Contra Mark Shea on Polygenism

Msgr. Charles Pope has a useful post on the topic of Adam and Eve and evolution: Polygenism is Problematic — A Catholic Caution on another Aspect of Evolutionary Theory. He supports the idea of monogenism, i.e. the origin of humanity from one pair of human persons, Adam and Eve. He rejects the idea of polygenism as at least theologically untenable. For there is no way to reconcile the infallible teachings of the Church on original sin with polygenism. Good points.


The current state of science, specifically anthropology, on the origins of humanity is proposes a two-fold origin. Anatomically modern humans (AMH)) began about 200,000 years ago (200 ka). I know that the non-scientific mass media often speaks of human ancestors going back millions of years, but anthropology places the earliest humanoids with nearly-modern bodies only about 200 ka, and not substantially earlier. The second step in human origins, and this is still according to the science of anthropology and not my own idea, is called behaviorally modern humans (BMH) or behavioral modernity. In the most common view, that step goes back only 70 to 50 ka.

The distinction is that BMHs have the capability for abstract reasoning, which is expressed in the complexities of human language. AMHs are essentially just the highest evolutionary form of lower animals, whereas BHMs — and now I’m adding my own interpretation — have reason and therefore free will and therefore an immortal soul. So the true origins of fully human individuals, persons rather than mere animals, goes back only 70 to 50 ka (thousand years ago).

Does science suppose that BMHs began with polygenism? Yes, but there is no proof. Anthropologists place the origin of BMHs in north eastern Africa, and spreading out from there to the rest of the world. Some theories consider that the number of BMH individuals may have been at or below 10,000. But there can be no proof that the number was not 2 individuals, or that the first BMHs were many.

Suppose that at some point there were 10,000 BMHs living in Africa about 70 to 50 ka. Have all 10,000 had their skeletons preserved in some way? Do all of their dwelling places still exist? No and No. Once enough time has passed, there is no scientific evidence remaining for the vast majority of individuals of a species. This is true for dinosaurs as well as human persons. We have many fossils of dinosaurs. But what percentage of dinosaurs that lived have left any trace at all? It’s a very very low number. And the same for human persons. During the time when humanity (BMHs) numbered below 10,000 individuals or so, science cannot prove whether there were, at some time, only two or many. For the evidence of each person’s existence does not remain.

Now we come to the question of the Y-chromosome “Adam” and the mitochondrial “Eve”. The Y-chromosome is inherited unchanged (except by slow mutation over thousands of years) from the father. The mitochondrial dna is inherited similarly only from the mother. Scientists have examined dna from persons around the world, and have concluded that all human persons are descended from one male and one female, in terms of the Y-chromosome and the mitochondrial dna.

However, this conclusion does not suppose that BMHs began with one pair of human persons. Nor do the Y-chromosome “Adam” and the mitochondrial “Eve” correspond, in anyone’s view, to the Biblical Adam and Eve. The Y-chromosome “Adam” and the mitochondrial “Eve” did not live at the same time. They are simply the hypothetical two individuals whose dna is the source of the modern Y-chromosome and the modern mitochondrial dna. They may have been AMHs, or even predecessors to AMHs. For in the scientific view, BMHs get their dna from AMHs, and AMHs get their dna from earlier species of humanoids. Modern humans have dna sequences and specific genes in common with many lower animals, even non-primates. So the identification of a Y-chromosome “Adam” and a mitochondrial “Eve” does not prove monogenism or polygenism.

My View

My theological opinion is that God guided evolution to the point of developing AMHs as the highest form of animal life on earth, but without reason, free will, or an immortal soul. Evolution, guided by God but without miraculous intervention, then hits a glass ceiling. It can progress no further. Evolution cannot produce reason, free will, or an immortal soul; this higher state requires the intervention of God.

So God chose to create the garden of Eden, which is also called the Paradise of Adam and Eve. This place is discontinuous with this life, this universe. Heaven, Purgatory, Eden, and Hell are all places (in some sense), but they are not a part of this universe; they are discontinuous with the rest of Creation.

Adam and Eve were created miraculously in Eden, whether from clay and a rib literally or in some other miraculous manner. However, they certainly were not “created” by taking two AMHs and giving them an immortal soul. It is infallible doctrine that Adam and Eve, before the Fall from grace, were both unfallen in body and soul. So God did not start with a fallen animal, like an AMH, and then elevate it, by granting an immortal soul only, or by changing its animal soul. Such a proposition fails on many levels. For while the story of Adam and Eve is highly figurative, it is not meaningless or false. There is no way to reconcile the teaching of the Church on the creation of humanity by God with the idea of a simple intervention to create BMHs from two AMHs.

In my view, Adam and Eve were created miraculously and “anew”, meaning not from a pre-existing AMH or other pre-existing body. Rather, their miraculously created and entirely new bodies were patterned after the highest form of mere animal life on earth, the AMHs. But this was only a pattern, and most likely not an exact copy, so that the bodies of Adam and of Eve were not exactly like any AMH. (Anthropologists admit that the bodies of AMHs are not exactly like those of BMHs.)

Then, when Adam and Eve fell from grace, they were exiled from Eden to earth. The choice by God to pattern their bodies after the AMHs, the highest form of mere animal life, was a preparation for the Fall. God knew that they would fall, and that they would need to have bodies fit for life in the fallen earth.

