We can all argue about whether Jesus was a parthenogenetic being produced without physical insemination, and whether he became reanimated a few days after death, but getting direct evidence for those “miracles” is well-nigh impossible, and so we argue against them on the grounds of improbability. But there’s one bedrock of Abrahamic faith that is eminently testable by science: the claim that all humans descend from a single created pair—Adam and Eve—and that these individuals were not australopithecines or apelike ancestors, but humans in the modern sense. Absent their existence, the whole story of human sin and redemption falls to pieces.
Unfortunately, the scientific evidence shows that Adam and Eve could not have existed, at least in the way they’re portrayed in the Bible. Genetic data show no evidence of any human bottleneck as small as two people: there are simply too many different kinds of genes around for that to be true. There may have been a couple of “bottlenecks” (reduced population sizes) in the history of our species, but the smallest one not involving recent colonization is a bottleneck of roughly 10,000-15,000 individuals that occurred between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. That’s as small a population as our ancestors had, and—note—it’s not two individuals.
Further, looking at different genes, we find that they trace back to different times in our past. Mitochondrial DNA points to the genes in that organelle tracing back to a single female ancestor who lived about 140,000 years ago, but that genes on the Y chromosome trace back to one male who lived about 60,000-90,000 years ago. Further, the bulk of genes in the nucleus all trace back to different times—as far back as two million years. This shows not only that any “Adam” and “Eve” (in the sense of mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA alone) must have lived thousands of years apart, but also that there simply could not have been two individuals who provided the entire genetic ancestry of modern humans. Each of our genes “coalesces” back to a different ancestor, showing that, as expected, our genetic legacy comes from many different individuals. It does not go back to just two individuals, regardless of when they lived.
These are the scientific facts. And, unlike the case of Jesus’s virgin birth and resurrection, we can dismiss a physical Adam and Eve with near scientific certainty.
But of course this causes much consternation for Christians—as it should for Jews, though they don’t make much noise about it. The Templeton-funded accommodationist organization BioLogos, founded by Francis Collins and dedicated to harmonizing evangelical Christianity with scientific truth, has been in a tizzy about Adam and Eve, publishing a lot of articles about how to reconcile the science with the Biblical claim that the pair was the ultimate source of human sinfulness. And that sinfulness, of course, is the reason why Jebus was so important.
A new BioLogos piece on Adam and Eve, written by president Darrel Falk, discusses the controversy and ways to harmonize these incompatible views. It uses as its starting point an interesting article in the latest Christianity Today, “The search for the historical Adam” (what about Eve?). You can access that article free online. I’d recommend reading both the 6-page Christianity Today article and Falk’s gloss on it, for both show, better than anything else, the problems that scientific data pose for Christianity—particularly American evangelical Christianity. The Christianity Today article poses the problem starkly:
So is the Adam and Eve question destined to become a groundbreaking science-and-Scripture dispute, a 21st-century equivalent of the once disturbing proof that the Earth orbits the sun? The potential is certainly there: the emerging science could be seen to challenge not only what Genesis records about the creation of humanity but the species’s unique status as bearing the “image of God,” Christian doctrine on original sin and the Fall, the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, and, perhaps most significantly, Paul’s teaching that links the historical Adam with redemption through Christ (Rom.5:12-19; 1 Cor.15:20-23; and his speech in Acts 17.
Pastor Tim Keller, a participant in a BioLogos workshop on evolution and Adam and Eve held last November (!), says this:
“[Paul] most definitely wanted to teach us that Adam and Eve were real historical figures. When you refuse to take a biblical author literally when he clearly wants you to do so, you have moved away from the traditional understanding of the biblical authority. . If Adam doesn’t exist, Paul’s whole argument—that both sin and grace work “covenantally’—falls apart. You can’t say that Paul was a ‘man of his time’ but we can accept his basic teaching about Adam. If you don’t believe what he believes about Adam, you are denying the core of Paul’s teaching.”
That, of course, is the whole problem about reinterpreting palpably literal parts of the bible as “metaphor” when science shows that they’re wrong. But given the inventiveness and deviousness of the theological mind, there is simply nothing that can’t be conveniently reinterpreted as a metaphor. I suppose that if we were to get evidence that Jesus either didn’t exist, was born after human copulation, or simply rotted in the tomb, that whole saga would also be reinterpreted as metaphor. But there are some stories so critical to Christian faith that many believers aren’t willing to see them as metaphorical. Jesus, of course, is one, but so is the tale of Adam and Eve.
