More Sophisticated Theology: a religious scholar ponders whether Neanderthals had immortal souls

August 10, 2023 • 8:30 am

Lest you think that Sophisticated Theology™ has fallen on hard times, here we have an article pondering at great and tedious length the immensely important question, “Did Christ die for Neanderthals?” That can be rephrased, according to author Simon Francis Gaine, as “Did the Neanderthals have immortal souls?” (The “OP” after his name stands for Ordinis Praedicatorum, meaning of the Order of Preacher in the Dominican sect of Catholicism.)

And he gets paid to write stuff like this; his biography gives his bona fides, include a degree from Oggsford:

Fr Simon is currently assigned to the Angelicum, Rome, where he teaches in the Theology Faculty of the Pontifical University of St Thomas. He lectures on the Theology of Grace and Christian Anthropology, and oversees the Faculty’s Doctoral Seminar.

Fr Simon holds the Pinckaers Chair in Theological Anthropology and Ethics in the Angelicum Thomistic Institute, of which he is also the Director. He is a member of the Advisory Board of Blackfriars’s Aquinas Institute, the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas, Rome, and the Vatican’s International Theological Commission.

He studied theology at Oxford, and completed his doctorate in modern Catholic theology before joining the Dominican Order in 1995.

Click on the screenshot for a paradigmatic example of Sophisticated Theology™. The paper appeared in 2020 in New Blackfriars, a Wiley journal that’s apparently peer reviewed.

Here’s the Big Question:

 I have no expertise in any of these sciences, but have tried as best I can to understand what they have to say, in order to take account of what they have to say within a theological framework. Today I am going to look at the Neanderthals and their relationship to us from a theological perspective in the Catholic tradition, asking what a disciple of St Thomas Aquinas should make of them. Are they to be counted among the humanity God created in his image and likeness and which fell into sin, or are they to be counted instead among the other animal species of our world represented in the first chapter of Genesis? Or are they something else? While creation itself is to be renewed through Christ at the last, according to Christian faith Christ is said to die for our trespasses, for our sins. So did Christ die for Neanderthals?

This comes down to the question, says Gaine, of whether Neanderthals had immortal souls, so we have to look for evidence of that. If they did, then they could be saved by Jesus, though since the Neanderthals’ demise antedated the appearance of Jesus by about 40,000 years, their souls must have lingered in somewhere like Purgatory (along with the souls of Aztecs and other pre-Christian believers) for millennia. Gaine does not take up the question of whether other hominins, like H. erectus or H. floresiensis, much less the Denisovans, also had souls.

Since we have no idea whether Neanderthals had immortal souls (indeed, we can’t be sure that anybody else has an immortal soul, since it’s like consciousness), we have to look for proxies for souls. The question is complicated by the fact that Neanderthals interbred with “modern” Homo sapiens, so that most of us carry some a few percent of Neanderthal genes in our genome.

To answer his question of whether Neanderthals are “theologically human” (i.e., whether they had immortal souls), Gaine turns to his hero Aquinas:

So were Neanderthals theologically human or not? I think the only way we can approach this question is to ask whether or not Neanderthals had immortal souls, as we do. But, apart from Christian teaching, how do we know that we even have such souls? We cannot just have a look at our immaterial souls, and Aquinas thought that we only know the character of our souls through what we do. Aquinas argues from the fact that we make intellectual acts of knowledge of things abstracted from their material conditions, to the immateriality of the intellectual soul. Our knowledge is not just of particulars but is universal, enabling pursuits like philosophy and science, and the potential to be elevated by God to supernatural knowledge and love of him. If human knowing were more limited to a material process, Aquinas does not think our souls would be such subsistent, immaterial souls. Finding evidence of intellectual flights throughout the history of sapiens is difficult enough, however, let alone in Neanderthals.

. . .  What we need to look for in the case of Neanderthals is evidence of some behaviour that bears the mark of an intellectual soul such as we have.

And so an “intellectual soul” then becomes a proxy for the immortal soul, which is itself the proxy for whether you can be saved by Christ. Did Neanderthals have these? Gaine uses several lines of evidence to suggest that they did.

  • Neanderthals buried their dead (religion!)
  • Language. We don’t know if Neanderthals could speak, but they had a vocal apparatus similar to that of modern H. sapiens. Gaine concludes that they had language, though of course that’s pure speculation. But since when have Sophisticated Theologians™ bridled at usupported speculation?
  • Neanderthals made cave paintings and may have adorned themselves with feathers and jewelry: signs of a “material culture” similar to H. sapiens.

