Theological Response to Joshua Swamidass, The Geneological Adam and Eve

on March 23, 2020

I am grateful for the invitation to offer some reflections on this book by Joshua Swamidass — grateful because I think the book is a worthy contribution, grateful because of the other participants in this conversation, grateful because of the venue; and grateful as well, because in taking part in a conversation I get to continue my own education in public.

Before I get going, let me be as frank as I can about myself. Swamidass quotes me often in the book, and wants to take account of thoughts I have offered in the past; you can expect that I appreciate that! Further, I am one of those who thinks that some version of “historical Adam and Eve” is important if traditional Christian belief is to hang together, and if we wish to explain to our unbelieving neighbors their need for a Savior; and I have explored some scenarios for articulating such a notion. I do not find the origin of new species (including our own) by way of “descent with modification” in and of itself to be a theological or exegetical problem, and have said so in print. And finally, I think, with folk such as C. S. Lewis, that a purely impersonal or material process cannot produce the distinctive features of the human mind — but I do not think that leads to a scientific theory of its origin, so much as it guides the theorists in the use of good reasoning. (I am just laying this out, and will refer the reader to other places where I argue the case for these things.)

I’ll organize my thoughts along three lines: First, as to the scientific aspects of his discussions (don’t worry, I’ll stay in my own lane); second, as to the exegetical and theological aspects (on which I am more schooled); and finally, on some issues that the book as a whole touches on as we think about science, about faith, and about their interaction. I hope you will forgive me if I am brief — I’m trying to say something, and to avoid the TL;DR syndrome. And I know that I won’t say everything that could be said.

1. The Scientific Side

I’m going to assume that the specifics of the science side are well-grounded; Swamidass seems (to me, at least) to have exposed his arguments to proper peer review. Instead I’ll focus on some matters that may appear ancillary, but that are actually more important to me.

First, if we are talking about relating the Biblical to the scientific pictures, we have to be sure we’re talking about the same things. In this light, Swamidass is surely right to focus on the genealogical, as distinct from the genetic. That is, the Biblical texts are concerned with line of descent, or genealogy; to appeal to the genetic questions, important as they may be for some purposes, likely asks from the Biblical text something it doesn’t aim to give.

I also appreciate his sensitivity to the different ways in which one might define the term “human,” and a concern not to commit an equivocation. One could wish that all discussions of these matters were as respectful of the language level and communicative concerns of the Biblical authors!1 At the same time, of course, there remain some questions or concerns. For example, we would not want any kind of articulation that denies full protection to the weaker members of our communities, such as the handicapped, elderly, and unborn. (I do not suggest that Swamidass himself has advocated anything sinister.)

Second, he has made the effort to be generous, even accommodating, toward perspectives he does not share. These include the folk from Reasons to Believe, and, endearingly, the young earth creationism of his parents. As a matter of fact, the findings of Ann Gauger can also be included here.2

Third, in describing the current scientific picture of human origins, he has been modest and honest about what we may be confident of, and what we do not (and perhaps cannot) know. He includes some helpful acknowledgments of human distinctiveness.3

In this line, he has not tied his proposal to his own answer to issues of whether the evolutionary process needed, or received, any extra help from outside the process. All of this means that his proposal need not be taken as an all-or-nothing proposition.

Finally, and to sum it up, I would say that he has offered a way to state a scientific case without using that improperly to pronounce on important theological categories. I have no doubt that all relevant sources should be taken into consideration when formulating beliefs; the trick is to do it well, and carefully. (More on this below.)

2. Exegetical and Theological Assessment

In order to assess the theological side of Swamidass’ proposal, we should clear up several things beforehand.4

The first clarification is that troublesome category of “concordism.” Concordism is a problem when we interpret statements that use ordinary language as if they were intended to be scientific — say, if we take Biblical texts about God “stretching out the heavens” (e.g., Psa. 104:2) as anticipating cosmic expansion after the Big Bang, or if we think that texts about the earth not moving (e.g., Psa. 104:5) have something to do with physical cosmology.5

On the other hand, believers, both Jews and Christians, have generally supposed that the Biblical texts are what we can call “historically referential”: they have to do with actual events in the unfolding story of the world. Careful readers have recognized that not every text is the same kind of thing; not every text that is referential portrays its events in the same ways (some may use more imaginative description than others do, without losing their referentiality); and not every text that looks historically referential (because it’s a narrative) actually is. Referentiality matters, because Biblical teaching comes to us riding on an overall Grand Narrative.

But Genesis has typically been taken as about real events, albeit with lots of pictorial aspects in its depiction.6 This means that the framing of scenarios is legitimate: that is, we can come up with ways that we can consider more-or-less compatible tellings of the stories, without insisting that our scenario must be the one and only compatible telling.

