Saturday, June 8, 2019

Adam, Eve, and Anthropology

The Christian faith is sometimes called a "historical religion".  This means it isn't just a philosophy of life.  It makes claims about world history, claims which need to be true for its teachings to have any merit.  Among these are the creation of the universe, the resurrection of Jesus, and a real Adam and Eve.

The first one seems to have checked out pretty well, the second has received robust defenses, but the third one... not as much.  My feeling is it’s something many Christians would rather not look at for fear of being wrong.

So this year I thought I'd read a couple books on the subject and see whether the Catholic understanding of Adam and Eve had bit the dust.

What Does the Faith Demand?

Before we begin, I need to set out what I'm looking for here.  If the standard is 100% Genesis literalism, then there's no reason to waste my money on anthropology books.  There's no way to reconcile Young Earth Creationism with modern science.

But the Catholic Church doesn't ask us to believe Young Earth Creationism. For the sake of our doctrine of the Fall, it only asks that "true" human beings come from an original first pair.  Humani Generis says:
“The faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth propose with regard to original sin.” - HG 37
Note that we're not obliged to believe these two lived 7000 years ago, or any determined time ago.  The only important thing is that we come from a first set of "true" humans.

Now, what does it mean to be a "true" human?  In Catholic doctrine, human beings are made in God's image and likeness.  This is understood to point to our capacity for reason, intellect, conscience, free-will, transcendent desires, and an immortal soul.

Back in 2016 I theorized that you could have a race of Non-Rational Biological Humans (NRBH) which wouldn't count as "true" humans.  God could uplift two of them to "true" human status, then their progeny could interbreed with the NRBH's and spread this fire of rationality throughout the species.

Such a thing could be invisible to our genetic history, but nonetheless fulfill Catholic doctrine.  In fact, this theory could make sense of other questions like: "Who was Cain afraid of after the first murder?"

The Dawn of Homo Sapiens

So the two books I got were "Masters of the Planet" by Ian Tattersall and "Lone Survivors" by Christopher Stinger. Both were published in 2012 and were written with no concern for religious doctrines - just the latest on the field from a secular perspective.

[On an editorial note, Tattersall's book was by far the more readable of the two. It presented everything in chronological order.  Lone Survivors, on the other hand, had no discernible organizational principle.  Getting useful information out of the book was like picking meat out of a crab.  Plus, he used the word "human" to refer to any advanced hominid, which made it difficult to tell what species he was talking about.]
Tattersall points out that hominids have been around for a long, long time.  While the criteria and dates are debated, he puts the first hominids arising around 7 million years ago [1].

Throughout the book, he traces the evolution of these creatures all the way to our nearest cousins, Homo Neandrathalis.  He shows how they became more innovative and clever over the eons, even to the point of toolmaking.  However, he consistently points out that their intellects are “non-symbolic”.  That is, these ancestors lack the capacity of abstract rational thought [2].

Both books say the earliest archaeological record of Homo Sapiens is found in Ethiopia around 200,000 years ago.  These artifacts (skeletal remains) where discovered at sites named Omo and Herto. [3,4]

[Note:  More recently, a human skull found in Morocco was re-dated to 300,000 years ago.  If that is accurate, maybe the species started up there and migrated southeast?] 

Lone Survivors goes into a bit more detail about the concept of a “Mitochondrial Eve” and a “Y-Chromosome Adam”.  Here’s what those are...

Mitochondrial DNA is DNA which is found in Mitochondria.  This DNA gets passed from mother to child, with no contribution coming from any male.  So you have the same mDNA as your mother.  And she has the same mDNA as HER mother.  And so on… but how far back?  Stinger's book says geneticists have figured out these lineages do converge upon a single female, who is called Mitochondrial Eve, and who lived around 135,000 to 200,000 years ago. [5]

A similar thing can be done with the DNA on the Y-Chromosome, which get passed down from father to son, with no input from any female.  This gives rise to a hypothetical “Y-Chromosome Adam”, who is thought to live around 142,000 years ago. [6]

Now, the temptation is to look at this and conclude, “Aha!  We found them. We found Adam and Eve!”  But I really think this is a false trail.  I suspect this genetic evidence has a lot to do with the origin of the final human form, or perhaps a population bottleneck, but little to do with the advent of “true” humans.

