Adam and Eve versus Evolution

The first 11 chapters of Genesis are pre-recorded history, at least from the point of view of the Jews. In every society, prior to modern times, pre-recorded history was handed down verbally, with stories that made heavy use of figurative elements. But this does not imply a total lack of historical or factual content. Historical events were codified in stories combining both literal and figurative elements. The term myth is used in common parlance to refer to a story that is entirely fictional. But it turns out that the myths of ancient societies were not pure fiction, but rather a way of explaining and remembering historical events, prior to recorded history.

See my book: Noah’s Flood: Literal or Figurative? Researchers, such as W. Bruce Masse, have found hundreds of flood myths handed down in societies throughout the world. These myths are remarkably similar to one another and to a description of the effects of an asteroid or comet strike in the deep ocean. The Flood of Noah was a literal historical event, but one that is described in Scripture with figurative elements. Water did not cover all the land on earth; that is a figure for the immense destruction of the flood, as well as a figure for the extent of sin on earth and the extent of the offer of salvation through Baptism. The Flood did not kill all humans and animals outside the Ark; that is a figure for the extent of the destruction of the historical event, and also a figure for the teaching that no one is saved except by the one true God (Old Testament understanding) and no one is saved except by Baptism into Christ (New Testament understanding).

Similarly, the story of Adam and Eve recounts an historical event, but with heavy use of figurative elements: tree with forbidden fruit, talking serpent, etc. The use of figurative elements does not imply that the story is pure fiction. Two real human persons existed, at the start of the human race. They fell away from the grace of God, becoming fallen sinners. How far back in human history does sinfulness go? All the way back to the start of the human race, when the first two human persons, one man and one woman, fell from grace by committing original sin.

But how do we reconcile Adam and Eve with evolution? Some Catholics take a fundamentalist view: they utterly reject evolution in its entirety. But they are unable to explain away all of the scientific evidence in support of evolution. Others treat the Adam and Eve story as if it were entirely fictional. But they are unable to explain how the dogmas of original sin, the Immaculate Conception (Mary’s preservation from original sin), and the creation of the human race by God can still stand, if evolution is accepted uncritically and Adam and Eve are considered to be fictional.

The solution is much the same approach as I use in interpreting the Flood story. Some elements of the story are figurative, other elements are literal. Science and history need not be treated as an enemy to faith. We can reconcile the two approaches to the Flood story. And we can do so with Adam and Eve and evolution as well.

A brief summary of my position follows.

Evolution is a partially-correct partial explanation of the development of species. Where evolution fails is in assuming that God has no role in that development. From the point of view of faith, I assert that God intervened miraculously to initiate life on earth, and to initiate human life on earth. Evolution convincingly demonstrates that one species can evolve into another, and that more complex life forms evolved from lower life forms. But the theory is not convincing in claiming that inanimate chemicals “evolved” into even a simple single-celled life form. Neither is evolution able to explain the emergence from the primates of human person with reason, free will, and an immortal soul, created by God. And if evolution were to assert that God or souls do not exist, science could offer no proof. Science has much evidence for the evolution of one species into another, but none for the denial of God’s role in creating life, guiding its development by providence, and eventually intervening to create human life.

So in my view, most of what evolution asserts can be accepted by the faithful believer. A few points need to be rejected outright: that life itself evolved from non-living chemicals, that chance and survival of the fittest are the only guiding forces, and that human life merely evolved from lower life forms. Also, any implied denial of God, providence, and the decision of God to create humanity must be rejected.

But how do we integrate the existence of Adam and Eve into the understanding of science and evolution (with the above provisions)? My approach is to consider the number of generations and the ages of each person (hundreds of years) in the Book of Genesis (chapters 1 to 11) to be figurative. So Scripture is not telling us how many generations intervened from Adam and Eve to Noah to Abraham. After Abraham, the ages of each person become mostly literal (but perhaps also approximations) and the number of generations does fit with the historical evidence. But the interpretation of Genesis 1 to 11 as mainly figurative allows us to place Adam and Eve further back than the 5000 years or so that a literalistic interpretation would require.

Anthropologists place the beginning of anatomically modern humans as long ago as 200 ka BP (200,000 years before the present). However, this dating is not problematic, as we are free to consider that evaluation produced the anatomically-modern human body (or close to it). What we seek is the starting date for behaviorally-modern human persons. I argue that modern human behavior: language, culture, civilization, etc. is indicative of reason and free will, which then indicates an immortal soul.

Anthropologists distinguish between anatomically modern humans, with modern or nearly-modern bodies, and the emergence of modern human behavior. Anthropologists date the arrival of humans with modern behavior in Europe as early as 44 ka BP, in Southeast Asia by 46 ka BP, and in Africa by 50 ka or as long ago as 70 ka BP.

So if we place the beginning of Adam and Eve, on earth after the fall from grace, anywhere from 70 to 50 ka (thousand years ago), there is no conflict with the scientific evidence, nor with an interpretation of Scripture that considers Genesis 1 to 11 to have many figurative elements alongside literal elements, in order to present historical truths that are pertinent to the plan of salvation.

