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Featuring guest Rick Potts

Rick Potts | A Long Becoming

Dr. Potts tells Jim stories of excavations in China and southern Kenya and of people encountering the exhibit on Human Origins around the US.


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Dr. Potts tells Jim stories of excavations in China and southern Kenya and of people encountering the exhibit on Human Origins around the US.

Description

A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.
  • Originally aired on May 30, 2019
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

Dear reader,

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Although voices on both sides are loud and extreme, we are breaking through. But as a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of donors like you to continue this challenging work. Your tax deductible gift today will help us continue to counter the polarizing narratives of today with a message that is informed, hopeful, and faithful.

Rick Potts has always had an interest in origins. As a kid, exploring the origins of musical instruments and the solar system fascinated him. In high school he stumbled upon the study of human origins; he has not stopped investigating since. Dr. Potts tells Jim stories of excavations in China and southern Kenya and of people encountering the exhibit on Human Origins around the US. Reverberating throughout their conversation is the question, ‘What does it mean to be human?’

Buy the companion book on the Smithsonian’s human origins exhibit, coauthored by Rick Potts, here.

Find out more about the Hall of Human Origins on the Smithsonian website.

This episode of Language of God was hosted by Jim Stump and produced by Colin Hoogerwerf. Additional help from Nate Mulder.


Transcript

Potts:

It became very apparent to people right away that the matter of human origins was not a matter of science versus religion, but rather that there is a whole spectrum of religious and philosophical perspectives in relation to the science. And one of the things that really came out very strongly to me is that when someone says that, “I’m a Christian,” “I’m Muslim,” “I’m Jewish,” “I’m an atheist,” they do not necessarily mean the same thing to one another within those groups and that there are a whole variety of stances and possibilities of relating to the subject, the narrative of origin, of our origin. 

My name is Rick Potts and I’m the Curator of Biological Anthropology but also the Director of the Human Origins Program at the National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian in Washington DC.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump. 

Last fall, my producer, Colin, and I, arranged to meet Rick Potts, our guest for this episode, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in the lobby near the giant stone figure from Easter Island. Rick found us as promised and took Colin and me up the back stairs that are off limits to the public, to his office. We passed through cramped hallways, where stacks of drawers held objects we could only wonder about. We stopped and greeted other museum employees, as Rick introduced us. I remember feeling a little surprised that everyone there seemed perfectly normal, when their jobs seemed so far removed from what I thought was the normal world. They inhabit this amazing space at the museum, and are transported in their work to times long gone.

At one point in his office, Rick handed us an object that to the untrained eye just looked like a stone. He said, “this is the oldest human artifact in the museum.” He was using the word “human” in the broader sense that has become common in scientific writing to include all of the species classified under the genus Homo. The stone was actually an Oldowan chopper that is two million years old. Our ancestors could strike it onto another rock and produce sharp-edged flakes that were useful for cutting. It was a kind of existential moment to be connected to our ancient ancestors in that way, holding in my hand a piece of their technology, which contributed significantly to the kinds of lives they led, and ultimately to the kind of people we are.

In this episode, Rick tells us about other fascinating discoveries from the many digs he has been on. He also tells us about taking a collection of artifacts and fossils from the Hall of Human Origins out to small town libraries across America. He has some wise words for us about interacting with people who believe differently from us, and about the role of faith.

I should also say that this is the last episode of season one; but we’ve already started working on season two, and those episodes will be available at the end of the summer.

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview

Stump:

So, how did you get interested in paleoanthropology, and what were some of the important points along the way in your career?

Potts:

Right, right. Well, it’s been a trajectory that seems to go back a long, long way. I first became aware of the idea of studying human origins scientifically when I was in junior high school. And then in high school I really caught fire to the subject. I always had an interest in the origin of things. I love music. I’m a singer and I used to always appreciate understanding about the origin of musical instruments, the origins of the solar system, the—anything. And when I found out that you could also study the origin of ourselves, I was hooked.

Stump:

What do you remember growing up about science? What was it that—so you said there was somethin, you were interested in origin stories of other kinds of things. What was it that really made you say, “Oh, I can ask these kinds of questions?”

