Who were Our Adam and Eve?

Anthony Zimmerman
Published in Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly
Spring 2006
Reproduced with Permission

We rightly feel familiar with the Adam and Eve of Genesis, whom we honor as our first parents. We assume that their bodies, like ours, were of the Homo Sapiens species. Nevertheless the fossil record provides practically irrefutable evidence that peoples of species other than Homo Sapiens once lived on our planet. We need to come to grips with this hominid history, though it may jar us out of our comfortable complacency. I use the term species in the genetical meaning, namely that reproduction is possible by way of union within the species, but not with members outside of it.

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn has not addressed this issue specifically, but he has vigorously reputed a literal interpretation of Genesis in the sense that the earth is only 6,000 years old.

The Catholic position on this is clear. St. Thomas says that "one should not try to defend the Christian faith with arguments that are so patently opposed to reason that the faith is made to look ridiculous." It is simply nonsense to say that the world is only 6,000 years old (Catechesis, Creation and Evolution, Zenit News, Dec. 19, 2005).

With this in mind, we seek to know more about our first ancestors, whom Genesis names as Adam and Eve, in a friendly dialogue of Catholic doctrine with natural science.

Our first parents were members of the "Homo Sapiens" species

Our first consideration is that Jesus, in His human nature, is a member of the Homo Sapiens species, the one and only species of humans that now inhabits the earth. Why not Homo Habilis who made stone artifacts in Ethiopia 2.5 million years ago? Or Homo Erectus, like Peking Man of 500,000 years ago? Or Neanderthal who was for a time a contemporary with Homo Sapiens some 200,000 years ago?

Christ was born as a son of David, son of Abraham, son of Adam, whose descendants and kinfolks are with us today. As Pope St. Leo the Great wrote:

Luke going backwards step by step traces His succession to the first of the human race himself, to show that the first Adam and the last Adam were of the same nature (Letter 31).

Was this "Adam" also a Homo Sapiens? That is the topic of this chapter. We begin our chain of logic with the indisputable fact that our Adam and Eve were intelligent and free persons. We know this because God held them responsible for their mortal sin, which is a sure sign that they had sufficient knowledge and freedom of the will. As the CCC states:

1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God's law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice.

We follow through with the logic that a mature knowledge and freedom is an index of an accomplished speaking ability. Even though speech itself is not identical with knowledge and freedom, in effect it is a reliable index of their presence and use. In order to think and to act freely we need to use a language. An awareness of knowledge and freedom is anchored on the sensible phantasms of words and sentences. Saint Thomas teaches that "In the present state of life in which the soul is united to a passible body, it is impossible for our intellect to understand anything actually, except by turning to the phantasms" (Summa Theologica I-I,84,7).

From credible scientific data and evidence gathered from the fossil record we can deduce that peoples other than Homo Sapiens did not have the facile ability to speak as we do. In consequence of their linguistic underdevelopment, we cannot attribute to them the knowledge and freedom that is associated with the mortal sin of our first parents. Our thesis stands or falls on the basis of the credibility of the admittedly limited and still disputed interpretation of the data. I believe that the arguments and deductions that follow are sound and present them with this conviction in mind.

The fossil record of man

1) Homo Habilis: The fossil record indicates that stone tools were made in Ethiopia 2.5 million years ago. The ones who made them must have been reasoning humans. However, though the fossil record is scant, it indicates that they were not members of the Homo Sapiens species. The species is now extinct.

2) Homo Erectus: The record indicates likewise that Homo Erectus, who existed between 1.8 million and 300,000 years ago, was not of our species. Like Habilis, the face had protruding jaws with large molars, no chin, thick brow ridges, and a receding brow. The species is likewise extinct.

Peoples of the Erectus type are said to have fanned out from Africa into the areas where Italy, Spain, France, England, and other European countries are today, as well as to India, Java, and north into China. The diggings near Peking in China indicate that Erectus lived there for a very long time.

Erectus people of the Peking type, for example, probably spent much of the day hunting and gathering, and then spent the evenings around the fires. They must have had a considerable division of labor, they communicated linguistically with each other, and exercised considerable technical skill. They may very well have developed significant human culture and manners, and perhaps discussed the meaning of life as they ate their meals and warmed themselves around the fires. Yet, they were not of the Homo Sapiens species, not of the same human species as Christ and our Adam and Eve.