And so he concludes, without saying so explicitly, that Neanderthals had immortal souls and were save-able by Christ. This supposedly allows us to use science to expand theology:

How though does any of this make a difference to theology in the tradition of Aquinas? If Neanderthals were created in God’s image and saved by Christ, this must expand our understanding of Christ’s ark of salvation and raise questions about how his saving grace was made available to them. Because the Church teaches that God offers salvation through Christ to every person in some way.  theologians have often asked in recent times how this offer is made to those who have not heard the Gospel, members of other religions, and even atheists. It seems to me that, just as modern science has enlarged our sense of the physical universe, the inclusion of Neanderthals in theological humanity must somehow expand our sense of human salvation, given that it was effected in the kind of life Neanderthals lived.

. . . But even if Neanderthal inclusion does not pay immediate theological dividends, at least for apologetic reasons it seems necessary for theology to take account of their discovery. Unless theologians do, they risk the appearance of leaving faith and science in separately sealed worlds, as though our faith cannot cope with advancing human knowledge, leaving it culturally marooned and seemingly irrelevant to many. That is exactly the opposite of the attitude of Aquinas, who, confident that all truth comes from God, in his own day confirmed Christian wisdom by integrating into it what he knew of human science.’

But why stop at Neanderthals when you’re “expanding your faith through science”. There are lots of other hominins that must be considered (see below).  Can we rule most of these out because they might not have had language?

From the Encyclopedia Brittanica

And what about other mammals? In 2015 the great Sophisticated Catholic Theologians™ Edward Feser and David Bentley Hart argued about whether dogs can go to Heaven. (Hart said “yes,” while Feser said “no”, both of them furiously quoting Church Fathers like Aquinas to support their positions.)

These are tough questions, and of course to answer them theologians have to construct confected arguments based on casuistry. What amazes me is that people get paid to corrupt science with such ridiculous theological questions. It is unsupported speculation about unevidenced empirical assertions.

h/t: David

52 thoughts on “More Sophisticated Theology: a religious scholar ponders whether Neanderthals had immortal souls

  1. Awww, nuthin’ like some Sophisticated Theology™ to bring it on home!

    “Ordinis Praedicatorum”

    So awesome. I can hear it reverberating in sharp arches of stone …. ahhhh….

    Dumb question though : how do we know Jesus was H. sapiens, let alone The One True God?

    Maybe Jesus is a time traveller, so he could go cavort with the Neanderthals and bring The Good News, get them into a river,…

    “New Blackfriars, a Wiley journal that’s apparently peer reviewed.”

    More serious now, just occurred to me : this is a method called “idea laundering”:

    P. Boghossian
    “‘Idea Laundering’ in Academia
    How nonsensical jargon like ‘intersectionality’ and ‘cisgender’ is imbued with an air of false authority.”
    Nov. 24, 2019, Wall Street Journal:

    (Paywalled, sorry.)

    … thus, the Sophisticated Theologians can claim their beliefs are in fact knowledge, and use citations to academic literature in attempt to lace their religion with scientific literacy, as taught in any given school.

  2. You Shall Know Them; Vercors (Jean Bruller); Little Brown (1953) (trans.)
    Just as “profound”; more entertaining. Cheers for Father Dillighan, the tropis, and the wives of some judges.

    1. Yes Vercors and Les Animaux dénaturés is a good reference. And this suggest me a remark. I agree with Dr Coyne that this article undoubtedly has many shortcomings, such as the one he mentions – it only deals with Neanderthals, and says nothing about the other species of the human genus – but I fail to see how it corrupts science. Let’s forget religion and leave theology aside. There is a universal declaration of human rights. In practice, it only applies to members of the only species of the human race, ours. If we were to discover a few representatives of another human species on an isolated island, would it apply to them too? To put it more succinctly: in “human rights” is it the genus that is meant, or only the species? Or does it seem to you that these questions are a corruption of the theory/philosophy of law? It should be clear that I’m not claiming that the soul and human rights are identical, but that I’m only relying on an analogy that of course has its limits.
      With thanks for your blog and best wishes for your journey, Norbert.

  3. If anyone needs saving, it’s those fornicatin’ bonobos. They even have their own “language.”

    We can all ask Jerbus about it when he comes back.

    …Any day now

  4. “What amazes me is that people get paid to corrupt science with such ridiculous theological questions.”