The Rise of Rationality:

This is where both books told me something I didn't expect.  Tattersall's book states the following:
"This is not the whole story, for as far as Homo Sapiens is concerned it appears that body form was one thing, while the symbolic cognitive system that distinguishes us so greatly from all other creatures was entirely another.  The two were not acquired at the same time, and the earliest anatomical Homo Sapiens appear right now to have been cognitively indistinguishable from the Neanderthals and other contemporaries." [7]
And then later:
"Our ancestors made an almost unimaginable transition from a non-symbolic, non-linguistic way of processing and communicating information about the world to the symbolic and linguistic condition we enjoy today.  It is a qualitative leap in cognitive state unparalleled in history.  Indeed, as I've said, the only reason we have for believing that such a leap could ever have been made, is that it was made.  And it seems to have been made well after the acquisition by our species of its distinctive modern biological form." [8]
Stringer's book remarks:
"The archaeologist Clive Gamble, following the primatologist Lars Rodseth, emphasized that one of the most distinct things about modern humans compared with our primate relatives is our 'release from proximity.'  Probably all humans before us, like the apes they evolved from, could only work through face-to-face encounters, but with the rise of symbolism (and the associated development of language), people were liberated from proximity and could communicate through time and space." [9]
I had no idea back in 2016, but apparently anthropologists have been proposing that our species started off as NRBHs.  The question is when and how they transitioned to modern (true) humans.

First Signs of Light:

To answer that question, archaeologists needed to uncover signs that humans were thinking abstractly, conceiving of the world in symbolic forms.  They were looking for things like complex tools, art, advanced structures, long-distance transport for raw materials, cultural complexity, and planning. [10]

Some of the earliest stuff which shows up in the archaeological record are (seemingly) decorative beads which were found around Nazareth dated to 100,000 years ago [11,12].  Other beads show up in Morocco dated to about 80,000 years ago [13,14]. 

Even stronger evidence comes from a pair of caves sites in South Africa called Blombos and Pinnacle Point.  The boast a piece of abstract geometric art dated to 77,000 years ago, as well as evidence of advanced stone-crafting (known as pressure-flaking) dated to 55,000 years ago [15,16].

Some Theories:

Stringer's book highlights a number of different ideas which have been proposed regarding the true genesis of human rationality.

One archaeologist named Richard Klein proposes the change happened about 50,000 years ago [17].
Another theory is that it was a period of accelerated change between 60,000 and 80,000 years ago [18].  Yet another theory from neuroscientist Fred Previc proposes a neurological line was crossed 80,000 years ago [19].

In any event, what seems to be agreed upon is that at some point, humanity underwent a qualitative change.  Tattersall writes:
"Our novel way of dealing with information was hardly a predictable outcome of any identifiable trend that preceded it.  And neither was it simply a threshold effect of acquiring a greater and greater brain volume." [...]  "The only evident alternative is that our strange intellectual faculty is attributable to a novel neural conformation, a change in the internal organization and wiring of our brains." [20]
But he later adds:
"So far at least, then, there is no 'silver bullet' genes that we can finger as the root cause of our cognitive uniqueness." [21]
(Note: This quite certainly wouldn't have been Adam's true skin color)

Back to Eden:

Let's see if we can assemble this together into a theory which would be viable both in the realm of modern anthropology and Catholic theology.

Now, I for one am not convinced that decorative beads are a strong sign of rational, symbolic thought.  The abstract art and advanced toolmaking seem like a better bet to me.

Let's suppose that roughly 80,000 years ago, God reached into a community of NRBH's in the African continent and granted two individuals the gift of a rational soul.  This could be accompanied by a physical (genetic) change, or even an epigentic change - either way.

Those two humans were offered a life at peace with God, but reject it.  They eventually have children.*  Some of these kids might have mated with each other.  Others might have mated with the NRBH's which surrounded them.  And when they did, their children had the nature of the "true" human parent, with the "rationality switch" kicked on.

Thus, the image of God would spread over the entirety of Homo Sapiens over time, but in a way which wouldn't show up genetically.

Thanks for joining me.


