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Last Updated: Monday, 1 November, 2004, 10:33 GMT
'What does it mean to be human?'
By David Wilkinson
Lecturer in theology and science

Anthropologist Desmond Morris suggested the discovery of a human Hobbit on Flores would force many religions to examine their basic beliefs. The suggestion provoked quite a reaction.

"The existence of 'Mini-Man' should destroy religion," claims Desmond Morris.

Artist's impression of 'ape man'

I can't help thinking we've been here before. Indeed, Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, still cannot understand why religion survived Darwin.

Yet as science progresses, despite the decline of allegiance to traditional Christian churches in Western Europe, religion continues to grow world-wide in many different forms.

This should not surprise us. Contemporary science, far from solving every question, often highlights the big questions which are central to human existence.

This is the case with the discovery of LB1, the 18,000-year-old specimen of the new species Homo floresiensis.

The find of this so-called Hobbit on Flores Island excites me both as a scientist and a Christian theologian, for it poses the big question of what it means to be human.

'Frankly naive'

People have always been fascinated with this question, in particular what makes humans different.

LB1 becomes part of this contemporary question alongside developments in science such as human cloning and the growth of artificial intelligence where what it means to be human is seen in Star Trek's Mr Data and Kubrick's AI.

Some have tried to separate human beings in terms of physical, mental or genetic characteristics.

The trouble with this, as LB1 demonstrates, is that these are simply often different points on a spectrum rather than absolutes.

While some religious people believe humans were created 6,000 years ago, or view humans as the sole possessors of souls, it is quite frankly na´ve and ignorant to characterise the depth of all religious thinking in this way.

Natural world

Within the Christian tradition, some have suggested that the key to being human is our ability of rational thinking, freewill, our moral sense or our capacity to face our own death.

The fact that God may have created many other species in the universe does not diminish the relationship he has given to human beings
However, the overwhelming view which can be found in the early chapters of Genesis is that human beings are defined in terms of relationship, and in particular their relationship to God.

Being made in the image of God is about being given the gift of intimate relationship with God, and a certain kind of responsibility in the natural world.

That human beings are special in terms of relationship allowed early astronomers such as Huygens to speculate about other worlds without having nightmares about his Christian faith.

The fact that God may have created many other species in the Universe does not diminish the relationship he has given to human beings.

Care and compassion

Further, as many historians have pointed out, the Christian worldview encouraged the growth of empirical science - the Universe had to be observed to see what God had done.

A cast of the 'Hobbit's' skull
A cast of the 18,000-year-old 'Hobbit's' skull
The diversity and unpredictability of the cosmos or natural world was therefore a reflection of a God who gives the Universe the potential for extravagance.

Finally, the gift of responsibility brought with it the need for care and compassion to others, the animal kingdom and the environment.

So as a Christian, in common with many other religious believers, I don't see LB1 as a threat to religion.

I am fascinated with what more we might find out about the diversity of the natural world.

And if Homo floresiensis still exists then they need to be treated with respect and care whether the anthropologists class them as human or not.

I still see the special status of humanity in the gift of relationship with God, a relationship affirmed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

After all, Hobbits were never a problem to the Christian orthodoxy of a certain JRR Tolkien.

David Wilkinson is the Wesley research lecturer in theology and science at the University of Durham.

A selection of the many e-mail comments we received on this topic are below.

Many Christians believe in evolution as God's tool in creation. There are huge holes in evolutionary theory which outside intervention nicely fills - evolutionists have no answers to these problems and are quite happy to gloss over them. Evolution has not been proved, nor has creationism. They are both, therefore theories.
Don, Portishead United Kingdom

Every time science comes up with compelling evidence against religion, the believers incorporate it into their faith. "God meant for us to find out". From the discovery of DNA, to planets outside our solar systems, the zealots stick to their guns.
Ben Cullen, Birmingham, UK

Discoveries such as Hobbits and theories such as the Big Bang are a wonderful way to validate religion. My religion tells me that many races were created before mankind, so the discovery of these races is just a confirmation of what I already knew. Same thing goes for the Big Bang theory, It was already documented a long time before modern science caught up with it.
Mohammad Khan, London UK

Christianity is based upon the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and not on the far-earlier writings of the Old Testament. Religion and science are not in competition. Surely scientists can recognise that there is a spiritual aspect to us all that does not need a full explanation nor will it ever be explained by scientists.
Colin, Warwick, UK

This article both misses the point and entirely fails to answer Desmond Morris's question: "How can the Flores human be 'semi-special'?" If this creature is considered half-human, how do the early chapters of Genesis suggest this creature's relationship to God is defined?
Ollie, Oxford

The sooner religions agree that Darwin is right, the sooner they can move onto doing good work elsewhere. They lost this argument years ago and they just look plain silly saying God made man. Evolution continues everywhere.
Iain Ferguson, Bristol UK


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