Earliest Life: Maybe

We’re not sure how skulls found in central China fit into the family tree. They’re a bit like Neanderthals, a bit like folks still living in that part of the world, and not quite like anyone else.

Other scientists found what may, or may not, be the oldest evidence of life known so far. That’s in Quebec, Canada.

  1. Xuchang Skulls
  2. Oldest Evidence of Life: Maybe

Being Human

I see eyes, nostrils, and a mouth when I look in a mirror. It’s the face of human. (July 15, 2016)

I’m made from the stuff of this world, and filled with God’s ‘breath:’ matter and spirit, body and soul. Each of us is a person: someone, not something, (Genesis 2:7; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 355, 357, 362368)

We’re made “in the divine image,” rational animals who can control our actions. (Genesis 1:2627; Catechism, 355361, 1730, 1951)

“Rational animals?!” Let’s check that face again: it’s pretty obvious that I’m an animal, a vertebrate. The hair shows that I’m a mammal. Forward-facing eyes, an oversize cranium, and features that don’t show in the photo say I’m a primate.

More precisely, I’m a hominid: the sort of critter we used to call “great apes.”

I could decide that I don’t like that. We’ve got free will, remember? I could even be offended at the very idea that I have anything in common with animals.

That doesn’t make sense, not to me. I know what I see in a mirror, and I’ve seen other animals. The similarities are pretty obvious.

I could decide that I don’t like truth, but that would be a bad idea.

Order, Harmony, and God

Whether it’s expressed in words, “the rational expression of the knowledge of created and uncreated reality;” or “the order and harmony of the cosmos;” or in other ways; truth is beautiful — and important. (Catechism, Prologue, 27, 74, 2500)

Thirst for truth and happiness is written into each of us. It should lead us to God. (Catechism, 27)

Faith, the Catholic version, is a willing and conscious “assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism, 142150)

The whole truth: not just the bits I like. Happily, I like living in a universe that’s almost unimaginably ancient, and “in a state of journeying” toward perfection: but not there yet. (Catechism, 302)

Noticing “the world’s order and beauty,” which reflects God’s infinite beauty, helps us learn about God. (Catechism, 3132, 341)

Using the brains God gave us, seeking the Almighty and studying this wonder-filled universe, is what we’re supposed to do. (Catechism, 35, 50, 159, 22922296)

If this sounds familiar, it should. I say it fairly often. (February 3, 2017; January 8, 2017; October 23, 2016; October 28, 2016)

Aristotle, Ussher, and Linnaeus

From Eric Gaba, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Aristotle divided critters by γένος, génos, or kind; and εἶδος, eidos, forms within a kind. Birds were a génos; cranes, eagles, sparrows, and such, were various forms within that kind.

Aristotle also thought that young inherit traits from their parents, and that forms and kinds never changed.

He was right about the first item, and for a long time folks thought he was right about the second.

I’ve talked about God, Aristotle, Hildegard of Bingen and Albertus Magnus, before. (December 2, 2016; November 6, 2016)

Fast-forward to about 1650.

That’s when James Ussher wrote “Annales veteris testamenti….” The Dublin-born Calvinist said the day of creation was near the autumnal equinox in 4004 BC.

Some folks still insist that the universe started at nightfall on Saturday, October 22, 4004 BC. I don’t.

John Ray gave the word “species” a biological definition in 1686, or thereabouts. Like Aristotle, he assumed that species never changed.

Carl Linnaeus published his “Systema Naturae” in 1735.

Our genus-species system for naming critters arguably started with the book’s 10th edition, published in 1758. The system’s called binomial nomenclature, a phrase with about eight syllables that you needn’t memorize.

Noticing that humans are a lot like monkeys and vice versa, Linnaeus assigned both to his Anthropomorpha category.1 Some folks didn’t like the idea, and still don’t. Me? What I see in a mirror doesn’t bother me. (July 15, 2016)

Here’s where it starts getting interesting.

Opportunities for Admiration

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace published an evolutionary theory in 1858.

Assumptions started hitting the fan when Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859.

Over-simplifying 19th century science, politics, and culture something frightful — scientists debated and argued over the ideas; quite a few non-scientists read the book, with varying reactions; and “evolution” became part of everyday English.

Some felt that a rational and orderly God can’t exist — because life changes in an orderly and rational way. I suspect that assumptions about God didn’t help.

A remarkably number of Christians agreed, loudly, and still do.

I don’t: but I’m a Catholic who understands our faith.

