Bogus accommodationism: The return of Adam and Eve as real people, as proposed by a wonky quasi-scientific theory

October 11, 2019 • 9:00 am

If you’re a liberal Christian scientist (no, not the Mary Baker Eddy kind, but the profession), and would like to persuade more fundamentalist Christians that evolution really happened, what do you do? Well, Joshua Swamidass at Washington University, with the help of his secular friend scientist Nathan Lents (a professor of biology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice), have decided to promote the idea that Adam and Eve really existed as people created by God a few thousand years ago, with Eve made from Adam’s rib.

It turns out that Swamidass has a new theory, which is his, that we can designate a God-created couple as the genealogical ancestors of all living humans—a couple that lived around 5,000 years ago. Then that couple supposedly interbred with other humans who themselves were the result of pure evolution and who lived side-by-side with Adam and Eve (henceforth A&E). This interbreeding wound up with the Original Sin of Adam and Eve being passed on to everyone living, even though the genes of Adam and Eve don’t linger on in modern humans, much less in all of us. That is, A&E were our genealogical ancestors but not our genetic ancestors. They are in the lineage of all of us and bequeathed us Original Sin rather than any genes.

The big advantage of Swamidass’s theory (to Swamidass and the Christians he’s trying to convert) is that his theory is untestable: a speculation that cannot be confirmed or denied by evidence, since there would be no genetic trace of these ancestors in living humans (see explanation below). Swamidass thinks that’s a big advantage because it allows literalist Christians to accept both evolution and Adam and Eve, and that his theory and new book will facilitate that shift. I think he’s dead wrong, and for the very same reason that the BioLogos organization, which spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to reconcile A&E with evolution, completely failed in its mission to turn evangelical Christians toward evolution. Adam and Eve, like Jesus’s resurrection, is a story that cannot be turned into a metaphor. If it was just a metaphor, why are all of us sinful and need redemption by accepting Jesus?

Swamidass’s view is presented in an upcoming book (out December 10) issued by InterVarsity Press, a publisher of evangelical Christian books (click on cover below for a description):

And Lents has given the book a boost with an opinion piece in, of all places, USA Today (click on screenshot to read it, and thanks to the many readers who sent me the link):

Swamidass’s description of his “theory” can be seen by clicking on this website post from the site Peaceful Science:

or this paper (free pdf, click on screenshot) in the journal Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith:

How does the theory work? In brief, it’s based on the fact that because each of us has an increasing number of genealogical ancestors as we go back into the past, it becomes inevitable that the lineages of different people will intersect at common ancestors. Each of us has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. Since there are about six billion of us on the planet, you can see that only three generations ago there would be 48 billion putative ancestors—more than the number of people on Earth. And as you go farther back, that number grows rapidly.

Because there weren’t that many people alive to be independent ancestors of us all, we must have had common ancestors just a few generations ago. And as you go further back, you can estimate that there were only a few people who were common ancestors of all living humans. Finally, you can calculate how far back you’d have to go until one person (a couple, actually, since they’d have to leave offspring) is a common genealogical ancestor of all living humans. That is the Most Recent Genealogical Common Ancestor, which I’ll call the MRGCA.

As Douglas Rohde et al. calculated in this 2004 paper in Nature, the most recent common ancestor of everyone could have lived as recently as 5,000 years ago, although there’s substantial error around that date and the calculation involves a number of assumptions.  But even if it’s off by, say, a factor of four, that’s probably okay with many Christians, since most evangelicals wouldn’t hold strictly to the 6,000 year-old A&E calculated by Bishop James Ussher (ironically, “Primate of All Ireland”) in 1650.
Now the genealogical common ancestor is not a genetic common ancestor: it’s likely that many people on Earth don’t have any genes from this putative First Couple. That’s because while genes get diluted out of descendants with time (and because the A&E mated with existing humans that, says Swamidass, evolved from australopithecines in the way scientists accept), genealogies don’t get diluted: they are just fixed lines of descent, which in this case all converge at a relatively recent “A&E”. 

