Adam and Eve: More than two ancestors?

December 27, 2016 • 12:45 pm

I’ve posted repeatedly (e.g., here) about the dilemma that Adam and Eve pose for some believers, since population genetics shows not only that our species never dipped below a total of about 12,500 in the last 50,000 years or so. That directly contravenes Catholic (and some evangelical) doctrine that Adam and Eve were real people and the ancestors of us all. This is codified in Pope Pius XII’s 1950 statement from De Humani Generis (my emphasis):

37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism [that we descended from more than just two people], 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 documents 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 generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

In other words, the Pope said that all living humans, starting with Adam, had to be descended from him, and that Adam cannot simply stand for a “certain number” of first parents. Not accepting the statement above means you don’t accept Church dogma.  Of course, theologians are still busy trying to force the idea of Adam and Eve into the Procrustean Bed of population genetics, with the predictably risible results.

A few days ago I got an email from reader John, who said this:

“There’s one thing I don’t believe you addressed that I’ve recently seen sophists (err, theists) suggesting: that each of us is related to either Adam *or* Eve, but not necessarily to both–i.e. that there was an initial pool of 10,000+ humans, and only Adam and Eve had souls, but at this point all living human beings are distantly related to either Adam or Eve (but not necessarily to both of them).”

He then pointed me to a reddit thread on Adam and Eve, in which one commenter tried to reconcile Catholic doctrine with the evidence that the human population didn’t undergo a bottleneck of only two people. The commenter said this:

You are not engaging my point, and ignoring my argument for it. To remake my point, then. Catholic doctrine does not require a bottleneck of only two people. To insist that all people are descended from one particular pair does not equate to saying that all people are descended from only that particular pair. Here’s a visual representation of my point: all the yellow blocks are descended from the red pair, but at no point is there a bottleneck of only two people.


In other words, Adam and Eve for some reason, were two among many people (A&E in red), but that all living people somehow can trace their ancestry back to the Primal Couple. But this violates both science and the Pope’s doctrine in several ways. First, there are clearly “true men after Adam who did note take their origin through natural generation from him as the first parent at all.” These are the white rectangles in the second row, and of course there would have been many more white rectangles had there been more than six people alive, and those rectangles would have extended into future generations. Second, the Bible clearly says that Adam and Eve were the only two people around then; it doesn’t mention a population of humans created with them. If you’re going to take Adam and Eve as literal ancestors, why not accept that they also were the only two humans on Earth?

Further, as I wrote in the thread above, were Adam and Eve the genetic ancestors of all of us, then

. . . all the genes of every living human should “coalesce” back to the same time and the same two people. But we don’t see that either: each gene segment had its ancestor at a different time (and often at a different place) in the past: the Y chromosome, for instance, coalesces back to an ancestor who lived about 60,000 years more recently than the female ancestor who bequeathed us the genes in our mitochondria.  So this solution is also untenable.\\

And that solution is untenable even if you think we all inherited Adam’s Y chromosome (if we’re male) and Eve’s mitochondrion.

Now this of course leaves aside how “Original Sin” is inherited. It cannot segregate like a gene, which is present in pairs and thus a given gene has a 50% chance of getting into a single offspring. Rather, Original Sin must be passed on to EVERY offspring. So if every offspring of an Adam and Eve, and all their descendants, had Original Sin—as if it were a virus spread by both sperm and egg—then yes, every living person could have Original Sin, if you see them as all descended from Adam and Eve. But the genetic data show that even the claim, that Adam and Eve lived at the same time, is wrong. Ergo, there’s no way to save the Catholic dogma on the First Couple. It is, as all rational people realize, a complete fiction: a story descending from the ignorant childhood of our species.

45 thoughts on “Adam and Eve: More than two ancestors?

  1. But, but, but.Anyway, who did the children of A and E have children with?
    Been reading Paradise Lost -Milton, in preparation for a short class in January up here. Why you might ask-because… reasons. Anyway it should be fun. A mix of atheists, buddhists, catholic and Unitarian ministers, a couple of scientists, the odd jew or two and a German scholar of literature.
    The arguments that Satan presents to Eve and that Eve in turn presents to Adam to eat the fruit are pretty good.And I give Satan full points for smarts.(in reference to previous post)

    1. “…who did the children of A and E have children with?” Those people in the land of Nod over east of Eden. Where Cain went and married and begat. Also there were giants in the earth in those days; who knows what might have happened in a time before Twitter and FakeBook?

