Positive monogenism

Ed Feser has a very good account of what contemporary Catholic orthodoxy requires in the special creation of man. He clearly has many authorities behind him, and his thesis – that Mike Flynn’s hypothesis about special creation is not necessarily contradicted by an argument by Dennis Bonnette – is very minimal and difficult to argue with.

Since I was a partial inspiration for Flynn’s thesis, I’ve got an excuse to return to my thinking on monogenism and the nature of Adam’s (failed and abandoned) vocation toward creation. Now I’m convinced that it is impossible to have a Catholic theology that is not committed to monogenism, or one that reads the Adam account as mythical in the sense of not requiring some real, original first human ancestor. But I’ve also never seen any reason to back away from my friend Fr. Bolin’s distinction between positive and negative monogenism: positive monogenism says that all human beings descend from some one set of ancestors, negative monogenism is the more complicated thesis that all human beings descend from one set of ancestors and this set was the only human beings on earth. Now if genetic theory suffices to identify true human beings (which is something Feser would deny) then modern genetics gives a very good refutation of negative monogenism* but it gives a much stronger set of confirmations of positive monogenism. Not only has positive monogenism happened, it’s happened more than once under circumstances that are much more exotic than are required of Adam. So for someone who is looking for a synthesis of Catholic theology and scientific consensus, positive monogenism might provide a way forward.

True, on positive monogenism there was, at least to some point in history, human beings that were not descended from Adam, and we don’t know what role such persons play in salvation history.  Someone who holds to positive monogenism doesn’t need to give any account of what would have happened to such persons: Perhaps they would have all been killed off, perhaps they would have been offered some sort of incorporation into Adam’s life, perhaps they simply were not at all called to share in Adam’s life, or perhaps, more likely, Adam was called to extend some sort of divine life to them. Positive monogenism simply doesn’t know: Adam fell too quickly for us to get a sense of what the plan for him was. His children wandered off and coupled with the persons in the rest of the world, with everyone now under “original sin” because of his fault, i.e. everyone lacked the original justice that – in one way or another – was supposed to come to all persons through Adam. It seems likely that, after Adam, all persons would have received original justice just by being generated, but, as it stands, we don’t receive this and so the same act of generation ends up “transmitting” original sin – not because original sin is some malice added to the will but because it is simply a absence of a positive quality that human beings require to live a life pleasing to God.

A positive monogenist would probably add to mere positive monogenism the idea that Adam was specially created and had no ancestor.He might even want to add more to this and say that this act of special creation was meant to establish Adam as the first member of salvation history, not the first being with a rational soul. The idea would be that Adam was not special by being the first being with a rational soul but by being the first person called to participate in a life that was higher than reason. True, man’s soul is made by an act of special creation, but man’s having a soul is not something that of itself makes him rise above the natural order. One advantage of the account I’m giving here, therefore, is that it locates Adam on a properly supernatural level, which we fail to do when we see the distinctive mark of Adam as being his rational soul.

*Bonnette denies this and says the evidence doesn’t point one way or another. Science is more a matter of following the consensus, and Bonnette seems to be an outlier from it. At any rate, I have independent reasons for wanting to reconsider some facts about Adam, some of which I’ve touched on here.



  1. Peter said,

    December 21, 2014 at 7:16 pm

    I very much like this account, situating Adam on a separate supernatural level, but doesn’t the statement from Humani generis make it hard to accept that other people could have been hanging around? It says: “For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that […] 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…”?

    This opinion would be embraced (under a strict reading, at least) if even one of these hypothetical “other men” existed after Adam. Even if their descendants later co-mingled, it nevertheless seems probable that there would be at least some who lived longer or after Adam.

    Although, now that I think of it, Adam is said to have lived 930 years….

    • December 21, 2014 at 8:09 pm

      The PM theorist would read Humani Generis as saying that by the time of Adam’s death he was an ancestor to everyone. That said, original sin is not a birth defect, nor is it some sort of added malice that is somehow infused into the will at the moment of generation. This seems to be a Reformation idea that Catholics appeared to have bought into, presumably out of fear of Pelagianism. But original sin doesn’t require generation the way that, say, hereditary traits need it. I don’t know all the details of whatever theory of original sin that HG is working from, but the absence of original justice is presumably passed on the way other absences are passed on – not by vitiating something whole, or by passing on a “stain” (has anyone ever been able to cash in this metaphor for a fact?), but by failing to provide for the full development of something.

  2. raquinas said,

    December 22, 2014 at 11:36 am

    “The PM theorist would read Humani Generis as saying that by the time of Adam’s death he was an ancestor to everyone.”

    I too am sympathetic to the PM account you’re attempting. However, given current estimates of the minimal population size (bottleneck) necessary to account for the current genetic situation of the human race, it seems prima facie unlikely that Adam’s offspring could have established ancestral links with all other humans of non-Adamite descent prior to his physical death (which would seem to conflict with HG unless one were to play rather loose with Pius XII’s term “after”). Does not that consideration work against the plausibility of the PM theory?


    • thenyssan said,

      December 22, 2014 at 6:34 pm

      Not if Adam lived to be 930 😉

      • December 22, 2014 at 11:18 pm

        He might have an argument that the gap is 100,000 years. Who knows?

      • raquinas said,

        December 23, 2014 at 7:32 am

        James, I don’t understand your last comment. Who might have an argument, and a gap between what and what? Just trying to get a handle on how PM can potentially comport with HG in light of the best current scientific hypotheses. Thx

      • thenyssan said,

        December 24, 2014 at 5:55 pm

        Of course I’m mostly being cheeky. But I believe I’ve read that it would only take a few centuries to form the ancestral links in question. I wouldn’t necessarily advance the issue that way myself, but I find it fascinating that this variation on the PM scheme would work if Adam did in fact live 930 years. A very convenient exit ramp for the argument!

        Related: I think one of the most overlooked points of the “Genetics and Genesis” bit is MRCA and Identical Ancestor. It’s pretty amazing how recent those are.

  3. Mike said,

    March 2, 2015 at 7:26 pm

    Trying to follow what is orthodox teaching regarding immortality before the fall: does the church teach that adam and all his descendants which would have been billions upon billions would have never died had he not sinned? This seems impossible to square with a material world that decays..and reading on this topic would be helpful.

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