Will The Real Adam Please Stand Up? The Surprising Theology Of Universal Ancestry

on March 23, 2020

I am grateful for S. Joshua Swamidass’s new book. I think that The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry makes a contribution to the discussion that is both important and timely. It is not often that a new book actually breaks new ground; most end up turning the same soil and then might make minimal or modest contributions to the debates. But the proposal of this book (hereafter GAE) is different: it offers a novel way of looking at a familiar issue. In doing so, it opens the frontier on several important theological issues. It does not, of course, wrap things up neatly and surely will not bring finality or conclusions to the discussions and debates. But it changes those discussions and debates, and it does so in ways that are truly significant.

Situating the Book

To understand something of the significance of this book, it might help to contextualize it. In contemporary North American evangelicalism, the conversations about science and religion are not in a particularly good place. Perhaps they are better than they have been, but nonetheless there is a long way to go. For there remains a suspicion of science – or at least certain areas of science and certain approaches to science – within sectors of evangelicalism. This has been closely documented by sociologists who focus on these issues, and the relevant studies have discovered that while evangelical Christians are reasonably well-represented in some fields and sub-fields, in other areas evangelical Christians are seriously under-represented.[1] At the risk of overgeneralization, there are lots and lots of evangelicals in fields sometimes referred to as “applied sciences” – but not nearly as many in high levels of research and development in various fields. In other words, there are many evangelical engineers and physicians – but not so many leading scientists working in top-tier research universities. More precisely, there are far fewer evangelical scientists working in evolutionary biology and adjacent fields. This much has been established reasonably well. The reasons for this discrepancy are not quite as obvious, but it is not a stretch to think that many evangelical Christians veer away from some fields out of concern to avoid conflict; devout Christian students about to choose an educational and professional trajectory worry that they will either lose their faith or lose their careers if they go into contested areas, so they simply stay away and opt for something less hostile and more neutral or even hospitable to their religious and theological convictions.

It is not hard to see reason for such concern. It is a widespread truism that “religion and science are in conflict,” and, for many people, evolution and traditional Christian belief are locked in a death match. Accordingly, given these options, many traditional Christians reject evolution as a viable option, and other Christians think that it is obvious that Christian theology must trim off and reformulate major traditional Christian doctrines in order to bring theology into line with science. In between these extremes, there are some scientists and theologians who uphold traditional Christian doctrines alongside evolutionary science, including biblical inerrancy, the historicity of Adam within a larger population, and a historical fall. But most of these have not viewed Adam as created de novo or as the initial progenitor of all people today.  Of course, many other people go further and reject Christian belief entirely. This is the broader context of Swamidass’s book.

Recently, some thoughtful Christians have issued a plea to take seriously the possibility of a “mere theistic evolution” (MTE).[2] The proponents of MTE urge Christians to separate the positions held by prominent theistic evolutionists – positions which often make significant theological revisions – from what is actually explicitly demanded or entailed by the acceptance of evolution. Conversations over the MTE proposal are ongoing, and the future is less than clear.

This is the narrower context, and this context is very relevant for Swamidass’s new book. Consider the theologian Wayne Grudem’s arguments against theistic evolution. Grudem makes a series of sweeping and bold claims; among these he says that according to theistic evolution, “Adam and Eve were not the first human beings,” that they were never sinless, that they were not the first sinners, that human death was not the result of sin, and that God did not act “directly or specially” in the creation of the first humans.[3]

What are we to make of this? It seems to me that Grudem’s main argument can be summarized along these lines:

(1) Evolution entails conclusions that are inconsistent with any claims that there was an initial human couple from which all other humans descend;

(2) Any biblically-faithful theological anthropology will include the affirmation that there was an initial human couple (the “Historical Adam and Eve”) from whom all other humans descend, and whose actions adversely affect all humans (the “Doctrine of Original Sin”);

