From Big Bang to Big Mystery:
Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution

by Brendan Purcell
New City Press, 370 pages, $34.95

Benjamin Disraeli famously asked whether man is “an ape or an angel” and answered that he himself stood “on the side of the angels.” The question, while elegantly framed, is a false choice. Man is neither an ape nor an angel; he is an animal, but an animal with a difference. The right question, therefore, is how man, having evolved from apes, can nonetheless have something in common with the angels.

To answer that, one must look to paleoanthropology and the other sciences of human origins, but one must also look beyond them. Indeed, even those sciences must look beyond themselves, for to find out when, where, and how human beings first appeared one must know what makes a being human. That question has to be approached not only through the techniques of science but also through self-knowledge and the light cast by philosophy, art, and religion.

This is the task that Brendan Purcell, an emeritus professor of philosophy at University College Dublin and a Catholic priest, has set himself. He brings to it an enormous range of knowledge, including a familiarity, it seems, with everything written on human origins in recent decades. Even so, he does not aim to answer the questions for us.

“Awareness of our humanity isn’t a matter of drawing a conclusion to an argument,” he says, “but of rising to a level of self-reflection.” He therefore “can only invite readers to . . . carry on the quest” that has occupied him for many years, following the “hints” he gives in this book.

The quest is endless, for, in the words of Thomas Mann, “the human essence . . . [and] the beginnings of the human . . . prove to be completely beyond our grasp, and no matter what age-lengths we unspool our plumb-lines to, they always recede again and further into fathomlessness.” And yet, while the answers recede, they also lie close at hand, for the one who quests is himself human. His questing is itself a clue to the answers, for it belongs to the very essence of man that he seeks the truth about himself and why he exists. Purcell (following Eric Voegelin) sees the “notion of what it is to be human” emerging only three times in human history, in “spiritual outbursts”: in the Hebrew Bible, in classical Greek philosophy, and in the New Testament.

In Greek philosophy there appeared an understanding of man as oriented toward that which is highest. Xenophanes saw human existence as the “capacity for wisdom reaching out to the One divine reality.”

The Hebrew Bible goes beyond this, seeing man as capable of an interpersonal relationship with God. Thus Abraham Joshua Heschel contrasted philosophy, where man is in search of God, with biblical revelation, where God is in search of man. In the New Testament, finally, God is revealed as self-giving love and man’s true life as a participation in this love.

Purcell writes that “the nature of God is self-transcendence, manifested especially in his creation of free beings,” while the nature of man is marked by the “desire for self-transcendence.” God creates man as free, while man in turn reaches out toward the One to be in relationship with him.

This striving is described by Purcell using the ideas of the Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan, who saw evolutionary processes in terms of what he called “emergent probability.” The universe develops through a sequence of ascending “schemes of recurrence,” each of which is a stable cycle of activity that draws the lower schemes into a higher synthesis, which in turn becomes the basis for the emergence of yet higher schemes.

For example, elementary particles are drawn into the stable structures called atoms and molecules. These then create the possibility of the emergence of self-perpetuating cycles of chemical reactions. From these arise the possibility of self-reproducing cells, then multicellular organisms, and so on, through the ascending levels of organic life. Each scheme must be stable enough to provide a basis for further development, but not so stable as to trap matter within its routines and block higher developments.

The lower schemes are not destroyed by becoming part of higher ones, but are (in Lonergan’s terminology) “sublated”; that is, they preserve their features but become integrated into a “richer context” in which they can acquire new functions or meaning. As Purcell notes, this is somewhat akin to the medieval notion of materia apta (the suitable material basis for the appearance of a new and higher form), as well as to the idea of “exaptation” developed by evolutionary biologists, whereby a structure is “co-opted” by the evolutionary process to serve a function that it did not originally have. (A classic example is that what were jawbones in reptiles developed into part of the auditory apparatus of mammals.) The evolutionary process can thus be recognized as an opportunistic one that involves chance events and is governed by probabilities and yet overall has an intelligible structure, in which lower levels are open to higher integrations whose possibilities are built in. Purcell finds support for this view in the ideas of the evolutionary biologist Simon Conway Morris on “convergent evolution” and in recent “evo-devo” (evolution-development) ideas.

