Science, Magisterium and the Advent of Man

Roger Peck FAITH Magazine March-April 2007

The Genesis of Man

The opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey 2001 presents a vision of the Fall of Man that features an ancestral form that clearly predates modern man. How close was Kubrick to the truth? What did our first parents look like? Where on the human phylogenetic tree do Adam and Eve occur? Was Adam Homo Sapiens or was he plain Homo? Was he Homo Sapiens or was he a more primitive species of the genus? Was he Homo Habilis (or did he even predate Homo Habilis?) – or was he the beginning of some species in-between? It’s a question not unpopular with the media when human-like skeletons from aeons ago are discovered.

 Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis stated that “the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God”. To answer the question “which subspecies was Adam and Eve?”, we need to sift through the palaeontological evidence for the spiritual. Burial of the dead, wall paintings, artistic stonework, jewellery; all such point to a spiritual dimension of a human person. We will also need to take into account implications from modern knowledge of the genome concerning the human tree of life.

 It is an interesting area for the interaction of science and religion. Both disciplines (rightly) feel that they have something to say on the matter. This article reflects upon some rules of engagement required for making such a conversation fruitful. As people of faith we turn to the Bible to discover the person of Jesus Christ and to learn therein truths for our salvation. When we read the creation narratives of Genesis we learn truths about ourselves, about the world and about God. When we turn the pages of sacred scripture we enter into a narrative; the beginning of a story. Not so much history as His Story – God’s story. “God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27) When we open up the Bible on pageone we open up a window onto the very dawn of man. But the book of Genesis is not the only window overlooking the scene. God has written two books - the book of sacred scripture and the book of creation, the book of his word and the book of his world - and whilst theologians gaze through the window of sacred scripture scientists gaze on the same scene through a different window. In terms of the advent of Man this latter window includes the fields of palaeontology and genetics.

The Need for Harmony

The book of Genesis, inspired by the Holy Spirit, communicates certain truths in story form. A story does not have to be literally true to contain truth. Jesus taught using stories – parables. In the same way, in the Old Testament God teaches us by using stories. The truths that God teaches us are truths for our salvation. According to Catholic tradition Genesis 1-3 teaches us that God created the universe out of nothing. He created us in His image and likeness – male and female he created them. It teaches us about the Fall of Man and tells us that “Eve was the mother of all”. The specific measurement of “seven days” in the creation story seems to be the seed of a fundamental truth for our salvation – namely that the seventh day is holy because God rested on that day. Asaving truth which the Church has discerned from the seven-day timetable is that we should all go to Mass on Sunday.

Where Science and Religion Meet

This, then, is some of what religion has to say on the matter; but what of science? Whilst the “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium interprets and communicates truths about creation and original sin, the scientific community sifts through the fossil and genetic evidence available to piece together the evolution of the homo genus. Whilst religion tells us of the nature and fall of man, science paints a picture of the natural ascent to Man. They are complementary, with a certain overlap.

The role of the Magisterium is sometimes presented as a restriction on science and scientific objectivity. Although many have shown that historically this accusation is unjust the popular perception nevertheless remains and needs to be challenged. As long as each discipline respects the boundaries of its own competence and respects the other’s authority and autonomy then a true integration may be achieved that will ultimately benefit both. Where they overlap let us expect and work to find harmony. What is the nature of these boundaries and of the search for harmony?

It is often said that science and religion seek to answer different questions; that science is interested in answering the “what” or the “how” questions whereas religion seeks to understand the “why”. Whilst there may be some truth in this, when it comes to the dawn of Man even these lines become blurred because the story of Adam and Eve, albeit couched in myth, does seek to provide “what” and “how” answers. Whereas the 'seven days' of creation communicates to us a particular truth about correct religious observance, rather as the Greek myth of Narcissus warns against the vice of vanity, Genesis 1-3 does deal with actual, primordial events.

A Textual example

In the first chapter of Genesis there are two Hebrew words used to describe God’s creation: bara and asah. Bara carries a sense of “creation out of nothing” whereas asah has a sense of moulding out of pre-existing matter. The bara and asah distinction is generally preserved in the English with the words create (bara) and make (asah). In the creation narrative of Genesis 1 the word bara is used only 3 times: the creation of heaven and earth (Gen 1:1), the creation of the first animals (sea monsters) (Gen 1:21) and the creation of man (Gen 1:27). It is a not too unreasonable leap of the imagination to marry the three occurrences of bara with the three yet to be explained scientificmysteries of the big bang (who lit the fuse?), the genesis of life, and the phenomenon of human consciousness. Perhaps these three supernatural “bara” interventions of Genesis 1 correspond to the creation of the universe, the creation of life and the creation of the human rational soul. As noted above, “asah” is usually translated into the English as “make”; the implication here is that it might also be translated as “form” or “evolve”.