But if we present the starting point for the human race as one man and one woman, is there support or contradiction from science? There is much support. Science traces the ancestry of all human persons to the same point of origin, when looking at the Y-chromosome, which is passed on only from father to son, and when looking at the mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on only from mother to child. The anthropological evidence also supports one geological point of origin, in northeastern Africa, the so-called “out of Africa” theory. The most ancient evidence of behaviorally-modern humans is found in Africa, then subsequently in Europe and Asia. One can trace the spread of humanity from Africa to the whole world by dating the most ancient sites for modern human behavior.

Is it problematic that the human race would begin with such a small number of individuals, from two persons, to an extended family, to a relatively small tribe (as we might call it)? Not at all. Anthropologists estimate the total number of behaviorally-modern humans, prior to the spread from Africa, at only ten thousand or so individuals. It would not take many generations for humanity to grow from two individuals, Adam and Eve, to 10,000 or more.

Assuming an average number of children who survive and reproduce of 4, the number of persons in each generation doubles. This number is in addition to those individuals from previous generations that are still alive (parents, grandparents). Is four children who survive to adulthood too large a number? In some modern developed nations, the number has fallen below two; populations are in decline. But given a need to reproduce so that the human race would survive (and the absence of contraception and abortion), a family might easily have more than 4 children who survive to adulthood. Jacob (Israel) had 12 sons along with a number of daughters, who survived to adulthood. So an estimated average of 4 is a conservative low figure.

Now, if we consider only the number in each successive generation, 10 generations are needed to go from 2 to over 1,000 individuals. In 15 generations, there would be over 32,000 individuals (plus the members of the previous generations that are still alive at any point in time). And in 20 generations, there would be over one million individuals in that 20th generation.

The span of time needed for 20 generations, counting each generation as beginning with birth and ending with the birth of the first child, is only about 20 years. Human persons married and had children at younger ages than in the modern age. Ten generations is only about 200 years and twenty generations is only about 400 years. Anthropology and archaeology cannot determine the number of individuals (behaviorally-modern humans) in each generation. They can only make an estimate within a range of a few thousand years. (This point is proven by the range of years given for behaviorally-modern humans, 70 to 50 ka, a span of 10,000 years.) So there is no scientific evidence contradicting the idea of faith that humanity began with Adam and Eve, and all modern human persons are descendants of those two persons.

There is a controversy among anthropologists as to whether behaviorally-modern humans represented a “great leap forward” or a “continuity” that slowly developed from anatomically-modern humans. The faithful Catholic must hold to some version of the “great leap forward” theory, at least in the form of the creation of the human soul, with free will and reason, by God. This feature of human persons places our species far above the lower animals. It is, philosophically and theologically, a great leap forward.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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14 Responses to Adam and Eve versus Evolution

  1. linda hart says:

    I partly agree with your synopsis but would like to add my thoughts… Often thought the garden of Eden and Adam and Eve were the forerunners of the Hebrew people. The first portion of Genesis was general creation with “men and women” to be fruitful and multiply and creatures after their “own kind”. A book I read once(don’t remember title) claimed there were 7 “eves” as per mitochrondial research(think..7 continents 7 candles on menorah? if I remember correctly). Seems the only DNA to be passed on from the male and female is each ones mitochrondial portion! I think Adam and Eve were created to steward the garden of Eden, and be separate from the world. Eve could still be the Mother of all the living, especially after the flood.. That would explain Cain being worried about other people who may kill him(, think he carried the sign of the cross as protection from that?) and he would be able to find a wife. I don’t necessarily believe that a plant turned into an animal, or one type of animal “evolved into another”. But rather think evolution happened within species ie various birds evolved into other types of birds etc as creatures moved to various parts of land and became separate from one another which allowed certain traits to develop. Otherwise how would”science” have been able to group various animals into a “family” ? Anyway only our Lord knows, we only have bits and pieces at this time. If God wanted to establish evolution of some species I’m sure he could do it. BTW also thought it interesting that Adam would have lived almost until the flood so Noah’s father (I think) would have had direct knowledge of Adam! If the account taken literally! (sorry so long)

    • Ron Conte says:

      It is dogma that we are all descendants of Adam and Eve, per the Council of Trent.

      I think that the mitochondrial Eve evidence points to only one Eve.

      In any case, we are obliged by faith to hold that God intervened in the case of the creation of the human race. We are not the result of mere chance or the survival of the fittest. And evolution cannot create an immortal soul.

  2. Mike Fink says:

    Nice piece! Thanks Ron

  3. John Doe says:

    Could angels, carrying out God’s will, have played a role in shaping our evolution as a species ?

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Providence of God surely shaped the path of evolution, especially the evolution of the primate species which eventually resulted in the anatomically-modern human body. And angels are involved in the working of God’s Providence.

      However, I would not count any species prior to Adam and Eve, prior to behaviorally-modern humans, as being truly the human species. And once the human race had its beginning, I think evolution ceases to apply.