Several interlinked physical developments were necessary preconditions for the emergence of certain distinctively human faculties, for example. Articulate speech and syntactical language, which underlie human rationality, required several modifications of the “supralaryngeal vocal tract” and a variety of neural developments that may originally have evolved for increased motor control; and increased motor control may have arisen as a result of bipedalism, which freed the hands for tool making.

The fossil record shows that some of these developments happened gradually from Australopithecus afarensis through Homo erectus (who appeared about two million years ago) to anatomically modern human beings, who appeared roughly 150,000 years ago. There is, however, a debate, reviewed by Purcell, as to whether there was at some point in the distant past a “human revolution.”

That there was such a revolution is suggested by the relatively sudden appearance about 50,000 years ago of a profusion of intricately wrought artifacts of bone, antler, and ivory; more varied and complex stone tools; personal ornaments; grave goods bespeaking belief in an afterlife; art; more sophisticated social organization; and other signs of behavior requiring symbolic thought. At the physical level, this likely had to do with neural developments that made possible the transition from animal communication to human language. This development is linked with another transition, from the animal level of knowing (which Lonergan called “animal extroversion”) to rational knowing.

As he explained, rational knowledge comes through a dynamic process involving three ascending levels of activity: experience (sensing, imagining, and remembering, all of which animals do); understanding (asking questions, having insights, formulating concepts, and framing propositions); and judgment (reflecting, weighing evidence, and drawing conclusions). Each level furnishes the material for the higher ones, with rational knowledge coming only at the third level through reasonable assent to true propositions. These levels are driven by imperatives, which are, respectively, “be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable,” the whole process being dynamically oriented toward objective truth.

It is here, in the suprasensory faculties by which man is able to achieve self-transcendence in the grasp of truth, goodness, and beauty, that Purcell sees man’s discontinuity with his hominid forebears, since he argues that these higher faculties cannot be explained solely in biological terms. One sees evidence of man’s drive for self-transcendence even in the earliest archaeological data. As Solzhenitsyn noted in his Nobel lecture, “Archaeologists have yet to discover an early stage of human existence when we possessed no art.”

Many paleoanthropologists analyze early human art and rituals solely in utilitarian terms by saying that they were part of shamanistic practices that focused on healing or successful hunting and promoted survival through group cohesion and commitment. But Purcell sees something deeper: Primitive man wished to be “attuned” to the “order of existence.”

Human beings were conscious of being outlasted by their societies, of their societies being outlasted by nature, and even nature, perhaps, by the gods. By attunement to the cosmic order, then, man could hope in some way to participate in immortality. In the Irish neolithic burial mounds at Newgrange, the sunlight enters the mound at the dawn of the winter solstice, when the dying sun is reborn.

The use of stone at Newgrange, at Stonehenge, and at other burial grounds was, in the words of Mircea Eliade, not only “a protection against animals and robbers, [but,] above all, against ‘death’ for as stone was incorruptible, the soul of the dead man must continue to exist as itself.” Here is seen, in however confused a form, that desire for self-transcendence, that reaching out to the eternal ground of his existence Xenophanes and his successors saw as the essence of man.

I have barely scratched the surface of this rich and important book. There is more in it than can easily be summarized. Like cosmic evolution, it is a bit untidy, and it’s not always clear where it is heading. But if it doesn’t have the neatness of a demonstration, it has the excitement of a quest. And no quest could be more worthwhile. In the words of Dostoevsky, quoted on the first page, “Man is a mystery. One must solve it. If you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man.”

Stephen M. Barr, a member of First Things’ advisory council is professor of physics at the University of Delaware.