Islam And Judaism On Why  Only Humans Survived – OpEd


New research has found a link between elevated stress levels and reduced cognitive function. According to a study published in JAMA Network Open in March 2023, people with elevated stress levels were 37% more likely to have cognitive issues.

The study, based on data from the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study, examined differences in brain health, particularly in Black people living in the stroke belt in certain areas of the South. Both Black and white individuals had a similar association between elevated stress and reduced cognitive function, although Black individuals reported greater stress overall.

Experts have noted the importance of learning to use relaxation responses to counteract stress. Things like meditation exercises, yoga, and praying can produce a relaxation response. Religious and spiritual activities can help build up resilience and help manage stress which reduces cognitive abilities. This may be why Homo Neanderthals in Europe, and Homo Denisovans in Asia did not survive ongoing competition with the more religious African Homo Sapiens spreading out from Africa. 

Homo sapiens first reached Europe around 54,000 years ago and introduced bows and arrows to that continent, reported an article February 22, 2023 in Science Advances. Previous stone and bone arrow point discoveries suggest that bow-and-arrow hunting originated in Africa between 80,000 and 60,000 years ago. And previously recovered fossil teeth indicate that Homo Sapiens visited Grotte Mandrin as early as 56-57000 years ago, well before Homo Neanderthals demise around 40,000 years ago and much earlier than researchers had thought that Homo Sapiens first reached Europe.

No evidence suggests that Homo Neanderthals, already present in Europe for over 200.000 years at that time, launched arrows at prey or at each other, So is this the advantage Homo Sapiens used to eliminate their cousins worldwide, or was it something more intangible like an advanced religious culture. 

A great deal of unnecessary conflict and misunderstanding between evolutionists and religious thinkers  has been caused by the careless use of the terms ‘human’ and ‘man’ to describe the increasing number of fossil finds of tool using, biped, primate species some but not most of them, ancestral to Homo sapiens. 

I shall try to refer to each distinct species by its scientific name only. Most humans think that the name ‘human’ or ‘mankind’ should be reserved only for our own species: Homo sapiens. 

Not using the word ‘human’ and ‘man’ carelessly to name many different species would help resolve some of the conflict between most Darwinists and many religious people. Indeed, some evolutionists now use the term ‘people’ to specify Modern Homo sapiens.

Why did Homo Neanderthals go extinct due to competition with modern humans since they were physically stronger than modern humans? In evolution there are always trade-offs. The obvious Homo Sapiens trade-off for Homo Neanderthal “fitter and stronger” was “forms much bigger social tribal groups”. Religion binds people together in much larger groups than just kin blood relationships, and humans seem to have been more religious than Homo Neanderthals.

In addition, religious people can find new insights into Qur’anic and Torah verses about humanity by understanding the evolution of Homo sapiens spirituality.

About two million years ago in Africa, more than a half dozen species of pre-human primates roamed the land. Some looked similar to each other, while others had distinct, defining features.

In September 2015, based on the remains of 15 partial skeletons discovered in a South African cave; another species; Homo naledi, was added to the list.

They were found deep in a cave system in South Africa by a team who now say the remains are probably 200,000 to 300,000 years old; although its anatomy shares some similarities with modern people, other anatomical features of Homo naledi hark back to pre-humans that lived in much earlier times – some two million years ago.

“It looks like it might be connected to early Homo erectus, or Homo habilis, or Homo rudolfensis,” said Prof John Hawks, from the University of Wisconsin. New dating evidence places the Homo naledi species in a time period that overlapped early examples of our own species: Homo sapiens.

Hawks told the BBC’s Inside Science radio program: “They’re the age of Neanderthals in Europe, they’re the age of Denisovans in Asia, they’re the age of early modern humans in Africa. They’re part of this diversity in the world that’s there as our species was originating.” There probably are many more extinct pre-human hominin species that will someday be uncovered.

Modern Homo sapiens, our own species, ventured forth from Africa 75-100,000 years ago, at a time when three or four other almost human species still existed. Yet today, only Homo sapiens remains. Because all of our closest relatives died out; our closest living relatives are chimps and bonobos, who are physically and culturally rather distant from humans. Why did we manage to survive, when all our pre-human close relatives died out?

Well, extinction is a normal part of evolution so it should not be surprising that some human-like species – known as “hominins” – died out.

But it is not obvious that our planet only has room for one species of modern human. Our closest living relatives are the great apes, and there are six species alive today: chimpanzees, bonobos, two species of gorilla and two species of orangutan; and while they all use, and even make tools, none of them put on clothing or bury their dead. 

Until 30-40,000 years ago, in addition to modern humans, three other pre-human hominin species were around: the Neanderthals in Europe and western Asia, the Denisovans in East Asia, and the “hobbits” from the Indonesian island of Flores.

The hobbits might have survived until as recently as 40-50,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens arrived in Indonesia and Australia, and then out competed the little men on Flores island.

We do not know enough about the Denisovans to even ask why they died out. All we have from them is a small finger bone, two teeth and several of their genes that can still be found in Pacific Islanders.

However, we know a lot more about Homo Neanderthals, because we have known about them for much longer and have many fossils. So, why did they die out?

Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, says the Neanderthals were displaced very soon after modern humans encroached on their habitat, and that’s not a coincidence.

Neanderthals evolved long before us, and lived in Europe well before we arrived. By the time Homo Sapiens got to Europe, just over 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals had been successfully living there for over 250,000 years, ample time to adapt to the chilly climate.