(3) Therefore, evolution entails conclusions that are inconsistent with any biblically-faithful theological anthropology.[4]

Defenders of (1) deploy an impressive array of arguments for their view. For decades, studies in paleontology have produced morphologically-based challenges to notions of a historical first couple. In more recent years, studies in human genetics have provided evidence of an ancestry that is shared in common with other primates as well as evidence that the initial human population would have had to emerge as several thousand breeding pairs. On the basis of such evidence, many theistic evolutionists accept (1) and reject (2). They argue that science demonstrates the “impossibility” of a historical Adam and Eve, and then they often argue that the Bible as properly understood (that is, within the relevant contexts of the ancient Near East, Second Temple Judaism, and the first century Greco-Roman world) really does not demand a historical Adam and Eve anyway. As we can see, the argument from (1)-(3) purports to show the incompatibility of evolution and a properly biblical theological anthropology. To avoid the conclusion, many theistic evolutionists accept (1) and reject (2).

What the defenders and detractors alike share is the conviction that one cannot hold with consistency to belief in both evolution and a de novo historical Adam who becomes the ancestor of all people. For all their important differences, they have this much in common. Thus Grudem concludes that evolution is incompatible with orthodox Christian theology, and many of his fellow contributors to the recent anti-theistic evolution book Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique make similar claims. For instance, John Currid claims that “Pelagianism is almost an inevitable result of the denial of the historical Adam and Eve”.[5] And Guy Waters says that Semi-Pelagian and Pelagian conclusions “follow directly” from a denial of the historical Adam.[6] Meanwhile, the evolutionary philosopher of biology Michael Ruse says that “according to modern science, there was no unique Adam and Eve…”[7] Denis Lamoureux says that “Adam never existed.”[8] And Karl Giberson says that “Adam and Eve, as described in Genesis, cannot have been historical figures. Recent work in genetics has established this unsettling conclusion beyond any reasonable doubt.”[9]

Receiving the Book

This is the context into which GAE comes. The broader context is the widespread sense that evolution must be the enemy of traditional Christian belief – and thus that Christian belief must be either dramatically and drastically reformed or surrendered entirely to maintain consistency with scientific orthodoxy and respectability. The narrower context is the concern that contemporary science rules out the possibility of a historical, de novo Adam and Eve as the ancestors of all people – with, again, many Christians willing and ready to reject the traditional doctrine and others vehemently insisting that the dilemma gives us good reason to reject evolution.

Within this context, GAE unsettles the conclusions of both those who wield Grudem-style arguments against evolution and the theistic evolutionists who accept (1) but then try to block the conclusion of Grudem-style arguments by arguing against (2). For Swamidass’s argument stands as a direct challenge to (1). It counters the notion – shared by many defenders and many detractors of theistic evolution alike – that a historical Adam created de novo is ruled out by contemporary evolutionary science.

I am committed to (2) on theological grounds. And I am not yet convinced that (1) is correct. This book gives me further reason to doubt (1). I have thought for some time that the “consensus” view was overstated and the reactions to it rather overdone. I have not contested the science – as a theologian, that is above my pay grade, and the Christian community does not need me to play scientist any more than it needs scientists to make grandiose and far-reaching theological statements without doing the necessary hard work in theology (work that includes careful and contextually-informed biblical exegesis, historical theology, and engagement with the relevant epistemological, logical, and metaphysical issues involved). I have not contested the science itself, but I have questioned whether it has the entailments that are sometimes claimed for it. It is not hard to hear strong and sometimes strident claims about the incompatibility of evolutionary science and a historical Adam, but such claims far outstrip the evidence. The GAE is not the only way that both could be true (or even the only way to get a de novo creation of Adam), but it is a proposal that takes genealogical science fully into account and shows that a historical Adam and Eve could be ancestors of all people.

