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The Catholic University of America


According to traditional theological narratives, every human living today descends from the same human couple. The genetic evidence does not challenge this view. Traditional theological narratives also claim, however, that every human living today descends from the same human couple and only that same human couple. The genetic evidence not only challenges this view; it makes it completely unsustainable. It demonstrates that our ancestral lineage cannot have passed through the bottleneck of a single reproducing pair. It also indicates that the first humans emerged in the context of a sizeable population, generally estimated around 10,000 successfully reproducing individuals. As yet, the decisiveness of the genetic evidence is not widely appreciated among theologians. While many theologians, perhaps the majority, assume that (probably or certainly) we do not descend exclusively from a single human couple, they are often unaware that genetic evidence now available supports this view with near mathematical certainty. Meanwhile, other theolo- gians continue to see traditional theological narratives of human origins as scientifically and theologically viable. They recognize that evidence from anthropology and evolutionary science strongly challenges traditional theological narratives of human origins, but they are not con- vinced that the evidence proves that we could not have descended from the same human couple and only that same couple. These theologians may not necessarily be committed to upholding traditional theological narratives of human origins, but they find it difficult to make sense of Christian convictions about original sin and the purpose of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice without appealing to them. The genetic evidence now at our disposal, however, definitively settles the question. It dem- onstrates that we could not have descended exclusively from a single human couple. Consequently, it has great potential for advancing the theological conversation about human ori- gins. The genetic evidence may create significant difficulties for contemporary appropriations of the doctrine of original sin, or rather make those difficulties unavoidable, but it also provides the basis for a new theological consensus and a sturdy foundation for further theological inquiry. This article will briefly outline the genetic evidence and explain why it settles important questions about human origins. Then it will consider the two principal options for incorporating the scientific data into theological narratives of human origins. Afterwards, it will turn to scrip- ture passages and magisterial teachings relevant to human origins and argue that they cannot be interpreted as definitively favoring one option over the other. Finally, it will relate these conclu- sions to other areas of theological inquiry, particularly the doctrine of original sin.




Evidence from the genomes of humans and other primates indicate that the first humans emerged as a sizeable group, not as a single human couple. 1 The evidence is simple and persuasive. We share common ancestry with chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. Orangutans were the first to branch off from our genetic lineage (around 12–16 million years ago), followed by gorillas (around 10 million years ago) and then chimpanzees (around 6 million years ago). 2 Consequently, we are most closely related to chimpanzees, then gorillas, and then finally orangutans. Yet it does not follow that we are genetically closer to chimpanzees in every respect. In many instances, human genetic lineages are closer to those of gorillas or orangutans. This fact has important demographic implica- tions. When humans split from chimpanzees, the population of our common ancestors must have been large enough to accommodate a wide range of genetic variation. Otherwise, these genetic lineages—the ones that we have in common with gorillas and orangutans but not chimpanzees—would not have survived. Furthermore, and more importantly for our purposes, some genes have multiple varia- tions that originated before the split between humans and chimpanzees. For millions of years, these variations have been passed down from generation to generation. Since any given individual can carry at most two variations of any given gene (one per chromo- some), the fact that multiple variations of the same gene trace so far back means that our ancestral population could never have passed through an extreme bottleneck of a sin- gle reproducing pair. This conclusion can be difficult to grasp in the abstract. It is helpful to turn to concrete exam- ples. For the DQB1 gene, twelve genetic lineages trace back to the time when humans split from chimpanzees, around 6 million years ago. (Eight of these twelve lineages go back even fur- ther to 15 million years ago.) Yet any human can only possess two genetic variations at maxi- mum, one on each chromosome. Therefore, over the past 6 million years, our ancestors could never have numbered fewer than six individuals. That is the absolute logical minimum. In actual fact, the population necessary to transmit these variations over millions of years would have been much higher. 3 Theoretically, these DQB1 lineages could have died out after our split from chimpanzees, and then developed again independently, with a completely different historical origin. Statistically, however, it is inconceivable. It would also require an abnormally high rate of genetic mutation between generations. These conclusions follow from studying merely a sin- gle gene. We can draw similar conclusions from studying other human genes separately or together. 4 There is another reason to conclude that our genetic lineage could never have passed through the bottleneck of a single reproducing pair. Simply by comparing genetic variations found among humans today, based on what we know about typical rates for genetic mutation and typi- cal years between generations, we can estimate the average population size of our ancestors over the course of the millennia. We do not need to compare our genome to the genomes of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. Using one or both of these two methods, scientists have consistently estimated that our ancestors maintained an effective population on the order of 10,000. 5 Effective pop- ulation counts only reproducing individuals; actual census size is considerably greater. The census population is generally estimated to be about three times larger than the effective population. 6 Consequently, ever since our genetic lineage diverged from that of chimpanzees, we have never had fewer than thousands of simultaneously existing ancestors. 7



