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

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December 22, 2010 Tags: Human Origins
Genetics, Theology, and Adam as a Historical Person, Part 2

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

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.


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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sy - #44744

December 23rd 2010

Despite my comment above, I am not a fan of concordance. And I agree with Jon, that the UPR did not include all modern technology. I am also aware of the main arguments for gradualism, which I happen to find unconvincing and based on a specific political/social agenda. What did happen at that point in time, is that Homo Sapiens suddenly (that is my view based on what I have read) began to exhibit a whole new range of behaviors which are consistent with a sharp increase in consciousness. Beagelady, no anatomical differences have been found in people before and after this change, although a more subtle genetic mutation cannot be ruled out.

I am not claiming that Adam lived at this time, or that the God infused a minimally conscious, intelligent creature with a soul, thus creating Man. Although that is possible. What is important about this to me, is the evidence for a pointillian event that has major ramifications for the development of a modern, soul containing, conscious humanity.

As in other parts of Genesis, we do not know how to reconcile the text with what we now know from data, and I dont believe in absolute concordance. But, it is worthwhile to see how closely the Word and the Works can be matched up.

sy - #44745

December 23rd 2010

“the God”, should read “God.”

James Goetz - #44785

December 23rd 2010

I mostly associate humans with the image of God (humans) with anatomically modern humans (AMH). However, evidence of genetic admixture with Neandertals presents a conundrum. Did humanity include the last common ancestral population of AMH and Neandertals? Or did humanity exclude Neandertals yet some humans produced children with Neandertals nonetheless? In short, I suppose the latter with all of its complications.

Jon Garvey - #44787

December 23rd 2010

@sy - #44744

“I am not a fan of concordance.”

It seems to me the “C” word is thrown around rather too freely to know whether to agree with it or not. At the highest level, there being one truth, either there is concordance between the Bible and science, or one of the two is in error.

If concordance means that the Bible is trying to tell the same stories that science tells, then the former tends to be disbelieved, or pushed out of shape to fit. If, on the other hand, Gen 1 is actually a functional creation story in which God establishes the world at some point in history as his temple,  and man as his representative, it may truly describe the world we inhabit, but physics will have no more to say about it than it does about the establishment of Methodism.

And if Gen 2 describes in proto-historical form Yahweh’s first self-revelation to an ANE couple, it may be thoroughly true within its genre norms, and indeed one of the world’s most significant events, yet no more amenable to anthroplogical research than Luther’s conversion. In that case, looking for Eden in “great leaps” may be the wrong place - though that revelation would not be without actual effects on humanity’s consciousness.

beaglelady - #44792

December 23rd 2010

Some great resources:

The Mind’s Big Bang, which was episode 6 of the excellent PBS series on evolution.  You can watch a preview online, and any decent library should carry it.

There is also the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

At the same museum there is a new special exhibition on the human brain called
Brain: the Inside Story.  I’m hoping to also go to at least one of the special lectures planned around it

Has anyone seen the relatively new human evolution exhibition at the Smithsonian? I’d love to see that.

Steve Ruble - #44816

December 23rd 2010

Cal @44722,

There’s a difference between a distortion or corruption of one’s current perceptions (which can be caused by drugs or brain damage) and a wholesale restructuring of one’s personality (which can also be caused by drugs or brain damage).  The first could be, as you say, analogous to messing the TV antenna and causing the picture to fuzz or distort.  The latter is not.  The former is changing the picture, the latter is changing the plot.

Even if you prefer to cling to the idea that the brain is some kind of soul-transceiver, consider what it might say about the nature of the soul that physical changes to its physical transceiver can: prevent it from forming memories; cause it to lose memories; cause it to be happy or sad, kind or cruel, sympathetic or indifferent; cause it feel enlightened; prevent it from using (or understanding) language… examples go on and on.  The soul must be a pretty vague, ineffectual entity if it is at the mercy of its physical tether with regard to essentially every characteristic we think of as making up a personality.  What is it, then, that the soul is actually adding to your explanation of what makes a person a person?

conrad - #44827

December 24th 2010

Well Steve stroke victims frequently know what they want to say but cannot say it.

There is separation of the person and the functional ability.

conrad - #44853

December 24th 2010

Merry Christmas everybody.

[EVEN THE ONES I ARGUE WITH….. and yes!  I want to put that in caps!!!!!]

Steve Ruble - #44854

December 24th 2010

Yes, Conrad, many forms of brain damage cause effects which are compatible with your soul-transceiver model.  However, many do not. 

It’s not honest to focus only on the observations which confirm what you already believe; you must also account for those which seem to dis-confirm it.

conrad - #44857

December 24th 2010


All of these near-death experiances tell us the soul remains intact.

Certainly schizophrenia where they hear loud voices and dementia change the personality and those defects may be structural in the patient’s noggin.

But in there somewhere may still lie a sane person trying to deal with all of it.

conrad - #44858

December 24th 2010

From Beagle Lady

“Some great resources:

The Mind’s Big Bang, which was episode 6 of the excellent PBS series on evolution.  You can watch a preview online, and any decent library should carry it. “

Yes this sudden change into modern man DOES NOT HAVE A DNA EXPLANATION.

i THINK DNA is “the dust of the earth”. BUT .......“the breath of life” is something else.
But God breathed something else into it.  [New operating software perhaps?]

