Adam and Eve: Literal or Literary?

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June 17, 2010 Tags: Human Origins

Today's entry was written by Daniel Harrell. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Adam and Eve: Literal or Literary?

As many of our readers know, the historicity of Adam and Eve is a critically important topic in the discussion of Christianity and human origins. Although BioLogos takes a firm stand on the fact that Adam and Eve could not have been the sole biological progenitors of all humans (see here), science does not rule out the possibility of a historical Adam and Eve, which opens this interesting discussion.

The range of Christian perspectives on this topic is introduced in our FAQ on Evolution and the Fall. Harrell’s entry below follows several other recent posts presenting different views on the topic, including those from Tom Wright (here and here), Pete Enns, David Opderbeck, and Alister McGrath.

Update 6/24/2010: Darrel Falk has also written a response to this blog here.

Any discussion about evolution and faith quickly polarizes when it comes to Adam and Eve. Do we understand the Bible’s first couple as literal people or literary figures?

If they are literary people, then that raises questions about the rest of the Biblical cast. Are Moses and Jesus fictional characters too?

If they are literal people, then the trove of evolutionary and DNA evidence can’t be right. It’s impossible for the human race to trace back to a single pair of parents (and this without mentioning a talking snake and God creating Adam out of the dirt and Eve from his rib). For the serious student of Scripture and science, making a choice between literal and literary is impossible too. Can’t there be a middle option?

Perhaps.

Can we read Adam and Eve’s origin as a poetic reference to God’s involvement in the evolution of humanity while still regarding them as historical people (as do Jesus and Paul)?

To regard Adam and Eve as historical figures leaves us with basically two options within an evolutionary rubric. The first is that God created them supernaturally, midstream in evolution’s flow. To create in such a way would require that God also put in place a DNA history, since human origins genetically trace back to earlier, common ancestors. Conceptually, this presents the same problems as creating the universe with apparent age. Apparent age is how some square a literal Genesis with scientific evidence. Stars that appear to be billions of years old (according to cosmological measurements) are in reality only a few thousand years old (according to literal biblical reckoning). God created the stars with age.

The problem is that creating with age makes God seem to be tricking us into thinking things are older than they are with no clear reason for doing so. Nevertheless, given that Adam and Eve are both introduced in Genesis, presumably as adults rather than children (even if they acted like children), it could be that in their case, creating with age (and a history) would apply. While we might not necessarily understand why God would do that, he could do that (being God and all).

Another option might be to have Adam and Eve exist as first among Homo sapiens, specially chosen by God as representatives for a relationship with him. We often speak of Adam theologically as serving as representative of humanity in matters of original sin (his sin affects us all; Romans 5:12), so the idea of Adam as representative already exists in Christian theology.

Science asserts that evolved brain capacity and function are part of what set Homo sapiens apart from previous hominids. It is this same capacity and function that make relationship possible and, particularly in the creation account, covenantal relationships between humans and God and between humans and each other (i.e., marriage). An advantage of this interpretation is that God’s natural processes marvelously work without the need for any ancestral or genetic fabrication. Also, you’d finally be able to explain where it is that Cain found his wife (answer: from the other humans walking the earth east of Eden; Genesis 4:16-17).

However, this view would require a reinterpretation of words like “formed” and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7 KJV). Can we use “formed” and “breathed” to mean created through the long and continuous history of biological evolution (as were the other living creatures in Genesis 1)? If so, then perhaps “the Lord God formed the man” could be read emphasizing the novelty and uniqueness which humans inhabit.

Similarly, the “breath of life” would not signify simply oxygenated animation (surely Genesis isn’t simply speaking in that sense), but that breath which set humans apart as inspired by God (the Hebrew word for breath here is different than the word used for oxygen-intake by living creatures as a whole).

There are those who would object to such a reading since the Biblical author would not have had knowledge of evolutionary biology. And yet just because the author of Genesis wasn’t a scientist doesn’t mean that evolution wasn’t happening. We still describe babies’ births as “miracles” even though they’re among the most natural occurrences in nature.

Whether specially created or specially selected, humans constitute an interruption in the evolutionary process. Before people showed up, evolution’s potential pathways were invisible. But once humans appear, human volition entered with it. The human capacity to choose replaced randomness with intentionality. We have developed enough mastery over our environment (Genesis 1:28) that natural selection, in the strict Darwinian sense, no longer really applies to us.