From a theological point of view, the genetic evidence gives us certainty about the minimum population size of our ancestors, but it does not give us certainty about the minimum population size of the first humans. That question gets into the issue of when hominids first came to possess immortal souls, and empirical science cannot detect immortal souls. Granted, certain genetic traits (e.g., those necessary for advanced cognitive and linguistic functioning) might be plausibly correlated with the presence of immortal souls. Such correlations, however, cannot be demon- strated by empirical science. They require methodologies proper to philosophy and theology. Consequently, while the genetic evidence provides us with important information about the min- imum population size of our ancestors, it cannot, of itself, provide a theological narrative of human origins, or even a philosophical narrative of human origins. Before proposing theological narratives consistent with the genetic evidence, we need to clar- ify exactly how the first humans differed from their immediate nonhuman ancestors. Theologically, the most certain difference is that the bodies of the first humans were informed by immortal souls while the bodies of their immediate ancestors were not. But are there any other ways in which the first humans necessarily differed from their immediate ancestors? According to Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Vienne, ‘the soul is the form of the body.’ 8 If we agree, and if we also hold that the human body is intrinsically oriented toward the human soul and vice versa, it follows that the bodies of the first humans must have been different from the bodies of their nonhuman ancestors. The bodies of the first humans could not have been identical to the bodies of their immediate ancestors. There must have been something about their bodies fitted to their souls. And if there was something about their bodies fitted to their souls, there must have been something new and different about their genetic traits. If we accept this conclusion—if we accept the idea that the human body and the human soul are intrinsically fit- ted to each other, and that this intrinsic orientation implies that human bodies are different from all nonhuman bodies—then we must also conclude that the genomes of the first humans were different from the genomes of their immediate ancestors. Broadly speaking, there are two theological narratives consistent with the genetic evidence and the inference that the genomes of the first humans must have differed from the genomes of their immediate ancestors. In the first narrative, human history begins with one or two humans. They or their descend- ents interbreed with a large population of nonhumans. The resulting offspring (or at least some of the resulting offspring) are also human, i.e., hominids with immortal souls. Eventually the nonhumans die out and only humans remain. Over time, an effective population of 10,000 non- humans with one or two human anomalies gradually becomes an effective population of 10,000 humans without any nonhuman anomalies. 9 In the second narrative, the first humans emerge from multiple communities of nonhuman hominids. It happens in this way. At a certain point, our nonhuman ancestors are on the verge of attaining the last genetic traits necessary for ensoulment. Gradually, community by community (stable hunter-gatherer communities typically consist of 500–1000 individuals), 10 they over- come the final evolutionary hurdles. Each community transitions from nonhuman to human sep- arately and independently. Eventually, however, the different communities mingle and interbreed. In this way, an effective population of 10,000 nonhumans gradually becomes an effective population of 10,000 humans. For each narrative, there are two ways to explain how the first humans came to acquire the genetic traits necessary for ensoulment. They can acquire these genetic traits by purely natural processes, or by a combination of natural processes and divine intervention.



