Genetics, Theology, and Adam as a Historical Person, Part 2

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December 22, 2010 Tags: Human Origins

Today's entry was written by Denis Alexander. 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.

Genetics, Theology, and Adam as a Historical Person, Part 2

This is the second entry in a series taken from Denis Alexander’s essay addressing the question, “How Does a BioLogos model need to address the theological issues associated with an Adam who was not the sole genetic progenitor of humankind?” This essay was presented in November 2010 at the Theology of Celebration BioLogos Workshop in New York City. In Part 1, Alexander describes how models are used in science and explains how building models for relating theological and scientific truths is distinct from concordism. Today he lays the groundwork for two models that relate creation theology and anthropology. These models will be the subject of subsequent posts.

The last common ancestor between us and the chimpanzee lived around 5 – 6 million years ago. Since that time we and the apes have been undergoing our own independent evolutionary pathways. Today we have religion, chimps do not. At some stage humanity began to know the one true God of the scriptures. How and when did that happen?

The emergence of anatomically modern humans

Anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa from about 200,000 years ago. The oldest well-characterised fossils come from the Kibish formation in S. Ethiopia and their estimated date is 195,000 +/– 5,000 years old.1 Other well-established fossil skulls of our species have been found in the village of Herto in Ethiopia and date from 160,000 years ago as established by argon isotope dating.2 Some limited expansion of our species had already taken place as far as the Levant by 115,000 years ago, as indicated by partial skeletons of unequivocal H. sapiens found at Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel. But significant emigration out of Africa does not seem to have taken place until after 70,000 years ago, with modern humans reaching right across Asia and on to Australia by 50,000 years ago, then back-tracking into Europe by 40,000 years ago, where they are known as the Cro-Magnon people. By 15,000 years ago they were trickling down into N. America across the Bering Strait.3

The effective population size of the emigrant population from Africa has been estimated at between 60 and 1220 individuals4, meaning that virtually all the world’s present non-African populations are descended from this tiny founder population. Even the bugs inside human guts tell the same story, with their genetic variation reflecting the African origins of their hosts.5 But within Africa different groups of humans were living for at least 130,000 years before the emigration, many of them isolated from each other for long periods of time. Therefore one would expect greater genetic variation between different populations of Africans than between different populations of non-Africans, which is in fact what is observed.

Adam in the Genesis texts

The very first mention of ‘Adam’ in the Bible comes in Genesis 1:26–27 where the meaning is unambiguously ‘humankind’. These verses are reiterated in the opening words of the second toledoth section of Genesis in 5:1–2: ‘When God created adam, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them adam.’ So adam can refer to humankind and it is only adam that is made in the image of God.

Then Genesis 2, enter a king - God’s ambassador on earth! But this is a dusty king: ‘the Lord God formed [Hebrew: yatsar] adam from the adamah [dust of the ground] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the adam became a living being’ [Hebrew: nepesh, breath, soul] (2:7). The very material nature of the creation, including the man, is underlined by verse 9: after placing the man in ‘a garden in the east, in Eden’, God then ‘made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground [adamah]’.

There are many important points packed into these verses. First, there is a perfectly good word for ‘man’ in Hebrew (’ish), the word most commonly used for man in the Old Testament (in fact 1671 times), so the choice of ‘adam’ here for man seems a deliberate teaching tool to explain to the reader that adam not only comes from the adamah, but is also given the important task by God of caring for the adamah – earthy Adam is to be God’s earth-keeper.

Second we note the use of the definite article in front of adam, so that the correct translation in English is ‘the man’, and the definite article remains in place all the way though to Genesis 4:25 when Adam without a definite article appears and ‘lay with his wife again’. Personal names in Hebrew do not carry the definite article, so there is a particular theological point being made: here is ‘the man’, a very particular man, the representative man perhaps of all other men. However we are to understand the use of the definite article, there is no doubt that it is a very deliberate strategy in this tightly woven text, with no less than 20 mentions of ‘the man’ in Genesis Chapters 2 and 3.

