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Adam and Eve and Ted and Alice

Adam and Eve

John Farrel recently wrote a column at Forbes.com entitled "Can Theology Evolve?", quoting from an epistle of Jerry Coyne:

"I’ve always maintained that this piece of the Old Testament, which is easily falsified by modern genetics (modern humans descended from a group of no fewer than 10,000 individuals), shows more than anything else the incompatibility between science and faith. For if you reject the Adam and Eve tale as literal truth, you reject two central tenets of Christianity: the Fall of Man and human specialness."

Now, by "literal truth" Coyne undoubtedly intended "literal fact," since a thing may be true without being fact, and a fact has no truth value in itself. I do not know Dr. Coyne's bona fides for drawing doctrinal conclusions or for interpreting scriptures, although he seems to lean toward the fundamentalist persuasion. Nor am I sure how Dr. Coyne's assertion necessarily entails a falsification of human specialness (whatever he means by that). I never heard of such a doctrine in my Storied Youth1 though it is pretty obvious from a scientific-empirical point of view. You are not reading this on an Internet produced by kangaroos or petunias.

It is not even clear what his claim means regarding the Fall. Neither the Eastern Orthodox nor the Roman Catholic churches ever insisted on a naive-literal reading of their scriptures, and yet both asserted as dogma the Fall of Man.

Now modern genetics does not falsify the Adam and Eve tale for the excellent reason that it does not address the same matter as the Adam and Eve tale. One is about the origin of species; the other is about the origin of sin. One may as well say that a painting of a meal falsifies haute cuisine.

Still, there are some interesting points about the myth of Adam and Eve and the Fall. Not least is the common late-modern usage of "myth" to mean "something false" rather than "an organizing story by which a culture explains itself to itself." Consider, for example, the "myth of progress" that was so important during the Modern Ages. Or the equally famous "myth of Galileo" which was a sort of Genesis myth for the Modern Ages. With the fading of the Modern Ages, these myths have lost their power and have been exploded by post-modernism or by historians of science.

On the Ambiguity of One

Dr. Coyne's primary error seems to be a quantifier shift. He appears to hold that the statement:

A: "There is one man from whom all humans are descended"

...is equivalent to the statement:

B: "All humans are descended from [only] one man."

But this logical fallacy hinges on an equivocation of "one," failing to distinguish "one [out of many]" from "[only] one." Traditional doctrine requires only A, not B: That all humans share a common ancestor, not that they have no other ancestors.

For example, all Flynn men and women share a common descent from one John Thomas Flynn (c.1840-1881) but of course we are also descended from other ancestors as well. In my case, that includes a Frenchman from the Pas de Calais, numerous Germans from the upper Rhineland, plus some folks from other parts of Ireland, all of whom were contemporary with the aforesaid John Thomas. If you think of a surname as an inherited characteristic from the father, it is easy to see how a group of people may have a common ancestor without having only one ancestor.

Dr. Coyne believes the mathematical requirement of a population numbering 10,000 somehow refutes the possibility that there were two. But clearly, where there are 10,000 there are two, many times over. Genesis tells us that the children of Adam and Eve found mates among the children of men, which would indicate that there were a number of others creatures out there with whom they could mate—perhaps no fewer than 9,998 others. So even a literal reading of Genesis supports multiple ancestors, over and above a single common ancestor.

Of course, this is not the usual poetic trope or artistic image of one man and one woman alone in a Garden in Eden, but then popular and artistic conceptions of evolution or quantum mechanics are not always precise and accurate, either. Not everyone has the time, inclination, or talent to delve into such matters very deeply, and the end of art is different from the end of philosophy—or genetics. Yet there may be a sense in which Adam (and Eve) were indeed alone.

The Red-Clay Men

Dr. Coyne makes much of Mitochondrial Eve not being contemporary with Y-chromosomal Adam; but these are common ancestors only in the strict male descent or the strict female descent. Christian doctrine holds only that all men are descended from Adam, not that they descend through an unbroken line of fathers. The same applies to descent from Eve through mothers, although oddly enough, that is not doctrine, for reasons adduced below. Since mito-Eve and chromo-Adam are not necessarily the Adam and Eve of the story, what difference does it make if they were not contemporary?

Now obviously, if all men are descended from Adam, then all men are descended from Adam's father, ne c'est pas? At one time, the possibility that Adam's father was a lump of clay was the cutting edge of science. After all, the word adam simply means "red clay." (And still does in Arabic.) When a man dies, his body corrupts, and becomes...red clay. It was not then unreasonable to early observers of nature that regardless how subsequent generations have been propagated, the first red-clay man came directly from red clay.

In other words, the mythos of Adam and Eve employed the best-known science of its time. Were it being originally written today, it would undoubtedly employ the imagery of modern science—just so people in AD 6,000 could laugh at its naiveté.