According to the purely natural explanation, the necessary genetic traits appear through natu- ral processes alone, that is, through the normal mechanisms of the evolutionary process. Since new genetic traits do not usually appear in more than one individual in the same place at the same time, the genetic traits necessary for ensoulment probably appear in a single individual and then spread by reproduction. (It is theoretically possible that the genetic traits could have appeared in two or more individuals at the same time by purely natural processes. Statistically, however, such an occurrence would have been extremely improbable.) The purely natural expla- nation plays out differently in the first and second narratives. In the first narrative, the genetic traits develop in a single individual and then spread throughout the entire population. In the sec- ond narrative, individuals within multiple communities acquire the genetic traits completely independently of each other. The genetic traits spread first within their communities and then eventually throughout the entire population. According to the interventionist explanation, God guides the evolutionary process so that the first humans appear in pairs. The final genetic obstacles to ensoulment are not overcome by nat- ural processes alone. To allow the first humans to reproduce with other humans, God ensures that the necessary genetic traits appear simultaneously in two or more individuals. In this sce- nario, God does not suspend the evolutionary process, miraculously creating humans from the preexisting matter of nonhuman hominids. He simply ensures that natural genetic mutations happen at just the right time in just the right way. The interventionist explanation plays out in similar ways in each of the two narratives. In the first narrative, God intervenes so that a male and a female with the genetic traits necessary for ensoulment are born in the same geographic region at approximately the same time. Sooner or later, their offspring interbreed with nonhumans. As the genetic heritage of the first man and the first woman spreads, the hominid population gradually becomes human. In the second narrative, God intervenes in a more dramatic fashion. Instead of intervening to ensure the emergence of a single human couple, God intervenes on a massive scale. God intervenes so that the necessary genetic traits appear in a short span of time throughout an effective population of 10,000 homi- nids. From the first moment that humans appear on the earth, they are surrounded by numerous other humans. Consequently, human and nonhuman interbreeding never takes place to any sig- nificant degree, at least not at the beginning. Later there may be some interbreeding with nonhu- man hominids, but if so, it happens only after the appearance of a stable human population, and it plays a minimal role in shaping our genetic heritage. 11


The first narrative has its advantages. New genetic traits generally start with one individual and then spread by reproduction. Consequently, by tracing the earliest human populations to one or two reproducing individuals, the first narrative fits neatly with the basic principles of evolution. Moreover, the first narrative harmonizes better with traditional theological accounts of human origins. It also allows for two interesting possibilities with symbolic and theological signifi- cance. If the first human appeared alone, and if that first human was male, then the first human female might well have been his daughter. Such a story of human origins would make the actual history of humanity correspond in an interesting way to the biblical story of God creating Eve from Adam’s side (Gen 2:21–23), and it would frame the Incarnation of the New Adam in the womb of the New Eve as a reversal and Irenaean recapitulation of human origins. This story of human origins would also enhance patristic exegesis of John 19:31–37. It would give additional reason to interpret the blood and water flowing from Christ’s side on the cross as symbolically


teaching that the Church, the bride of Christ, comes out of Christ’s pierced side just as Eve, the bride of Adam, came out of Adam’s pierced side. Alternatively, if the first human appeared alone, but that first human were female and the first human male were her son, it would allow for the Incarnation to represent a recapitulation without reversal of human origins. The second narrative has its own advantages. Its advantages depend on whether it is com- bined with a natural or interventionist explanation for the emergence of the first humans. Combined with a natural explanation, the second narrative shares the same coherence as the first narrative with the basic principles of evolution. New genetic traits generally start with one indi- vidual and then spread by reproduction. Sometimes, however, when a particular population is on the verge of evolutionary process, new genetic traits appear in multiple individuals independ- ently. Consequently, by tracing the earliest human populations to single individuals in multiple communities, the second narrative likewise fits neatly with the basic principles of evolution. Combined with an interventionist explanation, the second narrative can avoid suggesting that God built interbreeding into his plan of creation. There is something prima facie unsavory about the idea of interbreeding between humans and nonhumans. Yet unless we hold that God inter- vened to make this interbreeding unnecessary, we must posit that it happened. If we conclude that this interbreeding would have run counter to human dignity, then God could not choose it as his means to bring about a stable human population; it would be unfitting for God to do so. It would contradict God’s goodness. By holding that God brought a population of 10,000 humans from 10,000 nonhumans in roughly the space of a generation, we can avoid this problem. In this scenario, humans would not need to interbreed with nonhumans to maintain an effective popula- tion of 10,000. Likewise, there would be no need to attribute anything unfitting to God. This scenario is not the only way to avoid the problem. We can also avoid it by holding that inter- breeding started only after sin entered human history. This scenario, however, has a significant advantage: it avoids the problem entirely without having to appeal to any particular account of original sin. Furthermore, there are difficulties in thinking that interbreeding between humans and nonhu- mans could lead to successful reproduction. Granted, biologically, it would not be at all surpris- ing if the first humans could generate human offspring with their nonhuman contemporaries. Evolution takes place through gradual, incremental change. Consequently, from a biological point of view, it is eminently plausible that the first humans would be similar enough to their nonhuman contemporaries (the genetic equivalent of their immediate ancestors) to generate human offspring with them. Theologically, however, the matter is not so simple. The transition from nonhuman to human involves the acquisition of an immortal soul. It is not difference in degree; it is a difference in kind. It is more akin to an electron making a quantum leap from one orbit to another than to a plant growing imperceptibly day to day. There exists no parallel to this kind of transition anywhere else in the animal kingdom, and we have no way to verify empiri- cally that it could happen. Consequently, the question of whether the first humans would have been able to reproduce successfully with nonhumans is not as clear cut as it might seem. It could conceivably be the case that the genetic traits necessary for ensoulment are so unique and spe- cial that they require divine intervention, and that hominids possessing these genetic traits can- not successfully reproduce with hominids that do not. By positing divine intervention, however, the second narrative can avoid these difficulties entirely. By claiming that the first humans emerged together in a population of 10,000 individuals, the problem of whether the first humans could interbreed with their nonhuman contemporaries becomes moot. Whatever the ultimate merits of these narratives and explanations, all of them are consistent with the genetic evidence. Even the interventionist explanation is fully compatible with the genetic evidence. The interventionist explanation goes beyond the genetic evidence and its most



