One of the many problems modern science poses for Christianity is the question of how to understand original sin. The traditional teaching, which holds that Adam and Eve were the only humans on the planet when they were created on day six of Creation Week, that the ground was cursed and they were expelled from Eden as a result of a specific sin they committed, and that this corrupted state was in some way passed down to all future human beings, is no longer tenable. A variety of lines of evidence make it clear that the human population has always numbered in the thousands and certainly never dipped down to two. Moreover, evolution makes clear that humans arose through eons of natural selection. There was no moment of creation, and there was no state of primordial perfection for them to sully.
So if we choose to reject the sensible approach of abandoning the doctrine of original sin altogether, then we must find some way of reconceptualizing it to bring it in line with what science is telling us. One possibility in that regard was presented by paleontologist Daryl Domning, in his book Original Selfishness (which also has contributions from theologian Monica Hellwig). His idea is that, in the light of evolution, we can understand our sinful natures as representative of the selfishness inherent in the evolutionary process. And while we do not inherit this nature from an original man and original woman, we do inherit them from the universal common ancestor. Domning writes:
What I have sought to show is that the overt selfish acts which, in humans, demonstrate the reality of original sin (by manifesting it in the form of actual sin) do indeed owe their universality among humans to natural descent from a common ancestor. This ancestor, however, far from being identifiable with the biblical Adam, must be placed in the very remote past, indeed at the very origin of life itself. It was the common ancestor not only of humans but of all other living things on Earth as well. However, it is not this ancestor itself that is of real interest, but the “natural descent” that proceeded from it: the very nature of physical life and the process of natural generation, which are governed by natural selection and the selfish behavior it requires
What can we say in response to such a suggestion? There is no fact of the matter regarding the correct interpretation of original sin. There is only what different believers and different faith communities say the doctrine means. So if Domning, or anyone else, finds it helpful to view original sin in this way, it is not for me to tell them they are wrong.
But I have to wonder, under this interpretation, what contribution is Christianity making to our understanding of anything? It seems that Domning is simply attaching a Christian label onto a body of knowledge produced by science. For what purpose should we do that? The traditional story provided concrete information that could only have been discovered by studying religious texts or by consulting a religious authority. Domning’s version just seems like an unnecessary add-on to a body of knowledge to which religion made no contribution whatsoever.
A different approach suggests that Adam and Eve were not the only human beings on the planet. Instead, they were selected from a preexisting human population to enter into a special relationship with God. Edward Feser defends that view. His argument is based on the idea that we should distinguish the creation of human beings from the creation of human bodies. He writes:
The implications of all of this should be obvious. There is nothing at all contrary to what Pius says in Humani Generis in the view that 10,000 (or for that matter 10,000,000) creatures genetically and physiologically like us arose via purely evolutionary processes. For such creatures — even if there had been only two of them — would not be “human” in the metaphysical sense in the first place. They would be human in the metaphysical sense (and thus in the theologically relevant sense) only if the matter that made up their bodies were informed by a human soul — that is, by a subsistent form imparting intellectual and volitional powers as well as the lower animal powers that a Planet of the Apes-style “human” would have. And only direct divine action can make that happen, just as (for A-T) direct divine action has to make it happen whenever one of us contemporary human beings comes into existence.
Supposing, then, that the smallest human-like population of animals evolution could have initially produced numbered around 10,000, we have a scenario that is fully compatible with Catholic doctrine if we suppose that only two of these creatures had human souls infused into them by God at their conception, and that He infused further human souls only into those creatures who were descended from this initial pair. And there is no evidence against this supposition.
I can think of some evidence against this supposition.
The first piece of evidence against it is that the Bible does not teach anything remotely like what Feser is describing. Let us recall Genesis 2: 4-8:
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up–for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground–then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,* and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
Notice that, prior to the creation of Adam, we are told explicitly that there was no one to till the ground. Notice further that this account quite explicitly describes the creation of Adam’s physical body, and not just his mental endowments. Of course, later we are told of Eve’s creation from one of Adam’s ribs. This is further evidence that the story means to account for the origin of Adam and Eve’s physical bodies.
All of these points are in conflict with Feser’s account. Where in the Genesis story does he find a preexisting population of physically human but unensouled creatures? And how does he account for the Genesis language, which explicitly tries to account for physical bodies and not just for mental endowments? A story in which Adam is created as the first man and Eve is then created from one of his ribs is very different from a story in which Adam and Eve are singled out from a preexisting population to receive enhanced mental abilities. Is it not remarkable that the latter has so consistently been mistaken for the former? If the intent was to communicate a story along the lines Feser describes then the writing of Genesis 2 is pretty appalling.
As it happens, in his book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose, biochemist Denis Alexander defends an understanding of Adam and Eve that is nearly identical to what Feser describes. Alexander does provide a few Bible verses in defense of his view. I don’t find his verses remotely convincing, but I shall not discuss that here. Instead I would call attention to this statement from him:
Let us reiterate: of course the point with this model is not that the model itself is found within the Genesis text–it is not. The idea is to generate a working model that will explore the possible ‘narrative behind the narrative’, the events in human history that might at least be ‘consistent with’ the Genesis theological account.
“The model” refers to the idea that Adam and Eve were selected from a prior population of human-like creatures to have a special relationship with God. Alexander’s admission here is striking. If the model is not found in the Genesis text, then what reason do we have for thinking it is true? And why are we even looking for a ‘narrative behind the narrative’ or for events that are at least ‘consistent with’ Genesis? The narrative out there in front seems clear enough, after all.
