Adam's Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins (Medicine, Science, and Religion in Historical Context)
David N. Livingstone
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008
320 pp., 37.00
by Michael Ruse
In the Land of Nod
And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch.
—Gen. 4:16-17 (KJV)
Aye, there's the rub! What about this land of Nod? Who are the Noddites—or should they be called Noddians? And what about Mrs. Cain? Where did she come from? And who was it living in the city named after Enoch? We have just had Adam and Eve, kicked out of Eden, with two sons, Cain and Abel—more to come shortly, it is true, but hardly populating the earth. And certainly not supplying wives to the sons—if they did, would this not be incest? It was questions like this that kick-started discussions of Adam and the possibility that he was not the only man around at the beginning—that indeed he might not have been the man at all around at the beginning and that there might have been pre-adamites—Adam's Ancestors, as historian David Livingstone calls his fascinating and important new book on the topic.
The mark of the true scholar, the really inventive one, is that he or she shows us that there are problems and issues worth discussing that we simply did not know about or even speculate about. I confess that in over thirty years of researching and writing about evolution and science and religion and that sort of thing, I just had not thought about Adam and Eve and the problem of early humans—as were increasingly revealed in the fossil record, as are pressed upon us as we survey the different races of humans around us today, and above all as we try to fit this with the sacred text. Livingstone shows how much I was missing and goes a long way, in what will surely be the definitive treatment, to fill the gaps in my knowledge.
Basically his story runs from about the time of the Scientific Revolution in the 16th century down to the present, with the real climax coming at the end of the 19th century and aftershocks in the years subsequent. The story starts with the prominence that is given to the Bible by the Reformation and the spread of this work in accessible forms, combined with such challenging phenomena as the fairly recently discovered peoples of the Americas. Were they descendents of Adam or did they have another origin? Bound up with this of course were issues like original sin—surely the savages were fallen and in need of God's grace, but if so then did they have their own Eden or were they at one with us? Did they slip across via Greenland?
These sorts of issues were taken up by the most important figure in the whole story, Isaac La Peyrère, a French Calvinist of Portuguese Jewish origins, who was captured by the Catholics and taken to Rome, where he repented of his heresies and was received into the True Church, after having had friendly chats with the pope. His Prae-Adamitae (Men before Adam) was the scandal of the age—banned by Cardinal Richelieu, to whom it was dedicated, but nesting in the library of that other difficult Jew of Portuguese origins, Baruch Spinoza, it naturally sold like hot cakes. Arguing that Adam was not the first man, the work was a curious mishmash of biblical exegesis and empirical speculation about races and biology (as we would now call it) and geography. (As much a geographer as a historian, Livingstone is good on this.) Prae-Adamitae was one of those works—Robert Chambers' evolutionary tract Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published fifteen years before Darwin's Origin of Species, comes to mind as another example—which seem to have been important not just for what they said but for how they stimulated people to think, including those in opposition. After La Peyrère, it was no longer quite that daring to suggest that the sacred text is always literally true or that the earth is quite as young as the genealogies suggest, or that Adam was unique. And if Adam was not first or unique, then are all humans nevertheless still descended from one group (monogenism) or (as La Peyrère rather thought) are we from different groups (polygenism)?
In the Enlightenment, it was those canny folks north of the British Border, the Scots, who immersed themselves in these sorts of discussions. By now, explorers were starting to bring back strange, quasi-human-like creatures from elsewhere in the world (orang-utangs), and the discussion was beginning to get linked to the great issue of American slavery. Are the Negroes at one with the rest of us, or are they another breed? We are starting to get well into all of those discussions about the sons of Noah and whether the blacks are the offspring of the sinful Ham. It is worth noting that not everyone wanted to take this route, some preferring proto-scientific speculations about the effects of the sun on the skin and thus the natural causes of negro-coloration.
Expectedly, the 19th century phase of the story is the richest part of Livingstone's book. Roughly there are three parts (in three corresponding chapters). The first takes up anthropological or ethnological questions. Looking at this conversation from the distance of a century and a half, we find it an odd mélange of forward-looking and backward-looking (as we would judge). Here, for example, is serious and productive discussion about the origins and history of language—something of great interest to the British particularly, who now ruled the Indian subcontinent and who were fascinated by the languages of that land and how they might relate to the languages of Europe. Then one will be plunged into discussions that would make modern-day Creation scientists cringe. (Actually nothing would make them cringe, but you know what I mean.)