natural explanation, but it does not contradict it. Of course, to say that a theological narrative is consistent with the empirical evidence does not mean that it is plausible. There might be many explanations for a murder that are consistent with the evidence but which are nonetheless implausible. For the purposes of this article, however, it suffices to note that each of these narra- tives and explanations are consistent with the genetic evidence. It is left to the reader to make any judgments about their plausibility.


As evidenced by the New Testament (see esp. Matt 19:8; Luke 3:23–38 Rom 5:12–19; 1 Cor 15:20–26, 2 Cor 11:3; 1 Tim 2:12–15, Jude 1:4), claims about human origins have figured prom- inently in Christian teaching from the beginning. For centuries, especially after Augustine but before him as well, Christians understood these claims in a straightforward historical sense. They did not necessarily read Genesis literally, but they did read Genesis as teaching that a sin- gle man and a single woman were the exclusive common ancestors of every human living today, and that by sinning they lost the idyllic state in which they had been created for themselves and their descendents. Through the work of historical-critical scholarship, it is now widely accepted (if not universally so) that the human authors of Genesis were interested first and foremost in explaining and describing the human condition, not in history in any modern sense of the term, and that many subsequent Jewish and Christian readings of Genesis almost certainly went beyond the intentions of the human authors. For example, judging from extant materials, it is only after the exile that Jewish exegetical traditions began to understand the sin of Adam and Eve in terms of a historical rupture that divides the human condition into before and after. 12 Consequently, of itself, Genesis cannot be taken as favoring or excluding any of the narrative options surveyed above. It is certainly theologically legitimate to read the divine author of Genesis as intending more than the human authors intended, especially in light of Christian rev- elation. It is also well within the realm of possibility that the human authors intended to make some historical claims about human origins, and that these historical claims favor or exclude some of the narrative options. Yet any such position must be argued and defended; it cannot be taken as following self-evidently from any responsible reading of Genesis. The same applies to other scripture passages relevant to human origins: especially when they manifest intra- canonical reliance on Genesis, they cannot be taken as favoring or excluding any of the narrative options without further argument and interpretation. Magisterial teaching has pronounced on controversial questions about human origins only relatively rarely, most notably at the Council of Carthage (418), the Council of Orange (529), and the Council of Trent (1546). Magisterial interventions on evolutionary theory have likewise been few and far between. No ecumenical council has ever formally addressed the subject of polygenism (the view that the first humans included more than one reproducing pair) and its compatibility with Christian doctrine, and the only papal encyclical to do so was Humani gen- eris (1950). Arguably, it also constitutes the first and only magisterial document to speak author- itatively on the question of polygenism. 13 No authoritative teaching has ever been promulgated before, and no authoritative teaching has been promulgated since. The official Vatican translation of the relevant passage in Humani generis reads as follows (see below for the text of the Latin original):

When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that


opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the docu- ments of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through genera- tion, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own. 14

