Catholicism and Evolution: Polygenism and Original Sin Part II

As documented in Part I, monogenism, the descent of all human beings from Adam and Eve, was closely linked to the Catholic doctrine of original sin throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Theological reservations about polygenism, the more scientifically supported account of human origins through a transitional population, was brought to a head by Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani generis . Although the encyclical allowed discussion of human evolution, polygenism was prohibited because “It does not appear how such a view can be reconciled with the doctrine of original sin.” Nevertheless, during and after Vatican II de facto theological acceptance of polygenism became commonplace even though the prohibition was not withdrawn. While some modern conceptions of original sin make a reliance upon monogenism unnecessary, another school of thought emphasizes a spiritual rather than a biological understanding of the concept. It remains to be seen whether polygenism can be unanimously accepted as a scientific phenomenon that is not theologically threatening. Reflection on the Vatican’s long period of ambivalence about the motion of the earth suggests that a similar prospect can be foreseen for polygenism even though it is subject to development in a manner that geostasis was not.

Both Kenneth Kemp and
Joshua Swamidass have recently pointed out that arguments in this vein
do not apply if a spiritual condition distinguishes the first two humans
from a larger population of their contemporaries (Kemp 2011; Swamidass
2019). Furthermore, additional distinctions between human ensoulment
and subsequent spiritual and psychological development to the point of
moral discernment have been invoked by Blandino, Lavocat, Alszeghy, and
Flick, among others.

In conclusion, when a contrast is drawn between geostasis and monogenism,
the historical record supports two fairly straightforward generalizations.
First, theological commitment to monogenism has been more
deeply rooted in historically conditioned doctrines of Catholic tradition
than was the case for geostasis. Secondly, monogenism has been much
more amenable to nuanced conceptual development than geostasis was.


Hi @swamidass,

I had a look at the article, and I must confess that disputes over polygenism and original sin appear peripheral to me nowadays, as they miss the main point at issue: is there, or is there not, a clear-cut distinction between humans and other animals? Your 2016 article, Are we just Apes?, argued for an affirmative position:

…[A]n honest look at human evolution, even from a strictly scientific perspective, reveals that humans truly are exceptional. A “singularity” in our planet’s history has occurred. Nothing like us has ever arisen on the planet before. Something beautiful and unique has happened here. (Bolding mine - VJT.)

The real problem, as I have pointed out previously, is that the scientific evidence does not support your claim that a singularity occurred in human evolution. From a strictly scientific standpoint, the evidence supports a gradual emergence of human beings. And that holds, regardless of whether we look at hand-axes, fire, aesthetic objects, geometrical designs, stone-tipped spears, Mode III tools, symbolic behavior, language, altruistic self-sacrifice or belief in the supernatural. The evidence is summarized in a table here. All of these behaviors emerged gradually, over tens or even hundreds of thousands of years. This is a finding that should be giving theologians and apologists king-sized headaches. Instead, the theologians are in denial: they simply refuse to recognize the problem. One hears irenic suggestions that the distinguishing hallmark of human beings is either scientifically unobservable (how convenient!) or that it left no archaeological traces (despite the fact that archaeology can tell us quite a lot about our forebears’ intellectual, moral and spiritual capacities). So far, there has been a massive failure to engage with the evidence, on the theologians’ part. And that troubles me.

The gradual emergence of humans is not at odds with the fact that nothing like humans have arisen on the planet before.

The fact that humans arise out of a progression of forms, does not mean humans are not distinct from other life on earth right now. There is historical continuity, but present day distinctness. These things are not in conflict.


Hi @swamidass,

The fact that humans arise out of a progression of forms, does not mean humans are not distinct from other life on earth right now. There is historical continuity, but present day distinctness. These things are not in conflict.

I think I see where you’re coming from. Still, there are certain beliefs that Christians have which make it impossible for them to fully endorse a notion of “historical continuity.” Two examples:

(i) there must have been a first individual (whether human or pre-human is irrelevant here) in the history of life on Earth to experience an afterlife;

(ii) there must also have been a first individual (call him Adam, if you will) to experience the Beatific Vision of God in the hereafter.

As I read you, you seem to be suggesting that (ii) depends on Divine Fiat (a gratuitous choice by God to reveal Himself to humanity at a particular point in history), and we might suppose that pre-Adamite humans enjoyed a purely natural knowledge of God in the hereafter (as in the old Catholic teaching on Limbo). But that doesn’t solve (i). You can’t have half a hereafter: you either have one or you don’t. There must therefore have been a first spiritually immortal individual. And that’s a discontinuity.

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Welcome back @vjtorley :grinning:

Forgive my ignorance of theology here, but I think your examples are actually assumptions? Examples from theology, perhaps??