We now control our own evolution, capable not only of self-awareness, but of self-determination too. Qualities that make relationship with God and others possible also made the breaking of relationship possible. This is a sad reality expressed throughout human history. The brokenness of human relationship affects, not only the relationship with God and our relationships with each other, but our relationship with the rest of creation. Even if humans were specially created, we were still made out of the dust of the ground, the same ground from which all other living things emerged.


Daniel Harrell is the Senior Minister of Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota. Before stepping into this role, Harrell served as associate minister at Park Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts for over twenty years. He is the author of the book Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, and is author of the forthcoming book How To Be Perfect: One Church’s Experiment with Living the Book of Leviticus.

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BenYachov - #19631

July 1st 2010

>What is more, evidence is mounting that animals have such traits as the ability to plan, feel remorse and be self-aware.

I reply: Well if I believe Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel (see What is it like to be a bat? ) I don’t see how you can have scientific evidence for that other than the pain part(& even their that is not 100%).  This sounds like the anthropomorphic fallacy.  Which is a problem many people who study animals have.  This is not Theistic propaganda this is the view of many Scientists who themselves are not religious.  There is a great deal of evidence that might suggest otherwise & if I believe Nagel it is likely a question outside of empirical science.

>The assertion that only humans have “intellective knowledge and free will” is not true, as far as I can tell.

I reply: That is your philosophical opinion but it is not a hard scientific fact in fact many Atheists would agree with me & do like Nagel & Stove.


BenYachov - #19633

July 1st 2010

>Another outcome you would expect from an evolutionary process (who we are is on a continuum with all life, we do not represent a sharp break or crowning achievement).

I reply: So remind me what date was it when dogs, monkeys and chimps when to the Moon by themselves, on their own initiative without human help?

Yikes?  You don’t have to believe or disbelieve in God to see what is wrong with Reductionist Materialism.


BenYachov - #19634

July 1st 2010

edit post #19620

There is plenty of evidence from philosophical psychology as pointed out by Dr. Bonnette that humans are more than mere highly developed animals.


Greg Myers - #19636

July 1st 2010

Ben, you are still not responding to my point. 

No historical couple, proto-human or human, were the ancestors of all humans, or even of the Israelites.  This makes your discussions of what I do or do not believe about the existence of some special characteristics humans may or may not have moot.  Adam and Eve cannot have been the actual “first couple” of the human race, in the sense that all humanity is descended from them.  Not historical.

As far as animals’ ability to reason, be self aware, plan for the future, etc, I don’t think a philosopher is the best person to make this call.

Here is a better approach - some scientists went out and did some experiments:

http://www.livescience.com/animals/061030_elephant_mirror.html
http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2008/10/birdbrained_jays_can_plan_for_the_future.php
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=do-animals-feel-empathy

There are more, but you can Google as well as I can.


BenYachov - #19638

July 1st 2010

>Ben, you are still not responding to my point.

I reply: Rather you are going out of your way to miss mine.

>No historical couple, proto-human or human, were the ancestors of all humans, or even of the Israelites. 

I reply: So you reject the concept of remote common ancestors?  How bizzare since given time other genetic lines will become extinct & repaced like with mitochondrial eve.(BTW I don’t believe mitochondrial Eve is the same as Biblical Eve).

>This makes your discussions of what I do or do not believe about the existence of some special characteristics humans may or may not have moot.  Adam and Eve cannot have been the actual “first couple” of the human race, in the sense that all humanity is descended from them.  Not historical.

I reply: But are not all humans descended from mitochondrial eve?  I see no reason why all humans could not have as a common ancestor an Adam & Eve with souls and providentally the only human alive today are their children with souls.  That does not seem logical.  They are not moot because even if I imagine God does not exist nothing you have argued here leads me to that conclusion.  You can be right about Atheism or denial of the Bible & still make a bad argument for it.


BenYachov - #19639

July 1st 2010

Of course I should add just because mitochondrial eve is our common ancestor doesn’t mean she is our only ancestor or creates a bottleneck.  The same applies to Biblical Adam or Eve.


BenYachov - #19641

July 1st 2010

>As far as animals’ ability to reason, be self aware, plan for the future, etc, I don’t think a philosopher is the best person to make this call.