At the time of the encyclical’s promulgation, theologians disagreed among themselves about how to interpret this passage. In a journal article published in 1951, Gustave Weigel gives an extensive bibliography of Catholic commentaries on Humani generis published in English, French, German, Italian, Latin, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish, along with some non- Catholic commentaries, and then summarizes their contents. 15 On the topic of polygenism, Weigel notes that commentators agreed that the encyclical had forbidden the teaching of poly- genism as a theory compatible with Christian doctrine, but they disagreed about whether it had definitively pronounced on the question. Augustine Bea was among those who judged that the document had not spoken definitively on polygenism. He wrote:

The encyclical does not enter into the scientific side of the question. It is content to reject as irreconcilable with dogma two recent attempts at explaining original sin. Whether there can be forms of polygenism which can be brought into resonance with constant Church-teaching, is a question that is shelved. The Church has no grounds for making any statement on the point; she can rest satisfied with explaining solid doctrine, and leave it to the representatives of science to see if perhaps new forms of polygenistic theory can be found which do not con- tradict dogma. For the moment the question is not urgent, for the representatives of the natu- ral sciences themselves do not consider polygenism as probable. 16

Karl Rahner approaches the matter differently but makes a similar judgment. In an article pub- lished a few years after Humani generis, Rahner examines scripture texts and magisterial teach- ings supporting monogenism. He concludes that monogenism is ‘theologically certain,’ but he also concludes that the evidence is not sufficient to rule out polygenism as a theological possibility. 17 The view of Humani generis that Bea and Rahner represent does indeed seem correct:

namely, that it does not definitively rule out polygenism as compatible with Christian doctrine. The passage on polygenism does not make a direct statement about its truth or falsity. It also gives the distinct impression of having been crafted with great care, as though it was intended to give the impression of resolving the issue while also stopping short of a definitive, irreformable judgment, perhaps in order to forestall any possibility of future embarrassment. Whatever the truth of the text’s meaning, however, the sheer fact that two of the greatest Catholic scholars of the twentieth century did not think that Humani generis had resolved the matter definitively strongly suggests that, whatever its author intended, the text as it stands cannot be taken as a definitive magisterial judgment on polygenism. In order for magisterial determinations on mat- ters of Christian doctrine to be authoritative and definitive, they must be clear and unambiguous about what they mean to determine. Otherwise, they cannot be held to satisfy the necessary con- dition of having been publicly promulgated. In the years since Human generis, despite many appropriate opportunities (notably Gaudium et spes 13, 18; Paul VI’s Credo of the People of God, 16; CCC, 385—421, 1005—14; and John Paul II’s Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 22 October 1996), magisterial inter- ventions on human origins have avoided the topic of polygenism. In the meantime, numerous



theologians have come to embrace polygenism, or at least assume its theological acceptability. Especially given this very public shift in opinion among theologians, the magisterial silence on polygenism strongly suggests that those charged with preserving the deposit of faith do not think that Christian doctrine necessarily excludes polygenism. For this reason, magisterial teaching cannot be taken to have definitively resolved the ques- tion of polygenism or the number of first humans. Christian tradition and the assumption by bishops, theologians, and laity alike for some nineteen centuries that we descend from a single human couple carry significant theological weight, and proper theological method requires that they be given due consideration. Nevertheless, while they must be given due consideration, they do not of themselves resolve the question. They can be deployed in the course of argument, but they do not themselves constitute an argument. They must be interpreted. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the genetic evidence outlined above definitively dis- proves traditional theological narratives of human origins as understood by those telling them. When Trent’s Decree on Original Sin refers to our common origin in Adam, for example, it does not formally exclude the possibility that we also share a common origin in thousands of nonhuman hominids, but the authors of that decree surely presumed that having a common ori- gin in Adam meant that he and he alone fathered all subsequent humans. Consequently, to iden- tify the enduring doctrinal content of earlier magisterial interventions on human origins, we must interpret them in ways other than their authors understood them. Otherwise we will end up with results contradicting the scientific evidence. This point is worth bearing in mind. We can certainly argue for some version of monogenism, but the possibility of arguing for the kind of monogenism once held universally by Christians no longer exists. Therefore, we cannot simply reassert traditional theological narratives on the strength of their antiquity or ecclesial authority nor can we construct new theological narratives of human origins without interpreting tradition. There is no escape from the task of interpreting traditional theological narratives and discerning which aspects are historically accurate and which aspects are not.


