Adam’s Brothers? Race, Science, and Genesis Before Darwin
Published: 27 February 2006 (GMT+10)
The historical connection between evolution and racism has now become fairly well known. From Darwin himself to Adolf Hitler, the superiority of one ‘race’ over another has been asserted on evolutionary principles. Creationists have been using this for years as a prime example of the social dangers of evolution,1 and evolutionists have acknowledged the truth of this as history.2 Especially since the publication of One Blood,3 creationists have also been in the forefront of providing a biblical refutation of racism. The account in Genesis 1–11 precludes any justification of racism. It also provides a history (the dispersion at Babel) that explains the origin of so-called races, which fits well with our understanding of genetics.
Pre-Darwinian antibiblical Racism
The question naturally arises, if the Genesis account provides such a compelling argument against racism, did it function that way in pre-Darwinian times? (Note that creationists have never claimed that Darwin ‘caused’ racism; it is merely pointed out that Darwin’s theory was utilized to legitimize bigotry that was already in existence.) An historical survey reveals that the biblical creation account has always acted to counteract racism. This is not to deny that there have indeed been many (discredited) attempts to make racist arguments from the Bible.4 All that I claim is that there is a very long, and largely overlooked, history in which Genesis has been recognized as an obstacle to intellectually respectable racism. The relationship was quite fascinating: racism comes in, the Bible goes out.5
Church Fathers rejected racism
Starting with the early church fathers, we find orthodox Christianity affirming that so-called racial differences do not affect in any way the unity of mankind. Consider the statement of Augustine: ‘Whoever is anywhere born a man…no matter what unusual appearance…or how peculiar in some part, they are human, descended from Adam.’6 The common descent of all mankind from one man, Adam, was central. (This contrasts significantly with the views of one of the best known and most admired of the ancient non-Christian philosophers, Aristotle, who indicated that some people were slaves by nature.7)
The Christian view remained the predominant view until the nineteenth century. But it did not go unchallenged. In the 1500s it was suggested that mankind consists of more than one species, descended from more than one original couple. Adam and Eve were not alone! But those who suggested these ideas (Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno, Giulio Vanini) were radical freethinkers and heretics whose ideas did not enter the mainstream at the time.8 The significance of these ideas for future racist attitudes, however, was great.
Isaac de la Peyrère and pre-Adamites
The bridge between the Renaissance radicals and the Enlightenment skeptics was Isaac de la Peyrère of Bordeaux. The eccentric Peyrère revived polygenesis in the 1600s. He argued for a bizarre reworking of history in which Adam was the ancestor of the Jews alone. This was the same idea that the heretic Bruno had suggested a century before, but Peyrère escaped receiving the same epithet by claiming to be fitting Scripture with the scientific novelties of the time. Historians suspect that he had ulterior motives. Peyrère was a Roman Catholic of Jewish descent, and he apparently wanted to recast the persecuted Jews into a higher race than their French persecutors. What better way to do this than to exclude the French from descent from Adam!9
Peyrère made a few ripples with his theory, but as the Enlightenment blossomed in the 1700s, splashes (in the plural) were made. Polygenesis began to gain significant popularity. The radicals of the Enlightenment were following the path laid out for them by the radicals of the Renaissance.
The Enlightenment was in many ways an anti-Christian affair, but on the topic of the origin of mankind it originally stayed close to the orthodox Christian view: man was created, and mankind is a unity.10 But the justification of this was on a non-Christian basis. As historian Reginald Horsman notes, this approach resulted in increasing secularization and opened the door for revision whenever someone could come up with a plausible sounding new theory.11 And these were not long in coming.
The new theories built directly on the Renaissance radicals. The basic point was the existence of more than one original couple. The reasoning was similar to that of Paracelsus and Bruno. It was too hard to imagine that all of humanity, from islanders to Europeans, were descended from one original couple. So there had to be others! This account of origins is termed polygenesis. The biblical account of a single original pair is termed monogenesis.
