Homo sapiens, meet Homo Naledi

Editor’s Note: Alert! If any readers of this blog do not accept evolution, you may find some of the content here troubling. If you do accept evolution or are open to learning about it, please read on for the “good news” that this atheist ex-pastor writer has for us at the end.

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By Bob Ripley

Four years ago two cavers discovered bones in an almost inaccessible chamber deep within the Rising Star cave system, about 25 miles from Johannesburg in South Africa.   An international team of collaborators reported that the 1,500 human fossils represent at least 15 individuals from infants to seniors. They were named as a new human species, Homo naledi (naledi means “star” in the in the Sotho language).

Homo_naledi_skeletal_specimens
National Geographic calls it one of the greatest fossil discoveries of the past half century. The problem is that a discovery like this often poses more questions than it answers. How old are the fossils? Where does H. naledi fit in the scheme of human evolution? And how did the remains arrive deep within the cave system? Their brains were only a third of the size of our brains, but were they burying their dead?

As this New York Times editorial suggests, we treat every fossil as if it must fit somewhere on a timeline leading to the crown of creation. Chris Stringer, a prominent British paleoanthropologist who was not involved in the study, told BBC News: “What we are seeing is more and more species of creatures that suggests that nature was experimenting with how to evolve humans, thus giving rise to several different types of humanlike creatures originating in parallel in different parts of Africa.”

I’m no paleontologist but the details of this new species of ancient humans are fascinating. I suggest you read more about the discovery of homo naledi here.

If you suggest that you don’t believe in a creator who whipped up humans in one day like a happy chef or even mysteriously engineered a linear evolutionary process leading straight to you and me, people sometimes turn apoplectic.

“You mean we are just an accident of nature?”

Well, that may be reality.   We are certainly learning that our ancestry is more a tangle of branches on the family tree.

We are not comfortable thinking that we are modified apes. But the discovery of Homo naledi is another huge paleontological breakthrough. As the NY Times editorial suggests, why not seize this moment to overcome our anthropocentrism and recognize the fuzziness of the distinctions within our extended family? We are one rich collection of mosaics genetically, anatomically and mentally.

The good news, of course, is that we’re here now. We are alive today. And with each new mysterious discovery from the past, we have the unique ability to humbly place ourselves in the vast array of all life on our planet.

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ripley2 photoBio: Bob Ripley, aka “Dave the Atheist ex-pastor” is a syndicated religion columnist, broadcaster, former preacher and author of Christian devotional material. His book which came out in October, 2014 is titled Life Beyond Belief: A Preacher’s Deconversion. Find out more about the book and his other writing here. This blog post copied with permission, was first published here.

>>>>Photo Credits: By Lee Roger Berger research team – http://elifesciences.org/content/4/e09560, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43071595

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  • Dannorth

    Like statistics in math the theory of evolution is often misunderstood. We are not well programmed for stochatic processes, we tend toward lean deterministic and teological explanation.

    Yes we are indeed an accident. The circumstances under which a population of ancestral apes favoured bipedality, tool use (present also among chimps) and the development of intelligence and behavioral flexibility.

    Science, especially in the last two centuries, has done a lot to reduce to rubble the pedestal on which we had put ourselves in relation to the rest of nature but aren’t the Christians the first to claim that the road to wisdom passes through humility.

    • Objective Judgment

      “Yes we are indeed an accident.”
      I know what you mean (as illustrated by your very accurate gloss which follows) but I think we ultimately do ourselves a disservice in using this sort of language (similarly suggesting evolution ’caused’ a species to adapt to environments, rather than in fact killing that which wasn’t adapted to environments and having little effect on what was). Surely ‘accident’ is too simplistic and plays into the hands of the other side who tend to want to see these things as divorced from the actual factual natural context. In the context of the natural world and how the environment in which we developed changed over time, there is nothing accidental about it – its completely rational and logical from start to finish, the only accident is where a specific individual proto-human happened to find themselves as the environment, and those competing with them in it, changed about them.

      • http://127.0.0.1 3lemenope

        Perhaps a better word than ‘accidental’ would be ‘contingent’.

    • dagobarbz, fine Italian shoes

      I wouldn’t call it an accident, rather a line of chance that evolved superior survival abilities.

  • Mobius

    There was an interesting episode of NOVA on PBS that documented the discovery and the first dig at the site. The enthusiasm of the crew was very high, and quite understandable. I think you can still find the episode online.