    2. Actually, the original text gives us no reason to think that the snake was Satan. The concept of Satan seems altogether absent from the Genesis. It was the snake who tempted Eve, and when the omniscient G*d found out, he deprived the snake of its legs as punishment.

      1. Thanks, I actually have not read the original.I made an effort in my teen years to read the whole bible but foundered pretty quickly. Milton has a wonderful passage where Satan slips into the snake. He is not described sympathetically but actually is a pretty smart fellow and to my mind not misusing his intellect in the pursuit of rationality.Only his sense of irremediably being wronged leads to very bad social relations and poor motivations.And the sense of being absolutely unopposable on the part of the folks in heaven is pretty stifling.

  2. Catholics refer to the belief that we have multiple ancestors as “polygenism” which is quite different from what biologists mean by the same term (the notion that human races have different origins.)

    Thus, Evolutionary biologists reject what their own discipline means by polygenism, while affirming what Catholics mean by the same term.

  3. So the idea is that only these two people had souls, the rest of humanity didn’t? Have these two original souls continued getting divided over the millenia (even believers concede a few millenia) so that present humans have tiny fragments of an inherited soul?

    Not that anything about the magical thinking of religion makes sense.

    1. No. There wasn’t any ‘rest of humanity’. Adam and Eve were it. At first there was only Adam and doG made all the animals to try and make a helpmeet for Adam – unless doG made all the animals first and then made Adam. Genesis with typical biblical accuracy and clarity tells it both ways. Anyway only after the animals then Adam, or Adam then the animals, were all created did doG anaesthetise Adam and rip out a rib to make Eve. Obviously doG didn’t know about DNA and such and the dangers of inbreeding. Anyway that’s why men have one less rib than women to this very day.

  4. Catholic doctrine does not require a bottleneck of only two people.

    When he says “Catholic doctrine” he of course really means “whack-a-mole”. /sarcasm

  5. This Pope talk is just so rich:

    “sources of revealed truth and the documents 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 generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.”

    What a hot steaming pile of ignorance and condensation. This statement presupposes talking snakes – but you’ve got to believe it or you’ll roast like a pig on a spit. No, don’t Google the science kids. Just believe!

        1. Strangely, I read it the first time as “condescension”, and only noticed the typo When Dr. Athe pointed it out. I guess my mind overruled my brain.

      1. “I think you meant condescension”

        Unless Adam had really bad case of steaming diarrhea. Actually, any theologian still peddling this flat Earth fable is certainly suffering from the mental form of this.

    1. soooooo important to contort all evidence to fit a dialogue where one individual couple bequeathed sin to all humanity and that sin was supposedly knowledge of good and evil, when the bible itself says god is the source of both good and evil and god hates knowledge. As the current pope says curiosity is a sin. Complete Idiocy.

    2. If Adam and Eve hadn’t found sex and “known” each other, and their children and children’s children, etc., had just stopped having sex (“generation”), “original sin” could no longer be passed on. However, that would go against the doctrine of “Be fruitful and multiply.” No wonder we can’t get it right. The rules are contradictory!

  6. As the person who sent you that email, thanks very much for the response. Now let me repay that kindness by explaining further how this tortured rationalization apparently goes. 🙂

    First, the assertion is that the phrase “true men” as used by Pius XII refers only to humans with souls (which I do agree was his meaning) — that would be Adam and Eve (the red boxes) and their descendents. But the hypothetical here (which I do not agree was his meaning) is that it also includes anyone descended from either Adam or Eve, but not both. So the idea is that 1) there were “men” after A&E who didn’t descend from either of them, but they weren’t TRUE MEN (let’s call them zombies), and also 2) if at any point a TRUE MAN procreated with a zombie, the result was more TRUE MEN. So to sum it up, there was a population of zombies before A&E and they continued afterward, even as A&E’s progeny (who were TRUE MEN with souls and original sin) proliferated.

    So the question I was asking based on this hypothetical was: given the claim that we are all now TRUE MEN, is it possible in genetic terms that everyone living today is related back to either Adam or Eve (a single initial “ensouled” couple out of a population of 10,000+ zombies), but not to both?

    Though I doubt even a “no” to that question would satisfy the sophists, since it leaves open the escape hatch that there are still soulless zombies living among us today. And obviously all of this is utterly at odds with the Bible…but then so is Humani Generis. That hasn’t stopped sophists like Edward Fe(ce)ser from trying to square the circle in just this way.

