Troubling Self-Portraits

Gary B. Swanson

Troubling Self-Portraits

Paleoartists are those who undertake the responsibility of depicting the world of “prehistory,” as it is defined by today’s science. These artists are the ones who illustrate for National Geographic and for elementary school textbooks of science. They sculpt figures for exhibits and create tableaux for museums of natural history.

Their depictions of cave men (and women) as well as other carbon-based life forms of prehistoric eras—velociraptors, stegosauruses, sabre tooth tigers, woolly mammoths—often elicit a kind of fascination of their own. We gaze at them as a child does into a mirror. For most of humankind today, the graphic interpretations of paleoartists have become accepted as a reflection of our world of long ago—and of ourselves.

Recently, however, the traditional way in which earliest humankind was depicted throughout most of the 20th century is being contested by two paleoartists: Alfons and Adrie Kennis, twin brothers from the Netherlands. Their challenge has nothing to do with the eons of time that today’s science has ascribed to prehistory. They still think in terms of millions of years. Instead, their challenge pertains to what they claim as the idealized view of early humans. They assert that the way in which our earliest human ancestors have been depicted is, well, too politically correct—too attractive.

“‘Attractive’ by whose standards?” one might ask. The Kennis twins contend that up to now those who have commissioned the work of paleoartists have feared that their magazine readers and museum visitors would be put off by a truly accurate portrayal of their prehistoric ancestors. Apparently even science itself hasn’t been as thoroughly iconoclastic as it has claimed to be. It has been hesitant to attack directly today’s idealized image of ourselves that we have become accustomed to on screens at the multiplex and covers of fashion magazines.

Not so the Kennises. They consider themselves at the vanguard of a new form of warts-and-all paleoartistry. A figure that they produce often shows evidence of the ravages of a very hard life: scars from illnesses and injuries, weathered skin, an underbite, a missing eye or ear or finger, broken teeth, grotesquely healed broken bones, asymmetrical body development. They insist that our earliest ancestors eons ago would have looked more like today’s homeless person than a film star.1

 All of which ultimately suggests the importance of discerning on whom or on what we should place our confidence regarding the ultimate questions of human existence, such as Where did we come from? The illustrations that we see in the Smithsonian magazine are the result of a paleoartist’s interpretation of what science considers to be the truth of the moment founded on some fundamental faith-based interpretations of data. (The most honest of scientists will admit that the answers of science to the ultimate questions are theories.)

The everyday thinker, then, must address the issue of authority: Whom do you trust?

This is a topic that causes discomfort. Western thought, especially, emphasizes the importance of individualism. Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius. . . . A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages.”2

Out of this strain of Western thought has come a battle cry of the late 20th and early 21st centuries: “Question all authority!”

But C. S. Lewis offers a distinctively different perspective: “Do not be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority. . . . None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. None of us could prove them by pure logic as you prove a thing in mathematics. We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.”3

And science—if held to its highest principles of empiricism—would have to agree. In an NPR interview, Robert Westman, a historian of science at the University of California, San Diego, commented on the importance of authority. In considering an issue like global warming, for example, he pointed out that the nonscientist cannot conduct the empirical research necessary to make a conclusion about climate change. “It depends on which authorities you trust,” Westman says. “If you trust the scientific community, then you might be willing to say [climate change] has something to do with global warming. But it’s not because you go to your laboratory and do experiments.”4

Here Westman touches on a central point for any discussion of faith and science: both are belief systems. Each recognizes an authority of its own. Each believes that its accepted authority offers the ultimate answers that mirror reality. And the depiction of our earliest ancestors by science is radically different from that in Scripture.

Certainly critical thinking—the practice of weighing all evidence against truth—is of the utmost importance. In the ultimate questions that occur to humanity, however, Emerson’s “gleam of light which flashes across [the] mind from within” should come not from some deep, numinous intuition but from a Spirit-led, carefully studied interpretation of what Scripture says on the matter.

There is, of course, truth as it is presented in nature. The Apostle Paul sets out the importance of this at the very beginning of his epistle to the Romans: “Since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).5

So science—the study of nature—should lead back to a clearer reflection of God’s character, not a distorted picture of reality that leaves God out of the picture entirely. With his usual directness, Charles Spurgeon addressed the apparent discrepancy between faith and science: “All that true science ever can discover must tally with the Word of Revelation, for God speaks in Nature nothing but the same Truth as He has written in the Holy Scriptures. . . . The evil is that the wise men add their own inferences to the facts as if they were of equal authority. . . . When philosophy contradicts Revelation, what do I say? So much the worse for philosophy!”6

This viewpoint—in the year 2012—is not at all popular. Any skepticism over the declarations of materialist science is considered even by some Christians to be quaint. By the larger segment of our culture, it would be dismissed as uncouth, self-righteous, intolerant, ignorant, blind. The faces that we see in the mirror of paleoartistry, warts and all, are not to be questioned.

But the troubling, uncertain “self-portraits” of today’s paleoartists draw on the selective use of data. They are a kind of caricature of humanity rather than a depiction of a noble creature that, even after millennia of sin, still shows traces of the image of a divine and loving Creator.



1. A few samples of the Kennises’ work are available online at


2. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in D. Bruce Lockerbie, ed., Major American Authors (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), p. 113.


3. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1981)pp. 53, 54.


4. Http:// Accessed December 15, 2011.


5. Scripture references are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.


6. Charles Spurgeon, Sermon No. 1473 (May 11, 1879): Accessed Dec. 25, 2011.