A recent report in the New York Times has been widely linked, including this summary at Evolution News. It deals with an inter-disciplinary squabble over recent claims by geneticists about human origins, which do not tally with the results in the rival field of palaeontology.
The discussion following the NYT article had one common theme from the (mainly lay) contributors: that everyone knows the fossil record to be sparse and woefully sporadic, whereas the new science of evolutionary genetics has all the information it needs within every single living human. The spat, they say, really represents a kind of Freudian envy by inadequate people embittered by spending all their lives down a hole with only a few shards to show for it.
It’s interesting how little criticism is made of the many subjective assumptions made in evolutionary genetics – the science is new, wonderful and reliable and we can trust the results. It’s also interesting how quickly people forget that for 150 years people said how the incontrovertible fossil record triumphed over unreliable human traditions like the Bible, because the science was new, wonderful and reliable and we could trust the results.
It reminds me of how biblical scholars have wrestled over the so-called Synoptic Problem over almost the same length of time. You didn’t think there was any possible connection, did you? Actually the issue is analogically very close. For non-theologians, the Synoptic Problem deals with the literary relationship between the first three Gospels, which have long been known to contain shared material suggesting some kind of interdependence. Pretty well the whole of critical New Testament study has grown from this question; from source, form and redaction criticism to the very dating of the Gospels. It is the foundation on which all such scholarship depends.
From the start, the tackling of the Synoptic Problem was seen as departing from the old pre-scientific disciplines of studying traditions, historical sources and so on. These were regarded as unreliable and fragmentary, when all the evidence needed to the critically-trained scholar was in front of their eyes, in the documents themselves. Just as in the case of the study of the Old Testament Pentateuch, the careful examination of words and sentences in a reductionist manner would reveal the sources from which the documents “must” have been constructed. The enterprise was engaged very much in the spirit of that much-quoted phrase of C S Lewis, “the assured results of modern scholarship.”
Again, just as in the case of Pentateuchal Studies, the first major theory proposed, as a key source, a document with absolutely no external attestation, called “Q”, a supposed collection of Jesus’s sayings. That theory proposed that Mark wrote a simple gospel first, that Matthew and Luke used both him and Q, and also added some material from their own “peculiar” sources (I’ve been inordinately interested in this for a long time – in the 70s I formed a folk group called “Peculiar Lukan Sauce.”)
A 2008 major conference suggested that, a century on, this is still the majority view. It also showed that, more than at any time in the history of the discipline, a true consensus does not exist. A trip to a specialist webpage shows that there at least four major, and contradictory, contenders. But this does not count many serious alternative versions of each theory, particularly of the prevalent two-source model. One must question (and some scholars involved do) how much the dominance of the two-source theory depends on just how much effort has been invested in it – and what rests on it, because if it is wrong, one would have to burn down entire libraries of erroneous research that relies on it.
I can’t resist some examples: J A T Robinson was amazed to find how the dates usually given for the gospels depend on projections based on the two-source theory. Mark must circulate long enough to be accredited, digested and recycled by Matthew or Luke. Dispensing with these assumptions led him to suggest dates from the 40s to no later than 70AD, for all four Gospels. That dating makes the assumed contributions of generations of “Jesus communities”, anonymous prophets and legendary accretions impossible to sustain – eyewitnesses again come to the fore – pretty well discounted by most contemporary scholarship. Not only the scholarly works, but the critical commentaries used by students and pastors alike, would have to be re-written.
All that might be less of a threat if it weren’t for the fact that after a century, this pivotal theory remains seriously contested by the specialists. That at least demonstrates that the initial promise – that a document can reliably reveal from within itself details of its history – is plain wrong. Indeed, it is interesting that some of the divergences between the various synoptic theories exist because of the willingness of scholars to take heed of factors outside the text itself. For example my contemporary at Cambridge, Richard Bauckham, takes much more seriously the reliability of the early Christian traditions about authorship, the relationship of the Gospels to classical biography, the consistency of the personal names of minor characters with what is known of Judaean kinship relationships, the anture of eye-witness reporting and other significant factors. The most the dominance of one view shows is that a restricted set of assumptions and methodologies will tend to reach similar conclusions.
In case you didn’t notice, this is the link with studies of early man. The geneticists, like the modern NT scholars, believe that scientific conclusions can reliably be drawn from uncorroborated sources seen within their experimental material, in this case human and ape genes rather than ancient documents. Why should that be any more true than the discredited aspirations of the “scientific” biblical scholars? The palaeontologists, meanwhile, at least have actual data, incomplete though it is. It resembles the tantalising clues of traditions and ancient history – possibly unreliable, certainly not enough to reconstruct the past fully, but at least another strand of information – and one that alters the overall picture considerably if taken into account.
Perhaps we shall never be able to reconstruct either human origins or the synoptic origins in a satisfactory manner. That would be a humbling admission that science, and history, are both limited means of gaining knowledge. But I would argue that we already know that when one type of science, especially one dependent on as many presuppositions as genetics or source criticism, is accorded monopoly rights to delivering truth, then we are almost certainly fooling ourselves.