Did early humans with and without souls once co-exist?

This is the final part of the three-part question about religion and science that I’ve been answering in this series of posts. (The phrase “middle of the lake” comes from my book Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation. It describes the attempt to address questions simultaneously from the non-overlapping perspectives of science and religion. The text of the book is available free online through the link provided.)

Q. This is more of a question that is posed along the border of religion and science, “from the middle of the lake” (assuming there is a middle). If God did use evolution and at some point along the line injected a soul into prehistoric humans as the Catholic Church maintains, wouldn’t that mean that there would have potentially existed simultaneously on the earth a mixture of “soul-possessing” hominids and “soulless” hominids separated by some small evolutionary difference (or maybe just geography)?

It is indeed the Catholic position that God grants souls to humans whose bodies come from evolutionary development.  As Pope John Paul II said in his October 22, 1996 address “On Evolution” to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:

“Man is called to enter into a loving relationship with God himself, a relationship which will find its full expression at the end of time, in eternity.  . . . It is by virtue of his eternal soul that the whole person, including his body, possesses such great dignity. . . .  If the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God.  . . . As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.”

In other words, the Catholic Church does believe and teach that the human soul is created directly by God, even if “the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously.”

But when do humans receive their souls? The Catholic teaching regarding the individual today is that God grants a soul at the time of conception. But what about the very first humans?

The conclusion seems inescapable, if we are going to ask questions along these lines, that once “living matter which existed previously” had developed to the point where individual beings could be recognized as fully human, God granted them souls.  (I’d personally like to think that God granted souls to an entire early human community at once, in a sort of prehistoric Pentecost.)  But then the further conclusion is equally inescapable that, as you say, “there would have potentially existed simultaneously on the earth a mixture of ‘soul-possessing’ hominids and ‘soulless’ hominids separated by some small evolutionary difference.”

Of course neither science nor religion is in a position to shed any further light on this question.  Science cannot detect or verify the presence of a soul.  The Bible, for its part, says in Genesis that “the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”  This indeed sounds like an organic origin for the human body and a divine origin for the human soul or spirit.  But the Genesis account represents all of humanity through a single figure (as an NIV translation note explains, “The Hebrew for man (adam) . . . is also the name Adam), so it doesn’t provide any details about early hominid communities with and without souls.

And so I can’t really say much more in answer to your question.  Indeed, the attempt to answer it confirms for me what I describe in Paradigms on Pilgrimage as “the wisdom of not spending too much time in the middle of the lake before swimming back to one side or the other.”  This is why, in my Genesis study guide, when groups get to the story of Adam and Eve, I acknowledge that there has been “much debate about how the events recounted here relate to scientific descriptions of human origins” and I encourage participants “simply to state how they understand the story of Adam and Eve:  is it literal?  symbolic?  allegorical?  something else?”  “Each person can then be encouraged to hold their own views on this question confidently and humbly,” I continue, “and engage Genesis on a literary level in this study.  This should be a level on which people who hold different viewpoints can have a profitable discussion.”

Still, you have certainly been very thoughtful about the “middle of the lake” implications of the Catholic view (which many outside the Catholic tradition may hold as well), and I thank you for sharing your reflections on it.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

5 thoughts on “Did early humans with and without souls once co-exist?”

      1. I think the problem is perhaps that “soul” is a nebulous concept to begin with. I also think it is a byproduct of our brains, not an individual thing like a heart or a kidney.

      2. It appears, then, that you don’t agree with Pope John Paul II, who said that envisioning the soul “either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter” is “incompatible with . . . the dignity of the human person.” Of course we are all free to make up our own minds about this, but defining the soul as a “byproduct of our brains” settles the issue entirely on the side of “metaphysical naturalism,” leaving no room for the supernatural, and this is more of a philosophical or ideological commitment than a strictly scientific one.

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