Wondering about our origins is a good idea. We’re “called to a personal relationship with God,” and can learn something of God by studying God’s creation. (Catechism, 32, 282289, 299, 301)

I think seeing our increasing knowledge as opportunities for admiration of God’s work makes sense. (Catechism, 283, 341)

Getting upset when answers don’t fit old assumptions, not so much.

No Way Back

Where was I? Humans, Aristotle, Ussher, Lamarck, assumptions. Right.

Working with names in Genesis 2:1015, folks have decided that the Garden of Eden was Armenia, Azerbaijan, Mesopotamia, or near Tabriz.

Like I said, wondering about origins is okay. I’ve wondered about where Eden could have been myself.

There’s also that “fiery revolving sword” wielded by cherubim — plural. I don’t assume that a contemporary American wrote Genesis 3:24, so I don’t think it’s something like Steven Hawking’s proposed gigawatt laser. That’d be a cool idea, though.

But since I’m a Catholic, I figure Catechism, 386390 and Gaudium et spes, 13, have it right. We’re still dealing with consequences of a really bad decision our first parents made. The “way” back to Eden is blocked. (March 5, 2017; November 6, 2016)

That’s not even close to assuming that Adam and Eve are German.2

Going back isn’t an option. I could moan and groan about that, but I won’t.

We’ve been passing along the best news humanity ever had for two millennia now. God loves us, and wants to adopt us. All of us. (Ephesians 1:35; John 3:17; Catechism, 52, 1825)

We’re also helping build, with the help of all folks of good will, a better world. (February 5, 2017; October 30, 2016; October 2, 2016)

1. Xuchang Skulls

(From Xiujie Wu, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Xuchang 1 has a ‘remarkable’ brain size”
(BBC News))

Ancient skulls give clues to China human history
Paul Rincon, BBC News (March 3, 2017)

Two skulls found in China shed light on the ancient humans who inhabited the region before our own species arrived.

“We know that Europe and western Asia was dominated by the Neanderthals before Homo sapiens displaced them.

“But remains belonging to equivalent populations in East and Central Asia have been scarce.

“It’s unclear if the finds are linked to the Denisovans, a mysterious human group known only from DNA analysis of a tooth and finger bone from Siberia….”

Scientists found the “Xuchang skulls” at the Lingjing site in Xuchang County of Henan Province between 2007 and 2014.3 Apparently it’s called Jian’an District now.

The county, or district, is administered from Xuchang, 许昌, a city where upwards of 4,000,000 folks live. The city’s name goes back to Xu, a state led by Xuyou in the Zhou Dynasty’s Spring and Autumn period.

That’s from around the time Ashur-dan III was battling plagues instead of battles for Assyria, to when Pericles moved the Delian League’s treasure from Delos to Athens. And that’s another topic.

Paul Rincon says that modern humans started in Africa about 200,000 years back, followed earlier explorers and settlers, and by now are living on every continent except Antarctica. So have I. (September 30, 2016)

“Modern humans,” anatomically modern human, are folks who look more or less like me, Tȟašúŋke Witkó, Rajesh Khanna, Cíxǐ Tàihòu, and Kobe Bryant.

Scientists generally say modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, are the only currently-living subspecies of Homo sapiens.

The other subspecies, Homo sapiens idaltu, is the name for folks who lived about 160,000 years ago, in real estate we call Ethiopia. We’ve all changed a bit since then.

That’s okay. Things, and people, change. Old family photos of my Campbell forebears still show the clan’s characteristic cam béal, wry mouth. I lack that feature. I was also taller by about inch than my father, and my son is substantially taller than me.

Darwin, DNA, and Genesis

We’ve learned quite a bit since folks started having conniptions over Darwin’s ideas.

Friedrich Miescher discovered nucleic acids in in 1869.

In 1927 Nikolai Koltsov said that a “giant hereditary molecule” could have coding for inherited traits.

Frederick Griffith’s 1928 tests and the Avery-MacLeod-McCarty experiment, reported in 1944, showed that DNA was involved in passing genetic information.

The Human Genome Project published an initial analysis of the Human Genome in 2001. That gave scientists another tool for studying human evolution, answered some questions, and raised others.

I could decide — like everyone else, I have free will — that science is a Satanic plot, and that I am literally made of clay: just like Genesis 2:7 says.

Or I could decide that being made of clay and in the image of God is how Genesis expresses “this reality in symbolic language.” (Catechism, 362)

I’m not surprised that Genesis reflects the language, culture, and knowledge of folks living when it was written. That’s probably between the time Amenompe was running Egypt and when Cambyses II inherited the Achaemenid Empire; 25 to 30 centuries back.

