The recent sensational announcement that a new species of human has been discovered in Indonesia will have a huge impact on both science and religion. While scientists scramble to rewrite the textbooks, theologians need to confront the implications of the discovery for the question: What does it mean to be human?
Remains of as many as seven hominids were found on the island of Flores by a joint team of Australian and Indonesian archaeologists. The results were published in the October issue of Nature. Two features in particular stunned the scientists. The first is that the hominids were only about 1 meter (3 feet) tall in their adult form, and had a brain capacity just about the same as that of a chimpanzee. Yet the remains were found in association with sophisticated stone tools and the use of fire, suggesting that the "hobbits," as these new hominids have inevitably been nicknamed, were every bit as advanced as Homo sapiens (our own species of human) at the time.
The second astonishing fact is that the most recent remains are dated at only 18,000 years, implying that hobbits and our direct ancestors were contemporaneous. Homo sapiens are known to have occupied Indonesia for at least 20,000 years, and must have passed through it to reach Australia at least 50,000 years ago.
Although the researchers have not yet been successful in sequencing DNA from the fossils, anatomical features strongly suggest that the hobbits, whose scientific name is Homo floresiensis, are not a subspecies of Homo sapiens (which left Africa about 120,000 years ago). Rather, they seem to be descended from an earlier hominid - Homo erectus - a different species entirely, which migrated from Africa to Asia more than 1 million years ago. Archaeologists had previously unearthed tools left by Homo erectus on Flores more than 800,000 years ago, and they hypothesize that descendants of these early settlers evolved a form of extreme dwarfism in response to geographical isolation and poor food supply on the island. Significantly, Flores also had dwarf elephants.
The new findings will overturn a lot of assumptions about human origins and the evolution of intelligence. Flores was never connected to the Asian landmass in the recent past, implying that the hobbits (or their ancestors) were not only tool-makers but also sailors. The hobbits' dwarfism is quite unlike that of the African pygmies, whose brain size is comparable to the rest of Homo sapiens. Biologists recognize that brain size per se is not a good indicator of intelligence; for example, a domestic cat is no less intelligent than a lion, yet its brain is far smaller. A better measure is the so-called encephalization quotient, or EQ, defined in terms of the ratio of brain mass to body mass.
The Flores fossils show the hobbits not only had smaller brains than we do, but they also had a much smaller EQ. So Homo floresiensis represents a reversal of the much-touted trend to higher EQ; a clear example of evolutionary regression, or, at best, stasis.
If the interpretation of the hobbits' tools and other artifacts is sound, the conclusion might then be that EQ is simply a bad parameter to gauge intelligence, and that we are embarrassingly far from understanding both the biology and the evolution of intelligence. Alternatively, the hobbits' prowess and abilities may have been overstated, and they may instead represent a case of evolution selecting for declining intelligence in favor of smaller body mass. Answers to these troubling questions will require more research and, hopefully, will be aided by additional fossil remains.
The theological implications of the discovery are no less challenging than the scientific. Most of the world's major religions are founded on the notion that mankind enjoys a special status in relation to God.
Christianity in particular is species-specific, in that Jesus Christ took on human flesh to save humankind. But what, exactly, is humankind? So long as Homo sapiens stood apart, biologically speaking, from the rest of the animal kingdom, this was not an issue.
To be sure, there has been some lively debate about whether higher animals have souls and can also be saved, but there is no doubt that the huge gulf between Homo sapiens and chimpanzees (our closest living relatives) has been of great significance to those who place humans in a theological class apart.
The pope, in his famous statement that Darwinian evolution was "more than a theory," was nevertheless at pains to point out that, somewhere along the evolutionary road, humans were singled out by God. For many people, this translates into a belief that humans are the only creatures that possess souls.
By blurring the distinction between Homo sapiens and other animals, Homo floresiensis presents a real difficulty for Christians. Did these "other" humans have souls too? Did Jesus die for them as well as for the many representatives of Homo sapiens who lived at the same time? Just how far back in the evolution of the genus Homo does one have to go before the notion of soul becomes applicable?
These awkward issues would be thrown into stark relief if it turned out that Homo floresiensis were not actually extinct. Astonishingly, that is a distinct possibility. The inhabitants of Flores have many detailed folk stories of small, hairy people who live in caves and chatter excitedly among themselves and imitate human speech. The archaeologists who made this find conjecture that the hobbits may well have survived until the time of the Dutch occupation in the 16th century, and they do not rule out the possibility that some may still live in remote forests of Flores and other Indonesian islands. Certainly, there is no lack of stories claiming actual sightings and physical evidence for such beings.
If a living community of hobbits were discovered in the near future, how would the world's religions respond? Would we accord these "people" the same rights and responsibilities as Homo sapiens? Would we attempt to teach them our version of right and wrong, drawing from the works of Buddha, say, or the lessons of the Bible and the Quran, in the belief that it was relevant to them? Would Christians pray for their salvation? And if the answers to these blunt questions are no, then what, exactly, would be the criteria for separating Homo floresiensis from Homo sapiens in the matters of religion and salvation?
Citing genetic difference is dangerous. We share at least 98.5 percent of our genes with chimpanzees, so it is likely that just a handful of genes separate us from Homo floresiensis. At what degree of genetic separation does the us-and-them distinction kick in as far as religion is concerned? Citing culture and a lack of shared heritage would be peculiar criteria for proselytizing religions such as Christianity and Islam. Intelligence could surely not be invoked as a reason to deny the hobbits' spirituality, while their smaller EQ would be a bizarre quality to cite.
Not all religious folk will be unsettled by these discoveries. Adherents to those branches of Christianity, for example, that stress ecological spirituality and a reverence for the diversity of nature might take inspiration from the fact that the human genus is more richly populated than hitherto believed. Those who are depressed about man's brutality toward man and other species may be heartened by the fact that our ancestors evidently did not blindly wipe out all representatives of Homo floresiensis as soon as they encountered them. And for those who recognize that human nature, including human spirituality, is a product of nature, this momentous discovery offers the prospect that we may better understand from whence we have come, and thereby have a better idea of where we are going.