Genesis and Polygenesis

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Genesis and Polygenesis






For those Europeans who wanted to justify slavery and the colonial system in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, nothing was sacred, not even the Bible. Christian ideas about equality under God and the brotherhood of man had to be abandoned, or at least modified, if slavery was to be accommodated to Christian ideology. To accomplish this, leading clerics and other intellectuals selected and distorted particular passages in the Old Testament, and they took an arithmetic approach to Biblical chronology to develop four arguments for racism that were widely disseminated by the end of the eighteenth century.


The new, pseudoscientific chronology of Bible history was created by applying the Julian Calendar to the sacred events of the Book of Genesis, so that according to the Venerable Bede, a British cleric of the 8th century AD, the

world was created in 710 (by the Julian calendar), or 3952 BC (according to the BC/AD notation invented by Bede himself). In 1650, Bishop James Ussher, another British cleric, revised Bede’s date for creation to 4004 BC, adding that it occurred on Sunday, October 23. He also gave the date for the end of the Biblical Flood as Wednesday, May 5, 2348 BC. Both Bede and Ussher used some very questionable demographic assumptions about life span and the age of reproduction to do their calculations, but their opinions soon began to carry the weight of legal authority within the Church.

Bede, Ussher, and their followers went far beyond the actual facts as stated in the Bible, and their elaborations of scriptural accounts at first created significant problems for their colleagues in theology and history who were trying to justify slavery, racism, and even genocide. First of all, their version of creation did not leave much time for the development of diverse languages, tribes, and races for the peopling of the Earth, as described in scripture, and their date of creation was quite close to the beginnings of secular Mediterranean history, which at that time was thought to be about 500 BCE (or BC), the time of Herodotus. Worse than that, as far as the slavery of Africans and American Indians was concerned, their theory of monogenesis—that all humans were descended from Adam and Eve, and descended again from Noah and his sons following the Flood—implied that all humans were kin to one another. Consequently, the slavery of humans by humans was the enslavement of cousins by cousins, a moral dilemma for Christians.


To overcome this dilemma, four solutions were proposed that had the power to excuse the practice of slavery, upon which an increasing portion of the European economy depended in the so-called Age of Discovery.

One solution was to argue that American Indians and Africans were not humans at all, and that they had no souls. Thus, enslaving or killing them was not a mortal sin as far as Christians were concerned. Two other solutions were polygenetic in nature and alleged that although the “primitive races” or “savages” of the Earth were human, they were either “pre-Adamites,” meaning they were created long before Adam and Eve, or “post-Adamites,” created after Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden. In either case these were people engendered by “separate creations,” and thus were not proper objects for the application of Christian morality.

Another powerful theory offered by Christian apologists for slavery concerned the unequal distribution of sinfulness among the sons of Noah. This involved an ingenious reading of the story of the aftermath of the Flood, during which it was said that Ham, the alleged ancestor of Africans, had abused his drunken father (some interpreters said he raped him, others that he castrated him), while Shem, the ancestor of Asians and American Indians, had watched but did not interfere, and it was only Japheth, the ancestor of Europeans (including Jews), who had the decency to “cover his father’s nakedness.” According to Genesis 9:24–25 (in the King James version): “Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” That is, he cursed Ham’s son, whose name was Canaan. According to this interpretation (known as the curse of Ham, or the curse of Canaan), Ham and his descendants, exiled to Africa, were to be servants for the descendants of Noah’s other sons; that is, they were to be slaves. The various allegations of heinous sexual violations attributed to Ham in the most sacred literature of Christianity thus supplied a convenient rationale for European slave raiders, slave traders, and slave owners even though Genesis says nothing about the pigmentation of Africans.

A subsequent verse of Genesis, which addressed the situations of both Africans and Native Americans (the sons of Shem) seemed exactly appropriate for English colonists in New England and Virginia in the early seventeenth century. Genesis 9:27 states: “God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.” Colonial Virginians took this to mean that God knew they would some day outgrow their homeland (the British Isles), and that they would at that point have divine approval to come to Virginia and take the houses and farmlands of local Indians (“the tents of Shem”), whom they were at liberty to massacre, after which they could import African slaves to do the work. Their importation of Africans came after a period in which they experimented unsuccessfully with Indian slavery. In New England, the preference was to sell Indian captives to Jamaica or exchange them for African slaves.

A bizarre footnote was added to the racist account of the origins of “Hamites” by J. B. Stoner, the editor in the 1960s of the Thunderbolt, a publication of the National States’ Rights Party, and the man convicted of bombing a black church in Alabama in 1958. Inspired by the French racist Jean-Joseph Virey, Stoner asserted that not only were modern Africans the descendants of Ham’s accursed son Canaan, but they were also the result of unions between “Hamites and Great Apes,” thereby making them only half human. This assertion served to justify the next episode of moral atrocities against the Bible, the Trial in Valladolid, in Spain, which in the sixteenth century was part of the Holy Roman Empire.


For the first twenty years in their “New World” of the Americas, Spanish conquistadores could kill or enslave Indians with impunity, because they were regarded as “black dogs” without souls. But in 1512 the Laws of Burgos were promulgated, stating that Indians were humans, had souls, and could be converted to Christianity. The Catholic world then became divided on the issue of whether Indians were “natural slaves,” born into a naturally servile condition, or whether they had the same rights as other citizens. To settle this issue, Emperor Charles V convened a panel of distinguished scholars in 1550–1551, for the trial in Valladolid. Arguing for the status of Indians as “natural slaves” was Juan Sepúlveda, who took the “colonialist” position, while Bartolomé de Las Casas took the “indigenist” position, defending the Indians. Both sides drew heavily on the writings of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas concerning natural slavery and the notion of the “just war,” whereby captured enemies could be enslaved.

Although no “winner” of the debate was ever announced, it resulted in an improvement for the situation of Indians, especially with the General Ordinance of 1573, which specified that before the population of an Indian pueblo could be enslaved, someone had to announce to them that the village was about to be attacked, and that the consequences would be death or enslavement. In practice, this might mean that a soldier could sneak up to the outskirts of a village at night and yell out (or whisper) the prescribed warning in Spanish or Latin, followed quickly by the attack.

The situation of Indians in North America, under assault by French and English colonial forces, was no better, and perhaps worse. The English goal was not so much to enslave Indians, but to kill or expel them and take their land. Both the French and English considered Indians to be cannibals and Satanists who could be killed at will by Europeans. During his 1577 search for a Northwest Passage around North America, Martin Frobisher hiked up the skirts of an Indian woman to see if she had cloven hooves. After the Pequot Massacre of hundreds of Indian women and children in Masssachusetts in 1637, the English leader John Underhill announced: “Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents… . We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.” The writings of John Smith and other Virginia colonists express the same sentiments, as did some Canadian priests, such as Paul Le Jeune in his contributions to the Jesuit Relations.


Two of the four theories listed above are “polygenetic” in nature, arguing that the “lower races” were created separately, either before or after the creation of white people during the events recounted in the Book of Genesis. Both theories were based on anthropological evidence that had been accumulating in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Europe, primitive tools called “thunderstones” and ape-like human skulls had begun to accumulate in museums, which indicated that some kind of “ape-man” or “cave-man” had existed in Europe for hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, of years. In the meantime, geologists such as Charles Lyell, a Southern Confederacy sympathizer, were arguing persuasively that the Earth was millions of years old.

Proponents of polygenesis accommodated this new evidence by explaining that these bones and tools represented some early experiments in human creation, before God “got it right” with the creation of white people in the events described in Genesis. It was argued further that these early fossils were the ancestors of the “primitive people” discovered around the world by European explorers. That is, modern “primitives” or “savages” were supposed to be the descendants of God’s “failed attempts” to create perfect humans “in his own image.”

Those polygeneticists who argued that Africans and others were post-Adamites, created after rather than before the events of Genesis, relied more on Biblical texts than on anthropological evidence. They argued that, in the Bible, husbands and wives of the descendants of Adam and Eve came from foreign countries unaccounted for in Biblical narrative. Therefore, there must have been other creations, which they say included those of the “inferior races.”

A more modern advocate of polygenesis was Carleton Coon, a Harvard-trained anthropologist who hypothesized in the 1950s that there were five separate lines of human ancestry, corresponding to the five races of humankind, each of which crossed the human “threshold” separately. Thus, European people had been human longer than Africans, and thus were more “advanced.” Although Coon admitted that Africa was the “cradle of mankind,” he wrote in The Origin of Races (1962) that the continent was “only an indifferent kindergarten,” as compared to Europe, the “cradle of civilization” (p. 656).

Even in the early twenty-first century, the theory of creation as an instantaneous event leaves the door open for theories of polygenesis, theories that have always operated to the detriment of nonwhites. Darwinian theories, like the fundamentalist monogenetic theories celebrated by most Christians, argue for a common ancestry for all humans, and thus for the “brotherhood of man.” All present evidence indicates, contrary to what Carleton Coon argued, that human beings have developed and evolved through history not as separate races, but as a single species, constantly sharing their genes, languages, and cultures as they developed and migrated around the world.


Coon, Carleton S. 1967. The Origin of Races. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Frederickson, George M. 2002. Racism: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Goldenberg, David M. 2003. The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hanke, Lewis. 1959. Aristotle and the American Indians. Chicago: Henry Regnery.

Haynes, Stephen R. 2002. Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leach, Edmund. 1969. Genesis as Myth. London: Cape Edition, Grossman.

MacLeod, William Christie. 1928. The American Indian Frontier. London: Kegan Paul.

Shipmen, Pat. 1994. The Evolution of Racism: Human Differences and the Use and Abuse of Science. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Thwaites, Reuben Gold. 1896–1901. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610–1791. 73 volumes. Cleveland: Burrows Bros.

Winchell, Alexander. 1878. Adamites and Preadamites. Syracuse, NY: John T. Roberts.

John H. Moore