The other day I had a phone conversation with someone about my atheism. But instead of attacking my thoughts on whether there is a god or not, this person attacked my so-called “belief” in evolution, as if it were a faith like any other.
Now, the truth of evolution is separate from the truth of whether god exists and which one it is. Atheism is a statement about religion, evolution is a scientific theory of the diversity of life on earth and species change over time.
But to this person, being an atheist meant I “believed” in evolution, even though he had several problems with the theory.
Humans are special and need a designer
His biggest argument was that there wasn’t enough time. Humans were too majestic and too complex to have evolved over several billions of years from the first primordial life on earth. Instead, he argued, some kind of intelligent designer must have come along to separate us from the apes, kittens and all those lower forms of life. His intelligent designer was aliens who he said changed chimpanzees into humans, but I’m not going to go into that.
But where to begin in all of this incorrect information, arrogant assumptions and other errors?
The origins of humanity
First things first. We did not evolve from chimpanzees. A chimpanzee did not pick up a banana one day and decide to be a human and start hunting and gathering, making clothes and building a civilization.
Apes, including chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and humans share a common ancestor. Our lineage branched off millions of years ago from the lineages that would evolve into chimpanzees and other apes. Our ancestors were no chimpanzees, they were other hominids such as Australopithecus, which evolved into homo habilis, then homo erectus, and about a quarter of a million years ago humans finally diverged.
While all these hominid species were apes (just like we are apes), note that none of them were chimpanzees. If you want to see a crazy sci-fi movie where chimps learn to talk and become human-like, go watch War for the Planet of the Apes. Which is total fiction, just like the idea that a chimp picked up a banana one day had a brain fart and became a human.
Humanity isn’t special
The Australopithecus genus first evolved over 4 million years ago. According to the California Academy of Sciences, fossil records show that these human ancestors were using tools as far back as 3.4 million years ago.
Humans aren’t the only species that use tools or modify their environment. Beavers make dams not only as homes but to modify the streams and rivers control their environment. Birds not only make nests, they will germinate seeds in order to more easily digest them, similar to how dogs will bury bones and meat to ferment it and make it more digestible.
Nor are we the only intelligent species. Obviously, other apes such as bonobos and chimpanzees have complex social structures, have advanced child- rearing skills, use tools, etc. But dolphins are also incredibly intelligent and social creatures.
Raccoons share our dexterity, with deft hands that allow them to get into trash cans and manipulate their environment. But dolphins and raccoons lack the complementary traits for their skills. Dolphins may have an ape-or-even human-like intelligence, but since they have flippers, they will never be able to do anything with it. Raccoons have the ability to manually impact their environment, but they lack the intelligence to do more than basic problem-solving.
Luckily for humanity, we had the happy accident of having both. We had huge brains that allowed us to think, and to communicate. And we had the tools, such as opposable thumbs to leave a mark on our environment such as building structures and eventually leave a written record.
But other ape species don’t build skyscrapers. We’re the only species to have gone to the moon. We’re too special to have evolved this intelligence on our own so quickly.
Well, let’s take a step back. Our ancestors were using tools 3.4 million years ago. 3.1 million years later, humans had evolved and we hadn’t really progressed passed that.
It took more than 240,000 years for humans to start domesticating animals. A few thousand more for people to figure out they could collect seeds and plant them to make farms. It would take another 4,500 years before people figured out how to write things down, and that’s where things really exploded, as knowledge could now be passed on much more reliably.
After 4,000 years of thinking and writing things down such as philosophies, laws, literature, Rome emerged, the height of civilization in Western Europe at the time. The next big invention was the printing press, which didn’t emerge in Europe until 1440. Steam power came along in the 1800s, with computers showing up in the 1940s.
But for more than 95 percent of human history, we weren’t much more talented than our chimpanzee and gorilla cousins (who can be taught language such as sign language and can paint and draw like our cave ancestors did). When you put all of this into perspective, how unique and special are we really?