January 28, 2022


Interpretation masquerading as fact

Gary Swanson

As the Olympic medal count ticked up in the charts—what nations were tallying the most golds, silvers, and bronzes—stirring images of victorious athletes graced the media, both digital and print. In a competition of its own unique kind, writers and editors were vying for the attention of readers and viewers. They sought every opportunity to focus on the drama and background for the Games.

Even the publications whose focus are on science sought to offer reporting and comment on sport. In one such example, Smithsonian magazine presented “Five Ways Humans Evolved to Be Athletes.”[i]

“Much of what makes our bodies capable of athletic prowess,” this article asserted, “comes from well before we were Homo sapiens.”[ii] And science writer Anna Goldfield then outlined five of today’s fairly basic human qualities that we may often take for granted, but connected them in a meaningful way to the abilities of gifted athletes.

1. We run. The connection, of course, to many sports would surely be obvious. And, for example, the evolvement of a bipedal animal from its primate predecessor could be considered advantageous.

2. We sweat. Though this may not at first seem to be any kind of advantage for the hominid, we “are unique in our capacity to sweat all over our bodies, creating evaporative cooling.”[iii] In what is considered the earliest human evolutionary stage in Africa, moving from forested to hotter plains made the cooling of the body through perspiration an obvious improvement.

3. We throw. As our prehistoric ancestors gave up our arboreal lifestyle and learned better how to get around on the ground, the article added, we still retained in our upper body—shoulders and arms—abilities to swing in the trees. And this enabled us to throw objects, at first interpreted to mean such things as weapons for hunting and defense. Olympic contestants in the discus and shot put, it was observed, may trace their refined skills back to these physical capabilities, originating millions of years ago.

4. We are handy. Here the Smithsonian article comes to the development of that opposable thumb for which humankind thinks it has distinguished itself. The evolutionist asserted the development of this unique grip about 2 million years ago to today’s athletes’ ability in competition to hold a baseball bat, a golf club, a tennis racket, a javelin, or a variety of firearms.

And here is an interesting note offered by recent research that may bring a smug smile to left-handers. “A study of how many elite athletes are left-handed across different sports showed that the more competitive the sport, the greater the proportion of lefties.”[iv] Could this suggest that left-handers may have some advantage if evolution goes on another million years or so?

5. We play with balls. Here, it seems, the author of this article drifted maybe a bit from prehistoric evolution to actual historic archaeology. “The generally accepted theory for the evolutionary origins of play,” they say, “is that it allows children to learn actions and tasks that they will need to master as adults.”[v] And there is actual physical evidence of ball games in ancient Egypt as early as 2500 B.C. But the most famous evidence, of course, would probably be observed in the ceramic figurines, murals, and actual ball courts of the Olmec, Aztec, and Mayan peoples of the Americas of as early as 1700 B.C.

This article, “Five Ways Humans Evolved to Be Athletes,” was only one of several others headlined the same day across one Internet home page. In addition to the reporting of the worldwide news and sports appeared such other headlined titles as “Tyrannosaurs Dominated Their Cretaceous Ecosystems” and “This Sponge Fossil May Be the Earliest Record of Animal Life.” Information regarding the publication of scientific research that interprets data from an evolutionary worldview is reported as fact.

Throughout the media—newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and the Internet—there now appears to be an almost natural impulse in the presentation of news and information to explain it in evolutionary terms. So during the couple weeks’ world focus on the Olympics, the media reporting was often related in some way through the occasional lens of evolution.

The title of another recent article in Smithsonian reads like this: “Woolly Mammoths Roamed Far and Wide Just Like Living Elephants.”[vi]

As is sometimes the case in journalism and the media, a close reader may observe that this one could maybe have needed the copy editor’s closer scrutiny. A wag may wonder whether, indeed, mammoths, whenever they roamed, could have done so like dead elephants. But to be fair, it’s obvious, after some charitable thought, to conclude that the writer meant that the behaviors of prehistoric mammoths was similar to that of today’s elephants. The connection between the two species, after all, has long seemed obvious, even to the nonscientific mind.

But this article is like so many others in today’s daily media—the reporting of ostensible news that may or may not have actually happened. It wasn’t an event that could be reported as a narrative. Instead, it is an interpretation, an inference based on observation of a body of information.

Included in the online version of this “woolly mammoths” article are two vivid visual illustrations. The first is a beautifully executed piece of art by a James Havens captioned, “An adult male woolly mammoth navigates a mountain pass 17,100 years ago.”[vii] The second is a cross-section photograph of striations of a tusk: “Researchers analyzed variations in strontium isotopes in parts of the mammoth’s tusk to piece together where it traveled over the course of its life.”[viii]

All of this makes for interesting reading to a significant enough portion of the public that it was deemed worthy of its own headlined publication. There truly is a fascination in origins on this planet. It is related to one of life’s deepest existential questions.

But it is also too often overlooked that such reporting is not a result of the actual empirical observation of occurrence. It is interpretation—based on unobserved assumptions.

One could wonder—not too many, maybe—but at least one may wonder in where the five human capabilities to run, to sweat, to throw, to handle, and to play with a ball may have first exhibited themselves in human life. Is evolution the inevitable answer to this question? Could they not possibly be the result of gifts received from a loving Creator who set out to bring into existence creatures like Himself with such qualities?

The current recording of scientific studies, however, is presented instead from a faith that has been placed, rather than on a transcendent God, on the divinity of the human self. And the results of this kind of thinking—this kind of science/scholarship—seems to appear everywhere today in a kind of cultural brute force.

Gary B. Swanson is a retired associate director the Sabbath School/Personal Ministries Department of the General Conference, and an occasional columnist for Adventist Review.

[i] Anna Goldfield, “Five Ways Humans Evolved to Be Athletes,” Smithsonian, Aug. 3, 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/five-ways-humans-evolved-be-athletes-180978333/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+smithsonianmag%2Fscience-nature+%28Science+%26+Nature+%7C+Smithsonian.com%29, accessed Oct. 6, 2021.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi]Riley Black, “Woolly Mammoths Roamed Far and Wide Just Like Living Elephants,” Smithsonian, Aug. 12, 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/woolly-mammoths-roamed-far-and-wide-just-living-elephants-180978418/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+smithsonianmag%2Fscience-nature+%28Science+%26+Nature+%7C+Smithsonian.com%29, accessed Oct. 6, 2021.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

Gary Swanson