We also know that Swamidass’s A&E aren’t our sole genetic ancestors from a lot of data, including the calculation that the minimum population size of the lineage leading to modern Homo sapiens would have been about 12,000: this comes from back-calculation of how many people would have been needed to contain the genetic variability we see in modern humans. Also, we have dates for “mitochondrial Eve” and “Y-chromosome Adam” of about 150,000 years ago and 200,000-300,000 years ago respectively. Not only are these dates way older than most Christians would place Creation and the Garden of Eden, but these A&Es didn’t even live at the same time. (These individuals are the most recent genetic common ancestors of the mitochondrial DNA and of the Y chromosome, respectively, since these bits of DNA are largely inherited as units.)

Swamidass accepts the existing genetic data, because he’s concerned only with genealogical lineages, not who gave us our genes. Using genes would negate the idea of A&E.

Presumably Original Sin, which is also important for Swamidass since it must be preserved as part of literal Christianity, is inherited somehow along lineages but not via the genome. (How Original Sin spreads to all the descendants of the MRGCA without dilution is a mystery left for Swamidass and the theologians.)

If you think I’m exaggerating Swamidass’s thesis, here’s his claim from the website post linked above:

Entirely consistent with the genetic evidence, it is possible Adam was created out of dust, and Eve out of his rib, less than 10,000 years ago in a divinely created garden where God might dwell with them, the first beings with opportunity to be in a relationship with Him. Perhaps their fall brought accountability for sin to all their descendants. Leaving the Garden, their offspring blended with their neighbor in the surrounding towns. In this way, they became genealogical ancestors of all those in recorded history. Adam and Eve, here, are the single-couple progenitors of all mankind. Even if this scenario is false or unnecessary, nothing in evolutionary science unsettles this story. So, evolution presses in a very limited way on our understanding of Adam and Eve, only suggesting (alongside Scripture) that their lineage was not pure.

Swamidass adds this:

Though I personally do not endorse any specific account, not even this one, the point is that the scientific evidence does not unsettle this literaltraditional, and concordist account of Genesis. From a scientific point of view, most of the details in this account are not important; the dates can shift, and so can the theology. As long as there is mixing with those “outside the garden,” this account is consistent with all the findings of evolutionary science. There are no hermeneutical or theological claims embedded in this claim. Rather, scientifically speaking, this account fits without contradiction into the evolutionary account of our origins.

And although the dates of genetic common ancestors (which of course differ for nearly all of our genes, since they recombined in the past with other genes and “coalesced” at different times) can be tested, and it can be shown that there was no pair of contemporaneous humans that gave all of us our genetic legacy, the genealogical A&E has the convenient advantage of being untestable. Or so Swamidass says:

Despite what we have heard, science is silent on Adam and Eve, ancestors of us all. Science is also silent about whether they were de novo created, much as it is silent on the Resurrection.

. . . . Science is silent, therefore, on Adam and Eve, ancestors of us all. They might even be de novo created from the dust, and from a rib, and lived less than 10,000 years ago. Science tells us nothing about them. Instead, we must turn to theology and hermeneutics. Here, the conversation is set for some very important and engaging dialogue between science and theology.

Yes, dialogue based on questions like these, some of them raised in the piece by Faizal Ali noted below. Here are three questions:

1.) If the Bible doesn’t mention other humans living at the same time as Adam and Eve, who were they? Swamidass thinks that they were the population of humans who evolved from our common ancestor with chimps, but Christians won’t buy that. They’d have to resort to the kind of exegesis that gives answers to questions like “Who did Cain and Abel marry?”

2.) How do we know this pair was created and resided in the Middle East (a requirement for Christians)? We don’t: that’s another thing that’s untestable.

