A Catholic Approach to the Genealogical Adam

Hi Joshua,

Thank you for your reply. I’d like to respond to some of your comments.

It seems to me that our mental life would be totally unrecognizable to a Homo sapien living 20,000 years ago.

I have to say I respectfully disagree on this point. I maintain that the following features are found in all cultures, to such a degree that I’d contest a tribe’s claim to call itself “human,” in the absence of any of these features:

(i) worrying about the future (will tomorrow’s hunt be a successful one? will our tribe eventually be wiped out by our neighbors?) and about the future of one’s children (will my son find a bride?);
(ii) worrying about growing old and dying;
(iii) recalling incidents from one’s past at will, as far back as one’s childhood (i.e. not only episodic but also autobiographical memory);
(iv) worrying about what other people think of you (theory of mind), and scheming to make people of influence think better of you by flattering them, and to think worse of your rivals by spreading malicious rumors about them;
(v) having a mental map of one’s surroundings in all directions, and being able to draw it (say, to plan an attack);
(vi) a desire for self-ornamentation (by wearing fancy clothes, or applying body pigment);
(vii) artistic expression, especially in the form of drama (symbolic reenactment of significant events in tribal lore);
(viii) story-telling;
(ix) religious awe at the beauty and grandeur of Nature; and
(x) a desire to placate some Higher Power(s) in order to obtain favors and/or protection.

I would argue that humans have possessed mental lives incorporating all of these features for at least 100,000, and that none of them go back further than 500,000 years (well, maybe 700,000 at a stretch). And while I’m open to being persuaded otherwise, I’m inclined to think that these abilities all appeared at about the same time. I’m willing to allow that some of these abilities have been refined over the past few hundred thousand years (e.g. our social skills, which have been greatly enhanced as our brains became more and more globularized over the past 300,000 years), but I would say they’ve all existed in the Homo sapiens lineage for a very long time - perhaps from the very dawn of our species.

One approach that makes sense to me is to say that our value derives from the fact that God finds special value in us. Because he values us, he can bring us back from death and keep us immortal (which how we mean we have an our immortal soul), and why we have rights to life (because someone greater than us finds value in our life). In this relational account of the soul and rights, the point in our origin where God decides to value us this way might actually be what the Image of God is (in at least some senses).

So what you’re saying is that human beings aren’t intrinsically valuable: they’re only valuable because God deems them to be. The way I see it, that blurs the moral distinction between us and the beasts: after all, God might have deemed orcas, crows or elephants to be bearers of a right to life, instead of us.

However, that means that there two distinct species [i.e. Neandertals and _Homo sapiens_ - VJT] that were both “human” at the same time, and even became “human” at different times. How do you make sense of that?

I suggested above that the Neandertals may have lacked the foregoing abilities when they first appeared, but when they started interbreeding with Homo sapiens, some of their progeny would have acquired them. The same goes for Denisovan man. That is, I think the abilities which make us human have a genetic and neurological basis, and that any lineage of hominins which somehow acquired the relevant genes would ipso facto be granted immortal, immaterial souls as well. This would presumably have been a gradual process, however.

The problems are you are raising are only problems because you are collapsing them (as many others have) into a single idea: 1. The Image of God. 2. Rationality or reason. 3. Human dignity. 4. Human rights. 5. An Immortal Soul. It is dangerous to conflate these things together as if they are the same thing. For example, an embryo and a profoundly mentally disabled person does not have human-like reason, but I believe they equally bear God’s Image as all of us, and deserve dignity and rights as we all do. Linking rationality to God’s Image, dignity, and rights ultimately undermines the key things that concern you (and most of us).

Actually, I would say that embryos and profoundly disabled people do possess the ability to reason, but that they’re prevented from using it, either because the lower-level physical scaffolding on which this ability supervenes is not yet present (insufficient neurological development in the embryo) or because it is severely damaged (defective genes in the profoundly mentally disabled). Building or repairing the underlying scaffolding would make reason manifest in these individuals, but the actual ability is there all along.

Re the five notions you enumerate: I’m prepared to consider that some of them may be separable. However, 3 and 4 seem to imply one another, and to be implied by 1. 1 seems to require 5, although one might question whether the converse holds. Of course, Aristotelian-Thomists would argue that 2 is what grounds 1, 3, 4 and 5, but I am aware that many other Christians would contest that. Nevertheless, it seems difficult to deny that in a species of hominins, 2 is at least necessary (if not sufficient) for 1, 3, 4 and 5.

That’s all for now. Thoughts?

P.S. By the way, I thought the distinctions you made between your proposal and that of the pre-Adamites were very helpful. Seriously, Joshua, I’d recommend publishing an article outlining your proposal in a Catholic journal: maybe American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, or Nova et Vetera. I don’t know what the reaction will be, but I’m sure it will stimulate a lot of discussion. Alternatively, on the Evangelical side, you could try Philosophia Christi. What do you think?

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