In this series, we explore the genetic evidence that indicates humans became a separate species as a substantial population, rather than descending uniquely from an ancestral pair.
Back in 2011, Christianity Today ran a cover article on what was fast becoming a hot-button issue for Evangelicals – the genomic science that indicates humans descend from a large population, rather than from a single couple in the relatively recent past. Since 2011 Evangelicals have become increasingly aware that modern genetic studies of humans support this conclusion; however, there remains a great deal of confusion about exactly how this genetic evidence works, and, not surprisingly, suspicion about its accuracy. In this series, we will explore several lines of genetic evidence that shed light on our species’ past in an attempt to rectify these misunderstandings.
Defining the issues
Part of the challenge this subject generates for Evangelicals is due to confusion over exactly what the science can and cannot say about human origins in general, or the historicity of Adam and Eve in particular. Briefly stated, genetics is well suited to addressing scientific questions such as whether humans share ancestry with other forms of life, and what our population structure looked like as we separated from our evolutionary relatives. And what we see in the genetics of our species is unremarkable for a relatively large-bodied mammal – we do indeed share common ancestry with other species, and we descend from a large population that has never numbered below about 10,000 individuals throughout our evolutionary history. Scientifically speaking, these issues are straightforward and uncontroversial.
In addition to these scientific questions, however, Evangelicals are also strongly interested in the question of Adam and Eve’s historicity: were they a literal couple that lived about 6,000 – 10,000 years ago? Unfortunately, genomic science is not at all equipped to address this question – it simply does not have the ability to establish (or rule out, for that matter) the historicity of any particular individual in the ancient past.
For many Evangelicals (or for that matter atheists), the idea that we are the products of evolution and became human as a large population over time is on its face contradictory to the idea that Adam and Eve may have been historical individuals. The reason, of course, is not a scientific one, but rather an interpretation that the Genesis narratives preclude understanding Adam and Eve as anything other than the first humans, directly created by God without shared ancestry, who are the sole genetic progenitors of the entire human race. This is, of course, a very common evangelical interpretation of Genesis, but it is not the only one – several other options are available that attempt to respect both Scripture and science. After all, Genesis has long been noted to imply that Adam and Eve’s family is part of a larger unrelated population (for example Cain worries about being killed for his sin, leaves to build a city elsewhere, and takes a wife in the process). The fact that Genesis presents these facets of the story without comment or clarification also shows us, in my opinion, that the narrative is simply not concerned with telling the story of our genetic origins, but rather is focused on theological concerns.
So, the decision to equate the historicity of Adam and Eve with the expectation that humans descend uniquely from an ancestral couple is a hermeneutical one, not a scientific one. As such, the historicity question needs to be addressed hermeneutically, not scientifically – it simply lies outside the purview of what genetics can tell us.
Evolution as a population-level phenomenon
Aside from the hermeneutical issues surrounding human evolution and population genetics (which are confusing enough for many of us), there are the scientific issues – which, for many Evangelicals, are similarly fraught with misunderstanding. One of the main misconceptions is failing to understand that evolution is a population-level phenomenon: species form slowly, as populations, due to the accumulation of numerous slight genetic differences that shift the average characteristics of a population over time. All that is required to start this process is to have some sort of genetic barrier between two populations – perhaps a geographic barrier to start. Once two populations of the same species are reproductively isolated, genetic changes in the one population are not shared with the other – and vice versa. Over many, many generations enough changes may accumulate in the two populations that their average characteristics are different enough such that they would no longer recognize each other as members of the same species. At this point, even if the two populations were brought into contact again, these differences (perhaps behavioral or physical) would keep the genetic barrier in place by reducing or preventing interbreeding, and thus prevent the two groups from collapsing back into one large population.
If, on the other hand, one is used to thinking that species form when they are founded by a pair that has undergone a marked genetic change compared to their source population, one is more likely to think that it would have been possible for humans to get their start in such fashion. These sorts of misunderstandings are common among non-scientists, and Evangelicals are not immune to them. For example, even among Christians who accept that we share ancestry with other life, I frequently get asked what “the mutation” was that “made us human”. Sometimes, folks wonder how such a dramatic mutation could have occurred in two individuals at the same time to provide a male and female member of the same (brand new!) species – and speculate that God must have directed it to occur to form Adam and Eve. Their understanding of human speciation is that it was sudden, involved only one couple, and required dramatic genetic change. In reality, speciation is almost always precisely the opposite: it’s slow, takes place in a population, and requires the accumulation of many discrete genetic differences, none of which are particularly dramatic. In the next post in this series, we’ll begin to explore how a population can accumulate genetic changes, and perhaps shift its average characteristics over time – beginning with how genetic diversity arises in the first place.