First an obscure English doctor suggested, ‘Though it be a little Heterodox [unorthodox or heretical], I am persuaded the black and white Race have [each] … sprung from different-coloured first Parents.’ More influential voices were soon echoing this sentiment. One of the best-known polygenists of the eighteenth century was Voltaire. The infamous atheist philosopher declared that it was obvious that ‘bearded whites, fuzzy negroes, the long-maned yellow races and beardless men are not descended from the same man,’ no matter what is said by ‘a man dressed in a long black cassock’ (a priest). According to historian Leon Poliakov, polygenism also furnished the basis of Voltaire’s ‘vindication’ of slavery.12
A phenomenon closely linked with the rise of polygenism was the rise of a hierarchal view of races. In other words, the so-called races were classified with some viewed as better than others. Biblically there is no basis for this. Historically, leading Christian thinkers have rejected these classifications. Augustine stated that it is ungodly pride that ‘abhors equality with other men under Him [that is, under God]…instead of His rule, it seeks to impose a rule of its own upon its equals’.13 The moderates of the Enlightenment (distinct from the radicals, who were polygenists) at first also rejected hierarchy. But it became increasingly common to make comparisons between Europeans and other ‘races’ (especially Africans) that were almost always unfavorable to the latter.14 Again, this is not to imply that they were the first to do so, but they took this tendency to a much higher level than before.
For example, Jean-Joseph Virey remarked, ‘The European, called by his high destiny to rule the world, which he knows how to illumine with his intelligence and subdue with his courage, is the highest expression of man and at the head of the human race. The others, a wretched horde of barbarians, are, so to say, no more than its embryo.’15 And Immanuel Kant wrote in 1755, ‘The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling…. So fundamental is the difference between those two races of men [whites and blacks]…it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color.’16
In 1775, Bernard Romans published a description of Florida in which the Indians received similar treatment as the Africans. He clearly connected polygenism with racial superiority (superiority of his own race, of course). He declared the Indians to be a different species from the Europeans, and wrote ‘there were as many Adams and Eves…as we find different species of the human genus.’17
Before long, the account of polygenesis and the superior European race was connected with a new myth that became incredibly popular among European academics in the late eighteenth through the middle of the nineteenth centuries. (This in turn was connected with a craze for linguistic research which also figured into the rise of ‘higher criticism’ of the Bible.18) The basic components of this academic myth involve India, Europe, and an anti-biblical orientation of the researchers. The story went like this: The forefathers of the European race emerged from the Caucasus or Kashmir mountains in western India and headed west. (Hence the term Caucasian.) They carried with them the wisdom of the ancient east—principles of freedom and advanced society predating the Jewish Old Testament. (Excluding the Old Testament was important to many of the anti-Semites connected with this new racial theory.) This pure race of the first Europeans was termed the Aryan race.19
Incredible as it might seem to us now, a conglomerate of polygenism and the Aryan ‘out-of-India’ hypothesis combined to become a leading paradigm in anthropology by the 1830s. And this was more than just academic speculation. These hypotheses were directly used to both justify and promote racist attitudes and actions in Europe and the United States.
In Germany, zealous anti-Semitic scholars produced several ‘Aryan bibles’. These were revisions of Scripture that corrected the supposed Jewish myths prevalent in the Old Testament with Asian religious connections. An example of the changes made was the transformation of Moses into Manu, a central figure in the Vedic religion, the precursor of Hinduism.20 Just how wild this speculation actually became is shown by the connections that were made between ancient Nordic myths, ancient Indian religion, and Aryan supremacy, all predicated on the polygenesis explanation of human history and the ‘out-of-India’ hypothesis. Leon Poliakov called this ‘the disconcerting phenomenon of German neo-Paganism.’21 These bizarre racial myths of Europe, including those based on polygenesis and the India hypothesis, laid historical groundwork into which Darwinian justifications of racism could be integrated in the years to come. It would culminate in the Nazis’ quintessential edifice of racism.22
Effects on the USA
Returning to the early half of the nineteenth century, let us direct our attention to the effects of European scientific racism in the United States. Admittedly, there were monogenists who were racists, and there were attempts, all discredited, to make racist arguments from the Bible.23 But it has largely been forgotten how large a role polygenist thought had on America’s debate over race and slavery.
