From Sapiens to Omnipotentus

Science is pretty clear that Homo sapiens has been populating the planet for more than 200,000 years—a considerably longer time than the Christian story would have us believe.  The Garden of Eden was purportedly created some six thousand years ago, and most archaeologists believe it was located near the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, at a spot now submerged in the Persian Gulf.

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But in fact, forms of earlier human life have been documented as far back as two-and-a-half-million years.  Our human predecessors—part of the animalia family, the vertebrata subphylum, the mammalia class, the primates order, the homininae subfamily, and the Homo genus—include, among others, such species as Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo neanderthalensis.  All are now extinct.

As a child raised in a Christian home, I was taught, and came to believe, that man was created in God’s own image.  (As an aside, I was also taught that woman was created from a rib of that man—which, if not an original sin, was at the very least an original prioritizing of importance.  As a further aside, I later came to understand that the Christian stories depicting this creation were written by men, which explained that version of events.)

Somewhere along the way, I was also exposed to the tantalizing question: did God create us, or did we create God?

Humans alive today—let me group women and men together as humankind for purposes of this essay—are members of the Homo sapiens sapiens subspecies, which we are told has been in existence for perhaps 70,000 years.  Were we, through some magical time-warp, able to confront some of our earliest sapiens predecessors, we would scarcely recognize them as human.  I cannot imagine what they would think of us.

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Nevertheless, biologically, genetically, we are virtually identical.

Pictures of earlier Homo peoples, reconstructed from archaeological findings, show they looked quite different than we do.  They behaved differently, too, living in an environment quite distinct from ours.  It seems obvious that, over the millennia, humankind has evolved to accommodate the changing conditions.  But beneath the skin, beyond the discrepancies in physical appearance, we are related as a part of the same family in the same fashion that any of us are related to our grandparents.  The earliest humans so far identified through fossil evidence—perhaps Homo ardipithecus or Homo australopithecus—were part of humankind.

When I was first taught that humankind was created in God’s image, I made the completely valid assumption that God, therefore, looked like us.  His many depictions in the magnificent paintings of the masters only proved it—a stern, majestic, bearded being, (male, of course), clothed in white raiment, surrounded by angelic hosts, allowing the tip of one finger to be touched by a mere mortal reaching in supplication.

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But I have long since wondered, can that be so?  If humankind was, indeed, created in his image, perhaps he actually looks like our earliest ancestors, hairy and ape-like—unless, he, too, has evolved across the centuries (which I concede is a real possibility).  This would not contradict the creation story, merely situate it in a much earlier timeframe.

Such speculation, however, leads me to an even more intriguing question.  It seems indisputable that Homo sapiens sapiens is continuing to evolve.  Our marvellous brains have led us to the cusp of some wonderful, perhaps terrifying, advances in medical science—advances which have allowed us to live our full span of years, and more, relatively free of the scourges of premature death, when compared to those who came before us.

Cloning sheep, so astonishing a feat a mere handful of years ago, was just the beginning.  Purposeful studies today in such fields as stem-cell research, human genome-mapping, in vitro fertilization, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, to name a few, are moving us beyond the boundaries of what we have always understood to be true of our mortal selves.

Will humankind, in the not-so-distant future, be able to create human life?  And maybe code it to follow a certain, predetermined path of development?  Will our brains, perhaps conjoined with, or replaced by, digital, adaptive intelligence be able to take us to another evolutionary stage?  From Homo sapiens sapiens to, let us say, Homo sapiens omnipotentus?

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Will humankind in that case become, not cast in God’s image, but God?  Is that the evolutionary future of the being that created us in the first place?  To become us?

It has been written that we are one with God.  Perhaps, some day in the future, we shall be so.

The Supreme Power

Rudyard Kipling wrote these lines in 1902, the beginning to a small poem about his daughter:

I keep six honest serving-men/(They taught me all I knew);/Their names are What and Why and When/And How and Where and Who…

Five of those interrogative words, whether rendered in English or any other language, enable us to ask the fundamental questions of all mankind.