But at the same time there is some ambiguity in the use of the word adam, perhaps an intentional ambiguity, which makes it quite difficult to know when ‘Adam’ is first used as a personal name.6 For example in some verses, instead of the definite article in front of adam, there is what is called in Hebrew an ‘inseparable preposition’, translated as “to” or “for” in Genesis 2:20, 3:17 and 3:21. Different translations apply their own different interpretations of when adam starts being used as the personal name Adam, and these differing interpretations depend on the context. So it is best not to be too dogmatic about the precise moment in the text when ‘the adam’, the representative man, morphs with Adam bearing a personal name.

The third important point highlighted in Genesis 2:7 is that ‘adam became a living being’ or, as some translations have it, ‘living soul’. The language of ‘soul’ has led some Christians to think that this verse is a description of an immortal soul that is implanted in ‘the adam’ during his creation, but whatever might be the teaching of Scripture elsewhere on this point, it is difficult to sustain such an idea from this Genesis passage. The Hebrew word used here is nepesh, which can mean, according to context: life, life force, soul, breath, the seat of emotion and desire, a creature or person as a whole, self, body, even in some cases a corpse. In Genesis 1: 21, 24, 20 and 2:19 exactly the same phrase in Hebrew – ‘living nepesh’, translated as ‘living creatures’ – is used there for animals as is used here in Genesis 2 for ‘the adam’. And we note also that adam became a nepesh, he was not given one as an extra, so the text is simply pointing out that the life and breath of adam was completely dependent upon God’s creative work, just as it was for the ‘living creatures’ in Genesis 1. There is certainly no scope for understanding this particular passage as referring to the addition to adam of an immaterial immortal ‘soul’.

How do we relate the anthropological understanding with the profound theological essay that the early chapters of Genesis provide for us, with their carefully nuanced presentation of ‘Adam’? There are two main models that seek to answer this question, which will be the subject of my next post.

Notes

1. McDougall, I. et al Nature 433: 733-736 2005.

2. White, T.D. et al Nature 423: 742-747, 2003; Clark, J.D. et al Nature 423: 747-752, 2003.

3. A useful account of the spread of humanity out of Africa can be found in: Jones, D. ‘Going Global’, New Scientist, 27 Oct, 36-41, 2007.

4. Fagundes, N.J. et al., ‘Statistical evaluation of alternative models of human evolution’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 104:17614-17619, 2007. The ‘effective population size’ is defined as the number of individuals in a population that contribute offspring to the next generation.

5. Linz, B. et al., ‘An African origin for the intimate association between humans and Helicobacter pylori’, Nature 445-: 915-918, 2007.

6. This is well illustrated by the way in which different translations introduce ‘Adam’ as a personal name into the text: the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) at 2:16; AV at 2:19; RV and RSV at 3:17; TEV at 3:20 and NEB at 3:21).


Denis Alexander is the Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, to which he was elected a Fellow in 1998. Alexander writes, lectures, and broadcasts widely in the field of science and religion. He is a member of the International Society for Science and Religion.

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Gregory - #44687

December 22nd 2010

“it is only adam that is made in the image of God.” - Denis Alexander

I wonder if this means that D.A. calls human beings (or, speaking in ‘physical anthropology’ vocab, more consistent with Denis’ profession, & *not* the humanistic, cultural or linguistic anthropology, which also overlaps with A&E, homo sapiens sapiens) as a special ‘KIND’ of creature, rather than simply as a ‘DEGREE’ more complex in brain or physical structure?

Would Denis respond to the question - Human Beings: different from (other) animals in Kind or Degree?

As or me, I pay little attention to what ‘modern’ means in the language of palaeontology as it doesn’t correspond with ‘modern’ in most other contexts. To speak of ‘anatomically modern humans’ is fine for in-house meetings. But as a person who studies ‘modern’ human beings, i.e. us, people who are living today & who we meet on the street, it is not our ‘anatomy’ that mainly distinguishes us from (other) animals; it is our consciousness.

You won’t hear physical anthropologists speaking @ ‘consciously-modern pre-humans.’

Yes, human beings are part of a created Whole. There is no need to be a dehumanizing Christian by focussing only on the physicality of Adamites.


Gregory - #44688

December 22nd 2010

“That’s probably the biggest mistake – trying to line up all of humanity as stemming from a fellow who lived around 7,000 years ago in southern Mesopotamia.” - Dick Fischer (Part I)

Actually, it would simply take a man & woman, making babies. Recent MRCA studies show that 7,000 yrs is ‘long enough’ & all of humanity *could* have a ‘common ancestor’ in a ‘short’ rather than ‘long’ period of time. So, what’s the problem with accepting a ‘real, historical’ A&E?

