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.
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 literal, traditional, 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:
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.