The conclusion that we do not descend exclusively from a single human couple is not new. Scientists have long viewed it as the best explanation for the observed data, and many theolo- gians have long accepted it as such. What is new, or at least relatively new, is the degree of cer- tainty offered by evidence from the human genome that our ancestral lineage could not have passed through the bottleneck of a single reproducing pair. By ruling out the possibility in such a clear and definitive way, the evidence provides theologians as yet unwilling to abandon the traditional theological narrative with a compelling reason to do so. For this reason, the evidence has the potential to advance considerably the theological conversation about human origins. It promises to provide theologians with a new common starting point to address as-yet unresolved questions. Foremost among these unresolved questions is how to formulate the doctrine of original sin in light of what we know about evolution. While many theologians have made constructive pro- posals, nothing approaching consensus currently exists. In the face of the sheer difficulty of the task and the wide array of proposals on offer, ranging from the very traditional to the very radi- cal, the question seems to have reached an impasse. 18 Over the past thirty-five years, many scholars have written on related subjects such as nature and grace, creation and evolution, and the problem of evil and suffering, and some scholars have offered reconstructions and critiques of historically significant accounts of original sin (such as those of Augustine or Thomas


Aquinas), but relatively few have proposed contemporary interpretations of the doctrine of original sin. 19 The genetic evidence discussed in this paper has the potential to advance the con- versation beyond impasse in two ways: by providing new data points about human origins, and—insofar as these new data points demonstrate that traditional theological narratives of human origins cannot be taken at face value—by making it impossible to resolve theological questions about primeval history purely by appeals to authority, whether scriptural or magisterial. Whether or not the evidence proves to be a positive catalyst for theological reflection, the task of constructing a theological narrative of human origins that can command wide consensus remains a pressing concern. Christian faith presupposes a narrative, and until we can agree on the narrative’s beginning, at least in broad outline, our ability to communicate the Christian narrative—to ourselves as well as to others—will remain fundamentally compromised. By surveying different options for theological narratives of human origins in light of what we now know about the human genome, this article has aimed to advance our progress toward such a consensus. 20


  • 1 For an up-to-date, accessible overview of what we have learned about human origins from genetic

research, see Eugene E. Harris, Ancestors in Our Genome: The New Science of Human Evolution (New York:

Oxford University Press, 2014). For briefer summary, with particular attention to the implications for tradi- tional Christian beliefs about human origins, see Dennis R. Venema, ‘Genesis and the Genome: Genomics Evidence for Human-Ape Common Ancestry and Ancestral Hominid Population Sizes,’ Perspectives on

Science and Christian Faith 62 (2010): 166—78. For a synthetic overview of the latest science about the his- tory of human expansion around the world, see Brenna M. Henna et al., ‘The great human expansion,’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109 (2012): 17758—64. For a popular introduction, see Nicholas Wade, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (New York: Penguin, 2006).

  • 2 Aylwyn Scally et al., ‘Insights into hominid evolution from the gorilla genome sequence,’ Nature 483

(2012): 169—175. A wide range of speciation times have been suggested. For example, another recent study

found much later dates, with human-orangutan speciation at 9—13 million years ago and human-chimp specia-

tion at around 4 million years ago. See Asger Hobolth et al., ‘Incomplete lineage sorting patterns among human, chimpanzee, and orangutan suggest recent orangutan speciation and widespread selection’ Genome Research 21 (2011): 349—56.

  • 3 Francisco J. Ayala and Ananias A. Escalante, ‘The Evolution of Human Populations: A Molecular

Perspective,’ Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 5 (1996): 188—201 at 190.

