The Challenge of Adam 3 (RJS)

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. 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 (Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine) through the middle ages, the explorations of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, the debates on racial supremacy, and on to the present day.

Chapter 3 is “The Cultural Politics of the Adamic Narrative.”

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 clearcut demarcation however; both monogenism and polygenism were used to support and refute racism and slavery.

What role does consideration of origins play in the understanding of human persons and human culture? What role does (or did) politics and empire play in consideration of human origins?

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.

Interestingly enough – modern evolutionary theory supports monogenism. All modern humans worldwide are one interrelated species. We may not have one unique pair of ancestors as in the traditional reading of the Genesis narrative, but we are one people with one constitution and all descend from one small breeding population some 150k years ago. The unity of the human species is undeniable.

Political, imperial, and cultural considerations have often played a role in the consideration of human origins. Is it the same today? What role do political or moral considerations play in the question of origins? Should these considerations influence our conclusions – or is “pure science” the controlling source of knowledge?

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

  • pds

    The Design Spectrum
    “Interestingly enough – modern evolutionary theory supports monogenism. All modern humans worldwide are one interrelated species. We may not have one unique pair of ancestors as in the traditional reading of the Genesis narrative, but we are one people with one constitution and all descend from one small breeding population some 150k years ago.”
    It does not support the classic monogenism position, as you admit. It does not posit descent from a single pair. It also posits a gradual transition from species to species over time, so there is no clear line between human and non-human. It also allows and predicts continued evolution with at least the potential for groups separating in the future.
    As Darwin put it:

    At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

  • RJS

    pds,
    Darwin’s perspective was limited. As such his ideas were limited. But evolution was not really the fount of racism here. The ideas of polygenism were more easily twisted to such ends. Of course – the church managed on occasion to twist scripture to such ends as well (and to use it to argue against racism and slavery). Darwin’s ideas on race no more impact the truth or fiction of evolution than Luther’s ideas on Jews impact the truth or fiction of Christianity.
    Scientifically – we are one breeding population. One report I read in the journal Science suggests that we all (i.e. all people alive today) have a common ancestor as recently as 5000 years ago and a completely common ancestor pool 10,000 years ago. We move, we conquer geography and culture and we intermarry. All of this “spreads the wealth” and keeps us as one united humanity.
    Our perspective is also limited (Darwin and Luther were not special in this regard) but the solution is to try to understand our motivations and reasons – not to anchor ourselves in some ideal and fail to go with the data, the evidence.

  • pds

    “Darwin’s ideas on race no more impact the truth or fiction of evolution than Luther’s ideas on Jews impact the truth or fiction of Christianity.”
    Of course. I have said that over and over here.
    But Livingstone’s book is all about how theories of origins affect culture. That is what I am getting at.
    We need to look at all the data, both historical and scientific.
    “Modern evolutionary theory supports monogenism.” This just is not true, as you admit 2 sentences after you say it.

  • pds

    RJS,
    Let’s set aside Darwin. Here is what I said:
    “[Evolution] posits a gradual transition from species to species over time, so there is no clear line between human and non-human. It also allows and predicts continued evolution with at least the potential for groups separating in the future.”
    Do you disagree?

  • RJS

    pds (#3),
    This is a key point – reading our evolutionary history from all the sources we have available supports monogenism not polygenism. We are one united people. Monogenism does not require one special couple it does require one united people. One small community … with a specific set of cumulative changes making us human. Certainly we can see the hand of God in this.
    Polygenism has different “humans” either specially created or developing independently in different locations.

  • RJS

    I don’t think that evolution actually will lead to a separation of potential groups in the future because we are not isolated populations – we are one united people. Advantageous changes will spread and influence the entire population, eventually.
    And of course I trust in the providence of God – which removes cause for concern.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    It occurs to me that polygenism would pose many of the same problems for Christians then as does evolution today. If we aren’t all from one original pair, then what about the inheritance of sin through the fall of Adam and Eve. Does Livingstone offer any insight as to how this issue was processed theologically?