Following from this comes the second clarification, namely what has been the function of the story of human origins in Genesis. At its simplest, the story conveys three basic aspects of the Grand Narrative of the world’s history:

  1. The human race is one family with a unified origin (regardless of the initial population size);
  2. Humans arose by a process that goes beyond the impersonal;
  3. Sin is an alien intruder into God’s good creation, and entered into human experience at some point in the headwaters of human history.

(We can get more specific, and I would indeed do so. But I don’t need to do so here.) I think that Swamidass wants to allow us to preserve these, which is a strength. But I have some suggestions that would enable his proposal to do this better.

Probably the biggest issue is the date of AD 1 that regularly appears in the book, as the date by which any version of Adam and Eve must be universal ancestors. I simply judge that it is way too late. As I read the book, I see at least two factors that are driving this choice of date. One is that it allows for the apostles’ arguments to be universally applicable; and the second is that it comports with a reading of Genesis 4 that sets those events in the Neolithic Era.

Here is why I don’t accept either of these driving factors. I read the apostles’ arguments to depend heavily on their readings of the Hebrew Bible — readings that I consider to be quite warranted by the literary principles of Meir Sternberg (I call Paul a “Sternbergian reader”). I think the Hebrew texts assume a far earlier universality. Theologically, the “Fall” has been taken to apply, not simply to individual persons, but also to social structures and cultures, and these likewise stretch much further back. That is, we recognize that human cultures in general involve mixtures of good and bad; the bad elements include structures that promote idolatry and oppression, and it seems reasonable to attribute the rise of these features to something much earlier than historical times. In addition, I simply do not read Genesis 4 as indicating a Neolithic setting; I consider anachronism to be bound up with the style of these chapters in Genesis.7

By the same token, I don’t find de novo formation of Adam crucial to a faithful reading of the text. That is, “formed from dust” (Gen. 2:7) need not require do novo formation, since all of us are also formed from dust (Psa. 103:14).

How much earlier do the events need to be? I can imagine lots of possibilities, but I do not need to be tied to any particular date.8 What we need most is a scenario in which Adam and Eve can properly represent humankind, their descendants. Ancestry, as described in Swamidass, does that. I don’t consider this to be a drawback to the proposal; its chief cost is that young earth readings aren’t as readily included as previously thought, and Swamidass may regret that.

At times I found myself wondering if Swamidass was engaging in a kind of inappropriate concordism. Here is the difficulty, and then I’ll give some examples. We have to think of Genesis in terms of its audiences: predominantly subsistence agriculturalists, each generation of which see themselves as heirs of the generation that followed Joshua across the Jordan River. Genesis generally concerns itself with what we can call “synchronic” matters, that is, with things that will be pertinent in the audiences’ daily experience. The “diachronic” questions about the details of the antediluvian world have no bearing on these audiences’ lives, and do not figure into the material in Genesis, any more than dinosaurs do.

For example, Swamidass toys with reading Genesis 1–2 as recounting sequential settings — the formation of the man in the Garden being subsequent to the events of Genesis 1. Now, my friend John Walton argues for such a reading, but I am sure he is mistaken; and competent readers, both within the canon and up close to it, exhibit the conventional approach in which Genesis 2 is to be taken as an amplification of 1:26–31.9 This will have implications for how we think of humankind and the image of God as a distinctive characteristic of humans (see below); and it will also have a bearing on how we think of Genesis supporting the notion of “reproductively compatible” creatures outside the Garden. I would say that Genesis allows it, but really doesn’t comment on it.10

Another issue is that of the Nephilim (Genesis 6). Swamidass mentions the notion that Nephilim could somehow connect to the Neanderthals, and rightly recognizes that Neanderthals et al. have no relevance for the ancient audience, who would have known nothing of them. But neither would his suggestion, a separate group of people outside the Garden, be likely. Far more relevant for the ancient Israelites would have been other peoples’ claims of semi-divine founders, and the offspring of the sons of God and the daughters of man correspond to these figures. Such claims, if believed, could intimidate the Israelites and undermine their loyalty to the Lord. But these fearsome beings were themselves subject to divine judgement, and therefore Israel should not fear them.

Swamidass has properly tried to allow for “the Fall” as an actual event in history11, and also for the common dignity and respect to be accorded to all people everywhere. These play a large role in the Biblical story, which centers around the call of Israel to be the vehicle by which the blessing of knowing the true God is to come to “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3 etc.). The fact that I can envision a scenario using Swamidass’ proposal, that is coherent with this overall point, is encouraging. We do not need a theory of how it works, or of how the fallenness is passed on, to affirm the doctrine. C. S. Lewis put it well:12 “Our present condition, then, is explained by the fact that we are members of a spoiled species.” In the same context, Lewis insists, that Science “has nothing to say either for or against the doctrine of the Fall”; Swamidass has offered a proposal consistent with that point.