The Church's Primary Concern Is With Salvific Truth

As interesting or as convincing as the above may (or may not) be, it is unlikely that it would ever be embraced as a dogmatic teaching of the Church. The task, for example, of grafting the history of salvation onto to the phylogenetic tree of human evolution does not belong to the teaching office of the Church. The Church may set certain boundaries – may declare as anathema certain theories about the dawn and evolution of man – but she can only do so where such theories directly contradict a doctrine of faith. We will see below an example of such a boundary arising out of the Church’s doctrine of original sin. Beyond such considerations, however, the task of marrying the Church’s teaching regarding the creation of man with the field of palaeontology falls tophilosophers to contemplate, theologians to speculate on and scientists to observe and theorise about. For the Magisterium to issue a dogmatic declaration regarding the “three baras” of Genesis 1 would be an example of the Church exceeding the boundaries of its own competence. Not because the Bible is not the revealed word of God and not because the magisterium lacks the authority to teach the truth, but because the “truth” that the magisterium has the authority to teach is “truth for our salvation”; and although the above interpretation of the bara / asah distinction may conceivably be true, it is difficult to see how it can be a requirement for our salvation. It is important to know for our salvation that God created us. It is important to know about The Falland its effect on the human condition that we have inherited from Adam. It is even important to know that God rested on the seventh day and that we should all go to Mass on Sunday! It is, however, difficult to see how the exact nature of God’s interaction with the universe – the Creator’s interaction with His creation – could fall into this category. It may be a requirement for effective evangelization, apologetics and catechesis, but it is difficult to see how it could itself be a salvific truth.

Another thing to note about the bara / asah interpretation of Genesis 1 is that for all its merits it does invoke a “God of the Gaps”. Just because science hasn’t explained the genesis of life, or the phenomenon of human consciousness, or even how the big bang banged – it doesn’t mean that it will never do so in the future. Having said that, among those who acknowledge the existence of the spiritual dimension of the human person, a mind which controls the matter of the body, the latter two phenomena are not really gaps.

Example of a Specific Teaching

Humani Generis, the Church document that most recently and directly deals with the issue of the dawn of man, has the following to say on the matter.

"…[T]he Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that… research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both [sacred theology and the human sciences] take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter - for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favourable and those unfavourable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the SacredScriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith. Some however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.

"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 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."[1]

A Carefully Worded Statement

In the first paragraph, then, we have a clear call for balance, moderation and an open mind. When discussing and reflecting on the theory of evolution we must sail between the Scylla of Fideism and the Charibdis of Deism. It does, however, suggest a possible paradigm in which both evolution and creation can cohere. It may be legitimate to reflect on the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter so long as it is acknowledged that souls are immediately created by God. This framework is one that Faith Magazine has often commented upon.

As for the anathema-like declaration of the second paragraph, the language used is worthy of note. “Now it is no way apparent how” lacks (perhaps) the force of a definitive statement to be held for all time. But that aside, what Humani Generis does is to look at the “scientific” question of the dawn of man, albeit in the context of the Church’s teaching on original sin. Adam and Eve must alone have been our first parents because original sin is transmitted “by propagation, not by imitation”[2]. Out of the Church’s doctrine of original sin arises a boundary. Wherever or whenever we place Adam and Eve any such speculation must remain free from the error of polygenism.

Be Careful of "Mitochondrial Eve"

Here it is worth dispelling a possible misconception. Recent studies of the mitochondrial DNA of people alive today have pointed to a “most recent” common maternal ancestor who existed 150,000 years ago in Africa – dubbed “mitochondrial Eve”. It is tempting for us (the new “people of the book”) to claim here that we knew this all along and to ask the question; “don’t these scientists read their Bible?” But to do so would be a mistake. Mitochondrial Eve need not be the Eve of Genesis 1-3. Mitochondrial Eve is simply the single trunk at the bottom of the existing human family tree that traces the maternal lineage. If you draw the human family tree of all people alive today and trace the lineage of each person back through their mother, their mother’s mother, their mother’smother’s mother, and so on – then these lines being traced back through time will eventually converge to a point – and that point is mitochondrial Eve.

Going in the opposite direction on the other hand – starting from the time of mitochondrial Eve one will actually discover that she was not necessarily the “mother of all” – but was in all likelihood simply one of many contemporaries. The only thing that makes her special is not that she was the only one of her generation to have children but that - going forward in time following all the lineages of all the other women contemporary with her - hers is the only one not to terminate at women who either died childless or only had male heirs. The significance of this result is therefore far from clear. It might, for example, have more to tell us about the migratory history of our species than about our evolution. With Humani Generis’ anathema of polygenism ringing in our ears weshould be wary of making any rash identification. To identify mitochondrial Eve with the Eve of Genesis 1-3 would be another example of religion failing to respect the boundaries of its own competence.