Expecting it to reflect what we’ve learned in the last 150 years, or will have learned between 5050 and 5200 AD, isn’t reasonable.

Fitting Into the Family Tree: Somewhere

(From WU Xiujie, via Chinese Academy of Science, used w/o permission.)
(“Fig.1 The Xuchang 1 (A, superior view) and 2 (B, posterior view) crania….”
(Chinese Academy of Science))

The Xuchang skulls are between 105,000 and 125,000 years old. That’s after the time modern humans showed up, and while Neanderthals still lived in my ancestral homelands.

“…Prof Erik Trinkaus, one of the authors of a study on the remains in Science journal, said it was not possible to say at this stage whether the ancient people from Xuchang were connected to the Denisovans.

“‘The issue here is the patterns of variation and the population dynamics of ‘archaic’ populations during the later part of the Pleistocene,’ Prof Trinkaus, from Washington University in St Louis, told BBC News….”
(Paul Rincon, BBC News)

Having a complete skull, and teeth, would help us know more about them. So would having their family photo albums, journals, and home videos. But that tech wasn’t around at the time, so scientists work with what they’ve got.

Denisovan is our name for folks who lived in or near the Altai Mountains about 41,000 years back. We have their DNA, a couple teeth, a few bits of bone, and that’s it. I’ve mentioned them before. (January 13, 2017)

Without DNA, or teeth, it’s hard to say if these folks were related to Denisovans.

Features at the back of their heads, and the shape of their semicircular canals, are a bit like Neanderthals. The general shape, though, fits folks who have lived in and around eastern Eurasia for the last 781,000 years.

Like Neanderthals and quite a folks with northwestern-European ancestry, I’m a bit dolichocephalic. In other words, I’ve got a longer-than-average head.

Quite a few, not all, folks with east Asian ancestry are brachycephalic, with a shorter-than-average head. The ‘Xuchang skull’ folks were a bit brachycephalic, too.

However they fit into humanity’s family tree, these skulls are a welcome addition to eastern Asia’s fossil record.

Cephalic Index

(From Popular Science Monthly, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Popular Science Monthly’s 1896 cephalic index map: interesting, maybe not all that generally useful.)

Cephalic index is a head’s width to length ratio. We get the number by multiplying the width by 100 and dividing by the head’s length. Anders Retzius apparently defined it first. That was 1800, give or take a few decades.

It’s useful for categorizing cats, dogs, and rabbits. Physical anthropologists used the cephalic index to sort out different human populations until around the 1960s. Retzius thought human head shapes were so different that we couldn’t all have a common ancestor.

Samuel George Morton, who lived around the same time, was a famous doctor and scientist in his day. He studied three Egyptian mummies and decided that Caucasians and Negros were distinct species.

On the other hand, he apparently realized that folks from the different “races” could have kids. Links to more than you probably want to know about polygenism, monogenism, and some of what we’re learning of humanity’s long story, are near the end of this post.4

Origins and Statistics

Quite a few folks started moving to the United States in the 19th century. That struck fear into the hearts of some “real Americans,” still does, and that’s yet another topic. (January 22, 2017)

The point is that by 1910, quite a few immigrants to America had been raising families. Statistically significant numbers of 2nd-generation Americans gave Franz Boas a good data set. The kids didn’t have the same cephalic index as their parents.

The environment-heredity debate is still going on, and cephalic index isn’t as widely-used for sorting humans any more.

About polygenism, the idea that each “race” has a different origin; and monogenism, that we all share a common ancestor — I’d be a “monogenist.”

That’s not entirely because fewer mental gymnastics are needed to make monogenism fit the Genesis creation accounts.

Mostly it’s because I think we’re all a huge and very diverse family.

Denisovan and Neanderthal DNA in today’s gene pool say that. So do the “multiracial” kids who give some folks fits. Honestly, if we’re different “species,” how can we have kids?!

I also think “species” is an idea that’s long-overdue for a reevaluation, and that’s yet again another topic.

2. Oldest Evidence of Life: Maybe

(From M Dodd, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Ancient life: These clumps of iron and filaments show similarities to modern microbes”
BBC News))

Earliest evidence of life on Earth ‘found’
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (March 1, 2017)

Scientists have discovered what they say could be fossils of some of the earliest living organisms on Earth.

