An Excerpt of Donald Yerxa's Interview with David Livingstone from Historically Speaking (June 2009)
David N. Livingstone is a professor of geography and intellectual history at Queen’s University Belfast. He is a fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Arts. One of the most talented and perceptive scholars currently working on the history of science and religion, Livingstone is especially interested in exploring the spatial as well as the temporal contexts within which ideas are produced and consumed. Among his many books are Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge (University of Chicago Press, 2003) and most recently Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008). Historically Speaking senior editor Donald A. Yerxa caught up with Livingstone on March 3, 2009, to discuss his latest book as well as his approach to intellectual history.
Donald A. Yerxa: Your most recent book, Adam’s Ancestors, is a history of pre-Adamite thinking. What is pre-Adamism?
David N. Livingstone: Pre-Adamism is actually a notoriously simple idea, though its consequences are multifaceted. It’s the idea that the Adam of the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament is not the first human being. In some incarnations Adam is simply the father of the Jewish people, whereas in other versions Adam is viewed as the father of Caucasian people. But the material point of pre-Adamism, at least in its early days, is that there were, and perhaps indeed continue to exist, peoples who are descended from a pre-Adamic or at least non-Adamic source. This would mean that there were at least two (and arguably more than two) creations of the human species. In pre-Adamism lie the origins of what anthropologists used to call polygenesis. And, indeed, that has been and continues to be something of an issue right up to contemporary paleoanthropology. Should we look at all humans as derived from a single source, let’s say, a “mitochondrial Eve”? Or did the human species emerge in many different places? So the debate in that sense, without the biblical significance of Adam, continues to be important in thinking about human origins more generally.
Yerxa: How significant was pre-Adamism in Western intellectual history prior to Darwin?
Livingstone: There are a couple of things to be said about this. Another historian who worked on this subject some years ago, Richard Popkin, made the arresting suggestion that pre-Adamic theory was much more destabilizing to European intellectuals in the 17th century than the Copernican revolution or indeed the mechanical universe of the Newtonians. Popkin reasoned that pre-Adamism challenged human beings’ sense of their own identity, of who they really were. For a very long time, going back to the church fathers, to Augustine, and indeed to much earlier times, descent from Adam came to be a definition of what it was to be human. So I’m inclined to agree with Popkin because while you can scarcely find an advocate for the idea after 1655 when it first began to achieve wider publicity, you find many, many refutations. Although pre-Adamism seems initially to have had few converts, a lot of people felt the need to refute it.
Yerxa: Throughout your book it is clear that this notion is quite versatile and can be adapted to a number of arguments. Could you speak to that?
Livingstone: Pre-Adamism can be used for many contradictory purposes and is hugely adaptable in different environments. Let me just pick out three or four of these. Initially, when it was first put forward in the 1650s by Isaac La Peyrère, it was rapidly castigated as a heresy. Emissaries from the Vatican picked up La Peyrère when he was traveling in what is now Belgium and took him off to Rome, where he was forced to recant before the pope. Clever devil that La Peyrère was, however, the recantation never really admitted he was wrong. Pre-Adamism was considered heretical because it plainly challenged a literal reading of the Genesis narrative. One has to rethink a sequence of other related theological precepts if one accepts the notion that there were pre-Adamites. For example, did they also fall from grace? How representative is Adam of the human race? How does original sin come into the world? How is it transmitted?
Pre-Adamism has been quite versatile, however. In the 19th century—and indeed on into the 20th century—the idea was promulgated by those who were much more conservative in their theological outlook. It was adopted in a new guise by conservative believers who wanted to hold onto the historic significance of Adam while at the same time take some notion of human evolution seriously. So pre-Adamism, once deemed a massive heresy, was later taken up by conservative, orthodox believers.
Let me provide another instance of its adaptability. In the 1650s La Peyrère thought that Adam was the father of the Jewish race, but he was convinced that we all, whether Jews or not, participate to some degree in the benefits of the Jewish religious tradition and divine action in the world through the children of Israel. So in that sense, pre-Adamism is inclusive, humanitarian, and sweeps all of humanity—whether Jewish, Adamic or non-Jewish, non-Adamic—into a human family that benefits in Israel’s redemption. But later, pre-Adamism was used for the grossest forms of racism by depicting certain racial groups as non-Adamic and thus inferior and perhaps even subhuman. So pre-Adamism has been used for both humanitarian and racist purposes. . . .
Yerxa: You were trained as a geographer, and yet much of your recent writing has been in the area of intellectual history and the history of science. Is this an unusual intellectual trajectory? Or is this question premised on a false assumption about what it is that geographers do?
Livingstone: Being trained in geography in my generation encompassed aspects of physical science as well as the humanities and social sciences. Geography integrates nature and culture, or environment and society. Since its institutionalization in the 19th century, geography has always had considerable interest in the history of exploration. If you go back to early examination papers at the University of Oxford, you will find papers dealing with the history of what was then called, in those colonially unconscious days, the Age of Discovery or the Age of Exploration. So there was always interest in the history of growing geographical knowledge about the globe. . . .