Monday, March 16, 2009

Faith and Science: A Question

I have a question in the realm of theology and science.  Perhaps one of you can help me.  I am a teacher of sacred scripture, and one of my intentions while teaching the book of Genesis is to instill in my students the idea that there is no contradiction between faith and science, the myths that make up the creation accounts, and evolutionary accounts of the origins of life.  I have many ways of doing this.  One is to explain that the word "day" in Hebrew, "yom" frequently means several other periods of time for Hebrew speakers as it means 24 hours. Also, the mythic poem that makes up Genesis 1 actually follows our understanding of the evolving formation of the universe, progressing from the creation of inanimate forms, to vegetative life, to animal life, and finally human life.  No contradiction there.  I also point to the second creation account beginning in Genesis 2:4b, and how the author speaks of God taking from the muck of the earth.  Why are we ok with being formed from muck but not from an ape ancestor?  If we understand that muck to be a reference to a nonhuman ancestral life form, then we can reconcile the idea of evolution with God breathing his spirit, an immortal soul, into them, thus separating them from other creatures like them.  So far so good.  

My question is with the idea of one Adam and one Eve.  My text book makes it very clear that the Church teaches that all human beings descend from one set of human parents who sinned, thereby passing on to all of their descendants the original deprivation we call original sin.  This teaching is taken primarily from the encyclical letter Humani Generis, which as far as I know has never been revoked as teaching.  In particular, one paragraph applies here:
37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.
Apparently, we cannot accept polygenism to be true.  But if this is the case, I feel faced with several dilemmas.  First, if we are unwilling to allow for multiple sets of first parents who sinned, then how did the human race progress?  The usual fundamentalist answer goes something like this: Many rabbinic sources claim that Adam and Eve had 30 children.  These children married one another and eventually spread out across the known world.  There is as yet no prohibition against incest, so this was not an issue, since the very idea of incest was impossible when you are the only human beings alive.  The difficult scripture passage usually raised against this position comes from Genesis 4:16:
Cain then left the LORD'S presence and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain had relations with his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch.
It appears that Cain leaves and finds another wife.  Thus, there must have been other human beings alive.  But that is easy to answer, I suppose, by pointing out that the text never says that Cain found a wife in Nod.  It says he left and settled in Nod and then slept with his wife.  It is just as plausible that he took her with him as that he found one in Nod.  No problem there it seems.

But the problem is that this has a hard time squaring with evolutionary theory. According to basic Darwinian evolution, evolution effects gene pools and therefore groups of populations. According to a general understanding of the theory:
The more orthodox definition of evolution is as a change in the gene pool of a population over time. The gene pool is the set of all genes in a species or population. In defining evolution as a change in the gene pool it means that evolution is a population level phenomena. Therefore, only groups of organisms evolve. Individual organisms do not evolve.
Francis Collins agrees in discussing this point in his book, The Language of God:
Genetic analyses suggest that approximately ten thousand ancestors gave rise to the entire population of 6 billion humans on the planet.  How, then, does one blend these scientific observations with the story of Adam and Eve?  In the first place, the biblical texts themselves seem to suggest that there were other humans present at the same time that Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden.
He goes on to mention the case of Cain and his wife.  So, is there a real disagreement between faith and science here?  Humani Generis, consistent with Catholic teaching on the question, reaffirms: 
Whatever new truth the sincere human mind is able to find, certainly cannot be opposed to truth already acquired, since God, the highest Truth, has created and guides the human intellect, not that it may daily oppose new truths to rightly established ones, but rather that, having eliminated errors which may have crept in, it may build truth upon truth in the same order and structure that exist in reality, the source of truth.
Is this one of those case?  There have been quite a few reformable declarations made by the Holy See that have been modified over time.  The case of Dignitatis Humanae at Vatican II could be considered one.  This was not a rupture with past teaching, but a coming to terms with a different historical understanding of the consistent teaching of the Church concerning religious freedom of conscience in a different world situation.  Another example could be the prohibitions against positions such that Isaiah may have been written by three authors.  For a time, the Church made this declaration, presumably to protect the holy scriptures from being interpreted out of relevance.  But over time, a more balanced approach to discoveries concerning multiple authors was reached.  So is this one of those cases?  Can we say that we understand the first chapters of Genesis to no longer prohibit an understanding of a group of first human ancestors who all fell into sin, and that Adam and Eve represent "Man" and Woman" as a group who at the dawn of time fell away from God?  Otherwise, how do we reconcile faith and science in this very concrete case?  It seems to me that it is such concrete cases that we must be able to answer to show that Truth is truly One.  