“They are represented by tiny filaments, knobs and tubes in Canadian rocks dated to be up to 4.28 billion years old.

That is a time not long after the planet’s formation and hundreds of millions of years before what is currently accepted as evidence for the most ancient life yet found on Earth….

“…Matthew Dodd, who analysed the structures at University College London, UK, claimed the discovery would shed new light on the origins of life.

“‘This discovery answers the biggest questions mankind has asked itself – which are: where do we come from and why we are here?

“‘It is very humbling to have the oldest known lifeforms in your hands and being able to look at them and analyse them,’ he told BBC News….”

“…where do we come from and why we are here?” I’m assuming that Matthew Dodd meant “why” in the “cause of” sense. Again: wondering about origins is a good idea. (Catechism, 282289,)

I’ve talked about secondary causes before. (January 13, 2017)

We’re reasonably sure that Earth formed 4,540,000,000 years back, give or take 50,000,000.

Depending on who’s talking, life began 4,100,000,000, 3,700,000,000, or 3,480,000,000 years ago.

Or, if the high-end estimate of these scientists is right, 4,280,000,000 years ago.

The 3.7 billion year old evidence is carbon in metasedimentary rocks found in western Greenland.

Scientists found 3.48 billion years old microbial mat fossils in Western Australia. That’s near where other scientists found carbon encased in zircons: 4.1 billion years old. Or maybe 4,250,000,000 years. There’s being debated.5

‘All of the above’ are billions of years before Ussher’s date for creation. I’ll get back to that.

One of the reasons it’s so hard to find evidence of early life on Earth is that critters didn’t develop skeleton-like parts until a bit over a half-billion years ago. Squishy critters like jellyfish fossilize even less often that those with hard parts.

Another reason is that anything organic usually gets recycled/eaten by living critters. That’s what would have happened to the Australian carbon, if it hadn’t been encased in zircons.

That gets me back to Quebec’s Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt, where the “tiny filaments, knobs and tubes” were. Scientists using different dating methods got ages of 3,750,000,000 and 4,388,000,000 years. Either way, the rocks are very old.

Finding out exactly how old is important, since that will help us work out how soon life started on Earth.

If it’s as old as it may be, life began very shortly after the Solar System’s planets formed: which means we could have been looking for life on Mars in the wrong places. That’s a topic for another post.

Following St. Augustine’s Advice

Some folks still think Ussher’s assertion that the universe started in 4004 BC. must be so, since it’s “Biblical.”

I don’t.

Ussher’s estimate was pretty good scholarship in 1650, but we’ve learned a great deal since then.

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon carefully measured how fast iron cools, extrapolated from that data, and found that Earth was about 75,000 years old. That was in 1778.

The Sorbonne condemned Leclerc’s ideas, he issued a retraction, and it turns out that he was wrong by several powers of ten.

Earth is a lot older.

William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, used similar methods in 1862. He calculated an age of Earth at somewhere between 20,000,000 and 400,000,000 years.

He was wrong, too, but his estimate was reasonable: given what we knew at the time.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck wasn’t the first chap to think species can change, but that’s where I’ll start. He gave a lecture in 1800, outlining a theory about evolution.

He wrote about it in 1802, 1809, and in a seven-volume doorstop called “Histoire naturelle des animaux sans vertèbres” that hit the press from 1815 to 1822.

Nicolas Steno’s 1616 “De glossopetris dissertatio” helped launch paleontology as a science. Steno was brought up as a Lutheran, started asking questions, became a Catholic, and that’s still another topic.

Or maybe not so much.

I’m convinced that using the brains God gave us doesn’t offend the Almighty. (Catechism, 159)

I also think St. Augustine was right, and still is:

“Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air…. They all answer you, ‘Here we are, look; we’re beautiful.’…
“…So in this way they arrived at a knowledge of the god who made things, through the things which he made.”
(Sermon 241, St. Augustine of Hippo (ca. 411) (from www.vatican.va/spirit/documents/spirit_20000721_agostino_en.html (December 6, 2016))

Asking questions, seeking knowledge:

1 We’ve learned a lot since 1735:

2 I keep saying that:

3 Regional coverage:

4 Humanity’s long story, what we’re learning so far:

5 Studying early Earth:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Earliest Life: Maybe

  1. irishbrigid says:

    I think you meant ‘started’: ” naming critters arguably stated with”

    And and unnecessary space: “battling plagues in stead of battles for Assyria”

    A missing article? “I was taller by about inch than my father”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Thanks for taking time to comment!