    1. I don’t remember any reference in Genesis to people other than Adam and Eve (until they had children), so where in the Bible did the Pope find them? There were supposedly “zombies” (Angels)that later came down to Earth from Heaven and had sex with human women
      and created a race of giants.

      If you start off with only two people, and, they have children,etc., incest had to have occurred. No other choice but animals. Right?! Even after the population increased, the whole community would have been interrelated like small town America today. As a cousin of mine says, you have to be careful who you pick on in her town because you are probably related.

      1. I looked around for explanation, and found some answers. There were no other people in the time of A and E except for their children. When Cain murdered Abel he was sent to wander in the land of Nod, and later married and had a child. But there are some slippery explanations. First, ‘Nod’ is also a term that means to wander, and Caine was sentenced to do that. Although he later married, the scripture does not say when. It could be after a long time, when there were more people. Somehow.

    2. since it leaves open the escape hatch that there are still soulless zombies living among us today.

      They’re called atheists.

      1. And a 3rd too – clearly the Lot story was originally another ‘end of the world’ scenario that got edited down to a local disaster.

        Lot’s knocking up his daughters was necessary to repopulate the world as they could find no other men because originally all other humans had been killed off.

    1. Yes, why do the churches always ignore this point. And this makes a nonsense of the white, yellow, and red boxes argument, since the Noah story leaves no room for any survivors other than his own children and their wives. What follows, while not strictly incest, is nonetheless a rather unhealthy conjoining of first cousins.

  7. 1: You’d think the Church would be very happy to have the polygenist solution to where Seth’s wife came from and what people took in Cain, etc.

    2: Can’t they claim that the substance of Adam’s soul lies in his Y-chromosome, while Eve’s soul is/was a poor mitochondrial soul. Odd that clever people in the Vatican don’t show this as another proof that gOd exists?

    3. Did any pope issue an encyclopedia on the origin of swine– if so, would that be De Sui Generis?

  8. Possibly the following is just a mathematician (me!) being overly fussy about a rather trivial point, but I don’t think so:

    I seriously doubt that this matter can be well discussed without careful definitions including reference to, say, “a-line”, where I’ll define that to simply mean any finite sequence, ‘backwards’, from an individual, the 2nd being one parent, the 3rd being one of that 2nd one’s parents, etc. You’ll ask why I didn’t just say “ancestral-line” and leave it at that. Fair enough, but even that could be misinterpreted.

    Now the phrase

    (P) “Adam and Eve were…ancestors of us all”

    from near the beginning of this post has two quite different possible meanings (A) and (B) below. It is very clear that both the nonsense pointed out by “reader John”, and the superficially clever nonsense of Feser alluded to by the same John in 10 above, both use the confusion between (A) and (B) below, maybe not deliberately.

    The two meanings of (P) above:

    (A) Every a-line from every human passes through Adam or Eve, choose one, with the other being the other choice at that place in the sequence.

    That’s very clearly what Jerry meant by the phrase and what the Catholic nonsense means, and it’s certainly false for every particular A&E.

    (B) At least one a-line from every human passes through Adam and Eve etc…(as above)

    The trouble is that (B) is almost the more natural meaning for (P) as phrased. And so I certainly would never consider discussing this with anyone without first being very clear about the difference. Not only that, but (B) is true, as we all know, for a huge number of particular choices of A&E (not Arts and Entertainment!) And there will usually be gazillions of such lines backwards from a fixed individual now alive to any particular A&E.

    (I realize that my “every human” in (A) and (B) might mean those now alive or might mean those born after some much earlier time, but there is no difficulty there, so I’ll leave it.)

    But, sorry to belabour, I also dislike the short phrase “..our species never dipped below a total of about 12,500 in the last 50,000 years ..” when dealing with xtians or others who want to dispute this matter. It would be easy enough for some dopey comment to then be made that maybe 12,498 of them never had any descendants. (Feser would produce 17 paragraphs and something similar, but more confusing, for his minions!) Surely what has been established is that there has never been less than about 12,500 individuals simultaneously alive, such that you could pick any one of them and some human alive now has at least one a-line which passes through the one you picked. And that shows (A) to be false of course.

