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Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D.July 25, 201615 min read

70,000 Years Ago, What Made Us Human: The Origin of a Soul? [Spitzer Scholarly Article]

This article will address the contemporary evidence from science, medical studies, anthropology, and philosophy pointing to a transphysical soul capable of surviving bodily death.

It is based on a book that I just wrote entitled, The Soul’s Upward Yearning, a part of a quartet, published by Ignatius Press.

What Makes Us Human: Understanding the Problem

Let’s begin with a historical and anthropological puzzle.

For a long time we have heard that human beings have evolved over the course of time, principally through physical and organic evolution – which is partially true.

There is a traceable movement from homo habilis to homo erectus to homo sapiens which branched off into homo sapien neanderthalensis and homo sapien sapiens – the latter of which became modern human beings.

Among homo sapien sapiens was a woman who geneticists have named mitochondrial Eve.”

She is the common woman ancestor of all human beings everywhere in the world today, and lived about 200,000 years ago. All of us – no matter where we are from – still have a genetic remnant from her called “mitochondrial DNA.”

In the same period (200,000 years ago), there was a man who geneticists call Y chromosome Adam who is the common male ancestor of all men. He generated the Y chromosome which constitutes the DNA of all men today.

So we might conclude from this that we have common genetic ancestry in two individuals who arose physically and biologically out of an evolutionary process, and who transmitted their DNA through continued physical and biological development to us.

However, as Pope Pius XII noted in 1950 in his encyclical Humani Generis, this is not all there is to the story.

A pure physical, organic evolution is only part of the truth of human origins because God has given every human being an individual and unique transphysical soul -- something that is not reducible to physics or to a physical evolutionary process.

Since it is transphysical, it must have a transphysical cause – namely, God.

We take that as a matter of faith as Catholics. But is there any scientific, medical, anthropological, or rational evidence to back this up – or is it merely a matter of faith?

As will be seen, there is considerable evidence from all these rational domains to corroborate the existence of our transcendental souls.

The evidence given in this article may seem quite sophisticated to those who are not acquainted with contemporary science, anthropology, and philosophy of mind, but I would implore you to familiarize yourselves with it — even imperfectly-- so that you can point others to something credible.

I have found that most people can sufficiently understand the anthropology given below as well as near death experiences and the five transcendental desires. These alone can form a convincing case for a transcendent soul.

However, if more is desired or needed, you may want to move into the areas of Gödel’s Proof (mathematics), Heuristic notions (philosophy of mind -- Kant, Lonergan and Eccles) and self-consciousness (philosophy of mind -- Chalmers).

Give it your best shot --and when possible, tell searchers, skeptics, and potential metaphysical materialists to consider it.

A Clarification on Evolution

I would like to clarify one important point before beginning my case for the soul – namely that Catholics are not against evolution.

As Pope Pius XII noted in Humani Generis, we as Catholics are permitted to believe in evolution – the only thing we are prohibited from believing is a pure reductionistic physical evolution which precludes the existence of a unique
human soul.

Saint Pope John Paul II declared that evolution is more than a mere hypothesis or theory – it has significant arguments to commend its truth (presentation to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences 1996).

But I am not here today to defend the scientific credibility of evolutionary theory – St. John Paul II has already done that.

I am here to defend the existence of our transphysical, transcendental soul in a culture reticent to acknowledge it.

Let me return to the puzzle I mentioned earlier.

What Makes Humans Human: The Origin of Language

There is a new book from the foremost linguistic theorist in the country -- Noam Chomsky, and an MIT professor of computational linguistics and computer science and engineering named Robert Berwick, entitled, Why Only Us (published by MIT Press in 2016).

Without delving into the complexities of their analysis, I will give their main point – that between 60,000 to 70,000 years ago, human beings developed a capacity for abstract, syntactical, and universal communication that no other species – not even our most proximate ancestors – developed.

I will explain abstract, syntactical, and universal communication later. For the moment, bear two things in mind.

  1. First, there is no known or probative biological or genetic explanation for this unique development in human beings, provoking the questions, “What caused it?” and “Was this cause physical or transphysical?”
  2. Second, it seems that the progeny between mitochondrial Eve/Y chromosome Adam (200,000 years ago) and their progeny who were invested with this abstract and syntactical linguistic ability (70,000 years ago) did not seem to do anything more significant than use stone tools, live in community, and hunt in tandem – and then suddenly, after 130,000 years, an explosion of language, discovery, religion, symbolism, art, and geographical exploration. What happened? And what caused it?

It seems that our genetic ancestors did convey a genetic-biological-physical profile to us, but they did not give everything to us that makes us human.

Something else was added 130,000 years after them (70,000 years ago) that gave rise to the explosion of universal syntactical language, religion, art, mathematics, and the precursors to complex civilization.

I would submit that this “something” is a transcendent soul, and that such a soul is the condition necessary for all of the above powers and characteristics – syntactical language, abstract mathematics, religion, symbolic art, and the free choice and moral awareness necessary for law and civilization.

