From One Man

Maybe it was a lack of caffeine. Maybe it was low blood sugar. No one really knows why, but at the dawn of the so-called Enlightenment, Isaac La Peyrère totally flubbed his reading of Romans 5:12-14. This momentary lapse of reason added fuel to the smoldering embers of two seemingly unrelated ideas: higher criticism and colonial racism.[1]

The passage in Romans is relatively straightforward. Paul is reminding his readers that death came into the world through the sin of Adam. This single act affected “all men,” even those who lived before the law came into effect. But La Peyrère misses the point completely. He begins to wonder how Adam’s sin could affect “all men” if Adam was the only man around at the time. In a fit of confusion he conjures up a pre-Adamic world occupied for countless eons by people living in a lawless “state of nature.” These are the people, reasoned La Peyrère, who were affected by Adam’s sin.

Nothing in the immediate context, or the entire breadth of the Bible, will support such a harebrained scheme. Like so many of the higher critics who followed in his footsteps, La Peyrère responds to the lack of Biblical data by attacking the integrity of Scripture. He has to manufacture holes and inconsistencies to make room for his fantastic fairytale.

The basic outline of La Peyrère’s Prae-Adamitae (1655) was adopted by apologists for the burgeoning transatlantic slave trade. In their hands, the pre-Adamic men conveniently morphed into Africans, Native Americans, and possibly even Asians. These creatures are deemed to lack intelligence, a soul, and any claim to human decency. Whites become the only men created in God’s image and the sole focus of God’s providential care.

For over two hundred years, the debate passed back and forth between the theory of multiple origins (polygenism) and the Biblical teaching of single origins (monogenism). This is not to say that monogenists were always abolitionists, or were entirely free of prejudice, but it brought them closer to the men, women and children working in the fields.

The situation worsened with the arrival of scientific justifications for racism. These could be piled on top of, or in place of, the alleged Biblical arguments. In the middle of the 19th century, Louis Agassiz rose to prominence as one of the world’s leading naturalists. He became a formidable foe of Darwinian evolution. Unfortunately, like many scientists of his day, Agassiz promoted the twin fallacies of species fixity and independent creations. On this view, God created African animals in Africa, Asian animals in Asia, and so on. Creatures from different parts of the world may look similar, but each act of creation produced a different species. Change, even on a small scale, was unthinkable because it represented a violation of God’s original plan.

This approach to creation had profound repercussions for the unity of man. If each race represented a separate creation in a separate part of the world, then each race constituted a separate species.[2] On the assumption that interspecies mixing would produce inferior “half-breeds,” Agassiz urged “every possible obstacle to the crossing of the races.” It should come as no surprise to learn that he flatly rejected the intellectual and moral equality of racial groups.[3]

Charles Darwin stepped into the fray in 1871 with the publication of his Descent of Man. For Darwin, evolution clearly implied a single “primitive stock” for mankind. This raised a distinctly Darwinian question: In the struggle for life, which race was best adapted to long-term survival? The English naturalist was ready with a bold prediction: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.”[4]

Thankfully, this is yet another failed Darwinian prediction, but it highlights a fundamental difference between “Biblical” racism and the scientific or Darwinian alternative. The pre-Adamite position violated Scripture and was condemned as heresy from day one. Other views fared no better. Dark-colored skin was thought to be the “mark of Cain” (cf. Genesis 4:15) so that, in a horrendous twist of irony, an act of divine mercy becomes an excuse for unnumbered acts of cruelty. Noah’s prophecy, which made Canaan a “servant of servants” to his brothers (Genesis 9:25-27), is linked by proslavery exegetes to the dark skin of Ham’s descendants.[5] Neither interpretation could survive a careful reading of the texts. They required the convergence of three factors: (1) a need to justify the subjugation of other peoples; (2) a race theory based on skin color; and (3), a flippant disregard for the integrity of Scripture.