But when Europe began experiencing rapid climate change, some researchers argue, the Neanderthals may have struggled. The temperature was not the main issue, says John Stewart of Bournemouth University in the UK. Instead, the colder climate changed the landscape they lived in, and they did not adapt their hunting style to suit it.

Homo Neanderthals were better adapted to hunting in woodland environments than modern humans. But when Europe’s climate began fluctuating, the forests became more open, becoming more like the African savannah that modern humans were used to. The forests, which provided most of Neanderthals’ food, dwindled and could no longer sustain them. 

Modern humans also seemed to hunt a greater range of species; big game and smaller animals like hares and rabbits. In contrast, there is little evidence that Neanderthals hunted similar small ground mammals according to analyses of archaeological sites in Iberia where the Neanderthals clung on the longest.

Their tools were better suited for hunting bigger animals, so even if they tried, they may not have been successful at catching small animals. All in all, “modern humans seemed to have a greater number of things they could do when put under stress,” says Stewart. 

This ability to innovate and adapt may explain why we replaced Neanderthals so quickly. “Faster innovation leads to better efficiency and exploitation in the environment and therefore a higher reproductive success,” says Hublin.

He believes that there is something intrinsic to modern humans that helped us adapt so quickly. We know Neanderthal tools were remarkably efficient for the tasks they used them for, but when Homo sapiens arrived into Europe ours were better. The archaeological evidence suggests that we had a greater range of innovative and efficient tools.

But tools are not the only things modern humans made. We also were stimulated (inspired) to create something else, which helped us outcompete every other species on Earth: religion and symbolic art.

Even before modern humans left Africa, there is ample evidence that they were making art, most of it for religious purposes. Archaeologists have found ornaments, jewelry, figurative depictions of mythical animals and even musical instruments.  A 70,000-year-old ochre cave painting found in South Africa is thought to be the oldest work of art in the world. Ochre was one of the first paints to be used by Homo sapiens.

“When modern humans hit the ground [in Europe], their populations went up quickly,” says Nicholas Conard at the University of Tübingen in Germany, who has discovered several such relics. As our numbers swelled, we began living in much more complex social units, and needed more sophisticated ways to communicate.

By 40-50,000 years ago, humans were making things any of us would recognize as art. One of the most striking is a wooden carving of a lion-human statue found in a cave in Germany. Similar sculptures from the same period have been found elsewhere in Europe as well as even older sites in Africa.

They didn’t need a whole arsenal of symbolic artifacts to get the job done. This suggests that we were sharing information across cultural groups from different areas, rather than keeping knowledge to ourselves. It seems art and religion were a critical part of human identity, helping to bring different groups together. 

This is why our one species produces so many different cultures and nations: “O Mankind, We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other.” (Qur’an 49:13).

In contrast, Neanderthals didn’t seem to need art or symbols. There is limited evidence they made some jewelry, but not to the extent Homo sapiens did. For humans, the sharing of symbolic information has been crucial to our success. Every new idea we pick up has the chance to become immortal by being passed down through the generations.

The fact that we made any art at all, using the same hands that made all those tools, also points to our unique capacity for behavioral variability, says Shea: “We do everything more than one distinct way, often, the solutions we devise for one problem, we can repurpose to solve a different one. This is something we do exclusively well.” 

Other ancient hominins seemed to do the same thing over and over again. “They found a rut and were stuck in it.” Did we have a superior brain to thank for this? That has long been a popular view. Illustrations of human evolution often show a progression from ape-like creatures to modern humans, with ever bigger brains as things went on.

In reality, our evolutionary story is more complicated than that. Homo erectus survived for a long time and was the first hominin species to expand out of Africa, a half million years before the Neanderthals, but its brain was quite small.

As a result, some anthropologists are uncomfortable with the idea that big brains were the solution. Our big brains may have played a role in our success, but Homo neanderthals had slightly larger brains compared to Homo sapiens.

Hublin says there is a more refined explanation. We know that our behavior, or the circumstances in which we find ourselves, can change our genetic make-up. There are important differences between us and our Neanderthal and Denisovan relatives. 

For instance, humans developed a lighter skin to better absorb vitamin D from the sun in the northern areas of Europe and Asia and East Europeans only developed a tolerance to lactose when our ancestors started to eat more dairy produce. Genetic changes can also occur when large populations are faced with devastating diseases such as the Black Death in the 14th Century, which changed the genes of survivors.

In a similar vein, Hublin proposes that modern humans, at some point, benefited from key genetic changes. For the first 100,000 years of our existence, modern humans in Africa behaved much like Neanderthals in Europe: then something changed. 

Our tools became more complex, around the time when we started developing symbolic artifacts, religious rituals, and burial customs. These religious activities enabled Homo sapiens to band together in larger groups and stimulated our hyper-social, cooperative brain that sets us apart. 

From language, religion, art and culture to war and sex, our most distinctively human behaviors all have a social element.
That means that our propensity for larger scale social living enhanced our ability to use religious symbols and make art.  For tens of thousands of years, before we developed these abilities, modern humans and other hominins were fairly evenly matched, says Conard. Any other species could have taken our place.

But they did not, and eventually we out-competed them. As our population exploded, the other species retreated and eventually disappeared altogether. Thus, we might have our spiritual creativity to thank for our physical survival.

“And (one) of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, as well as the difference of your languages and colors. In these, there are signs for people of knowledge.” (Qur’an 30:20).

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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