What is the meaning of life?  Why are we here?  When did life begin?  Where are we headed?

And the most fundamental of all:  Who created us?

Throughout the millennia, mankind has striven to find meaningful answers, and has codified those answers in various constructs: dogma, commandment, or science.  The first of these forms the basis for religious belief, the second for a stable, civil order, the third for progress.

One may ask, however, whether the answers so far obtained have been beneficial to our understanding of our existence.  It might be argued, for example, that the plethora of religious beliefs espoused by so many have led us, not to an utopian bliss, but into almost-endless warfare as we seek to establish the predominance of our own set of beliefs.  Think of wars fought in the name of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, either to preserve or spread those creeds.

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Or consider the nearly-numberless dictators and rulers over the ages who have demanded fealty and obedience from their subjects, only to have their empires crumble into disarray: Persia, Athens and Sparta, Egypt, Carthage, Imperial Rome, the Ottoman Empire.  Their names are legendary—Cyrus the Great, Leonidas, Rameses the Great, Hannibal, Augustus Caesar, Suleiman the Magnificent—but their legacies are reduced to historical footnotes.

And what of more modern empires, be they economic or military—the British Commonwealth, America, Russia, China?  Are they truly stable models of order and good government, destined to last forever?

Even science, that bastion of fact-based evidence, can mislead us.  At various times in history, scientific evidence demonstrated conclusively (at least to some) that the world is flat, the earth is at the centre of the solar system, there are canals on Mars, and life as we know it would end on Y2K.  So, who is to say the theories we espouse today are any more reliable—that evolution, not creation, has brought us to our present state; that our very existence is imperilled by global warming; or that the universe we inhabit is endlessly expanding?

The most fundamental question (Who created us?) can be deconstructed into two oppositional queries.  The first:  were we, in fact, created by some supreme power?  And the contrary second:  did we create the notion of a supreme power to help explain our existence?

Worldwide, the answer from untold billions of people to the first of these is Yes!  And, perhaps not so strangely, the answer to the second, from different people, is also Yes!

Truth be told, I have offered up affirmative answers to both queries at various points in my life, believing each at the time.  I have flip-flopped on many occasions.  But even as I answer, more questions form in my mind.

If there is a supreme power (variously portrayed paternalistically in different religions as Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, Krishna, and so many more), why did it create us?  Is there some magnificent purpose behind it all?  Were we put here to love and nurture one another, in a grand homage to our creator?  Or were we created to murder each other, providing a somewhat cruel spectacle for the amusement of our maker?  Was there, perhaps, no purpose at all, just a random experiment quickly forgotten by a supreme power that is, at one and the same time, our initiator and destroyer?

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Conversely, if there is not a supreme power—if, in fact, mankind created that notion to soothe our fears and protect us from our most base instincts, lest we annihilate ourselves—then what?  Are we alone in the universe, left to our own devices?   Are we nothing more than a tiny fluke in the cosmic sea?

Religious folk, theists, profess to both adore and fear their maker, as well they might in their longing for life-eternal, rewarding their faithfulness.  Non-religious folk, atheists, proclaim no god (though some may fear an unknown afterlife).

And those in the middle—the ones too sophisticated to fall for the charade of a supreme power, yet too fearful to deny its existence—what of them?

I do not know the answers to any of these questions.  But I favour the idea that there is a creator, that we and our universe could not have sprung spontaneously from nothing.  That’s not provable, mind you.  It’s faith.

This much, however, I do know to be true.  As I survey the world around me—with its endless stream of callous and fervent punishments inflicted on some of us by others of us, and with the threat of nuclear or environmental destruction looming ever more forbiddingly in our future—I despair.

If there is a supreme power, but one uncaring toward, and indifferent to, our plight, (s)he must be laughing hysterically at our hapless ways.

Equally, if a supreme power exists as a loving and compassionate being, (s)he must look upon us with pity and sorrow.  And weep.

And most frightening of all:  what if there really is…..nothing?

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