The Christianity Today piece notes a couple of ways to deal with what seems to be an insuperable problem. All of them, of course, regard seeing Adam and Eve not as the literal parents of humanity, but as some kind of metaphor. Perhaps they’re just a metaphor for our inherent sinfulness (but I, for one, refuse to believe that I am just a primate born inherently sinful). Or perhaps there was a group of ancestors that could go under the metaphorical name of “Adam and Eve.” Alternatively, perhaps there was such a literal pair, but they were only the metaphorical ancestors of humanity. This last notion seems to be the position that most of BioLogos commenters have accepted. But in his piece, Falk emphasizes, once again, that the organization doesn’t have a consensus view on Adam and Eve:
The Christianity Today cover story is important because it engages the Church in one of the most important questions of all: was there a historical Adam and Eve? There has been much discussion of this point on these pages and although we strongly encourage ongoing discussion, BioLogos does not take a position on the issue.
BioLogos does not take a position? That is sheer intellectual cowardice. Of course there was no literal Adam and Eve: the genetic data show unequivocally that humanity did not descend from a single pair that lived in the genus Homo. And this organization—founded by Francis Collins, geneticist and bigwig in the Human Genome Project, won’t take that stand? I don’t know if BioLogos sees this, but this kind of equivocation on an absolute scientific fact makes the organization look ridiculous in the eyes of the rational. (I suppose accommodationist organizations like the National Center for Science Education don’t mind this inability to honestly accept modern science.)
Falk goes on to discuss the several ways to force Christian theology into the Procrustean bed of genetic facts, trying to claim that in some way Adam and Eve had a literal existence. The funniest suggestion is the “Federal Headship” model:
Although The BioLogos Forum has raised the issue and encouraged discussion, we also urge caution. The “Federal Headship” model that accepts the scientific findings while at the same time holding to the historicity of a real first couple has not yet been carefully worked out by theologians. The reason that we haven’t had many articles of that sort is because we haven’t been able to identify theologians who are looking at the question from that perspective.
What can you say to that except “LOL”? And Falk calls for the great minds of theology to work on this problem?! Elebenty! (What Falk means, of course, is he wants some slick person to make something up that allows for a historical First Couple while still accepting the genetic data):
The purpose of BioLogos is to show that there can be harmony between mainstream science and evangelical Christianity. We are in complete agreement with Richard Ostling (the author of the aforementioned article) and the Editors of Christianity Today that working through the historicity question is of the utmost importance to the Evangelical Church. Within the framework outlined above, it boils down to theology not science, and we urge the Church to reserve judgment for a while. Let’s keep both possibilities before us. Here’s hoping that some of our greatest theological minds will work on the question of what a model based on “Federal Headship” would look like. Here’s also hoping that some of our finest theologians will continue to work on how the view of a non-historical Adam would address some of the issues that puzzle and concern most evangelicals.
The last paragraph of Falk’s piece, which out of mercy I won’t quote here, is his usual lapsing into JesusSpeak.
The idea of the “greatest theological minds” working on this issue should make us laugh and cry at the same time. What a waste of human effort! But, in the end, this palaver about Adam and Eve shows the incompatibility between not only science and faith, but between BioLogos and true evangelical Christianity. No matter what those fine theological minds come up with, it will never be widely accepted among evangelical Christians. A literal Adam and Eve is an item too important to be seen as a metaphor, for it’s a bedrock of Christian faith. Falk and Collins should be ashamed of their organization’s involvement in such a stupid enterprise.
BUT. . . we can help them! Like Michael Ruse, let’s lend our brains—and our considerable expertise in theology—to this enterprise, so we can relieve these poor Christians of their burden. For an autographed paperback edition of WEIT, in one short paragraph propose your own theological solution:
What is the best way to reconcile the Biblical story of Adam and Eve with the genetic facts?
You cannot answer that these issues are irreconcilable; remember, you’re being a theologian who is trying to help the Christians, and so have to propose a solution that sounds superficially plausible. If possible, write it in theologyspeak, too, and try to give it a name as interesting as “The Federal Headship Model.” I’ll hold the contest open for a week, and then award the prize. Entries will be judged on how well they conform to modern and sophisticated theological thinking.