“Ecclesiae Magisterium non prohibet quominus « evolutionismi » doctrina, quatenus nempe de humani corporis origine inquirit ex iam exsistente ac vivente materia oriundi — animas enim a Deo immediate creari catholica fides nos retinere iubet”
-Pope Pius XII
For more than six decades, the Catholic Church has allowed the faithful to explore the theory of evolution as a possible explanation of human origins. However, immediately after stating the above, the very same Pope prohibits the faithful from embracing any polygenistic conjecture, or affirming that there were “true humans” (veros homines) who did not descend from Adam, or trying to argue that Adam merely signified a sort of multitude of proto-parents (significare multitudinem quamdam protoparentum). The Pope requires of the faithful that any theory of evolution they adopt must be consistent with Romans 5:12-19 and the first four canons of the fifth session of the Council of Trent.
This seems to create a bit of a conundrum for one who wishes to affirm both a theory of evolution for human origins and classical Western Christian belief about Adam. And it is not only Pope Pius XII who places such a restriction on the believer; rather it seems even the Bible points to a sort of monogenism so strict as to posit that, at the time of Christ, all humans descended from Adam (and Eve). But many very serious proponents of theories of evolution posit that groups evolve, not single individuals, thereby practically ruling out such a strict monogenism. This blog entry will constitute a lay person’s attempt at offering a solution to reconciling such concepts.
Without disputing the existence of a literal Adam, one can begin by exploring how such beliefs about Adam fit with what we know about human classification, today. Perhaps a helpful starting question could be: is Adam the progenitor only of Homo sapiens or a broader collection of those within the genus Homo? Or, to ask another variation of roughly the same question, did Neanderthals descend from Adam? How one answers such questions can shape their approach.
Neanderthals provide a particularly helpful thought experiment, as it seems genetic evidence reveals that a large number of modern humans possess Neanderthal DNA, apparently implying that modern humans did not merely wipe out Neanderthals; rather they interbred with them, and absorbed them!
So there apparently was once a period where modern humans and a more archaic species of human lived at the same time, with the two interbreeding and one eventually totally supplanting the other (i.e. the descendants of the first Homo sapiens have come to take over the entire human species).
With that in mind, think of the text in Genesis 4:16-24, referring to Cain going elsewhere and having offspring of his own. Many grappling with that curious text have offered up speculation along the lines of “maybe his wife was from other children of Adam and Eve not explicitly mentioned in the Bible” — but maybe there is an alternative: humans who do not descend from Adam and Eve (more archaic humans, perhaps).
Such a line of thought calls to mind the interesting line in Genesis 1:27, which reads “male and female he created them”. We can easily speculate that that is just a telescoping of the account given in more detail in Genesis chapter 2, however another possibility is that Genesis 1 does refer to a group, and Genesis 2 refers to a specific individual taken from that group.
Now, this need not contradict a literal, monogenistic reading of Romans 5, because just as Homo sapiens interbred with Neanderthals and also took over the entire human species, so too the descendants of Adam could have interbred with those archaic humans who existed outside the garden, and eventually took over the species to the point where eventually, by the time of Christ, every living human descended from Adam.
So one model which might be plausible could be summed up thusly:
(A) Archaic humans formed (Genesis 1:27).
(B) One from among them is imbued with something profound, called neshamat Hayim (Genesis 2:7) and is placed in a “garden” [a sort of paradise?] (Genesis 2:8).
(C) A female is derived from a chamber within him (Genesis 2:21-22).
(D) The two are eventually expelled from that “garden” and begin remixing with the archaic humans outside it (hence Genesis 4:16-24).
(E) Somehow, like Homo sapiens absorbing and supplanting Neanderthal, the descendants of that expelled couple bearing the neshamat Hayim come to dominate the entire species (hence Genesis 3:20, Romans 5:12-19).
Even the terminology employed in scientific literature should be interesting to Christians. Homo sapiens means “wise human” (and modern humans are the apparently more wise Homo sapiens sapiens), as if to distinguish one kind of human from a more archaic form that lacked a certain degree of “wisdom”.
“Ecce Adam factus est quasi unus ex nobis sciens bonum et malum!”
(1) The text is from Pope Pius XII’s 12 August, 1950, Papal Encyclical, Humani Generis. The translation is: “the Church’s Magisterium does not prohibit the doctrine of «evolution», insofar that it inquires whether the origin of the human body descends from a previously existing living source — [the belief] that souls are created directly by God is what the Catholic faith requires us to keep.”
(2) For those who might be curious about my own position on the subject, I would sum up my personal history of thought on the subject as follows: I was raised in a home which took the theory for granted, so, as a child, I accepted it without question. When I reached my mid teens, I was surprised to discover that some of my peers (in school, in my neighborhood) flatly rejected the theory as nonsense, and, as a reaction to that, I adopted a position of (perhaps somewhat apathetic?) agnosticism on the subject. When I took biology as an undergrad, and actually studied a bit of the subject, I accepted it as true (I would state my position thusly: the process of biological evolution —and by this I mean hereditary change over time— is an undeniable fact; where the theoretical comes into play is when we use that process as the best natural explanation for our planet’s current state of biodiversity, which I do). When I became a Christian, I simply brought my acceptance of the doctrine with me, but, as will come up in this blog entry, attempting to do such comes with a catch.
(3) For those who might be tempted to crudely ask, “but where’s evolution in the Bible?,” I would respond that modern science can help us understand the Bible (rather than there be a requirement that every scientific position we hold must have explicit support in the Biblical text). Nonetheless, another approach might be to appeal to the latter portion of Isaiah 42:5. More than a decade ago, I wrote an article noting how Isaiah 42:5 mentions God’s creation of the heavens, and then refers to God as noTeyhem (נוטיהם) which can be interpreted literally as meaning “He is expanding them” (i.e. the verb is rendered in the active participle, which can mean present tense, continuous action). But that approach begs the question of how we might interpret רקע in the same verse, which, at least according to the pointing in the Masoretic Text, is also rendered in the active participle. Is God currently “spreading” the earth? One might be tempted to appeal to plate tectonics, but another view is possible. The verb can mean to stretch, to spread, or to beat out (e.g. stomp on, beat flat with a hammer, et cetera). One can imagine a metal worker beating some flat overleaf into place, or a blacksmith beating a sword into shape, but I would offer the analogy of someone working with dough, stretching it and going over it with a rolling pin. Therefore, we might think of the verb as referring, in a loose sense, to a sort of development. Just as God continues to expand the heavens, so too God continues to develop the earth and that which it has produced (both plants and animals). The idea of the continued development of living things easily loans itself to being interpreted in light of the process of hereditary change over time which we observe.
(4) Terence A. Brown, Gene Cloning and DNA Analysis: An Introduction, (Wiley/Blackwell, 2016), 7th edition, p. 323.
(5) We might translate that the “spirit of life,” or, noting Proverbs 20:27, understand the neshama of man as special semblance of mind.
(6) Regarding man being formed from dust, that could be treated as a telescoping of a much longer and more complex process of development from “dust,” through various stages, unto the current form. It is worthy of note that other Biblical verses (e.g. Ecclesiastes 12:7, Psalm 104:29) treat the descendants of Adam as coming from dust (and, to this day, when Catholics have the cruciform mark placed upon their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, the priest applies Genesis 3:19 to them, saying “thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”). Just as Adam’s descendants do not come from “dust” in a single leap, so too we might say the same of the man placed in the “garden” in Genesis 2.