What that was,....we don’t know but,... it started the ever-advancing culture of “progress”.

[Like when General Motors adopted the annual model change as their corporate philosophy in 1923.  After that there cars improved every year while Ford tried to make an ever cheaper black Model T. GM steadily pulled ahead after that until Ford imitated them in 1926.]
But Darwinian evolution does not explain the stuff in that program you cited.


beaglelady - #44870

December 24th 2010

I almost forgot—Dennis Venema has promise us a lesson/walk-through on the evolution of the human brain.  Please don’t forget, Dennis!

Gregory - #44872

December 24th 2010

Which anthropology? Whose anthropology?

Dennis Venema on ‘anthropology’?! Not likely.

‘Evolution of the brain’ - a fine topic for physical sciences, but not for cultural anthropology.

sy - #44873

December 24th 2010

My own views about concordance can be summarized with the following propositions, each of which I assume to be true

Scientific information (data) about the world cannot be dismissed on theological grounds.

The Bible is the inspired, inerrant word of God, and is therefore true.

God does not always speak the truth in a literal fashion. Christ deliberately used parables. I believe that when God inspired the writers of the OT, He did not give dictation from a textbook, but presented His word in ways the writers could understand, and even then used metaphor, parables and story telling techniques to allow for a deeper level of truth to come through. It is the task of Man to interpret those words.

Science and the Bible describe the same truth, but not in the same way. As an example, in Genesis, God, through his inspired words, tells us that Man was created from the dust of the Earth (matter) and was given a soul. The presence of Cain’s wife suggests that other kinds of humans were alive at the time.

The anthropological data suggest that humanity with consciousness arose at a point in time. This is consistent, with the Genesis story. I think that consistency is all we are ever going to get, and all we ever need.

Gregory - #44876

December 24th 2010

“The anthropological data suggest that humanity with consciousness arose at a point in time. This is consistent, with the Genesis story. I think that consistency is all we are ever going to get, and all we ever need.” - sy

Yes, i agree on the importance of consistency. it is also good to ask how ‘consistency’ differs field to field. to a person using a ‘nature-only’ method (i.e. NPS), ‘consistency’ might not be obvious across different realms, such as physical anatomy to consciousness.

as for ‘anthropological data’ suggesting “consciousness arose at a point in time,” there are different positions on this. since ‘consciousness’ is not a material phenomenon, according to most people, it cannot be scientifically measured the same as say a flying projectile in physics.
therefore to speak of ‘traces of consciousness’ in the fossil record is highly speculative & not ‘hard science.’ if people are off a few million years on age of earth or a few thousand wrt ‘real, historical A&E,’ I don’t find that too problematic.

that there was a ‘momentous’ change, i.e. a non-gradual change, where moment T-1 is signficantly different than moment T, is a logical perspective. life from non-life: need intelligence?

Luke - #44908

December 25th 2010

Hello all.  I doubt whether anyone is stirring at this hour on Christmas morning, but I’ve just discovered this website and am fascinated. I am a Christian and I have recently taken what can only be described as a flying leap (Great Leap Forward?) out of creationism.  For many years, I thought my first assignment as a follower of Christ was to stonewall the scientific establishment, and that is precisely what I have done.  As a result, I am woefully under-informed about the current state of cosmology, biology, etc.  Getting to the point, I would appreciate it if someone could recommend some reading on new scientific developments and also on Christian thought in light of modern science.

beaglelady - #44920

December 25th 2010

Hello Luke, and Merry Christmas! You might want to check out the BioLogos Resources page for more information. I like Evolutionary Creation by Denis Lamoureux.

There is also an excellent online lecture series on evolution by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  Note that the last lecture in the series is a panel discussion on reconciling science and faith.

Paul D. - #44978

December 26th 2010

I think consciousness *is* a material phenomenon — an emergent phenomenon arising from an incredibly complex system: the physical structure of the brain, and the electrical and chemical interactions that occur through this structure. The wonderful book Gödel, Escher & Bach spends hundreds of pages exploring emergent phenomena (like intelligence), which are characterized by the seeming impossibility of predicting them simply by looking at their constituent components.

The problem, I suppose, is that by definition we cannot tell when human consciousness first emerged in the fossil record. Intelligence is highly reliant on symbolic reasoning, so we might expect some correlation with the emergence of language and related skills (like writing). Homo sapiens may be some 150,000–200,000 years old as a distinct species of the Homo genus, but it’s hard to find early evidence of language. The first proto-Sumerian writing appears in 3,500 BC, the first proto-Egyptian in 3,300 BC.

Paul D. - #44979

December 26th 2010

I’d add that Wikipedia has an interesting article on Behavioural Modernity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behavioral_modernity), the “point [in history] at which Homo sapiens began to demonstrate a reliance on symbolic thought and to express cultural creativity.”

Loren H - #44981

December 26th 2010

Beaglelady, I was at the Smithsonian Human Evolution display this past May. Very well done. I especially appreciated the large display of skulls covering the entire course of human evolution. Fascinating to see multiple individuals representing their type sitting side by side in a large glass case. Go out of your way to see this.

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