3.) What about earlier Adam and Eves? It’s certain that the MRGCA was preceded by earlier genealogical common ancestors, so there are many candidates for A&E, not just the most recent ones. Swamidass picks out the most recent one because it allows Christians to comport a Biblical chronology with the scientific data. But, as Brian Charlesworth pointed out to me in an email discussion I had with him and geneticist Joe Felsenstein, we could have had something like this, with Arthur the Australopithecus and his mate being older equivalents of Adam and Eve (Brian made this graph). The lines represent genealogies, with Joe and I being more closely related because we’re both Jews:

Most important, and the thing that really bothers me about this hamhanded attempt to resuscitate an Adam and Eve that comports with science, is the point made by Faizal Ali in his post below (click on screenshot):

From Ali:

Swamidass states several times in his summary that “science is silent” on the idea of a de novo creation of Adam and Eve. This is not accurate, in my view. Science is quite clear that human beings do not spring into being from a pile of dust. That is just not how it happens. Science is as clear on this question as it is on the fact that rocks do not stay suspended in mid air, impervious to gravity, when you let them go while standing on the surface of the earth. What I believe Swamidass actually means is that, if we presume the existence of an omnipotent God who is capable of performing miracles, then the fact that it is not scientifically possible for a human being to instantly spring into being from dust does not mean it will not ever happen. Which is true as far as it goes. However, why stop there? Young Earth Creationists, who insist that the universe is only 6000 years old, will often wave away the overwhelming scientific evidence that the universe is actually billions of years old by saying that God could have created the universe 6000 years ago with the appearance of being billions of years old, just as he created Adam to look like a mature adult at the moment of his creation.

I see no reason that a god who could, and would, create a pair of special organisms who are physically identical to human beings could not, and would not, create a universe that, from its inception, appeared to be billions of years old. Why not? The difference between the two is simply that Swamidass’s theology requires a literal Adam and Eve, but not a young earth. For the person whose theology requires both, Geneaological Adam and Eve offers no solution. And my concern is that Swamidass’s scenario serves to validate and legitimize this sort of sloppy thinking.

. . . Swamidass. . . seeks to circumscribe science and install a firewall between it and religion, such that each discipline works in relative isolation from each other. As such, I do not see his scenario holding much attraction for creationists of various stripes whose true ambition is to bring science to heel and make it subservient to scriptural revelation. I suspect this is what the Intelligent Design Creationist Ann Gauger means when she says of Swamidass’s model that she views “the cost as too high.”

What we have, then, is a scientist proposing a scenario he doesn’t really accept, and one that really does violate science by negating what we know about how humans appear—all in the vain hope that it will convert evangelical Christians to evolution and science. “Hey,” Swamidass thinks they’ll say, “There could have been an Adam and Eve after all. Now I’m totally down with Darwin!”

From what I’ve seen of creationists, this won’t happen. Maybe one or two might buy this hokey scenario, but the rest, knowing that the scenario requires that all of us evolved genetically from a common ancestor with apes, and that this began 6 million years ago in Africa, will reject it, as Gauger did.

Swamidass has an honorable aim, but the cost is too high for me, too, since it requires perverting science and accepting miracles for which there can be no evidence. If you take the stand that “anything can be true, and if there’s no evidence for it one can believe in it”, then you’re buying into leprechauns, fairies, and a whole host of other unevidenced superstitions. Swamidass and Lents are supporting those superstitions, thereby buttressing the acceptability of faith as strong belief that doesn’t require credible evidence. That’s the kind of attitude that pervades evangelical Christianity and many other religions, and it’s an attitude that needs to be expunged from today’s world.

I look forward to Swamidass’s analysis of how Original Sin spread from the recent A&E to all existing humans. It can’t behave as a gene, and it must remain undiluted as it passes among generations after matings with non-created humans. Swamidass now bears the responsibility of telling the Christians he’s addressing exactly how that works.

As for me, I continue to adhere to Hitchens’s Razor:

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

56 thoughts on “Bogus accommodationism: The return of Adam and Eve as real people, as proposed by a wonky quasi-scientific theory

  1. For me the expression that fits Swamidass’ “theory” in one used by a great scientist of the 20th century (I forget exactly who): “It is not even wrong” – so far off beam that it cannot be corrected.

      1. Yep.

        “This isn’t right. This isn’t even wrong.”
        Response after reading a colleague’s paper, quoted in The Successful Toastmaster: A Treasure Chest of Introductions, Epigrams, Humor, and Quotations (1966) by Herbert Victor Prochnow, p. 350, and in Mathematical Apocrypha Redux : More Stories and Anecdotes of Mathematicians and the Mathematical (2005) by Steven George Krantz, p. 194

        It’s what you might call the Pauli Derision Principle.


