Thursday, September 1, 2011

Adam and Eve

John Ferrell writes about the problems that the belief in one couple, an Adam and Eve, as the ancestor of all humans creates in terms of genetic science. He particularly says Catholics are in a lot of trouble.
The Catholic Church indeed of all the Christian churches faces a particular quandary. The Council of Trent is quite explicit on the topic. Catholics are required to believe not only that Adam is the single father of the human race, but that Original Sin is passed on by physical generation from him to the entire human race. It’s not something symbolic or allegorical (although it is regarded as ultimately mysterious). The First Vatican Council reiterated the doctrine, as did Pope Pius XII in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis.
The claim is that this cannot be reconciled with what we know from genetics. He links an article
Unfortunately, the scientific evidence shows that Adam and Eve could not have existed, at least in the way they’re portrayed in the Bible.  Genetic data show no evidence of any human bottleneck as small as two people: there are simply too many different kinds of genes around for that to be true.  There may have been a couple of “bottlenecks” (reduced population sizes) in the history of our species, but the smallest one not involving recent colonization is a bottleneck of roughly 10,000-15,000 individuals that occurred between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago.  That’s as small a population as our ancestors had, and—note—it’s not two individuals.
I am not a scientist but this does not make sense to me. When we are talking about the origin of the human species how can we talk about the origin as 10,000 individuals? The theory is that we went from zero humans to 10,000 all at once? That seems a little problematic. Maybe science has not arrived at a final answer.

Now the idea that there are too many kinds of genes around makes sense. If that is the scientific problem then we as Catholics need to believe God did some sort of miracle to increase the genetic diversity of humanity. I have no problem believing that. I have often thought that God must have done something to avoid the problems that go with inbreeding because lots of inbreeding goes on in Genesis.

So it requires us to believe that the origin of man is a supernatural event. That God must have acted in ways outside if what we see in genetics today. But Catholics already believe in many miracles. Is this harder to accept then the virgin birth or the resurrection? I don't see it. Doing a natural analysis of a supernatural event has limited value. You can never prove a miracle impossible. Miracles are impossible or close to it. That is why we call them miracles.

What makes humans special is not their bodies. Human anatomy is not very different from other mammals. So God could have used an existing primate and breathed a soul into him. That could have been His clay that is referenced in Gen 2. Could He have breathed a soul into the offspring of Adam and Eve even when they conceived with a non-human primate? I don't see that speculation as being outside Catholic orthodoxy. God does a miracle every time a new human life is conceived. An eternal soul is created. A human person that has been stained by the original sin of Adam.

The big advantage the Catholic church has here is that it does not need to guard the integrity of scripture. The notion that not taking one part of the bible literally will open the doors to interpreting every miracle as figurative. The church can define what interpretations are legitimate. So when Tim Keller says something like :
[Paul] most definitely wanted to teach us that Adam and Eve were real historical figures. When you refuse to take a biblical author literally when he clearly wants you to do so, you have moved away from the traditional understanding of the biblical authority.
Catholicism does not have that problem. We don't think the bible is an authority.  It is a revelation. We have a living authority. So it creates a problem for the protestant understanding of the biblical authority.


  1. Randy,

    A couple quotes:

    "When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For 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 and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own."

    "This letter, in fact, clearly points out that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters, (the Letter points out), in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people. If, however, the ancient sacred writers have taken anything from popular narrations (and this may be conceded), it must never be forgotten that they did so with the help of divine inspiration, through which they were rendered immune from any error in selecting and evaluating those documents."

    -Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis

    I like everything you have to say in this article but this one idea:

    "What makes humans special is not their bodies"

    Human beings are integrated beings. Christ took on our flesh (body), thereby forever making it integral to our salvation. It is what in fact makes us "special" in an important sense. The scientistic perspective, I think, has so pervaded the culture that our modern psyche has trouble "seeing" our uniqueness. By the way, our DNA resembles a leaf quite a bit. Ergo, see leaf, see me.

    What God "formed" was what was in His image and likeness. Our similarity to animals may only point to the dramatic artistry of God to make our companions in "our" image and likeness in some analogical way.

  2. Thanks for coming by Brent. I have to say that I am still looking for guidance on this question so I appreciate the quotes.

    What I meant by, "What makes humans special is not their bodies" is that humans are integrated unions of body and spirit. It is possible to conceive of a body formed by an evolutionary process that gets ensouled at some point by God and only then becomes human. Pope Pius XII does not seem to be going there in his thoughts but it is not clear to me he rules out such speculation. What I am trying to do is imagine a possible solution that fits well with the biological and theological data. Not saying there is only one. Just that there is at least one.

  3. Randy,

    The paragraph beginning "Unfortunately, the scientific evidence ..." is not in the Forbes article. Where did you get that paragraph?

    In the peace of Christ,

    - Bryan

  4. I found it. It is in the Coyne article. But it is not true. He writes:

    "Unfortunately, the scientific evidence shows that Adam and Eve could not have existed, at least in the way they’re portrayed in the Bible. Genetic data show no evidence of any human bottleneck as small as two people: there are simply too many different kinds of genes around for that to be true."

    Coyne is using the term 'human' as a biologist, whereas philosophers and theologians (as such) speak of humans not according to the biological definition, but according to the philosophical definition. And given that definition, there is no conflict with the scientific data.

    In the peace of Christ,

    - Bryan

  5. Thank you for coming by as well Bryan. Sorry for not linking the quote right.

    I am not so concerned about a logical contradiction. Science simply cannot rule out something miraculous. It can only say the biological signs are not what we would expect if it were true. But what is to be expected is not really solid. The creation of man is an unrepeatable miraculous event. So what a scientist expects is mostly a guess. We don't have any real data from similar event to compare.

    Still there is something unsatisfying about just dismissing the biological data with some line about God just making things happen that way. There is truth about God to be learned in science. My experience is the scariest questions end up having the most amazing answers. So I don't just expect to avoid contradiction. I expect something beautiful and profoundly true.

  6. Randy,

    See Feser's most recent post on this:

    In the peace of Christ,

    - Bryan

  7. I saw it already but thanks anyway. I was going to put a link on here but you beat me to it! He also provides links for a few other responses:

    Those who have responded to John’s piece include Michael Liccione, Bill Vallicella (here and here), James Chastek, and Mike Flynn.

    Sounds like a lot of good reading.