Potts:

Yeah, it was my older brother. It’s a pretty easy answer. Five and a half years older. And he must have really wanted a brother when I was born because we bonded and we’ve been bonded ever since, in a wonderful way, a very loving way. And I would always want to, when I was a kid, want to go out and throw the football around or the baseball and he would say, “yeah, yeah. Okay. But first, let me tell you what I learned,” about some aspect of science, whether it was the human body, he was putting together a model of the body or the origin of the planets. And sometimes he would talk about evolution of life on earth. And that really got me hooked. I was a pretty good student because I knew I could go outside and play with him afterwards.

And so ever since then, I’ve been interested in paleoanthropology, the scientific field of human origins. And studied hard and made my way through college at Temple University and Graduate School for my PhD work at Harvard.

My first job teaching was at Yale University. I was there for four years. And then the opportunity to come to the Smithsonian and for the first time develop a program of research and public outreach on the study of human evolution became available. And I was really lucky and got the job. And so I founded the Human Origins Program and have been working in East Africa conducting excavations, also excavations in China, in China for the past 20 years, but in East Africa for the past, gee, this is the 35th year. And so longterm scientific persistence, dedication of trying to put together the record of the ways in which early humans interacted with their environment over a long period of time. We’ve been based mainly in southern Kenya and our excavations there have produced some really cool discoveries which we’ve published over the past year.

Stump:

What was your first dig? 

Potts:

My first dig. Yeah

Stump:

When did that happen and what was it like? What did you…

Potts:

Yeah, the end of my first year of graduate school. I never went on any digs as a kid or as a high school student or even when I was at Temple University as an undergraduate. But the end of my first year of graduate studies, I went to France. Oh, boohoo. Wonderful, fantastic place to dig and went to three different sites there that were quite famous in the realm of a fairly late archeology of early humans, if I may put it that way. Sites that are from about 400,000 years to about 25,000 years ago. And the techniques of excavation were very important to learn there.

Stump:

What’s it like being at one of these dig sites? How many people are around, what’s the daily schedule like? We see scenes in movies occasionally of this kind of thing, but what’s it really like?

Potts:

Well, it’s, um, it’s, it’s blood, sweat and joy. We wake up at around 6:30 in the morning. This is my digs, where I’ve excavated in southern Kenya for several decades and everyone gets together, we have breakfast together and we have three cooks in our camp. So one of the main things about long term field research is you have to keep our really good colleagues coming back and wanting to come back and so feeding people well is important

Stump:

Sharing food seems to be a common human theme.

Potts:

That’s right. That’s right. Indeed. So then we go out on our field vehicles to various places where the geologists may be doing their work. Excavators. I have had teams of up to 30 to 35 local Kenyan excavators, you know, on my field teams, and that has stayed pretty stable over the years. 

When we’re surveying for fossils and stone tools of early humans we’re—we walk long distances. But mainly we excavate, mainly we dig. It’s there that you can gain control over the exact stratigraphic layer, the layer of sediment and the environment in which those early humans were depositing stone tools and bringing back animal bones. And on very rare occasions, a fossil bone of an early human can be found.

Stump:

How many times has that happened over your 30 some years?

Potts:

About less than a dozen, but I would say it’s getting close to 10 at this point. And so we’re always on the lookout for that, but that’s a bit of the treasure hunting aspect of our science and of less concern to me than the hard task of putting together an understanding of how those early humans survived. What kinds of traces of activity and behavior did they lay down? How did they interact with their surroundings? Did they eat plant foods? What kind of plant foods? What kinds of animals, large and small,did they interact with? And especially how were they able to survive changes in environment that we’re able to see in the layer upon layer, going from older, lower in the ground, to younger in time above that? You can see layers and layers of changes when there was a lake there, then the lake was gone, there was a grassy environment, then it was a very wooded environment. And these changes in this tremendously dynamic setting of earth that we live on and that is encapsulated in the Rift Valley of Kenya, represented tremendous survival challenges to our early human ancestors.