  • Scott Smith

    I’m not sure the point of this post. I find it interesting that there are positions presented for the Darwinian position, the New World position, etc. – but no biblical positions! Why is there no scriptural reference to either support or refute any of these views? Why are there no proposed different ways of reading Genesis to reconcile these positions? In the absence of these, I wonder what the purpose is. To my reading, it merely adds confusion to the topic.
    As to the issue of our origins seeming to point to a small community rather than a single pair, wouldn’t the fact that we more accurately all came from the families of Noah, Shem, Ham and Japheth offer a possible reconciliation to this? Sure, we ultimately came from Adam, but what if there was a much wider divergence of appearance and natural traits in those pre-Noah generations than we have now? Couldn’t the generations after the flood account for this “small breeding population”?
    I’m not one who feels that all answers are in Genesis, or in the bible for that matter. (Not much on internal combustion in there.) But, in matters that contradict or at least put a twist on what *is* in there, I think it is necessary to at least make an attempt to reconcile them to the bible. It feels like this post is placing extrabiblical writings on a level above even blue parakeets. ;)

  • RJS

    Scott,
    Of course it is necessary to connect to scripture – and we have in past posts, and will in future posts. But everything cannot be covered in every post.

  • pds

    The Design Spectrum
    RJS #5,
    What you are describing is a variation on polygenism. You could call it “small community polygenism.” By the way, how large was the “small community”?
    You are also focused on a narrow time range. If you look at ALL the ancestors that evolutionary theory supposes, it is massively polygenistic. Why limit your focus to that “small community”? Why not look at all the ancestors? Evolution tells us that your view is artificial.
    A design + evolution framework does not have those problems.

  • RJS

    pds,
    No I don’t think so, and this is one of the biggest misconceptions. There is no evidence for polygenism of any significance in the evolutionary history of humans. We are one people. We can, and will, discuss issues related to the fall – but with respect to anthropology there is no question any longer. The whole community evolved into modern humans. I am not going to sit and worry about the intermediate period. Even here there are theologically reasonable options.

  • pds

    Great article here by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini:
    http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/reviewofbooks_article/8355/
    On the theory of evolution:

    Moreover, it’s a clever idea, not something obvious, not the kind of idea that everyone discovers spontaneously. Teach it to a class of kids, and they will realise that it never occurred to them beforehand, but that it’s so damn clever. They feel so damn clever just for grasping it. This is, I think, crucial. Adults also feel clever for just grasping it, and for developing on the spot an intuition of zillions of examples and applications. It is very hard to dissuade them, to tell them that this process is indeed real and ubiquitous but cannot explain the origin of species, pace Darwin. An opinion now shared by many distinguished biologists (please read our book to see by whom and why). The sheer brilliance of the idea, and the elation one feels for having grasped it, voids the minds of any attention to counterexamples.

    People love to feel clever. I remember the feeling well. Then I finally started looking at the counterexamples . . .

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    pds – C.S. Lewis coined the term ‘Bulverism’. As he put it: “You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong… Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is ‘wishful thinking.’ You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself… If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic…”
    You can say that people like the notion of evolution because it makes them feel clever. Who knows, that might even be true. But even if that were true it would have no relevance to the question of whether or not evolution were correct. First, you have to show that evolution is wrong. Then you can start explaining why people believe that wrong idea.
    Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini don’t manage it: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/02/fodor_and_piattelli-palmarini.php

  • R Hampton

    pds,
    If you really want to understand the science behind the answer of monogenism, then a great place to start is with the Genographic Project (sponsored by the National Geographic, supported by IBM researchers).
    Also worth reading is a new study, published in journal Nature which has some important findings:
    The majority of complete genome sequences to date have come from men of European descent, including scientists James Watson, George Church, and Stephen Quake. But analyzing diverse groups is important for both medical and scientific reasons. People in Africa are known to have high levels of genetic diversity–because the human species originated there, genetic variations have had more time to accumulate … researchers found that the four Khoisan men are as genetically different as a European and an Asian person. “This is despite the fact that they sometimes live within walking distance of one another,” team leader Stephan Schuster, a genome researcher at the Pennsylvania State University … “!Gubi’s and Tutu’s genomes each carry more than one million single base-pair changes that are not found in each other or in any of the published genomes, including one from a Yoruba individual from West Africa.”

  • pds

    Ray #13,
    I got to Bulverism before you:
    http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/2010/03/02/bulverism/
    PZ Myers is militantly biased in all he writes. He admits that he did not even read their book. He is a highly unreliable reviewer. When people repeat over and over, “they don’t know anything about x” you know a little exaggeration is going on.
    Pretty funny: he claims New Scientist is a “magazine that is evolving into a platform for sensationalistic evolution-deniers, sad to say.”