    Indeed, I would like to know how much he is paid. I think Dominicans take a vow of “poverty”, so I don’t know how salaries and benefits from being a professor of theology works in these situations. He may have contribute a large part of any financial rewards to the order. But none of them are really living in poverty. I’m sure he has some nice digs in Rome.

    1. “I think Dominicans take a vow of ‘poverty’.”

      Yes–Dominicans, like other Catholic orders, take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. As a former Jesuit I took all of these vows and can vouch that they are liberating rather than restrictive. With the vow of poverty, you don’t have to worry about how to get money; with the vow chastity, you don’t have to worry about how to get sex; with the vow of obedience you don’t have to worry about how to make decisions. Secular life should be so simple. 😊

    2. These, or similar vows, exist in a few other religions as well. Yet there are whiskey priests. They take vows of poverty and celibacy and yet cheerfully pursue wealth and sex, absolutely begging for a juicy defrocking.

      I know of a few (some might have behaved themselves while priests) who gave it all up to join the rest in the unrepentant pursuit of wealth and sex. For them, taking the vows didn’t do the trick 🙂

      My favourite whiskey priest is bishop Xavier Novell.

  5. “But, apart from Christian teaching, how do we know that we even have such souls?”

    Good question, Father Simon! Doesn’t it make you the slightest bit queasy?

  6. … his biography gives his bona fides, include a degree from Oggsford …

    So Fr. Gaine went through the same abbreviated program at Trinity College that was comped to junior American army officers returning from the Great War as Jimmy Gatz?

    1. It took me a while to realise what Oggsford was. Once I realised I wondered where that term came from as I was a student there.

  7. The concept of a soul, unlike the concepts of abstract thinking or moral intelligence, can’t really admit to gradual evolution and shades of gray. When Daniel Dennett called the Theory of Evolution a “universal acid” which eats through all attempts to contain it, he was partly thinking of Sophisticated Theology. The scientific view of reality is that from the standpoint of reproductive success something not really an eye is better than something that’s not like an eye at all — and something part eye is better than that, and so forth.

    But what would it mean for something to be partly a soul, then a little more soul like, then not quite there but almost? Souls are set within a theological framework and really do seem to need to be binary and uniform to a species. Otherwise, the most evolved Australopithecus bosoi might be more capable of conceptualizing God than a lesser evolved specimen of a later species, thus creating havoc for why bother with a series of species at all?

    Aquinas was only confident that it was possible to integrate the Truth that comes from God with human science because first, he didn’t know what was coming and second, the theological game is rigged. To a person of faith, there’s no universal acid like apologetics, which can dissolve any inconvenient fact which tries to contain it.

    1. “But what would it mean for something to be partly a soul, then a little more soul like, then not quite there but almost?”

      Good question – meaning, of course, good for laughing at religion, and apologetics – I’d imagine the trinity has something to do with it – as Adam and Eve were like God before God kicked them out of The Garden of Eatin’.

      1. Could it be that if only one of your parents has a soul that you also have a soul?
        Then, ofcourse, it does not matter if Neanderthals have a soul or not.

    2. Aristotle’s view, as taken up much later within Catholic theology, involves any animal having a soul. Caterpillars and iguanas have a soul, they do not have an immortal soul. “A soul is vegetative when the life of the living thing consists in nutrition, growth and reproduction”— i.e., in the case of primitive animals. The concept of a soul doesn’t come out of a Catholic theological framework, but from the Aristotelian account of animal life. The soul is not a kind of added-on item over and above the animal’s body. The concept comes out of Aristotle on form and substance, and the form of this or that particular living thing, this particular cat (say), which goes on being this particular cat while the matter it is composed of is continuously changing. This way of thinking certainly can be criticized, but you can’t start out by focusing on the case of human beings and immortal souls.

      1. Fair point. I think though that when the form of the animal is said to be made in the shape of God rather than Nature that a very big disconnect has been introduced.

      2. Ooo that’s good –

        Can you give a reference for that? Not disputing, simply want to get that in the ‘ol files.

        1. Actually, my earlier remarks were not accurate. Aristotle takes a plant to have a nutritive soul, which is essentially its organization or form, that keeps it being the same plant, even as its matter changes, A good source is “Aristotle on Body and Soul” by Richard Sorabji, in the journal Philosophy vol 49, 1974, pp. 63-89. I was drawing earlier on the discussions of matter and form by Anscombe and Geach in Three Philosophers, especially Geach on the soul of Tibbles the cat, pp. 82-3.

