Humans, Apes, and the Felix Culpa

John Algeo

Originally printed in the MARCH-APRIL 2007 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation:Algeo, John. "Humans, Apes, and the Felix Culpa." Quest  95.2 (MARCH-APRIL 2007):
73.

John Algeo

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of two Victorian ladies passing a book shop in whose window were displayed copies of Charles Darwin's revolutionary book, On the Origin of Species. One lady says, "Mr. Darwin believes that men are descended from apes." The other, a bishop's wife, replies, "Oh, my dear, let us hope that it is not so. Or if it is, let us pray that the fact does not become generally known."
 

The first lady got Darwin's view wrong (a popular error shared by many others, including some who should know better). Darwin did not suppose that humans descended from apes, but rather that humans and apes have both descended from a common ancestor. The generally accepted scientific view is that their common ancestor was more apelike than humanlike, hence the widespread view that humans descend from apes.

However, the scientific view is focused solely on physical characteristics, which are all science can deal with, while Madame Blavatsky had quite a different focus. She therefore had an opposite view from that of scientists, namely, that the ancient common ancestor of apes and men was, in ways that are of deep importance, more human than ape. She also maintained that humans and apes interbred at one point in history, a miscegenation she called the sin of the mindless (Secret Doctrine 2:185-91). The possibility of such miscegenation has been rejected by conventional wisdom, which holds that once species diverge, they can no longer interbreed successfully.

Conventional wisdom is, however, often wrong. Recent studies of the DNA sequences of humans and chimpanzees point to evidence that surprisingly supports Madame Blavatsky. The conclusion some genetic scientists have reached is "that millions of years after an initial evolutionary split between human ancestors and chimp ancestors, the two lineages might have interbred again before diverging for good. . . . The final breakup came as late as 5.4 million years ago" (New York Times, Dec. 12, 2006, p. D3).

Yet Madame Blavatsky's label of "sin" for such interbreeding may be Victorian, like the reaction of the two ladies to Darwin's book. A Harvard-MIT geneticist, David Reich, has a different take. "Reich argues that hybrids could play an important and positive role in speciation, introducing advantageous traits into the gene pool— including ours. If Reich is correct, the customary image of the human family tree, with its neat and discrete divisions, should be replaced by another metaphor: a dense and impenetrable thicket of branches concealing countless acts of interspecies sex. It's enough to make a bishop's wife blush" (New York Times Magazine, Dec. 10, 2006, p. 54).

Some Christian theologians have referred to Adam and Eve's sin in the Garden of Eden as a felix culpa, that is, a happy fault. Although it was a fault because it got our legendary first ancestors thrown out of paradise, it was happy because it caused the Son of God to be born as a human being, thus uniting the divine and human natures in one person. The notion that the primal sin of humanity might have really been a good thing would not have seemed strange to Madame Blavatsky, who thought that those who believed it was a sin at all had gotten it quite wrong. But if the geneticists who believe that early humans and chimps interbred are right, and if David Reich is also right that such interbreeding can play a positive role in species development, then Blavatsky's sin of the mindless may have been another felix culpa.

Evolution, like God, moves in mysterious ways.