Swamidass notes that Biblical specialists and theologians do not have a consistent perspective on “the image of God,” and he is right. Members of my discipline owe it to the general public, first, to acknowledge that there is a range of opinions, and second, to say something about the history of articulation. We often do not do that. For myself, I commit myself afresh to improving this situation!

3. Issues for further reflection

I close by just touching on some the topics that we have to think clearly about, which this book has presented to us (without discussing).

First, there is the relationship of science with epistemology. Most of us think that science has a strong relationship to reality and truth. I’m on board with that. At the same time, we have to be able to talk about the revisability of scientific claims without fearing that we have undermined our basic realism. In our scientific reasoning we inevitably make judgment calls, and some of these calls warrant higher levels of confidence than others do. I do not find this troublesome. It would help the general public if we could be frank about that.

Second, and related, we need to be able to talk about how science and faith interact. Swamidass has, reasonably, sought to allow each its own intellectual integrity.

But where does “science” leave off and some other intellectual endeavor begin? I expect that the boundaries are there, but that they are often fuzzy. In our culture, however, science is often granted a high level of authority, rightly or wrongly (rightly, Swamidass thinks). Further, everyone wants to pronounce on larger questions that go beyond his or her disciplinary expertise. I don’t blame them, but it would be good if we could recognize when that is happening and what are the guidelines for doing it well. Here is where C. S. Lewis can be helpful:13

The distinction thus made between scientific and non-scientific thoughts will not easily bear the weight we are attempting to put on it. … The physical sciences, then, depend on the validity of logic just as much as metaphysics [philosophy] or mathematics. If popular thought feels ‘science’ to be different from all other kinds of knowledge because science is experimentally verifiable, popular thought is mistaken. … We should therefore abandon the distinction between scientific and non-scientific thought. The proper distinction is between logical and non-logical thought.

At least, we can encourage people to be careful not to overstate their results!

I will leave aside questions of divine action as it relates to the sciences, and to our embeddedness in our own cultural milieu, and move to one last point, my third. Biology, as it is currently practiced, focuses on measurable and physical aspects of living things. But there is every reason to believe that living creatures, including humans, have much more to them than simply that. For example, the relational side, which theologians have considered under the topic of “solidarity,” goes beyond the power of a good or bad example: our membership in a community offers us a moral and spiritual environment in which we develop our values and practices.14 (Of course this has a bearing on how we think of our share in the effects of the primal sin, but I am leaving that aside for now as well.) Humans’ physical components are arranged in such a way as to support these relations and activities, but likely do not fully account for them. A study of the genes might or might not shed light on these features, though we should expect that it won’t do the full job. Genealogy allows for this more open approach.

I must finish, leaving much unsaid. But I will not leave unsaid my appreciation for what Swamidass has done, and its potential contribution to good thinking about science, faith, and the good human life.

In a previous essay of mine, in a book supported by a BioLogos grant, I mentioned the value of scenarios. I acknowledged that what I had outlined is “just a scenario, an illustration of one way to imagine the events. Other ways may occur to those with enough imagination.” 15 In another place I wrote:16

I once heard Peter Harrison say that if certain theological views are well-founded, and fundamentally important to a well-grounded system of belief, it can be rationally responsible to maintain those views, even if, for the time being, the science seems to call them into question. I believe he was right, at least for these basic beliefs about the origin of humankind and of sin. These are too well-connected to the kind of experiences that are universally accessible and all-but-universally recognized. Sometimes, if we wait, new light will come in the scientific thinking. And sometimes, as well, someone with enough imagination will propose a workable scenario that helps us past the apparent hump. It looks like Dr Swamidass has indeed provided an imaginative and serviceable tool for our toolkits, to promote “peaceful science.”

I thank Josh Swamidass for what he has offered!


Note: The initial version of this article incorrectly stated that “Swamidass wonders whether the Nephilim could somehow connect to the Neanderthals, as humans outside the Garden. However, Neanderthals et al. have no relevance for the ancient audiences, who would have known nothing of them.” The paragraph was corrected on March 26, 2020 at the request of the author.

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C. John Collins
About the Author

C. John Collins

C. John Collins is Professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Collins served as Old Testament chair on the translation committee for the English Standard Version of the Bible, and Old Testament Editor for the ESV Study Bible. He has written extensively on biblical languages and interpretation, and on science and the Christian faith, including Did Adam and Even Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care; The God of Miracles: An Exegetical Examination of God’s Action in the World; Science and Faith: Friends or Foes?; and Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary.
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