  9. No matter how they contort themselves to fit their preconceived notions into the scientific framework, they still can’t explain how you can differentiate between a person with a soul and one without, or even what a soul is. Some people take the Aristotlean framework that everything has a soul which is the form of the matter making the thing up, but then how are humans different? If everything is ensouled, it isn’t special.

    They should make a different diagram where there are colored turds showing that all the piles of bullshit still sit on a foundation of original bullshit; i.e. that the basis of this whole charade has zero observable evidence.

  10. There are a couple of interesting implications of that Reddit religious contortionism that I think create a lot more problems for Catholic cognizance than they solve.

    (1) Although an exact calculation is likely prohibitively difficult, some rough estimation implies that the probability of *all* approximately 7 billion people of present day being descended from only a single pair of the original 12,000 is vanishingly small (assuming some basic things like a common reproductive probability for each person of each generation, and 3 generations per 100 years). Given any nearly nontrivial parameter values, I would be surprised if this survival probability was not always nearly zero.

    (2) Or we could assume that some deity intervenes and “guides” the selection process above. This means then that said deity actively had to weed out those lacking any “pure” lineage at some point over the past 50,000 years. This had to be accomplished either by making people infertile, or ensuring that these impure humans never had offspring that lived to reproduce. Either way, this deity had to select people for infertility or death. I would think that both of these would be quite problematic for the Catholic faithful.

    1. I’m sure you know probability better than I do, Ed. But wouldn’t it be true that the biologists who produce this 12,000 or so number, in their methods, already have proved that your “vanishingly small” probability is actually zero?

      That is, are not the 12,000 actually such that every one of them is an ancestor of someone alive now or until recently, someone who has been DNA tested? That’s what I have assumed to be the meaning of the famous 12,000 as I indicated above.

      One could have the stupidity of someone claiming that there were another 12 billion humans at the same time, all crowded onto a remote tiny island, which Xenu (or some such) came from outer space and ‘thermonuclearly’ wiped out. Then, with that godlike ability, she completely removed all possibility of later scientific evidence for this other 12 billion. Present day biologists can clearly not assert absolute scientific probability zero for the other 12 billion, even though we all would in reality, that is, all but maybe Tom Cruise. Of course, this whole stupidity has no bearing on existence of A&E anyway.

      Back to reality: in particular, as well as the 12,000, there would be some others leaving no genetic trace.

      So the question is the actual scientific meaning of that 12,000, undoubtedly phrased with ‘genetic jargon’ in the journal(s), and something I’d sooner save my effort by learning from a reputable mathematical biologist!

  11. On a distantly related note (obviously, not related in terms of the first father of all), can anyone direct me to a refutation of the overarching importance of epigenetics? There have been several dinner table arguments that have ended in unfriendly terms between those who have read that epigenetic effects are good for a generation or two but cannot have long term effects, and those who feel that the entire structure of evolutionary thought must be upturned by epigenetics. I need some ammunition, so please – praise the lord Darwin and pass the ammunition!

  12. These pathetic rationalization attempts are just spoiling a nice myth. (I really like the myth, maybe because nobody has ever tried to force it on me as fact.)

    A little off-topic, does anyone here know how Judaism views the Adam & Eve story? It was originally Hebrew mythology before the Christian cultural appropriation, and I have read that Judaism does not regard it as “original sin”, but, unfortunately, I haven’t found any details.

    1. I’m sure there are differing opinions depending on which Jewish sect you ask, but I have a lot of friends who were either raised in the tradition or have family members who were. The general view I’ve heard from them is that the Genesis story is allegorical and it demonstrates that humans hold a special place apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. The temptation of Eve and her ability to choose to eat the apple can also be interpreted as demonstrating our free will, whereas animals act only by instinct.

      I can actually see this as being a pretty reasonable interpretation based on the fact that our survival is being driven by in large by our ability to use tools and develop technology. That’s definitely unique. Insofar as I know, there’s no Original Sin concept in Judaism, though I’m not really familiar with the more orthodox beliefs, so I could be wrong there.

  13. The problem with original sin is also -and huge- with the existence of bad in a world planned and created by a good god. Because step by step god repeats “it was good”. But not with Adan and Eva, because of their free will and the snake test. Original sin was the origin of death. Now, with all that as a myth or legend, the problems comes back: was a good god the author, the planner, who did pain, suffering, death, tortures, crazy people, illness, cancers, accidents,… he the omnipotent is unable to create a universe without all that??? Dualism, maniqueism or… obviously ATHEISM as the only answer to the contradiction!!

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