So I’ve become especially interested in that aspect of survival and what kinds of emerging behaviors and activities that our early humans and that our ancestors practiced that were beneficial and that allowed survival and thriving. And eventually over the course of a tremendously tortured history of our origins, where there’s been origin of species, but also lots of extinction, that we’re now one species worldwide and highly successful from certainly a standpoint of how many of us there are.

Stump:

What are some of the high points, some of the stories, the fond memories you have, the times that you say this was remarkable, this made it all worthwhile?

Potts:

Many times when we make an interesting and important discovery, I think, oh darn, now we really have a lot of work to do because we have to be extraordinarily careful about everything we do. We always have to be careful, of course, in recording everything. But it means that we can spend in some cases, years of excavating. For example, in our first year working in southern Kenya, we found this bit of a top of a thigh bone of an elephant. I thought, well, let’s dig around. That just had been rolling around on the surface. Let’s dig in the sediments where we can see some other bones sticking out. And we ended up, over a period of, you know, three years, four years, digging up an entire skeleton of an extinct form of elephant, 1 million years old, surrounded by about 2,300 stone tools. And it was a butchery site of an elephant.

And we’ve also uncovered from the same area, we have found the last remaining known evidence of that particular species before it became extinct. And so being able to trace things like that through time, but also define this moment in time, this place of butchery, and to be able to sit down next to the carcass where a million years ago an ancestor or a close cousin of ours, from an evolutionary standpoint, sat and communed with others while undertaking this messy process of the butchery of an elephant. And being able to feed it’s hunger during a time that was very, very dry in a very challenging time in the Rift Valley of southern Kenya.

Another example was last year when we found a fossil jaw of an early human that was really spectacular. I was delayed in Nairobi, in the capital of Kenya, for submitting some papers for publication and I sent my field crew out and for 10 days they were on survey at this field site in south Kenya. And when I arrived they said “there’s this one tooth that looks kind of interesting, you should look at it.” And so I went out the next day and brushed away some of the sediment and saw that it was an early human tooth, and excavated, and what emerged was a part of the jaw, the lower jaw. And it’s really interesting. It comes at a time period that we had studied very well before. We know the date is around 615,000 years old. And to be able to hold in your hand, the lower jaw, the eating part, the chewing part of an early ancestor of ours at that age is just extraordinary. And so we’re doing a lot of studies of it now. 

Stump:

Is that Homo erectus?

Potts:

Well, we don’t know. It’s interesting. We have from an earlier find that we made at this field site, the last clear Homo erectus in Africa dated to about 900,000 years old. It’s a brow ridge and part of the brain case. And we published that in 2004. And our study showed that it is Homo erectus, but after 900,000 years in East Africa at least, the record of early human fossils goes rather mute. They were leaving, these ancestors, their calling cards behind, their stone tools, by the tens of thousands. But they were very good at not becoming fossils. They were not dying in the lowlands. And so we found this other fossil then, some years later, just last year, of the 615,000 years. And it’s right in the time period of the transition from Homo erectus to a species known as Homo heidelbergensis, spread from Europe all the way into Africa and is widely thought to be the common ancestor of the neanderthals, the famed neanderthals of Europe, of Ice Age Europe. But in Africa, the ancestor of ourselves, Homo sapiens. And Homo sapiens has an African origin. All of us bear the genetic signature of our African origin. And so being able to trace back in time how far that origin goes is a really vibrant field in the study of human origins.

[musical interlude]

Stump:

It’s been a pretty remarkable hundred years in this field of Paleoanthropology and the view that we have of our past now as opposed to 100 years ago, even 50 years ago. Right? How do you see that trajectory continuing to unfold? The trajectory of our understanding? What have we learned? What do you expect that we may learn in the near future?

Potts:

And it’s such an interesting question. I would speculate two areas that are especially important. We used to think that the earlier the better, that if you trace the earliest stone tools back to more than two and a half million years now, that’s known from discoveries, or the first standing upright on two legs, which is known to have occurred by 6 million years ago, then you basically had the crux of all things human, that there was this just inevitable unfolding of our human qualities. That is a view that has been, I would say, utterly destroyed by studies that show that, you know, it didn’t take place all at once—the emergence of our human qualities—that you don’t necessarily see that as being inevitable from the earliest stone tool making or from the earliest standing upright on two legs.