  • Mark Rutledge

    How about putting the word “serendipitous” in front of accident or chance in relation to evolutionary development? Serendipitous: occurring or discovered by chance in a happy or beneficial way

    • Bob Ripley

      Thanks Mark. I know I for one am happy to be part of evolutionary development.

    • mason

      or just nix “accident” :)

    • ElizabetB.

      Thank you for elaborating on “serendipity”! I’m reading Kaufman, but skipping around haven’t yet read the significance of the repetition. “Happy or beneficial way” is a neat tip!

  • Freethinker

    “You mean we are just an accident of nature?”

    Well, that may be reality.

    Not sure why there is any need to hesitate about this. There is no “may” involved. We ARE an (fortunate for us) accident of evolution, the proof of which is all around us and regrettably for the mythologists, ever increasing. There are thousands of origins myths on this planet to provide comforting lies and fables for those who are uncomfortable with truths and facts.

    Just like evolution has created the overall human primate family it is only logical that some of these human primates have evolved substantially more than others. The simpler forms need simpler things. They often do not have the capacity to accept scientific evidence of the fact that we are nothing more than a part of the animal kingdom on this blue marble floating through space without any celestial “supervision”.

  • alwayspuzzled

    We could be an accident of nature.
    We could be a divine creation.
    Or we could be a science experiment. Hypothesis: A species with overreaching ambition, a predilection for violence, and a fair amount of intelligence will sooner or later create the means whereby it can destroy itself, and it will then do so. We seem to be well on our way to proving the hypothesis correct.

    • rationalobservations?

      The annually published “global peace index” has revealed for a while that the top ten most peaceful nations are also the least religious nations in the history of humanity are also the ten least religious nations in all human history while the most religious nations are the least peaceful.
      The evidence shows that free, educated secular democracy appears to be the cure for religion and conflict.
      We continue to evolve and it looks like we may be on the brink of becoming something worth calling human if the trend away from religion continues to accelerate.

      • ElizabetB.

        Is the U.S. in process of contradicting these findings? sad

        • rationalobservations?

          There is no sign of that as the large minority of gun crazy religious fanatics look like preventing America from moving into that group of peaceful non-religious nations for many years – if ever.

          The USA is a sad and backward nation in so many ways.

          • ElizabetB.

            Thanks, rational! I was assuming the U.S. to be a “free, educated secular democracy” — but sounds like the index doesn’t put it in that category? Thanks for news (to me) that there’s a “global peace index” — interesting!!

          • rationalobservations?

            The USA is quite a way down from the top ten in the peace index and surprisingly near the top in the global ignorance index of the most ignorant folk. And:
            You’re welcome.

      • alwayspuzzled

        “the top ten most peaceful nations are also the least religious nations”
        Is this causality or correlation?
        For instance, suppose a majority of citizens are psychologically comfortable with their secular circumstances. That might cause a lowering of the level of violent behavior and at the same time cause less need for and reliance on the psychological comfort of religion.

        • rationalobservations?

          Atheists are also rated as having the highest IQ but that probably indicates that more intelligent folk tend to be better educated and less gullible, not that non belief in magic and imaginary spooks increases intelligence.

      • Steven Watson

        Sweden. A ‘free, educated, secular, democracy’ seemingly incapable of saving itself from Muslim barbarity; indeed actively complicit in allowing the barbarity. Canada, in the process of making freespeech hatespeech. Some cures for conflict only result in the peace of the grave.

  • dagobarbz, fine Italian shoes

    WE’RE NUMBER ONE!
    WE’RE NUMBER ONE!
    -Homo sapiens

  • alwayspuzzled

    The fact that natural selection uses a random mechanism does not mean that the outcome of the selection process is accidental.

    • mason

      Agreed. “Accident” is a complete misnomer that could apply to a scientist breaking a test tube or crashing her car, but has no place in the science of evolution.

  • mason

    Really enjoyed this article and subject. I have one question/comment.

    “We are not comfortable thinking that we are modified apes.” Hmmm, … I’m not sure who the we is supposed to be, but it sure doesn’t include me. :) I’m very comfortable, thrilled, quite pleased to know my evolutionary ancestry, and greatly appreciative of all the many years of the hard work that’s been done in the vast field of evolutionary science. The knowledge gained with the application of DNA science has been astounding.