If I am correct, then the woman geneticists call “Mitochondrial Eve” was probably not biblical Eve (the first woman having the soul necessary for free choice and moral decisions) and the man geneticists call “Y-Chromosome Adam” was probably not biblical Adam (the first man having a soul capable of free choice and moral decisions).

Universal Syntactical Language: A Distinguishing Feature

Before exploring this contention – and the evidence for a soul, we will want to probe more deeply into the findings of Noam Chomsky and Robert Berwick about the sudden and unique occurrence – explosion – of universal syntactical language.

What does Chomsky mean by this universal syntactical language?

There are two basic characteristics.

First, human beings can pass what might be called the syntactical test –which means they have enough abstract capability to differentiate between the meaning of a subject and a predicate – and to differentiate between the meaning of a subject and an object.

Thus, very small children can understand the difference between “dog bites man” and “man bites dog” – and even see the humor in it.

But no chimpanzee – which can learn 200 individual signs in American Sign Language – can make this distinction.

They simply do not have the capacity for abstraction (necessary to relate distinct objects to one another in various categories) required to differentiate between subjects (in general) and objects (in general).

Chomsky and Berwick believe that there might be a physical explanation linked to a special genetic switch affecting the brain, but they are far from showing how such a genetic switch or a patterning of brain modalities could give rise to the power of abstraction (necessary for relating objects to one another in various categories).

As I will explain later, predicates and objects are conceptual ideas (i.e. ideas relating objects and ideas to one another) and subjects are merely perceptual ideas (ideas referring to a single object – like a man or a banana).

You will just have to take my word for it now, but conceptual ideas need a basis for relating ideas to one another – and we call this “basis for relating ideas” – “heuristic notions.”

This is just a fancy way of saying that we need big general ideas to relate other less general ideas to one another. So what are these big general ideas – these heuristic notions?

They are six questions with which we are all familiar -- the questions why, how, how many, what, where, and when.

As we shall see, these big general ideas could not have been abstracted from experience or from wiring or patterns in the brain, and this is what has caused philosophers like Bernard Lonergan, or the Nobel Prize winning physiologist, Sir John Eccles, to declare that they must have a transphysical status and origin – a soul.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. I only say this now, because as I will contend, I do not think that Chomsky’s and Berwick’s explanation of the explosion of universal abstract language – namely, brain patterning and wiring – is adequate.

Nevertheless, I believe their insight about this uniquely human phenomenon occurring 70,000 years ago is quite valid.

The second major point of Chomsky and Berwick is the universality of the uniquely human capacity to pass the syntax test.

What is remarkable about human beings is that we could take a child from an African culture which has a rather unique way of expressing syntax and grammar, and place him, say, in a Chinese culture which has a totally different way of expressing syntax and grammar, and that child will be able to learn the syntax and grammar of that completely different language almost immediately – as if there were a universal syntax underlying every particular expression of it which young children understand from birth!

I have my reasons for suspecting that this universal syntax must come not from a brain – but from the soul. I believe that the reasons for this have been articulated by Aristotle, Saint Augustine, and Saint Thomas Aquinas in the past – as well as Bernard Lonergan, Sir John Eccles, and Michael Polanyi today.

I will discuss these points briefly later in the talk. For those interested in a detailed explanation of the correlation between universal syntax and a transphysical soul, please read my book, The Soul’s Upward Yearning: Clues to our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason (Chapters 3&6).

So let’s recap -- 70,000 years ago human beings acquired the capacity for universal syntactical abstraction.

Chomsky and Berwick believe this might be explained by biology and genetics alone, but I would contend that it cannot – because of reasons given later.

Recall that no other primate, no matter how sophisticated, has ever crossed the syntax threshold according to the studies of not only Noam Chomsky and Robert Berwick, but also Herbert Terrace and a variety of others.

But this is not all – the minute human beings receive this capacity for universal syntactical abstraction (and universal abstract language), they also received five other capacities/tendencies as well.

So what else happened 70,000 years ago?

More Distinguishing Features of the Human Species

Since human beings had the capacity for abstract syntactical language, they could communicate something about something – and they could answer the questions “What?” “Why?” “Where?” “When?” “How?” and “How many?”

This enabled them to express themselves geographically, temporally, causally, symbolically, and even transcendentally. This led to a tremendous explosion of exploration, discovery, art, and religion.

Let us examine a few of these new developments.

Exploration: A Distinctive Feature of Being Human

First, human beings seemed to have stayed within the vicinity of the border between Angola and Namibia (in Africa) for 135,000 years – between Mitochondrial Eve-Y Chromosome Adam (200,000 years ago), and the great migration out of Africa (starting 65,000 years ago).

In other words, sometime after receiving the capacity for universal, syntactical language, human beings began to migrate from an area in which they lived for 135,000 years and began to spread all over Africa.

5,000 years later, they are moving out of Africa into the Near East and Middle East – and from the Near East and Middle East into Europe and Asia – and from Europe and Asia to the northernmost areas of Siberia.

