Dominican scholar Simon Gaine explored whether non-Homo sapiens hominids were part of the family of Adam, and thus existed in the image of God and were human beings along with Homo sapiens in need of salvation at the Dominican House of Studies in the Thomistic Institute’s annual lecture in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas on January 30. In particular, he attempted to consider whether a very recent hominid, the Neanderthals, is to be regarded as part of Biblical man from a Thomistic viewpoint and in light of existing scientific evidence. Since human origins are crucial to the defense of the Christian faith, which has been under intense intellectual attack for more than 200 years, this issue must concern all committed Christians.
Gaine recounted that the first bones of Neanderthals were discovered by miners in Germany in 1856. They believed the bones to be of a bear. A university professor disagreed, holding that they were the bones of an early human species. While similar to modern human beings, the bones showed a body build which was different, with similarities to non-human primates. Later in the 1870s, a pathologist proposed that the Neanderthal bones were only the bones of a deformed human being. By the early twentieth century, “further remains were found,” and scientists believed that the bones indeed represented a previously unknown human species. It was “Neanderthal man.” But was this species also Biblical man, made in the image of God?
Gaine observed that the various finds of Neanderthal bones are dated from 430,000 years old to 40,000 years old. While they were centered in Europe, and Homo sapiens first appears in Africa, sapiens bones dated later also appear in Europe and Asia, so that for “thousands of years, Neanderthals and sapiens lived in proximity to one another.” There continues to be a lack of clarity about how they related to one another, nor is there any scientific consensus about the mental capacities of Neanderthals. Gaine said he does not claim scientific expertise, but does try to understand the theological implications of conventional science concerning hominid remains. Specifically, he asked the question “did Christ die for the Neanderthals?”
One point that is certain from theology, Gaine said, is that the worth of Christ’s sacrifice, being infinite, would certainly atone for wrongdoing by any creature. Attempting to understand the issue from a Thomist perspective, he contrasted the sin of angels with the sin of men. Christ’s death does not atone for the sin of angels; their sin, according to Aquinas, being that of entirely immaterial beings, is “unchangeable.” Gaine said that this is because Aquinas “associated immateriality with intellectual power,” and thus the angels “had very powerful intellects.” So powerful that any decision “for or against God” so affected their being that their orientation toward or against God was “unchangeable.” Because humans are “bodily material beings … our basic direction can be changed, albeit only through divine grace.” Thus Aquinas thought Christ could reasonably die for men, but not angels. But Neanderthals were bodily creatures, and so Gaine believes Christ might reasonably have died for them from a Thomist perspective, if they were rational creatures possessing the image of God.
Another related issue is the fact that the Son of God was incarnate as a Homo sapiens individual. While until the 1980s, evolutionary biologists believed that Neanderthals, along with other “archaic human species” contributed substantially in the evolution of Homo sapiens, as genetics has become more important in studies of human origins, it is now thought that all Homo sapiens populations in the world have resulted from the original African population, with only a few percent ancestry from Neanderthals. The famous “mitochondrial Eve” was from the African population, since the branches of the humanity’s genetic tree that “branch off most deeply” from her mitochondrial DNA are found in Africa. So she evidently was not a Neanderthal.
All this shows, Gaine observed, that Neanderthals were not the “parent species of European sapiens or any other sapiens.” It is thought by evolutionary scientists that both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals “descended from some earlier archaic population.” Since sapiens populations in Europe and Asia have about 2% Neanderthal DNA, it is reasonable to think that that is what Jesus received from his mother, so that roughly 1% of his nuclear (as opposed to his mitochondrial) DNA would have been of Neanderthal origin. His miraculous conception of course must make his full genetic makeup a mystery. Gaine does believe, however, “that we should conclude that when the Word became flesh, the Word became Neanderthal.”
Gaine noted in this connection that while there is some debate about “how to define a species,” it is commonly thought that “compatibility for breeding is a key criterion.” And interbreeding there certainly was. Gaine questioned whether this meant Homo sapiens and Neanderthals were two species, or a single species, but provided no answer to this question in terms of biology. But he did endeavor to provide an answer to who is in the image of God from a theological standpoint.
Since conventional science now believes from its assessment of genetic evidence that the Homo sapiens population was never less than a few thousand, Gaine said some theologians have asked if this requires a change in the doctrine of original sin, which is rooted in the sin of a single couple from which all humanity is descended. Aquinas believed that humanity descended from a single couple. Pope Pius XII held that original sin cannot easily be reconciled with a larger population, and the origin of sin in a single couple is required by faith.
