Adam’s Ancestors

LivingstoneOne of the (many) highlights of the Evolution and Christian Faith Workshop in Oxford earlier this month was the plenary lecture by David Livingstone, Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at Queen’s University, Belfast. This lecture was based on a chapter in his recent book Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Engagements with Evolution. I’ve ordered the book and will post on some of this in the near future.

Several years ago I had read and posted on David Livingstone’s book Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins. This is a book I enjoyed reading, so it was a real pleasure to meet him and to have an opportunity to talk about the book among other things. Given our current focus on the question of Adam, Adam’s Ancestors is a book that warrants another look and some edited reposts. It is a readable, but thorough and academic, book looking at the history of the idea of pre-adamic or non-adamic humans in western Christian thinking from the early church through the middle ages, the explorations of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, the debates on racial supremacy, and on to the present day. The book presents an interesting survey and puts many factors into perspective.

The Challenge of Adam has been developing over time, it didn’t appear abruptly with Darwin and the theory of evolution. In fact Darwin is something of a late comer to the problem. The story of Adam and Eve has been something of a puzzle through out Christian history. Inconsistencies in the Genesis record were recognized very early on – but pointed the church fathers to an allegorical interpretation of the story while retaining Adam and Eve as unique persons.

Origen (ca.185-254 AD) in On First Principles Book 4 as translated from the Greek.

And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? and again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally. (Anti-Nicene Fathers Vol. 4, p. 365)

Peter Bouteneff in his book Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives summarized Origen’s nuanced view as follows: “Yet the Holy Spirit dictated not history but stories that contained complexities and difficulties, with the intention of inviting readers into the deepest and most serious engagement.” (p.118)

Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335-394+ AD) is another early thinker who struggled with these ideas, according to Livingstone he appears “to have thought that Adam’s physical body was derived from animal forebears.” (p. 6-7).

Augustine_Sandro_Botticelli_dsThe records of civilization predating Adam were also noted, but routinely dismissed as fabulous, by the early church fathers. The recorded Egyptian dynasties extend back some thousand years or more before Noah, the flood, or the Tower of Babel. Roughly speaking the great pyramid at Giza was constructed ca. 2560 B.C.E., approximately the same time as the Genesis narrative places the flood, with continuous Egyptian civilization predating and postdating this time. Livingstone notes that Augustine (354-430 AD) confronted these ideas:

Indeed, the continuing dispute over chronology was sufficiently strong that he devoted a whole chapter of The City of God to “the falseness of the history which allots many thousand years to the world’s past” and another chapter to the “mendacious vanity” and “empty presumption” of the Egyptians in claiming “an antiquity of a hundred thousand years ” for their accumulated wisdom. (p. 9)

While Augustine had no doubt that these reports were false, the seeds of inconsistency and discrepancy were present and were factors to be considered – if only to be refuted soundly.

The increased global exploration of the late fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – roughly Columbus onward – intensified the significance of the discrepancies in Genesis, the inconsistency of the world with the Genesis accounts of Adam, Noah, and Babel. Records from and encounters with the broad spread of humanity introduced a myriad of factors that could not easily be brushed away or ridiculed and decreed into submission. In this environment there was an explosion of thought centered on pre-adamic or non adamic men and a push toward a critical reading of the Biblical accounts.

Monogenism vs. Polygenism. The time span from 1700-1850 witnessed an increasing debate about the origin and diversity of the human race. These discussions were founded at some level in theology, but at a more fundamental level in political and economic aspirations and ideals. There were two primary schools of thought: monogenism where all humans arose from a single source – Adam and Eve. Climate and culture – a combination of environment and the inheritance of acquired characteristics – was proposed to account for the diversity of the human race. In opposition to this idea was polygenism with a separate creation of human pairs in diverse locations with features and traits designed for the local environment. The entire discussion was tied up in the currents of thought regarding imperialism, racism, culturalism, republicanism, and slavery. There is no clear-cut demarcation however; both monogenism and polygenism were used to support and refute racism and slavery.

Livingstone presents a fascinating sketch of the range of thought and speculation on human origins in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century … far more than can be dealt with in a simple post. Here I will highlight only a few ideas.

Monogenism was coupled with a form of evolutionary change. The anonymous authors of “An Universal History” ca. 1736 considered the ability of climate to produce, via a form of evolutionary change, the various races and traits observed in humans.

