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Briefly Reviewed: May 2022

At the Dawn of Humanity: The First Humans

By Gerard M. Verschuuren

Publisher: Angelico Press

Pages: 203

Price: $17.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

In At the Dawn of Humanity, Gerard Verschuuren, a geneticist and philosopher of science, takes up the challenge of the neo-Darwinists who have made a “doctrine” of gradualism, Charles Darwin’s belief that between animals and humans there is only a difference “of degree and not of kind.” They see animals as humans-in-the-making and claim there can be no “evolutionary leaps” in the development of man.

Neo-Darwinists believe language evolved from animal communication, and so they search desperately for animals that can learn to speak. Yet language is unique to humans. Even though animals can be trained to string sounds together, they can’t grasp grammatical structure, which human children at the age of three can do. That is because language is “primarily an instrument of rationality,” which we use for conceptual understanding and reasoning. We use it only secondarily for communication. It is how we transform the particular things we perceive into universals, such as seeing a circular object and abstracting from it the concept of circularity. Gradualists try in vain to find concept-like elements in the animal world, but animals use sounds only as signals, warnings, and commands.

Gradualists, mindful of Darwin’s goal in The Descent of Man — “to show that there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties” — maintain that there must be something like reasoning in the animal world. Verschuuren replies that there is indeed social intelligence in wolves, and spatial intelligence in bats, but these don’t involve cognition. Animal intelligence is not the same as the human intellect, which changes perceptions into concepts. Animals have drives and motives but not symbols and reasoning.

Gradualists also claim that there must be some morality in animals from which human morality evolved, for in The Descent of Man, Darwin says that “any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual power had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.” Verschuuren replies that animals have social behavior but no moral code. In their world of natural selection, there is no right and wrong, only different degrees of success. Natural selection is about success at the expense of others, while morality is about duties toward others. There isn’t much survival value in moral laws, as they involve self-sacrifice for others. Besides, human reason and morality can overrule what our genes dictate.

Morality comes from the immaterial mind, not from the material brain or the genetic code. When neo-Darwinists reduce morality to something physical, this is called materialism (which is itself a concept). There is a deep “morality divide” between so-called pre-human animals and humanity. Indeed, just as beneath our different human languages we find common concepts, so beneath our different social laws we find a common morality. St. Thomas Aquinas calls this the natural law. The laws of nature and moral laws are absolute, objective, and universal.

Gradualists seek the part of the brain that gives us self-awareness, trying to locate the mind within the brain, as Darwin did when he wrote in an early notebook of “thought” as a “secretion of the brain.” The “mirror test” is high on their agenda, for they believe any animal that recognizes itself in a mirror has self-awareness and deserves, therefore, to have civil rights. However, awareness of one’s body is not necessarily self-awareness, for there also has to be a conceptual abstraction of self and a sense of one’s past and future. Far from residing in the brain, the mind is the subject that studies the brain as its object. It also uses the brain as its instrument to know truth and falsehood. Our thoughts are more than brainwaves, and when materialists reduce mental ideas to patterns of electrical impulses in the brain, they disregard meaning and sense.

The mind, Verschuuren says, is the “soul’s eye.” He laments that René Descartes drove a wedge between body and soul that has “profoundly permeated our culture.” For Descartes, the soul is the pilot of a ship, but for Aquinas, the soul and body are one complete substance, the human person. The soul is immaterial and cannot evolve.

Geneticists argue that the presence of religion in all cultures and ages shows that the idea of God must be preloaded in the human genome. In 2005 Dean Hamer claimed he had found the “god gene,” just as he had earlier claimed (falsely) to have found the “gay gene.” But before Hamer can reduce spirituality to biology, he first must show that man is “only flesh,” not “flesh and spirit.” God’s existence is a factual issue of a yes-or-no nature. Without religion, our rationality and morality would have no grounding. Only the existence of God explains the existence of an intelligible universe and universal laws of nature and morality.

DNA research has found a genetic “Adam” and “Eve” dating from about 150,000 years ago, but the search for the “real Adam and Eve,” Verschuuren says, is beyond the scope of science. We need to distinguish the two, for, as Pope Benedict XVI said in 2008, “Anthropogenesis is the rise of the spirit, which cannot be excavated with a shovel.” All the preparatory work for the dawn of humanity was done biologically, but at creation there was also a special divine act to be performed, whereby God would raise two individuals to the unique spiritual level of the human race. Verschuuren notes that the Catholic Church defends monogenism for reasons based on the doctrine of Original Sin, for if fleshly solidarity does not come with descent from a common ancestor, then Christ’s fleshly solidarity with human beings is “rendered problematic.”

The earliest, virtually undisputed human burial site in the Skhul Cave at Qafzeh, Israel, dates from around 80,000 years ago. Once human beings appear in history, we have wonderful evidence of rituals and artistic expression. Pope St. John Paul II called this an “ontological leap.” These new humans are masters of self-awareness and self-expression, endowed with an immortal soul and mental powers of language, rationality, morality, and religion.

Verschuuren ends his excellent work with a “Final Word” about how “scientism” today is the dogmatic belief that there is no dimension of reality beyond scientists’ materialistic reach. It has become our new semi-religion.