Then they crossed the Arctic land bridge (which existed at that time) into the northernmost part of America, and then proceeded south, so that in 1,000 years they would move from the northernmost point of the western hemisphere to the southern tip of South America.

What explains this radical transition from a rather sedentary human community on the border of Namibia and Angola, to world exploration?

Was it simply a lack of food? Simply a desire to escape tribal enemies?

Though this may have been part of the reason, it does not explain the rapid and world-wide expansion of the human population even on the oceans to Indonesia and even Australia.

I would submit that there is something more than simple need – there was a “spirit” of curiosity and adventure – something absent in our most proximate ancestors – that engendered the spirit to discover and explore.

Burying the Dead: A Unique Human Trait

Something else also happened in this period -- human beings started burying their dead – treating the remains of their deceased with respect – and burying them with rituals and objects indicating a belief that they would survive their physical death (see, for example, a burial site with these objects from this period in the Skhul cave at Qafzeh, Israel).

If humans did not believe in their spiritual nature or life after death, we might ask, “Why did they bother to bury their dead with great respect – and with rituals and objects?”

And if they did have an awareness of their spiritual nature and life after death, we might ask the further question, “Where did they get this awareness from?”

After all, 130,000 years of ancestors did no such thing – and then suddenly, human beings seem to be doing it as a universal practice.

Did this spiritual awareness – this awareness of something beyond the physical world also come from our transphysical soul?

Qualities that Make Us Human: Art

We also see another development concomitant with burial and religion – art and symbolic representation.

There are cave drawings dating back to at least 35,000 years ago (see Jo Marchant in Smithsonian January 2016) that have been more recently dated at 44,000 years ago (see Ewen Callaway in Nature December 2019) on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia and archaeologist Bruno David, at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, believes that it's only a matter of time before even older artwork is found in Africa.

The drawings of animals are rather well developed, indicating that they were probably preceded by more primitive attempts at art and symbolization.

Many scholars believe that the animal drawings have sacred and cultural symbolic significance (see Ghosh, Pallab, “Cave paintings change ideas about the origins of art”).

Behavior Unique to Humans: Numeration

In the same period, numeration systems (the precursor to formal mathematics) originated.

Counting or tallying by using fingers on the hand undoubtedly preceded tallying with objects (such as sticks).

This in turn preceded written numeration.

Tallies made by carving notches in wood, bone, and stone were used for at least 40,000 years before the development of written numeration systems (see George Ifrah 2000 Universal History of Numbers, pages 64-67).

There is no evidence of abstract numeration in any other species except human beings.

Did this originate from our heuristic notion of “how many?” – And can this innate heuristic notion (standing at the foundation of all quantitative relationships) be explained by programming of the brain?

As noted earlier, it is quite unlikely. For it is one thing to program a brain (or computer) to count, but quite another thing to understand counting itself and its significance.

It is these abstract concepts that elude mere programming or patterning of the brain. As Gödel's theorem reveals (addressed elsewhere), humans do mathematics very differently from computers.

The latter follow programs while the former invent them. The former have an abstract understanding of numeration itself in all of its permutations, while the latter lack all such understanding.

Another Human Trait: The Development of Advanced Social Norms

Human communities having durable structures, some specialization of labor and commerce, and a sense of social norms began to arise as a result of migrations, differentiated linguistic systems resulting from those migrations, and the ability to barter and exchange on the basis of counting and tallying.

Religion probably had a part to play in the origin of social norms underlying these settlements.

It seems that as migration occurred, some groups stayed behind while others continued to migrate.

Those who stayed behind used their linguistic and numeric capacities to specialize labor, and their religious instincts to solidify basic social norms and rules.

What Makes Us Human: Putting it All Together

Why did this explosion of universal language, exploration and discovery, abstract numeration, religion, art, and social norms occur?

Up to now we have only surmised that all of these events were interrelated and originated about 70,000 years ago – and that merely physicalist explanations (such as brain rewiring) may well be inadequate.

In light of this, we have speculated that there may be a transphysical cause of these capacities – a transphysical cause of the heuristic notions underlying syntactical language and mathematics – a transphysical cause for human interest in religion and art – and even a transphysical cause of our indomitable spirit of discovery and adventure.

But is there any evidence that such a transphysical cause exists? Any evidence for a transphysical soul – or for the transcendental capacities to which we alluded above?

Is there any evidence we can turn to now to reveal an adequate explanation for what happened back then – 70,000 years ago? I believe there is.

Let me briefly discuss five kinds of evidence which I have explored in depth in The Soul’s Upward Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason.

The complete article may be found below:




Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D.

Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D. is a Catholic Priest in the Jesuit order (Society of Jesus) and is currently the President of the Magis Center and the Spitzer Center. He has made many TV appearances including: Larry King Live (debating Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow), the Today Show (debating on the topic of active euthanasia), The History Channel in “God and The Universe,” a multiple part PBS series “Closer to the Truth,” and the Hugh Hewitt Show. Currently appearing weekly on EWTN in “Father Spitzer’s Universe“.