I reply: So you reject the Philosophy of Science? That would be kind of silly and itself a non-scientific philosophical point of view.  A logically absurd one.  I don’t deny any data that scientists who go out & do experiments come up with.  It is the interpretation & meaning of said data that is where the philosophy comes in.  If you choose to interpret the data solely threw the lends of the philosophy of reductionist materialism or naturalism that is fine.  But be advised that is not science that is philosophy. As Edward Feser & even Daniel Dennett pointed out philosophy is unavoidable in science. 

You can google philosophy of science and philosophy in general to find out more.

Cheers.


BenYachov - #19644

July 1st 2010

Atheist Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s essay

What’s it like to be a Bat?
http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/nagel_nice.html


Greg Myers - #19647

July 1st 2010

Ben, perhaps you misunderstand the science.  Our ancestors are groups - groups that share different pools of genes.  No one couple passed on all the genes that we now have.  So no, I don’t reject the idea of common ancestors, I reject the idea of a single historical couple, ancestor to us all.

If you are arguing that Adam and Eve are just a couple of humans somewhere in our history, I suppose no one could tell one way or the other.  Since the Genesis stories argue that they were the first humans,  have been handcrafted from dirt (one story), or have been made in the image of God (a different story), they would seem to have rather more significance - in fact, Genesis seems to be claiming that they are the first humans, ancestors to us all, from whom we inherit both the image of God and sin.  It is just this relationship - a single couple, ancestor to all humans, that the evidence disproves.  You may invent other relationships as you wish, but that would be is a gloss on the Genesis stories, not the stories themselves.


Greg Myers - #19648

July 1st 2010

My rejecting the philosophy of science has nothing to do with the issue.  You quoted a philosopher, I responded with studies demonstrating that animals seem to be capable of self-awareness, emotions, pain. You seem to reject the conclusion of these studies because you have an bias that insists that humans are more than animals.  I suggest that you reexamine your bias in the light of evidence.

Yes, philosophy impacts how we do and interpret science.  But that does not mean that we get to make up the facts, or deny facts we don’t like.  No amount of interpretation will bring the genetic evidence around to supporting a single couple as an ancestor to us all.  No amount of philosophy will strip other animals of self-recognition, self-reflection, planning or the ability to feel emotions.  You may believe, on faith, that there is some other quality that makes humans unique among the animals - but so far, the evidence is that we differ in quantity, not quality when it comes to “intellective knowledge and free will.”


BenYachov - #19651

July 1st 2010

>Ben, perhaps you misunderstand the science.  Our ancestors are groups - groups that share different pools of genes.  No one couple passed on all the genes that we now have.  So no, I don’t reject the idea of common ancestors, I reject the idea of a single historical couple, ancestor to us all.

I reply: Well that common ancestor had to have mated with somebody.  Still if a bottleneck of 2000 people is possible for 100,000 years I don’t see why a bottleneck of 2 people who produce 100,000 people over 5 or 10 generations is not possible if I believe Bonnette & the sources cites even if it’s not probable.  OTOH if current theory says it is not possible then either Adam & Eve’s children mated with unsouled hominids whose offspring had souls or the current science may change Bennette has given an example.


BenYachov - #19652

July 1st 2010

>If you are arguing that Adam and Eve are just a couple of humans somewhere in our history, I suppose no one could tell one way or the other.

I reply: Especially since you can’t tell the philosophical psychology of these person vs their contemporaries.  Or their metaphysical nature.

> in fact, Genesis seems to be claiming that they are the first humans, ancestors to us all, from whom we inherit both the image of God and sin.

I reply: They where the first humans except you define humanity in pure genetic physicalist terms(which begs the question). you fail to define human nature & you fail to show how this nature is purely the produce of evolution & you can’t do it empirically reductionalist materialist philosophy.  If I presupose theism & supernatualism that is not a problem.


BenYachov - #19653

July 1st 2010

>It is just this relationship - a single couple, ancestor to all humans, that the evidence disproves.  You may invent other relationships as you wish, but that would be is a gloss on the Genesis stories, not the stories themselves.

I reply: But historically Catholics, Orthodox and Rabbinic Jews reject the idea Scripture must stand alone without the “gloss” of extra-biblical tradition.  If you want to deny my religion is false that is ok but you will have to defend as true the doctrine of another religion(sola scriptura from Protestantism) you still think is false.  That is not convincing or rational on your part.

