Father Forgive Us … (the Challenge of Adam 8)

I am currently reading a book by David N. Livingstone, Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins. David Livingstone is Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at Queen’s University, Belfast and this book reflects both of his interests.

The history of the discussion of Adam and pre-adamic man has several major streams – from skeptical undermining of the Christian narrative to Christian apologetic; monogenism, polygenism, and racial superiority. These threads are present in the environment giving rise to La Peyere and his thinking in the early 1600’s and are active yet in the first decades of the twenty-first century. The history of race, religion, and the story of Adam’s ancestors in US history is a particularly sobering one. Chapter 7 Bloodlines: Pre-Adamism and the politics of racial supremacy and  Chapter 8 Shadows: The continuing legacy of pre-Adamite discourse demonstrate something of the depths of the problems.

I will outline something of the discussion after the jump – but would like to start with a question to ponder.

How do we know when our reading of science or scripture is truth, or an honest search for truth, and when it is wish-fulfillment and rationalization?

And to make it more immediate:

Where today are we twisting scripture to support our errors?

Where today are we twisting science to justify ourselves?

The story of pre-Adamism in the US takes a particularly ugly turn from the mid 1800’s through the early 1900’s (and beyond). This chapter of Livingstone’s book is depressing as he relates the discussion.

The “American School” of polygenetic racial science was a determined effort to place the inferiority of non-Caucasian races on firm scientific grounds. According to this school we are not one species. But the data was read in a fashion that supported the hypothesis – the underlying view of the scholars.

The collective endeavors of the American School, however short-lived their scientific standing, brought a variety of additional rhetorical devices into the discussion. Statistical measurement, visual imagery, and the cultivation of what might be called moral cartography were all conspicuous features of the project. Consider first Mortonite numerology. His statistizing practices were scrutinized by Stephen Jay Gould, who uncovered something of how what he referred to as an unconscious “finagling” of the data delivered findings perfectly fitted to Morton’s racial tastes. By ignoring dependent variables such as age and sex, generalizing from atypical groups, and so on, Morton could supply a convenient hierarchy, with Caucasians comfortably located on top, Native Americans in the middle, and the Africans at the bottom. (p. 175)

Livingstone continues on to outline much of this discussion – most, but not all, with either goal or result, assigning a place to white European peoples as natural leaders and justifying slavery and exploitation.

Many within the church, especially within the South disagreed with the scientific polygenism. But achieved the same cultural result – white supremacy and the defense of slavery – on biblical grounds. As Livingstone puts it “scientific anthropology bestialized slavery; adamic theology sanctified it.” (p. 182) Southern Christians saw in the curse of Ham a justification for a paternalistic God ordained slavery.  To give one example, John Bachman refuted Morton’s scientific argument case by case believing that polygenism undermined both scripture and Christian civilization.

Yet none of this meant that advocates of the unity of the human race were committed to egalitarianism, still less abolition. The idea of black inferiority was just too ingrained for that. Bachman, for example, staunchly defended southern slavery and argued, on the basis of the biblical curse of Ham, that the black races were designed, and destined, for servitude. He considered the “Negro [to be] a striking and now permanent variety” who might improve through intermarriage with whites – a morally repugnant price to pay for racial enhancement. (p. 182)

Later Livingstone notes:

To all of them the Bible sanctioned slavery, and abolitionists and polygenists alike were undermining its supreme authority. Humane Christian slavery, they believed, was under attack from two radically different sources: an opportunistic abolitionism fueled by northern greed and economic self-interest; and a degenerate anthropology that would dehumanize whole races. (p. 183).

In the postwar era more turned to pre-adamism and polygenism. Reading of the nature of the fall took, for some, a decidedly racist turn. The sin of Eve was sexual in nature – sometimes enticed by a black pre-adamite, sometimes by a handsome Mongolian. The nature of Eve’s sin was mingling the blood of the the pure adamic line with non-adamic races. Livingstone concludes:

Why clergy turned to pre-adamism from the standard Hamitic narrative that, for southerners, had long been sufficient to provide an account of African origins and a justification for slavery lies, I think, in pre-adamism’s capacity to serve as a tool to combat interracial mixing in ways that the Hamitic account never could. By identifying distinct adamic and pre-adamic bloodlines, white supremacists could construct a bio-biblical dogma that allowed traditional loyalty to the Bible to draw on a melange of scientific specialties. (p. 200).

The discussion of the racial politics of pre-adamism in Adam’s Ancestors does not touch upon evolution other than in passing. Polygenists by and large were opposed to evolution as it would serve to unite the races. Of course, Darwinism and social Darwinism were used to achieve some of the same ends achieved by pre-adamism, polygenism, and the Hamitic narrative. Karl Giberson, in his book Saving Darwin has a chapter on Darwin’s dark companions. In this chapter Giberson writes:

Empire-building imperialists invoked social Darwinism to rationalize colonial subordination and even organized slaughter of conquered peoples. The enslavement of blacks, the destruction of Native Americans, and the genocidal treatment of aboriginal tribes in Australia were defended as part of a grand Darwinian project to advance humanity. Joseph Le Conte, a respected geologist and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, addressed this issue in The Race Problem in the South, published In 1892. Le Conte argued that the docile character of Negroes made them appropriate for enslavement; for races like the “redskin,” however, who were more specialized and thus less flexible, “extermination is unavoidable.” (p. 77)

Rationalization and rhetoric. The underlying theme in all of the positions outlined above is not the authority of scripture or the authority of science. In all of these cases science and/or scripture were twisted to defend and rationalize a conclusion already deeply embedded in the consciousness and culture of the time. Sola scriptura doesn’t provide a firm foundation, surety against error – nor does tradition or reason. This is a lesson that should remain in our consciousness, front and center. I have little doubt that we as a whole will be judged as missing the mark in important ways. This brings us back to the questions posed above.

Where today are we twisting scripture to support our errors?

Where today are we twisting science to justify ourselves?

How do we, as Christians, know when our reading of science or scripture is truth, or an honest search for truth, and when it is wish-fulfillment and rationalization?

Where do we start?

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