William Lane Craig’s new book on Adam and Eve given semi-laudatory review—in Science!

October 8, 2021 • 10:30 am

This is one of the most bizarre book reviews I’ve read in Science (or Nature). It’s a long (a full page) review of theologian William Lane Craig’s new book on Adam and Eve, supposedly a “Biblical and scientific exploration,” according to the book’s title (see picture of book below). The reviewer, Stephen Shaffner, is a computational biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT. While he does gripe about some of the book, he winds up saying that it’s very good as an example of how to tackle “philosophical” questions with science, hoping that other theologians will emulate Craig’s efforts. Oy! What I’m wondering is why, given the book’s palpable flaws, including the idea that there was a “first human” whose parents were “pre human”, this book was reviewed at all.

Click on the screenshot to read; if you can’t see it, a judicious inquiry will yield a pdf:

Schaffner outlines Craig’s aims in the book in a somewhat misleading way:

In Quest of the Historical Adam, Craig sets out to bring academic and scientific rigor to bear on the famous first couple of Genesis. He seeks to answer two questions: whether his theological commitments as a Christian necessitate believing in a historical Adam and Eve and, if so, what science can tell us about that couple.

Apparently Craig believes that the story of the First Couple in Genesis is mythology, written as a parable, so he doesn’t buy a literal Adam and Eve. (As Schaffner notes, that’s “a view that will not endear him to creationists”.)  However, he believes in a literal Adam: a first human; and that is based on “some statements about Adam in the New Testament, specifically ones in Paul’s letter to the Romans.”  From this Craig concludes that Adam is real, failing to apply the same exegetical rigor to Paul as he does to Genesis (Schaffner calls Craig out for this).

And then Craig embarks on his search for Adam, the “first human”, apparently meaning “the first human with a soul”. Since souls don’t fossilize, Craig has to look for their correlates, and this is where things get bizarre. Here’s Schaffner’s description of what the sweating theologian is trying to say:

Having established that he should believe in Adam’s existence, Craig sets out to locate him. He does so in the form of a question amenable to scientific analysis: When did hominins acquire the cognitive capacity for abstract thought, symbolic behavior, and the like, such that they should be considered human? The relevant subject matter is large and touches on evolutionary biology, paleontology, paleoneurology, archaeology, and genetics; the data are often scanty and contentious. Nevertheless, he does a more than creditable job of synthesizing both the conclusions and the uncertainties offered by these various fields, often drawing on primary scientific literature to do so.

Craig argues, for example, on the basis of brain size, that the first humans could not have lived before the time of Homo heidelbergensis and late Homo erectus. A number of facts about Neanderthals—symbolic behavior, ability to cooperate and plan, probable linguistic capacity, possession of human-specific genetic modifiers of brain development—convince him that they qualify as human. He therefore concludes that humanness was a trait inherited by Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Homo sapiens from their common ancestral populations and that Adam must have lived circa 700,000 years ago.

This is ridiculous for several reasons, the most obvious being the criteria for “humanness”, which, even if you accept them, must have evolved gradually, not appearing in one instant when Adam was born from a not-yet-human mother less cognitive than he. (Schaffer does mention the dubiousness of seeing human-ness as a binary: it’s not here and then—poof!—it is!) Finally if there is an Adam who is the ancestor of us all, his mate must also have been the ancestor of us all. That is, there must have been an Eve. And if she was from the same population as Adam, she would be “human” too.

In the last two paragraphs of the review, Shaffner criticizes the book but winds up praising it—the latter on very strange grounds.

Craig’s goal in writing this book, of course, is not a scientific one, and it cannot be judged on scientific grounds. I suspect that for many scientists, including religious ones, the exercise will be seen as misguided or simply incomprehensible. Even leaving aside the religious motivations, biologists are likely to be highly skeptical of the idea that humanness is a binary condition that can be induced by a change in a single pair of ancestors—declaring the change to be miraculous and to incorporate an immaterial soul, as Craig proposes, will not make it more appealing.