    I was never comfortable with the nonsense I was told by theists, and that I then repeated, about geology and human ancestry. With the scientific information we have today, the perpetuation of pseudoscience and myth by Evangelical fundamentalist theists is nothing less than willful ignorance and deliberate lying to credulous children.

    “There are still thousands more remains in the cave, according to Berger. “Once we realized the full potential, we decided the best thing to do was to lock down the site, and engage the entire community to make a decision on what to do there next,” What a treasure trove this is for scientists! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c9c99c505620b59d0d22c69d512afacac036b15c84a9273be7d1183edc646631.jpg

  • See Noevo

    “What we are seeing is more and more species of creatures
    that suggests that nature was experimenting with how to evolve humans,
    thus giving rise to several different types of humanlike creatures originating
    in parallel in different parts of Africa.”

    That wins my crazy evolutionist quote of the day.

    • Jim Jones

      It’s an inept explanation. But the point is correct.

      It’s good to remember that evolution is a truly horrible way to improve existing species or to create new ones. For every success there are a million failures.

      Almost all species that have ever existed have gone extinct.

  • Machintelligence

    Given the relatively large diversity of monkeys, why are there so few species of us tailless apes around?

    • Freethinker

      I guess you haven’t heard of our occasional vestigial tails that some humans are born with.

      In the context of human evolution, human vestigiality involves those traits (such as organs or behaviors) occurring in humans that have lost all or most of their original function through evolution. Although structures called vestigial often appear functionless, a vestigial structure may retain lesser functions or develop minor new ones. In some cases, structures once identified as vestigial simply had an unrecognized function.

      The examples of human vestigiality are numerous, including the anatomical (such as the human tailbone, wisdom teeth, and inside corner of the eye), the behavioral (goose bumps and palmar grasp reflex), sensory (decreased olfaction), and molecular (pseudogenes). Many human characteristics are also vestigial in other primates and related animals.

      • Machintelligence

        I am actually well aware of vestigial traits, but my question was why there are so few species that share the tailless trait. Was losing the tail sort of an evolutionary dead end? Some “designs” such as beetles are wildly successful diversity wise, others (like us), not so much.

        • Freethinker

          Given that we are bipeds and ground-based, the tails which are used for swinging from tree to tree or to stabilize quadrupeds while running very fast are clearly unnecessary.
          Evolution favors useful traits and gets rid of redundancies.

          Having said that I do still enjoy getting some tail myself.

          • Steven Watson

            I often find myself needing a third hand. A prehensile tail would come in very… handy.

  • See Noevo

    I wonder how many previous evolution “facts” fizzled with this discovery.

    “The age of the original Homo naledi remains from the
    Dinaledi Chamber has been revealed to be startlingly young
    in age… was alive sometime between 335 and 236 thousand years ago.

    … The naledi date is surprisingly recent.
    The fossil remains have primitive features that are shared with some of the
    earliest known fossil members of our genus… that lived nearly two million years ago. On
    the other hand, however, it also shares some features with modern humans. After
    the description of the new species in 2015, experts had predicted that the
    fossils should be around the age of these other primitive species.
    Instead, the fossils from the Dinaledi Chamber are barely more than one-tenth
    that age.

    … At such a young age, in a period known as the late Middle Pleistocene, it was
    previously thought that
    only Homo sapiens (modern humans) existed in
    Africa.

    We can no longer assume that we know which
    species made which tools
    , or even assume that it was modern humans
    that were the innovators of some of these critical technological and
    behavioural breakthroughs in the archaeological record of Africa,” says
    Berger.

    … John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Wits
    University, an author on all three papers, says: “I think some scientists
    assumed they knew how human evolution happened, but these new fossil
    discoveries, plus what we know from genetics, tell us that the southern half of
    Africa was home to a diversity that we’ve never seen anywhere else.”

    Oh, and also this:

    … “The National Geographic Society has a long history
    of investing in bold people and transformative ideas,” said Gary E. Knell,
    president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, a funder of the
    expeditions that recovered the fossils and established their age. “The
    continued discoveries from Lee Berger and his colleagues showcase why it is critical
    to support the study of our human origins and other pressing scientific
    questions.”

    [Why is the study of our human origins a pressing scientific question?]

