Monogenism and the faith: a solution.

In the comment thread to the last post, Joseph Bolin gives a lovely distinction that harmonizes the scientific opinion on monogenism with a Christian claim to monogenism. The distinction has the added benefit of resolving the the tension by showing that it arises from assuming something unnecessary to monogenism.

Monogenism means that all persons now living share a common ancestor. As applied to Christianity, monogenism is the claim that all potential Christians (all persons on earth from the first century until now) have a single common male ancestor. To assume that this single ancestor was at some point the only person in existence is an additional and unnecessary assumption. My cousin and I are of one  family through our grandfather, which would be true whether our grandfather was the only person who existed or not; in the same way, Christian monogenism requires that all persons be cousins through some common male ancestor, regardless of whether this ancestor was the only person who existed. The present findings of genetics make it unlikely that a common male ancestor was the only person who existed, but whether he was or not has no effect on the truth of monogenism. Deciding that we all have one ancestor does not decide if this ancestor was part of a larger population or not.

The confusion over monogenism arises from a classic sophistry: mixing up the senses of a word. The prefix “mono” often indicates that there is one and only one thing to which the word is prefixed: monotheism means there is one and only one God; monotone speech is speech in one and only one tone; monochrome color schemes mean there is one and only one color; but monogenism does not mean that there is one and only one common ancestor, still less that this one ancestor was at some point the only person to exist.

As it turns out, there is good reason to believe that there is at least one common male ancestor of all human beings, even though there is no reason why we should judge that this individual was the biblical Adam-sc. that single male anscestor through whom we are all called to a good higher than nature, and through whose sin we failed to attain the economy of grace.  Notice that the “Y-Chromosome Adam” is an individual who, in addition to being a common ancestor of all human beings, has had at least one male progeny in his line in every generation that followed. The biblical Adam and the Y chromosome Adam need not be the same person- and in fact the Y-chromosome Adam was less likely to occur than the biblical Adam.



  1. July 16, 2009 at 10:22 am

    I just have one question, simply to understand the distinction in my own mind: would the human persons not descended from Adam, but who still make up part of our lineage, be an instance of the infamous natura pura? I.e., not called to a good higher than nature, but nor under the culpa of Original Sin? (Of course, Joseph Bolin also mentions the possibility that they are not human persons, i.e., that they were humanoids without the rational soul– but if they were human persons, they would be natura pura, would they not?)

  2. July 16, 2009 at 11:05 am

    There are two options:

    1.) If someone is called, they are a son of Adam.
    2.) If someone is a son of Adam, they are called.

    If the first is the case, then we can conclude that those outside of Adam’s line are not called to an end above reason (hence, “natura pura”); if the second is the case, we cannot. Said another way, does the call go out to man under the ratio of “son of Adam” (1.), or does it go out to sons of Adam under the ratio of “rational nature”, which includes the sons of Adam (2.)?

    My suspicion is that (1.) is true. The call comes through a covenant, and the covenant is made with a person (and his descendants) not with a nature. Genetics seems to make clear that Adam was not the only person alive when God made his covenant with him. Such persons other than Adam would not have, simply by virtue of existing, a call to an end above reason and would therefore be in a state of natura pura. My suspicion is that they were supposed to be adopted into the covenant with Adam through some evangelization and conversion, and failing this their lines would have died out. I have no prof for this, but it makes sense: Christ extended his covenant beyond those he made it with first; teh Jews were (to my mind) called to extend their covenant beyond their nation (though for the most part they failed) and so it would be fitting that Adam was called to extend his covenant too.

  3. Breier Scheetz said,

    July 17, 2009 at 5:21 am

    I fail to see how your position squares with the Church’s dogma on the universality of original sin, let alone the unicity of the human race. Those “such persons other than Adam” you posit in a state of pure nature would not have original sin from Adam. It may solve a scruple occasioned by modern science, but it does so at the expense of the central dogma of Catholicism. Original sin passed to all, not some.

    Well should we continued to heed the teaching of Pius XII:

    ” 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.”

  4. Breier Scheetz said,

    July 17, 2009 at 5:33 am

    The question comes down not so much to parsing monogenism, but to the dogma of original sin. Any theory of pre-Adamities or contemporaries with Adam has to contend with that. Like Pius XII, I fail to see how it’s possible.

    Assume a man existing apart from Adam. Call him Steve. The Church’s teaching on original sin in that it is commited by an individual Adam and, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

    Adam falls. So to preserve the Church’s teaching, Steve, who’s already been born, has to have original sin passed to him by generation from Adam.

    How is that supposed to be possible? No way apparent indeed! Perhaps we could imagine the logical possibility of some science fiction horror that might be allowed a man to be generated a second time by another man, but that’s in the realm of absurdity.

    So we can’t admit Steve.

  5. July 17, 2009 at 6:19 am

    Thank goodness someone brought up the Pius quotation. I wasn’t happy with what I said about it before, and I don’t like most of the “wiggle responses” that I’ve read to it.

    First of all, I’ve always had problems with Adam being a collective name, which I think is very clearly against the New Testament. Polygenism is off the table, and it can’t be accepted for any number of reasons. The question is what kind of monogenism we allow. I seem to be denying Pius’s (binding) decree that:

    ”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”

    The account I gave of monogenism can be squared with Pius’s words if we read “after Adam” in the straightforward sense of “after Adam died”. Before Adam’s death (he lived almost a thousand years, remember) all families on earth were knitted into his own, and so by the time he dies, all on earth were his descendants.

    As for Steve, I guess we might ask “why is he fallen?”. If he is not Adam’s descendant, then he simply was not called to a good beyond nature. He was not given any sanctifying grace that could be lost, nor was he offered it.

