PART IV: ORIGINS
by Anthony Forwood (2011)
27: The Strength of Scientific Knowledge
There are six fields of knowledge that together provide us with the evidence that we use to form our current understanding of our human past: archeology, anthropology, paleontology, geology, astrophysics, and history.
Archeology is the study of historic or prehistoric peoples and their cultures by analysis of their artifacts, inscriptions, monuments, and other remains, particularly those that have been excavated.
Anthropology deals with the origins, physical and cultural development, biological characteristics, and social customs and beliefs of humankind. It studies human beings’ similarity to and divergence from other species.
Paleontology is the study of the forms of life that existed in former geologic periods, as represented by their fossils.
Geology deals with the dynamics and physical history of the Earth, the rocks of which it is composed, and the physical, chemical, and biological changes that the Earth has undergone or is undergoing.
Astrophysics is the branch of astronomy that deals with the physical properties of celestial bodies and with the interaction between matter and radiation in the interior of celestial bodies and in interstellar space.
Paleontology offers evidence of the human species’ evolutionary development going back as far back as two and a half million years ago, when we’re supposed to have branched off from our primate ancestors. Paleontology can go even much further back than this, to around five hundred million years ago, when the Cambrian explosion occurred and the first crustaceans evolved. In tracing our human origins and physical development, paleontology depends on archeology, anthropology, as well as the theory of evolution in piecing together a picture that appears to make sense regarding our human history and origins. Paleontology also depends heavily on the field of geology to determine the relative ages of fossils that have been preserved in rock, by determining the age of the rock.
Geology reveals the Earth processes that have taken place over a very long period of time, and allows us a means to understand the various processes that create the different types of rock, as well as how various features such as mountain ranges, deserts, and seas were formed and the relative time frames involved. Geology depends largely on theories stemming from the field of astrophysics in determining the age of our planet and the developmental processes it has gone through over time.
The field of astrophysics allows us to form an understanding of large-scale physical processes that include those of solar systems and planets. From it, we have been able to theorize how our planet formed and its relative age. This helps us to gauge the length of time that life has been able to form and evolve here. It also allows us to make an educated guess as to how likely it is that other intelligent life forms might have developed on other planets, and the chances that they might have been able to venture to our own planet in the time frames allowed.
Astrophysics, although highly dependent on theory, tells us that our Earth is so far removed from any other planet that might bear life that it’s believed to be virtually impossible for our planet to have ever been visited by another intelligent species, or for intelligent life here to have originated from elsewhere, or for it to have ever developed on this planet more than once. Because of this, we’re left with the conclusion that we originated here on Earth without ever having any other influences bearing on our development, and our scientists have formulated a picture of our developmental pattern of evolution along a line of reasoning that’s based on the accepted theories from all of these fields of study, and their accompanying evidence.
History, although not a science, gives us a record of our human development from the point of the first known civilization – forming at about 8,000 BC – to the present day. In the case presented here, we must rely on information that goes back to our earliest civilized times when humans first began to make written records, and even earlier than that, using information that has been retained only through memory and passed on in oral legends. Unlike our more recent history, this older information can’t easily be verified through other supporting sources. Because of this, it’s commonly believed that some of the more questionable stories are merely myths, and have therefore never been taken very seriously. But some researchers, in re-evaluating our ancient histories, are reconsidering this view, and are beginning to take some of these mythologized stories in a more literal light.
Each one of these fields of knowledge – archeology, anthropology, paleontology, geology, astrophysics, and history – has huge potential for being inaccurate to one degree or another, and so we need to be careful not to put our complete trust or reliance on them. There are a number of reasons for such potential inaccuracies. For instance, we should be on our guard or we might fall prey to following circular logic, where data from one field is used to support the relevance of data in another field, which in turn is used to support data in a third field, which is itself used to support the original data. We should also be aware that a great deal of our knowledge and understanding in these fields is based on theories and hypotheses, rather than established fact. While theories are given greater support because new facts arise that seem to fit into a theory in a manner predicted by that theory, hypotheses are no more than best guesses that still require the support of such new facts before they can be upgraded to theories. We should also be aware that many of these theories and hypotheses are often based on further theories and hypotheses, all of which are prone to being wrong in at least some respects. The further removed any theory or hypothesis is from being established as accurate, the more prone to error it will be. History can be more accurately established according to its recency in time, and in a similar way, archeology, anthropology, paleontology, geology, and astrophysics are each able to be more accurate in their understandings relative to the span of time being considered. In these scientific fields, the further back in time we reach, the greater the dependency on theories and hypotheses, and the less physical evidence exists. Thus, with the greater dependency on theories the farther back in time we go, the greater the opportunity there is for error. Our current understanding of our origins and achievements, being based in part on these six fields of knowledge, becomes more and more prone to errors the further back into the past we reach and the more we rely on theories and hypotheses to support our understanding.
Our current scientific understanding – that we evolved from primates and have spent the greater part of our time as primitive cave dwellers that have not, until relatively recently, been all that intelligent – is based primarily on anthropological studies and the Darwinian theory of evolution, the latter of which, as we’ve seen, may or may not be accurately reflected in the archeological record. Ignoring the anomalous evidence that has already been considered in previous chapters, the archeological record still has many unexplained gaps, omissions, and inconsistencies that have sometimes been filled in by relying on nothing more than some imaginative guesswork. And just as this has been the case in the past, so it will undoubtedly be in the future. As far as the human evolutionary record goes, it is spotty in many areas due to a lack of fossilized or mummified specimens that are needed to provide the links between the various evolutionary stages, or even between different cultures that existed during prehistoric times.