By way of contrast, as witnessed in the statements of Darwin himself, the insidious strands of racism were woven into the very fabric of evolutionary theory. Bald-faced claims to white superiority based on evolutionary biology would eventually fall out of favor, but the specter of racism continued to haunt the various applications of Darwinism to human culture. This included Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism, E.O. Wilson’s sociobiology, and the vast and entirely fruitless industry of evolutionary psychology.

The charge of racism leveled against sociobiology often centered on the heritability of intelligence. Notoriously, African Americans seemed to score lower on controversial IQ tests than Caucasians and Asians. Now here is the rub: Wilson tried to explain everything in terms of our underlying biology. So if IQ varied by race, it would seem to be the result of hard-coded genetic variations on which progressive social policies could have no effect—biology was destiny. Wilson steadfastly resisted these conclusions, but they dogged his career and rightly cast a cloud of suspicion over sociobiology.[6]

Although attention often focused on the intrusion of evolution into human culture, the polygenic versus monogenic debate never really went away (contrary to yet another failed prediction by Darwin). The controversy today pits the out-of-Africa model against the multiregional model. The out-of-Africa model relies on mitochondrial DNA to propose the existence of a single ancestor—the first in a line of humans like us—living in Africa two hundred thousand years ago. Because mtDNA supposedly is passed on through the mother alone, this ancestor was dubbed “mitochondrial Eve.” The catchy Biblical allusion rocketed her, and the theory, to media stardom. The second view, the multiregional model, uses fossil evidence to argue for the separate origins of human groups in different parts of the world around two million years ago.

Each side accuses the other of racism. In the out-of-Africa model, the descendants of “Eve” replace every other human population without any mixing whatsoever. Other humans disappear because they are inferior, and are wiped out by “Eve’s” marauding offspring. Despite the cruel overtones, the scientific community shrugged its collective shoulders. After all, there were no survivors to take offense. Accusations of racism leveled against the multiregional model gained a lot more traction. Separate lines of descent going back millions of years could imply deep-seated inequalities. This smacked too much of the old racist polygenic views and so, in the name of political correctness, “Eve” took her place among the canons of evolutionary storytelling.

In reality, evolution can never rise above the specter of racism without making an exception in the case of humans. After all, Homo sapiens is just as much a part of nature as any other species on this planet. If the forces of nature have molded and shaped mankind, then one race (the old-fashioned word for “subspecies”) might have a leg up in the struggle for survival. Indeed, even in the subtitle of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) we find a promise to explain The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. And if one race has a leg up, then an argument for racial superiority is not too far away. Evolutionists would love to invoke culture to make an exception, but from Darwin’s perspective, humans were entirely unexceptional and not at all immune from the forces of nature.

The Bible, for its part, is profoundly color blind. We find talk of nations and peoples separated at times by faith, distance and language but rarely, it seems, by broad descriptions of their outward physical appearance. And so in a mature expression of God’s redemptive history a Jew is able to stand before an audience of Greeks and declare of God that He “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). Without a commitment to the creation of man in God’s image there is no basis for the love of one’s neighbor. Who is our neighbor? When that question was asked of Jesus (Luke 10:29) His response was to ask, in effect, who isn’t?

[A version of this article appeared in Think, November 2009, pp. 8-9.]


[1] Richard Henry Popkin. Isaac La Peyrère (1596-1676). New York: E.J. Brill, 1987.

[2] Louis Agassiz. “Sketch of the Provinces of the Animal World and their Relation to the Different Types of Man,” in Types of Mankind. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1854, pp. lxxii, lxxiv.

[3] Letters to Samuel G. Howe, 1863, in Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, editor. Louis Agassiz: His Life and Correspondence. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1893, pp. 599, 603.

[4] Charles Darwin. The Descent of Man. London: John Murray, 1871, p. 201.

[5] See Werner Sollors. Neither Black Nor White Yet Both. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 92-96.

[6] Ullica Segerstråle. Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 179-184.

© 2009 – 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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