While my own reaction is along similar lines, I very much welcome the book. I think that it is entirely a good thing that an individual with Craig’s theological commitments and credentials turns to science to answer questions about the physical world, takes evolution as a given, and puts in the hard work to understand scientific findings. I can only hope that others who work at the intersection of science with philosophy or religion emulate his efforts.

What Shaffner misses here is an even more obvious antiscientific aspect of the book. Craig convinced himself that Adam was real from reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, and then collects and massages the evidence to support that conclusion “scientifically”.  Part of Craig’s “creditable synthesis” is to obviate the “bottleneck data”—population-genetic analysis showing that the smallest bottleneck in our species in the last several hundred thousand years must have been at least twelve thousand individuals.  That is, the human population was never even close to one or two persons, much less Noah’s band of eight.

But—and I’ve just discovered that I analyzed and dispelled Craig’s arguments when he proposed them in his newsletter in 2018—Craig then is forced to posit that the extra genetic diversity we have that disproves a one-man or a one-couple bottleneck came later—from “admixture from other hominin lineages” into “Adam’s” descendants. In other words, to save his thesis, Craig simply makes up stuff for which there is no evidence (indeed, there’s evidence against this admixture). So what we have is a preordained conclusion involving data that are either massaged or confected to buttress that conclusion. This is not science, but it’s the way theology works when it tries to use science.

In his last paragraph, “welcoming the book,” Shaffner ignores the fundamentally nonscientific nature of such an endeavor. And that renders a review of Craig’s book in Science as really weird. I, for one, don’t hope that theologians twist the scientific (and Biblical) findings to make them comport with one another in the interests of Jesus-promotion. (Science-minded philosophers like Dan Dennett are okay.) For a theologian, a little science is a dangerous thing.

37 thoughts on “William Lane Craig’s new book on Adam and Eve given semi-laudatory review—in Science!

  1. Excellent criticism. Great pop quiz on the facts of evolution!

    It is easy to imagine that many might think the straightforward criticism delivered by PCC(E) is merely a grievance. This would be false. As the barmaid said this week : “you keep coming into my bar!” The _specific_objective_ of the book is exactly as PCC(E) describes. I’d add it is to make noise rather than sense.

    It is a mystery why the foundational truth claim that Jesus rose up bodily from death – straight up “that way!” (pointing up) – is conveniently ignored by the reviewer.

  2. While I sometimes catch myself dreaming of the day when Craig announces that he no longer believes in god, it’s painfully clear that the reason he and others like him – indeed all believers – will not let go of their god belief is that they are simply too invested.

    1. Your link to the Biologos site has an article on population genetics by Schaffner. I am not qualified to judge his science, but he does conclude: “To sum up everything we have looked at: the genetic variation we see in humans today provides no positive evidence whatsoever that we trace our ancestry exclusively from a single couple. As far as anyone can tell, the genetic data in fact rules out such a couple if they lived less than half a million years ago.” His final sentence: “it is clear that the big issues raised by the Adam and Eve account—what it means to be a created being, who we are as humans, what our relationship is or can be with God—are matters of theology and faith, not science.”

      It seem like other Christian scientists that Schaffner manages to separate his science from his religion. I don’t know how they do that.

      https://biologos.org/articles/what-genetics-say-about-adam-and-eve

      1. “It seem like other Christian scientists that Schaffner manages to separate his science from his religion.”

        It seems clear to me now that what you describe is a performance by victims of religion. That we cannot fathom how it is done suggests it to be merely a magic show.

  3. And Shaffner seems entirely unfamiliar with WLC’s history with the kalam cosmological argument. A cursory glance at that book (or his waffling about the nature of time) would tell you he simply cherry-picks which bits of science to believe.

  4. The reviewer Stephen Shaffner is a BioLogos guy. His PhD is in physics, but he switched to genomics and human population genetics. Maybe not a surprise that a religious physicist would be kindly disposed to Lane’s accommodationism. When Shaffner writes

    “I think that it is entirely a good thing that an individual with Craig’s theological commitments and credentials turns to science to answer questions about the physical world, takes evolution as a given, and puts in the hard work to understand scientific findings.”

    he could be simply writing about himself.