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    PDS – I’m sorry you fell into Bulverism despite knowing about the term… but you did. Nothing you’ve said has actually countered what I pointed out – until you show that evolution is wrong (or incomplete), your speculations on motives are (at best) premature.
    Oh, and it’s a hilarious double-standard that you actually have to pick up a gun and kill somebody to be considered a ‘militant’ believer, but all you have to do to be considered a ‘militant’ atheist is write a book. Or a blog.
    I’m aware that ‘militant’ can mean either ‘physically violent’ or just ‘vocally aggressive’. But somehow, when it comes to religious topics, that second definition only seems to get applied to atheists. Nobody calls Bill Donhohue a ‘miltiant’ Catholic, despite the fact that his declarations contain at least as much vehemence as Myers. No, outside of a few inside-baseball ‘church militant’ references, the only time you’ll hear anyone say ‘militant Christian’ is when they’re talking about freaks like these Hutaree schmucks.
    And I’m afraid I haven’t seen any evidence that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini actually do know anything about evolution. When a philosopher comes in and tries to tell physicists or chemists that they are fundamentally wrong, people tend to look at them askance. But somehow the bar is lower when it comes to biology?

  • RJS

    pds,
    Myers is militantly biased in what I’ve read of his writing. But as far as I can tell the Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini book is not a refutation of evolution but a discussion of mechanisms at work in the process. Darwin knew absolutely nothing about mechanism, and what little he postulated was largely incorrect. His was a very course grained overview. The text book story of site mutation and natural selection is also not enough – and no reputable biologist claims that it is. The mechanisms are very complex, controlled by the realm of possibility (chemistry and physics), among other things.
    But there is an approach I think we need to take toward this topic – and one without agenda. Evolution is not false because it has been connected with Social Darwinism or because Dawkins claims it allows one to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Refuting a simple mechanism as improbable is not a death knell for the whole. Evolution is also not false because it calls into question a simple story of unique pair of humans.
    The interesting thing I saw in this chapter of Livingstone’s book was the way that theories about Adam were connected to political, economic, and cultural positions and evaluated on occasion with respect to their usefulness in achieving some desired end. Theology was there – but it doesn’t seem to be the controlling factor.
    What is the correct approach and mind to take to the evaluation of evidence and hypotheses regarding adam, eve, and common descent?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    RJS – In what sense are you using the term “militant” referring to Myers? Are you saying he advocates violence like the Hutarees, who are currently being called “militant Christians”?

  • RJS

    No – I am reusing a word that pds used. This is a common technique for making connections in written work and conversation.
    It is militant in the sense that he has a knee jerk circle the wagons approach to ideas in order to protect that which he deems important. I think that we need to take an open approach of considering the evidence and allowing it to take the lead as we consider science, and other topics as well. We will make better progress on all sides if we follow arguments rather than stake out positions.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    RJS – I really dislike that word, “militant”, and I objected to PDS using it for the reasons I outlined before. There is a demonstrable double-standard in how that word is applied. Do some Google searches on the word “militant” and you’ll see what I mean.
    But can you point out an example of “a knee jerk circle the wagons approach to ideas” in the essay on Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini? How did he mischaracterize them, or reject a valid point they made?

  • pds

    Ray,
    I did not post the quote to prove evolution is wrong. So there is no Bulverism. The book they wrote gets into the evidence. Did you read it?
    PZ Myers militant? Try this:

    I say, screw the polite words and careful rhetoric. It’s time for scientists to break out the steel-toed boots and brass knuckles, and get out there and hammer on the lunatics and idiots.
    ……
    Please don’t try to tell me that you object to the tone of our complaints. Our only problem is that we aren’t martial enough, or vigorous enough, or loud enough, or angry enough.

    See here:
    http://telicthoughts.com/metaphors-of-violence/
    http://darwinianfundamentalism.blogspot.com/2005/11/righteous-fury-and-much-butt-kicking.html

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    PDS – Tell me, very explicitly and with no equivocation – do you think Myers is calling for actual, real world violence (you know, where physical, biological damage occurs to human bodies)? Or do you just not like “metaphors of violence” to describe vigorous verbal and written argument?

  • pds

    RJS #17,
    “Darwin knew absolutely nothing about mechanism, and what little he postulated was largely incorrect. ”
    Seriously? Random mutation and natural selection is a mechanism, and it is the foundation of his theory.

