The first human couple and the Fall

By Brandon A. Evans

Third in a series

Pope John Paul II said in 1996 during an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that evolution is more than just a hypothesis.

In the same address, however, the Holy Father spoke of the inability of science to be able to explain just when and how the first humans were elevated to a spiritual life—that is, when God bestowed the first rational souls on the evolved man.

He said that theology is what can answer that question, not science. Yet science can help, and indeed is coming to the rescue of those who defend the ages-old view of one Adam and one Eve.

Who our first parents were and how they came to be is an immense puzzle. What would

the parents of such humans be like? Who would that couple’s children mate with? How evolved was the mind—the brain—at the time?

Richard Miller, a professor of biology at Butler University in Indianapolis, said that our ability to imagine, which is wholly unique, is a mystery. He suggests that perhaps what gave humans the ultimate evolutionary edge/ was the mind—it allowed us to make up for physical deficiencies and adapt to our surroundings without being wiped out by the currents of evolutionary change.

Still, he is left with questions.

“We have no idea what there is in our brain, and ultimately, of course, in our genes, that produces this imagination, this ability,” he said.

The birth of the first rational man is a moment that is unique to the history of the world—and unique in the way that we must seek to understand it.

Stephen Jay Gould, the late evolutionary theorist from Harvard University, once wrote that science and religion should never be at war because “no such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority.”

Of course, he said, “the two magisteria [of science and religion] bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer.”

Understanding our first parents, in what limited ways that we can, will take the knowledge gained in both disciplines.

The Catholic Church has always considered that there is one Adam and one Eve, though it has not made any definitive statements about it in the modern day.

The closest example came in the 1950 encyclical Humani Generis by Pope Pius XII. He said that at the current time it could not be understood how a Catholic could give up the idea that there was one Adam, the parent of all, who committed Original Sin and passed it on to all generations.

Even St. Paul writes that “through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death” (Rom 5:12). Jesus Christ is seen in traditional Christian understanding as the second Adam.

Pope Pius XII strongly condemned polygenism, the idea that we could have descended from many different first parents, saying that, in his time, it was “in no way apparent” how such a view could be compatible with revealed truth.

Still, there are some that claim it is possible, and that Original Sin may not have been one man’s fall but the fall of many.

Daryl Domning, in an article from the Nov. 12, 2001, issue of America magazine, wrote about how some theologians are now viewing Original Sin.

Domning wrote that Original Sin in humans did not come from the first humans, but rather from the first living creatures, which acted in ways that could be considered “selfish.”

In other words, all creatures exhibit selfish tendencies, and humans, being a form of creature, also have such tendencies.

“The overt acts [of nature] did not acquire their sinful character until the evolution of human intelligence allowed them to be performed by morally responsible beings,” he wrote.

More simply, “original sin” is just the state the world has always been in and explains why Jesus Christ is needed.

“God’s decision to create a material world was inescapably a decision to create breakable, mortal beings,” Domning said. “Moreover, one of the iron laws of God’s universe is Darwinian natural selection, which enforces selfish behavior on the part of all living things as the price of survival and evolutionary progress—even though, as a practical certainty, this selfishness eventually entails sin on the part of moral creatures. Life cannot evolve any other way.”

Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, vicar general, said that this deforms the doctrine of Original Sin too much.

Under the entry for Original Sin in the 2003 New Catholic Encyclopedia, Second Edition, it acknowledges this fairly new sense of evolutionary theology.

“The difficulty is that this amounts to a denial of the Fall, the teaching that, as [the Council of] Trent put it, a first human decision changed the human condition ‘for the worse,’ ” it notes.

“The first man was not only created good, but was also established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him, in a state that would be surpassed only by the glory of the new creation in Christ,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#374).

It goes on to say that the Church has interpreted the Scriptures to mean that Adam and Eve, as our first parents are known, were in a state of holiness and justice, and would not have to die as long as they remained in such a state.

“The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents (catechism, #390).”

The roots of evolutionary theology are found among the works of the late Jesuit theologian and priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Teilhard denied the reality of the Fall of Adam, calling it “no more than an attempt to explain evil in a fixed universe.”

“Teilhard never comes to grips with the problem of evil in creation, and openly admits this in his introduction to his book, The Divine Milieu,” said Michael D. O’Brien, a Catholic artist and the author of the novel Father Elijah, who has read the Jesuit’s writings.

“Even more revealing is the letter published after his death,” O’Brien said, “in which he said that the horrors of the Second World War, and the Holocaust and similar events, were to be expected. For him, these were the effects of natural selection, a necessary part of the universe evolving into spirit.”

Indeed, the catechism does say that without the doctrine of Original Sin “we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc.” (#387).

Msgr. Schaedel said that he doesn’t think the Church will ever embrace the idea that many human beings were created at the same time.

And science, oddly enough, may agree with him.

There is now significant genetic research that shows all humans came from an original mother. Because of the type of DNA sampled from women around the world to do the study, this woman is called “the mitochondrial Eve.”

Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer, a member of Green College at Oxford University, was featured in the Discovery Channel program “The Real Eve.” He said that every person alive today had a common ancestor in a woman that lived in Africa about 150,000 years ago.

The tribes of humans that grew from “Eve’s” line eventually migrated out of Africa and populated the Earth. The “Eve” that researchers found may be a mere bottleneck in the genetic stream, or she may have been the first rational human—if you look at things with the eyes of faith.

Dominican Father Benedict Ashley, a visiting scholar at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center and adjunct professor at the Center for Health Care Ethics at St. Louis University, proposes one way of looking at the critical moment where evolution met humanity.

At some point, there was a mutation in a branch of modified chimpanzees, which had already evolved into what resembled humans. That mutated being became the first human at the moment of its conception, when God granted it an immortal soul.

How the Fall of Man occurred from there may be lost to the ages, explainable no longer in scientific terms but certainly in theological terms.

Science does not deny Original Sin for the same reason that it does not discuss it—it falls out of the range of science to explain.

And, for now, recent discoveries seem to allow for a traditional accounting of the story of Original Sin.

Yet how God acted here on Earth to create intelligent life is only one set of questions that are still open for discussion.

If humans have evolved here by God’s graces, then one must wonder whether or not intelligent life has evolved elsewhere in the universe.

Even those who believe in strict creationism must also wonder what would happen if God, in his goodness, created intelligent life on other worlds to glorify him.

(Next part: the possibility and theology of life on other worlds.)


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