  6. Tim Troutman said,

    July 17, 2009 at 6:37 am

    Mr. Chastek, what do you make of the Genesis account of Eve being taken from Adam’s rib? (Obviously, given the evolution theory – that is certainly not how the female sex came about). But what does this text mean especially if we insist that Adam and Eve were literal individuals?

  7. Breier Scheetz said,

    July 17, 2009 at 7:36 am


    Since you admit Adam’s long life, let’s start of the common ground of Genesis:

    Scripture teaches that before Adam, “there was no man to till the ground.” (Gen 2:5). After he was created, Adam names the animals, but “there was not found a helper fit for him.” (Gen 2:20). Therefore, God created a woman from Adam’s rib. (Gen 2:22) Adam exclaims, “This at least is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Gen 2:23) She was called “Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.” (Gen 3:20).

    Had any human beings existed at the time of Adam, there would have been a helper fit for him. Eve would also not be the first woman. But Eve’s very name is intelligible only on the assumption that she’s the mother of all mankind: “because she was the mother of all the living.” If other people existed at that time, she wouldn’t be the mother of all the living.


    “Adam was formed by God the father of the World, when he was created alone.” (Wis 10:1)

    “He hath made of one all mankind, to dwell upon the face of the earth.” (Acts 117:26)

    Moreover, Romans 5:12ff: “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned”

    So sin and death in this world is linked to sin, original sin from Adam.

    That precludes men other than Adam, who without grace, sin and die. The tenure of that passage in Romans strongly presupposes monogenism.

    The mind of the Church on this question might be gathered from this proposed canon from the dogmatic commission at the First Vatican Council:

    “Si quis universum genus humanum ab uno proparente Adam ortum esse negaverit, anathema sit.”

    Though the Council was cut short, it’s said that Pope Leo XIII continued its work in his magnificent encyclicals. His encyclical Arcanum has a quote directly on point, and on the creation of Eve, in the context of discussing the origin of marriage:

    “What is the true origin of marriage? That, Venerable Brethren, is a matter of common knowledge. For although the detractors of the Christian faith shrink from acknowledging the Church’s permanent doctrine on this matter, and persist in their long-standing efforts to erase the history of all nations and all ages, they have nonetheless been unable to extinguish, or even to weaken, the strength and light of the truth. We call to mind facts well-known to all and doubtful to no-one: after He formed man from the slime 6 of the earth on the sixth day of creation, and breathed into his face the breath of life, God willed to give him a female companion, whom He drew forth wondrously from the man’s side as he slept. In bringing this about, God, in His supreme Providence, willed that this spousal couple should be the natural origin of all men: in other words, that from this pair the human race should be propagated and preserved in every age by a succession of procreative acts which would never be interrupted. And so that this union of man and woman might correspond more aptly to the most wise counsels of God, it has manifested from that time onward, deeply impressed or engraved, as it were, within itself, two preeminent and most noble properties: unity and perpetuity.”

    Source of translation:

  8. July 17, 2009 at 8:30 am

    A further question I have is: Why does modern genetical theory think that it’s possible that all men present now can come from one father, but that the humans that were contemporaneous to that one father cannot have a common ancestor with that one father? To use Scheetz’s concrete terms, why can modern genetics admit that all men alive today come from one “Adam”, but that “Adam” and Steve are not from a common ancestor (who, in my opinion, would be the real Adam)? Is it just because we’re too genetically diverse to be from one ultimate parent? Does our diversity have to be explained by relations between Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals, even if we all now have a Cro-Magnon for our great-great grandfather? Is it really the theory that a lemur dispersed six or seven populations in different parts of the world, and that eventually, each of those populations independently made the ascent through ape to “human”, and that those humans were able to have fertile relations with each other? It is my ignorance of modern genetics that makes me ask.

  9. July 17, 2009 at 9:16 am


    Had that canon been included, it would have been the death of my account of monogenism. The inclusion of the word “genus” would decide it. Were “genus” left out, then it would agree with my account of monogenism. We could still say that there were “humanoids” alive at the time of Adam, but I think such reasoning is ad hoc and not credible.

    Absent any other evidence to the contrary, I think the best reading of Scripture is that every human being who has ever lived at any time has descended from Adam; but this claim is an addition to monogenism. There are difficulties with denying this additional claim, to be sure. It may be more reasonable to simply deny the truth of the claim that the geneticist makes, sc. that the amount of genetic information in a human being could not be traced back to a single set of parents, if such parents were genetically similar to us. I’ve got no problem making this denial- and I even think that the geneticist would ultimately benefit from making the denial himself if the faith teaches it ought to be made.


    I’m not the one to explain it. I just take the conclusion and try to figure out what to do with it.

  10. July 17, 2009 at 9:57 am

    Thanks. Perhaps I could do a lot of reading on the subject, but I don’t have time now. It’s one thing to say that the genetic evidence doesn’t point to one set of parents, and thereby think to destroy monogenism (positive and negative). It’s quite another to construct an alternative that is tenable (particularly if you think that every time a species line is crossed, something just gave what it hasn’t got, sc. the specific difference. This requires a more universal cause containing the specific difference in potency, whether by way of divine power, or by way of rationes seminales, I, q. 73, a. 1, reply to the 3rd). Perhaps the geneticists et al. don’t even have an alternative solution yet. I did get the impression from one of Bolin’s links that the geneticists, the paleontologists, and the archaeologists can’t seem to agree on their own conclusions amongst each other.

  11. Martin T said,

    July 22, 2009 at 11:39 am

    I hope you dont mind but I’m crosslinking to a similar post on Dave Armstrong’s site. I’m not bright enough to say something intelligent but I enjoy reading what others have to say.

    Catholic Philosopher on Adam and Eve

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