What is the Origin of Man?
The Answers of Science and the Holy Scriptures
by Dr Maurice Bucaille
Table of Contents
Man has pondered his origins for thousands of years, but until recently, his only source of ideas consisted of notions drawn from religious teachings and various philosophical systems. Not until modern times, and the arrival of data of a different kind, has he been able to approach the problem of his origins from a new angle.
We live in a time where reason and the conquests of science claim to provide logical answers to all the great questions asked by the human intellect. Likewise, the problem of the origin of man has primarily been presented by some as a matter that can be perfectly explained by secular knowledge. Darwin's On the Origin of Species, which appeared in England in 1859, enjoyed a great success with the public, and during the years that followed., it became clear just how significant was the effect of a theory which, as far as the origin of man was concerned, did little more than offer suggestions. A basic hostility toward religious teachings already existed, however, and in Darwin's theory, people saw what seemed to be a decisive argument: Through what appeared to be a logical assimilation, they felt free to postulate that man was descended from the apes. This went beyond Darwin's theory, however, for by extrapolation, such people had managed to assert that, just as other species must have come from a different, pre-existing species, so man must have appeared on earth as the result of an evolution from a neighbouring lineage in the animal kingdom.
This statement concerning the origins of man came as a profound shock to all those who remained faithful to the teachings of the Bible, for they believed that man was created by God. Moreover, the very idea of the evolution of species contradicted the words of the Bible, which stated quite clearly that the species were fixed and immutable. Secular theory and religious teaching were at odds, and the consequences of this confrontation were far reaching indeed. It was maintained that the Bible until that time considered to be the word of God had been found wrong. Credence could no longer be given to it, and for many, that meant rejection of the entire text of the Bible. As a result, the theory gained ground that scientific data undermined the faith in God.
At first glance, this argument seems logical, but it does not hold water today because when talking of the Biblical texts, we now possess certain facts that were only beginning to be discovered at the end of the nineteenth century. The idea of a text of revelation to be accepted without questioning a single sentence gave way to the notion of a text inspired by God. The text of inspiration was written by mortal men at different points in time, it took its cue from ideas of the day, and included the traditions, myths and superstitions prevalent at the time it was written. "The scientific errors in the Bible are the errors of mankind, for long ago man was like a child, as yet ignorant of science:" This quotation from the work of the eminent Christian thinker Jean Guitton (1978) leads us to view the texts of the Bible from an angle very different from what was once the rule.
Indeed, the texts referred to here were consistently, thought to have been written by Moses himself. In actual fact however the longest part of Genesis: '(the Sacerdotal narrative)' was written by priests in the sixth century B.C. There is, however, a second narration, the Yahvist version, that probably dates back to the ninth or tenth century B.C. In view of this, it is difficult to take archaic ideas seriously. I have given a detailed account of this question in `La Bible, le Coran et la Science' [The Bible, the Qur'an and Science] [Published by Seghers, Paris, 9th edition, 1983, Also available in English from the same publisher.], and if we add to it ideas put forward on the texts by Christian exegetes themselves, we may conclude that there is no need' to prolong the antagonism between the supremacy of scientific fact and the primacy of Biblical teachings.
Later on, we shall see that the situation is quite different for other Scriptures, on account of their origin as well as their content. Here again, however, the age-old antagonism between religion and science is no longer justified.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that many scientists continue to view with disdain or at least with indifference any comment that touches on the supernatural, an attitude which appears to have hardened over the last few decades: Science is the key to everything, and sooner or later it must reveal facts that will enable us to form an exact picture of the origins of life, the formation and functioning of living matter; the appearance on earth of organisms ranging from the most basic to the most complex, and last but not least, the origins of man. In view of this, we may well ask whether religious teachings have not been superseded by progress. How indeed can we fail to be impressed by the stupendous discoveries of modern times particularly in molecular biology and genetics when these discoveries have enabled us to acquire an astonishingly precise insight into the field of cellular physiology?
It is easy to understand the excitement of researchers. Aware of their immense scope for discovery and action, they have even developed projects concerning the man of the future. In their view, certain of his qualities or characteristics could be `oriented' a concept that is today seen as a theoretical possibility. Many scientists researching the practical applications of genetics are undoubtedly appalled at the consequences that might arise if possibilities became realities. All the same, the very fact of wielding such power - if only theoretical power is surely a source of great excitement for researchers. In the minds of many scientists, the knowledge that such a power exists may lead them to consider that the ability to change living matter according to their fancy - for that is what it comes down to renders obsolete any theory on the origins of life that incorporates the supernatural. The same applies to those who confidently expect one day to see primary living matter created in the laboratory. Greatly to their credit is the fact that they have contributed data of immense value to our knowledge of life. They are seriously in error, however, when they imagine that from their laboratory and only from their laboratory (along with additional mathematical studies) have come, or will come; definitive data concerning man and the origins of life.
