Just as a river, when it encounters a disruption, will form an anabranch that will rejoin the mainstream further on, so thinking on monogenesis split in the sixteenth century. Until then, there had been few disruptions to the main current of thought. Fossils of mega fauna and dinosaurs had been minor eddies, relatively easily explained as being Antediluvian creatures that had not been chosen to go into the ark and were therefore proof of the Flood. Flint arrow heads were remnants of the fairy world. In England, the remnants of coastal forests drowned by rising sea levels were popularly known as Noah’s Woods, evidence of a universal flood.1
Mainstream European thinking on God's Creation entered into turbulent waters attempting to deal with the challenge posed by the discovery of hunters and gatherers in the New World, Oceania and Australasia. The First Peoples of Australia; who wore no clothes – and hence had no shame or awareness of original sin, no agriculture, no herds, no hereditary chiefs and no visible signs of religion; were a particular challenge to Christian thought on the expulsion of Adam and Eve, the universal nature of Flood and the rise of civilisation.
The conventional wisdom of Monogenesis was that the two creation stories in Genesis were related to the one creation and for the unity of mankind. Polygenesists argued that there had been more than one creation. Over the centuries three main polygenesist arguments developed, all of which were speculative and lacking in Biblical authority:
firstly, that there had been a pre-Adamite creation;
secondly, that there had been separate creations in different places; and
thirdly, that Eve fell pregnant to the serpent. Invariably the progeny of this unholy union were dark in colour.2
Michel de Montaigne, 1533-1592, in his essay, On Cannibals, 1575, ranged across classical and Biblical knowledge to dismiss some fanciful accounts of the origins of the New World. He dismissed speculation that the landmass of Atlantis had been pushed to the west by the Flood or that Carthagians had colonised the New World. He recognised the New World as being something new and unknown.
‘Plato brings in Solon, telling a story that he had heard from the priests of Sais in Egypt, that of old, and before the Deluge, there was a great island called Atlantis, situate directly at the mouth of the Straits of Gibraltar, which contained more countries than both Africa and Asia put together; and that the kings of that country, who not only possessed that isle, but extended their dominion so far into the continent that they had a country of Africa as far as Egypt, and extending in Europe to Tuscany, attempted to encroach even upon Asia, and to subjugate all the nations that border upon the Mediterranean Sea, as far as the Black Sea; and to that effect overran all Spain, the Gauls, and Italy, so far as to penetrate into Greece, where the Athenians stopped them: but that sometime after, both the Athenians, and they and their island, were swallowed by the Flood.
It is very likely that this extreme irruption and inundation of water made wonderful changes and alterations in the habitations of the earth, as 'tis said that the sea then divided Sicily from Italy -
“Haec loca, vi quondam, et vasta convulsa ruina, Dissiluisse ferunt, quum protenus utraque tellus Una foret.”
- Cyprus from Syria, the isle of Negropont from the continent of Boeotia, and elsewhere united lands that were separate before, by filling up the channel between them with sand and mud:
“Sterilisque diu palus, aptaque remis, Vicinas urbes alit, et grave sentit aratrum.”
But there is no great appearance that this isle was this New World so lately discovered: for that almost touched upon Spain, and it were an incredible effect of an inundation, to have tumbled back so prodigious a mass, above twelve hundred leagues: besides that our modern navigators have already almost discovered it to be no island, but terra firma, and continent with the East Indies on the one side, and with the lands under the two poles on the other side; or, if it be separate from them, it is by so narrow a strait and channel, that it none the more deserves the name of an island for that.’3
He also made a most informed observation on the propensity of People to see their own as being the best of all possible worlds.
‘I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country.
As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason, than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.
They are savages at the same rate that we say fruit are wild, which nature produces of herself and by her own ordinary progress; whereas in truth, we ought rather to call those wild, whose natures we have changed by our artifice, and diverted from the common order. In those, the genuine, most useful and natural virtues and properties are vigorous and sprightly, which we have helped to degenerate in these, by accommodating them to the pleasure of our own corrupted palate. And yet for all this our taste confesses a flavour and delicacy, excellent even to emulation of the best of ours, in several fruits wherein those countries abound without art or culture.
