Polygenism Revisited: Terminology (Updated)

This comment thread is what made me realize that I hadn’t addressed all the I should have issues in the original Legends of the Fall series.  I’ve been laying the groundwork for dealing with these issues, and now we can start that process.

The whole thesis of the original series was that with our knowledge of human origins, it is not possible to maintain the traditional account of the Fall of Man and Original Sin as they have been held in Christian thought.  I attempted, in the original series, to look at different Christian paradigms of the creation of the cosmos and mankind that have surfaced throughout history, and to give some thought to how these paradigms could interact with our scientific knowledge of the world and human origins.  The idea was to find a meaningful way of viewing humans, their relationship to God, and their imperfection in light both of Christian theology and modern science.  I don’t claim to have done so, but I think I was able to suggest some possible directions for theology to take in seeking such a reconciliation.

The main problem that I now realize I failed to address was the issue of hard polygenism. At this point, it is necessary to get some of the terminology and conceptual matters straight.  “Polygenism” means “having many origins”.  There are two senses in which the word is used.  The main context is anthropological.  In this case, “polygenism” is the idea that modern man–Homo sapiens–evolved from its predecessor species at different times and places on Earth.  Thus the different races actually evolved separately in different locations.  The opposite of this is monogenism, the idea that H. sapiens evolved only once, almost certainly in Africa, then spread throughout the rest of the world, with racial differences evolving after this, as modifications of a common stock.

Anthropological polygenism is what I’ll call “hard polygenism”, since it posits different ancestral populations.  In a Christian theological context, “polygenism” has a different meaning.  Christianity has traditionally taught that all human descend from a single couple, Adam and Eve.  This is what one might call “hard monogenism”, since not only do we all come from an ancestral population, but from an ancestral couple.  The assertion that humans descended from several different couples, not just one, is the theological version of polygenism.  I call it “soft polygenism” because while it does assume many origins in terms of breeding pairs, it need not assume many primal ancestral stocks.  Humans might have arisen only once in Africa, while still descending from different couples in that original  population.  Obviously, hard polygenism would also be theological polygenism, since there were certainly descents from different couples if entirely different populations were involved.

The majority of contemporary anthropologists hold to the monogenetic “Out of Africa” theory, though there are some who still hold to polygenism.  Anthropological monogenism is not hard monogenism–there are biological reasons (genetic diversity prime among them) for doubting the descent of any species, human or otherwise, from a single  pair.  Some form of soft polygenism is nearly certain, and this is what I have addressed in the original series.

Hard polygenism, though, is a tougher nut to  crack.  If humans descend from entirely separate populations–if they are, in a sense, different species or subspecies in origin, rather than different branches from the same species, then the Fall becomes an almost impossible assertion.  Worse, on both a religious and secular level, it undermines any possible notion of a “brotherhood of man”.

As I said, most (but not all) anthropologists reject hard polygenism; and I think soft polygenism (anthropological monogenism) is reconcilable with theology.  However, I said very early in this series that we have to look at the worst-case scenario.  We cannot tie our theology to a particular scientific model of the world just because it works well.  The geocentric cosmos was arguably more suitable for Christian thought; unfortunately, it was wrong.  Polygenism seems to be incorrect, but that could change fifty years down the road if new evidence  is found.  In fact, even assuming monogenesis, it seems that humans–H. sapiens–may have interbred with other subspecies or even species, not least Neandethal Man.  Thus, we may still need to work out the implications of polygenesis, whether we like it or not.  This is just what I will do beginning in the next post.


The need to look at the issues of hard polygenism is even more interesting in light of new evidence coming to light such as this.  Once more, I can’t emphasize enough that we simply cannot hang our theology on any given scientific framework, since that framework may change, at which point our theology is left out to dry.  It seems that this would still more or less fit under some form of out-of-Africa monogenism, but it does substantially complicate the picture.  All the more reason to see if we can do Christian theology assuming a worst-case scenario of hard polygenism.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Also part of the series Polygenism Revisited.

Posted on 08/08/2012, in Catholicism, Christianity, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I am curious to find out what blog platform you are utilizing?
    I’m having some small security issues with my latest blog and I would like to find something more safe.
    Do you have any recommendations?

  1. Pingback: Legends of the Fall: Index « The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  2. Pingback: Polygenesis Revisited: The Theology of Cavemen « The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  3. Pingback: Polygenism Revisited: Index (In Progress) « The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

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