  • pds

    Ray #22,
    How should I know? Why don’t you ask him? Has he ever clarified?
    Do you agree that “militant” is accurate?

  • RJS

    pds #23,
    The only part of the picture Darwin really had right, his insight, was natural selection of “random” small changes. But this is not the mechanism of evolution as we would describe it today – it is only the broadest of brush strokes picture. It is certainly part of the picture. Chemistry itself was only beginning on a “modern” footing ca. 1850. Mendeleev (1834-1907) published a periodic table in something like 1869 … although building on the shoulders of those who came before. Only rudimentary understanding of bonding and reactivity was available. Darwin knew nothing of mechanism – although we are building on a foundation he helped to lay.

  • pds

    The Design Spectrum
    Ray,
    BTW, I am guessing that Francis Beckwith and Guillermo Gonzalez would have preferred a good hard punch in the gut to having tenure denied because PZ disagreed with their philosophy of science:
    http://telicthoughts.com/pz-myers-on-tenure-and-id/

  • R Hampton

    pds,
    Darwin did theorize about the mechanism of how successful individuals were able to pass on their traits (random mutation and natural selection), but he did not specifically know how those mechanisms worked; what today we know as Genetics.
    For example, Darwin observed that occasionally a given offspring would be produced that possessed a trait that neither parent had; a random mutation. Yet Darwin did not know that DNA/RNA was the location of said mutation, or that ultraviolet light, radiation, and some chemicals can break the bond between a base pair and lead to a copying error (just one of many ways mutations can occur.) And Darwin did not know that genes – sections of DNA consisting of many thousands to millions of base pairs – are how those traits are recorded.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    PDS – Actually, yes, I’ve seen Myers explicitly decry violence or threats thereof, even against people he vehemently disagrees with. Most recently here:
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/03/for_shame_canada.php

    Ann Coulter, professional harridan, was scheduled to give a talk at the University of Ottawa tonight. It has been cancelled, citing a large number of protesters (which is not a problem, I would hope people would publicly express their displeasure!), and the possibility of violence (which is a problem, if true). At the very least, some hooligan pulled a fire alarm. This is not the proper way to handle kooks at all. She is a vile lunatic, but she should have been given the right to speak, and then her noise should have been ripped apart with good questions, and conversation after the event.

    I agree that ‘militant’ is accurate, only in the sense of ‘vocally aggressive’, when describing Myers. My objection, to redundantly belabor the point yet again, was to the double standard of how that term is applied. Believers only get called ‘militant’ if they threaten (or carry out) violence. Atheists get called militant for just saying they are atheist. In practice, the word ‘militant’ means different things when talking about believers and atheists, and should be avoided for that reason.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    pds –

    BTW, I am guessing that Francis Beckwith and Guillermo Gonzalez would have preferred a good hard punch in the gut to having tenure denied because PZ disagreed with their philosophy of science:

    I am completely at a loss to understand what your point is here. Are you agreeing with me that Myers isn’t violent? If so, good.
    Are you just complaining that you don’t like his positions, or his style? If so, I think we already got that.
    If you had some other point besides, “Golly, I don’t like P.Z. Myers”, you’re going to have to phrase it a tad more explicitly, sorry. I’m just not following.

  • Unapolgetic Catholic

    Has it now come to be that “militant” means expressing an opinion that a person’s scholarly work does not merit tenure?
    Is that really the measure of “militancy?”

  • Unapolgetic Catholic

    Isn’t the challenge of Adam that there is no evidecnce that there were just two members of the homo sapeins species and the genetics tends to show relatively large groups of human beings at all times? I think that is PDS’s point and PDS makes a legitimate point.
    Also, genetics seems to establish that Y chromosme “Adam” and moitochodrial “Eve” were spearated by hundreds fo milliosnof eyars.
    The last common ancestor of all humas alive is most likely a differnt person than the last comon ancestor of all humans alive 5000 years ago.
    All of the genetics seems to indicate that “Adam” and “Eve” at least as described in Genesis, could not have happened.

  • RJS

    Unapologetic Catholic,
    Yes, but theologically and morally it seems to me that the important question is not a unique first human couple but the unity of all of mankind. At least unique human couple is of secondary importance. Polygenism gives separate origins for groups of humans.

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    I agree 100% with that but I do see how people could struggle with the concept that there could not have been a unique first human couple.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X