Monogenism and Polygenism

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Monogenism takes the position that the whole human race is descended from a single couple or a single individual. At least until the mid-nineteenth century, monogenism was also regarded as entailing the immediate creation of the first man or couple by a special divine act. Given the preponderant evidence for biological evolution, monogenism is no longer understood in this way. But if the first biological couple may have arisen through an evolutionary process, it remains Church teaching that the soul of each and every human being is created directly by God (Pope John Paul II 1997).

The position contrary to monogenism is known as polygenism, of which there are two types. According to the first (called monophyletic polygenism), since evolution always proceeds within an interbreeding group, humanity would have first appeared among a number of individuals, whose progeny gradually spread world-wide through emigration. Thus, one would speak of a first community rather than a first couple or man. The second type (called polyphyletic polygenism) hypothesizes that the human species arose through separate evolutionary lines in a number of different places at different times, with the different lines converging to form our present population. Scientists have not reached consensus on which of the two versions of polygenismthe monophyletic or polyphyleticis more likely to be true (Harpending 1994).

Monogenism was presumed by the Council of trent in its teaching on original sin (ds 15111514). The most explicit statement on monogenism came in 1950 in Pope Pius XII's encyclical letter humani generis. Referring to Rom. 5.12 and the teaching of Trent, Pius maintained that "Christ's faithful cannot embrace" either form of polygenism, since "it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled" with the scriptural and magisterial teaching on original sin, namely, that this sin was "actually committed by an individual Adam" and "through generation is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own" (DS 3897).

In view of Pope Pius's statement, many theologians (including K. rahner in 1954) argued that monogenism is so closely implied by the teaching on original sin that it must be considered a certain, if not infallible, tenet of faith. But the conclusions drawn by science, which flatly contradict monogenism, were found increasingly persuasive by theologians, including Rahner, who reversed his initial support of the position in 1967. The present situation amounts to a quandary for theologians. On the one hand, even though it has not been formally addressed by the magisterium since Humani generis, monogenism continues to be accepted as a basic premise in Church teaching, as is shown by the relevant sections of the The Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 374379, 390, 399407). On the other hand, to deny the polygenistic origin of the human species places the theologian in clear opposition with science, and conjures up the image of an obscurantist faith combating the truth of reason. And yet it may very well prove to be that science, in its forthright drive for empirical knowledge, has only forced theology to deeper reflection on its own central claim that Christ lies at the heart of all (Col. 1.16).

It is evident that the magisterium has insisted on monogenism for the sake of defending the teaching on original sin, according to which, as Trent declared, all of humanity belongs to a single order which was intrinsically "changed for the worse," physically and spiritually, by virtue of a human decision made at this order's beginning (DS 15111513). Hence, the judgment by Pius XII in Humani generis that the faithful are not free to accept polygenism, since it appears quite impossible to speak of any human act having the kind of effect that Trent assigned to the first sin if the human order emerged gradually and in plural fashion from an antecedent nonhuman order. If science is right about the mechanisms that gave rise to the biological species Homo sapiens, and the tradition is right about the nature of the human order, it would seem that theologians must continue to reflect on the data in search of other ways of defending the issue. One alternative is to consider the possibility that the roots of this order transcend, even precede, its present empirical condition. In his work entitled A Theological Anthropology (1963), the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von balthasar entertained just this possibility. It may be necessary, he wrote, to say that the primal decision that shaped human freedom lies "above the whole temporal unfolding of the material cosmogonic process. In particular, does it exist above the biological development of man, which would thus be subject already and at its very heart to the law of generation and death and consequently to 'vanity"' (90). If Balthasar is right, then future theological inquiry must be prepared to regard the question of monogenism or the constitution of the human order, like the question of the first sin, as referring to a state of affairs that both is fundamental to and underlies the present sequence of biological phenomena that is described by science.

Bibliography: john paul ii, "Address to Pontifical Academy of Sciences," The Pope Speaks 42 (1997) 118121. h. harpending, "Gene Frequencies, DNA Sequences, and Human Origins," Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 37, no. 3 (Spring 1994) 384394. k. rahner, "Theological Reflexions on Monogenism," Theological Investigations, vol. 1 (London 1961; New York 1974), 229296; "Evolution and Original Sin," Concilium 26 (1967) 6173; "Monogenism," Sacra Mundi 4:105107; "Erbsünde und Monogenismus" in k. h. weger, Theologie der Erbsünde (Freiburg 1970). h. u. von balthasar, A Theological Anthropology (New York 1967). j. d. korsmeyer, Evolution and Eden: Balancing Original Sin and Contemporary Science (New York 1998). z. alzeghy, "Development in the Doctrinal Formulation of the Church concerning the Theory of Evolution," Concilium 26 (1967) 2533.

[k. a. mcmahon]