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ


BCatholic said...

I remember watching a documentary called "The Real Eve" on the Discovery Channel a decade ago. Using our genes, they showed how we all come from one single woman, but then said something like , "This is probably more like how every person in a village, after a few centuries, ends up with the same last name. It's doubtful that we all come from one single human parent." They made this assertion and never proved it.

Seeing as we've never witnessed a new species arise out of evolution, our guess that 10,000 arise at the same time seems as probably as two arising.

Either way, I'm not too worried about it. We have imperfect knowledge of science in this world...

David said...

If there were a whole class of people at the beginning who did sin as adam and eve did then there must be a consequence due to their sin that would merit death. Or else they would not have died in the flood. To presume that they all sinned in the same way (a sin that would merit the same consequence) is interesting. As far as Cain and his situation I agree that it is not inconsistent with a single Adam and Eve seeing as though Adam and Eve had many more children after Seth.

Anonymous said...

This is also a question that has caused me a great deal of confusion. In 1986, Joseph Ratzinger published a commentary on Genesis 1-3 called "'In the Beginning....' : A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall." In this work he touches upon the question of Original Sin. What is it? How did it happen? How does it effect me? Here is an excerpt:

"In the Genesis story that we are considering, still a further characteristic of sin is described. Sin is not spoken of in general as an abstract possibility but as a deed, as the sin of a particular person, Adam, who stands at the origin of humankind and with whom the history of sin begins. The account tells us that sin begets sin, and that therefore all the sins of history are interlinked. Theology refers to this state of affairs by the certainly misleading and imprecise term 'original sin.' What does this mean? Nothing seems to us today to be stranger or, indeed, more absurd than to insist upon original sin, since, according to our way of thinking, guilt can only be something very personal, and since God does not run a concentration camp, in which one's relative are imprisoned, because he is a liberating God of love, who calls each one by name. What does original sin mean, then, when we interpret it correctly?

Finding an answer to this requires nothing less than trying to understand the human person better. It must once again be stressed that no human being is closed in upon himself or herself and that no one can live of or for himself or herself alone. We receive our life not only at the moment of birth but every day from without--from others who are not ourselves but who nonetheless somehow pertain to us. Human beings have their selves not only in themselves but also outside of themselves: they live in those whom they love and in those who love them and to whom they are 'present.' Human beings are relational, and they possess their lives--themselves--only by way of relationship. I alone am not myself, but only in and with you am I myself. To be truly a human being means to be related in love, to be of and for. But sin means the damaging or the destruction of relationality. Sin is a rejection of relationality because it wants to make the human being a god. Sin is loss of relationship, disturbance of relationship, and therefore it is not restricted to the individual. When I destroy a relationship, then this event--sin--touches the other person involved in the relationship. Consequently sin is always an offense that touches others, that alters the world and damages it. To the extent that this is true, when the network of human relationships is damaged from the very beginning, then every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage. At the very moment that a person begins human existence, which is a good, he or she is confronted by a sin-damaged world. Each of us enters into a situation in which relationality has been hurt. Consequently each person is, from the very start, damaged in relationships and does not engage in them as he or she ought. Sin pursues the human being, and he or she capitulates to it.