After the initial change in skin tone that any group might experience in moving to a “very hot country,” the authors conjectured that “in a generation or two, that a high degree of tawniness might become natural and at length the pride of the natives. The men might begin to value themselves upon this complexion, and the women to affect them the better for it; so that their love for their husbands, and daily conversation with them, might have considerable influence upon the fruit of their wombs, and make each child grown blacker and blacker, according to the fancy and imagination of the mother.” (p. 54)

The influence of climate went beyond physical features however. Montesquieu writing in 1748 described the influence of northern climate as producing “a greater boldness, that is more courage; a greater sense of superiority … more frankness, less suspicion, policy, and cunning. By contrast, the inhabitants of warmer climates were, “like old men, timorous. (p. 55)” Evolution from a common pair produced both inferior and superior races of mankind. While racism and ethnocentrism abounds in the discussion – it is only skin deep and potentially reversible.

The empire of climate preserved the unity of the human race; evolution, as it were, saved scripture. And in so doing, as we will presently note, it also went some way toward giving sustenance to those who opposed slavery, by combating writers who erected racial classifications on polygenist foundations. (p. 57)

Many others however saw the diversity of races as evidence for polygenism. Charles White writing ca. 1799 came to the conclusion that the various races were sufficiently different that climate alone was insufficient. He also made comparisons of human and animal anatomy. He saw connections between species and races of the sort that incorporated the reuse of elements in a gradation and hierarchy but rejected an evolutionary type arrangement.

Indeed, he argued explicitly against any evolutionary-style arrangement, insisting that those who preserved traditional monogenism – and thereby acquiesced to a too-pliable interpretation of racial features – could find no way of drawing a stable boundary between humans and apes. As he put it, if “we admit that such great varieties can be produced in the same species as we find to exist in man, it would be easy to maintain the probability that several species of simiae are but varieties of the species Man … And if the argument be still further extended, almost all the animal kingdom might be deduced from one pair, and be considered as one family; than which a more degrading notion certainly cannot be entertained. Contrary to common assumption, monogenesis did not preserve human dignity, it subverted it. (p. 61-62)

Both monogenism and polygenism, but especially polygenism could be turned to the support of imperialism and slavery. White, quoted above, declared himself against slavery – but his ideas were used to support slavery. Monogenism could be used to support slavery as well – as the climate produced humans of different character and suited to different roles

Monogenism versus polygenism in the New World. The conflicting claims of monogenism and polygenism played a role in the political and moral discussion in the New World as well as Europe – and it went beyond consideration of slavery. Samuel Stanhope Smith (1751-1819, future president of Princeton) wrote to demonstrate that monogenism was good science, good theology, and good moral philosophy. He assigned the savage life to degeneration, yet insisted that the differences were only skin deep.

At bottom, what Smith found so offensive about the speculations of Kames, Monboddo, and White about non-adamic humans was that they were unsuited to the American project, in which it was vital, Smith believes, to have the common constitution to underwrite human morality. In the early days of the new American Republic a confidence in a common human constitution was precisely the philosophy that was needed if public virtue were to be retained in a society “that was busily repudiating the props upon which virtue had traditionally rested – tradition itself, divine revelation, history, social hierarchy, an inherited government, and the authority of religious denominations.” (p. 78)

A republican form of government, eliminating the constraint of monarchy and religious establishment, allowed preservation of morality in the public square “if a universal ethical sense could be extracted from human nature by the methods of empirical science.” (p. 78) Monogenism was thought to be necessary to defend the political philosophy of the US founding fathers.

Adam and the nature of humanity was a big issue in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. And we have not yet gotten to Darwin. The voyage of the Beagle took place from Dec. 1831-Oct. 1836. On the Origin of Species was published in 1859.

While we tend to think of the question of Adam in theological, biblical terms, and scientific terms, this has not always been the sole controlling factor. Political, imperial, and cultural considerations have often played a role in the consideration of human origins. Even today Jack Collins (Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care) and others have emphasized the moral and theological importance of monogensim or a unified humanity as one of the reasons why a historical Adam (and Eve) is of prime importance.

Does this history of the question of human origins surprise you?

In your mind which factors contributed most significantly to the challenge of Adam in Christian thought? Are political, cultural and moral factors significant?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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