And what we’re finding, for example, is that, in east Africa in particular, that there was a time of quite volatile environmental fluctuation and change. And we see during that time that the standard tools that were made over hundreds of thousands of years, these big oval hand-axes, in layer after layer, that then becomes totally disrupted and you have the beginning of human innovation by 320,000 years. New kinds of stone tools. First evidence of projectile weapons, of the production of stone points that things that were hafted onto sticks, I guess, and things that could fly through the air. And you might say the world has never been the same since.

And at the same time, the evidence of the first exchange of valued rock over long distances, what we think of as the first social networks. Well that’s kind of interesting that in a time of great survival challenges that what was of advantage there was to be able to know other groups, longer distances away, and to begin to develop bonds with them that allowed exchanges with them as opposed to just simply competition. And you might think, well, how did they communicate?

Well from the same excavations back as far as 320,000 years ago, we find the earliest pigments, the earliest coloring material. And we often think of color as being the roots of human symbolic communication, a sophistication of being able to symbolize about the world and communicate not only your identity, perhaps by marking your skin, but also as the beginning of people being able to create abstract thinking and to envision people who you cannot see or stones you cannot see, but are still able to be interested in them and to develop relationships with other people at those places. That would have been of tremendous survival value.

And so one of the things that’s really interesting here is that these survival tendencies, of innovation and social networking and symbolic communication, seemed to be part and parcel of what it means to be Homo sapiens, part and parcel of everything that Homo sapiens carries around with us, and that we can see that tracing back to the earliest evidence of our species on earth.

There’s another area though that’s really going to be the growth industry in the study of human origins and that’s genomics, ancient genomics. And that’s a completely new area we did not necessarily foresee 8 or 10 years ago, the mapping of the neanderthal genome and then understanding the comparisons of what the genetic code is like between our lineage and other lineages of our evolutionary cousins. And that’s going to be an area of tremendous fascination.

Stump:

As you look to the future of your profession, there’s only a finite number of fossils in the ground. How close are we to finding all of them? Are we going to run out anytime soon? [laughter]

Potts:

The trajectory is definitely a rising trajectory of fossil finds of bones of our ancestors and so it doesn’t look like we’re going to run out of them. Sometimes I think of the subject of human evolution as a matter of having the novel War and Peace by Tolstoy, an enormous novel, and probably having 10 pages from that novel, that are, you know, ripped out of the book. And that’s what reading from. We’re able to meet certainly some of the major cast of characters in the narrative of human origins. We’re able to maybe see how some of them are related to one another and how they related to the circumstances of the narrative. But there are so many more pages to discover. And every year, all over the earth, and particularly in Africa and in Asia and in Europe where the earliest ancestors of humankind can be found, there is more and more erosion of sediment, which means there are layers of sediment that are being peeled away from those hillsides and gullies. And any time there’s a rain, there’s the opportunity to find more fossils. And there’s no end that’s foreseeable to that process. 

Stump:

You have been in charge of the hall of human origins. When did that begin?

Potts:

So the idea for the exhibit goes back 20 years before we actually got permission to do it. The Smithsonian, the US national museum is a big battleship of a place and it took a long time for everyone’s eyes to point in the same direction, not because of any kind of qualms about presenting the subject of human evolution, although there might have been—bringing human evolution to the US national mall might have presented to some audiences some difficulties and we were very much aware of that. But to my mind that was not a challenge but a tremendous opportunity to begin a conversation with the public about one of the highest bars in the public understanding of science, the subject of our origin, studied from a biological and all the other fields that go into the study of human origins.

And so in 2005, we got permission to go ahead and proceed with our planning. From the outset, I wanted the theme of the exhibit to be a question, not a statement. It was a question: what does it mean to be human? Which of course is one of the most profound and compelling questions a person can ask. And the answer to that question was never going to be that science tells us the answer to that question by itself, but that it was an invitation, and a respectful one, to invite the public to explore, on their own terms, from their own own background, to that question. Informed by religion, philosophy, literature, everyday experience, the arts, books that people read, with all those diverse backgrounds to also look at what the science had to say about the origin of our human qualities, the things that make our species distinct.

