19 November 2012

Other species in heaven

Is heaven a place to which we go after this life is over? If so, who gets to go, just humans? We take a look at our closest relatives and ponder where to draw the line between human and not human. If drawing a line is impractical, might there be something wrong with our understanding of the nature of heaven?

Reconstructed Neanderthals
Here's an interesting idea, something I haven't seen discussed before. If it has been, I missed it.

(Note: If you are a creationist you may not like what follows. The article is not intended to be provocative but you might prefer not to read the rest.)

Many believers in Jesus would say that heaven is a specific place to which we go after this life is over (assuming we have faith in Christ as Lord and Saviour). And many of those same people would also say that only people go to heaven - in other words there will be no cats, dogs, snakes, pigeons or earwigs in heaven.

There are many reasons for thinking heaven may not be exactly what we imagine it to be. But let's leave that aside for the moment and accept that it's a place for retired saints, and animals are not allowed.

The big question is this... Where do we draw the line between humans and non humans?

I hope we can all agree that the major races of people are indeed all human. Negroid, Asiatic, Caucasian, North American Indian and all the rest. Broad divisions and minor differences, we are all one species, Homo sapiens. If we can't agree that - we are in trouble!

Various species - Modern humans are the only species remaining today, but other types of  hominin (human-like primates) existed in the past.

Modern humans - Fossil evidence suggests that modern humans (Homo sapiens) have been around now for perhaps 200 000 years, and most definitely for at least 50 000 years by which time our ancestors were showing evidence of modern human behaviour.

But other fascinating fossil and sub-fossil discoveries have been made, some of them rather recently.

Red Deer Cave People - These may or may not be a different species from us. They lived until 11 500 years ago in China. Research is continuing but attempts to recover DNA have so far failed and other evidence is not yet conclusive. They are known to have used fire and cooked deer meat.

Flores man - This species (Homo floresiensis) was very small and is only known from the Indonesian island of Flores. The most recent specimens date to only 12 000 years ago. They were also toolmakers like us, stone tools have been found with their remains.

Denisovans were recently discovered (2008). They are known from a few minor bone remains in a Siberian cave. DNA analysis shows clearly that they are related to Neanderthals and interbred to some extent with the people who populated the Pacific islands. They survived until about 41 000 years ago and had a common ancestor with both modern humans and neanderthals around a million years ago.

Neanderthals - Quite similar to us, Neanderthals have been known from skeletal remains for many years. They are sometimes regarded as a separate species from us (Homo neanderthalensis) or sometimes as a subspecies (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis). Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia from 600 000 until 30 000 years ago or perhaps even as recently as 25 000 years ago.

Neanderthals seem to have had behaviour strikingly similar to our own. They probably had language, they made tools, wore clothes, hunted large animals (even the giant mammoths), they wore jewellery, cared for invalids, used fire, painted cave walls and observed rituals for the dead.

Genetic evidence shows that there was limited interbreeding between our ancestors and Neanderthals.

Homo erectus - This hominin may have been the ancestor of  Homo sapiens (us), Homo neanderthalensis and the other groups listed above. They lived from 1.8 million until at least 300 000 years ago and may have remained even longer, perhaps overlapping with us and certainly with Neanderthals. Homo erectus lived in Africa, Europe and Asia, made stone tools, and ate meat as part of a mixed diet.

Homo ergaster - Another possible ancestor, perhaps of Homo erectus as well as the other groups, Homo ergaster lived in Africa from 1.8 million years ago. These ancestors, too, had an advanced stone tool culture.

Overlapping species - It seems that several different hominins were living on the Earth at the same time although we are now the only remaining kind. If we assume that sapiens, floresiensis, denisovans, and neanderthalensis are different species (as many scientistists do), then we have at least four species co-existing. We might even add the Red Deer Cave people which would make five. In many cases there was overlap in geographical range as well, and there was a modest amount of interbreeding between modern humans and both Denisovans and Neanderthals.

The question then arises whether all four (or five) will be present in heaven. Of course, it's possible to argue that all these groups are subspecies of Homo sapiens. In that case we might call them all 'human' and the 'heaven problem' might seem less of an issue. But many scientists studying these groups would say that they are different species of human.

The ancestor species, Homo erectus and Homo ergaster, are also usually regarded as human and it's just possible that a population of erectus remained recently enough to have overlapped with us. Will erectus be present in heaven? How about ergaster?

The question, as I mentioned, is where to draw the line. So in case you haven't drawn that line yet, let's continue along our family tree and see what comes before Homo ergaster.

Earlier hominid ancestors - The ancestor of Homo ergaster, Homo habilis, was another tool user living from 2.33 to 1.4 million years ago. With long arms and a brain only half the size of modern humans, we can be certain habilis was a distinct species. This early hominin died out long before our own species developed.

An earlier genus of hominin, Australopithecus gave rise to the early Homo line. They are represented by several species living between 4 and 2 million years ago. They walked upright, their brains were around a third of the size of ours. They used simple tools (as do chimpanzees and gorillas).

Chimpanzee and australopithecine lines separated around 5.4 to 6.3 million years ago (possibly earlier). Sahelanthropus may perhaps represent a late common ancestor. It has a brain size about a quarter of ours, more or less the same as a modern chimp.

The sub-family Homininae includes humans, chimpanzees and gorillas.

The family Hominidae includes the Homininae as well as orangutans which split off from them some 12 million years ago.

Simians include all the Old World monkeys and apes (the Hominidae and gibbons) as well as the New World monkeys.

The order Primates includes the Simians and the Prosimians (lemurs, lorises, bushbabies, and tarsiers). The order developed about 85 million years ago from ancestors that were early tree-dwelling mammals.

The Euarchontoglires superorder includes primates as well as rodents, lagomorphs, treeshrews, and colugos. Yes, rats are our distant cousins.

The Eutheria (placental mammals) include Euarchontoglires and all other mammals apart from non-placental types such as the monotremes and the marsupials. The group has it's origins at least 160 million years ago.

Where do we draw that line? - So now that tricky question again. Where do we draw the line? Which (if any) of these creatures will we find in heaven? It's not so easy, is it? Most believers might say modern humans are in and chimpanzees are out. But what about Neanderthals, what about Australopithecus?

Creationists will see the entire argument as foolish. Their view is that all extant species were created as they now are and Homo sapiens is distinct and special. But 150 years ago some would have excluded Negroid peoples as somehow 'sub-human'. They were useful as slaves but would have no place in heaven. Mercifully such views have been swept away, but we should not forget that opinions of that kind were taken perfectly seriously not so long ago.

Non-believers will accept the biology but have no place for the idea of heaven. For them, too, there is no problem.

But setting aside non-believers and Creationists, what do those in the middle think (non-Creationist believers)?

Could it be that there is nothing wrong with the biological understanding of species and evolution, but there is instead something wrong with our idea of what heaven is? We'll take a look at that next time.


  • People used to talk about 'missing links' in the fossil record. The record for human development is much more complete now. Do you think missing links are still an issue?
  • If humans evolved from earlier ancestors, where would you draw the line between human and pre-human?
  • If life evolved, does that render faith impossible? If so, how?
  • How do you understand the creation passages in Genesis? Is a literal view plausible? Is a literal view necessary?
  • What is heaven?

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