  5. Good grief! Craig makes the lunatic scientists in Balnibarbi trying to extract sunlight from cucumbers seem sensible.

  6. I read Shaffner’s closing paragraph a little differently. He has already clearly stated his contempt for the book’s conclusions and he’s pointed out some of the more obvious flaws in Craig’s arguments. He seems to me to be saying in this final paragraph that he is pleased that, although the book is obviously bollocks, at least Craig admits that it is science that is the ultimate arbiter of truth about the universe rather than suggesting theology, philosophy, praying, or tea leaf reading are of any use. He’s saying (in a slightly snide and backhanded way) that if more theologians would so freely admit that their discipline is completely useless at finding out stuff about the universe then that would be a good thing. I read this paragraph as a stinging criticism of theology in general rather than being praise for this book’s contents. But I may be wrong.

    1. Yes, I read Shaffner as very polite, but he still says: your Adam and Eve stuff is nonsense. Especially in the link provided by Historian above, under reply 3.

  7. There could have been an Adam and no Eve if the human soul appeared suddenly through a new, dominant mutation in a sperm or egg that gave rise to Adam. Perhaps Mr. Craig will go into this in his next book, and even speculate on the identity of the soul gene.

    One candidate for the gene in question might be SOLH, which not only has the right name, but is expressed in the brain and has a zing finger. Of course, it is an analogue of a Drosophila gene, leading to the possibility that at least some fruit flies have souls too. But I’m sure our host may have suspected this from time to time. I used to work with bacteria, and there were times, when I thought I heard soft laughter emanating from one of my Petri plates, that I wondered about the souls of E. coli.

  8. Want to discredit science? Send in a poison pill — a person who presents a false passport loyal to rigor and objectivity, which are Aristotelean, yet who keeps Plato’s mystical metaphysics at the ready.

  9. Finally if there is an Adam who is the ancestor of us all, his mate must also have been the ancestor of us all. That is, there must have been an Eve.

    Adam and Bernice have kids who have kids etc. Half the human race can trace their lineage back to A&B. But Adam is unfaithful; he also has kids with Charlene. The other half of the human race can trace their lineage back to A&C, but not B. Thus there can be an Adam who is our last male universal common ancestor, but his mate is not our last female universal common ancestor. For the last female LUCA, you’d have to go back to Delilah, who is Bernice and Charlene’s mother, but who did not have sex with Adam (he’s not that much of a swinger).

    And if she was from the same population as Adam, she would be “human” too.

    Same species, yes. Practically by definition, being in the same breeding population makes one the same species. Human…depends on how you define it. Let us say that we define ‘human’ in reference to some set of genetic sequences. For illustrative purposes, let’s just say you have to have these 10,000 sequences to be defined human. Adam has them all. Bernice has only 9,999 of them. Bernice and Adam can breed, and their kids have a 50% chance of being human (getting the one different sequence from Adam) and a 50% chance of not being human (getting the one different sequence from Bernice…ignoring mutation for the moment). But Bernice is not genetically homo sapiens. She’s the same species as Adam, because species have a wide range of genetic sequences, and both of them are in that range. But the range of sequences that counts as ‘human’ does not overlap sufficiently with Bernice’s sequences for her to count.

    Note this can work for both parents, at the same time! Let’s say Adam has only 9,999 of the ‘human’ sequences. Bernice has a different 9,999 of the ‘human’ sequences – maybe Adam’s sequence #403 is different from human, while Bernice’s sequence #7,654 is different from human. Because sexual reproduction randomly takes from both, a kid who gets Bernice’s #403 and Adam’s #7,654 will have all 10,000 of the required human sequences. She’ll be human, even though her parents aren’t! But they’re all the same species. Adam and Bernice might also have kids with only 9,999 of the human sequences, or only 9,998 of them.

