The Descent of Man?

The Descent of Man?

Author: © Paul Carline, Newhall, U.K.
Subject: Paleontology
Date: 03/04/1999

A recent BBC radio programme on evolution and human origins questioned the conventional view that the species homo is the latest offshoot of the primate line – in effect, as Darwin himself believed, descended from the ancestors of present-day apes. There is apparently some reason to believe that man’s closest relatives, the chimpanzees, may be the later arrival, having descended from ancestors of today’s humans, rather than the reverse.

As interesting as this speculation is, it does not significantly rock the boat of what is known as the neo-Darwinian synthesis, the currently dominant scientific genesis myth. It merely rearranges the order of emergence of primate species in the Darwinian tree of life, while leaving unchanged the basic assumption that all the variety, beauty and complexity of Nature have evolved by fundamentally random mechanisms following simple laws of biology (themselves reducible to physics and chemistry) in the process known as ‘natural selection’ – that, in the words of one leading evolutionist, George Gaylord Simpson, “…all the objective phenomena of the history of life can be explained by purely naturalistic, or, in a proper sense of the sometimes abused word, materialistic factors….. Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” (The Meaning of Evolution, 1967).

Charles Darwin, whose ‘Origin of Species’ was published 140 years ago this year, accurately foretold the impact of his ideas in a note written in 1838. ‘My theory’, he wrote, would ‘revolutionize the study of instincts, heredity and mind’ and transform ‘the whole of metaphysics’.

In the view of life developed by Darwinists, in particular this century, man’s presence on the planet is wholly accidental and therefore meaningless and directionless. There is no purpose to existence and no ‘other-worldly’ reality of any kind. ‘Soul’ and ‘spirit’ are merely labels denoting epiphenomena of an entirely brain-bound consciousness. There is no life beyond physical death. All such beliefs are mere self-delusions arising from the fear of personal extinction or from religious indoctrination.

Propagandists of this bleak philosophy, such as the author of The Selfish Gene and other books (including the recent Unweaving the Rainbow), Richard Dawkins, like to wrap their opinions in the imposing cloak of Science, claiming the objectivity they deny to adherents of any religious belief. Confident in the mystique and the social status of the scientific establishment, they brush aside objections of any kind, whether these concern the absence of convincing fossil sequences, the sociological origins of Darwinism, the failure to show that random genetic mutations can account for large-scale changes in form or function, or the clearly metaphysical nature of their own assumptions.

On the latter score, one of their leading spokesmen, Harvard professor of genetics Richard Lewontin, recently made a surprising admission. In an article which appeared in the 9.1.97 issue of the prestigious New York Review of Books, Lewontin made the following statement:

“We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated ‘Just So’ stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Among those Lewontin charges with having misled the public with their ‘unsubstantiated ‘Just So’ stories’ is Britain’s Richard Dawkins, who, if Lewontin is correct, is the somewhat inappropriate and undeserved incumbent of an Oxford chair in the Public Education in Science. Lewontin writes: “As to assertions without adequate evidence, the literature of science is filled with them, especially the literature of popular science writing. Carl Sagan’s list of the “best contemporary science-popularizers” includes E.O.Wilson, Lewis Thomas and Richard Dawkins, “each of whom has put unsubstantiated assertions or counterfactual claims at the very centre of the stories they have retailed in the market. Wilson’s Sociobiology and On Human Nature rest on the surface of a quaking marsh of unsupported claims about the genetic determination of everything from altruism to xenophobia.” On the other hand, as a good Marxist, Lewontin refrains from criticising Dawkins’ blatant propagandizing for atheism. As Maynard Smith said of the American Stephen Jay Gould, considered a renegade and a ‘loose cannon’ by the fundamentalist wing of neo-Darwinism: “We must not criticize him too much, because he is at least on our side against the creationists.”

If, as it seems, there is good reason for doubting the objectivity and impartiality of the so-called experts in this field (as in many others!), where can we turn for enlightenment? I suggest we look at the facts. Despite the confident pronouncements of leading biologists and geneticists, Darwinism is not established fact. It remains a theory and a particularly poorly supported one at that. The theory can be, and is being, challenged on many levels. Excellent wide-ranging critiques are contained in books by authors such as Phillip Johnson ( Darwin on Trial’), Michael Denton (‘Evolution: A Theory in Crisis’) and Michael Behe (‘Darwin’s Black Box’). In this article I want to focus on some very peculiar facts from animal and human embryology, which suggest a startlingly different version of the story of evolution.

