Sunday, November 27, 2016

Can Catholics Subscribe to Polygenism in Evolutionary Theory?

Earlier in the week, I had gotten on the tangent of evolutionary theory, and the subject of our first parents came up. Are we actually descended from a literal Adam and Eve, two parents? Or is it possible that there was a "pool" of early humans where our species originated from? I found some great sources of information here, especially these articles written by Dr. Dennis Bonnette. Mongenism is defined as the theory that there are "two sole founders of humanity". Adam and Eve are historical figures. Polygenism is defined as "a theory of human origins positing that the human race descended from a pool of early human couples, indeterminate in number. Hence, this theory, Adam and Eve are merely symbols of Mankind. Rather than being an historical couple, they represent the human race as it emerges from the hominids that gave rise to them as they become homo sapiens, properly speaking."

Pope Pius XII also rejected polygenism in his 1950 encyclical "Humani generis", but some Catholics have held that a form of polygenism could still be considered reconcilable with the faith, for instance, author Michael Flynn, who I'll mention again in a bit. So who's right? Luckily, scientist and catholic convert Dr. Stacy Trasancos recently came out with a book entitled "Particles of Faith: A Cathoic Guide to Navigating Science", which includes a section on this very subject.
The Rebuke of Adam and Eve- Domenico Zampieri
Even luckier for me, I was able to interact directly with Dr. Trasancos on Facebook, via a post from renowned Catholic blogger Leila Miller recently. I'll post our short exchange below as it really helped make sense of stuff for me:

Leila: My 12-year-old was asking good questions about Adam and Eve, and science and faith, and I'm so excited to have been able to get him a copy of [Particles of Faith]! Thank you, Stacy Trasancos, for writing it!

Stacy: That makes me feel so good. When JJ is older, I'm giving him your book!

Nicholas:  I have this on my Christmas list now, thanks for reminding me about this! It's timely, because I've been looking more into polygenism and monogenism in recent days, and it's a subject I need to immerse myself in more. I see some Catholics saying a form of polygenism IS reconcilable with Church teaching (

and others say polygneism is not reconcilable. ( and Is that discussed at all in the book? Even if it's not there seems to be plenty of good stuff in here that both me and my wife can get a lot out of reading it.

Or since I see Stacy has commented here, maybe she wouldn't mind giving her take on the correct way we should understand our first parents in light of Church teaching? Thanks!

Leila: Nick LaBanca, Stacy does address it!

Nicholas: Awesome! I'll have to read it soon then

Stacy: Hi Nick, I was just reading through those three articles. I am familiar with both men's positions, but checked anyway...

Okay, I don't make as much of mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosome Adam as Flynn does, and (he would rightly ask me to defend this I guess). I find his ideas too speculative for my taste. Yes science points to a bottleneck and yes it seems intelligence arose in a "human" population, but the bottom line is this: Evolution deals with thousands of years and populations. It will never find a single first man and woman. It simply cannot. It's like expecting a bulldozer to find the first two grains of sand on a beach. Wrong tool, and we don't think of beaches forming scientifically in pairs of sand grains. That in no way rules out a miraculous creation by God though, which brings us to Dr. Bonnette...

I've corresponded with him and we are pretty much in agreement. However, I do not maintain that a literal Adam and Eve remains scientifically credible. It may. It may not. *Rationally* I maintain that they existed, but I hold that in faith because I know science can't find them anyway. We will always have to hold their existence in faith, just as we will always have to hold that there was a beginning in time in faith. Some things science simply cannot prove. That's no news to a chemist. I worked with electrons knowing I could never find the exact location of a pair of them either.

And now I'm going back to playing Sky Crew! :-D I hope that made sense. I am typing fast.

Nicholas: That does make a lot of sense, actually! Thank you for taking the time to answer, Stacy, it's much appreciated. I like how you compare the issue to the beginning of time; that framed it well for me. I look forward to reading your book in the near future, thanks for your great work!

A quick addendum to this article, there was an interview Dr. Trasancos gave that reflects a bit more on this topic. It says with some different words what she told me in our short exchange. That selection from the interview is below:
Trasancos: A true respect for science demands a respect for its limits. Any evolutionary scientist will tell you that what is known is far, far less than what is not known. It is a fact that evolution occurs, and evolutionary theory is robust, but there is still much to discover. I grew up learning about evolution, so I was already comfortable with the idea that humans evolved from nonhumans, and ultimately atoms, before I converted. Working as a scientist engrained in my mind that science is always provisional and incomplete. I came to faith doing cartwheels because I finally understood why we even care about science and origins, and it was frustrating to meet Christians who then asked me to toss out the science books and accept their scientific and theological opinions. It came across like those people had unadmitted doubts, and they needed to coerce me to agree with them to bolster their own faith. 
As for Adam and Eve, evolutionary biology and anthropology cannot find them. Those methods depend on comparison and dating methods based on thousands of years at a time. Nor can genetics point to a single human pair, but that does not mean that two first humans never existed by a miraculous creation. How did the first parents come to exist? We do not know. What happened in the first generations after they lived? We do not know. What other animals were roaming with them? We do not know.  And I do not see how we would ever know those answers. There is an impropriety in reducing faith to such questions. 
The story of the Fall and Original Sin could have happened in an afternoon, an interval of time completely hidden from evolutionary theory more so than the exact location of a pair of electrons is hidden from quantum theory. If you untangle evolutionary biology from the obligation to prove something it cannot, then you free yourself to both believe in the story of Adam and Eve and explore evolutionary science with patience and confidence. It all comes down to confidence. Science can deepen our knowledge and love for Christ, but a confident Christian does not need science to shore up his or her faith.

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