I frequently see the claim made in news media coverage of science: that humans have been around for a couple of million years. They talk about the latest anthropological discovery in terms of “early humans” and “our ancestors” in times periods from hundreds of thousands of years ago up to one or two million years. Some examples follow:
An extinct species of tool-making humans apparently occupied a vast area in China as early as 1.7 million years ago, researchers say. (Life Science)
“This was a place where was big competition between carnivores and hominins [ancient humans]. It seems that they were fighting for the carcasses, and unfortunately for the hominins, but fortunately for us, they were not always successful,” Professor Lordkipanidze said. (The Independent)
An Oxford University study has concluded that our ancient ancestors who lived in East Africa between 2.4 million-1.4 million years ago mainly ate tiger nuts (grass bulbs) supplemented with the odd grasshopper and worm. (Science Daily)
These claims are not scientifically accurate. Every human being on earth today is a member of the group called “behaviorally-modern humans”; the genus, species, and subspecies is termed: homo sapiens sapiens. Anthropologists believe that behaviorally-modern humans began only about 50 to 70 ka (thousand years ago). Before that time, modern man did not exist. So our particular species and subspecies has only been around for tens of thousands of years. That is not my own opinion. It is the prevailing view among scientists who specialize in this field.
Anthropologists believe that behaviorally-modern humans (BMH) arose from an earlier group: anatomically-modern humans (AMH). The AMH have bodies that are anatomically very similar to the BMH. The distinction is that behaviorally-modern humans have the ability to reason abstractly, and anatomically-modern humans do not.
The current theory is that anatomically-modern humans began about 200 ka. No human person or ethnic group today is a member of the AMH; the whole human race is comprised only of behaviorally-modern humans (BMH). We all have an inherent ability to think abstractly.
Prior to the AMHs, our distant ancestors are called “hominins”; they are of the genus homo, but not the species sapiens. These hominins not anatomically distinct from the AMH; they do not closely resemble modern man in body. And the more ancient the hominin species is, the less they look like humans and the more they look like non-human primates.
In the first quote above, the species in question is called “tool-making humans”. But it refers to hominins 1.7 million years ago — long before anatomically-modern humans and behaviorally-modern humans. Those creatures were more ape than man.
The second quote above uses the correct scientific term “hominins”, but then the journalist or editor added “ancient humans” in brackets. That phrasing is not correct. Hominins are not considered to be humans by anthropologists; they are not homo sapiens,
As for the third quote, the hominins are, in some sense our ancient ancestors. But again the distinction between homo sapiens and non-human primate predecessors is lost.
My position on evolution is that most of the theory of evolution is correct. But a faithful Christian must also hold that God intervened to deliberately create the human race; it was not an accident of an unthinking evolutionary process. And evolution exceeds the limits of its field when it assumes that God could not have been involved, by providence or miraculous intervention, as Creation unfolded on earth.
The behaviorally-modern humans have the ability to reason abstractly; this distinguishes them from anatomically-modern humans. In my opinion, the ability to reason abstractly implies free will. For reason is not self-guided; it needs the choice of the will to drive the search for understanding. Then reason and free will imply an immortal soul.
I conclude, therefore, that human persons have been in the world for only about 50 to 70 thousand years. The anatomically-modern humans were essentially just the highest form of primate; they were not “persons” in the theological sense of the word.
I’m currently working on a book that attempts to reconcile evolution (with some modifications) and the story of Adam and Eve. It is a book about the intersection between faith and science. I don’t take a Creationist point of view. Nor do I consider the first 11 chapters of Genesis to be entirely figurative. I hold that some elements of the Adam and Eve story were literal, and other elements were figurative. And I accept the immense antiquity of the earth and the universe, while still holding that God created heaven and earth.
More on this topic in later posts.