 and 11:53, “the Jews” are depicted as wishing to kill Jesus. However, Carroll cautions that this and similar statements in the Gospel of Matthew and the 1 Thessolonians should be viewed as “evidence not of Jew hatred but of sectarian conflicts among Jews” in the early years of the Christian church.
The Egerton Gospel is interesting.
The Egerton Gospel is also known as Papyrus Egerton 2. It is known from an ancient manuscript that is rivaled only by the John Rylands fragment p52 in its antiquity. Ron Cameron states in his introduction in The Other Gospels, “On paleographical grounds the papyrus has been assigned a date in the first half of the second century C.E. This makes it one of the two earliest preserved papyrus witnesses to the gospel tradition.”
Anyway, taken at face value, the statement ‘I am the way, etc’ appears to imply that the only path to reach or discover ‘God, the Father’ is via Jesus and his teachings.
Richard Dawkins would say that this is a cunning memetic entrapment to lock a person into a particular belief system. If you accept it, once it’s embedded into your mind, then you are bound to accept all the rest of the ideas that follow on, and are no longer free to consider wider alternative pathways for thinking.
This rhetorical mechanism is common in legal and political situations, when a lawyer or politician wishes to herd the jury toward a particular conclusion. You cannot avoid arriving at a fixed destination, unless you go right back to the start and question the initial premise. It works well, as a sales technique, because most people fall into the trap. For example, you might be told that ‘Microsoft Windows is the industry standard’ and once you accept that idea, consideration of any alternative brands is thereafter excluded from discussion.
I’ve encountered this tactic several times when I’ve engaged with doorstep evangelists, and put forward the proposition to them that there are useful truths to be found in other religions and philosophies. They often respond with that quotation, pretty much insisting that either you follow Jesus, or else you’ll be on the wrong path.
I don’t mean to be knocking pious christians, but for me personally, that uncritical acceptance of New Testament clauses does not work. Having read widely, you know, there’s people like William James, ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’ and Martin Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’, all manner of books from many traditions and sources to take into account.
I believe that the option for freedom of thought has been one of the supreme achievements of European culture, a centre piece of British, French, German civilisation, something of great value that came out of centuries of bitter struggle and violent turmoil.
I’d rather be told that the only right way towards God is via Christ, if I wanted to seek divinity, than the Islamic option, where it’s the law that any apostate be punished by being murdered. One reason that my personal politics has veered so sharply to the right, is that I see the liberals, who always spoke about ‘tolerance’ shutting down our freedom of speech and thought, and the left, who always spoke about ‘liberation’ doing likewise, and the European Union, which always boasted about its heritage of human rights and dignity, doing the same.
This appalls me. But I see it rather in terms of what the ancient Greeks called anacyclosis, rather like the swings between poles described by the I Ching, there’s a time to be rebellious and to resist authority, and there’s a time to be conformist and to welcome authority, with a view towards aiming at high ideals, justice, honour, minimal suffering and abuse, and so forth.
I think a lot of religious affiliation tends to be tribal, at least, I’ve met a lot of people over my life who have said ‘We are Methodists’, when speaking of their family and circle, or insert any other denomination, Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Buddhist, whatever.
So then it’s a bit like belonging to a club which has certain entry requirements and rules, and if you can jump through those hoops successfully then you can be a member. The choices these days are so many, it’s bewildering. You can follow any number of teachers and gurus, sects, cults, belief systems, from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, to heavy occult stuff like the Church of Satan, Crowley, Wicca, Astrology, something for every personality type and taste. Praise Kek !
It’s the postmodern soup, where people copy and paste fragments from Gurdjieff, Australian Aboriginal shamanism, Tesla, Reich, Sitchin, etc, etc, and make a stew to suit their own predilections and vanities.
Trouble is, custard is nice on puddings and gravy is nice with meat, but if you mix them all up, you tend to get a nasty mess that makes you sick. Nassim Taleb is good at reminding us that humans have been through all this before, long ago in the Classical world, it’s not new, but people are good at repeating mistakes generation after generation.
In a comment Ian Welsh contributed, a couple of essays back, he suggested that the words Absolute, Tao, Brahman, God, can be equated. I’ve said much the same from time to time. Let’s take a look at that idea.
I’ll use wiki, which is an admittedly a source of dubious quality, but perhaps equally bad for each, so it’ll even out. This idea is roughly what Aldous Huxley stated in his book The Perennial Philosophy.
Perennial wisdom, is a perspective in modern spirituality which views each of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, metaphysical truth or origin from which all esoteric and exoteric knowledge and doctrine has grown.
The Perennial Philosophy is expressed most succinctly in the Sanskrit formula, tat tvam asi (‘That thou art’); the Atman, or immanent eternal Self, is one with Brahman, the Absolute Principle of all existence; and the last end of every human being, is to discover the fact for himself, to find out who he really is.
Jonathan Shear discerns four theses associated with the notion of a Perennial philosophy:
(1) The phenomenal world is the manifestation of a transcendental ground;
(2) human beings are capable of attaining immediate knowledge of that ground;
(3) in addition to their phenomenal egos, human beings possess a transcendental Self which is of the same or like nature with that transcendental ground; and
(4) this identification is life’s chief end or purpose.
We appear to have the option to choose whether all religions are talking about the same fundamental issues and experiences, a universal truth, or to choose that one or other may be unique and exclusive.