  2. As Spock said : “fascinating… “

    … meaning, of course, the lengths to which apologetics will go, and the tenacity with which the Adam and Eve myth is held.

    1. … by the way – how do we know their names? And if they really were alive, shouldn’t there be a snake bear their fossils? And a big apple tree?

  3. “If you take the stand that “anything can be true, and if there’s no evidence for it one can believe in it”, then you’re buying into leprechauns, fairies, and a whole host of other unevidenced superstitions. Swamidass and Lents are supporting those superstitions and thereby buttressing the acceptability of faith as strong belief that doesn’t require credible evidence. That’s the kind of attitude that pervades evangelical Christianity and many other religions, and it’s an attitude that needs to be expunged from today’s world.”

    Very well said, PCC. The only thing I have to add is that Swamidass is treating biblical literalists in a very condescending way. While they may be blinded by faith, they’re not stupid enough to fall for “Look, you can keep your precious little beliefs (sort of) and also accept science!”

    There is a strong whiff of dishonesty in this whole enterprise. I need to think of how to articulate it.

    1. Never bothered with the DNA test that showed if I had Neanderthal relatives, as I didn’t care one way or the other. (Even though it became quite trendy.) But a DNA test to prove I *don’t* have act-of-god genes? I’d take that test.

      1. I think from the post that Jerry and Swamidass would agree on that it would be any genetic test. (But I’m not sure, I don’t understand the mapping from the genetic coalescent to a genealogical common ancestor (?) that Swamidass seem to propose.)

    2. Condescension is the norm for accommodationists. They themselves don’t believe because they are smart enough to understand religion is bogus. But not to worry little people! You simple minded folk who need religion to be happy in your simple, mundane lives can keep on believing! All you have to do is tweak your beliefs like I tell you to so that if you squint just right they kinda sorta don’t conflict so much with reality as revealed by modern science.

      And to accommodationists we, nonbelievers that tend to treat believers as responsible adults, we’re the dicks.

  4. Swamidass wrote: “[…] the scientific evidence does not unsettle this literal, traditional, and concordist account of Genesis.”

    According to Genesis, God creates first the Earth, then there’s somehow night and day (1:4). He makes land appear out of water and eventually grass and seeds grow (1:11). There are already years and seasons (1:14), by the time he gets around to make sun, moon and the stars (1:15, 1:16).

    What he said is such wrong, that I must assume he’s either lying or insane.

  5. I think we all agree this is wrong, for many reasons, some noted above. But is “a theory that doesn’t make testable hypotheses” even a theory? (Clearly it’s not a useful one)

    I pulled a couple of definitions:
    The first would suggest yes, the second no.

    A supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained.

    A theory is a group of linked ideas intended to explain something. A theory provides a framework for explaining observations. The explanations are based on assumptions. From the assumptions follows a number of possible hypotheses. They can be tested to provide support for, or challenge, the theory.

  6. Ah! It came to me as a revelation: I know how Original Sin is spread throughout the generations: it’s a sexually transmitted virus.

    1. Or perhaps a universal norm. Maybe original sin isn’t such an original idea after all.

      Take C14th BCE Hittite King Mursili II. As plague ravaged the Hittite Empire, he prayed, “Hattian Storm-god, my lord, (and) ye gods, my lords! It is only too true that man is sinful. My father sinned and transgressed against the word of the Hattian Storm-god, my lord. But I have not sinned in any respect. It is only too true, however, that the father’s sin falls upon the son. Because I have confessed my father’s sin, let the soul of the Hattian Storm-god, my lord, and (those) of the gods, my lords, be again pacified! Take pity on me and drive the plague out of the Hatti land! Suffer not to die the few who are still left to offer sacrificial loaves and libations!” (Ref:

      Would you Adam and Eve it if that isn’t as near as dammit to Augustine nearly 2,000 years later.