The first man
http://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/48931772.html

To this day tradition still suprises me.


BenYachov - #19654

July 1st 2010

>My rejecting the philosophy of science has nothing to do with the issue.  You quoted a philosopher, I responded with studies demonstrating that animals seem to be capable of self-awareness, emotions, pain.

I reply:  I responded by pointing out Bennette citing the problem of the Anthropomorphic falllacy which he gets from OTHER SCIENTISTS who study animal behavior and are more modest about claiming animals are showing human behavior. 

As Nagel says you can imagine that your arms are wings, that you have webbing between your fingers, or that you can tell where things are by listening to echoes. But even if you imagine all these things perfectly, you still don’t know what it’s like to BE a bat… just what it’s like to be a human IMAGINING he’s a bat.  In a like manner you can observe an Elephant looking in the mirror but it’s a fallacy to interpret his reactions as the same as a human looking in a mirror.  Nagel has studied just as much science as you yet he comes to different more modest conclusions & he doesn’t believe in God.


BenYachov - #19655

July 1st 2010

> I suggest that you reexamine your bias in the light of evidence.

I reply: I suggest you examine your bias in reading the evidence & not put yourself in the place of an animal being tested since in the end you can’t know an elephant is self aware.  You a self-aware human can project that psychologically on an elephant & fail to make the distinction.

>Yes, philosophy impacts how we do and interpret science.  But that does not mean that we get to make up the facts, or deny facts we don’t like.

I reply: I have not done this except in your imagination.  I accept the facts as given but my interpretation is different then yours & your still confusing your interpretation with the factgs themselves.


BenYachov - #19657

July 1st 2010

>  No amount of interpretation will bring the genetic evidence around to supporting a single couple as an ancestor to us all.

I reply: You have not proven that actually.  I think it would merely be very very very very improbible just like all the atoms in a statue randomly moving in one direction then reversing giving the apperence it’s waving (see Michael Shumer). Still it doesn’t matter if I reject biological monogensis I can still accept theological monogenesis.  You will have to deal with philosophy. There is no getting around it & assuming reductionalist materialism in a kneejerk fashion is not persuasive.  Even Nagel knows that.


BenYachov - #19658

July 1st 2010

>No amount of philosophy will strip other animals of self-recognition, self-reflection, planning or the ability to feel emotions.

I reply: This is a very immodest claim from a stict empirical scientific view & it ignores things like the “Clever Hans effect” , “the Anthropomorphic fallacy (which is a real concern to those who study animal psychology.
You claim is hardly conclusive.
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness-animal/
QUOTE"The demand requires those who would say that a tiger pacing in the zoo is “bored”, or that the hooked fish is in pain to define their terms, state empirical criteria for their application, and provide experimental or observational evidence for their claims. Even if interpretivism is a viable theory of folk practice with respect to attributing animal consciousness, it seems unlikely to make inroads against scientific epistemology. “END QUOTE


BenYachov - #19659

July 1st 2010

>You may believe, on faith, that there is some other quality that makes humans unique among the animals - but so far, the evidence is that we differ in quantity, not quality when it comes to “intellective knowledge and free will.”

I reply: You have not made that case in fact if I believe Prof COLIN ALLEN (whose article from the Standford Encylopedia i cited in #19658) who is not only a philosopher of science but a scientist who studies cognition and animal behavior that does not seem to be the case.

I can deny God tomorrow and like Dave Stove conclude humans are unique and they are.


BenYachov - #19660

July 1st 2010

Quote"For many philosophers of mind, the topic of animal consciousness is no longer only of peripheral interest. Many scientists and philosophers believe that the groundwork has been laid for addressing at least some of the questions about animal consciousness in a philosophically sophisticated yet empirically tractable way. Yet there remain critics from both sides: on the one hand are those who still think that subjective phenomena are beyond the pale of scientific research, and on the other are those who think that science and philosophy have not moved far enough or fast enough to recognize animal consciousness. The arguments on both sides are by no mean exhausted.“END QUOTE

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness-animal/


BenYachov - #19661

July 1st 2010

Of course if I for the sake of argument accept animals are conscious of sensation that is not the same as claiming they have an intellect like humans or that human intellect is explained purely in physicalist evolutionary terms.  See both Edward Feser & Dave Stove.


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