The first 11 chapters of Genesis are pre-recorded history, at least from the point of view of the Jews. In every society, prior to modern times, pre-recorded history was handed down verbally, with stories that made heavy use of figurative elements. But this does not imply a total lack of historical or factual content. Historical events were codified in stories combining both literal and figurative elements. The term myth is used in common parlance to refer to a story that is entirely fictional. But it turns out that the myths of ancient societies were not pure fiction, but rather a way of explaining and remembering historical events, prior to recorded history.
See my book: Noah’s Flood: Literal or Figurative? Researchers, such as W. Bruce Masse, have found hundreds of flood myths handed down in societies throughout the world. These myths are remarkably similar to one another and to a description of the effects of an asteroid or comet strike in the deep ocean. The Flood of Noah was a literal historical event, but one that is described in Scripture with figurative elements. Water did not cover all the land on earth; that is a figure for the immense destruction of the flood, as well as a figure for the extent of sin on earth and the extent of the offer of salvation through Baptism. The Flood did not kill all humans and animals outside the Ark; that is a figure for the extent of the destruction of the historical event, and also a figure for the teaching that no one is saved except by the one true God (Old Testament understanding) and no one is saved except by Baptism into Christ (New Testament understanding).
Similarly, the story of Adam and Eve recounts an historical event, but with heavy use of figurative elements: tree with forbidden fruit, talking serpent, etc. The use of figurative elements does not imply that the story is pure fiction. Two real human persons existed, at the start of the human race. They fell away from the grace of God, becoming fallen sinners. How far back in human history does sinfulness go? All the way back to the start of the human race, when the first two human persons, one man and one woman, fell from grace by committing original sin.
But how do we reconcile Adam and Eve with evolution? Some Catholics take a fundamentalist view: they utterly reject evolution in its entirety. But they are unable to explain away all of the scientific evidence in support of evolution. Others treat the Adam and Eve story as if it were entirely fictional. But they are unable to explain how the dogmas of original sin, the Immaculate Conception (Mary’s preservation from original sin), and the creation of the human race by God can still stand, if evolution is accepted uncritically and Adam and Eve are considered to be fictional.
The solution is much the same approach as I use in interpreting the Flood story. Some elements of the story are figurative, other elements are literal. Science and history need not be treated as an enemy to faith. We can reconcile the two approaches to the Flood story. And we can do so with Adam and Eve and evolution as well.
A brief summary of my position follows.
Evolution is a partially-correct partial explanation of the development of species. Where evolution fails is in assuming that God has no role in that development. From the point of view of faith, I assert that God intervened miraculously to initiate life on earth, and to initiate human life on earth. Evolution convincingly demonstrates that one species can evolve into another, and that more complex life forms evolved from lower life forms. But the theory is not convincing in claiming that inanimate chemicals “evolved” into even a simple single-celled life form. Neither is evolution able to explain the emergence from the primates of human person with reason, free will, and an immortal soul, created by God. And if evolution were to assert that God or souls do not exist, science could offer no proof. Science has much evidence for the evolution of one species into another, but none for the denial of God’s role in creating life, guiding its development by providence, and eventually intervening to create human life.
So in my view, most of what evolution asserts can be accepted by the faithful believer. A few points need to be rejected outright: that life itself evolved from non-living chemicals, that chance and survival of the fittest are the only guiding forces, and that human life merely evolved from lower life forms. Also, any implied denial of God, providence, and the decision of God to create humanity must be rejected.
But how do we integrate the existence of Adam and Eve into the understanding of science and evolution (with the above provisions)? My approach is to consider the number of generations and the ages of each person (hundreds of years) in the Book of Genesis (chapters 1 to 11) to be figurative. So Scripture is not telling us how many generations intervened from Adam and Eve to Noah to Abraham. After Abraham, the ages of each person become mostly literal (but perhaps also approximations) and the number of generations does fit with the historical evidence. But the interpretation of Genesis 1 to 11 as mainly figurative allows us to place Adam and Eve further back than the 5000 years or so that a literalistic interpretation would require.
