Excursus: Genesis–Mono or Poly?

I was actually working on what’s going to end up being the next post when it occurred to me that there was one issue I hadn’t touched on.  I don’t think it’s as important to the discussion here as some of the other issues.  Still, I think it does need to be addressed–the issue of monegenesis vs. polygenesis of humanity.

The literal meaning of these terms is “one origin” and “many origins”, but the way in which they’re used is subtly different in different contexts.  In anthropology “monogenesis” means that modern  humans–Homo sapiens–evolved once only, probably in Africa, and that all humans descend from that original population, the different races having evolved after the original humans left Africa and dispersed around the world.  This is sometimes known as the “Out of Africa” theory.

Polygenism, also known as the “multiregional origin theory”, holds that H. sapiens evolved more than once, separately, from separate populations of more archaic hominids that had moved out of Africa at an earlier date.  Thus, Homo erectus or some such similar species diffused out of Africa, and different populations evolved into anatomically modern humans in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia.  These groups are close enough genetically to be considered the same species, and they have obviously interbred since then, but they are originally of separate origin. Theologically, “monogenism” means that all humans originated not just from an original common population, but from a common pair–that is, those that Jews, Christians, and Muslims call “Adam” and “Eve”.  “Polygenism” in this context means that not all lines descend from an original couple.  Thus “polygenism” in this context could occur within “monogenism” as defined anthropologically–that is, it’s possible that all mankind originated from an original group (anthropological monogenism) but not from an original couple (theological polygenism).  Anthropological polygenism would obviously necessitate theological polygenism as well.

The current dominant opinion in anthropology is that mongenism (of the anthropological sort–“Out of Africa”) is the most likely scenario for human evolution, although some hold to polygenism.  I doubt that anyone in the anthropological community has any interest in the theological definitions of the word, but I doubt that most would assume an origin from a single couple for all existing humans.  In any case, such a thing would probably be impossible to prove.

Now it is true that there have been many genetic bottlenecks since the origin of Homo sapiens (that’s the concept behind “mitochondrial Eve” and “Y chromosomal Adam”), and the most recent common ancestor of all humans alive today may have lived as recently as a millennium ago.  Thus, there’s no doubt that all alive today are of common descent, regardless of race, location, or ethnicity.  Still, there’s no way, in a monogenetic scenario, in which it can be demonstrated that all lineages before the first bottleneck came from a common couple.

For example, it is conceivable that many couple lineages–Adam/Eve, Jack/Jill, Hansel/Gretel, and so on–descended in parallel with no intermingling until the first bottleneck occurred–at which point either all other lineages become extinct (unlikely) or there is some interbreeding.

This is theologically important to Christians because the traditional narrative of the Fall insists that all humans inherit Original Sin from Adam and Eve.  Obviously, if some humans do not descend from Adam and Eve, they cannot logically be subject to Original Sin.  Thus the insistence by the Catholic Church that any theory of human origins must hew to the theory of monogenesis.

Now as I said, the current majority opinion favors monogenesis from an anthropological perspective.  Given anthropological monogenesis and the relatively small population of early humans, it is likely that all original lineages would have intermingled long before any bottleneck or any migration out of Africa (although that does imply that the non-Adamic lineages would have been in effect philosophical zombies and that some of Adam’s descendants mated with them, which is just weird, bizarre, and problematic on many levels).  This would satisfy evolutionary theory and Christian theology simultaneously.

However, my contention is that we have to assume a worst-case scenario.  For centuries the geocentric theory (the Sun orbits the Earth) fit the best available data, and had the extra bonus of meshing better with Scripture.  However, when Copernicus (who prudently published posthumously) and Galileo came around with the theory of heliocentrism (the Earth goes around the Sun), it was a great crisis.  We know the story of Galileo, but the main point is that theological beliefs were being pinned to scientific theory (the geocentric theory was nothing if not scientific–we mock it now, but given the observational technologies and mathematics of the day, it actually was a very robust and logical theory for a long time).  Science changes over time; it’s the nature of the beast.  Thus, if you base something you contend is unchanging Divine truth on temporal matters that are subject to change, you are sowing the theological wind and in danger of reaping the whirlwind of loss of faith, turmoil, and more.

The problem is that when you do insist on basing theology on what is thought to be known fact, then when knew understanding shows that the facts weren’t as thought, it sets up a dynamic in which fundamentalists insist that the dictates of faith are right and secular learning is wrong, period, no matter what the evidence (think Creationism); conservative non-fundamentalists try to weasel around and split the difference, no matter how impossible that might be; liberals and radicals use it as an excuse to attack Tradition more or less to take shots at what they don’t like; and the mass of the laity are confused, puzzled, and often lose faith in their religion or at least in its leaders.  In short, you have a ghastly mess.

Thus, I think it’s safer to assume a “worst-case scenario”.  That is, assume that the situation which is true is that which is  hardest to reconcile with traditional formulations of the faith.  Then if you can come to a reconciliation, you are covered if the worst-case scenario is shown to be true.  If the truth turns out to favor the traditional interpretation, then great–you don’t have to reinterpret anything after all.  If it is never determined which is correct, then you’re none the worse off for theological speculation–at least it has motivated you to think more deeply about your faith.

I would say there is one exception to the “worst-case scenario”, just for the sake of completeness.  All orthodox forms of Christianity are based on the actual existence, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If those who believe that Christ is a myth and never existed or if those who think he did not rise from the dead are correct, then any kind of Christianity as we know it is mistaken and disproved.  I suppose one could do as some contemporary neo-Gnostics do and say that it is the intent of the Christ-myth and not its literal truth that counts; or that even if Christ existed, it’s OK if he didn’t physically rise from the dead (the approach of Bishop Spong), since it’s the meaning, not the event.  To me, though, neither of those views represents anything I’d understand as Christianity.  To me, if it could be proved that Christ did not exist, or that he did but did not rise from the dead, then Christianity would be decisively disproved.  Not God, of course, but the religion that follows His son.

On that issue, I think one can say only that it’s a matter of faith–though I think the Jesus-myth crowd has been effectively debunked, and there has never been any effective proof that his body has been found.  If it ever is, or if his existence were disproved, I’d have to find another religion; but I doubt either of these things are likely to happen.

However, I think one should keep commitments of faith (“no one’s disproved my faith yet, and I believe they never will”) to a minimum.  Otherwise, one ends up as a Creationist, a geocentrist, or worse.

Thus, I think that any theory of the Fall that is to be taken seriously needs to allow for at least the possibility of polygenesis of the human race, in either the theological or anthropological sense, as a safeguard against the possibility that such a scenario might turn out to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

For those who think the more than fourteen hundred words here are not enough (!), a long discussion of this issue occurred at the same thread I mentioned back here.  Some other discussions with thoughtful theories as to how to preserve Christian teaching if the standard view based on monogenesis is wrong are also at Vox Nova here and here.  On the former post, it mentions that Germain Grisez (by no means a theological liberal!) apparently leaves the door open for polygenism in one of his works–a fact which I find very interesting.

OK, have dealt with this rather long aside, let’s move on to more general matters.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Posted on 22/05/2012, in Bible, Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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