When they showed on television the cave on the island of Flores where the remains of little people had been found, I felt, I admit, a Yeatsian frisson that the world of politics cannot give. It was not delight at a new branch on the hat-stand of anthropoid evolution, but the thought that in the thick Indonesian rainforest there were (or had been, perhaps as recently as the time when dodos lived) creatures with whom we could converse, but which were not men.
The appetite for talking to other creatures is amply exemplified by our often exasperated one-sided conversations: ‘Get off the bloody table, Tigger, there’s a good cat.’ The very existence of pets as a sort of imaginary friend shows how reluctant humans are to be alone among the frightening emptinesses of Paschalian space. The exciting news was that the folk tales of green men, little people, wood-dwellers, might be based on fact.
But don’t these new creatures in Flores, so gratingly christened hobbits, prove that the Bible is rubbish, Darwin is right and everything can be explained by evolution? Well, for so-called fundamentalists, the difficulties of keeping to the sentence-by-sentence literal truth of the biblical account of the Creation should not be much greater than they already are, even if a delegation of Flores hobbits arrived in Downing Street demanding equal rights and bus passes.
For mainstream Christians, Darwin was never much of a problem anyway. He was only thought to be so by those who presumed he had somehow either: 1) proved the Bible wasn’t true, or 2) proved that men had no immortal souls. He had proved neither.
Genesis was chewed over, about 1,800 years ago, by the clever Christian thinker Origen. ‘What reasonable man would think that the first, second and third day — and the evening and the morning — existed without a sun, moon and stars?’ he asked. I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries.
No one, before the phrase ‘sola scriptura’ became a motto, took the Bible for a sort of cosmological mechanical maintenance manual. But it was the contention of Christians 1,500 years before Darwin that evolution does not rule out questions of design, intention, teleology or why anything exists at all.
Far more interesting this week, in an irresponsibly speculative way, is what we should make of these Floresians’ spiritual life, if they existed.
The Church used, in the Middle Ages, to be very fierce against those who declared that there were men living in the Antipodes. The problem was that the scientists taught then that the torrid zone at the equator made it quite impassable to travellers, and so any human existing down-under would be descended from another first-father rather than Adam. But Christian doctrine had always maintained that all men were descended from one man. They were all fallen through original sin, but all redeemed by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
The scientists who have come up with these new Floresians do not count them among the ancestors of man, but among the collateral branches which died out, like the Neanderthals, only later. The suggestion is that the Floresians are, like us, rational animals.
Now Christians believe that man (I mean homo, of course, not vir) is a special creation of God. Would these Floresians be in the image and likeness of God too, with immortal souls to be saved or lost, capable of praying to God and going to heaven?
I cannot see that evolution would be an obstacle to their being spiritual and rational creatures. ‘The Catholic faith obliges us to hold firmly that souls are immediately created by God,’ wrote Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Humani Generis in 1950. And he wasn’t just making it up; that was the general belief of Christians over the centuries. By ‘immediately created’ is meant that the souls don’t grow like coral out of the bodies that our parents kindly bequeathed us by their passionate or careless mingling of zygotes.
The soul is, in scholastic terms, derived from Aristotle, the form of the body, making it, with its constituent matter, a unified substance. Bunny rabbits have souls too, but they are not immortal. Ours are, and, as such, cannot be confected by a collision of matter. For more details see Aquinas’s Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima.
The assumption is that God does not deny any human an immortal soul; the bodily set-up is capable of working with an immortal soul, like a mobile with a charged battery, and God provides one. The one soul performs all the functions: spiritual, intellectual, animal and vegetative. It would be the same story for the Floresians if they were capable of rational, immaterial thought.
By ‘rational thought’ I do not merely mean the kind of cleverness we notice in our dogs, or in the cleverest mammals, dolphins or, if you are Lyall Watson, pigs. Descartes thought animals were mere automata, but he was wrong, for they clearly have feelings, can learn and make decisions.
If you accept the standard post-Aristotelian arguments for the immortality of the soul, you will link it to intellectual reason. This is more than mere mathematical calculation. Though we are animals when we are thinking intellectually, the thoughts themselves are not bits of brain or electrical charges being arranged. Of course the original information came in through the senses, but ratiocination is immaterial, and immaterial things cannot decay, having no degradable parts.
But even if you accept this unfashionable view of thought, is it not hard to see where on the continuum of intelligence our ape-like ancestors qualified as having true immaterial rationality? Well, naturally it is hard to detect a step-change on any continuum, but the scientists are ready to claim a new species in Flores, a specific difference that is more than a matter of degree.
I suspect that the Neanderthals did not have the spark of reason, and thus their souls departed, as any form of a substance does, when their bodies died and decayed. Only if the Floresians were brighter and could conceive of universal ideas, conversing excitedly perhaps about what should be on Saturday night television once Saturday night and television had been invented, would they be capable of sustaining an immortal soul.
The presence of these rational animals is no weirder than the belief millions of Christians hold, that there are lots of angels around, each a spirit individually created, like immortal souls, by God.
But would the Floresians be fallen creatures, like the children of Adam, or still walking in unsevered friendship with God? C.S. Lewis wrote about unfallen Martians in Out of the Silent Planet, one species at least of which, the sorns, were more intelligent than human beings. If the Floresians are fallen creatures, how would they be redeemed? Would the incarnation of Christ and his resurrection save them?
Not that I can see, since God did not become a Floresian but a human, a Homo sapiens. Still, the Incarnation and Resurrection have had a universal, cosmic effect, so it could well be lèse majesty to criticise divine arrangements for the redemption, if necessary, of an intelligent species, the existence of which is posited only on the evidence of some dry bones. Ezekiel had a vision of a valley of dry bones, and was much surprised by what happened next.
Christopher Howse is an assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph.