Review: Adam's Ancestors

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
29
Year: 
2009
Issue: 
3
Date: 
May-June
Page(s): 
43
Reviewer: 
J David Pleins
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
Adam's Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins
Author(s): 
David N Livingstone
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. 301 pages

Some trips down memory lane in the creationism/evolution debate can be enlightening, others disturbing.

In a previous volume, Livingstone enlightened us by uncovering the early conservative Christian backers of Darwin, those he dubbed Darwin's Forgotten Defenders (Grand Rapids [MI]: Eerdmans, 1987). In his current exploration, Livingstone takes us into the heterodox and racially-charged world of Adam's preadamite ancestors. If we thought we understood the history of the creationism/evolution debate, Livingstone once again upends the standard categories to reveal new fault lines in the bitter battles over the Bible, theology, and science.

Livingstone begins by turning the clock back to the age of heresy to highlight the provocative views of Isaac La Peyrère. Peyrère met the rising tide of the expanding European knowledge of ancient civilizations and the increasing encounters with non-European populations by suggesting that there were men before Adam. If the Chinese and Egyptians were right to say civilization is far older than Adam and if the bewildering array of races on earth suggest colors and customs unknown to Noah's sons, then logically the Bible's story is limited in time and scope. By suggesting there were men before Adam, Peyrère managed to reconcile the Bible and modern knowledge while earning the disdain of many a high churchman.

Thus, the preadamite heresy was born. Ironically, Peyrère's heresy would go on to become an orthodox leitmotif in the 19th and 20th centuries. Livingstone's story is designed to tell us how this topsy-turvy state of affairs came to dominate the discussion of human origins before and after Darwin.

The debates that unfolded in the 18th and 19th centuries hinged on how, scripturally-speaking, to account for the world's diverse races. Some said the climate was the shaping force. Others said God created different races for different places. Some suggested there were multiple Adams, while others claimed there were two creations — the creation of the preadamites in Genesis 1 and the creation of the Adamites in Genesis 2. Whether the preadamites died off before Adam or coexisted became a theological concern. Matters of Original Sin and the dangers of race mingling were at stake. In each case, the effort was made to reconcile Genesis with the new knowledge of world geography and global cultures. Peyrère's heresy was seed cast on fertile soil.

Behind the clever theological schemes, Livingstone reminds us, there was a hellish reality. In many cases, theological gamesmanship went hand-in-hand with the global slave trade and imperial adventures. Defenders of the faith fell rather easily into ranking the races, with white Europeans always coming out on top of the divine pecking order. Whether the theologians spoke in terms of climate, diverse centers of creation, or even common descent from Adam, invariably blacks and other groups trailed behind white Europeans in spiritual worth.

Against this backdrop, the major players of the day can be seen in a new light. Louis Agassiz's distinct zones of God's creation appear awfully racist, whereas the Darwinian view of the common descent of humans and apes looks far less racist and much more egalitarian.

By this point, Peyrère's heresy was here to stay.

After Darwin, some who wished to link the Bible and science would speculate about whether Adam evolved from his preadamite ancestors. Eventually, many Catholics would say that the human body did evolve, but that the human soul takes up residence in a fetus during the gestation period. In other post-Darwinian theological circles, the racist angle would reassert itself as writers worried over whether Adam's white heirs should intermarry with the brutish preadamite blacks, thereby diluting Caucasian spiritual purity.

It is hard to conceive of all the useless theological ink spilled in the name of preadamic racism. Yet, lest the secular evolutionist begin to gloat over Darwin's triumph, Livingstone reminds us that the secularists of the period could play the multiple centers of origin game with similar racist intent. The schools of anthropology of the 19th century are replete with racial invective that parallels the odiousness of preadamite religious rhetoric. Theological references to Adam and preadamite are replaced by talk of races as "varieties" and "species." Somehow, in all the secularist charts, portraits, and cranial measurements, primitive blacks stood several notches below the superior white.

One need not have been religious to be racist in the 19th and 20th centuries. True, there were voices, like some abolitionists, who rose above the devilish din, but Livingstone's tawdry tale (well-told) airs the dirty laundry that wafted on both sides of the creation- evolution divide.

Livingstone's richly detailed, amply illustrated work stands as a warning to a religion that loses its ethical moorings and a science that betrays basic human dignity. This is an unsettling book. The skeletons are out of the scientific and theological closet. Will we heed the lessons Livingstone has set out for us?

About the Author(s): 

AUTHOR'S ADDRESS

J David Pleins
Department of Religious Studies
Santa Clara University
Santa Clara CA 95053
jpleins@scu.edu

J David Pleins is Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University. He is the author of When the Great Abyss Opened: Classic and Contemporary Readings of Noah's Flood (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).