Much is now made of the very close similarity between the DNA of humans and chimpanzees: there is apparently a more than 98% identity in the DNA sequences of both. This clearly implies a close evolutionary relationship, but the nature of that relationship is not so obvious. If less than 2% of DNA can account for the enormous structural, functional, behavioural and psychic differences between humans and chimps, then we might reasonably conclude that DNA is a lot less significant than some would have us believe.

In passing, mention should be made of the remarkable and, I suspect, more than coincidental, similarity in the relative proportions of human to chimp DNA and in that of ‘structural’ DNA to so-called ‘junk’ DNA in humans – also reckoned to be only around 2% of the total. The 98% of ‘junk’ DNA appears to be superfluous, the presumed product of a woefully inefficient process of natural selection. The judgement of Nature as blind, stupid and wasteful, which Darwin and modern genetic engineers share, has had and continues to have disastrous consequences, which I cannot address here, but which are all too obvious.

Leaving aside the most obvious differences between ourselves and chimpanzees – human speech and rationality and the whole realm of artistic and symbolic behaviour (which might perhaps have something to do with all that ‘junk’ DNA?) – there are some striking differences in structure and form which I would like to consider. These were described by Sir Gavin de Beer (1899-1972), professor of embryology in London and later director for ten years of the Natural History Museum. In 1930, de Beer published a book entitled ‘Embryology and Evolution’, republished in 1940 in expanded form under the title ‘Embryos and Ancestors’. A revised second edition appeared in 1951, a third edition in 1958. All my references come from this third edition, published by Oxford University Press.

Gavin de Beer was an acknowledged expert on embryology and a confirmed Darwinian. In the Preface to the third edition, he wrote that it was “a particularly appropriate time [approaching the centenary of the publication of the Origin of Species] for a critical appraisement of the relations between embryology and evolution.” However, having reviewed the facts he had first presented nearly thirty years before and having also considered a great deal of new evidence.. [which had] become available…..during the intervening years [especially between 1951 and 1958], [he had] seen no reason to alter the plan of [his] former book in the slightest degree.” Indeed, “… these fresh data have fitted into place in my scheme like pieces of a puzzle…”

It is therefore somewhat surprising to find de Beer subsequently admitting (in his Conclusion) that: “Evolution therefore does not explain embryology.” (p.173) Can this mean anything other than that the facts he presents simply do not fit within the Darwinian paradigm; that they – and therefore his ‘scheme’ – do not actually make sense within that paradigm? Is it perhaps the case that the pieces of the puzzle, which in the confident language of his Preface de Beer would have us believe fit together to make a consistent picture, in fact do nothing of the kind – as if the jigsaw pieces within the box with the Darwinian picture on the lid cannot be made to fit the prescribed picture? Is it even possible that the facts actually falsify the paradigm; that the pieces of the puzzle fit together to make a very different picture, one which clearly contradicts Darwinism? I believe this to be the case.

In this article I intend to focus on those facts relating to human embryology and development which de Beer listed in Chapter VIII of ‘Embryos and Ancestors’ devoted to the phenomenon of ‘Neoteny’, in the section dealing with the evolution of man.

De Beer defines neoteny as the phenomenon “… in which the adult form of an animal bears features by which it resembles the young form of its ancestors, or, to put it the other way, in which the young features of the ancestor have been retained in the adult stage of the descendant.” (de Beer, op. cit., p.63). Such characters which are present or make their appearance in the young stage of an ancestral animal are referred to as neanic characters: “evolutionary novelties… which first appeared in the early stages of ontogeny.” (de Beer, op. cit., p.35).

“Interpreting these cases in terms of heterochrony, they imply a relative retardation in the rate of development of the body (soma) as compared with the reproductive glands (germen), so that in respect of certain characters the body does not undergo as much development in the ontogeny of the descendant as it did in that of the ancestor.” (p.63). (‘Heterochrony’ is simply defined as “the alteration and reversal of the sequence of stages” in ontogeny. op. cit. p.8).

Summarising thus far in relation to human development, de Beer is stating that humans, and in particular adult humans, exhibit features which resemble those of the young form (embryonic or neonatal) of the presumed ancestors, but which differ from the known or presumed characters of the adult form of those presumed ancestors, as they also differ from the adult forms of the descendants of the presumed common ancestors of man and his closest relatives, the apes.

