Science in Christian Perspective



James 0. Buswell, III, MA.

From JASA 8 (June 1956): 16-17

Life's "Epic of Man"

The current series, "The Epic of Man," appearing in Life magazine has caused much comment among creationists, and many questions.

Beginning in the issue of November 7 of last year, four installments of a proposed fifteen or more, have appeared to date: "Man Inherits the Earth," "The Dawn of Religion," (Dec. 12), "The Growth of Society," (February 27, 1956), and "Man Shapes His Environment," (April 16.) The author of the series is Lincoln Barnett. He is assisted by scholars and institutions whose research, latest discoveries, and scientific views have been put at his disposal.

Also offered regularly, "for educators and adult discussion groups" is a series of Discussion Outlines. ($1 for the complete set covering the whole series.) Each one consists of 25 rather comprehensive questions covering the text material, and an anotated list of nine or ten authoritative books on the subject, both specialized and general. If one can read the text with any understanding, the book list is far more valuable than the questions.

The subject matter of the series, which is styled after the earlier Life feature, "The World We Live In," is on the "origins of civilization." Thus, with the exception of the first chapter, man's cultural development is stressed rather than his physical change.

These first four chapters each develop certain aspects of prehistory, that is the time before writing was developed. Parts I and Il describe the Paleolithic, Part III the Mesolithic, and Part IV, the Neolithic.

One of the most striking and valuable features, which pre surnably may be discontinued in future chapters as cultures of recorded history are described, is the parallel description of a present-day primitive society illustrative of each pattern of culture traits. Australian Aboriginals illustrate the Paleolithic; Eskimos, the Mesolithic; and Berber tribesmen of North Africa, the Neolithic way of life.

These contemporary parallels immediately serve to remove the accompanying archeological reconstructions of prehistory from the realm of mere speculation and guesswork. Future chapters will treat great civilizations of the past, such as Sumer, ancient Egypt, Minoan Crete, and the beginnings of historic culture in Western Europe.

Any evaluation of this series must be couched in terms of both praise and reservation. First of all, its ideological assumptions are wholly evolutionary, as is to be expected. To this extent, certain reconstruc tions and conclusions are distorted and factually unwarranted, such as the alleged "discovery" of fire, the presumption that the "dawn" of religion occurred with the Neanderthal race, and that the Bear Cult "may have represented the first religious ceremonies of mankind." Such distortions, however, are clearly in the minoritv. The factual coverage itself is both up to date and reliable and does not have many of the faults commonly associated with popularized science.

The one most specific weakness. then, is the complete evolutionary orientation- Creationism. of course, is not even recognized as worthy of comment, chiefly because liberal Christianity today has accepted evolution and made it unnecessary any longer for the evolutionary scientist to bother with any serious consideration of an alternative. Thus, Mr. Barnett writes in the opening chapter:
The spiritual qualities which differentiate man from the brutes are the concern of philosophers and theologians. They accept the fact of man's relationship to animals and his physical evolution from them, finding no point of conflict with the religious concepts of divinity and immortality. "Today," observed the famous Baptist minister, the Rev. Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, "the general idea of evolution is taken for granted as gravitation is."

When the time comes that evangelicals do something in science to the extent that they become established authorities again and the writers of accepted textbooks, then the evolutionary structure of scientific thinking will have to give way to the reasonableness of a sound Creationism cloaked in scientific responsibility.

In his selection of examples of fossil man, Barnett has wisely stuck to those which are the least controversial, and for whom the best authenticated evidence can be produced. Of course, the physical types of the bodies of these men are largely hypothetical as far as flesh and expressions are concerned. However, the reader will notice that the author is not dogmatic on these matters:

If Homo sapiens did indeed live at so early a date he might have looked somewhat like the hypothetical people shown in the painting at the left.

In fact, with the single exception of the picture purporting to be man's "first encounter with the miracles of fire," all of the illustrations are completely reasonable and based strictly upon archeological remains and ethnological parallels. Furthermore, their colorful capturing of composite cultures is certainly valuable and instructive to say the very least.

It should be pointed out that the very reserve with which many of the reconstructions are handled reveals something of the reliability of the positive assertions which are based upon more conclusive evidence. With the above-mentioned exceptions regarding evolution, there is no undue dogmatism in the scientific reconstructions set forth. For example:

" . . . mystic symbols hinting that We inspiration behind them was not esthetic but magical or reverent."
"Decorated implements like these from France may have been carried at religious rites."
"Statuettes of women at Stone Age sites may have served a symbolic function in mystic rites."

". . . model sailboat ... may have been a child's toy."

"Clay figurines suggest that Neolithic people affected a high coiffure."

If, then, the text and illustrations are of such authentic value, upon what scientific principles is this reliability based? How can we trust the description of a prehistoric way of life when there are no written records?

Three basic bodies of evidence, I believe, serve to reveal how much can be interpreted from what would seem to be mute artifacts of a long dead culture.

1. The actual finds. This point hardly needs elaboration. A bone needle is a key to a whole complex of culture traits, (tailored clothing, for example,) just the same as a single human tooth proving something as complex as human society, or a plow proving the existence of agriculture.

2. Parallels with living cltures, and deductions therefrom. As indicated above, this is one of the major values of the series, namely, the publishing of

· detailed account of a tribe illustrating the traits of

· prehistoric era. This finds a prominent place in the method of most prehistorians, and is used much in Barnett's own text:

The parallel customs of living Paleolithic people suggest that such rituals must have rested on three concepts of man's relation to the supernatural world: mana, magic, and taboo. . .
By analogy with later Neolithic people it has been inferred that prestige derived ... from a social status based on age, wisdom, or kinship ties. . .

By ethnological analogy it is presumed that. . .

Studies of primitive peoples living in the world today lead to the belief that. . .
Like those of modern tribesmen these ancient ceremonies probably. . .

3.  Interpretation in terms of present anthropological theory. There is a great deal known today about the function of primitive culture. Prehistoric interpretation in a context of such data long since validated by the use of the comparative method in extensive field work, is not as difficult and mysterious as it might seem to be. For example, it is known that one of the characteristic differences between primitive culture and the cultures of Western Civilization is that the primitive ascribes a maximum of casual explanations to supernatural agencies, the sophisticate, or "civilized" man, a minimum. It is also known that the religious practitioner in primitive society takes a vital role in cases of sickness and death. Thus Barnett, illustrating the simultaneous application of all three of the above bodies of evidence, writes:

Believing as he did in supernatural causes of natural events, early man resorted to the shaman when afflicted with puzzling bodily ills. As with primitive tribes today, the shaman sought to exorcise malevolent spirits by incantation and the use of magic fetishes or magic spells.

This is an attractive and most instructive series, so far, a unique journalistic-educational venture, and promises to be a valuable and vivid document on the classic ~ civilizations of the~ early historic period.