Talking with the animals

In the rich discussion arising from this piece (thanks to Colossian Forum for the original stimulus), pngarrison comments:

The possibility of Adam and Eve being one couple among a population, with only their descendants being fully human makes no sense to me. Their descendants would be confronted with how to treat the sub-humans who looked like them, made a living like them, possibly talked like them. How would they even tell for sure who was fully human and who wasn’t? If they could tell the difference, would it be o.k. to treat the sub-humans like animals? If they were in the middle East, you end up saying the people in the rest of the world weren’t fully human – it sounds like 19th century racism.

I want to explore this a litle bit, not primarily to propose a “final solution”, but to show that most possible interpretations of Genesis 1-4 pose just the same problems, as does even the total rejection of these chapters (except that only in a religious context does the issue much matter). I want to suggest we should not close off the issue of “non-Adamic man” by assuming we know more about the “necessary” or original meaning of the text than we do.

But first, an apologia for traditional, orthodox interpretation. Doctrinally, the importance of Adam has been as “our” first, innocent, human father who introduced sin into the world, against whom Jesus is set by Paul as the counterpart and solution. “Our” here means the human race as it is now. Any theories about physical human origins as such, and the mode of transmission of his sin to “us” are secondary and, to a great extent, beyond the text. A better understanding of the original cultural context could refine or even greatly modify our understanding, but might still be entirely compatible with core Christian teaching. As I’ve said before, the text is hermeneutically extraordinarily robust – a feature, in my view, of divine inspiration.

One key question to ask the text is what it means by “man”. That may seem obvious, but within Genesis it is used both as the usual generic term for “human” (adam), and as the proper name of one man, Adam. To the writer, the word “man” was as commonplace as it is to us – but in looking back to the origin of things that word was imbued with some new meaning, and the question is whether that includes the common noun as well as the proper.

Let’s illustrate the problem by showing that though it’s a basic English word, we have no absolute boundaries to the category “man”. In recent decades, for example, it’s been losing its gender non-specifity, so that us older writers have to struggle to remember to speak of “humankind”, not “mankind”, and to confuse everyone by dropping female pronouns arbitrarily into examples now and again. So “man” has begun to lose some of its semantic range even within our lifetime.

Ideologues have often sidelined their enemies by dehumanising them – in Soviet Russia state enemies literally became non-persons. One can conceive that in older cultures, minus the hatred, it might simply be assumed that only freeborn people, for example, should be termed “men”, or only non-foreigners.

Imagine an island where all “men” have land rights. But Spanish explorers arrive, and clearly don’t have the right to inherit land, so they’re clearly non-men. But perhaps they could become men by marrying a landowning woman. The connotations of the word, in other words, can go beyond the biological in numerous directions, and such cultural changes can be quite rapid and short-lived. We run risks by assuming more about the world of Genesis than we actually know.

A couple of centuries ago anthropologists were pretty sure that the different races were actually different species, and it was convenient to treat black slaves as non-men. That started from an evil delusion and led to the racism Preston describes, yet it didn’t prevent those who believed it not only having children by “non-human” slaves, but not infrequently marrying them. There was some confused thinking there. So clearly cultural factors can soften our usual stark distinction between “man “and “animal”.

In fact, we are softening the distinction ourselves more and more regarding scientific human origins. Usually, we assume “man” = “Homo sapiens” (and we unilaterally dump that Linnaean taxonomy on Genesis). But we’re less certain as we look into the past. Were Neanderthals “men”? Or Denisovans, or H. erectus? For all of these there is evidence of species interbreeding. Was it palaeo-perversion, or was there a broader concept of “man” back then? After all, you don’t bury your dead without some kind of concept of people.

Christians, depending on their own preferences, will in some cases speak of the creation of man as the evolution of H. sapiens. But some will include Neanderthals as God’s image-bearers, and some the whole genus Homo. Others still have opted for some final evolutionary “flip”, perhaps reflected in the apparent cultural shifts around 40K years ago, in a particular population of our species. But all such biological origins for the divine image have to face the fact that they would not be universal – that “true men” would rub shoulders (and other things) with those of different species, different cultures and so on.

One way out is to find solace in Darwinian gradualism – humanity emerges so slowly that the slow awakening into “imageness”, as from a deep sleep, finds the whole world equally endowed with intellect, morality, awareness of God and sin and everything else. Humanity doesn’t begin anywhere particular, so we can forget the past and take our own situation for granted. Well, it’s true (and I’ve commented before) that gradualism poses a problem for all universals – the whole idea of Darwin’s first chapter in Origin of Species is that species are arbitrary and, in fact, boundaryless. But though that lets us off the hook of a saltational event by which we became “man”, it also renders such a category as “man” unsustainable in the first place. There is no biological divine image to inherit, and neither is there a distinct human nature for Jesus to assume at the Incarnation – he could only, actually, die for himself.

The special creation, in an unpopulated world, of Adam from clay and Eve from his side would certainly define humanity as clearly as daily experience in the modern world does now. But of course, we have all that evidence that there never was such a biologically isolated environment – the record is clogged up with primitive hominins, population bottlenecks, and countless millennia of very gifted apes, both naked and fully clothed.

So I conclude that if “man” has appeared at all – “man” being taken in the sense of a unique race bearing the image of God in its inner nature – he’d almost certainly have had to “walk with the animals and talk to the animals” in some sense whether we can get our heads round it or not.

In the next post I’ll try and throw out some hints about how that might (possibly) have been in the mind of the writer of Genesis, in a way that retains the existence of Adam but doesn’t require Cain to slum it with Neanderthals.

"Are you saved, Brother?" "Dunno. What you doing tonight?"

“Are you saved, Brother?”
“Dunno. What you doing tonight?”

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Talking with the animals

  1. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    You wrote: “But though that lets us off the hook of a saltational event by which we became “man”, it also renders such a category as “man” unsustainable in the first place.”

    I’m pretty sure we’ve been around about this before (perhaps on Biologos), and so perhaps I risk repeating an exact same objection as before …but so be it.

    Does the fact that we can’t look at our continuous visible spectrum and point precisely to where it stops being red and starts being orange (other than by arbitrary selection of a cutoff frequency) mean that there can be no sustainable category of “red” colors?

    It just doesn’t seem to follow that an inability to define precise boundaries negates entire (and nevertheless important!) categories.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Because the bit in question was an aside from the main point, and because any reply will be a bit long, I intend to answer as new post – but in the light of a new day, as it’s been a long one here.

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