Monogenism and the faith

I become more and more convinced that the supposed conflict between the theory of of evolution and the Christian conception of creation is a sheer historical accident with no ultimate rational basis. If we tweaked one or two accidents of history, Christians might now insist (just as unreasonably) that the fixity of the species was contrary to the faith. This is not to say that there are no tensions between the Christian account of creation and contemporary science- for while evolution is a sideshow, there is a real tension about the necessity of the doctrine of monogenism, or the descent of all human beings from a single set of ancestors. The following seems clear: in our present theories of genetics, all human beings could not have arisen from a single set of parents, if these parents were genetically identical to us. If one argues that monogenism is essential to the faith, he must either claim that the the present theory of genetics is wrong or that the first set of parents were not genetically identical to us. The faith, however, does not tell us which claim we should make, and there is not even an iron-clad case for monogenism being essential. Pius XII’s statement about monogenism, to my mind, is a masterpiece that was meant to shut down the question until it could be dealt with by cooler heads.

The question of monogenism centers around the transmission of original sin, if “transmission” is indeed the right word for it. Original sin is not a birth defect, as though there were some Adamite feature of DNA that appeared after he sinned and has been passed on ever since. St. Thomas gies the obvious refutation to this idea of original sin: if it were simply birth defect, it wouldn’t be a principle of merit or the lack of merit. The necessity of monogenism, therefore, cannot reduce to the need to have a genetic or physical propagation of original sin in the mode of a birth defect. Original sin seems to be just that Adam didn’t provide us with something that allows us to attain a good beyond nature, combined with the reality that God actually called human beings to a good beyond nature. Since we are called to good beyond nature, it is a sin for us not to seek it, but, thanks to Adam, we didn’t get the tools we needed to attain the goal.

The necessity of monogenism, therefore, seems to arise from God calling only Adam and his descendants to a good beyond nature. Those who did not descend from Adam are thus not called, and cannot properly be said to have original sin. There are some difficulties with this point. Why not say God simply calls all nations, and that none were redeemed through Adam? Were all nations condemned because they are descendants of Adam, or simply because he did not redeem them, regardless of whether they are his genetic descendants? On either account it is true that Adam is the principle of condemnation for all nations, that “in Adam all die” and “through the transgression of one man, death entered the world”, but it is only if all nations are called because they are the genetic descendants of Adam that monogenism becomes necessary. Again, even to make a covenant with a man and all of his descendants does not mean that others are not somehow called: there are famous cases of those who are not Abraham’s descendants being called to convert to Judaism, and so the call of Abraham came to them even though they were not of his line. Some were even the ancestors of Christ. These points are only difficulties- they are set down here as open to refutation.


  1. Tim Troutman said,

    July 14, 2009 at 11:02 am

    It seems to present a much bigger problem for the Western mind than for the Eastern. Eastern theology seems better equipped to deal with scientific data that might lead to rejecting monegism.

  2. July 14, 2009 at 11:27 am


    I’ve shared this on Facebook. Well done. I particularly like your characterization of original sin.

    My own way of dealing with the monogenism issue in the past has been similar to yours. It is perfectly compatible with the Catholic faith to hypothesize that not all humans are genetically descended from whoever “Adam” was, inasmuch as it is perfectly compatible with the dogma of original sin to hold that grace and divine fellowship were extended to and lost for all humans through Adam. Such a solution is suggested by Genesis’ reference to where Cain found his wife. If not even the biblical writers asserted that all people are physically descended from Adam, there’s no compelling reason for us to do so.


  3. Joseph said,

    July 14, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    There’s an ambiguity regarding the meaning of “monogenism.” It can be understood only positively, to mean that all humans share one parent, or one set of parents. Or it can be understood both positively and negatively, to mean that the human population arose from one set of parents alone, not from any of their cousins or other relatives.