“evolutionary change occurs over timeframes that transcend virtually all the interesting contexts that call for sociological explanations.”

“Sociologists have been blindsided by evolutionary psychologists who invoke concepts like ‘kin selection,’ ‘reciprocal altruism,’ & ‘indirect reciprocity’ to capture what they allege to be the biological bases of all social behaviour. This inevitably involves a reduction of sociology to a genetically programmed version of rational choice economics.”

“if the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution were to dominate the cultural landscape, as it currently does the scientific one, the very idea of specifically human – as opposed to general animal – rights would be under serious question.” - S. Fuller


conrad - #44689

December 22nd 2010

That is actually a very intelligent blog.


conrad - #44690

December 22nd 2010

“evolutionary change occurs over timeframes that transcend virtually all the interesting contexts that call for sociological explanations.”

TRUE!

That is actually why the SUDDEN appearance of modern may be a miraculous change, even though evolution is a slow process.
So the Bible correlates with science very well.

The DNA was there but it was suddenly tweaked up to “create” man,.... from the preexisting “dust of the earth”,.... i.e. existing DNA.
NOW THAT AIN’T SO TOUGH? IS IT?

And suddenly we have concordance with REAL SCIENCE!


beaglelady - #44695

December 22nd 2010

But as a person who studies ‘modern’ human beings, i.e. us, people who are living today & who we meet on the street, it is not our ‘anatomy’ that mainly distinguishes us from (other) animals; it is our consciousness.

Bt it is the anatomy of our brains that makes consciousness possible.


Gregory - #44700

December 22nd 2010

Thank you for once again stating the obvious, beaglelady.


Jon Garvey - #44703

December 22nd 2010

@beaglelady - #44695

“But it is the anatomy of our brains that makes consciousness possible.”

True indeed, but the form of that consciousness is radically altered by cultural and social factors: for example, the language we speak - and even the knowledge of writing. Prehistoric hunter-gatherer cultures had the same brain anatomy as us, and yet remained pretty well unchanged for 100,000 years. Add neolithic cities and writing (both in Mesopotamia), and suddenly there are epic poems, history, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, law codes, philosophy, Scriptures ... a mere 6K years later and we’re discussing the evidence for beginning of the Universe, human origins and the structure of subatomic particles.

And our consciousness is formed not by our 20 clan members but by Denis Alexander, J S Bach, Socrates, W Shakespeare, and the Lord Jesus, though not necessarily in that order.


Jon Garvey - #44705

December 22nd 2010

(...) A quote to summarise from psychologist David Premack, a world authority on animal inmtelligence:

“It is fair to speak of two human minds: one before and one after writing.”


Jon Garvey - #44706

December 22nd 2010

“Then Genesis 2, enter a king…”

An interesting choice of words. The ancient Babylonians dated creation from when the kingship descended from heaven.


conrad - #44708

December 22nd 2010

Perhaps we do not know what “breathing the breath of life” into the Adam really meant. It might NOT be all chemistry.

    Beagle Lady,.. I have studied brains all my life and I don’t think we can say that consciousness is necessarily a product of the brain.

  Just as the music coming out of your radio is not a product of the radio,... and this blog is not a product of your computer.

They are just receivers.
The program content originates elsewhere.


sy - #44709

December 22nd 2010

Fascinating discussion. I would like to add the very remarkable, cultural revolution that occurred about 50,000 ya, sometimes called the Upper Paleolithic Revolution, or the Great Leap Forward (see Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee). As Gregory and Conrad have noted (here, and previously) this incredible and comprehensive change that resulted in truly modern human behavior, was not an anatomical change, and while it might have been a subtle genetic change (possibly related to speech development) the cause is still unknown. But we do know seems to be consistent with the origin of human consciousness of the modern kind. As Conrad says, perhaps concordance indeed.


beaglelady - #44713

December 22nd 2010

this incredible and comprehensive change that resulted in truly modern human behavior, was not an anatomical change, and while it might have been a subtle genetic change (possibly related to speech development) the cause is still unknown.