    1. I should add that while these are somewhat nitpicky disagreements with Jerry’s sentences, what should be clear is that the second example fully supports the concept of gradual acquisition of humanness or human traits, and the nonbinary nature of the label ‘human.’ For the toy example I arbitrarily set the label ‘human’ at sharing a specific set of 10,000 sequences, but this really is just arbitrary. There isn’t going to be any significant ‘species’ difference between Adam, Bernice, and their child. The breeding population slowly gains more human traits and more members with human traits over generations. A smooth, population based glide path from earlier hominids to erectus to heidlebergensis (WLC’s “Adam”) to sapiens.

    2. Yes, exactly: the problem with all of these ridiculous efforts to trace ancestry back to any single individual organism or pair of organisms is recombination.

      For any sample of gene copies for one specific part of the genome, one can trace their ancestry back to a single ancestral gene copy in an individual *somewhere* in their shared history.

      But for another sample of gene copies for some other part of the genome, their most recent common ancestral gene copy is likely to be found in an individual *somewhere else* in the shared history.

      Those different ancestral gene copies are expected to have existed at different times. Sampled across the whole genome, this gives a probabilistic cloud of ancestors backward in time that together represent the lineage or population of ancestors of living individuals and their gene copies. But not a single Adam or a pair of Adam and Eve.

  10. We regularly hear about the virtues of “dialogue”.

    I am not convinced the dialogue will go the way the authors (Shaffner, Craig) intended – and clearly, the evaluation here would not go their way.

  11. So it was 700,000 years ago, not 6000 years. So 694,000 years is the difference between real and mythology? Did Eve still evolve from a rib?

    1. Surely you have heard the classic story about how God offered Adam a choice of mates. First, He described a truly wonderful mate—whose endless virtues, important to the joke, I won’t repeat here—but whose creation required Adam to sacrifice one of his kidneys. “That sounds great,” Adam replies, “but a little too pricey. What can I get for a rib?”

  12. Sir Peter Medawars’ criticism of a different book is much better:
    “”…its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself. ” 

  13. What source does he cite for the existence of a “soul”? Reminds me of the old joke about the Physicist, the Chemist, and the Economist stuck in a boat with nothing to eat except a can of beans, and nothing to open it with, whose punchline is “Assume we have a can opener. . . .”

    1. The review never mentions the word “soul”. Neither does the article that Jerry critiqued previously and which seems to be the prototype for the book.

      Either Jerry has actually read the book and it does talk about the soul or he’s simply assumed the bit about the soul based on WLC being a Christian theologian.

  14. Is it my imagination or are these sops to religion becoming more frequent in scientific circles? Perhaps PCC(E) needs a new category for his posts: Scientific journals behaving badly.

  15. “Craig sets out to locate him.”
    I can tell you a true story of when “Adam” became “Adam”. It wasn’t until he met the Fabulous FUNGI. (Netflix) This is when he realised I am “Adam” it was a slow awakening. Unfortunately he went bat crazy on the WONDER, and came up with gods.
    Lane Craig needs to meet the Fabulous Fungi and HE will meet his maker (of gods) and then (have mercy on us) he’ll let natural selection take care of the rest.
    The pursuit of fiction is a cost to him and his followers, if a `homo sapient wants to live in reality of what is actually going on. He is just a gnats away ok maybe a few, from coming around though as he is putting more effort into science. Perhaps that’s what the Stephen Shaffner had in mind, encouragement?

  16. I was always fascinated by Genesis 6: 2 -4, where the sons of God marry the human females and humans miscgenate with the nephelim.
    Take that, Adam and Eve!

  17. Consider the possibility that Eve was the mother of Adam before the Jewish priests rewrote the myth. Eve being made out of the rib of Adam? Smells fishy.

  18. I have noticed the Discovery Institute have been testing the water with “could there have been a first mating pair of humans” stories.

    I think I can see where the “admixtures of other hominem lineages” is going.

  19. He seeks to answer two questions: whether his theological commitments as a Christian necessitate believing in a historical Adam and Eve and, if so, what science can tell us about that couple.

    What does science tell us about Adam and Eve? They are fictional characters.

    It can’t be a very long book.

  20. Why is Dan Dennett okay as an example of “others who work at the intersection of science with philosophy or religion”? (And what is the difference between those two fields of make-believe?)

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