    Monogenism in the first sense is indicated by the present science of genetics. But in fact, there have probably been thousands of persons who are all ancestors of all persons alive today. Imagine how many people share the same father as you do. Now imagine how many people share the same grandfather as you do… great grandfather… etc. The further back in ancestors one considers, the more persons there are alive now that share a single ancestor. That is not the point, however. These persons have not all been chosen by God to be bearers of grace for humanity, as Adam was.

    Genetics seems to indicate against monogenism in the second sense, by reason of the present genetic variety in the human race.

  4. July 14, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    This is a very commodious solution, I’ll use it.

    To be clear, though, positive monogenism- if it is taken as opposed to positive and negative- still requires that at some point in history there were human beings who were not descendants of Adam, and these lines could not all have died off (though the non- Adamic lines had to merge with Adam’s at some point.)

    This too, I suppose, could be tested in genetics, tough it is not the test at issue now.

  5. Joseph said,

    July 15, 2009 at 3:50 am

    More precisely, it requires that when Adam was alive, there where some humans (or humanoids) alive who were not descended from Adam, and that this continued to be the case for some time, until all of their descendants were also descendants of Adam (which is the descent that is of significance for original sin). I put in the alternative “humanoids” on account of the fact that genetics (apart from philosophy) doesn’t exclude the position of those who hold that Adam was a member of a population with very similar genetics and physical structure, but that only he and his descendants had rational souls, because the rational soul is created by God. (The philosophy implicit in this view is quite questionable, but genetic science can’t address it.)

    My point about the genetics is that this form of monogenism is the form held by the common/mainstream view, though it’s not considered proven. The mainstream view is that there were persons who are ancestors of all living persons alive today, but that the breeding population in which they lived was not just two (a single couple), but from one to several thousand.

    The Wikipedia article Mitochondrial Eve includes a number of links to scientific articles. This scientific article on Population Bottlenecks deals with the question of how small the effective breeding population of human ancestors was.

  6. July 15, 2009 at 4:18 am

    I think that solves the tension nicely.

    In the past, I’ve had some difficulty getting a straight answer as to whether mitochondrial Eve is to be understood as relevant to the question of monogenism.

  7. July 15, 2009 at 10:59 am

    Please point me to where St. Thomas says, “if it were simply birth defect, it wouldn’t be a principle of merit or the lack of merit.”


  8. July 15, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    I was thinking of this text, in hte second paragraph of the response:

  9. September 15, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    “The necessity of monogenism, therefore, seems to arise from God calling only Adam and his descendants to a good beyond nature.”

    Sorry but no, this is racism. You need to recant of your Catholicism otherwise be known as a racist. I myself wanted to be a Catholic recently until I learned the Catholic Church promoted racism via it’s false baloney of monogenism.

    Catholicism is false just like Protestantism and if Eastern Orthodoxy promotes monogenism, then I guess I’m left to believe that Christianity is a religion of lies. And racism.

    • September 18, 2013 at 7:39 pm

      I’m sorry for my last comment. It’s not Catholicism that is false, it is this racist understanding of monogenesis that if false. Surely there is a better way.

  10. September 19, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    How is monogenism racist if it claims everybody came “out of Africa” and descended from the same people?

    Not trying to be confrontational, but I am genuinely confused.

    On another point, I generally do not like using the term “transmission” of original sin as if it was virus. It’s not. It’s the same corruptible human nature voided of that divine “extra push” which was promised upon the completion of Adam’s earthly life and the consumption of the Tree of Life.

    In that sense, death and original sin are coterminous although not strictly the same. Concupiscence is true insofar as we have inherited the bestial nature from our more natural cousins – which to some degree stands in need of improvement in the face of the Divine.

    • September 27, 2013 at 9:00 pm

      The racist interpretation of monogenism is that Adam and Eve were both co-equal hominids until God breathed life into those two and no one else.

      On the other hand, if God willed the human race to happen and saw this happening in his foresight and then allowed it to happen like this where two humans somehow gained a soul, this is not racist.

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