Anthropologists place the beginning of anatomically modern humans as long ago as 200 ka BP (200,000 years before the present). However, this dating is not problematic, as we are free to consider that evaluation produced the anatomically-modern human body (or close to it). What we seek is the starting date for behaviorally-modern human persons. I argue that modern human behavior: language, culture, civilization, etc. is indicative of reason and free will, which then indicates an immortal soul.
Anthropologists distinguish between anatomically modern humans, with modern or nearly-modern bodies, and the emergence of modern human behavior. Anthropologists date the arrival of humans with modern behavior in Europe as early as 44 ka BP, in Southeast Asia by 46 ka BP, and in Africa by 50 ka or as long ago as 70 ka BP.
So if we place the beginning of Adam and Eve, on earth after the fall from grace, anywhere from 70 to 50 ka (thousand years ago), there is no conflict with the scientific evidence, nor with an interpretation of Scripture that considers Genesis 1 to 11 to have many figurative elements alongside literal elements, in order to present historical truths that are pertinent to the plan of salvation.
But if we present the starting point for the human race as one man and one woman, is there support or contradiction from science? There is much support. Science traces the ancestry of all human persons to the same point of origin, when looking at the Y-chromosome, which is passed on only from father to son, and when looking at the mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on only from mother to child. The anthropological evidence also supports one geological point of origin, in northeastern Africa, the so-called “out of Africa” theory. The most ancient evidence of behaviorally-modern humans is found in Africa, then subsequently in Europe and Asia. One can trace the spread of humanity from Africa to the whole world by dating the most ancient sites for modern human behavior.
Is it problematic that the human race would begin with such a small number of individuals, from two persons, to an extended family, to a relatively small tribe (as we might call it)? Not at all. Anthropologists estimate the total number of behaviorally-modern humans, prior to the spread from Africa, at only ten thousand or so individuals. It would not take many generations for humanity to grow from two individuals, Adam and Eve, to 10,000 or more.
Assuming an average number of children who survive and reproduce of 4, the number of persons in each generation doubles. This number is in addition to those individuals from previous generations that are still alive (parents, grandparents). Is four children who survive to adulthood too large a number? In some modern developed nations, the number has fallen below two; populations are in decline. But given a need to reproduce so that the human race would survive (and the absence of contraception and abortion), a family might easily have more than 4 children who survive to adulthood. Jacob (Israel) had 12 sons along with a number of daughters, who survived to adulthood. So an estimated average of 4 is a conservative low figure.
Now, if we consider only the number in each successive generation, 10 generations are needed to go from 2 to over 1,000 individuals. In 15 generations, there would be over 32,000 individuals (plus the members of the previous generations that are still alive at any point in time). And in 20 generations, there would be over one million individuals in that 20th generation.
The span of time needed for 20 generations, counting each generation as beginning with birth and ending with the birth of the first child, is only about 20 years. Human persons married and had children at younger ages than in the modern age. Ten generations is only about 200 years and twenty generations is only about 400 years. Anthropology and archaeology cannot determine the number of individuals (behaviorally-modern humans) in each generation. They can only make an estimate within a range of a few thousand years. (This point is proven by the range of years given for behaviorally-modern humans, 70 to 50 ka, a span of 10,000 years.) So there is no scientific evidence contradicting the idea of faith that humanity began with Adam and Eve, and all modern human persons are descendants of those two persons.
There is a controversy among anthropologists as to whether behaviorally-modern humans represented a “great leap forward” or a “continuity” that slowly developed from anatomically-modern humans. The faithful Catholic must hold to some version of the “great leap forward” theory, at least in the form of the creation of the human soul, with free will and reason, by God. This feature of human persons places our species far above the lower animals. It is, philosophically and theologically, a great leap forward.