3) Neanderthals existed between 230,000 and 27,000 years ago, and are now extinct. Their bodies were robust, and like Erectus, they had a protruding jaw and a receding forehead. The fossil record indicates the likelihood that Neanderthal and Sapiens remained genetically and culturally separate from each other:

Archaeologists believe that there was no cultural connection between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon peoples. The stone tools of the Cro-Magnons seemed markedly more sophisticated than Neanderthal implements. And when archaeologists dug down through successive layers in caves, they sometimes found sterile layers between the Neanderthal deposits and the deposits left by Cro-Magnons, indicating that no one had occupied the cave for a time. These layers containing no sign of human occupation were interpreted as proof that the Neanderthals had become extinct without having given rise to their successors in Western Europe. (Bernard G. Campbell, Humankind Emerging, Sixth Edition, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, l992, p. 381).

An evaluation of successive layers of fossils indicates likewise that for long periods of time Homo Sapiens lived contemporaneously with Erectus in some areas (in Java), though they remained isolated from each other. The artifacts characteristic to each are not found together.

4) Homo Sapiens appeared perhaps 200,000 years ago. The forehead is high and erect, the face is proportioned beautifully, the chin is prominent, the base of the skull is so mounted on the upper vertebrae that there is place for our speech organs.

Homo Sapiens, first human with modern type speech abilities

From the fossil record we can infer that Habilis, Erectus, and the Neanderthals did not possess speech organs such as our own. The point of this writing is that their limited linguistic abilities could not support the knowledge and freedom that is evident in the couple who committed original sin. God would not hold people responsible for original sin if they had not yet developed matching powers of reason. Underdeveloped speech ability indicates underdeveloped knowledge and freedom. From this we can make a logical leap to conclude that it must have been members of the Homo Sapiens species who committed original sin.

Modern organs of speech began with Homo Sapiens

Habilis, Erectus, and Neanderthal fossils do not have the configuration of the basicranium and upper vertebrae that can accommodate our very sophisticated type of speech organs and the neural substrate to support their functioning. The type of comparatively primitive speech organs that Habilis, Erectus and Neanderthal could have possessed were inadequate to produce our modern type of sophisticated rapid and well articulated speech that can carry advanced spiritual thought.

The Catechism, No. 54, tells us that God "wishing to open up the way to heavenly salvation, he manifested himself to our first parents from the very beginning. He invited them to intimate communion with himself and clothed them with resplendent grace and justice." We must assume that they were capable of understanding this revelation, of making it their own, and of teaching it to their children.

The revelation included belief in God, in the afterlife, and a code of commandments that we might term the "Ten Commandments of Eden." All this is implied in the doctrine that our first parents received the Primeval Revelation from God, and together with it sanctifying grace, and that they subsequently committed the mortal sin that we inherit in the form of original sin.

The two-tubed speech organ of Homo Sapiens

Homo Sapiens has what is called the two-tubed speech airway (see Phillip Lieberman, The Biology and Evolution of Language, 1984, p. 325 ff.). This includes the vertically positioned larynx and a prolonged pharynx extending vertically from the trachea, followed by the sharp turn into the horizontal oral cavity. A constriction at the turn creates the two tubes. In the two tubes we format the vowels, stops, and consonants. We format the vowel "A" (as in about) mainly in the pharynx, the "E" (as in meet) mainly in the oral cavity, and the "U" (as in you) in both simultaneously. Our organs also support the formatting of the stops: "G" (as in get) and "K" (as in keep) and the many-well articulated consonants. Our organs are uniquely capable of producing a meaningful calibration and articulation of rapid speech as we know it.

The endowments of Habilis, Erectus, and Neanderthal are a single-tube breathing passageway that lacks this turn to the horizontal and the constriction into two tubes. Theirs is a larynx high in the trachea that allows for simultaneous breathing and swallowing. Theirs is a long palate with a shallow tongue that accommodates unrestricted breathing, but not a sophisticated calibration of phonemes.