In actual fact, the subject of man's origins and evolution is extremely complex: It embraces so many disciplines that it is questionable whether a single person could make a detailed confrontation between the great mass of data, hypotheses and judgements that has been formed. Under the circumstances, we cannot fail to be sceptical when we are told that a certain idea drawn from a study limited to a single field provides us with the definitive answer to the question in hand. Clearly, this kind of zeal for an idea that often derives from mere supposition or foregone conclusion is detrimental to our overall knowledge of the subject.
Some researchers seem to be driven by the misguided wish to defend ideologies that have nothing to do with science. This fact is stressed by P.P. Grass', who for 30 years held the Chair of Evolutionary Studies at the Sorbonne, in his recent work entitled `L'Homme en accusation' [Man Stands Accused] [Published by Albin Michel, Paris, 1980], in which he is extremely critical of today's neo Darwinism. In the present work, I shall be citing many of the ideas put forward by this eminent zoologist, for I am convinced that his theories are correct. Grasse' concludes that while the fact of evolution is beyond question, there are great gaps in our knowledge of the way it operates, and there is no valid explanation of the factors determining it: The random mutations that take place in the genes which control heredity are insufficient to play a determinant role in evolution itself: 1n the case of man, a fact such as the development of the brain since the Australopithecus, over, a period covering at the very most 80,000 generations, is inconceivable in neo Darwinian terms. One of the great mysteries of human evolution is the (almost total) loss of man's innate behaviour, a feature that has remained present and active in apes. Man's evolution cannot be compared point for point with that of the rest of the animal kingdom.
In spite of this, we are constantly supplied with inaccurate data to support the opposite theory. Not long ago, for example, I listened to a radio interview with a 'member of an important research institute. The interview was aired as part of the main news programme of the day and reached hundreds of thousands of listeners. During the interview, the scientist in question supported by the prestige attached to his position stated firmly that the relationship between man and the apes had been clearly established by experiments pleading to the creation of hybrid genes: A new chemical complex had been constituted at the level of the molecule, made from components taken from both man and apes.. While this may be perfectly feasible in theory; it tells us absolutely nothing. The fallacy lies in the fact that the gene was presented as a `messenger' capable of carrying information, and hence of triggering the creation of new living tissue, a statement for which there is not one jot of evidence. What a pity it is that we live in an age where sensational but erroneous information is more likely to capture the public imagination than carefully weighed judgements expressing reservations and pointing toward the existence of facts as yet unknown.
Perhaps it is enough to remain at this stage, simply devoting our discussion of the origins of man to a review of the facts that modern scientific knowledge allows us to present as certainties or hypotheses, and at the same time refuting ideas that appear incorrect. What, indeed, is the point of bringing into the discussion the Holy Scriptures of the monotheistic religions?
First let me reply to those who consider their scientific knowledge to be one thing and their religious beliefs to be another a group that has continued to grow over the past few decades. To the atheist, mention of the supernatural will seem anachronistic, even in cases where science encounters enigmas the genetic code, for example. The idea of approaching a question such as this in metaphysical terms is unacceptable to the atheist, even though there is little room for any alternative solution. The existence of this separation between science and religious belief is in keeping with the reasoned ways of modern thought. As far as I am concerned, however, the separation provides grounds for a discussion of the reverse theory one, which seems to me to correspond to the reality of the situation. The `separatists' could just as easily be believers in God who harbour a certain fear that science will raise questions about their religion through a comparison they have often been told is dangerous.
Many other reasons abound, not least of which is incomprehension. This has often been noted between those of different faiths, who know little of other religions (and often little of their own Scriptures as well). We must bear in mind the fact that the monotheistic religions [I have not studied the ideas on the origins of man expressed in the religions of Asia. The question is not dealt with in any depth by these religions, nor is it treated in the concrete terms we are used to in the West - as far as I know, at least] - chronologically, Judaism, followed by Christianity and then Islam represent the religious beliefs of over one third of humanity. We cannot overlook these religions, and it is imperative to know how each of them views the origins of man. Particularly interesting is the examination of a religion's approach when seen in the light of what we know today about the origins of the Scriptures specific to each religion., The examination gives rise to new ideas, from which lessons may be drawn that are at present unsuspected by many people.
In the case of the Bible, the information provided on the Biblical authors has modified archaic or obsolete opinions, and has helped us distinguish the human factor in the texts. One of them is short, possibly having been truncated long ago, and it sheds light on what people in the ninth and tenth centuries B.C. thought about the origins of man : This is the Yahvist version of the Creation. The best-known text, the Sacerdotal version, is the work of priests in the sixth century B.C. It is the time-honoured description of the Creation, which appears in the first part of Genesis, setting forth the traditions of the day. Later on, the Christian religion adopted the Biblical tradition and reproduced in the New Testament data concerning the length of time man had been on earth. For centuries, the data were faithfully repeated in Bibles, and Y can remember seeing in 1930 a manual of religious instruction, which stated that according to the Bible, man's appearance on earth should be placed at roughly 4,000 B.C. That is the sort of instruction budding young Christians received in my day!