In the early years of the republic, the biblical and Enlightenment views of the unity of mankind predominated. A doctor, Charles Caldwell, started the first significant assault on the unity of mankind in America in 1811. Reginald Horsman documents the reaction: Caldwell was immediately attacked by Christians for calling Genesis into question. Caldwell tried to defend himself by saying that he didn’t doubt Genesis, but he didn’t believe environment could explain the races. He suggested an unbiblical intervention of God to create racial differences. Horsman writes, ‘This usually did not satisfy the religious orthodox [Christians], who correctly surmised that any attack on the unity of the human race would ultimately bring a direct challenge to Genesis.’24
From the 1830s to the 1850s, leading periodicals in America, particularly in the South, were abuzz either with reports on European racial science or (more often) Americanized versions of these theories. Polygenesis itself was often avoided—its confrontation with Genesis was too direct—but occasionally it was hinted at. In 1839, the Southern Agriculturalist ran an article which cautiously suggested it: ‘We are almost tempted to believe that there must have been more Adams’ than one, each variety of colour having its own original parent.’25 In 1842, the interest in polygenesis was so great that it began to be discussed in the Democratic Review, one of the nation’s leading politically influential papers. At the start, the Review published an article defending the common descent of mankind from Adam and Eve. By 1850, though, the Democratic Review was backpedaling. They declared it to be scientifically proven that races were inherently different species. Polygenesis was acknowledged as a likely explanation.26
Louis Agassiz and Josiah Nott on polygenesis
Agassiz was probably the leading scientist of polygenism in America. Agassiz was widely recognized as America’s foremost zoologist of the mid nineteenth century, and his religious beliefs were eccentric. He professed belief in the Bible, but was a progressive creationist with decidedly unbiblical beliefs. He believed that God created every animal and plant exactly where they would remain, that the earth was very old, and that natural history was divided into four distinct phases by mass extinctions (after which God had to recreate the extinct creatures). He believed that Adam was a Caucasian, and that Genesis only described the origins of whites. Agassiz’s support for polygenesis went far to make this view respectable in America, and many proslavery advocates were glad to argue on his authority.27
If Agassiz was the foremost scientific advocate of polygenesis, Josiah Nott was the great polemicist for polygenesis. Nott was one of the most vocal advocates of inequality and defenders of slavery. Polygenesis was the convenient starting point for his views. His writings were published in some of the South’s leading periodicals, in which he dared to challenge the Bible outright, declaring that ‘the physical history of mankind is … wholly irreconcilable with the account given in the Book of Genesis.’28
Bible-believers v polygenesis
But there were still those who were willing to defend the biblical view of the unity of mankind. The Reverend Thomas Smyth was well known for his strong arguments against the polygenists. Leading New England journals criticized the racist arguments, which they recognized as putting the whole Genesis account into question.29 And even in the South, there were those who realized the disastrous implications of the racist theories for the Bible. William Archer Cocke wrote these incisive words in the Southern Literary Messenger:
‘If there are distinct species of Man, then the Bible is untrue; if there are other races than the descendents of Adam, they are free from the penalty “of man’s first disobedience” and the tragic scene of Calvary but a mockery and a delusion.’30
This incisive analysis brings us back to the heart of the issue. The Bible provides no basis for asserting superiority of one people group over another. We are all of ‘one blood’, descended from one man, Adam, who was created in the very image of God. Yet for centuries, sinful man has tried to get around this, and a longstanding tactic has been to justify racism in the name of science and scholarship. Thus, racist science has been consistently opposed to the Bible.
As I mentioned already, the connection between evolution and racism is well established. The pre-Darwinian racists may have had to wait for Darwin for some of their best arguments,31 but the use of anti-biblical science for racist goals was already a tradition. By looking at a sampling of pre-Darwinian theories used to justify racism, I hope to have shown how this trend has played out through history.
The unusual, bizarre, and sometimes almost laughable rationalizations of racism have come and gone through the years. The Bible has been mocked, ignored, attacked, or twisted to conform to racist ideologies completely foreign to its message. But its true message has been clear to all those whose minds have been conformed to Scripture, instead of conforming Scripture to their fallen minds. Racism, even when masquerading as science, has always been unbiblical. We have a common ancestor, Adam. And you cannot classify part of your family as animals without reflecting on yourself.
