You are here:

Catholics/Is to believe in polygenism a sin?


QUESTION: I have a question for you. Is "believing" in the scientific fact of a polygenistic origin of the human species a sin for a Catholic?

ANSWER: It is reasonable to suppose or theorize that humanoid creatures who were not descended from Adam may well possibly have existed in prehistoric times (Neanderthals?, Nephilim?), but even by the time of Abraham all such had died out (perhaps in the time of Noah?).  That means every humanoid person alive today or in any non-prehistoric times on or from earth is physically descended from Adam, and born with the taint of the original sin he committed.  This much is doctrine and must be accepted.  This does not rule out the possibility of Adam himself having had physical ancestors of some humanoid sort who, unlike Adam himself, had not quite passed whatever threshold of qualification God sought to create in His image.
We know that Scripture states that the body of Adam (before being given God's "breath of life") was made from the dust (or dirt or clay) of the earth.  While that kind of statement conjures up pictures of Adam's body being some sort of glorified mudpie (and such a scenario cannot be ruled out, either doctrinally or scientifically), it could also have been something less direct.  For example, all of us come from the dust of earth, albeit indirectly.  The stuff of our bodies (apart from the few molecules that comprised Mr. sperm and Mrs. Egg, and even those simply came from our parents) all came from food eaten by our mothers (before we are born) or by ourselves (afterwards), which in turn all comes either from plants (and fungi) or else from animals that eat plants (or eat other animals that eat plants, etc.), and plants all grow out of the soil, the dust of the earth.  That Adam may well have been drawn from the dust of the earth in the same sense that we also all are is also a scenario which cannot be ruled out either doctrinally or scientifically, and to me personally that seems the most likely.
Now, one could validly contend that any physical ancestors of Adam (per the latter scenario) may possibly have had a polygenistic origin, that would be a question that only scientists can speak to.
One other possible scenario might be if any descendants of Adam may have intermarried in prehistoric times with any surviving humanoids not descended from Adam, but this seems a great deal less likely to me, though again it cannot be ruled out.  There are several reasons that this would be less likely.  One would be the cultural difficulties to such a union.  Even many today who might be "very enlightened" about racial equality would still feel quite uncomfortable with the prospect of their own son or daughter marrying a person of a substantially different race.  And most times have not been anywhere near as "enlightened" about these things as ours.  One well-known interpretation of the Biblical passage in Genesis chapter 6 about intermarrying between "sons of God" and "daughters of men" (and resulting (?) nephilim and "great ones" in the earth) would be that such unions did exist, but that they were divinely frowned on, such that they who so intermarried and their resulting progeny would all have been killed off in some great Judgment (the flood of Noah?).  While other interpretations of this obscure Biblical passage seem to me at least as legitimate, this one is (or has been) rather widely supported among respectable theologians, and as such must also be acknowledged as a legitimate interpretation. Finally, imagine if someone could attempt to crossbreed a Cro Magnon with a Neanderthal.  Would the union even be fertile?  And if fertile, would the progeny also be fertile, or instead perhaps more like a mule?
But all this speculation aside, the one undeniable fact is that we all descended from Adam and inherited his sin.  Only Mary descended from Adam without inheriting his sin, but that was a unique grace, the "exception" that proves the rule, and so forth.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Dear Mr. Ruby,

Thank you so much for your in depth answer.  Yes, I would like to delve a bit deeper, and have a few follow up questions to start.

I'm wondering when in history you think Adam was alive?  By your reference to his 'ancestors' I'm assuming you do not think he was created by fiat from 'dust' in a literal sense. Depending on the time frame, it seems unlikely to me that all current living humans are descendant from Adam, especially with the genetic studies regarding Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosome Adam, both of whom are thought to lave lived over 100,000 years ago. Perhaps you can expand on this for me.  

I have read papers by Catholic theologians who try to reconcile the polygenetic origins of mankind with the 'mongenetic theological' origins described in Genesis, by God infusing a fully human soul into two individuals of a population of many humans at the time, and then the sin of their subsequent disobedience being inherited by all humanity.  This also would keep the historical reality of Adam and Eve intact, instead of Genesis being a pure allegory as regards the first human couple.  What is your opinion of this theological direction?  

Where does Catholic theology stand these days in relation to the Orthodox Church on the subject of original guilt?  I know the Orthodox Church has been adamant at least since the time of Patriarch Photius and the early filioque controversy that there is no such thing as a 'sin of nature'.  in the reunion talks between the two traditions, does this point come up, as well as the difference between 'original' and 'ancestral' sin, between natural and hypostatic will, and the implications of these difference in the reconciliation process?  

