There’s a remarkable piece by Mark Shea in the National Catholic Register, “Does evolutionary science disprove the faith?” It’s remarkable mainly for its claim that you can extract historical and scientific truth from the palpable lies of the Bible.
But let us begin at the beginning. Shea goes after me for my claim—which I stand by 100%—that modern genetics makes nonsense out of the Adam and Eve story, and thus invalidates the entire Christian theology of sin and redemption through Jesus. We know now from genetics that humanity did not descend from only two ancestors, but from a population of ancestral apes that evolved into hominins, who themselves went through a population bottleneck of roughly a few thousand individuals. (For a full account of the scientific, historical, and theological issues, read Jason Rosenhouse’s posts here, here, and here). To debunk my criticism, Shea simply cites an article by Mike Flynn at the TOF Spot. Flynn’s main claim is that there could have been thousands of humans at the time of Adam and Eve, and some of these mated with the First Couple’s spawn, explaining the genetic data.
Dr. Coyne’s primary error seems to be a quantifier shift. He and his fundamentalist bedfellows appear to hold that the statement:A: “There is one man from whom all humans are descended”
is equivalent to the statement:B: “All humans are descended from [only] one man.”
Traditional doctrine requires only A, not B: That all humans share a common ancestor, not that they have no other ancestors. . . . Dr. Coyne believes the mathematical requirement of a population numbering 10,000 somehow refutes the possibility that there were two. But clearly, where there are 10,000 there are two, many times over. Genesis tells us that the children of Adam and Eve found mates among the children of men, which would indicate that there were a number of others creatures out there with whom they could mate.
But this logical fallacy hinges on an equivocation of “one,” failing to distinguish “one [out of many]” from “[only] one.” Traditional doctrine requires only A, not B: That all humans share a common ancestor, not that they have no other ancestors.
As the Catechism itself says:390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.
How can Genesis use figurative language, but still affirm a primeval event? It can do it because mythic language is precisely the best way to affirm such an event, an upheaval that inflicted incalculable spiritual damage to the whole of the human race.
Translation: lies are the best way to affirm a truth. Flynn goes on in the same vein, but makes another statement that reminds me of John Haught’s assertion that a video camera recording the Resurrection wouldn’t have shown anything:
Genesis’ account of the fall does the same sort of thing. It uses figurative language to describe a real event which took place here in the real world, not in cloud cuckoo land: Our First Parents abused their free will, sinned against God and fell. The mythic language is truer language than newspaper language, because it brings us to the heart of what happened, which is far more important than a photographic record of what happened. A video of the first man committing the first sin would show us nothing, for the same reason that video of, say, a young Adolf Hitler sitting in a Vienna cafe and looking at an old Jew sipping his coffee would not reveal the momentous moment he turned from thinking, “Is this a Jew?” to thinking “Is this a German?” Traces of when sin, hate and evil are conceived in the heart cannot be detected in fossilized skulls.
Note carefully what Shea is claiming here: that an idle thought by one man (who, unlike Hitler, didn’t do anything!) doomed all humanity to a condition of sinfulness, only to be redeemed by the bloody death of an apocalyptic preacher. How can any rational person buy a story like that?
Adam’s first sin was likewise probably invisible to the naked eye—the mere thought “No” directed at God or his own conscience would be sufficient. For all we know, it might literally have consisted of something as seemingly trivial as stealing a bit of fruit. But it was enough. It sent out shock waves in the heavens and down through human history. But the sciences can have nothing, yay or nay, to say about it.
Finally, Shea touts the endless resourcefulness of Catholic theology:
Bottom line: There really are resources in the Catholic tradition for digesting this fascinating (but not, I think, anywhere near insuperable) challenge to the popular understanding of human origins and human sinfulness. The Church is in the very early stages of mulling over this matter and I am no prophet, but I suspect that, in a century or two, once the Church has finished puzzling out this matter, she will come down somewhere in the neighborhood of the territory Flynn (and others) are pioneering (though, of course, the science may be very different by then and scientists may, ahem, have come to incorporate or grasp insights to which it is presently blind due to its ignorance of St. Thomas and Catholic theology). Dr. Coyne’s approach is, alas, an example of that problem, but I will draw a discreet veil over that and simply point out that the rumors of the death of Catholic theology are greatly exaggerated.
Yes, we scientists (and rationalists) are severely disadvantaged in comparison to “Catholic tradition” and its theologians. We aren’t allowed to make up untestable stories to buttress our preconceptions, especially when they’re proven wrong. There is nothing—no evidence in the world—that would make these folks finally admit that the Adam and Eve story and its tale of Original Sin, is a simple human fabrication. They can always dig deeper into their goody bag of post hoc rationalizations.