Neither is it reasonable that art should gain the pre-eminence of our great and powerful mother nature.4 We have so surcharged her with the additional ornaments and graces we have added to the beauty and riches of her own works by our inventions, that we have almost smothered her; yet in other places, where she shines in her own purity and proper lustre, she marvelously baffles and disgraces all our vain and frivolous attempts.’5
In the Christian world the implications of polygenesis for Christ’s sacrifice led to an increasing affirmation of the literal truth of the Bible. At the same time as the Mughal Emperor Akbar, 1542-1605, was holding religious debates with Sikhs, Hindus, atheists and Christians, Giordano Bruno, 1548-1600, was burnt at the stake as a heretic. Bruno was widely read in the classics, familiar with Aquinas and Copernicus and developed a Christian pantheist form of hylozoism.6 He rejected the idea that the universe was hierarchical, arguing that God is the alpha and omega of all things, immanent, and present everywhere, which effectively denied the doctrines of transubstantiation and the Trinity. He proposed that space and time were infinite and that the universe was made by physical laws. Bruno argued that the planets revolve around the sun, for which a future Archbishop of Canterbury joked that Bruno believed “the opinion of Copernicus that the earth did go round, and the heavens did stand still; whereas in truth it was his own head which rather did run round, and his brains did not stand still”.7 His thought that God was capable of infinite creations, which meant polygenesis, which was anathema to the orthodox doctrine of Monogenesis. Bruno’s beliefs flew in the face of Catholic and protestant orthodoxy and he burnt at the stake as a result. Galileo, who went on trial shortly after, and warned by Bruno’s example, saved himself by abjuring. The deadliness of these contentious issues was illustrated by John Milton’s ambiguity in describing the movements of the heavenly bodies in Paradise Lost, published in 1667.
One of the earliest explorations of Polygenesis took place on a secular stage. Somewhere between 1603 and 1611 William Shakespeare, c.1564-1616, wrote The Tempest, a comedy about an exiled lord on a bare island. One of the important characters, Caliban (described in the Dramatis Personae as a savage and deformed slave), was on the island before Prospero. His father was a demon and his mother, who had brought him to the island, was a witch. Caliban’s name, drawn from the New World, was an amalgam of Carib and Cannibal. Shakespeare owned a copy of Montaigne’s essay, On Cannibals, though it does not seem to have shaped the play. An early speech of Caliban’s is chillingly prescient of the colonial experience.
‘This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak'st from me. When thou cam'st first,
Thou strok'st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in't, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night; and then I lov'd thee,
And show'd thee all the qualities o' th' isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile.
Curs'd be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o' th' island.’8
Trinculo’s discovery of Caliban prompted thoughts of the wealth that could be generated in England by exhibiting the body of a dead indian and provides us with an insight into a less than pleasant form of Seventeenth Century English entertainment.
‘What have we here? a man or a fish? dead or alive? A fish: he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fish-like smell; kind of not-of-the-newest Poor-John. A strange fish! Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver. There would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man; when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.’9
Hugo Grotius, 1583-1645, was one of the founders of international law. As a prodigiously talented young person he quickly attracted official attention and represented Dutch interests in several international disputes over the freedom of the seas. Between 1604 and 1609 he wrote two works on natural law and the freedom of the seas. Henry Reynolds discounted the theory of terra nullius in his pivotal The Law of the Land, drawing upon Grotius’ Rights of War and Peace, to explore the two meanings of Terra Nullius: “In things which are properly no one’s, two things are occupable; the lordship and the ownership, so far as it is distinguished from the lawship. Kings have power over all things (the lordship); individuals have property (ownership).”10 It was this distinction which was ignored by both Cook and the British government in seizing Australia. Further Reynolds drew upon Grotius’ Mare Liberum in rejecting Cook’s act of possession: “the act of discovery is sufficient to give a clear title of sovereignty only when it is accompanied by actual possession.”11
The unity of Monogenesis was fragmenting into many diverse streams as scholars considered the possibilities of polygenesis causing differences between people in regard to skin colour and physiognomy. The rise of Protestantism and individual study of the Bible led a Dutch Calvinist, Isaac La Peyrere, 1596-1676, to float a number of ideas that were vigorously attacked for at least the next century. From his studies he claimed that there had been a pre-Adamite Creation, that the Bible did not tell a universal story and that the Flood had not been worldwide, but had only covered Palestine. To escape charges of heresy, La Peyrere converted to Catholicism and recanted his heresies before the Pope.
La Peyrere opened the floodgates of speculation about the origins and nature of Humankind. Georgius Hornius, 1620-70, a Protestant professor of History at Leiden University defended traditional Biblical orthodoxy. He argued in Arca Noae sive historia imperium et regnorum, 1666, that the Americas were unpopulated before the deluge and were settled after the flood by sailors, probably from Europe, but possibly from China.12 He was also keen to use Biblical authority to advance the superiority of the Gauls and Britons, (he had close links with British Presbyterians) arguing that they were the descendants of Japheth (Genesis 9:27, “God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem: and Canaan shall be his servant)” and that the Chinese were descendants of Cain.13
Pondering the Abyss Last updated: 22/07/15