Père Marquette: Priest, Pioneer, and Adventurer

By Agnes Repplier

Publisher: Angelico Press

Pages: 310

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Mary Brittnacher

The name Marquette is known to most Americans. Agnes Repplier’s Père Marquette: Priest, Pioneer, and Adventurer portrays the man behind the familiar name. Jacques Marquette was born in 17th-century Laon, France, a town replete with history. The young Marquette was educated in Jesuit schools and had a proclivity for religious life. At age 17 he entered the Jesuit novitiate. During his subsequent 12 years of study, he revealed a strong talent for languages along with an affable, extroverted personality.

The yearly publication in Paris of the Relations, a chronicle of Jesuit exploits in New France, resulted in enthusiastic support for the missions there. Many young priests in France were eager to labor for the salvation of souls, Père Marquette among them. He persisted patiently in work and prayer, and he was overjoyed when he received an order to join the missionaries in Quebec.

From various native tribes, the French learned of the great river called the Messipi. The French knew it was imperative to find the river for possible trade and settlement. Choosing the right leaders for such an enormous and difficult undertaking was of utmost importance. French-Canadian explorer Louis Joliet was chosen first. Repplier describes him thus: “As trader, explorer, guide, and interpreter, he had learned all that the wilderness could teach.” Marquette too had experience from his early assignments in the Canadian wilderness, and he had all the other requisite qualifications for his part in the undertaking: he was young; he knew six native languages; his courage was mitigated by prudence; and he had a proven gift for understanding the natives, coupled with an honest and open demeanor.

In December 1672 Marquette wrote, “Monsieur Jollyet arrived with orders from Monsieur Count de Frontenac, Governor of New France, and Monsieur Talon, our intendant, bidding him accomplish this discovery with me.” Accordingly, the two men dedicated their task to the Blessed Virgin and set off from the St. Ignace Mission (in what would later become the State of Michigan) on May 17, 1673, with two large canoes, provisions, and five men.

Once while canoeing, the explorers came under attack from shore by an unknown tribe. Père Marquette held aloft a calumet, or peace pipe, and the threat ceased. Overtures of trust on both sides led to a friendly meal together.

After many miles of adventures, and as fall weather approached, a decision had to be made. Farther south, the native tribes spoke new languages. The explorers had already gleaned much knowledge of the river and its environs: its course, flora and fauna, and neighboring tribes. Though the goal of the missionary is converts, Marquette also had the zeal of an explorer. Both he and Joliet wanted to go to the sea but knew they had to return with their records intact. They turned back before reaching the end of the river.

On their return, the adventurers were tired and anxious until gaining the Illinois River, where they rested with the Ottawa tribe. Resuming their travels, they reached Green Bay and portaged to Lake Michigan. Imagine their happiness knowing the dangers and physical privations were over. They would soon be at the St. François Xavier mission with friends, plenty of food, and comfortable shelter. They thanked the Lord and the Blessed Virgin.

The mission was Père Marquette’s new assignment, and Joliet remained there for the winter. Now the two had time to refine their reports. They had traveled over 2,500 difficult miles, but Marquette’s high point was baptizing a dying child, whom natives brought to the edge of the river.

Joliet waited until the ice melted from Mackinac Straits before departing for Quebec with his crew. He needed to report to Frontenac, the governor of New France. Unfortunately, his canoe capsized in a sudden gust of wind, and he lost two men and the notes for his report. Saddened by the loss of life but undaunted, he later reconstructed his notes and maps.

After the long voyage, Marquette gained needed strength at the mission. His goal of bringing the Christian faith to the natives, especially the Illinois, was the heart of his purpose and his fervent wish. This was granted when he received an order to initiate a mission among this astute and friendly tribe. Marquette joyfully set out for his new assignment: a village on the headwaters of the Illinois River. By November’s end, amid snow and frigid temperatures, Marquette realized he did not have the strength to do the work he had been given. Two leagues from the Chicago River, he became ill. A council, quickly convened, decided to remain. His crew built a log hut, and they had heat, game, warm ox-skins, and the company of passing native traders. When the river ice broke up, their cabin flooded. That was the signal to depart. By then Marquette was in better health. He prayed his gratitude to the Virgin Mary, and they moved on. Soon they came to the Illinois River and the Kaskaskia village that was his destination.

The river and endless prairies were beautiful. The village consisted of 600 families, each with numerous children. Marquette visited each wigwam to learn about their activities and attitudes. He noted harmony in everything, as they had to unite inside to withstand threats from outside. He preached the faith and his friendship for them, but he was dying and he knew it. He called a great council in preparation for his successor. He soon left the mission to receive Last Rites and assure another missionary for his beloved Illinois.

His two faithful boatmen attended him on his final voyage and were with him when he died, the names of Jesus and Mary on his lips. Two years after Marquette’s death in 1675, some Kiskakon natives disinterred his body and brought it in solemn procession with hundreds of Native Americans to the St. Ignace Mission for reburial and a Requiem Mass.

Marquette’s many legacies include the Christianizing of the Illinois, who were people of integrity and loyal to the French. The States of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois, as well as Washington, D.C., would raise statues of Marquette, and many counties, towns, and villages bear his name, as does a Jesuit university in Milwaukee. Memorials have been erected on the many sites that figured in the voyage of seven men “in unknown waters amid unknown lands.” A Jesuit chronicler, Père Charlevoix, who wrote an account of New France and its people, tells of “the courage, intelligence, and simplicity with which Père Marquette and Joliet conducted their expedition.” Marquette’s journal, reports, and letters manifest the character of the priest. According to Repplier, “They show a soul at peace with itself because of its unquestioning acceptance of God’s will.”


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