So why Adam and not his progenitor, Bruce?

Evolution points to the answer. Darwin tells us that at some point an ape that was not quite a man gave birth to a man that was no longer quite an ape. He was H. sapiens—or at least he likes to call himself that. He had the capacity for rational thought; that is, to reflect on sensory perceptions and abstract universal concepts. He could not only perceive this bison and that bison, but could conceive of "bison"—an abstraction with no material existence of its own. Poetically, we might say that a God "breathed" a rational soul into a being that had previously been little more than "red clay."

How long after the red-clay man was formed was the rational soul breathed in? The texts do not say. It may have been tens or hundreds of thousands of years, at least according to one Eastern Orthodox theologian2; and Thomas Aquinas in at least one place regards humanity in general as "one man." If there is a God and he did such things, he was not punching a time-clock.

Hence, Adam as first man, and not simply first man-like hominid.

Whaddaya Mean "First" Man?

There is an argument similar to Zeno's Paradox of Dichotomy that holds that sapient man arose by slow, gradual increments. That is, arguing from the continuum rather than from the quanta. Now, "a little bit sapient" is like "a little bit pregnant." It may be only a little, but it is a lot more than not sapient at all. There is, after all, no first number after zero, and however small the sapience, one can always cut it in half and claim that that much less sapience preceded it. But however long and gradual is the screwing-in of the light bulb, the light is either on or off.

Modern genetics finds that genetic change may be specific, sudden, and massive due to various biochemical "machines" within the gene. The ability to abstract universal concepts from particular sensory percepts is an either-or thing, no matter how much better developed it might become over time. You either can do it even a little bit or you can't do it at all. So, Adam may be considered the first man no matter how many man-like apes there were on his family tree.

And that includes those among his 9,999 companions. It is not clear how Dr. Coyne envisions the same sapient mutation arising simultaneously in 10,000 ape-men. It is not impossible, I suppose, but it does seem unlikely. So let us default to the sapiens/loquens mutation appearing first in one man and then gradually spreading through a population and, following tradition, let's call him Adam.

This in no way contradicts the existence of 9,999 other ape-men with whom Adam is interfertile. They may have been necessary to comprise a sufficient breeding population insofar as the body is concerned, but they need not have been sapient.

The Trent Affair

Consequently, what Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice were up to with Lilith among the 10,000 makes no difference, doctrine-wise. For that matter, what Eve was up to doesn't matter much, either! The anathemas of the Council of Trent mention only Adam. They require belief in original sin and related doctrines; they do not require belief in a factual Genesis myth beyond the simple existence of a common ancestor. (Which is why the church consistently taught that mankind was all one species and that all material beings with intellect and will, including hypothetical blemyae and sciopods, were "men.")

The anagogical point of the Genesis story was to teach a doctrine, not to relate a history. The truths are not in the facts. Dr. Coyne has discovered that naive-literalists have a coherency problem, but that has been known for centuries. Indeed, St. Augustine pointed it out 1,600 years ago:

"For if he takes up rashly a meaning which the author whom he is reading did not intend, he often falls in with other statements which he cannot harmonize with this meaning. And if he admits that these statements are true and certain, then it follows that the meaning he had put upon the former passage cannot be the true one: and so it comes to pass, one can hardly tell how, that, out of love for his own opinion, he begins to feel more angry with Scripture than he is with himself." (On Christian Doctrine, I.37)

In his book on the literal meanings of Genesis, wherein he extracted multiple literal meanings from different passages,3 Augustine wrote:

"In the case of a narrative of events, the question arises as to whether everything must be taken according to the figurative sense only, or whether it must be expounded and defended also as a faithful record of what happened. No Christian will dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense. For St. Paul says: 'Now all these things that happened to them were symbolic.' And he explains the statement in Genesis, 'And they shall be two in one flesh,' as a great mystery in reference to Christ and to the Church. If, then, Scripture is to be explained under both aspects, what meaning other than the allegorical have the words: 'In the beginning God created heaven and earth'?" (On the Literal Meanings of Genesis, I.1)

Note that he regards the figurative [anagogical] sense as the default, and other readings are layered upon this. He discusses how one knows when a figurative meaning is intended, and describes the various figures that are used in both literary and vulgar speech. Thomas Aquinas explains the four reading protocols used by the Church in ST I.1.10, but they go back at least a thousand years before him.

Homo loquens

Aristotle illustrated the difference between the sensitive animal form and the rational human form by saying that an animal sees flesh, but a human also sees what flesh is. It is the difference between knowing this bright red crunchy apple perceived by the senses and knowing about "apple" conceived by reflection of the intellect on the many individual apples of experience. And so we might imagine Adam sitting around the campfire after an exciting hunt and remembering the bison they had chased and the moment of truth and he suddenly utters the hunting cry that signifies "bison here!"—a cry that is in principle no different from those made by other animals, and possibly his fire-mates look about in alarm for the bison the cry signifies.

