I’d like to suggest that this argument is in significant ways misplaced. The participants in this debate all seem to agree that what makes us “human” can be defined by genes and population studies. There is a pressing need for them to conform theology to population genetics, or to conform population genetics to theology, because the story of our genes is implicitly equated with the story of what it means to be “human.” The hypothesis that there was a “first human”—a capital-A “Adam”—can be tested in our genes.
But “genes” do not make us “human.” What makes us “human” is the irreducible phenomena of all of our material and immaterial being as persons.
Nothing we observe in the universe is flat. By “flat” I mean having only one aspect or “layer.” Consider, for example, an apple. What is it? Is it the fruit of an apple tree? The seed-carrier—the potentiality—of new apple trees? Beautiful and delicious? Skin, flesh, and core? Water and organic molecules? Caloric energy and roughage? Hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon? Physical laws? All of these things comprise some of what we mean by “apple,” but none of them are what an “apple” is. The reality that is “apple” cannot be reduced to any one of its aspects or layers.
It is possible to think of these aspects or layers hierarchically, with “higher” layers that emerge from “lower” ones. Physical laws emerge from quantum probabilities; molecules emerge from physical laws; seeds, skin, flesh and core emerge from complex arrangements of molecules; beauty and delight emerge from the connection of skin, flesh and core to human sense perception;1 “apple” emerges from all of this (and more) combined with the human cultural experience of this thing we call “apple.”
Notice that some “layers” can impinge or “supervene” on lower ones—for example, human sense perception and cultural experience do something to this thing confronting the subject in order for it to become “apple.” But notice also that “apple” is not merely a cultural construction. The word or signifier “apple,” of course, could be arbitrary, but there is an objective reality to the thing signified. The layer of human sense perception and cultural experience supervenes upon, but does not create, the lower-order reality from which it emerges.
Sociologist Christian Smith draws these strands together in a critical realist framework in his excellent book What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up. In a critically realist approach to culture and human personhood, Smith suggests, “[h]uman beings do have an identifiable nature that is rooted in the natural world, although the character of human nature is such that it gives rise to capacities to construct variable meanings and identities….” Culture is a social construction, but it is not merely a social construction. Human beings are social, but they are not subsumed by the social. The reality we inhabit is “stratified”: it includes both the reality of individual conscious human agents and the reality of the social structures that emerge from the cultures created by those agents. These “personal” and “cultural” layers of the world interact with each other dynamically, each continually informing and changing the other.
Smith’s approach is helpful, but perhaps it does not go far enough. For Smith, as for critical realists in general, the phenomena of human culture remain subject to some degree of granular disaggregation, at least analytically. A phenomenological approach suggests that no “thing” can be broken into components and still comprise that “thing”—the genes that encode for apple trees are not apple seeds, apple seeds are not apple trees, and apple trees are not apples. The critical realist framework of stratification, emergence, and supervenience functions as a very useful heuristic device, but to describe what an apple is, we must approach the phenomenon of “apple” in its fullness. To know whether something falls into the kind “apple,” we must hold an ideal of everything an apple is, and compare the subject to the ideal.
And because of the transcendence of the ideal concept of “apple,” we can begin to speak of the relative excellence of particular instantiations of apples. What is an “excellent” apple? What distinguishes the excellent apple from a poor one? We can only ask such questions if “apple” means something more than the particular physical specimen in hand, whether firm, sweet and tart, or bruised and sour.
The same is true of human “persons.” We can say almost nothing about a “person” merely by observing genes, because genes are not “persons.” Populations genetics studies can provide models of the dispersion of genes through groups of biological entities, but they can tell us nothing whatsoever about when the first “human person” emerged. Indeed, for population genetics qua population genetics, there simply are no “persons”—for this is a science of the movement of genes, not a philosophical, sociological, or theological description of “persons.”
So what of “Adam?” It is often suggested that in Romans 5:12 Adam is a type of Christ. But, in fact, in Paul’s thought, as well as for the early Church Fathers, Christ is the type, the typos, a notion derived from the “stamp” or “seal” on an official document. There is a hint in Romans 5 of a truth that would only become clarified later in Christian theology—that the pre-incarnate Christ, the second person of the Trinity, always was. Whereas Arius declared that “there was a time when he [Christ] was not,” Nicea established the orthodox Christology of Christ’s eternal sonship. Thus Christ is and was the Redeemer, the one for whom creation was made and in whose death and resurrection creation always finds its fulfillment. Adam’s failure was that he went against type—he did not conform to Christ but rather tried to become something else, and thereby the true nature of humanity was broken.
Is the typos of Christ reducible to a set of genes? Surely not. It resides not in genes or in any other created thing but rather in the Triune life of God Himself. We might speak, in a roughly analogical way, of ideas we hold in our minds—say, the idea of a perfect Bordeaux, ruby-red, silky, smoky, plummy, luxurious. We could labor to instantiate that idea, combining genes and terroir and water and light and care, and perhaps we might achieve it, to the point where upon taking a sip we exclaim, “this—this—is Bordeaux. Nothing else is worthy of that name.”
This is what God said of Adam, when he gave him breath and a name. It is not something that God said of any other creature, even apparently some creatures that a modern population geneticist or paleoanthropologist might designate as ancestrally human based on genes or bones. Yet that Adam, and each of us in that Adam, fail to participate fully and unreservedly in the true nature of the true human, the nature of Christ. And so Pontius Pilot, an unwitting prophet, said of Christ: “behold, the man” (John 19:5, KJV). And so also Paul invites us to see: the sinful man, the broken seal, the first created Adam; and the true type, the seal of humanity’s future, the perfect Adam, the Christ. None of this is about the definitions and categories of modern science, as helpful and important as they may be for the progress of scientific thought. It is, rather, about the fullness of what it means to be human.