And so that was the idea from the outset and it took us five years to get it up onto the exhibit floor here. And that was in 2010. And that was a little more than eight years ago that the exhibit went up and there have been about 40 million visitors to the exhibit. And so that has been a tremendous opportunity for public engagement and enjoyment of the science.

Stump:

Does the exhibit continue to change and be updated with?

Potts:

Yes. Yeah. We were able to raise funds to have an endowment for the exhibit which allows us to upgrade it. It’s a slow process, but we are constantly on the lookout for upgrading and updating the dates of particular objects. 

Stump:

And then more recently you’ve had a traveling exhibit in the hall of Human Origins. Tell us about that. How did that come about to start with?

Potts:

Well, I knew that our exhibit hall would draw lots and lots of people here at the Smithsonian. Washington and the museums here certainly are a destination for people from around the world, but it struck me as being incomplete to just rely upon the people who wanted to enter into a natural history museum and to either on purpose or accidentally happen into the hall of human origins. And so I thought it was important to, as I put it, to take the exhibit and the conversation about human origins and about this theme “what does it mean to be human,”  outside the beltway, as we would say here in Washington DC, outside of the immediate surroundings of Washington DC and across the country.

In the development of my own thinking, I’ve always thought that if science is going to be meaningful to people, if it’s going to play a role in society, then you need to pay a great deal of attention to how people develop a meaningful understanding of the world. And that meant that it’s important to bring this sometimes challenging, certainly complex subject of the science of human origins to audiences that—where they may not travel to Washington DC and to go to local communities.

So our traveling exhibit had a great cooperation with the American Library Association and their traveling exhibits program. And so we went to public libraries. In the first phase of the project which went for two and a half years we went to 19 communities and had the traveling exhibit that is based on the Hall of Human Origins that you can see at the natural history museum, go to those and be put up in those 19 libraries.

And so while we went, in terms of the aspirations of the project of the traveling exhibit, to present this complex subject, the scientific discoveries of fossils and stone tools, archaeological evidence, genomics, and so on, we also had as our major goal the starting and the nurturing of conversations with people about the diverse perspectives that people bring to the subject. We knew that there were a lot of fans out there, fans of science, fans of the amazing discoveries that occur almost weekly, that are reported in newspapers and the media about human evolution. But at the same time we know that there is, widely in American society, this view that the subject of evolution and the subject of religion must be in conflict with one another. And our goal was to learn why people feel this. So it wasn’t just to try to teach people things, but to learn ourselves and to nurture conversations within the community about this tremendously challenging subject.

Stump:

Let’s push in a little deeper to some of those responses that you got. I would guess that they were mixed in some sense. And can you give any specific examples of responses, say on the one end of the spectrum that this was just the kind of response we were hoping for and maybe on the other end of the spectrum of, oh, this was just what we were hoping wouldn’t happen, but it did happen.

Potts:

Yeah. Great. Great question. And indeed we did get a wide spectrum of response. I think one of the most surprising things though about the tour is the way in which we tried to model a respectful conversation that was—that succeeded. People were very welcoming to us personally. Many of the places that we went, in fact, all of the places we went, most of the people had never met a scientist. And they, you know, they found out that hey, we’re people too and that we have interests beyond our work and we have interest in deep reflection and contemplation about the world.

In terms of responses to us though, it’s so interesting to think, especially in the community conversations and in the clergy conversations, it became very apparent to people right away or pretty soon after the conversations would begin, that the matter of human origins is not a matter of science versus religion, but rather that there are whole, there is a whole spectrum of religious and philosophical perspectives in relation to the science.

Okay. And so one of the most interesting things occurred in our clergy touring conversation was when clergy started speaking with one another. And one of the things that really came out very strongly to me, is that, when someone says that “I’m a Christian,” “I’m Muslim,” “I’m Jewish,” “I’m an atheist,” they do not necessarily mean the same thing to one another within those groups. And that there are a whole variety of stances and possibilities of relating to the subject of the narrative of origin, of our origin. And so that was a very powerful experience and one that was repeated pretty much every place we went.