But Adam has done something different. He has used the sign as a symbol, one that refers to the bison-that-is-not-here-but-remembered. He has become sapient and has invented grammar.4 Or perhaps he was just born that way and like any small child reaching seven has just achieved the age of reason. But in all likelihood, his ability to speak in abstractions—to speak of 'bison' rather than any particular bison—is coterminous with his sapience.

Alas, none of his fire-mates understand, and he goes through life as lonely as a man who can speak when no one else can listen. (He has become the First Politician.) It is as if he is alone in a garden (since that is all that "paradise" meant.) For a while, he amuses himself by giving names to all the other animals, but that soon palls. Is there no one else he can talk with?

Then one day he meets a woman-with-words. Perhaps a woman from another band or tribe who has coincidentally received the same mutation, or perhaps someone who has simply cottoned on to what he has been doing. Sometimes an environmental cue is required to activate a gene. Here at last is someone he can talk to. (Perhaps he regrets this later, when she will not shut up. But that is a tale for another time.) The rest, as they say, is history. Later, some of his descendants will fly to the Moon, still chattering away.

Pleased to Meet You. Hope You Know My Name.

Like any animal, the red-clay ape-men were innocent. They lived, hunted, ate, mated, and died, pretty much in that order. What was good was what perfected their ape-manliness; but they did not know it was good. In a sense, they did not know anything. Like perfect Zen masters, they simply did. (See the zebras in the Underground Grammarian's essay, linked in the previous footnote.)

But Adam is different. Having a rational human form in addition to his sensitive animal form, he is capable of knowing the good. As Paul writes in Romans 2:12-16, the law is written in the heart.5 God being the author of natures is, in the Christian view, the author of human nature in particular; hence the law "written in the heart" was written there by God. But for Adam to know the good means that Adam is now capable of turning away from the good. Thus, when Adam wills some act that is contrary to what his intellect tells him is good, he is acting in disobedience to "God's commands written in his heart." A turning away from the good is called "sin" and, since no one had ever been capable of doing so before, it was the original sin. This is all communicated by allegory in the tale of the tree.

We can observe this today with children, who mature to a point when they begin to recognize good and evil. We call it the Age of Reason. Once upon a time, this recognition must have happened for the first time, and not necessarily in childhood. Today's children have parents and an entire society of other sapient beings to serve as examples and hasten the onset; but Adam had no one to teach him, so the realization could have come late. All of a sudden, he knew he had disobeyed the voice in his head, he was naked like an animal, he knew that someday he would die.

So death came into the world—not as fact, but as truth. Animals die in fact, but they do not know that they will. They live, as it were, one day at a time; and then one day they don't. "Truth is not just a judgment," writes Chastek, "but an affirmation of how this judgment stands to us with respect to its truth." Death became true when Adam realized it. (What a bummer that must have been. He probably invented whiskey next.)

And so he was expelled from the edenic existence of the innocent ape-men animals into a world of worries. Perhaps it was literal. How did the other ape-men react to the odd ones in their midst? Evolution proceeds through reproductive isolation. If Adam and the others like him had stayed in ape-man eden, his genes may have been lost in the larger gene pool and never achieved "take-off" concentration. So some sort of secession seems reasonable.

Maybe Adam and those he found like him started calling themselves "the Enlightened" or "the Brights" or even just "the Sapients" and this really annoyed the other 9,000 or so, who then drove them out as obnoxious little gits.

Original Sin

Most sin, the old joke runs, is not very original. But supposedly the "sin of Adam" has been inherited by all his descendants. This hardly seems fair. If we didn't do the deed, why should we bear the mark?

But this misses the mark. Thomas Aquinas made note that original sin is not a particular transgression, like a crime committed for which one deserves particular punishment, but is the origin or source of such positive sins. It is a predilection inherent to human nature.

Doctrine is concerned with the origin of sin, not the origin of species. Hence, "origin-al" sin. The only time Thomas Aquinas touches (in passing) on the origin of species, he ascribes its possibility to the powers inherent in nature itself as created in the beginning:

"Species, also, that are new, if any such appear, existed beforehand in various active powers; so that animals, and perhaps even new species of animals, are produced by putrefaction by the power which the stars and elements received at the beginning."

(We could take that further and say that the physical universe itself existed beforehand in various active powers, like gravitation or quantum mechanics. If only a physicist of the stature of Hawking would be courageous enough to say that in the beginning there was the word: "Let F=G(Mm)/d^2." But we digress.)

When Thomas Aquinas discusses Adam and Eve, he focuses on Adam. He goes so far as to say that had it been Eve who sinned, we would have no problem!