Also, my initial question was asked because in a discussion group I am a member of the idea was presented that the contemporary theory of evolution, by demonstrating the polygenetic origin of humanity, not only debunks young earth creationism, but is claimed to in addition debunk Christianity as a whole, because: If there is no historical Adam and Eve that all mankind are direct descendants of, (or if the story is pure allegory) then there is no original sin, and thus no need for Christ to incarnate, and thus the raison d'etre for Christianity vanishes.  

Looking forward to your response!

thanks, Mike

Young Earth "Creationism" is what one gets when one does not read the Bible carefully.  I note that without any archeological or paleontological evidences as are known to science today, many early Church Fathers/Doctors concluded that the "days" referred to epochs of unspecified length.  That some of them would also have been chronologically overlapping with others may well have also been suspected, though I can't prove that.  The Catholic Church has never been committed to any belief (common in certain Protestant circles) that the "days" have to be consecutive 24-hour days, Young Earth and so forth.  (We learned our lesson with Galileo not to attempt to rule on questions outside the domain of Faith and Morals.)  Now, staying out of it, the Church does not endorse any scenario, Young Earth, Old Earth, or anything else, whatsoever, beyond the bare dictates of the doctrines of the Creation of Man (and Woman) and the Fall of Man itself.  And by "Creation" here no particular means is specified.  What the "lifespans" for "pre-Flood" patriarchs mean is anybody's guess, and even differ from one ancient manuscript to the next.  One prominent variant text has Methuselah dying 14 years after the Flood, if one adds up the numbers.  So there is no reason to rule out the possibility that Adam (and Eve) might well have been far more ancient than the Bible numbers suggest.  The "Mitochondrial Eve," presuming the existence of such, might very well be one and the same as the Biblical Eve, as far as I can tell.
In the creation of Eve, we must believe that she came from Adam in some sense, presumably involving some tissue taken from a rib.  One thing I've always kind of wondered is if the pairs of each DNA are identical (apart from the obviously mismatched X-Y pair for a male) or differ from each other.  In particular, are the two X chromosomes of a woman identical to each other (and to the X chromosome in a man), such that an exact female equivalent to a man could be cloned from him by removing the Y, duplicating the X, and leaving all the rest the same?  If not, then at least one or maybe both X chromosomes for Eve really would have to have been created by direct fiat of some sort.
I guess the only other question remaining would have been what would have become of the humanoid community of those from which Adam would have physically sprung (presuming the scenario we both think more likely).  Perhaps they died off in some plague or war, such that Adam alone remained, and even a suitable woman had to come from him.  Or maybe Adam found himself isolated from the rest, such that there was no access to them or to where they lived before they died out for some other, slower, reason.  One can only guess, at this point.  Or perhaps Adam passed the "threshold" but no woman did, such that he was forbidden any of the women from his own physical ancestors.
Catholic theology could never allow for the idea that Adam and Eve (and the fall) were mere allegories, no matter what some supposed "Catholic" theologians today might put forth.  It is not a matter of a "sin of nature," but a nature injured by sin, such that this injury is passed on (what exactly that would consist of, from a genetic standpoint, if anything, is anybody's guess; it could even be something more akin to inheriting poverty from a parent who squandered a family fortune).
One other idea:  I note the direct (incestual) interbreeding of brothers and sisters from among their immediate descendants in the Bible.  As we know, normally such a thing would not be good, but it is possible that the usual bad effects of doing that would have to have been "suspended" somehow, and in "suspending" that and ability to conceive "different" seeming ancestors from this mitochondrial standpoint?
Perhaps it would be useful to present what actual facts exist in the human DNA that raise these questions, since I have never been familiar with any reason to believe in multiple Adams and Eves from a mitochondrial standpoint or any other.  If you could find a reasonable way to lay that out for me that might help me address this.


All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Griff Ruby


I focus on the "why" and "how" questions of the Faith and one`s need for the Church to overcome sin, live the life God wishes us, and to become what God wants us to be. I seek to provide insight and information such that you are then able to see for yourself the answer to your questions.


Years of extensive research, thought, and prayerful meditation on many of the issues that trouble Catholics today, taught catechetical classes to teenagers and adults, answered many questions already.

Legion of Mary, Knights of Columbus

©2017 All rights reserved.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]