- Henry M. Morris, A History of Modern Creationism (San Diego: Master Books, 1984), chapter 2. Return to text.
- For example, Edward J. Larson, Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory (New York: Modern Library, 2004), pp. 98–99, 114, 154–156, chapter 8.Return to text.
- Ken Ham, Carl Wieland and Don Batten, One Blood: The Biblical Answer to Racism (Green Forest, Arkansas: Master Books, 1999). Return to text.
- One Blood effectively refutes the arguments of the pseudo-biblical racists in Ch. 7. Return to text.
- Reginald Horsman’s Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1981) introduced me to this history. Return to text.
- Augustine, cited in Brendan O’Flaherty and Jill S. Shapiro, ‘Apes, Essences, and Races: What Natural Scientists Believed about Human Variation, 1700–1900’, Columbia University, New York, Department of Economics Discussion Paper #:0102-24, March 2002, p. 8. Return to text.
- Aristotle, Politics 1, 4. Return to text.
- O’Flaherty and Shapiro, p. 9; Leon Poliakov, The Aryan Myth: A History of Racist and Nationalist Ideas in Europe, Edmund Howard, trans. (New York: Basic Books, 1974), pp. 132–133; Horsman, p. 45; Richard H. Popkin, ‘The Philosophical Basis of Eighteenth Century Racism’, in Harold E. Pagliaro, ed., Racism in the Eighteenth Century, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, vol. 3 (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University, 1973), p. 251. Return to text.
- Poliakov, pp. 132–133; Popkin, pp. 252–253. See also Grigg, R., Pre-Adamic man: were there human beings on Earth before Adam?, Creation 24(4):42–45, 2002; Lubenow, Marvin L., ‘Pre-Adamites, sin, death and the human fossils’, Journal of Creation 12(2):230, 1998. Return to text.
- O’Flaherty and Shapiro, pp. 13–16; Horsman, pp. 45–46. Return to text.
- Horsman, p. 46. Return to text.
- Quotes from John Atkins and Voltaire, cited by Poliakov, p. 175. Return to text.
- Augustine, The City of God, XIX, 12. Return to text.
- O’Flaherty and Shapiro, pp. 16–18. Return to text.
- Virey, quoted by Horsman, p. 49. Return to text.
- Kant, quoted by O’Flaherty and Shapiro, p. 18. Return to text.
- Romans, B., quoted by Horsman, p. 52. Return to text.
- For a concise and witty critique of higher criticism, see Gary North, The Hoax of Higher Criticism (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989); see also the articles under Who really wrote Genesis? Return to text.
- Horsman, chapters 2, 3; Poliakov, chapter 9. Return to text.
- Poliakov, pp. 208–209. Return to text.
- Poliakov, p. 105. Return to text.
- This is actually a summary of Poliakov, op cit.; on Darwin and Nazism, also see Henry M. Morris, The Long War Against God (Green Forest, Arkansas: Master Books, 2000) pp. 60–82; Jerry Bergman, ‘Darwinism and the Nazi race Holocaust’, Journal of Creation 13(2):101–111, 1999; Richard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, USA, 2004 (see review). Return to text.
- On monogenists and slavery, see O’Flaherty and Shapiro, p. 23; on the imaginary curse on Ham, see One Blood ch. 6. Return to text.
- Horsman, p. 117. Return to text.
- Horsman, p. 141. Return to text.
- Horsman, pp. 145-148. Return to text.
- Edward J. Larson, Trial and Error: The American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 11–12; A. Hunter Dupree, ‘Christianity and the Scientific Community in the Age of Darwin,’ in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, eds., God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 356–358; Horsman, pp. 132–133, 151. Return to text.
- Horsman, pp. 151–155. Return to text.
- Horsman, pp. 147–149. Return to text.
- Horsman, p. 149. Return to text.
- Peter J. Bowler, Evolution: The History of An Idea, rev. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 88. Return to text.