But how is this original sin transmitted to descendants? Again, we shouldn't suppose that no one has ever thought of these late-modern objections before. Aquinas writes:

"Yet if we look into the matter carefully we shall see that it is impossible for the sins of the nearer ancestors, or even any other but the first sin of our first parent to be transmitted by way of origin. The reason is that a man begets his like in species but not in individual. Consequently those things that pertain directly to the individual, such as personal actions and matters affecting them, are not transmitted by parents to their children: for a grammarian does not transmit to his son the knowledge of grammar that he has acquired by his own studies. On the other hand, those things that concern the nature of the species, are transmitted by parents to their children, unless there be a defect of nature: thus a man with eyes begets a son having eyes, unless nature fails. And if nature be strong, even certain accidents of the individual pertaining to natural disposition, are transmitted to the children, e.g. fleetness of body, acuteness of intellect, and so forth; but nowise those that are purely personal."

In ST II-1, Q.81, art. 1 he writes:

"For some, considering that the subject of sin is the rational soul, maintained that the rational soul is transmitted with the semen, so that thus an infected soul would seem to produce other infected souls. Others, rejecting this as erroneous, endeavored to show how the guilt of the parent's soul can be transmitted to the children, even though the soul be not transmitted, from the fact that defects of the body are transmitted from parent to child—thus a leper may beget a leper, or a gouty man may be the father of a gouty son, on account of some seminal corruption, although this corruption is not [itself] leprosy or gout. Now since the body is proportionate to the soul, and since the soul's defects redound into the body, and vice versa, in like manner, say they, a culpable defect of the soul is passed on to the child, through the transmission of the semen, albeit the semen itself is not the subject of the guilt."

So Aquinas has noted genetics, and has rejected Lamarckism, even if he doesn't know about genetics and says "semen" rather than "genes." This is what we might call Aquinas' "genetic" explanation. He identified original sin with concupiscence, hence with selfishness (or "wanting" as the Buddha put it). So he is here hypothesizing a sort of "selfish gene." (Perhaps we can find an evolutionary biologist willing to write a book about the selfish gene?)

However, Aquinas finds that this selfish gene is not quite sufficient, and adds a bit regarding "motion by generation," and says we must consider the human species as a whole ("as one man") and the sin (or defect) as applying to human nature per se, rather than to the acts of each particular man: "Original sin is not the sin of this person, except inasmuch as this person receives his nature from his first parent, for which reason it is called the 'sin of nature.'"


The mythos of Adam and Eve still makes sense when read in the traditional anagogical manner, not in spite of evolutionary learnings but because of them. Of course, Christians must always be wary of concordism, as atheists rightly point out. Being compatible with consensus science is a tricky thing—just ask the clerics who defended long-established geocentrism. If it ain't falsifiable, it ain't science; so we must allow the possibility that what we think we know about evolution is all wrong. That is why it is not a good idea to get too chummy with science, since you never know when she'll pack up her bags and leave you holding the bills.
Originally posted at TOFSpot. Used with permission.
(Image credit: The Blaze)


  1. storied youth. Literally. My brother and I wrote stories when we were kids.
  2. Eastern Orthodox. Atheists and Fundamentalist Christians often forget about the Orthodox Church, but it is the second largest Church in Christendom. Together with the largest, the Roman Catholic, they comprise better than 63% of all Christians. Throw in the third largest—the Anglican Communion—and we've got two-thirds of all Christians, well before we get down to the more recent, exotic, and idiosyncratic strands of Christianity. If I want to know "what Christianity teaches," I would be inclined to ask the Orthodox or Catholic churches, as they have near 2,000 years of noodling over it.
  3. By the way, Augustine was quite aware of the issue of light existing before the sun; and points out the ambiguity of "evening and morning" on a spherical Earth. Late-moderns always think they are the first to think of these things. "Metaphorical" counts as one of the various literal readings. For example, "you are the salt of the earth" depends on the actual, literal meaning of "salt." To say "you are the asparagus of the earth" would not mean the same thing. Fundamentalist Christians often say that by using metaphor a passage can mean anything; but this is simply not so. "You are the salt of the earth" cannot mean "Two pounds pastrami; bring home to Emma." But we digress.
  4. For an amusing take on this, see the Underground Grammarian.
  5. It is this doctrine which affirms that atheists are as capable of moral behavior as a Jew or a Greek or a Christian. There was even a term for this: the naturally Christian man. But we digress.
Michael F. Flynn

Written by

Michael F. Flynn is an award-winning science fiction writer born in Easton, Pennsylvania. He began selling short fiction in 1984, rapidly becoming one of the leading lights in the magazine Analog. Since then he's published several novels including Firestar (Tor, 1996) and Eifelheim (Tor, 2007), which was a Hugo Award finalist in 2007. Follow Michael at his blog, The TOF Spot.

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