Mere Monogenism, and Adam and Eve

The Biologos forum has been discussing Adam and Eve. The discussion is framed as a question of whether they are historical or literary figures, and, if historical, how their existence can be brought into harmony with the theory of evolution. It’s not obvious that the initial division (historical/literary) is a good one- how does one apply it to, say, the Johnny Depp title character in Donnie Brasco, the “Jim Garrison” character in Oliver Stone’s JFK or, more classically, to Robin Hood or the Sheriff of Nottingham? The division of historical and literary is pretty clearly inadequate here. One might suspect that, for similar reasons, the pre-Abrahamic Book of Genesis is a paradigm case of when this division is inadequate (the Catholic teaching on Genesis of the last 100 years or so, for example, presupposes that this division is inadequate.)

But leave all that aside. The real problem is that the Biologos essay is indecisive and scattershot. This is why PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne smell blood, and fire away at the essay in their characteristic style (follow the links here. I’m not linking to those guys). Any success that PZ and Jerry might have is due to this: we are very prone to assume toubling and problematic assumptions into our discussion of Adam and Eve, and these assumptions need to be pointed out in the beginning, or our whole discourse will either be an expression of our own indecisiveness and confusion, or the false triumphalism of killing strawmen.

First, belief in a historical Adam and Eve is a belief in monogenism. Monogenism states that all human beings from some point in the past until now descend from a single set of parents (The literal truth of Genesis would probably require that this point in the past go back at least to Abraham, say 2100-1800 BC). It is helpful to contrast monogenism to different claims that make more assumptions, like

1.) We descend from one set of parents, and we have no other parents. In other words, when Adam and Eve existed, they were the only human beings on earth. This commits us to more than is required for monogenism. One can argue, of course, that the Genesis account requires this addition, but it must be recognized as an addition. Note carefully that the special creation of Adam by God does not require that he be the only man who existed at the time, any more than the special creation of Christ requires that Christ be the only man who existed at the time. Scripture relates any number of miracles where God does something that is also done by natural processes, but by using other means (e.g. making non-living things alive, making water into wine, etc.)

2.) We descend from some first man who has had a male descendant in every generation. This is the definition of the “Y-Chromosome Adam“, and (adjusting for sex) the “mitochondrial Eve”. Assume that Adam’s daughter went off, east of Eden, and married some human outside of her family. Then Adam could not be a “Y- Chromosome Adam” for that line of persons, though he is clearly responsible for the line. All that would be required for the “literal” truth of Genesis is that at some point in time, all lines not descended from Adam either died off or merged with him. Given that we know as a fact that this has happened for at least one man, who also exists under the additional stipulation of having only male descendants, there is nothing odd whatsoever in assuming the far more possible case of a man being the parent of the whole human race who did not exist under this restriction.


  1. June 23, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Thanks James,
    Very interesting. Is this view accurately described as a kind of (anthro) monogenism within or (out of) a broader (anthro) polygenetic pool? If your really bored, you could browse my recent essay on original sin in evolutionary perspective on my blog under ‘essays’ and give me feedback? 🙂

  2. Gagdad Bob said,

    June 23, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Isn’t the whole debate a concession to the absurd terms of materialism?

    • June 23, 2010 at 5:59 pm

      There is a risk that, in speaking of Genesis in this way, one will downplay the spiritual and esoteric truth in the book. But there is also a value in explaining just what the historical truth of the story would commit one to.

  3. June 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    We went through what to name it the last time around (this solution was the one Joseph Bolin gave). In all honesty, this is called monogenism, full stop. Monogenism is the belief that all human beings from some point until now have a common ancestor, and that’s it. All other accounts involve some addition to this basic idea.

    Whether there is a broader genetic pool or not is of no consequence to monogenism. There either might or might not be; presumably this is a matter for empirical science to figure out, under the authority of theology.

  4. John Farrell said,

    July 12, 2010 at 2:25 am

    Hi James,
    I’m not sure I follow this; I don’t think biologists define monogenism in this way (meaning, a common ancestor is not considered an individual), and if I recall correctly, genomics traces all humans back to a bottleneck of a few thousand. But not a common individual.

    (for what it’s worth)

  5. July 12, 2010 at 5:39 am

    Here, I’m only interested in monogenism so far as it would be relevant and necessary for the faith. (Yes, I do take monogenism as necessary to the faith- that’s another topic) In this sense, it means that everyone on earth from some time X to now shares one ancestor, and that’s it. Whether this ancestor was the only man on earth is not relevant.

    This might well be not how “monogenism” is now taken by biologists. As far as I know, it’s not a testable version of monogenism, like the sort of monogenism one can test in “Y-Chromosome Adam”. But I don’ t see how we could bar using the word monogenism to describe all people being descended from one person.

    I have no problem with the 2000 ancestor bottleneck, or any multitude of common ancestors. The question is not how many ancestors we have but whether we all have one in common. My understanding, FWIW, is that we all have more than one in common (which is not to say that any of the ones we’ve found is “Adam”), and we might develop more test to find even more that we all have in common.

    Let’s say that the actual Adam is in the 2,000 person bottleneck. If we could time transport the other 1999 to today, they would not have to be baptized. Nor would any of their children, until they merge into the Adamite line. By some point in Old Testament salvation history, all must merge into it. There are a lot of assertions in this last paragraph that might need tweaking, but I give the examples just to make the nature of theological monogenism more concrete.

  6. Don Flood said,

    May 26, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    What evolutionary biologists fail to understand is that Adam & Eve, having been both specially created, had within their germ lines all the variation which we see among human beings today. In other words, all the offspring of Eve had distinct DNA, such that if a geneticist had tested them he/she would find that they were not even “related” to each other, even though they were born from the same parents. This “genetic bootstrapping” on the part of the One and Triune God would have allowed Eve’s children to marry and have sex with each other, allowing them to have normal human offspring.

    As with the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ, Science cannot enter the realm of the supernatural, that is, actions performed by God which violate the Law of Conservation of Energy, which He established to give order to His Creation. These events by God are what Catholic theology terms as being “miracles”: raising those who are in a state of clinical death back to normal life, restoration of an adult amputee’s amputated limb (such as occurred in the Miracle of Calanda), simultaneous apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to tens of thousands of individuals over hundreds of square miles (such as occurred with the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima), etc.

    Since Adam & Eve were both specially created, their bodies were not like ours. They were not conceived, but instead, were formed out of the “dust of the earth”, coming into existence possessing thought and speech. In many respects, their creation was like that of the angels, immaterial beings whom God simply willed into existence ex nihilo. As such, modern genetic theory and assumptions simply do not apply to Adam & Eve. We accept their existence as a matter of divine revelation which came to us through the One and Only Son of God, Jesus Christ, which He entrusted to His Church, the Holy Roman Catholic & Apostolic Church, outside of which no one at all will be saved.

  7. September 15, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    Thanks for this post. I was struggling with this.

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