One of the things that was so interesting and very rewarding is that in the most difficult place we went to, which was a town, a small town, in rural Pennsylvania, Ephrata, Pennsylvania—  The public library there received all sorts of letters of complaint and actually sadly to say death threats and people who just did not want the subject of evolution in their backyard. They thought it was evil, and in some of the letters, I saw some of them, and there were billboards that were erected talking about how false science is, at least the science of evolution. And in the community conversation, what was interesting was that a person stood up, a very eloquent young man, and cited to us his idea of origin, which was a beautiful rendition, paraphrased, of Genesis one. And that that is how it occurred, how origins came to be. And of course we welcome all of the perspectives.

A member of his own church who was also at that conversation—there were about 100 people at the conversation, at that the town hall—a member of his own church, a woman stood up and said, “well, you know, I’ve been to the hall of human origins at the Smithsonian, and I’ve, the traveling exhibit is here and I’ve been to it, and I have to say that I have never been more inspired about understanding God’s creation.” And, same church, but such different perspectives. One person not being able to reconcile the scientific findings and another person so totally embracing them and seeing them as enriching, an understanding of, for her, God’s God’s plan, or even just raising the question, is this how God could have done it? And so that was actually a very rewarding conversation.

At the end of it, I remember that there was a person in the back, a teacher who went around doing homeschool teaching to a variety of families in the area. He taught biology. And he definitely expressed earlier in the community conversation that he had a lot of suspicion about whether evolution is true. Biology teacher. But at the end of it he stood up and he said, “well, you know, I’ve listened for the last hour and a half and I’m not so sure really about evolution, but I have looked at the exhibit and I have heard some of the programs and things people have been saying and I’ve got to have an open mind toward this. And the one thing I do know is that I would love to have a hamburger with Dr. Potts, any day. Because I like him.” And that’s an area that’s very interesting, is feeling that you can be trusted, that you’re just a regular person there for conversation.

In Cottage Grove, Oregon, the clergy conversation there, a man showed up in a who was in Russian Orthodox robes and he expressed a young Earth creationist view of human origins. And he was very, very tense and full of conflict toward us and challenging me in particular. And at the end of the conversation, you know, I said to him that I noticed that you’re wearing Russian orthodox clothes and I’m interested in your faith and the reason why I’m interested is that I sing sacred music in Washington DC and we just recorded, our group recorded the first ever in the Georgian language, of a liturgy of St John Chrysostom. And he said, “St John Chrysostom, that’s the most important Saint in Russian Orthodox Church.” And we had this conversation that lasted about 45 minutes.

Stump:

Because all of a sudden you were speaking his language.

Potts:

I was speaking his language and we found common ground and, you know, I was not there to convince him of anything, but my goodness, we became friends. And he participated later on, later in the month after our group had gone, but while the exhibit was still there at the public library, in one of the community conversations that was held after we left. And he expressed a great deal of openness and encouragement, from what I understand, of people coming to see the exhibit. And so that I consider to be a very, very important—we don’t consider things victories or defeats, I never do. But to lower the temperature and to be able to build bridges, that’s where it’s at. And so that’s the most important thing.

[musical interlude]

Stump:

You’ve mentioned aspects of this a number of times already, but let me see if I can get you to draw them together in this question, what does it mean to be human? And what are the aspects of that question that the science can answer? And what are the aspects of that question that science can’t answer? 

Potts:

Yeah, it’s a good question. I think that, in terms of the responses that we got to that question from the public, it’s very interesting to look at them, because they fall into a variety of categories that do reflect what people think about when they think about their own humanness. And mental abilities and emotions were foremost on people’s minds. I’d say over, between 50 and 60 percent of the answers to the question that people volunteered through putting post-it notes in the exhibit, but also on our own website and also the answers that we get in our hall of human origins here at the Smithsonian, about 50 to 60 percent have to do with the emotional content of human life and all the cognitive, the mental qualities. About almost 20 percent have to do with spiritual, religious aspects of the world, aspects of transcendence and morality. Those, you know, I know that there are many different nuances of how those things are different, but that forms kind of a grouping also, where people actually do put those together in many of their answers. And I have to say sometimes the answer that we get can be as simple as “love,” to an entire PhD dissertation about humanity on a post-it note. It’s really pretty amazing. And then you get answers that are more about human ecology and human interactions with the world and even to a lesser extent about anatomy. And so it’s very interesting that anatomy is what, when people come to a science exhibit on human evolution, you might think that they’d mainly be thinking about those sorts of things. But instead, and I think this makes a lot of sense, that people come bearing their own impressions and understandings and worldviews about human life.