  • 4 In an often-cited article in Science, Francisco Ayala used research on the DRB1 gene to demonstrate why

our ancestors could never have passed through a bottleneck of a single hominid pair. According to Ayala, for the DRB1 gene, there are thirty-two variations with lineages tracing back to our common ancestors with chim- panzees. Consequently, at any given time, our ancestors could never have numbered fewer than sixteen simul- taneously reproducing individuals. See Francisco J. Ayala, ‘The Myth of Eve: Molecular Biology and Human Origins,’ Science 270 (1995): 1930—36. For a discussion of Ayala’s conclusions and their implication for theological questions about human origins, see Kenneth W. Kemp, ‘Science, Theology, and Monogenesis,’ American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 85 (2011): 217—36, esp. 224. Ayala’s conclusions about the DRB1 gene have been challenged by other scientists. One study suggested only seven variations trace back to our common ancestors with the chimpanzees; a later study concluded that only four variations trace back six million years, and a fifth developed around five million years ago. See Tomas Bergstrom et al., ‘Recent origin of HLA-DRB1 alleles and implications for human evolution,’ Nature Genetics 18 (1998): 237—42; Jenny von Salom e et al., ‘Full-length sequence analysis of the HLA-DRB1 locus suggests a recent origin of alleles,’ Immunogenetics 59 (2007): 261—71. These scientific challenges to Ayala’s research have often been used for theological ends to argue against Ayala’s larger point about the impossibility of a bottleneck of a single homi- nid pair. See Ann Gauger, Douglas Axe, and Casey Luskin, Science and Human Origins (Seattle, WA:

Discovery Institute Press, 2012), 105—22; Dennis Bonnette, Origin of the Human Species, 3 rd ed. (Ave Maria,



FL: Sapientia Press, 2014), 217—25. Nevertheless, even if Ayala’s conclusions about the DRB1 gene do not stand, his larger point, about the impossibility of our genetic lineage passing through the bottleneck of a single reproducing pair, does stand. Since he published his article ‘The Myth of Eve’ in 1995, our knowledge of human and primate genomes has expanded exponentially, and the same point could be established from a vast array of other data points.

  • 5 Studies consistently estimate the ancestral effective population at around 10,000, but there is some varia-

tion depending on the data and method used. Two of the best recent studies estimate 9,000 and 14,000, respec-

tively. See Ilan Gronau et al., ‘Bayesian inference of ancient human demography from individual genome sequences,’ Nature Genetics 43 (2011): 1031—35; Michael G. B. Blum and Mattias Jakobsson, ‘Deep Divergences of Human Gene Trees and Models of Human Origins,’ Molecular Biology and Evolution 28

(2011): 889—98.

  • 6 Harris, Ancestors in Our Genome, 39.

  • 7 An important clarification is necessary. Although taken as a whole the human race has never had fewer

than thousands of simultaneously existing ancestors from the time of speciation onwards, subsets of the human population give evidence of significant bottlenecks in their genetic ancestry. Most significantly, according to the widely accepted ‘Out of Africa’ theory, the first humans appeared at a location in sub-Saharan Africa between 60,000 to 200,000 years ago. Later, a small band of pioneers left Africa and their descendents colon-

ized the rest of the world. Those of us who descend from that small band of pioneers give evidence of a signif- icant genetic bottleneck in our ancestry; the rest of us do not. For an overview of the ‘Out of Africa’ theory that incorporates recent scientific developments, see Brenna M. Henn, L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, and Marcus W. Feldman, ‘The Great Human Expansion,’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109 (2012):


  • 8 ST I 76.1; Council of Vienne (1311—12), can. 1.

  • 9 Kenneth Kemp proposes such a theological narrative of human origins. See Kemp, ‘Science, Theology, and Monogenesis,’ 231—32.

    • 10 Marcus J. Hamilton et al., ‘The complex structure of hunter–gatherer social networks,’ Proceedings of

the Royal Society 274 (2007): 2195—2202, esp. 2198; Henna, ‘The great human expansion,’ 17761—62.

  • 11 Recent evidence strongly suggests that descendants of those homo sapiens who left Africa interbred with

homo neanderthalensis and homo denisova. It is a matter of anthropological and theological controversy, how-

ever, whether or not homo neanderthalensis and homo denisova would have possessed immortal souls and thus been as ‘theologically human’ as any representative of homo sapiens.

  • 12 On this historical origins of the idea of the Fall, see Nicholas E. Lombardo, “Evil, Suffering, and

Original Sin,” in The Oxford Handbook of Catholic Theology, ed. Lewis Ayres and Medi Ann Volpe (Oxford:

Oxford University Press, in press).

  • 13 This historical claim excludes from consideration such things as documents of the Pontifical Biblical

Commission on the grounds that they do not constitute authoritative judgments of the magisterium.