Sy, how do you know it wasn’t an anatomical change?


conrad - #44718

December 23rd 2010

Thank you Sy.

Concordance with REAL science can save us.

Concordance with junk science is destroying us.

Abandoning concordance is surrender.


Steve Ruble - #44719

December 23rd 2010

Conrad,

If “the content originates elsewhere”, as you put it, how do explain the significant and pervesive effects which physical phenomena can have on one’s experiences? For example, certain drugs can cause you to have illusory experiences; others can make you stop. Physical insults to the brain can change a person’s personality entirely. To continue with your analogy: it’s rather as if you found that by hitting your TV with a bat you could change the plot of a sitcom. Might that not lead you to revise your theories about the origins of the “signal”?


Cal - #44722

December 23rd 2010

Steve:

I’m not sure if I agree with Conrad’s theory, however your problem with his analogy has a logical answer. If certain drugs distort consciousness, it would be akin to playing around with an antenna. Drugs distort the consciousness that would normally be received. Just like a TV reception is millions of tiny dots of red, green and blue light, arranged to make a sensible picture, so could normal consciousness. Add drugs (mess with the antenna) and the picture gets fuzzy, stretched out, or even goes blank.

Beaglelady:

Harsh words for poor ol’ Conrad.


conrad - #44729

December 23rd 2010

Steve,
There can be some sqawks coming out of a defective radio that DO ORIGINATE in the box you own.

Beagle Lady
I have heard you say many times “All concordance is doomed to fail.”

YOU,... are wrong.  [persistant though!]


freetoken - #44731

December 23rd 2010

Continuing on with one of the issues I raised in my comment to the first installment of Denis Alexander’s multipart essay, here is another instance of mixing essentially different categories of thinking:

How do we relate the anthropological understanding with the profound theological essay that the early chapters of Genesis provide for us [...]

Data from paleoanthropology and genetics are fundamentally different than a “theological essay”.

Calvin’s Institutes are theological essays, yet I wouldn’t try and create some syncretic belief system between them and say, the Periodic Table of Elements.  Rather, I might evaluate the Institutes  to see how well they measure up today with the great increase in knowledge about the physical world which we have learned, and possibly come to a conclusion about Calvin and his belief system.

Likewise, if you are going to call Genesis a “theological essay” then why not evaluate the “essay” as is done with other essays?  And, if you are going to label theology as data (see part 1), then why not include data points from other belief systems?


Jon Garvey - #44733

December 23rd 2010

@sy - #44709

The “Great Leap Forward” is disputed by some, I gather, who say that the various developments in art, language etc took place gradually. Be that as it may, there are nevertheless a number of almost-universal modern human behaviours that *didn’t* kick in at the 50K year mark.

Agriculture and pastoralism would be one such, for example, but particularly relevant to the “Adam” discussion is that there seems to be a lack of evidence for the worship of specific named deities before the Mesopotamian city-state era. As far as one can tell ritual sacrifice as a form of worship appears around the same time, as of course does the whole idea (for good and ill) of “kingship”.

Whatever the details of human development, the discussion hinges on whether we should be looking, in the search for the origin of genuine relationship with God, at a particular level of human attainment or a direct act of God. The former would probably have left scientific evidence - the latter may or may not have done.

As I suggested on another thread, science has little to say about the emergence of Christians indwelt by the Holy Spirit, so it’s not a foregone conclusion that it has anything useful to say about Adam.


conrad - #44735

December 23rd 2010

“As I suggested on another thread, science has little to say about the emergence of Christians indwelt by the Holy Spirit, so it’s not a foregone conclusion that it has anything useful to say about Adam”

What!
You never had a wireless download of new software into your computer?

When I first realized software,....WHICH CHANGES HOW YOUR COMPUTER OPERATES,..... could be downloaded WIRELESSLY,...I felt I knew for the first time what happened on the Day of Pentacost.

.....AND WHAT HAPPENS IN YOUR HEART WHEN YOU ASK CHRIST TO COME IN TO YOUR HEART.


Jon Garvey - #44742

December 23rd 2010

@conrad - #44735

Fine, Conrad. Fully aware of the indwelling of the Spirit. All you have to do to answer my point is to show what science has been done that demonstrates that indwelling. When I did social psychology at University they seemed to deny there was any.


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