And they were able to see—this is one of the fascinating parts of the exhibit, both in traveling and here at the Smithsonian—is that they see something of themselves in something that they’re interested in. They can hear about a burial by neanderthals 40,000 years ago and they can sense something of the pathos that’s there, something of the sense of commemoration of the life of the individual by being buried with grave goods. And they can see some of the challenges of survival. They can see the ways in which life has been full, not only of possibilities but also extinction of earlier forms of what it meant to be a human being that didn’t have all the aspects of humanity that we think of ourselves today. But forms of life that are no longer on earth. And that made some people sad actually and made them certainly very thoughtful. And actually many people in the community conversation said that that gave them a greater sense of responsibility.

One person I remember saying that the exhibit and the programs surrounding the exhibit, the public programs, gave her a sense of humility that is woven into the tapestry of the cosmos. And that we don’t have a privileged place, that we’re part of the history of life on earth, and that comes with amazing responsibilities as well as talents. Talents for this person as well as for so many other people who we ran into in our tour across the US. A talent for understanding one another, for forming conflict with one another, for forming a relationship with the cosmos that has a sense of the divine and the sacred. All of these sorts of things were actually things that people thought about, and could see a reflection of, in some aspects of this long narrative of humanity.

And perhaps the most universal aspect, as a response to the exhibit, reflecting what does it mean to be human, is that humanity today has been part of a long becoming and maybe that becoming is not over. And that this unity of human beings that, yes, our divisions have arisen over decades, hundreds of years, thousands of years, the divisions of different cultures and religions and politics and nations has developed over that time period. But that shrinks in comparison to 6 million years of common ancestry, of the things that are embodied in all human beings. And that universality of what it means to be human is, I think, a very, very important concept. I hope I’m not just reading myself into the responses that people gave to it, because this is foundational to my own beliefs and passion for the subject.

Stump:

You’ve talked several times about how faith can influence the way we come to these questions, the kinds of answers that we give to the question what does it mean to be human? Can you talk about the other direction of influence at all? How has the science influenced faith, that you’ve seen in these communities perhaps, or even in your own story and journey of faith?

Potts:

Yeah. My own story of faith is—well when I’m asked by my friends and I’ll consider this a very friendly context, I often will tell people that I grew up Protestant with emphasis on the protest of Protestant. In that I grew up in a religious, Christian religious community of people who really wanted to think about the theological implications of Jesus and of the disciples and the history of Christianity and its development and its historical influences both upon it as well as an influence on society. And so I think this, even my religious training very much prepared me for being part of a community of doubters, because I see doubt as being so fundamental to faith, to religious faith, for me. And also a critical part of science, of the mental processes of science, of “hmm, okay, I think this, but have I really found this out? How do we know?” And that’s a fundamental part of science as well. And so I see in my own, you know, cognitive sphere, arena, areas of a process that is certainly compatible to both. And I think that that process of science that involves the suspicion about certainty as being something that actually enriches a religion. But that’s certainly not the case for everyone.

Stump:

One of the important questions in all of this for Christians especially, Jews, Muslims, the Abrahamic traditions is that humanity is somehow created in the image of God, is somehow set apart. In your study of the history of human origins, have you uncovered anything that undermines such a faith commitment by these religious groups in humanity having a unique place within the created order?

Potts:

Yeah, it’s a huge question. And encyclopedias have been written, books have been written about that subject. I would say that, yes, to a particular limited view of the Imago Dei, the image of God. And it’s very interesting that the image of God language, that phrase is—and I’m sure there’ll be people who will correct me if I’m wrong—but it occurs only once in the Bible. And that once is a very, very foundational place, right at the start. And so it’s got to be considered very seriously by any Christian or person who’s committed to an Abrahamic faith. At the same time, there is extraordinary—and so where the contradiction would lie is that well you know, if it’s an actual physical being, then you mean God looks like, you know, is a biped who makes tools and has a large brain? Um, no. That’s not the case. But it has to do with the instantiation of the soul, there’s a whole variety of aspects of language that can be used to understand the image of God. And if that occurs, if that did occur, and to Christians it did occur, and to people who are committed to the Abrahamic faiths, that certainly did occur.

