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.