Sunday, December 21, 2008

Are There Neanderthals in Heaven?

Discussing the previous post with Mrs Hickory in a jazz club without jazz last night, I realized, as I so often do, that the central point was not as clear as it might have been. You do not have to go back 30,000 years to the banks of the Rhine to find humans confronted with something that does not fit in with their conception of themselves as unique. It has happened to many groups in recent and not so recent times, and it always requires either an assimilation of the new group to the idea the old group has of itself, or a decision to exclude them from that august condition. By defining them as either human or inhuman the problem is effectively solved. Not without some difficulty, in most cases, but it is capable of solution.

It should be understood that it is an understanding reached by a group, recognised by the generality of individuals who form it, regardless of whether some do not accept it completely. It is made easier by the fact that all extant hominids can be recognised as human, whatever the other differences we may observe in them or attribute to them. In the broadest sense, they are all like us. It is true that peoples tend to ask themselves whether new and strange tribes are in fact human, and it may be true that their first instinct is to reject the idea, but they seem to work it out in the end.

I introduced the Neanderthal image for two reasons; firstly, it is what originally made me think about the question, and secondly, because it is a difficult case, given that they would have been sufficiently different, physically and cognitively, for Homo sapiens who lived alongside them to wonder how to classify them. I believe it would have constituted an existential problem, which might be reduced, in an attempt to understand it clearly, to the question in the title of this article.

I don’t know if the Church- any Church- has a position on this. Theologically it seems easy enough to resolve, but psychologically it isn’t. To have something half-human co-existing on a grand scale, impossible to ignore, interacting in part-human ways, perhaps even articulating its own concept of itself, must alter very dramatically the construction of the images we have about ourselves.

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