But from this it is also clear that human beings alone cannot save themselves. Their innate error is precisely that they want to do this by themselves. We can only be saved – that is, be free and true – when we stop wanting to be God and when we renounce the madness of autonomy and self-sufficiency. We can only be saved – that is, become ourselves – when we engage in the proper relationship. But our interpersonal relationships occur in the context of our utter creatureliness, and it is there that damage lies. Since the relationship with creation has been damaged, only the Creator himself can be our savior. We can be saved only when he from whom we have cut ourselves off takes the initiative with us and stretches out his hand to us. Only being loved is being saved, and only God's love can purify damaged human love and radically reestablish the network of relationships that have suffered from alienation. (pg. 74)"

This doesn't address the question of polygenism but it does shed some light on the discussion.

Anonymous said...

I think polygenesis is unlikely.

"Any piece of DNA that is not shuffled through the action of recombination can be traced back in time to an earlier ancestor. There are 6.5 billion such pieces of mtDNA today and around half that number of Y chromosomes; all of them can be traced back to a sole root. This entity, known as the coalescence point, is the single mtDNA or Y-chromosome type from which they all trace their descent. In any given sample of nonrecombining DNA sequences there must be a single ancestor at some point in the past."

Darwin entertained the possibility of polygenesis in his survey of electric fish; the dispersion of six species around the globe suggested to him the possibility of natural conditions having created similar traits w/o there being a common ancestor.

However, I think as genetics has gotten more study, the possibility of random mutations -- the kind which have formed homo sapiens -- occurring in multiple, separated populations is remote. Like, the odds are incredibly stacked against such an event taking place in a higher life form. Think lottery across several states.

But I'm not a geneticist, so take with a grain of salt. The quote is from a book by Spencer Wells, author and the film maker behind Journey of Man.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ / Mason Slidell said...

I believe that several instances of speciation have been now observed. Francis Collins in his book deals with the ID argument that speciation is still yet to be actually proven as a phenomenon.

The issue of Original Sin has plagued me for a long time, all the way since high school when I began to read up at the level I was at on the problem. I continue to find it a very difficult concept, as do most people I expect. Thanks for including Benedict's comments.

Thanks for the quote. I am not well read up on this, so I appreciate any help.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

Anonymous said...

Wells was a co-contributor with Collins on the paper that was presented describing how the human genome was finally mapped during the late 90s.

If you check the Wiki on polygenism/polygenesis, you'll see it's not got much street cred as a theory. In addition, there's a useful pointer there to Humani Generis, which explicitly condemns the view of multiple human populations having evolved in parallel, roughly simultaneously.

One caveat though: The mtDNA which is passed along via the female line of homo sapiens developed 170,000 years ago. However, the male progenitor of the modern human Y chromosome came much later, at around 60,000 years ago. Thus, there's a gap of 100K years and this is attributable to the sexual selection politics of the distant past.

I point it out because it does put a wrinkle in the Adam/Eve hypothesis, since Eve was long dead when Adam rolled around. However, if one remembers that at some point X/Y did meet (say, 60,000 B.C.), then it's not any problem at all to see a very rough continuity between mainstream genetics and the Bible's assertion of a pair of first parents, from whom all humans are descended.

I think if you do further research on mitochondrial Eve and the seven daughters of Eve, you'll find that most scientific literature assumes individuals and not populations as the source of the mutations which have gone into defining modern humans.

BCatholic said...

Nathan, that’s fascinating about Collins. Why is this not more publicized? Michael Behe makes the “speciation has not happened” yet argument in his talks and I assumed he was right because he debunks the examples that people say “proves” it’s taken place and people like Miller from Brown have supposedly refused to debate him. That being said, I’m not an ID person myself but…

Also, how does the same genetic mutation happen in thousands at the same time? It seems counter-intuitive.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ / Mason Slidell said...

Ok, more ignorance from me, but I don't have much time to look these things up. How did the female line of homo sapiens reproduce themselves without the male line? Did they reproduce with another species? How does that work?

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