I, in my own understanding, go back to actually a different book of the Bible, and that’s the first verse of John, and I take literally, “in the beginning was the word.” And from a paleoanthropological perspective, I see this as well, language had emerged. And I take “word” in a very serious and literal sense, and that the relationship of the narrative of origin that is in not just Genesis one and Genesis two, but you can also find aspects of it, different creation perspectives in Proverbs and Job and Ecclesiastes. It’s not just in Genesis. And that one can understand that, perhaps, the human relationship with God begins when people can begin to, as evolved beings, imagine what the divine is like. And with that possibility of imagination becomes an awareness, a new sense, much as our sense of sight and smell and hearing are realities, so is a religious sense. And that that evolutionary capacity, that evolved capacity, is what perhaps permits a relationship with the divine, however one may conceive of it, whether it’s in a biblical tradition or in a tradition that’s also deeply steeped as religious, steeped in religion, but may have a different sacred text.

Stump:

Is that spiritual longing that you said is a universal among humans, is that uniquely human, in the sense that when the theological notion of image of God often gets talked about more scientifically in terms of human uniqueness or human distinctiveness and the proposal that we alone use tools turns out not really to be true. We alone have language? Well, there are hints, at least. Certainly other forms communicate, do they do so symbolically? It’s tougher to say. Do we alone have a moral or an ethical sense? Well, it seems like we see precursors of that at other species as well. How about this sense of spiritual longing? Is that uniquely human?

Potts:

Yeah, I think that it is. I think that a desire for relationship exists among many organisms. Essentially all social beings, all social species have a sense of belonging and relationship and of dependence and of “should I help or shouldn’t I help” another individual. And that certainly is part of the continuity of the stream of life, of which humans are a part, that underlies the spiritual sense. But a spiritual sense of being able to understand and externalize a spirituality about the world and to ultimately internalize it into oneself and to have it become part of one’s own being, there is no evidence in the zoological world that that also occurs. And so one might wonder, well, when does that start? And that’s a pretty complex question.

As we’ve discussed evolution, but also evolution in a religious context, throughout the US as we’ve traveled, we will even find people who will claim that another person who claims to be a Christian is not really a Christian, is not even even religious because their doctrine disagrees with their own. And so it’s hard to give an answer that satisfies everyone, with regard to then even when that sense of authentic spirituality and striving and externalizing and internalizing belief emerged. But we do see it in all human societies and I do believe in all human societies talking as an anthropologist, that’s part and parcel of who we are and it’s part and parcel of our uniqueness.

Stump:

Hmm. Fascinating. And we certainly seem to be the only species that cares whether we’re unique or not.

Potts:

Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And it’s hard to know whether that is part of human hubris [laughter] or whether it’s the deepest part of human caring.

Stump:

Yeah. Thanks so much, Rick, for your time and these fantastic insights into the history of our species and for what it means for what kind of being we are now.

Potts: 

Jim, it’s been a great pleasure. Thanks so much.

Credits

BioLogos:

As you heard at the beginning of this episode, this is the last episode of Season 1. But we’ve got another great line-up of guests and topics for Season 2 which you can look for at the end of the summer. Until then, you can find all kinds of great conversations, articles, and resources on our website, biologos.org. 

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf with additional production assistance by Truth Works Media. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes, we love hearing from and it helps other people find the show. Thanks. See you in Season 2. 


Featured guest

Rick Potts

Rick Potts

Dr. Rick Potts is a paleoanthropologist and curator of the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Before coming to the Smithsonian in 1985, he received his Ph.D. in biological anthropology from Harvard University and taught anthropology at Yale University. He has led excavations throughout the East African Rift Valley as well as in southern and northern China. His research focuses on human adaptation to environmental change.


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