Mistaken ideas regarding the Qur'an have been common in Christian countries for a very long time. They still persist, as far as the history and content of the Qur'an are concerned. Because of this, the data in the Qur'an on the subject of man's origins must be preceded by a description of the way in which the Qur'an was communicated to man. The assertions on the origins of man to be found in the Qur'an will undoubtedly astonish many people, just as they astonished me when I first discovered them. The comparison of the Biblical and Qur'anic texts is moreover highly revealing: Both of them speak of God the Creator, but the scientifically unacceptable detail in the Biblical description of the Creation is absent from the Qur'an. In fact, the Qur'an contains statements concerning man that are astounding: It is impossible to explain their presence in human terms; given the state of knowledge at the time the Qur'an was communicated. In the West, such statements had never before formed the subject of a scientific communication until November 9, 1976, when I presented a paper to the French National Academy of Medicine on the physiological and embryological data present in the Qur'an, roughly fourteen centuries ahead of modern discoveries.
When taken together with Qur'anic statements on other natural phenomena, the details in the Qur'an on the origins of man form an important factor in the age-old debate between science and religion. They reopen the discussion by focusing on new arguments. In view of such significant points of agreement between firmly established scientific data and a Holy Scripture, we must reconsider hasty judgements, which have devoted more attention to abstract concepts than facts.
From the nineteenth century onward, religion and, science have been set in opposition in the West. The argument in favour of this has been the discrepancy between the Biblical text and scientific data. If we adhere strictly to 'the facts, however, we shall see that the opposition between the two was totally deprived of meaning from the moment the human origin of the texts in dispute was established. It is important to remember that the authors of the Biblical texts are considered by Christian exegetes themselves to have been inspired by God. All the same, the Biblical authors may have introduced inaccuracies to the text, without in the least betraying their divine inspiration. These inaccuracies could have arisen from the language of the day, or through references to traditions still honoured during the period. In the light of this, the presence of scientific error is hardly surprising. What would be surprising, from a logical point of view, would be the absence of any errors at all., The opinions of modern Christian exegetes on the Biblical texts are now clearly in agreement with the discoveries of science concerning the discrepancy between scientific data and the contents of the texts. According to the document adopted by the Second Vatican Council (1962 1965), the books of the Old Testament contain material that is `imperfect and obsolete'. Although the document does not actually state which material, in reading this, I do not think we can find a better confirmation of the accuracy of the theory put forward in the present work.
I have every reason to believe that similar opinions prevail in the most enlightened circles of Judaism. I refer in particular to my conversation several years ago with an extremely important figure in the Jewish world; the main subject of which was the, Sacerdotal narrative of Genesis. In the course of our meeting, we agreed that the scientific errors in the text could be explained by the fact that the main preoccupation of the priests of the sixth century B.C. was to instruct the faithful on the omnipotence of God. To do this, they related a story traditional at the time describing the origins of the heavens, the earth, living creatures and man. The story was cast in images and words that could be readily understood by the priests' contemporaries. The length of time that has elapsed since man first appeared on earth, as stated in the Hebrew calendar, should also be viewed in this light. Indeed, the statement of Biblical teaching that is most obviously at odds with science is that man first appeared on earth 5,742 years ago (calculated from late 1981). The moment we accept the existence of arguments that prevent us from taking this affirmation at face value, we can no longer use it as a legitimate accusation against the Bible in the confrontation between science and the Scriptures: It must be placed in its human context.
In the case of man, by comparing the Scriptural texts and modern knowledge, it became clear that the data in Genesis referred to here ought to be set apart for the reasons already mentioned. If we accept this, there is no longer any incompatibility between the teachings of the Scriptures and modern scientific discoveries, concerning the general concept of the creation of man and other views on the first stages of humanity. This is undoubtedly an unusual way of introducing the supernatural, but that does not alter its validity or usefulness. This approach avoids appealing to sentimental arguments that rely on people's emotions or their spiritual state the accusation usually levelled by materialist thinkers at those who tend to offer arguments based on faith.
Why should the idea of God not grow from extremely logical reflection concerning the infinitely large or the infinitely small? The strict order to be seen in both cases is patently obvious to anyone who takes the trouble to find out about them objectively and impartially. Similarly, in the field dealt with in this book, we shall arrive at the idea that there exists an amazing degree of organization in the functioning and evolution of living matter. Needless to say, God does not manifest Himself scientifically, yet it is perfectly possible to conceive of Him in scientific terms. My personal outlook remains profoundly rational, and although I have adopted the conclusions of modern science (when these are firmly established facts and not mere conjectures), I cannot find any incompatibility between scientific findings and Scriptural teachings. At the same time, however, the origin and history of the Scriptural texts must also be taken into, consideration. If we omit this aspect, we shall make an uneven assessment of the Scriptures, for we shall have failed to make allowance for the part played by error or human interpretation. I am convinced that such errors of interpretation were the result of lack of information. The present book grew from the conviction that on the extremely sensitive subject of man's origins, a comparison between scientific data and Scriptural teachings might help clarify points too often left obscure. I hope that the discussion of the answers provided by both sources will show that it is time for past antagonisms to disappear.