      1. Thanks for that link.
        If I was beginning an academic career I’d pursue the idea of original sin and how it was related to the idea of children as property. As I’m sure you know the Code of Hammurabi says that if an architect builds a house and the house collapses and kills the owners son, the architects son is put to death. That suggest to me that sons were viewed as property, not as independent individuals.

  7. Eve made from Adam’s rib? Why stop there? Are there not talking snakes, and donkeys, and angels, etc? Biblical cherry picking at it’s best.

  8. Various things of note:
    While Swamidass claims at times to fully support “evolution”, he is also quite explicit that he does NOT support naturalistic evolution; the variety of “evolution” that he supports is “God did it”. Source (Swamidass’ blog):
    Note also that in other cases he similarly wants to have his cake and eat it too: he “agree[s] with Behe” and “affirm[s] intelligent design”, but points to some criticism of Behe. If pressed, he’ll say that “intelligent design” differs from “Intelligent Design” (note distinction-without-a-difference in capitalization).
    The biggest problem is that Swamidass and his publisher (and Lents) are promoting Swamidass’ book as a science book (explicitly in the script-embedded title (which reads “Upcoming science book[…]”) of Lents’ op ed, and by the publisher at (“IVP is a leading Christian publisher”)); Lents specifically refers to “Swamidass’ theory” and Swamidass’ “genealogical hypothesis”, implying a scientific hypothesis/theory. But the conjecture (to put it as charitably as possible; it could also be called a just-so story) of a Biblical Adam literally poofed into existence from dust (Swamidass is a creationist) as a universal genealogical ancestor makes no predictions and is unfalsifiable (alternately acknowledged and disclaimed by Swamidass). Lack of falsifiable predictions makes the conjecture non-scientific.
    Swamidass and Lents acknowledge that distant genealogical ancestors contribute no identifiable genetic material to modern humans (genealogical ancestors are referred to as “genetic ghosts”); with no genetic contribution, the conjecture has no implications for disease or medical treatments, etc. (unlike evolution by natural selection), and so fails to have any scientific or practical utility.
    Calling a particular hypothetical pair of genealogical ancestors “Adam and Eve” is an intentional way to wedge a particular god into a supposed gap, and serves no scientific purpose; one might as well call them “Archie and Edith” or “Adolf and Eva” or “Uranus and Gaia”, depending on which non-scientific narrative one wishes to promote.
    The biggest problem is the positioning of the book as a science book (Lents’ op-ed and Swamidass’ publisher); this non-science mythological nonsense will inevitably be proposed as a science textbook; it will waste time and effort to get it out of public schools (and it’ll probably be a mainstay of Christian and Catholic taxpayer-funded private “schools”). It absolutely won’t convince any religious believers to accept naturalistic evolution, because that is explicitly rejected by Swamidass and others promoting Bronze Age creation myths. The “God did it” prediction-free, unfalsifiable, non-scientific, non-naturalistic, creationist parody of evolution is nothing new; what is new is this latest attempt to present creationism as science.

  9. Dang, Swamidass and Lents must’ve needed a marlinspike to undo all the knots they tied themselves into coming up with this one.

  10. Original Sin spreading by contagion? That’s magical thinking (for instance the Laws of Contagion, Sympathy and Equivalence).

    And there is no magic.

  11. “The lines represent genealogies, with Joe and I being more closely related because we’re both Jews:”

    And as you show in the diagram the Jews are not descended from A+E. I was thinking the same thing. Swamidass requires that very early on, descendants of AE must have migrated throughout the world so that every person in China, every !Kung bushman and every Aboriginal Australian and person in N and South American would be descended from them. Seems a bit sketchy to me. And how exactly would they have gotten to the Americas after the Bering land bridge was gone? I suppose as Sgt. Hartman would say, God would have “miracled their ass over there” …which gets to Ali’s point.

  12. Every time I read about genealogical relatives versus genetic relatives, I find it completely weird that I have many ancestors from whom I haven’t inherited anything.

    What exactly does being related to them mean, if there is no biological connection? It feels like I’m claiming to be related to people because they are friends.

  13. “Entirely consistent with the genetic evidence, it is possible Adam was created out of dust, and Eve out of his rib”

    Is there evidence that dust has chromosomes or that if you take a rib out of someone it could regrow in a genetically different person? I must have missed the Science or Nature paper describing it.