    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170509083554.htm
    ………..
    “Profound implications:
    This new way of thinking might have profound implications,
    he says. For instance, H. naledi’s odd mix of features – some strikingly
    modern-looking, some more ancient – hints that the emergence of recognisably
    modern human anatomy was far more complicated than originally thought.

    And perhaps the best for last:

    “And the idea that H. naledi might have survived in the
    crucible of human evolution for two million years should put to rest the idea
    that competition between human lineages drove a universal march to larger and
    larger brains. “It was always JUST A TALE – and it’s ended now,”
    says Berger.”

    https://www.newscientist.com/article/2130280-meet-neo-the-most-complete-skeleton-of-homo-naledi-ever-found/
    ……
    Here’s a hypothetical: What if, millions of years from now,
    some advanced aliens discover the fossils of these two guys. Would they say
    they’re the same species?

    http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/13/living/tallest-shortest-man-guinness/

    • Freethinker

      Why is the study of our human origins a pressing scientific question

      Because we are a curious primate and we like to know things. And because we know for a fact that we are not a product of some sky wizard’s whim who according to absurd myths “created ” us from clay 6000 years ago as some many millions of unfortunately unevolved simpletons believe.

      • Linda_LaScola

        While I believed in God as a child, I also believed in evolution – there was never a conflict in my mind and it was never discussed in church or catechism.

        I found out later that kids who went to Catholic school learned about evolution there. I learned about it in public school and my mother reinforced it at home, often talking about the Scopes trial and how backward southerners tried to prevent proper teaching of it in the schools . To me evolution was perfectly obvious – just look at an ape and a human — clearly we are related.

        • Freethinker

          Glad you saw the light when you did. Evolution is the biggest bitchslap against monotheistic origin myth. There is no way Catholic schools anywhere teach evolution in its actual context. It would literally put them out of business.

          If you accept that there was no Adam and Eve that means there was no original sin, no talking snake and therefore no sacrifice of a god-child on a cross for that and other sins. The entire foundation of the absurd myth is destroyed. This is why the Christians, Jews and Muslims universally reject the fact that we simply evolved from a single cell organism over millions of years. Theirs is a lifestyle based on carefully curated lies and the foundation of it all is how humans came to be.

          • Linda_LaScola

            Catholic schools – and universities – teach evolution as science. I don’t think they make any religious connection. I’m anxious to hear from people reading here who have actually attended Catholic schools – but that is my understanding from Catholic friends.

            I DID attend a Catholic graduate school – Catholic University of America in DC – for an MSW. Trust me, neither evolution nor the Bible nor Catholic dogma ever came up.

          • Michael Neville

            I went to Catholic grade school, high school and college. I was taught evolution in high school biology with no mention of any gods meddling with it. Just straight up evolution, starting with single celled critters and working up to mammals. The teacher explained that evolution is a tree, not a ladder and bacteria are just as evolved as humans.

          • Linda_LaScola

            Thanks, Michael. I also don’t recall ever hearing about evolution in church. It would have been totally out of place.

            Non-Catholics sometimes find that hard to believe, given the strong anti-evolution feeling in protestant fundamentalist churches.

          • ElizabetB.

            This is sort of puzzling… growing up in the Bible belt in the 40’s & 50’s, attending a pretty conservative school of Christian ed, similar congregation in MN, and seminary, I don’t remember encountering anyone disputing a theory of evolution….

          • Steven Watson

            The biggest bitchslap against monotheistic origin myth is… monotheistic origin myth. Where did Adam’s children’s wifes come from? That humanity didn’t originate from a single couple is something the Bible tells us; that Yahweh isn’t the sole god or even the senior god is something the Bible tells us. Ask a Catholic scholar about Galileo, they will tell you he went beyond the avialable evidence, and they have a point. Frustatingly, Catholicism and Orthodoxy can accomodate science quite successfully; a couple of years of higher education or equvalent reading is needed to actually dent their schtick; but at that point you lose most of the laity because, not having that education, they can’t follow your argument.

  • mason
  • Steven Watson

    Chris Stringer is not helping:

    “What we are seeing is more and more species of creatures that suggests
    that nature was experimenting with how to evolve humans, thus giving
    rise to several different types of humanlike creatures originating in
    parallel in different parts of Africa.”

    Nature is not a scientist, nature does not have agency, and neither is nature a person. Lay off the anthropomorphising Chris, you do Science no favours.