Since the presumed ancestors of Man, according to Darwinian theory, were ape-like (or certainly much more ape-like than human – Darwin himself proposing in The Descent of Man that :”The early progenitors of man must have been once covered with hair, both sexes having beards; and their bodies were provided with a tail… the foot was then prehensile… and [they] were, no doubt, arboreal in their habits… The male had great canine teeth…”), there is a need to explain why the normal adult features in the ape-like ancestors no longer develop in present-day humans and also, more curiously, what the origin of the characteristically human, ‘neotenous’ features is and why these (exclusively human) features should also appear in the embryos and early stages of neonatal development of present-day anthropoid and other apes and other mammals and in the fossil remains of some presumed human ancestors.

It should be noted here that the terms ‘neoteny’, heterochrony’, ‘neanic’ etc are merely labels and in themselves offer no explanation of the facts, as de Beer acknowledged in his concluding chapter: “It goes without saying that even if the views set forth here are correct, they do not provide an ‘explanation’ of evolution, for there remains the problem of how and why novelties arise, and why they show heterochrony in those cases in which they do.” (de Beer, op. cit., p.71).

De Beer adduces little evidence from the fossil record – presumably because there is very little such evidence. Instead, he compares the adult human form to the embryonic and young forms of present-day anthropoid apes and other mammals on the assumption – deriving logically from Darwinian theory – that the features appearing in present-day primates can safely be extrapolated back through time at the very least up to, and most probably far beyond, the point at which the human line is supposed to have diverged from the ancestral primate line.

Thus de Beer states that “… many of the features of the adult structure of man show resemblances to those of the embryonic structure of the anthropoid apes.” These features include:

: the relatively high brain weight

: the position of the foramen magnum

: the cranial flexure

: the retarded closure of the sutures between the bones of the skull

: the dentition

: the flatness of the face (orthognathy)

: the position of the vagina

: the light colour of the skin

: ‘a number of other features’ including: the big toe; the absence of large brow-ridges; the rounded head-shape.

1.The relatively high brain weight

“The new-born chimpanzee resembles man more closely than does the adult chimpanzee in respect of the relative preponderance of the different lobes of the cerebral hemispheres.” (op. cit., p.71)

  1. The foramen magnum

“The position of the foramen magnum (the hole in the skull through which the spinal cord enters) resembles that which is found in the embryos of apes.” [my emphasis]

  1. The cranial flexure

“The axis passing through the front and back of the head forms a right angle with that of the trunk in the embryo of all mammals (and of nearly all vertebrates). This bend is known as the cranial flexure.

Whereas in mammals other than man the axis of the head is rotated during later development so that the animal’s head points in a direction which is a continuation of the line of its backbone, in man the cranial flexure is retained, so that the head points in a direction at right angles to the axis of his body.

The foetal condition… is retained unchanged in adult man. Since the direction in which man’s head points, i.e. his line of sight, is horizontal, the position of the body will be vertical; and so man’s erect attitude is associated with the retention during ontogeny of a condition which in other mammals is embryonic and temporary, as it must have been in man’s ancestors. [My emphasis]

The erect posture of man is ….a consequence of neoteny of the shape of the head.” (p.70)

  1. Retarded closure of the sutures of the skull

“The sutures between the bones of the human skull do not close until the age of nearly thirty years. In apes and other mammals these sutures close much sooner after birth. When that has happened, the brain cannot increase in size. The human skull, on the other hand, can increase in size for a very long time after birth, and this enables it to provide accommodation for the large volume of the human brain.”

  1. The flatness of the face

“The retention of the embryonic condition also accounts for the flatness of the human face, as compared with the elongated muzzle which is found in other mammals.” (Young mammals retain this ‘human’ flatness for a while after birth).

  1. The position of the vagina: pubic flexure

“The retention of the cranial flexure in adult man is paralleled by his [surely rather her!] retention of what may be called the “pubic flexure”.

In the hind region of the body in embryos of all mammals including man, the orientation of the urogenital sinus and rectum is such that the axis of these structures is directed ventrally.

In mammals other than man, this condition is changed in the adult by a rotation of these structures, which come to lie parallel with the backbone, with the result that the aperture of the vagina is directed backwards.

In adult man, on the other hand, the embryonic orientation of these structures is retained, with the result that the aperture of the vagina is directed ventrally.

The human mode of copulation is therefore associated with the neotenous condition of the pubic region of the body.” [My emphases]

  1. The light colour of the skin

“Apes when newborn have very much lighter skins than adults; additional pigment becomes deposited during later development…. In this respect the white races are neotenous, for they retain the embryonic condition.”

  1. The big toe

“Man’s big toe provides another example of neoteny, for there is reason to believe that the foot in the ancestor of man had a big toe, which, as in the lower primates, was capable of opposition. This feature has been retained and perfected in the great apes, but lost in man, whose foot is particularly adapted for walking erect on firm ground. This loss of power of opposability in man, is, however, an example of neoteny, for his foot retains throughout life the simple condition of the toes found in early foetal apes, where it is only transient.”