  • 14 ‘Cum vero de alia coniecturali opinione agitur, videlicet de polygenismo, quem vocant, tum Ecclesiae filii

eiusmodi libertate minime fruuntur. Non enim christifideles eam sententiam amplecti possunt, quam qui reti- nent asseverant vel post Adam hisce in terris veros homines exstitisse, qui non ab eodem prouti omnium proto-

parente, naturali generatione originem duxerint, vel Adam significare multitudinem quamdam protoparentum; cum nequaquam appareat quomodo huiusmodi sententia componi queat cum iis quae fontes revelatae veritatis

et acta Magisterii Ecclesiae proponunt de peccato originali quod procedit ex peccato vere commisso ab uno Adamo, quodque generatione in omnes transfusum, inest unicuique proprium.’ Humani generis, 37.

  • 15 Gustave Weigel, ‘Commentaries on Humani generis,’ Theological Studies 12 (1951): 521—549.

  • 16 Augustine Bea, ‘Die Enzyklika ‘Humani generis’: Ihre Grundgedanken und ihre Bedeutung,’ Scholastik

26 (1951): 36—56 at 54, as translated and quoted by Weigel, ‘Commentaries,’ 546.

  • 17 Despite the fact that Rahner’s article argues for monogenism, it remains one of the best demonstrations

of the compatibility of polygenism with scripture and magisterial teaching. See Karl Rahner, ‘Theological

Reflexions on Monogenism,’ in Theological Investigations, Volume I: God, Christ, Mary and Grace, trans. Cornelius Ernst (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1961), 229—96. Later, Rahner becomes more favorable to polygen-

ism, but there is great underlying continuity with his earlier approach. See Karl Rahner, ‘Evolution and Original Sin,’ Concilium 26 (1967): 61—73.

  • 18 Among Catholic theologians, the Second Vatican Council inaugurated a period of intense interest in the

doctrine of original sin and its reinterpretation. The conversation continued for some years. Despite some sig- nificant theological progress, however, it quickly fragmented as theologians came to radically different conclu- sions about which aspects of traditional formulations should be retained and which aspects should be discarded. By the early 1980s, the conversation seems to have run its course, perhaps in recognition that


theological reflection had reached an impasse. For a sense of the post-conciliar conversation about original sin among Catholic theologians, see James L. Connor, “Original Sin: Contemporary Approaches,” Theological Studies 29 (1968): 215—40; George Vandervelde, Original Sin: Two Major Trends in Contemporary Roman Catholic Reinterpretation (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1975); Brian O. McDermott, “The Theology of Original Sin:

Current Developments,” Theological Studies 38 (1977): 478—512; Siegfried Wiedenhofer, “The Main Forms of Contemporary Theology of Original Sin,” Communio 18 (1991): 514—29. For an overview of Catholic the- ology of original sin from its earliest origins in Jewish exegesis up through the present day, see Nicholas E. Lombardo, “Evil, Suffering, and Original Sin.” Among Protestant theologians, a similar impasse had been reached much earlier. They had already been engaged for decades in the sort of theological exploration about original sin that became widespread among Catholic theologians only after the Second Vatican Council. 19 Despite the ecumenical neglect of the doctrine of original sin, significant monographs and edited collec- tions offering constructive proposals about original sin have appeared over the past twenty years. They include:

James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: Herder & Herder, 1998); Tatha Wiley, Original Sin: Origins, Development, Contemporary Meanings (New York: Paulist Press, 2002); Christophe Boureux, Christoph Theobald, and John Stephen Bowden, eds., Original Sin: A Code of Fallibility (Concilium 2004/1; London: SCM Press, 2004); Darryl P. Domning and Monica K. Hellwig, Original Selfishness: Original Sin and Evil in the Light of Evolution (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2006); Raymund Schwager, Banished from Eden: Original Sin and Evolutionary Theory in the Drama of Salvation (Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing, 2006); Ian A McFarland, In Adam’s Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin (Oxford: Wiley—Blackwell, 2010); Jesse Couenhoven, Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ: Agency, Necessity, and Culpability in Augustinian Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves, eds. Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014). 20 I would like to express my gratitude to the many friends and colleagues who offered comments on research related to this article, especially Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., for his comments and suggestions on the sci- entific aspects. I would also like to thank the Department of Theology and Religion of Durham University, which welcomed me as a Visiting Fellow in 2014 and where I completed much of the research for this article.