  8. Presumably the question is whether Neanderthals are the same species as us or not. If they are the same species as us then for a Christian they have souls.

  9. Can we put the Neanderthals & other hominins to the Bobby Byrd test?
    “I know you got soul
    If you didn’t, the music wouldn’t groove ya
    I know you got the feeling
    If you didn’t, the beat wouldn’t move ya”
    ~ I Know You Got Soul by Bobby Byrd & the J.B.s, 1971

  10. I look forward to the good Father returning to the classic of “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

  11. I’d recommend Anatole France’s solution as laid out in Penguin Colony. Find a priest who’s a bit near-sighted and deaf, put him in a paleoanthropological diorama, and let him baptize the hominines one and all. As I understand France’s logic, God must issue souls to the hominines and their brethren. Though perhaps not full-sized souls….

  12. This ridiculous confection illustrates why Aquinas is not taught in any intellectually respectable school or university any more, except by those whose mental horizon is stuck at about 1400.

    Father Simon worries that “faith cannot cope with advancing human knowledge, leaving it culturally marooned and seemingly irrelevant to many”. Yup, got it in one.

  13. Forms of this issue have long been decided, and I think the OP is far too generous.
    One must simply refer to the holy scripture of Google to learn that people who lived before Christ could have salvation provided that they had the Faith of whatever revelation existed at that time. This is a well established claim from earlier holy rollers whose wisdom is enshrined online. Adam had faith in God, and so he was Saved. All who believed in Him before the time of the cross could be saved by just having that one belief. After the cross, one must also accept Christ as well, since that has been the upgraded state of revelation since that time. Revelation 2.0. You have all signed the user agreement.
    So if Neanderthals had belief in the Almighty then they too could be saved. They buried their dead, but that is hard to interpret since all manner of heathens do that, but heathens don’t believe in the one true God and so are eternally damned. We don’t know for sure about Neanderthals, but most people before the cross were heathens of one sort or another, and so probably Neanderthals are in hell right now. The same goes for the likes of Homo neladi who possibly buried their dead, but again, this was long before the cross and so they too were probably all icky and heathenly and in hell, poor bastards.
    Anyway, those Australopithecines and Ardipithecines did not bury their dead, and so there is really no hope for their eternal salvation. So burn in hell, Lucy! You too, Ardi!!![that is a paleontology joke of sorts].

    1. It seems to be a rather intractable problem. But it wouldn’t be if you scientists would stop wasting time on nonsense like evolution. That sort of stuff just confuses people.

  14. There is a sense in which Gaine is not even wrong. IIRC the phylogeny is (sapiens, (Neanderthals, Denisovans)) so it makes no sense to ask only whether Neanderthals had souls. One has to include Denisovans, and the question is really whether the hominins who made up the common ancestor of Neanderthals+Denisovans had souls. Are souls a shared ancestral trait of all of those Homo lineages, or a shared derived trait of early modern H. sapiens? Also I can’t believe I just typed that 🙁

  15. This from the Roman Catholic Catechism:
    “The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God—it is not “produced” by the parents—and also that it is immortal: It does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.”
    Note that the soul is entirely spiritual and has no connection with physicality/biology. I would add to this Catechism excerpt that, according to Catholic teaching, God unites the soul with the body at the precise moment of conception, that is, when the two haploids join to become a new diploid. Thus, there really is no such thing as a half-soul or partial soul. If Neanderthals and Denisovans had souls, then God would have had to create each one uniquely at each moment of conception. Of course, this does not get us out of the theological weeds; on the contrary, we’re further into them.

    1. This brings up the question of how identical twins, produced by the splitting of a single fertilized ovum, get by in the soul department. After all, by the Catholic catechism, they’ve only got one soul between the two of them.

  16. Many thanks for this priceless item, PCC(e). It does raise some profound questions. For example, what about those of us with just a smidgin of Neanderthal in our genomes (see: )? Did Jesus die for just 1-3% of our sins? And which sins were these? As for the signs of having a soul, many beside Bobby Byrd aver that appreciating and/or making music is the definitive
    trait. If that is correct, then Jesus died too for birds, wolves, and whales, all of whom will enjoy eternal life. They sure won’t need any harps in humpback heaven.

  17. At a teach-in before the Grantsburg (WI) school board was considering requiring its one HS biology teacher to include “intelligent design” in his courses, we included a clergy panel (thanks to efforts by Michael Zimmerman and his incipient Clergy Letter Project One participant stepped up and asked, “So, did Jesus die for the monkeys?”

