Among the Pre-Adamites

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The famous fold-out plate that accompanied Pre-Adamite Man. Not the "dividing line" between ancient life and modern humans formed by the glaciers.


There is more to understanding the history of science than memorizing the dates when seminal books were published or knowing the names of the founders of particular disciplines. Science must be understood in context, and given the present public arguments about evolution it can be profitable to look back and see how science was being popularized circa 1859. While there were some books by scientists that were accessible to the public, many non-professionals also wrote about scientific issues, particularly on topics surrounding evolution and "Pre-Adamite" humans. One such author was Isabelle Ducan, whose book Pre-Adamite Man, Or, The Story of Our Old Planet and Its Inhabitants, Told by Scripture & Science.

Published not long after Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Duncan's book was a strange mix of scriptural geology, angelology, and scriptural interpretation that many reviewers did not know what to do with. Like Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation before it, the book was a popular hit (going through 6 printings in as many years) but was often skewered for one reason or another by august reviewers. Duncan's unconventional theology and scripture-influenced geology irritated experts, yet the book fortuitously appeared just as many people were considering their own ancestry.

Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection connected humans to ancient ape ancestors (try as he might to skirt around the issue) and the discovery of stone tools from Brixham cave confirmed that humans had lived among prehistoric mammals (although many still debated the findings despite scientific consensus). The old age of humanity and the origin of humans among apes were not always seen as complimentary, however, and there were sundry views about the ancestry of humanity. Was there just one human race or many? Was Adam the ancestor of all humanity or only some people? What caused variation among races? If there were pre-adamites, what became of them? If we evolved, then what place was there for Adam? There was no clear line in the sand that divided science from religion as these matters were taken up by people from various backgrounds, and Duncan's book appeared to have been among the most unorthodox.

Duncan's system for reconciling the Bible with geology was to separate the two Genesis narratives into two distinct creations. The first included the creation of pre-adamites out of nothing in paradise and the second explained the creation of Adam into a barren land that had to be prepared upon his arrival. As David Livingstone points out in his book Adam's Ancestors, it is almost as if Duncan was projecting a future Paradise backwards before the origin of our biblical progenitor. As for what became of the pre-adamites, Duncan recognized that only stone tools had been found to denote their presence. While geological decay and upheaval might explain the lack of pre-adamite remains, she delivered a shock to her readers by suggesting that the pre-adamites are today's angels. Being that they were without sin (for sin did not enter the world until Adam disobeyed God) there was no reason for them not to have been at least raptured into heaven, anticipating what would again occur with the second coming of Christ.

Yet the Bible spoke were angels that sinned and fell (demons), and Duncan supposed that such an upheaval would leave geological scars on the earth. The recently developed concept of ice ages, pioneered by Louis Agassiz, seemed to provide evidence of such events, drawing the line between the pre-adamic era and the modern one (which she posited as beginning about 6,000 years ago). How would such radical ideas be received?

As Stephen Snobelen notes in his excellent biographical paper on Duncan and the work in question, there was more interest in Pre-Adamite Man than agreement with it. It was a controversial book, widely read but also widely criticized, some of the ideas seeming so outlandish that some reviewers made a point of leaving them unaddressed. A reviewer in the North British Review, for instance, praised the prose of the book and recommends it to readers "not as tired ... of theories of creation." Such praise was short lived. The reviewer objected to Duncan trying to use the Bible as a guide to natural history, and called her notion of perfect pre-adamites the product of her "not very well trained imagination." Even worse was the closing line;

We think so well of the talent shown in the work, that we are quite sure the author has not the least confidence in the views stated.

A reviewer in the Journal of Sacred Literature attacked the book on similar grounds, albeit with more specific objections to theological arguments. Much like the review just cited, the reviewer begins on a gracious note by calling the author "amiable and well-informed" but quickly tries to undermine the ideas contained within Duncan's book. The review in the journal ends;

Those who are curious to know more of the pre-adamite man, must read the volume for themselves. It is written in a Christian spirit, and contains a good deal of useful matter, but we cannot find time or space to refute its theories, which we imagine will only make converts of here and there a superficial thinker, to whom novelty is an equivalent for verity.

Nor did the book find favor in the magazine The Geologist. The reviewer in the scientific periodical bemoaned the common errors made in books dedicated to reconciling scripture with nature, but still felt that they contributed something for discussion. No matter how bad the theology or geology was in any such book there always seemed to be some kernel of truth that vindicated the rest of the mistaken mess. After correcting a mistake about granite, the reviewer reproduces the timeline of creation from Pre-Adamite Man and closes with a line similar to (though less snide than) the conclusion of the Journal of Sacred Literature review;

As a discussive, although extremely speculative, book on a now popular and interesting subject, "Pre-Adamite Man" is worthy of perusal, although we do not apprehend it will make many converts to the novel doctrines it inculcates.

By trying to snip arguments from both scripture and nature Duncan ultimately confused (and even offended) both scientific and religious sensibilities. The reaction to the book may have been similar, I think, to that greeting the more recent titles The God Delusion and God is Not Great. They sold well and were widely talked about, yet the popularity had more to do with controversy than acceptance of the arguments the books espoused. Whatever lasting impact they may have (or not) will remain to be seen.

What role do books like Duncan's play in the continuing scientific discourse? Pre-Adamite Man certainly stirred up a fair bit of controversy, and it is interesting that many of the reviewers criticized it for either 1) mixing science and religion into an unsavory mix, or 2) for casting doubt on the veracity of scripture. We're still having the same debates now, and even though the precise question of pre-adamites has sunk from view, the responses to Duncan's work resemble complaints about modern attempts to reconcile science and religion. There are those who see concepts like "theistic evolution" as a backhanded slap to Biblical authority, while others characterize them bastardizing science for theological ends. Still others find much value in such attempts (whatever the scientific or theological faults the books may bear). Such works do not seem to change minds so much as stir debate, and I don't anticipate a time when these controversial issues will shrink from view.

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