If speech is not properly articulated in the efficient manner that we produce it, it fails to support thought of a complex nature. One cannot pronounce the Ten Commandments without well articulated vowels, stops and consonants.

In addition, if the formatting even of rudimentary speech is slow, only very short sentences can be intellectualized. The meaning of long sentences is lost if the beginning of a sentence falls out of the short term memory by the time the end of the sentence is finally spoken. Scientists tell us to test this by speaking a long sentence at one tenth the speed at which we ordinarily speak. Inevitably, the beginning of the sentence falls out of the short term memory before the end is reached. The meaning is then incoherent.

The marvels of human speech.

Our basic speech organs are in place at birth, and speech automatisms develop easily during childhood. The nerve pathways from the phantatizing brain to the receiving musculature of throat, tongue and lips take on habitual automatisms during the learning of the mother tongue and of secondary languages. We express thoughts by producing audible signals - formatted puffs of air - which are deciphered meaningfully by the hearer. When we engage in conversation our brains, speech organs, eyes, ears, faces, and our entire bodies get into the act. The billions of neurons of the brain - 100 billion by recent estimate - become engaged and swing into action, or stand by for service if needed. Both the speaker and the listener keep track of the nuanced words and sentences in their short-term memories and anchor their thoughts on them, or deduce meaning from them.

The meaning of a sentence is usually not known until we hear the end of it. With the short-term memory to hold the entire sentence momentarily in view, we typically scramble the sequential verbiage into an emulsified whole, swirling together the subject, the predicate, the object, together with modifiers. Only with the entire sentence in memory do we grasp its meaning.

When we communicate pleasant thoughts we can amplify the meaning of the audible signals of calibrated air currents with an elegance of sparkling eyes, smiling face, and lilting voice. Or, when we express displeasure, we tend to make the voice grate and rasp, curl the lips, tweak the nose, arch the eyebrows, clench fists, bulge the neck, erect the hair, flush the face, and flash bolts of lightning from the eyes (see the author's Evolution and the Sin in Eden. (University Press of America, chapter 2; on Internet site Catholicmind.com).

The spiritual soul does the thinking, of course, but it plays on the neurons to fashion the non-material spiritual thought into electro-chemical nerve transmissions from the motor strip of the brain to the more than 100 muscles involved in speech. These twitch in proper timing and amplitude as commanded by the brain to format the sound that eventually emerges from our lips. The brain, in response to the thinking soul, transmits the stimuli to format the phonemes precisely, their onset, their tonus, and their transit to the next phoneme.

The sending terminal at the motor strip of the brain initiates some of the signals in a reverse timing order of their arrival at the receiving muscle, because signals on thicker nerves may travel at the speed of 300 miles per hour, whereas signals over finer strands may move at the leisurely pace of 1.5 miles per hour (Eric. H. Lennenberg, Biological Foundations for Language, p. 91). Phonemes are produced properly only when the right set of muscles twitch in proper sequence and amplitude. The ear monitors the process and sometimes interrupts to correct mistakes. The speed at which all this is done is almost incredible. If 100 muscles are engaged, and a speaker pronounces up to six syllables per second, and each syllable has 2.4 separate phonemes, the brain sends 1400 stimuli in proper sequence and amplitude per second to encode the speaker's thoughts on sound waves. A piano virtuoso can manipulate fingers at a great rate, but surely not at this speed.

Linguistic ability required for the events in Eden.

Could Adam perhaps by-pass our way of thinking, our manner of using images to arrive at intellectual understanding, by a more direct route, by spiritual cogitation not anchored on sensible images? Did he perhaps receive infused knowledge from God, which could be understood without use of image props?

Of course, God could have made Adam like an angel to receive and send communications without need of speech. But we understand that when God chose Adam to be the founder of our race, He revealed Himself in a manner intelligible to humans rather than to angels. God made the revelation to Adam in a manner that is humanly communicable. To belabor the question further: What great good for Adam and for the race would a revelation be that is infused

knowledge, but cannot be translated into human terms for practical use? If the infused knowledge does not resonate in the senses and imagination, how can it be encodable in speech for personal rumination and for communication to others? If the revelation is like that described by Paul, who "was caught up into paradise and heard things which must not and cannot be put into human language" (2 Cor. 12:2) how can Adam himself know what the revelation means for life here on earth?