The second line of evidence against Feser’s account comes from biology. His argument is based explicitly on the idea that it is biologically possible to have a creature that is physically indistinguishable from a human being, but which lacks certain higher reasoning abilities. He writes:
To make a human being, then, it is not enough to make something having all the sub-conceptual or sub-intellectual capacities of the human body. An animal having all those capacities may well look like a human being, and indeed have all the genetic and phenotypic attributes of a human being short of those phenotypic traits indicative of intellectual activity, such as language. Perhaps it would look and act like the apparently sub-rational “humans” in the original Planet of the Apes movie. But it would not be a human being in the sense in which A-T philosophers and Catholic theology understand “human being.” For our nature is simply not exhausted by whatever traits flow from our genetic endowment. “Human being” as used in A-T philosophy and Catholic theology is a metaphysical concept, and does not correspond exactly to (even if it overlaps with) the modern biological concept homo sapiens sapiens.
Leaving aside minor quibbles, like the fact that our traits are the result of the interaction of our genes with their environment and not just our genes alone, we should note that Catholic theologians have not the slightest basis for saying that our nature is simply not exhausted by our physical attributes. They assert that routinely, but there is no reason for believing that any human abilities are different in kind, and not just in degree, from things found in the animal kingdom.
Intelligence and rationality appear to be things that come in degrees. Dogs already have the ability to learn hundreds of commands. They can form complex emotional relationships with people. They can understand their place in a pack. All of this requires considerable mental processing ability. What basis is there for saying that purely physical processes in the brain can account for these, fairly sophisticated, mental accomplishments, but cannot account for abstract reasoning or rationality as well?
And that’s just dogs. Once we start contemplating apes the basis for Feser’s arguments gets very rickety indeed. Apes have sophisticated tool-making and tool-using capabilities. They can learn sign language and have shown an ability to combine signs in logical ways to express concepts beyond what they were specifically taught. Are you really confident they have no ability for abstraction or the use of logic?
So Feser’s argument is dubious for both Biblical and scientific reasons. But it also creates some very difficult theological problems. The traditional story has a certain logic to it. God creates the world in six days, with humans representing the highest aspect of that creation. He builds a special home for Adam and Eve, expecting them to populate the world with further creatures after their kind. Had Adam and Eve honored their obligations to God they could have lived in communion with Him forever, but instead they rebelled. As a result of that sin certain physical changes happened to the world. In this we have an explanation for why the world is as corrupt as it is, and why humanity falls short of what it could be.
Compare that with Feser’s story. Adam and Eve are just two members of a population of human-like but unensouled creatures. God then picks them out, on what basis is unclear, and endows them with an ability for abstract thinking and logical thought. Are they supposed to be grateful? I’m sure we all remember what happened to the smart kids in high school. Unless Adam and Eve’s unensouled brethren were exceptionally enlightened we can assume that the first couple immediately became social lepers. As a result of God’s gift, Adam and Eve are now completely unable to relate to their fellow human-like creatures. Their relationships with their former friends and neighbors is now similar the relationship I have with my cat. Then Adam and Eve were removed from the only life they knew and sent off to live by themselves in Eden. Again, are they supposed to be grateful? They are told to be fruitful and multiply, but after their first, really very small, transgression they are immediately expelled from their new home. To go where? Did they then rejoin their earlier population, forced to live out their lives among their intellectual inferiors?
I fail to see the logic in any of this. If evolution had finally produced a large population of animals now physically capable of receiving a proper human soul, what purpose of God’s could be served by singling out just two? Why not the entire population? Surely some people would then have made better use of the gift than others, and it would not have been necessary for all future humans to be tainted by Adam and Eve’s actions.
Feser does not address this point. But in a recent article in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, philosopher Kenneth Kemp offers this answer:
Second, would it not have been unjust of God to give to Adam and Eve the gift of a rational soul, a gift which would make them fully human (and immortal), with the additional prospect of eternal happiness with God in Heaven, while leaving in an animal state their siblings and cousins, who also … had a bodily constitution sufficient to sustain rational activity? I think not. A theology in which the existence of a Chosen People is a central theme in salvation history can surely accommodate the existence of a Chosen Couple. God did not owe Adam and Eve’s cousins a rational and therefore immortal soul. The hominization of Adam and Eve was a free gift.
But even leaving aside the question of how great a gift it really was, this answer is far too casual. The parents of two children may not owe them Christmas gifts, but having decided to give gifts at all most would think an injustice had occurred if they gave gifts to one child but not the other. Likewise here. God may not have owed anything to any of His creatures, but having decided to bestow gifts at all we must wonder about the justice of singling out just two people.
Also, the idea of a Chosen People is itself theologically problematic. Among Jews, a very common understanding of the notion is that the Jews are unique only in their willingness to accept a covenant with God. Which is to say, it is the Jews who chose God and not the other way around. On this understanding Kemp’s analogy clearly breaks down (unless the idea is that God offered ensoulment to everyone but Adam and Eve were the only ones to accept). I would argue that this is the only understanding of the idea of a Chosen People that does not raise serious questions about God’s justice and goodness.
Time to wrap this up. In science, it is fairly common to face the following situation: A theory works pretty well and explains a fair amount of data. But then some anomalies arise. Do we need to discard the theory completely, or is it just a matter of fine-tuning a few details? That is not the case with original sin. It is not as though we used to have really good reasons for thinking it is a valid and useful notion, but then modern science came along to provide a few distressing anomalies. Actually all we ever had was an ancient, Biblical account that told a pretty clear story about human sinfulness and its affect on the world. There was never any particular reason to think that story was true, and science now shows it to be completely false. But instead of throwing the idea of original sin straight in the garbage where it belongs, a lot of really smart people tie themselves into knots summoning forth strained reinterpretations of the doctrine. It is beyond comprehension to me that anyone could think this is a valuable use of time, or that our knowledge or understanding of the human condition are advanced, in even the slightest way, by such investigations.