The coming of evolution (the next chapter) was obviously a key event in this history. People like Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley were right out of this discussion. Although for many years Darwin was a deist rather than an agnostic or atheist, he never would have thought it proper to worry about the coordination of science with the Bible. But many did, particularly in America. Consider Alexander Winchell, a prominent American geologist and deeply committed Methodist layman. Author of Adamites and Preadamites, it was Winchell who became the first great evolutionary martyr when he was invited to teach at Vanderbilt University and then promptly fired for his beliefs. The story is told well. For me, the key fact is not that the religion-haters of the late 19th century took up Winchell's case with glee, making him into a kind of latter-day Galileo, but that—as Livingstone makes clear—we are now at the point where serious religious thinkers are welcoming science and its dimensions rather than playing a kind of defensive catch-up game. For Winchell, pre-adamites are not something that—gulp—we had better swallow. They were rather an idea that he found enriched and deepened his faith and his understanding of God's ways. I hope we will hear more about this man.
So we come to the final part of the 19th-century story—what I can only describe as the rather grubby part. Thanks to scholars like Mark Noll (in America's God), we now know how deeply the racism of 19th-century America was connected with and supported by biblical literalism—especially the ways in which the Bible was used to justify slavery. (The Sermon on the Mount hardly justifies slavery, so it is not the case that one has to reject the Bible to fight against the vile practice, but many passages of the Bible taken literally seem to support it.) The whole pre-adamite issue gets bound right up in this. What I find fascinating, although perhaps I should not find it that surprising, is the extent to which supposed literalists could nevertheless appropriate ideas which seem to me to have no basis in Scripture to justify their beliefs. My jaw simply dropped to the floor when I read about the chap who thought that the story of Eve and the serpent was really about Eve having a bit on the side in Eden with the Negro gardener. Talk about showing your subconscious personal fears and projecting them onto others! It would be funny, if such ideas hadn't exercised such potent influence, keeping blacks down and scorning any kind of relationship (especially sexual) between the races.
Finally, we come down to the 20th century. By now the pre-adamite thinking of Sir Ambrose Fleming—fellow of the Royal Society, president of the Victorian Institute, for 41 years professor of electrical engineering at University College London, and first president of the Evolution Protest movement—seems pretty tame. So let me turn from exposition first with a quick query. Did Greek thought—Plato and Aristotle—have no real role in this story? David Sedley's fascinating recent book Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity spurs me to ask if the ancients had any influence. After all, people in the period being covered did know Latin and Greek and read the classics. What about Plato and Atlantis, for instance?
And second, a not-so-quick query. What does it all mean? In particular, what does it all mean to us? There are two ways in which you can ask this question. First, what does it mean for a rather secular person like me? I know what Richard Dawkins or Dan Dennett would say. They would say that Livingstone's narrative shows the triumph of science over religion, meaning by the latter gross superstition and rank nonsense. I don't want to say this, because often it seems to me that the science in this story was not much more objective than the religion. On a lot of these matters I am not sure that it is a lot more objective today. My neighbors down here in the American South may be getting over the idea that blacks are inferior—or so they say—but to a person I bet that they all think that the Chinese are brighter than we. Is this based on much more fact that some of the speculations that Livingstone details?
I don't want to exaggerate this point. Really and truly I guess I do want to say that we see the rise of knowledge and that we understand a lot more about human origins than we did four hundred years ago. But whether the topic of pre-adamites turns us on or off today, I suspect that a book written a hundred years from now might show that we, at the beginning of the 21st century, are as much influenced by cultural and other factors as the actors in David Livingstone's story.
Second, what does it mean to the Christian? Of course, the answer to this rather depends on what you mean by Christian. I doubt that the Quakers, to which group I used to belong, are going to be much bothered by what the paleoanthropologists turn up. Suppose that the hobbit, Homo floresiensis, the little being from an Indonesian island recently discovered and thought to be about fifteen thousand or so years old, turns out to be fully genuine and a branch of the hominid line although distant from us. I don't think that members of the Religious Society of Friends are going to lose sleep over whether this means that the doctrine of original sin no longer holds or whatever.
I suspect, however, that other more central Christians are going to have ongoing queries, even if they fully accept evolution and hence pre-adamite men and women. Certainly Catholics believe that souls are created anew each time, and my suspicion is that many of them believe too in an original Adam and Eve—or perhaps a group—who started off the line and who sinned in some real way. And going all the way, what about evangelicals? Livingstone does have some comments at the end of the book suggesting to me that there might be some tough and tense discussions. I am not now talking about the evangelicals who are creationists but about those who accept evolution and yet for whom the Fall is an absolutely crucial part of the story, making sense of the need for the Incarnation and the Atonement. You can only go so far in making a metaphor of this. Again, even if you take a kind of Catholic position on regular humans, what about the hobbit? If it turns out to be genuine—and I think it is—where does that fit into the story?
Dawkins and Dennett and company would take this kind of problem as a refutation of Christianity. I see it as a challenge, one worthy of beings made in the image of God. For that reason, I really recommend David Livingstone's book. It informs and leaves you with more questions than when you started. What more could one ask of scholarship?
Michael Ruse is Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. He is the author most recently of Charles Darwin (Blackwell).
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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