We do not doubt that God infused grace and the virtues of faith, hope, and charity into Adam and Eve, but we say that they could not communicate these spiritual realities directly to each other and to their children without encoding their beliefs into a language. Only God can enter the mind to make it see light in His light. We humans can speak to others about what we hold and believe, but we cannot switch on a spiritual light in the mind of another person. The best we can do is load our thoughts onto the transportation system of sound waves and visual images, and so send these on their way to the person with whom we are communicating. We cannot pour our spiritual knowledge into our neighbor's spiritual container or receptacle. So we try to do it with speech, hoping that the listener will decode the sound signals on which we have encoded our thought. "Although the intellect abstracts from the phantasms" writes Thomas, "it does not understand actually without turning to the phantasms" (ST, I,85,5).

We look for ancestors in Eden, therefore, who speak a human language adequately, whose mental and linguistic abilities are not rudimentary, and are not underdeveloped as in the case of children and minors. Our ancestors were assigned by God to be the founders of the human race. They must be able, therefore, to perceive events and understand them adequately. They must also be able to encode what they think into a commonly understood language - into phonetic and syntactic codes that the listeners can in turn decode in order to think the same thoughts.

Habilis, Erectus and Neanderthals lacked facile speech.

The non-Homo Sapiens people had a skull shape set upon the vertebrae with a configuration and angle that could not accommodate our type of speech organs. Were one to place our type of speech organs into a Neanderthal, Erectus, or Habilis type of body, the result would be a monster, with the "Adam's apple" or larynx in the chest (Lieberman. P.296).

Scientists do not claim that the earlier hominids were totally unable to speak, but that they lacked the ability to speak rapidly and to calibrate the phonemes audibly and sharply as we do routinely, so that both listener and speaker can express complex thoughts in suitable subject and predicate and modifiers, and do so in one conscious intellectual overview. The speech production by Habilis, Erectus, and Neanderthal could only have been limited, labored, and slow in comparison with that of Homo Sapiens. So handicapped, they could not have compressed complex meanings into the short term memory. Their sentences were presumably short and simple. At a snail's pace of production of speech elements, if the sentence is long, its beginning falls out of the short term memory before the end is reached. Speech limitations thus defined thought limitations and responsibilities of people other than Homo Sapiens. Shall we compare them to young children of today?

Our first ancestors were isolated genetically from all other humans

A plausible concept of our origins is that when our Adam and Eve had achieved adulthood in speech ability and powers of reason, God called them and set them apart to receive His revelation. The first, and I think the only two whom God thus called, are our immediate ancestors. As Genesis states: "Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and he placed there the man whom he had formed" (2:8). I envision that the first human pair separated from other Homo Sapiens people, if such there were, and are the sole beginning of the current global population. Either our "Adam and Eve" were the first carriers of the speech novelty, or they were members of a larger group of Homo Sapiens people. In the latter supposition, those "others" were reproductively isolated from our Adam and Eve couple, and ended in extinction, whereas our first parents alone are the ancestors of all people on earth today.

God called our Homo Sapiens parents aside, revealed Himself to them, and endowed them with the gift of Sanctifying Grace. They lost it through original sin, but God promised to send a Redeemer (Genesis 3:15), a promise whose fulfilment we celebrate on Christmas Day.

Our first ancestors, founders of human culture

The doctrine and commandments of the Eden revelation given to our first ancestors are the firm base on which humans could build not only their theology, but also their philosophy, their social and economic structures, and the monogamous family life. The truths they knew and believed about God helped them to know their individual and interpersonal rights and duties and were compelling motivation to live in accordance with those perceptions. The Bible pictures our first ancestors as people who know God, who live monogamously, who receive children born to them as a trust from God and not as disposable property. From this basis of the "Ten Commandments of Eden" humans everywhere have devised customs and laws that regulate universal rights and duties. The Adam and Eve of the Bible, therefore, are also the Homo Sapiens people of science. They founded our race and taught it the basics of religion and culture.