It is critical, Gaine said, to distinguish “between the human species defined in biological terms, and the human species viewed in theological terms.” What makes the difference is the “presence of an immortal soul, making us human without qualification.” He said that “it is by way of this soul, which enables acts of higher knowledge and love and potentially acts knowing and loving God, that human beings are in the image of God.” This seems to be his answer as to what distinguishes those animals made in the image of God from those which are not.
It was additionally proposed that if “there was one original couple that was theologically human, but had a wider population with which they could procreate … we can conclude that the image of God would have spread throughout the population within generations, and all biological humans would eventually be theological humans too.” This means that “early theological human beings bred with non-theological human beings.”
According to Aquinas, we know of the presence of the image of God by what creatures do. We judge the image of God to be present where a being can abstract intellectual knowledge from material conditions. “Our knowledge is not just of particulars, but is universal.” The ability to abstract is necessary for theological concepts, scientific knowledge and the common sense of ordinary life.
Gaine said that Aquinas held a high view of the capabilities of non-rational animals, and would not have been surprised by the sophistication of the Neanderthals. Much of this animal capacity is “taken up” into human nature, from the fact that human beings are indeed animals, albeit rational animals. High capability, such as toolmaking, does not indicate a rational soul, Gaine seemed to say, but reflective ability on existence, such as burial of the dead, should be seriously considered as an indicator of rationality. Other suggested indicators were apparent sacred shrines, such as stone circles, or “care for the sick and elderly.” The best evidence, Gaine said, is language. It is language ability which clearly shows the ability to abstract ideas from reality, and “to form potentially an infinity of different of sentences.” No other animal than human beings has such ability, but when it appears is “lost to the limitations of the archeological record.” The earliest writing of any kind appeared about 8,000 years ago; language ability itself presumably much before that.
The fact that cultural capacity is found in Homo sapiens throughout the world far back into pre-history has suggested to some scholars that linguistic ability existed before the dispersal of Homo sapiens from Africa. Gaine observed that cave paintings in Spain were discovered in 2018 dating from before 60,000 years ago – before the time Homo sapiens are known to have existed in Europe. Thus, it is assumed they are the work of Neanderthals. Evidence for clothing and jewelry produced in Europe at this time and earlier suggests symbolic capacity, Gaine said.
It was asked how, if Neanderthals were truly human, made in the image of God, and thus objects of Christ’s atonement, “grace was made available to them.” Gaine believes “that salvation through Christ was effected in the kind of life Neanderthals led.” This writer would comment, however, that however possible Neanderthal humanity is understood Thomistically, the Bible surely requires faith in God for salvation, as it did for all persons who lived before Christ, Abraham being the prime example. If the Neanderthals had no concept of a righteous and supreme personal being in whom they trusted, and in consequence of saving grace, obeyed, they were not included in salvation, though they might have spoken some language.
But theology must take account of the possible humanity of Neanderthals “for apologetic reasons,” Gaine said, to ensure that faith and reason are not in conflict, but synthesized in a rational theology. This was the project of Aquinas, Gaine said, who was “confident that all truth comes from God.”
It is obvious that the true issue is original sin. It is from this doctrine that the need for salvation arises. Without it salvation is simply salvation from suffering, and not particularly a Christian doctrine. Most people think alleviating suffering or seeking a better world is a good thing. The rejection of original sin by Jean Jacques Rousseau can easily be cast as the commencement of the secular leftist thought of our day. Indeed acceptance or rejection of original sin can be seen as the heart of the cultural conflict of our day. Acceptance of the doctrine means an obvious need for salvation in the traditional sense of salvation from the wrath of God. Rejection of the doctrine leaves gospel proclamation pointless (other than merely exhorting for a better world, however one chooses to define such a world).
Recent decades have seen a roller coaster of turns with respect to the historicity of Adam and Eve. The discoveries of the mitochondrial Eve in the 1980s, and the Y chromosomal Adam in the 1990s were surprising and did not seem congruent with the picture paleontology has offered of human pre-history, although conventional science was always careful to point out it had no reason to think they were the Biblical Adam and Eve. This writer, from his layman’s viewpoint, has always found it difficult to understand how genetic evidence can point to just one individual at the head of humanity’s paternal and maternal lines, but has been happy to entertain the possibility that they might be the Biblical Adam and Eve. I do think that the judgment that later genetic evidence of pre-historic human population size speaks against their being Biblical Adam and Eve is premature, given such scientific revolutions as plate tectonics or the Big Bang.
But Christians must not allow our faith to be based on possible scientific developments, but on a God who has revealed himself in Scripture, and who asks us to love him with mind as well as heart and soul. This faith is given to us as a gift, and tells of the repeated rebellion of humanity, and then God’s people, Israel, starting from the very first human story in Genesis, and of God’s repeated judgments and deliverances of the penitent. If there were Neanderthals that were human, then they, like us, share in the sin of our first parents, and were saved by faith.