Understanding Death

 One possible bone of contention between evolution and Genesis 1-3 is the fundamental “truth for our salvation” that through sin death entered the world (“for, the day you eat of that you are doomed to die” (Gen 2:19)). This truth is rooted in Sacred Scripture. The wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23) for “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist, and the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them; and the dominion of Hades is not on earth” (Wis 1:13,14 - NIV).

Through sin death came into the world. “Looking forward” this “truth for our salvation” helps explain a lot. Death is not God’s fault – but Adam’s! God did not say that he will punish Adam with death but that Adam would be “doomed to die”. Death, then, is not an arbitrary divine punishment but a natural consequence of sin.

Looking at the world, we see that the magisterial truths of Genesis concerning the event of the Fall fit well with the world as we experience it today. The Fall of Man and the fundamental truth for our salvation that death is a consequence of sin constitutes a powerful tool in the theodicy debate. If God is good and God is all powerful why do bad things happen? “Through sin death” certainly has an important role to play in answering this question. “Looking forwards” from the fall, then, the truth that death is a consequence of sin makes quite a lot of sense. “Looking backwards” at the world before the fall of Man, however, this fundamental truth for our salvation seems to raise more questions than it answers.

A World Without Death?

Living in a world affected by the first sin of Adam it is difficult for us to conceive of a world free from its effects. But if death is a consequence of sin, then the implication has to be that before the first sin of Adam there would have been no death. With death being such an over arching aspect of our existence and our experience, trying to imagine a world free from death takes some doing. How on earth would such a world work? What about volcanoes? What about earthquakes? Were Adam and Eve, in their state of original innocence, so in tune with the world around them that they would have had premonitions of all such impending disasters and – much like the reported animal behaviour prior to the impact of the Tsunami – simply run to the hills? Maybe, at the moment the meteorstrikes, those in its path would have simply been assumed directly into heaven. Mary is, after all, the only example we have of a human person free from sin.

In the face of such a leap of the imagination one might be tempted to revisit and reinterpret the message of Genesis and ask the question; to what does the “death” of Genesis 2:19 refer? Does it really refer to a physical death or might it simply be referring to a spiritual death of some kind (“hell”, for instance)? This interpretation may seem tempting as a possible resolution between the two world views: the world view of original innocence and the view of the world as we see it today – stained as it is by original sin. Confining the “death” of Gen 2:19 to the realm of the spiritual avoids a possible conflict with evolution; namely that if the “death” of Genesis 2:19 is a physical death how did we ever evolve in the first place? What about the dinosaurs?

They walked the earth before the first sin of Adam and yet they certainly died. “No breed has he created on earth but for its thriving; none carries in itself the seeds of its own destruction” (Wis 1:14 – Knox). Perhaps the “death” of the dinosaurs was caused not by the sin of Adam but by the sin of Lucifer. Alternatively – the Church is familiar with the concept of “retroactive grace” (e.g. the Immaculate Conception effected by the once for all time eternal sacrifice of Calvary) – perhaps the death of the dinosaurs was “similarly” caused by the cosmic primordial event of The Fall rippling out through time and space. Another possibility might be that “through sin death” refers specifically to (physical and spiritual) human death.

Echoes of Immortality

The last suggestion seems to be the one most “in tune” with the history of salvation and the theory of evolution. Hints and indications of the truth of this option can perhaps be seen in the doctrine of the Ascension and Assumption as well as in the phenomenon that the bodies of saints often remain incorrupt. Although the saints were not free from sin, they were, or at least became, freer than most! We were made in God’s image and likeness, the pinnacle of God’s creation. God did not create us in seven literal days but, through a process of material evolution, a species emerged with the intelligence and capabilities required to break free from its environment. It was precisely at this moment when man broke free from the shackles of his natural environment that God shackledhim with a conscience. It was precisely at this moment that God created ex nihilo the human soul.

The Soul, The Key to Human Nature

Whether the body was that of a homo sapiens or a homo habilis or somewhere in-between, the soul was that of a human. In their state of original innocence Adam and Eve walked with God in the cool of the evening; but through disobedience sin entered the world, and through sin death. The death that entered the world was not just a spiritual death but was also a physical death. Adam and Eve, created as they were in a state of original innocence, were not “doomed to die”. And as for the “what?” and the “when?” of it; if I were to reach back in time to grasp the hand of the “first parent”, regardless of whether the hand that I clasped was that of a fellow homo sapiens or that of an earlier form of the homo genus I would be able to shake the hand and greetits owner as a fellow man.

[1] Humani Generis art. 36-37
[2] Council of Trent, Decree on Original Sin, no. 3

Faith Magazine

March - April 2007