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 This teaching is taken primarily from the encyclical letter Humani Generis, which as far as I know has never been revoked as teaching.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