Perhaps, but aren’t they safe assumptions? Assuming that non-human apes don’t get an afterlife (or even non-primates or wherever you want to draw the line) seems safe, as otherwise we eventually run into heaven populated mostly by the souls of bacteria. Assuming that you can’t get partially into heaven seems safe too. So there must be a first, or several first, occupant(s) of heaven.

Safe assumptions, yes, but not necessarily good examples. We don’t have any examples of apes in the afterlife, or humans for that matter.

In the interest is NOT derailing the thread, I won’t pursue this line of questions, or can start a new thread as needed.

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That’s the nature of theology. There are no examples of anything it deals with.

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This “drawing the line conundrum” appears in other places too. For example, even if there is continuity in historical human evolution, there also had to be a first conscious hominid. Is that also a problem?

That isn’t necessarily true. Consciousness could easily have arisen gradually so that the first conscious hominid is as impossible to decide as the first speaker of French.


This reminds me too much of our old debate here about the first French speaker, and I’m not sure it’s productive to revisit that exchange. That being said, regardless of whatever one believes about whether there was a first French speaker or first conscious person, one can can also say the same about the afterlife. There are two routes one can take:

  1. Perhaps there is also a spectrum of levels in the afterlife, where all living things (or even inanimate things too, assuming some sort of panpsychism is true) share in an afterlife, but the duration and/or nature of the afterlife depends on how “human-like” they are.
  2. Perhaps some living things do not have an afterlife, so there was indeed a “first hominid with an afterlife”, but we cannot determine when that person lived, just like we cannot determine the first French speaker.

Well of course it does, because that’s what I was referring to. But I have no idea what your claim was. Did you think there actually was a first French speaker?

Perhaps one can, but it does require that adjustment to the scenario. I don’t see, though, how your #2 would resolve the problem.

But that’s because there was no first French speaker. However, I don’t think we need to get bogged down in that argument. I brought it up only because I thought it would be a non-controversial analogy. How about the first chicken?

The answer to both of these questions is I’m not sure, because I don’t think it’s actually a good example - it’s not clear to me if languages like “French” are actually real “things” with essences walking around out there, as opposed to a shorthand about a collection of certain methods of human communication. In the case of the latter, then I would agree with you that there was indeed no first French speaker - at most, there was only the first person in history whom every reasonable person would agree spoke French as opposed to Vulgar Latin. The same goes with “chicken”, because biological species != philosophical species. I don’t think there is a real essential difference between different species of chicken, or perhaps even between a chicken and any other type of fowl. Nevertheless, I’m not an expert on zoology, so I’m not going to make any strong pronouncements here.

The case of a human is different, because here I’m more confident that there is a real (instead of merely conventional) distinction between humans and animals. In that case, even if we cannot know which animal in history was the first human (e.g. by easily pointing to a set of obvious definite criteria for what constitutes a human), that doesn’t mean there was never a first human. To say otherwise is to conflate epistemology with ontology. This is what my solution #2 was getting at.

Nevertheless, even if you disagree with me on the above, you can have my solution #1.

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I don’t think you need to “fully endorse” historical continuity. There easily could be discontinuities that are below the detection level of scientific inquiry. In that case, there would be scientifically subtle/invisible historical discontinuities that are of immense theological/philosophical importance. Relatively speaking, still, the discontinuities in the past would be smaller than the discontinuities we currently observe.

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Is there such a thing as an essence in the real world?

You are correct, though there’s only one species of chicken. Chickens aren’t chicken because they have “essence of chicken”, just as people aren’t people because they have “essence of human”.

Why are you confident? To a biologist, humans are animals. There could as sensibly be a difference between giraffes and animals.

Biologically speaking, there can have been no first human. I’m not sure how epistemology and ontology, or their mutual conflation, would be relevant.

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I think we’re veering off into a debate about philosophical essentialism here. Besides being off-topic, while I’m sympathetic towards essentialism, at the moment I haven’t read about it in enough detail to defend it in an informed manner, especially with regards to biological issues. I’d just note that although it is unpopular, essentialism is still a position that has been defended by some contemporary philosophers of science. (Of course, this doesn’t prove that it’s the correct position.)

The key here, though is that biology (and empirical science in general) doesn’t capture all aspects of reality. There is no point discussing the relationship between polygenism, original sin, and Catholicism if one insists on a strict scientism where only biologists get to define what it means to be human, since then Christianity would be immediately refuted and the issue is moot.

Again, as I outlined, the topic we’re discussing doesn’t depend on the truth of essentialism (although essentialism being true would make it easier).

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It seems to me that it does.

To say the least. It doesn’t even hint that it might be correct.

I don’t see how my solution #1 hinges on the truth of essentialism.

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True. It’s solution #2 we’re talking about now.

Well, I’d like to clarify that I was referring to solution #1. My original reply was in the context of responding to Vincent’s objections, and I presented two solutions. As I said,

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