  14. I could see coming up with something like this as a sort of semi-amusing intellectual exercise to go through when bored (and/or drunk), but to present it as a serious idea should be embarrassing. And if Swamidass is NOT embarrassed by it, THAT fact should embarrass him.

  15. Another note: it’s also quite odd that humans could be well off in their naturally evolved form, if it weren’t for God who introduced a contaminated couple into our lineage. This idea turns out to be Mandelbrotian Nonsense, something that exposes another layer of wrongness at every scale under scrutiny.

    1. Was that taken from a Creationist textbook, or is it a parody?

      Also: what is A. africanus holding next to his head? It looks like a ghetto blaster. Regardless, I like the cave women and their Flintstones-style bikinis.

  16. Reminds me of Gerald Schroeder’s claim that Adam and Eve were the first humans to be granted souls. The other people living there were pre-Adamic hominids. I do not remember in detail, but he presents an iota of evidence in observing that human culture and technology flowered at about the time he places Adam and Eve. That may be a little better than Swamidass, who (according to Coyne) presents essentially no evidence whatsoever. So take your pick: souls, or original sin. Neither Schroeder nor Swamidass has any idea how to detect souls or the presence of original sin, and neither argument is testable in any way.

  17. Mormons (and I am a former member of that cult) are obsessed with genealogy and teaching ancestry back to A&E.

    Many are successful.

    *snort* *cough* *cough*

  18. I don’t see their failure to account for Original Sin as having any weight against their hypothesis. It seems to me that even the literal A&E hypothesis (e.g., A&E were the literal and only first humans) has the exact same problem.

    So whatever the “literalist A&E” people believe to solve this problem, their hypothesis can just do the same.

    (Which doesn’t mean I think their hypothesis has any merit at all.)

  19. This idea of trying to justify adam and eve’s existance reminds me of the many erroneous claims for perpetual motion machines, it’s impossible why even consider it.

  20. I tried to take this idea seriously because I just finished teaching my population genetics students about genealogical methods (or coalescent methods). Swamidass is using a well known approach that just depends on the genealogical history and doesn’t require any genetic variation (or even any genes) in order to be useful.

    But an axiom of that genealogical approach is that when looking backward in time the last migration event between subpopulations has to come before the most recent common ancestor (or looking forward in time the last common ancestor has to give rise to offspring in one population, some of whom then migrate to other populations). It’s assumed that the most recent common ancestor herself (or himself) did not also migrate.

    Also the archeological record conflicts with this account: many migration events are much older than A&E (e.g., the colonization of Australia; the colonization of the Americas). How could A&E be the most recent common ancestor AND be younger than those migration events? In a coalescent model that’s not possible. RodWilson @13 makes a similar point point.

    Jerry cited that 2004 Nature article, and maybe Swamidass cites it as well (IDK). I read that article and didn’t really understand it: the method seems to be purely demographic (not genealogical), and that demographic model seems to put the most recent common ancestor in East Asia, not in the Middle East (and not in Africa). That also is not consistent with the archeological record (or with the genetic evidence).

  21. What a load of codswallop. Science is FACT, Religion is faith without any proof. They are mutually incompatible.

  22. Haven’t Australian aboriginals been genetically isolated for 50,000 years? Where’s the loophole that allows all humans to have a common ancestor at 5,000 years.

  23. If Adam and Eve were real, living, breathing humanoids, then the story of the Garden of Eden must be true also. When evicted, god sends Cherubim to guards the Garden from being re-entered. They carried flaming swords. Swords? So now we have to add angels and swords as god’s creations. Why did he need swords if man and woman hadn’t committed any sins yet? Idiocy exemplified!

  24. So, let me get this straight, humanity was slowly evolving in the usual inefficient way when along came Adam and Eve and gave us all Original Sin? Well thanks for nothing, turkeys, you’re about as welcome as a STD at an orgy. 😉


  25. If Swamidass thinks that some individuals had, say, a father descended from A&E, and a mother not descended from A&E, how would God answer, in Paradise, the question, “Where is my mom?”.

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