David N. Livingstone


On his book Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion and the Politics of Human Origins

Cover Interview of February 05, 2009

In a nutshell

The idea that all human beings are descended from Adam has been a long-standing conviction in the West.  Indeed it’s been a central doctrine among the monotheistic religions more generally.  But running alongside this conventional understanding of our origins, there has been an alternative account.  This account claims that there were human beings on earth before, or alongside, Adam, and, what’s more, that the descendents of those still occupy the planet.  In this book I take up this story.  It takes me way back to the Middle Ages – and, in the other direction, right up to the twenty-first century.

What I try to do is recount the twists and turns in this narrative of human beginnings, and show the astonishingly wide range of discourses in which it has been implicated.  Initially this alternative account was used to bring critical scrutiny to the Bible and can be seen as a critical early move in the development of textual criticism.  Creation stories from places as far apart as Egypt and the Americas, Babylonia and China, raised in some people’s minds the thought that the Hebrew scriptures might not be an entirely reliable source of information about beginnings.  Not surprisingly the idea of human beings existing before Adam was widely rejected and castigated as heresy.  Later it was incorporated into mainstream anthropology on both sides of the Atlantic in support of the contention that the human race had numerous separate points of origin.  The idea here was that humanity was not descended from a single, common source, but rather emerged in a range of different original locations.

At the same time the idea that other human beings were on earth before or alongside Adam began to find its way into religious thinking as a tactic to reconcile science and religion.  During the nineteenth century, it underwent two additional modulations.  First, the coming of Darwinism encouraged some to consider the possibility that the human race evolved from pre-Adamic hominids.  This means that the idea could be used to keep religion and the idea of human evolution in tandem.  Second, it was incorporated into a virulent strain of scientific racism in Britain, and more especially in America.  It was a belief that was easily used as a justification for racial segregation and slavery, and for opposing race-mixing.  Shadows of the theory have continued to exert their influence right up to our own day.  It has been resurrected, for example, as the basis for extreme versions of white supremacy—an altogether sinister retooling, by a deeply conservative community, of an idea originally used for radical and humanitarian purposes.