wells’ 9th question

Almost at the end of Wells’ list we come to ourselves: 

Q: HUMAN ORIGINS. Why are artists’ drawings of ape-like humans used to justify materialistic claims that we are just animals and our existence is a mere accident — when fossil experts cannot even agree on who our supposed ancestors were or what they looked like?

Excuse my cynicism for a moment, but there’s a whole lot of baggage coming to the fore in this one.

The reason I said that is because this question makes Wells’ philosophical position quite clear. I’ll come back to what he means by ‘materialism’ in a minute, but let’s deal with the straight human evolution side of it first.

Most of you are probably fairly familiar by now with diagrams of the various species placed in our own family tree – Neandertals and Homo erectus; australopiths; perhaps Sahelanthropus. The drawings, and their placement in the tree, help to illustrate our general understandng of humanity’s evolutionary history. The nature of that history may well become more complex, as new fossils are discovered or new molecular analyses are performed – but its general form is pretty well understood. There will always be ‘lumpers’ & ‘splitters’ – those who group fossil remains into a few broad categories & those who place each new find into its own taxon – but nevertheless all palaeoanthropologists working in this field agree on the general shape and form of our family tree.

Wells complains that experts cannot even agree on who our supposed ancestors were or what they looked like. No, they can’t agree on exactly who our ancestors were – but they can make some well-informed hypotheses in that area. For example, that the genus Homo most likely arose from a gracile australopith lineage: maybe afarensis, maybe australis… And as more and more data become available, they’ll be able to test and refine those hypotheses about relationships. That’s how science works. As for the claim that we can’t agree on what they looked like: not correct. Modern forensic and anatomical techniques allow us to reconstruct the general appearance of many of those early hominins.

Wells has a problem with the scientific view that humans are part of the animal kingdom and that these drawings justify ‘materialistic claims’ about our origins. What does he mean by materialism?

Philosophers of science often talk about ‘methodological (or scientific) naturalism’: the assumption that any explanations we generate for observations/data are really only useful when they attribute those observations to natural causes. In other words, what what’s described as the scientific method is the only way we have to effectively investigate reality. This is distinct from ‘metaphysical naturalism’ – the idea that the natural world is all that exists. (Wikipedia offers a good starting point if you want to find out more about this – and remember, I said ‘starting point’! Remember what I said about using google.) But Wells is conflating the two, and inaccurately implies that science sees human origins as due to a ‘mere accident’. This makes it clear that he would prefer something akin to Paley’s natural philosophy, which permits supernatural explanations for explanations – in other words, ‘intelligent design’.  

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