All references to paperback versions:

[1] "Masters of the Planet", Page 6
[2] "Masters of the Planet", Page 177
[3] "Lone Survivors", Page 49
[4] "Masters of the Planet", Page 186
[5] "Lone Survivors", Page 180
[6] "Lone Survivors", Page 181
[7] "Masters of the Planet", Page 185
[8] "Masters of the Planet", Page 199
[9] "Lone Survivors", Page 119
[10] "Lone Survivors", Page 118
[11] "Lone Survivors", Page 130
[12] "Masters of the Planet", Page 199
[13] "Masters of the Planet", Page 200
[14] "Lone Survivors", Page 152
[15] "Lone Survivors", Page 130
[16] "Masters of the Planet", Page 201
[17] "Lone Survivors", Page 118, 126, 207
[18] "Lone Survivors", Page 127
[19] "Lone Survivors", Page 207
[20] "Masters of the Planet", Page 208
[21] "Masters of the Planet", Page 210

*(Some folks mistakenly think Adam and Eve only had three kids, but the Bible says they had more.)


  1. I understand that this post assumes that God used evolution to bring about the natural order we see today, and so I will not comment on modern criticism of Darwin's model. With this in mind however, I do have a question: Since the Church requires that adherents believe in a literal Adam and Eve (against the accepted polygenism model of 'modern science') as well as believe that God made an actual covenant with Noah, how do theistic evolutionists determine which parts of Genesis 1-11 are to be taken as historical and which ones are to be taken allegorical? To pick and choose which parts are allegorical in order to get them to fit with certain interpretations of the past based on naturalistic assumptions seems incredibly arbitrary.

    1. First, I’d note that polygenism ain’t what it used to be. One narrative which is explored thoroughly at the beginning of Lone Survivors is the battle between the “Multiple Origins” theory and the “Recent African Origins” theory. The multiple origins theory is very likely what Humani Generis was written against back in the 50’s because that what “polygenism” meant in that period of scientific development. As the Pope said, it truly would be irreconcilable with the Christian faith to say that “true” humans came from multiple areas. But today the Recent African Origins theory has predominance and it’s just about working through the details.

      I think a good analogy can be made to the creation of the universe. At one point the leading theory was a kind of steady-state eternalism. This would have been incompatible with Christian revelation. But then evidence prevailed and we have the standard big-bang model. It isn’t a word-for-word recreation of Genesis 1, but it is certainly friendlier to the doctrine of creation. Perhaps you can see the similarity.

      In any event, onto the query itself. It’s a very good question. Of course, folks who seek to reconcile Biblical theism with scientific evolution don’t speak with one voice. I can only speak for myself.

      My modus operandi with Genesis 1-11 is to start with what we’re doctrinally compelled to believe. From there, I want to believe things as literally as possible until physical evidence makes it untenable. Then I look to the scientific narrative and adjust my reading of the text accordingly while preserving the fundamentals of Catholic dogma. This is not a particularly novel way of doing it. From what I understand, Cardinal Bellarman, who was responsible for trying Galileo, said that if Galileo could prove his thesis, he’d change his reading of Scripture accordingly. (But Galileo couldn’t prove his thesis). Nor would I describe this as arbitrary. Arbitrary would mean there is no guiding logic involved. But my guiding logic is: 1, dogma. 2, presumed literalness until overturned by 3. 3, Scientific findings.

      As for Noah, I’d say it I’m not sure if the Church requires us to believe that God made a real covenant with a historic Noah. I cited the encyclical which clarifies the mandatory nature of our first parents, but I don’t know of any similar magisterial statement on Noah. Beyond that, I don’t know of the Church requiring us to believe in a worldwide flood which reduced humanity down to a single family.

    2. The CCC sites this about the creation of Adam and Eve:
      362 The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that "then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being."229 Man, whole and entire, is therefore willed by God.
      "Symbolic language" can also mean mythological in the sense that the author employed a mythological style of writing to express a truth, in this case that mankind was created as a special creation.
      Biblical interpretation is hard enough for Bible scholars. The ordinary layperson need not bother about what this passage or that passage means or how it is to be interpreted in an effort to determine doctrine or dogma. The Church uses four methods to do this (see CCC: The senses of Scripture 115-119). We can trust that she knows what truths we are to glean from any particular passage or book. Among other considerations, the Church's Bible scholars take into account the intent of the author(s), the idioms of the original language, and what the Holy Spirit intended to convey to us through the author(s) words.
      One of the reasons why Christ founded his Church was to give her the charism of teaching God's truths, in any form in which they are given, to assure believers that the whole deposit of the Faith is true and able to lead us to salvation.

  2. Thanks for your article. Have you seen these Dominicans at all in your research? They make an interpretation of HG I haven't heard before.