(It may be remarked in passing that de Beer presents no evidence to support his contention that man’s supposed ancestor had an opposable big toe, nor has any other writer to my knowledge. The assumption of this and many other features is simply dictated by the theory. It is assumed a priori that the theory is true: given this, certain facts must have been so, whether there is evidence for them or not.)

  1. Absence of large brow-ridges

“Another interesting feature is the absence of large brow-ridges (such as characterize the skulls of adult apes, Australopithecines, Pithecanthropus, and Neanderthal man) in adult man and in foetal apes. These brow-ridges are subsequent developments in the apes… Man is neotenous in not having developed them…”

  1. The rounded head-shape

“A particularly instructive example is provided by the shape of the head in mammalian embryos. These have round, bulging foreheads and short jaws, but they rapidly elongate and give rise to the long snout and flat head characteristic of such animals as the rabbit and the wolf.” (p.43)

As noted above, merely to label these facts ‘neotenous’, ‘heterochronic’ or ‘caenogenetic’ (cf.below) contributes nothing to an understanding of them. De Beer suggests, as mentioned already, that the failure of humans to develop the ‘normal’ adult features seen in all other primates is due to a process of ‘retardation’ of somatic development as against reproductive development. He sidesteps the enormous difficulty of accounting for this astonishing and mysterious feature (even assuming his analysis of the asynchronous development of soma and germ to be correct) in a single sentence with the bald statement that it is “due to the action of hormones” (op. cit., p.75), without even attempting any explanation in evolutionary terms, though he acknowledges that features such as the late closure of the sutures of the skull were absolutely crucial to making possible the further evolutionary development of humans.

De Beer failed to deal at all with the far more puzzling appearance of uniquely human characters in the embryos of present-day apes and other mammals. Or, rather, he deals with the problem only by making assertions which have no empirical basis but which derive only from the theory: that theory which has become “the central dogma” of biology. Thus, referring to the characteristically human roundness of the head in mammalian embryos, he simply asserts: “… such an embryonic condition could not possibly represent any ancestral adult condition” and states dogmatically that the shape of the head in the embryonic and young dog “has no phylogenetic significance and is purely caenogenetic” (‘caenogenesis’ being defined as the re-appearance of youthful characters from the ancestor in the young stage of the descendant), though again it is difficult to see what has been explained by the use of this term. It should of course be remembered that a major aim of de Beer’s book was to debunk Haeckel’s theory of recapitulation (that individual development or ontogeny is an abbreviated version of the history of the whole race or line – the phylogeny).

As noted above, with regard to the phenomenon of cranial flexure, de Beer simply asserts that this feature is “embryonic and temporary, as it must have been in man’s ancestors.” [My emphasis]

There is a real problem here for Darwinian evolutionary theory. Nothing in that theory can explain the appearance in the embryonic and neonatal stages of development of present-day mammals, and in particular of primates, of specifically and uniquely human features which could not have been a part of non-human evolution, at least in the orthodox version of neo-Darwinism. To claim, as de Beer did, that the human forms which are retained throughout life – the erect posture; the shape of the face and head; the forward-facing position of the vagina which invites the uniquely human face-to-face meeting of a couple in the act of love-making (a meeting which is much more than a mere mating) – resemble the features found in the early stages of many other animals and to imply – for no other reason than that this is what Darwin’s theory of evolution requires – that this is all due to some putative developmental flaw in humans (human development supposedly at first mimicking animal embryonic development and then inexplicably failing to develop the expected adult forms) is both to fail to see the essential problem and to approach the fact of resemblance from entirely the wrong direction.

To repeat, the essential problem is to explain what those specifically human features are doing in animal embryology in the first place. It is surely preposterous to suggest that species which have apparently shared no common line of development with humans for several million years should have independently evolved characters identical to important defining human ones, but kept them only for their embryonic stage before ‘reverting to type’. What possible adaptive advantage could this strange development impart? For what possible reason would natural selection have selected and retained embryonic characters which were of no imaginable use to the adult animal?

Like the majority of neo-Darwinian evolutionists whose thinking is fixed in dogmatic tramlines, who view the world through Darwinian-tinted distorting lenses, de Beer could not see that he was asking the wrong questions and refusing to acknowledge what was in fact staring him – and all Darwinians – in the face. No doubt he too, like Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould, had reached that point “after which one no longer entertains the possibility of encountering some fact that would call the whole theory into question.”