    The answer, which I considered showed both patience and finesse, was another question: “Did the monkeys participate in the Fall of Man?”

    Theologically, that is the essential question, and the answer to that is one that theologians, not biologists, have to grapple with. Do they accept that Neanderthals are “humans” and that Neanderthals are “Sons of Adam” (or “daughters of Ever, as the saying goes)?

    That depends on how their doctrine views the historical Adam and Eve. (FWIW, the original questioner mumbled something about not really knowing, and that was the end of the discussion).

    Neanderthals did NOT have a vocal apparatus like that of modern humans; there are years of literature on this, but that does not mean that they did not have language (in the broad sense of a type of oral, symbolic communication). There are many Neanderthal sites that indicate that there was a transmission of ideas and techniques regarding traditional motifs, styles, and specializations in tools, cave art, and other cultural artifacts. And there is evidence of long-distance trade which means that there had to be some way to carry out the necessary transactions.

    There had to be a mechanism for this transmission, and since everything else about them suggests that they were fully human (albeit an anatomically different variant from both modern Homo sapiens and the Denisovans—both of whom were seen as suitable mates, based on genetic evidence in both the fossils record and in extant populations).

    But, if doctrine allows them accept Neanderthals (and/or other non-sapiens hominins) as fully human, then they are also bound by Scripture to accept that Neanderthals were saved by Christ (“And he died for all”; 2 Cor 5:15; the Vulgate renders this verse “pro omnibus mortuus est” and the Greek New Testament: “ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀπέθανεν”). In early versions of English translations, it was often rendered ‘for all Men’ but more recently dropping the ‘MEN’ for a more inclusive and generic object of the preposition. It is interesting that the older versions are more generic and inclusive.

    So, if Neanderthals are humans (or “Men” in the generic sense) as science says they are, then the answer from Paul the Apostle, is yes; they were saved because they were human.

    And as silly as this argument may seem to many of us (like the number of angels dancing on the heads of pins), it goes to the essence of what it means to be human; and THAT is a question that even science is still grappling with. Some will consider any hominin found on the branch of the African ape clade that includes “us” to be “human” (as we do in our textbook, Humans). Others will divide the various branches meticulously to identify some biologic or behavioral or cultural trait (or some combination of all three) that is the essence of a “true” human, so that some, but not all, of those species found on this derived clade quality.

    Ain’t evolution grand?

    1. There had been a lot of back and forth about speech in Neanderthals, and older opinions had come to rest that stated that Neanderthals could not speak, or could only. speak crudely, based on an interpretation about their hyoid bone. But meanwhile more recent data shows their hyoid is a good match to ours (but on the other hand that in itself may not mean much). Then there is the FoxP2 gene, where the H sapiens version is necessary for speech, and Neanderthals have our version of FoxP2. But there are no doubt other genes needed for speech and so it’s hard to be sure. And so we continue to go back and forth.

  18. Souls=panpsychism. Panpsychism, another concept from the middle ages that amounts to nil. Just like alchemy.

    I always enjoy the machinations of the soul literalists who conducted experiments like weighing the body before/after death. What a straight forward idea! And some found some weight discrepancies. Must be soul. Yet if really soul, there shouldn’t be weight, right? The “air” volume of a human body doesn’t really have weight. Like I said, I enjoy the “experiments” of soul literalists, misguided as they are. The contortions humans partake in to keep their unproven/incapable of proving concepts alive have no bounds. Long live Bigfoot!

  19. IIRC, one of the more intriguing things that Svante Pääbo et al found in the Neandertal genome was a multiplicity of substitutions in one of the sperm flagella proteins. I think the conjecture was that sapiens sperm may have had a competitive advantage, altho the wording in his book wasn’t straightforward and I haven’t found that in a quick search.

    But if that’s right, there’s the sophisticated theological answer: God fixed it so that soul-less Neandertals would die out.

    Also, surprisingly, nobody seems to have asked the more important question: Did they have rhythm?

  20. I am a lifelong atheist, so this is contingent upon my being wrong on that count: IT CAN’T BE HEAVEN WITHOUT DOGS. PERIOD.

  21. On the question of whether Neanderthals had souls, immortal or otherwise, I immediately thought of Douglas Hofstadter’s discussion of souledness in his book I am a Strange Loop. Would our cousins, the Neanderthals, have more or less Hunekers than the Homo Sapien, at some state of development? More or less Hunekers than the average saber tooth tiger?

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