  4. John Platts says:

    I do believe that humans could not have spontaneously evolved from animals because the genetic material of animals does not naturally mutate in the manner required to acquire the traits that set human beings apart from animals. Adam and Eve must have been created by God because Adam and Eve did not spontaneously evolve from animals and because their creation is revealed in Sacred Scripture. Evolution within the human race has certainly taken place since the creation of Adam and Eve, and human genetic material will continue to evolve over time.

  5. Michael says:

    Wonderful article Ron. I always enjoy reading your work. If I may ask a question for my further clarification. Based on my understanding of your theory, God created Adam and Eve as the first anatomically modern humans with modern human behavior which we decend from and in which we all have an immortal soul. Does this effectively mean that Denisovans and Neanderthals would not have had an immortal soul?

    • Ron Conte says:

      We are in the realm of speculation here. But I would say that Denisovans and Neanderthals were not behaviorally-modern humans, but only anatomically-modern humans. So this would indicate that they did not have immortal souls (reason and free will).

  6. Mike Fink says:

    Is it possible that some anatomically-modern humans (not related to Adam and Eve) existed at the same time as Adam and Eve or even generations later? This would be a strange world I would think, coexistence between rational humans and non-rational humans.

    • Ron Conte says:

      This topic is very speculative. But I suppose that behaviorally-modern humans arose from Adam and Eve, and the prior anatomically-modern humans arose only from evolution. The latter did not have free will, reason, and an immortal soul. And the evidence from anthropology is clear that there was an overlap. As you put it, rational and non-rational humans (I would say pre-rational or even pre-human) coexisted. They may have interbred to a limited extent.

  7. Trevor says:

    Hi Ron Conte, Thanks for this article. I have been speculating on this exact topic for a number of weeks/months now. I agree with your theory on how evolution and Genesis can be put together but a further thing that concerns me is the nature of original innocence versus original sin in an evolutionary world. I can rationalise that an original state of innocence was possible ie. the first behaviourally-modern humans would have logically had a period of time before their first sin, whatever that period may have been like. I can even rationalise that original innocence that meant a deep connection with God would have been paradise, even in an evolutionary context, and that the effects of the fall would by its nature increase our burdens, as trials are greater without God, even in our current state. But how do we counteract the modern view of our current state “as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure” (from the CCC) which may be caused by our evolutionary path? Again, the Catechism states that “man was destined to be fully “divinized” by God in glory”. What does this mean in an evolutionary framework? Does it mean that if Adam and Eve were to maintain their original innocence, they would still have been subject to physical death (as the nature of things in an evolutionary world would dictate – everything dies) but not spiritual death? Would Adam have ascended to heaven like Jesus? with or without physical death? It seems to me that the question of the original innocence/original sin axis in an evolutionary framework is an important point to develop if we are to voice an opposition to the modern belief that we are just part of a continuous evolutionary path and sinful behaviour is just part of that, and our species never had an state of original innocence as described in the Bible.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Adam and Eve were created miraculously by God in Paradise, not on earth. They had original innocence and were not subject to death. If they did not fall from grace, they would not have died. It is difficult to say what their path to heaven would have been like if they did not fall.

      My view is that God used the pattern of the human body developed by evolution under His providence when he miraculously made Adam and Eve. They were the first two behaviorally-modern humans. Original innocence is a result of God miraculously creating Adam and Eve, with sanctifying grace and without fallen bodies. The rest of Creation was fallen (due to the fall of some of the angels long ago), which is why Adam and Eve had to be created in Paradise, not on earth.

  8. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the reply Ron. Do you not think that Paradise may possibly be something like an extra dimension of life, rather than a separate place ie. an extra dimension where we are not separated from God like we are now. To my mind, the difference between Paradise and earth may be like the scene in “The Last Battle” by CS Lewis where the children were trying to convince the dwarves they were in “Paradise” and not the dark stable on the hill, and Aslan showed them what he “can and can’t do” for the dwarves:

    Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said “Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.” But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarrelling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said:

    “Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

    To me, Paradise might be an existence on earth with a heavenly vision and in original sin, we lost that vision and lost our sight of God. We only see the inner layer of the onion and not the extra Heavenly dimension outside of it, and maybe unfallen man could freely proceed to these other layers, like the children in this book move into deeper and deeper realties of Narnia. I don’t know this is pure speculation based partly on CS Lewis’s view in this book.

    I doesn’t seem to me the way God works to take a template from here to somewhere else and then mankind falls back here through original sin. It makes more sense to me that mankind evolved here and Adam and Eve were created here as part of this creation; their human souls were miraculously created as the first human souls and their consciousness and connection to God was greater than even the greatest saints, but they lost this vision with original sin. Does this make sense without going against Catholic teaching.

    • Ron Conte says:

      No, I don’t think the theological position you describe is compatible with Catholic teaching. The Paradise of Adam and Eve has always been presented as a separate place. Also, Adam and Eve certainly did not have the Beatific Vision of God, or they could not have fallen into sin.

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