Musings of the ASA Director Emeritus
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This blog compiles the occasional musings of Randy Isaac who was ASA Executive Director from 2005 to 2016 and is now ASA Director Emeritus.

 

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draft for Smithsonian post

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Broad Social Impacts Committee of the Smithsonian Institute is asking each of us as members to write a 500 word or less post responding to a question about the Anthropocene Epoch. The question I am addressing is:

 "From your religious, philosophical or personal perspective, how do you understand the significance of the evolutionary process that has led to the global impact of Homo sapiens on planet Earth?"

 

I have written the draft below. It's a first pass and I'm willing to edit it significantly. I would greatly appreciate suggestions and comments from all of you. It is due before the end of November but I'd like to get it off my to-do list.

Thank you!

 

“What Are Human Beings That You Are Mindful of Them?”

Psalm 8:4, NRSV

Randy Isaac

The effort to formally designate our current age as the Anthropocene Epoch can be seen as either a paean to humanity or as an expression of self-exaltation. The latter view considers each extant species to be a successful culmination of billions of years of evolution with no species having superiority. The former view sees our species as a distinctive species worthy of praise for its accomplishments.

The psalmist looks at the grandeur of the heavens, notes the moon and the stars, and exclaims how remarkable it is that God would be mindful of human beings, by comparison hardly worthy of note. Yet the psalmist continues with amazement that God “…made [human beings] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet…” (Ps 8:5-6, NRSV)

The biblical perspective resonates with the Anthropocene Epoch designation in several ways. Three of those ways to be considered here are the uniqueness of humans, the human capability of understanding other species, and the responsibility given to humans for stewardship.

The biblical perspective emphasizes the uniqueness of humankind. Humans are the final act of creation and are the only species to whom God gives his own image. The Son of God became a human, signifying a special relationship between God and humans who have God-given responsibilities and are accountable to God. Scientifically, the unique evolutionary achievement of humans is manifold. Humans have an unparalleled adaptability enabling survival through significant environmental changes. Humans have an enhanced level of consciousness, communication skills, and ability for abstract reasoning. No other species comes close to human ability in these areas.

While most species interact with other species as needed for survival, only humans seem capable of studying and understanding any other species, independent of need. The biblical perspective stresses this capability in the account of Adam naming the animals. In Genesis 2:18-20 God forms animals and birds as helpers to Adam and they are brought to him for naming. The ancient practice of naming was not an arbitrary task of finding a pleasing word but an in-depth study of the characteristics of the one being named, assigning a name reflecting their nature. This is an indication that humans have evolved the ability and the mission of studying and understanding the nature of all species.

God explicitly gives humans the assignment of having dominion over the earth and all that is in it. This is a mandate for stewardship and loving care. Our scientific recognition that humans have a global impact, whether for good or for bad, shows how we cannot escape this assignment. The designation of an epoch reflecting our impact on the earth is a powerful reminder that we are responsible for sustaining all life on earth. May we all do our part to nurture and care for our world.

Tags:  anthropocene  evolution  human evolution 

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The Mystery of the "Hobbits"

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Most people think of J.R.R. Tolkien when they hear the term hobbits. The very personable figures in his popular sci-fi series brings to our mind small, talented, gentle beings. A little more than a decade ago, the term was also the nickname given to the fossils found on the island of Flores in Indonesia. The bones were very similar to those of humans but much smaller. Originally dated to 18,000 years ago, their age was recently updated to about 50,000 years. Their Latin name is Homo Floresiensis.

Their ancestry remains a mystery. For many years, there was a viable proposal that the bones were simply those of a human with some disease like micro encephalitis. The latest news is the discovery of more human fossils dated to about 700,000 years ago. These were also smallish humans, about the size of Hobbit, and are highly likely to be the ancestors of Hobbit. But while it solves some mysteries, it generates others.

A couple of possible explanations remain to be examined. One is that a little over a million years ago, a community of Homo Erectus migrated to Indonesia. Members of this species ranged up to six feet tall. In this case, the population could have undergone what is known as “island dwarfism” in which species that are isolated on a small island evolve into smaller versions of their species, sometimes as much as six times smaller. While many species have been found to exhibit such dwarfism, it has never been seen in humans. If this happened, then H. Floresiensis is likely a descendant of the branch of H. Erectus that underwent dwarfism rather rapidly. The 700,000 year old fossils are about the same size as the 50,000 year old one, but much smaller than H. Erectus.

An alternative theory is that it was a much earlier migration out of Africa rather than H. Erectus that led to a population in Indonesia at that time. These individuals would have been smaller to begin with and less rapid dwarfism needed to have occurred. More data will be needed to distinguish between these two ideas. In either case, it seems the argument for a diseased human explanation for the “Hobbit” is vanishingly weak.

What do we make of all this? Paleoanthropology continues to be a fascinating field. New technology is providing more specialized tools to tease more data from both old and new fossil discoveries. What we do know is that human ancestry is rich with diversity and far from a simple story of a single species.

Tags:  fossils  human ancestry  human evolution 

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