This is quite a fertile and interesting point to consider, philosophically, before proceeding toward any details. It resembles the debate in biology, about how many species there are. You’d think it would be easy. Just count them. But not so fast.
You first have to define what the term ‘species’ means, so that you can go out and recognise what you’ll be looking for. Hence we come to the disturbing quandary, do you define them by looking at the differences between one and another, or by the similarities that they share ?
This was called difference between the ‘lumpers’ versus ‘splitters’. If you describe species by how their distinct differences, you get one number, and if you decide to describe them by shared similarities, you get a totally different number. So this is an obvious problem. Something is wrong with the methodological approach.
I’m trying to remain fairly neutral and objective, taking an overview. What I mean by that, if you wanted an intellectual analysis of the evolution of the motor car, you don’t want to listen to a car salesman, who will tell you that a BMW or Ford or Fiat model represents the highest form of the technology, because of a vested interest in wanting you to buy one.
Looking at the documented historical records, seems to me that the major religions (loosely defined as belief systems centred upon divinity or transcendent notions, what some people call metaphysics) have all evolved and branched. So we see that Islam was once singular, but then split into Sunni and Shia, and a multitude of minority Sufi sects, and that Christianity was likewise singular, then divided into Roman and Eastern Orthodox, and later into myriad Protestant forms. We see the same with Buddhism, which split between the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. And, as I understand it, Vivekananda taught the West that Indian Hinduism was one unified coherent whole, whereas the truth appears to be that that was never, historically, the case.
Another hazard we encounter is which lense is most useful to view this stuff through. I mean, it’s clear that religions have social and cultural functions which have little or nothing to do with personal philosophical quests to find transcendence, or some Absolute or profound spiritual insights. They can be seen as shared codes which define group membership. The anthropologists and sociologists have studied those areas. Bit like being a Manchester United supporter. Anybody can become one, but if you want to impress your mates, you’ll need the scarf and jersey and to be familiar with all the esoterica, regarding goal averages, managers and coaches, travel to away marches, and so forth. Bit like the tribal rivalry between Apple, Microsoft, and Linux fans.
As contrast to the initial quote at the top, this one sums up the pluralist position quite well :
The many different conceptions of God, and competing claims as to God’s characteristics, aims, and actions, have led to the development of ideas of omnitheism, pandeism, or a perennial philosophy, which postulates that there is one underlying theological truth, of which all religions express a partial understanding, and as to which “the devout in the various great world religions are in fact worshipping that one God, but through different, overlapping concepts or mental images of Him.”
The page covers the ground more succinctly than I can do, so read it if you are sufficiently interested. Seems to me, the more that you dig and look at the very different conceptions of the subject, the less viable the perennial philosophy positions become.
Arguments about the existence of God typically include empirical, deductive, and inductive types. Different views include that: “God does not exist” (strong atheism); “God almost certainly does not exist” (de facto atheism); “no one knows whether God exists” (agnosticism);”God exists, but this cannot be proven or disproven” (de facto theism); and that “God exists and this can be proven” (strong theism).
Given the above, my personal position is that there’s not much point in arguing, because it’s an endless debate with no prospect of any resolution by means of reasoning. But there’s always the open avenue of mysticism as an alternative, where you abandon any hope of cerebral intellectual linear analysis proving fruitful.
I think this is a bit different to the notion of blind faith, because you do have perceived experiences, and then you know you are making some progress, you and your being in the world changes, becomes enriched, easier, more fulfilling.
It’s well known that God, or related areas, can be accessed by means of entheogens, such as LSD, Ayahuasca, Magic Mushrooms, Peyote, and many others. Also by the shamanic techniques, dance, drumming, chanting, fasting, etc.
Terence McKenna did not agree, but I think meditation is superior to those techniques. That’s because brief ephemeral visionary encounters produced by those techniques can be very confusing. They are good for waking people up, but the less dramatic meditation techniques force you to learn as you are going along, so you get a better understanding of how you arrive at various states. And you are self-reliant, rather than needing some other agent. But the two are not mutually incompatible. People differ greatly and there’s numerous potential ways.
I see meditation as analogous to learning to play the banjo. A practical, physical endeavour. I’ve loved Old Time banjo music since my teens. I’ve had a few banjos. I’m reasonably accomplished at guitar picking. Every so often I’ve tried to do some banjo frailing. So far, I’ve never been very successful. I go back to guitar where I can get faster satisfaction. But I never really gave up the yearning to play nice banjo.
The way to approach it, is to accept that when you try it once or twice for five minutes, you’re going to fail, and be frustrated and disappointed. Most people give up (as they do with so many other challenges). The way to go, is to accept that you’re not going to get it. Because it is HARD. So you do each attempt knowing that you’re going to have to do this wretched painful thing a thousand times more before it’ll begin to get good. Thus you proceed. And somewhere, after weeks and months, suddenly it begins to change and for a few magic moments it just happens and you get lost in playing and enjoyment.
There’s never an end, all you have to do to succeed is to persevere. This means cultivating determination. When you’re doing that, you are actually sort of engineering your own character, making yourself into a different, and improved, person. This provides its own rewards. This may appear to be a simple and obvious conclusion. But seems not many people are taught it or understand it.
Your lifetime may be long or short, depending upon the Fates, your destiny, but it can also be narrow or broad, and you can make it as wide as you like, by your own efforts and will power.