  3. I LOVE IT! I have been contemplating this for a long time and I think this is the closest to an answer I have read. Great insights.

  4. "... you could have a race of Non-Rational Biological Humans (NRBH) which wouldn't count as 'true' humans." Once you admit that possibility, it becomes much harder to insist that all biological humans today count as "true" humans. This was an issue, remember, when the Americas were first discovered, because there was doubt the natives could be accounted for in the list of nations descended from Noah -- and that's to say nothing of the more recent idea of "Untermenschen" and the denial that the unborn (or those with serious developmental defects, or those in comas, etc.) count as "true humans".

    1. Well, we can't let possible misinterpretations and misapplications of an assert determine whether the assertion is true or false. In this case, it would be foolish to think any human alive to day is a NRBH. If you encounter a civilization and it has culture, language, and stories ... then you're looking at a rational creature who must be descended from Adam.

    2. Your explanation needs to leave you with fewer or smaller problems than you started with. The Faith does not demand that anyone believe your idea; science can say nothing about it, since the soul cannot be directly observed; and you create a whole new class of problems by divorcing biological humanity from personhood. A lot of people have toyed with the same basic idea, which has some merits, but no one has been able to make it work yet. Seriously, the idea is actually presented in SCIENCE MADE STUPID:

    3. You are quite right that the Faith does not demand anyone believe my idea. I am merely putting it forward as a possible solution to reconciling modern anthropology with Catholic dogma. If someone believes he/she has a better solution, then that is fine too.

    4. At this point, it seems certain no one knows how to give the right answer, and very likely no one knows enough to even ask the right questions. In such a situation, it is usually better to stick with "I don't know" than to float a tentative speculation in a public forum.

    5. Putting forth of thoughts and theories are precisely what public fora are for. But thanks for your input.

  5. Have you ever looked at the research of the Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation?

    1. From THE CONFESSIONS of St. Augustine, Book V, Chapters 5 and 6: "... When, therefore, it was discovered that his teaching concerning the heavens and stars, and the motions of sun and moon, was false, though these things do not relate to the doctrine of religion, yet his sacrilegious arrogance would become sufficiently evident, seeing that not only did he affirm things of which he knew nothing, but also perverted them, and with such egregious vanity of pride as to seek to attribute them to himself as to a divine being. For when I hear a Christian brother ignorant of these things, or in error concerning them, I can bear with patience to see that man hold to his opinions; nor can I apprehend that any want of knowledge as to the situation or nature of this material creation can be injurious to him, so long as he does not entertain belief in anything unworthy of You, O Lord, the Creator of all. But if he conceives it to pertain to the form of the doctrine of piety, and presumes to affirm with great obstinacy that whereof he is ignorant, therein lies the injury."

      Augustine had adhered to the cult of the Manichees until he met Faustus, a "bishop" of the Manichees. Now astronomy had developed much more quickly than the other natural sciences, so that although its cosmology was very inaccurate, it still did a rather good job of predicting things like eclipses and the positions of planets; and Augustine was very well educated for his day. As a result, he was quickly able to determine that Faustus did not know what he was talking about when he pontificated on things that can be seen; how then could Faustus be trusted regarding things that cannot be seen? This was enough for Augustine to reject the Manichees.

      Whenever pseudoscience is bundled with Christianity as a package deal, its most important effect is to drive children away from the Faith if and when they learn real science.

    2. Not until today. They appear to be a Catholic version of Answers in Genesis. I have no problem with folks who want to believe in Youth Earth Creation.

      The problem these groups often fall into is claiming their view of the world is the official position of the Church and mandatory for believers. So I encourage folks to have caution.

  6. Here are my views on creationism verses evolution:

  7. Hi-
    This is the way I thought for some time: n There were millions of hominids on the planet with several specific races (Homo Erectus, Homo Sapien etc.) God picked 2, a male and female. Gave them immortal souls, revealed Himself to them, and basically told them I am your God, your are my children. They disobeyed, and Original Sin entered the world.

    On another topic, I also happen to believe in sentient life throughout the universe. Want to be WE were the only ones that fell?? A great reason for the distances of the stars, to keep US from contaminating THEM.

    1. You should read the novel OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET by C.S. Lewis, which explores your last conjecture. (He also wrote a shorter essay on the same topic with the title, "Religion and Rocketry.")