Gould is referring here to the theory of natural selection, which is for him “.. so elegant and powerful as to inspire a kind of faith in it – not blind faith, really… but faith, nonetheless.” (Gould, “Evolution:The Pleasures of Pluralism”, New York Review of Books, June 1997). I find Gould’s use of the word ‘really’ most interesting: is he not admitting that his faith is blind?

Had he not been blinded by his faith in Darwinism, which led him to look at human development in terms of animal development, de Beer might have turned his question around and asked why those features appearing in the animals at a significant stage of their development were the same as the characteristically human ones. It might then have become apparent – even blindingly obvious – that the human characters represent a kind of archetype or ideal form which the animals briefly manifest before ‘falling’ into specialization, into the relative rigidity of form from which there is no evolutionary escape, while the largely unspecialized human being uniquely retains the ability to continue to grow and evolve.

Of course, this is to turn Darwinism upside down. It is in fact to propose that the human form is in a real but mysterious sense archetypal and therefore anterior to all other mammals and probably to all animals. It is to suggest that all the animals have in fact descended from a human ancestor i.e. that the presumed, but so far undiscovered and probably undiscoverable ‘common ancestor’ was human rather than animal (though not fossil human). It is to acknowledge that the facts appear to confirm the ancient belief: “Man is the Measure of All Things”. This may appear surprising to many, but I am convinced that no other interpretation is possible and in fact I challenge any Darwinian to offer a detailed and convincing explanation in terms of the current theory.

Darwin’s contemporary and the main promoter of his theory, Thomas Henry Huxley, who became known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, once offered some very good advice. He wrote:” Sit down before a fact as a little child; be prepared to give up every preconceived idea; follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.” Gavin de Beer seems to have agreed with Huxley, though, unfortunately, he did not follow Huxley’s or his own advice. In his Preface he wrote: “The first necessity in biology will always be further observation and experiment; but … progress in thought is necessary as well. Outworn theories are not only dull in themselves, but they are actually harmful in thwarting the framing of new hypotheses…”

I believe Darwinism to be such an outworn theory and one which has for too long prevented the framing of a new hypothesis of human and animal origins and of genesis altogether. Or, to be more precise, I should perhaps say: aspects of Darwinism – the aspects which want to reduce all the variety, beauty and complexity of the natural world to the accidental, mechanical workings of the laws of physics, chemistry and the hypothesized force of natural selection; which want to deny the transcendental and relegate consciousness, soul and spirit to the status of mere epiphenomena of the brain; which want to demote human beings from their fully factual position at the epicentre of the known world (which confers upon us both a potential grandeur and the awesome responsibility of being co-creators) and relegate us to a marginal, peripheral, accidental and insignificant side-branch on the tree of life.

But equally, there are aspects of evolution theory which I want to retain: the idea of evolution itself (which predated Darwin by at least a century) and the reality of the existence of a common ancestor linking humans and all other living things. So there is no question of a return to a literal fundamentalist creationism (though the Genesis story of creation is full of deep wisdom and is not at all irreconcilable with scientific fact!). The facts of embryology clearly reveal the truths of evolution as a process and common ancestorship; but they just as clearly reveal that the common ancestor is Man: not any fossil human, but the spiritual archetype known to esotericism as Adam Kadmon or Cosmos Anthropos.

About Paul Carline:

Paul Carline, born near Manchester, England in November 1944. Studied modern languages (German and Russian) at Manchester University and latertook a teaching qualification at Cambridge University.

Brought up as a Catholic, but not observant after about my eighteenth year. I remember being very interested in fossils at secondary school and collected some trilobites on a field trip. At university I remember debating the existence of God and human origins with atheistic friends.

Have done many different things in my life, including bringing up five children. Most recently started and ran for 8 years a kite store in Edinburgh.

Got seriously interested in evolution theory about 20 years ago and tried to keep up with developments, especially reading articles and books critical of Darwinism. My long-term interest was stimulated by coming across Phil Johnson’s work, which encouraged me to take my ideas into the public arena. I have written a few articles and given some talks and more are planned.

A year or so ago I came across the book by Sir Gavin de Beer in a second-hand sale and immediately realised that it contained the information I had been looking for – incontrovertible proof, in my view, that the current scientific creation/genesis myth based on Darwinism, and especially the assumption of an animal origin for humans, was wrong and that the facts clearly indicate the reality of a spiritual/physical archetype from which all other forms have ‘descended’.

I’m now trying to develop this idea into a consistent, logical alternative to materialistic/mechanistic evolution theory – a much-needed new paradigm for the new millenium.

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