Adam and Eve were the first BMHs — the first primates with reason, free will, and immortal souls. They alone, initially, had modern human behavior, including free will and abstract reasoning, expressed in language and in human family and society. All modern human persons descend from them. They initially co-existed with AMHs, but the abilities of reason and free will allowed the descendants of Adam and Eve to out-compete the mere animals with anatomically modern bodies (AMHs).

My view is speculative, but it effectively reconciles evolution and anthropology with sound Catholic theology. Faithful Catholics can accept the theory of evolution in part, with some modifications. We cannot simply turn over our faith and ability to reason and the interpretation of Sacred Scripture to modern secular science. The teachings of our Faith have something to say about science, specifically on God’s involvement in Creation and in creating human persons. Science and faith are not mutually exclusive on every point, and when they are not, Faith must take precedence.

Supporters of Polygenism

On the other side of this argument, Mark Shea’s position is theologically untenable and necessarily implies a contradiction to the teaching of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. Here is Shea’s post: Does Evolutionary Science Disprove the Faith? and his comment is as follows:

Science seems to have disproven the notion that humanity comes from a single solitary pair of humans made literally from a gob of clay and a rib, but that is something Catholic theologians have been mulling for some time now—with, I might add, complete fidelity to the Tradition. Pius XII left room for the possibility of polygenism in his discussions of human origins and Rome has made more room for it since Pius’ day.

Shea’s assertion is false. Science has not disproven the idea that humanity came from “a single solitary pair of humans”. Shea adds “literally from a gob of clay and a rib” in order to make his assertion seem more certain. But God certainly could have created Adam and Eve miraculously, whether from clay and a rib or in some other way is irrelevant. The description in Scripture of clay and a rib as the basis for the miracle could be figurative, like many of the other elements of the Adam and Eve story.

There is a common assumption among scientists that polygenism explains the origins of modern human persons. But science also assumes that God’s providence has no influence over evolution, and that God had no role in creating the Universe. A common assumption by science is not the same as a scientifically proven theory. Some points of evolution are scientifically proven. But some other points, especially those that exclude any role for God, are merely popular but unproven assumptions.

As for Shea’s assertion that polygenism is compatible with Catholic teaching, the claim is false. Shea says that all human persons may have originated from one man, and one woman, within a scheme of polygenism. But his explanation posits that the children of Adam and Eve procreated with other persons from the many progenitors of the human race, so that we would all be related to Adam and Eve, but not necessarily as our first parents. This proposition does not allow for a fall from grace by two persons, Adam and Eve. It does not allow for an inheritance of original sin by all human persons. There might be a way to suppose, in this disordered hypothesis, that all persons today have original sin because we all have Adam and Eve as among our distant ancestors. But any type of polygenism, including that of Mark Shea, supposes that either more than two persons fell from grace, or that there existed, at some time, some persons who were not descendants of Adam and Eve, and did not fall from grace.

Polygenism is excluded by Roman Catholic teaching on original sin, which all human persons, not merely the human persons who exist today, inherited from Adam and Eve by having them as our first parents.

More on the topic of science and faith, as it relates to the first 11 chapters of Genesis, is found in my book:
Noah’s Flood: Literal or Figurative?
available in print (paperback) and in Kindle format.

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

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3 Responses to Contra Mark Shea on Polygenism

  1. Francisco says:


    Your view goes along with T, S, M and it’s most likely what really happened. Of course, there might be some other details here and there which we still don’t know or haven’t found out yet, but that’s basically how our origins happened.

    It’s interesting to note that God prepared places all wisely and fittingly.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but this is what I get concerning the places God has prepared:

    Heaven for pure creatures to live truly free and happy with God which is what we were created for in the first place.

    Original Paradise for Immaculate Adam and Eve, a physical realm which was a place for testing us as well.

    Now, we humans have body and soul, so our first parents, Adam and Eve were expelled after the Fall from one Immaculate physical place, Paradise, to another physical place, but fallen – this earth (time was already in progress on this earth so dinosaurs and pre-historic creatures have already extinguished by millions or billions of years prior to that point in time when Adam and Eve came to this earth, not with their original glorious bodies as in Paradise, but reduced with fallen bodies):

    This physical earth, a temporary place for us, fallen creatures (body and soul) who still do not deserve eternal punishment by the Mercy of God.

    Purgatory, a place fitting for souls who died on earth in a state of grace but still need purification before entering Heaven (only souls dwell here, our bodies remain in this earth until Judgment Day).

    (Now Limbo, or Limbo of the Fathers may very well be an upper state of Purgatory for the fathers who died prior Christ coming to this earth but it is/was not a place of suffering or punishment – rather a place of expectation of the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. Adam and Eve may have well have been here before entering Heaven).

    Hell for fallen angels and fallen humans.

    At the return of Christ in Glory, our bodies and souls will be united again for our final destinations, either the New Heaven and the New Earth (fitting for glorified bodies), or Hell.

  2. Francisco says:

    Also, I wanted to add that the reason why our Patriarchs and fathers of the OT could not go directly to Heaven but had to be in Limbo of the Father’s first (well can be an upper state of Purgatory), because they died at a time when the Messiah had not founded His Church yet. The only way to go from this earth to Heaven *directly* is thru His Catholic Church, this is the reason She was founded.

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