Updated: Feb 24
By Luke Lancaster
Christians are free to believe in the theory of evolution according to Pope Pius XII in his 1950 AD encyclical Humani Generis. One cannot believe that evolution is devoid of God, however. God must still be in the picture, whereby He utilizes the process of evolution to create human beings via instrumental causality. Such a utilization of evolution is similar to the creation of babies. Human beings can create new life via a reproductive action, yet God is the author of life. This is because God creates life through the instrumental causality of human reproduction. In the same way, God can create through evolution.
Now, one of the reasons Pope Pius said that evolution can be reconciled with faith is due to the symbolic, non-literal literature of Genesis 1-3 (see that explained here). So, the question of human origins is for the realm of science. There can be no conflict between science and faith, for God is the author of both natural revelation (which science studies) and supernatural revelation (which theology studies) - see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 159. Yet, evolution says that human beings evolved over time from around 1,000-2,000 couples in Africa. What does that make of Adam and Eve? Were they literally the first human couple (monogenism) or were they symbolic for the multiple human couples which evolution says happened (polygenism)? First, let's analyze the topic of polygenism.
Polygenism (multiple original human couples instead of one - Adam and Eve) is considered a possibility by the Magisterium, so it cannot be ruled out. This can be seen in the International Theological Commission's document, Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God (para. 70). It says, "Catholic theology affirms that that the emergence of the first members of the human species (whether as individuals or in populations) represents an event that is not susceptible of a purely natural explanation and which can appropriately be attributed to divine intervention." So, Adam and Eve could be archetypes in Genesis 2-3, comprising multiple human couples, rather than the original human couple.
Monogenism (one original human couple) is the other possibility, and is how Catholics have always traditionally thought about human origins. According to biology professor Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, PhD, monogenism could still work today even with the scientific theory of evolution. For recent studies on language have shown that language originated with one genetic mutation for one individual person around 70,000 years ago. This mutation would seem to indicate the infusion of the soul by God - something that Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis had originally said must occur with evolution. So, maybe the Adam and Eve couple was the first fully human couple. Although they had ancestors that looked similar to them, they were behaviorally different from them. They were the first to be able to communicate and have human souls.
The science for the origins of human language comes from linguists Noam Chomsky and Robert Berwick in their book, "Why Only Us." This MIT published work points out that there was an explosion of communication 70,000 years ago. The brains of humans, according to Chomsky and Berwick, become layered and layered, with a radical and complex rewiring. Humans started doing radically new things.
Humans could suddenly grasp basic syntactical references, using a complex working of words and symbols in communication. They could recognize the grammatical difference between, say, a subject and an object. The meaning of the parts of speech, such as the difference between a dog (subject) biting a man (object), and a man (subject) biting a dog (object), were grasped suddenly by one human being. This is incredible language skills.
According to Chomsky and Berwick, no primate can do this. The new language mutation within humans did not involve just simple things like "bananas" - which primates can understand and communicate. Primates recognize no difference between basic syntactical references - they think that dog biting man and man biting dog are the same thing. They do not have the "universal grammar" that humans began demonstrating 70,000 years ago.
2. Burying the dead and religion
Humankind began burying its own dead. What else does that? Animals just walk all over their dead. Humans, however, were different. They became interested in the spiritual world, and that is why they buried their dead. They started doing religious practices, rituals, and symbols. They developed spiritual beliefs and a sense of the sacred. What else does that? Primates never have an interest in religion! Why did this new "breed" of humanity suddenly start thinking of god or gods? The infusion of the soul!
3. Abstract art
Humankind wrote out complex artwork, involving a communication of events through cave drawings. This is a remarkably unique thing to human communication.
4. Mathematics and abstract numeration
Humankind could do abstract mathematical work in order to organize and systematize the ordering of things. This ability to use numbers in an abstract way is not possible for primates to accomplish. Where did this interest and development of counting, economy, exchange, and building projects at lightning speed come from? Why did it never start before this intellectual explosion? The answer would be: the soul. In the words of Fr. Robert Spitzer, "There's no primate with abstract mathematics, I'm sorry!"
5. Laws and government
Humankind was suddenly able to create a social organizational structure - unlike anything else. They created laws to govern themselves in a civil society. Creating these governments within distinct geographical locations is unheard of before the genetic mutation for language.
6. Movement away from Africa
Humankind began somewhere in Africa according to our scientific archeological record, but due to their profound ability to understand other forms of language, humans could move away from Africa into the Middle East. Prior to this intellectual explosion caused by the infusion of the soul, man stayed in one geographic location. They didn't move! The gift of a common reasoning ability had not come yet.
Faith and science can work hand in hand. Genesis 1-3 may be symbolic, but the truths about Adam and Eve could in fact be literal (monogenism). God may have infused the human soul around 70,000 years ago, and man then imaged God in his newfound reasoning capabilities. Man demonstrated "universal grammar" - meaning they possessed "innate faculties related to the acquisition of language" (Encyclopedia Britannica). Man became totally distinct from all other creatures. Special thanks to Chomsky and Berwick to increasing our faith!
Article adapted from Catholic physicist Father Robert Spitzer's talk, "The Remarkable Evidence of a Transcendent Soul."