21 June 2010

Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion and the Politics of Human Origins

A review I wrote some considerable time ago, which has at last appeared in the pages of Science & Christian Belief (Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 99–100):

David N. Livingstone
Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion and the Politics of Human Origins
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. 301 pp. hb. £23.50. ISBN 978-0-8018-8813-7

Professor Livingstone will already be well known to many readers of this journal. In his latest book he offers us a fascinating history of an obscure view of human origins: pre-adamism. Now confined to the margins of religious conservatism, it was once part of mainstream intellectual thought, and before that it had its roots in a sceptical perspective on the biblical account of human origins.

In eight chapters, Livingstone traces the idea from obscure roots, through its hey day in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and back into obscurity. This structure is at once both chronological and thematic as he traces the transformation of the idea through its historical trajectory.

Although he sees tantalizing glimpses of the idea in writings prior to the seventeenth century, he identifies its first clear exposition in the work of the seventeenth-century author Isaac La Peyrère. Impressed by the diversity of humankind revealed by early ethnology, and particularly his own studies of Greenland, La Peyrère sought to explain this by postulating the existence of human beings long before the time of Adam. His inevitable denunciation as a heretic doubtless played a part in his pre-adamism becoming part of the armoury of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scepticism in its assault on biblical orthodoxy.

By Chapter 3 Livingstone is ready to trace the first of the transformations in the fortunes of pre-adamism: the politicization of human origins in the eighteenth century. If, as early pre-adamism suggested, there are distinct human races only one of which is adamic and therefore blessed by God, it is but a short step to using it as a justification of imperialism in general and the institution of slavery in particular (since the dominion of the adamic race clearly extends to a paternalistic position vis-à-vis the ‘lesser’ races).

Move on another century and the idea has undergone further transformations. It saw increasing use as a strategy for reconciling science and religion. But at the very same time that it was becoming established in orthodox Christian apologetics, a more secular version was playing an important role in the emerging sciences of anthropology and ethnology.

With the advent of Darwinism, the idea underwent yet another transformation. This time it was pressed into service as a theological device for reconciling the new science of evolutionary biology with the biblical view of human origins. In the process it cast off its polygenist roots and embraced a staunch monogenism – the human race is one in origin but that origin is now pushed back into the deep past of evolutionary prehistory.

But even as pre-adamism was evolving from polygenism to monogenism, a parallel development was exploiting its racist potential to the full. Chapter 7 explores the role of pre-adamism in the developing politics of racial supremacy.

In Chapter 8, Livingstone explores continuing traces of pre-adamism in twentieth-century thought. Specifically, he identifies three contrasting uses of the idea. It plays a part in some anti-evolutionary apologetics. More importantly, it is still used by both evangelicals and Catholics as a device for harmonizing evolutionary biology with a (relatively) conservative reading of the Bible. But, as he points out in his conclusion, such harmonizing strategies have a tendency to transform the very things they seek to unite. On a more disturbing note, the third contemporary use of pre-adamism is its continued deployment to justify the vicious racism of extremist groups like Christian Identity and Aryan Nation. However, Livingstone reminds us that this racism results from a rereading of pre-adamism in a particular social setting rather than being inherent in the idea itself.

In conclusion, this is a well-written and thought-provoking study of an interesting and unjustly neglected strand in the history of the relationship between science and religion.

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