So how should we receive this book? First, I think that we should take it as a kind of cautionary tale. It seems to me that in some cases we have had theologians moving quickly to revise major doctrines at the behest of scientists who brought in the “assured conclusions” of science as the final word. We’ve been told – repeatedly and sometimes forcefully – that the genetic science that was said to decisively rule out the very possibility of a historical Adam was lock-tight. Eager to keep up with science, biblical scholars and theologians have been willing to make fairly radical changes to Christian doctrine, and they have done so rather quickly. It turns out, in light of Swamidass’s work, that these revisions were done rather too quickly. At the same time, many “conservative” biblical scholars and theologians have been willing to reject an evolutionary account on the grounds that it is inconsistent with belief in a historical Adam and Eve. It turns out, in light of this book, that perhaps those rejections were also a bit too hasty. For even accepting the genetic science, it turns out that genealogical science also has a great deal to say. In the case of both the revisionist and the conservative, in retrospect it seems that it would have been good for the theologians to slow down and let things play out. Rather than take the latest science as the final word on what can and cannot be believed theologically, it seems that it would be better to make sure that there really  is a problem. Theologians – and here I think theologians would do well to enlist the help of philosophers of science – should insist that the alleged “implications” of the science really be shown to that. Theologians should listen to the scientists to understand the science itself. But, when they encounter claims about the “entailments” or “implications” of science for theology, perhaps they should do a bit more of their own work in “connecting the dots.”

Second, I think that Christians have good reason to continue to affirm the existence of a historical Adam and Eve. To be sure, Swamidass’s work does not give us reason to affirm a historical first couple. But it need not do so, and to expect it to is to misunderstand the relationship of science to theology. And, at any rate, we get those reasons from Scripture. Paul, for instance, refers in Romans 5 to the sin of the “one man” (henos anthropou), says that death reigned “through the one” (dia tou enos), and claims that the disobedience of “the one man” (dia tes parakoes tou henos anthropou) is the contrast to the righteous act of the (singular) Christ. And in 1 Corinthians 15 he again says that the death has come through a man (di’ anthropou) is reversed by the resurrection of Christ. He explicitly refers to the first man by the name of Adam (ho protos anthropos Adam) and contrasts him with Christ as the “last Adam” (ho eschatos Adam).[10]

Third, I think that Christians who take seriously the possibilities allowed by the GAE theory should also take seriously the questions raised by it and the challenges that will accompany it. And indeed the theory is accompanied by many questions and challenges! For example, what are we to make of the moral and spiritual status of these other creatures who are biologically-compatible with Adam and Eve and inter-breed with their offspring? What, more precisely, are we to think theologically about Neanderthals, Denisovans, “hobbits,” and the like? What is the best formulation of the doctrine of original sin? Some version of federalism might seem to be the most promising and likely would offer some convenient theological explanations, but federalism is beset with serious challenges (not least having to do with moral responsibility). Can some version of realism be regained? All of these – and many more indeed – are theologically interesting and important questions.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I want to again affirm my appreciation and gratitude. This is anything but the last word on the topic, and it should give no encouragement to triumphalism on the part of traditionally-minded Christians. To the contrary, this book opens up new possibilities, and the GAE theory is one way (although not the only way) of holding to belief in a historical Adam while also accepting evolution. This is not to say that Christians should accept evolution; there are many aspects and elements to consider, and this is only one issue. But we should be able to see that a commitment to belief in a historical Adam and Eve is not incompatible with belief in evolution. Decisions about the acceptability of evolution should be made on other grounds. More broadly, the GAE proposal stands as a cautionary tale of sorts – while also serving as a witness to how good science can inform and assist theology. Surely this should come as good news for Christians all across the spectrum of belief on human origins.


Notes & References


Thomas H. McCall
About the Author

Thomas H. McCall

Thomas H. McCall (PhD, Calvin Seminary) is professor of biblical and systematic theology and director of the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author of Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology ; Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters ; An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology and coeditor (with Michael C. Rea) of Philosophical and Theological Essays on the Trinity.
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