The Genealogical Adam and Eve, S. Joshua Swamidass. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.
Summary: A physician/scientist who studies genomics argues on the basis of genealogical science that the existence of a historic Adam and Eve, specially created by God, who are universal ancestors of us all, is not contradicted by evolutionary science.
I have always been troubled by wooden attempts to find a concord between the biblical accounts of origins and what the sciences of cosmology, geology, and evolutionary biology tell us about planetary and human origins. At the same time, I have been troubled at times by biblical scholars whose acceptance of evolution leads them to deny a historical Adam (and Eve). Both Jesus and Paul speak of the first couple as historical beings, with Romans 5:12-21 being a key text (in addition to Genesis 2:2ff). I find I am not alone in my concerns. On The Gospel Coalition website, respected pastor, Tim Keller, wrote of his own acceptance of evolution, and yet also his belief in a historical, specially created Adam and Eve and a historical fall. In response, Keller was sadly attacked by both those who take a theistic evolution stance and young earth creationists.
S. Joshua Swamidass, a physician and professor of laboratory and genomic medicine at Washington University, witnessed this discourse, and as part of an effort to foster what he calls “peaceful science” has advanced a hypothesis, which he elaborates in this book, that provides what he calls a “narrative” that would undergird Keller’s assertions. He takes an approach that denies neither evolution nor a historical Adam and Eve, but is not another concordist proposal.
There are several things Swamidass assumes. He assumes a standard evolutionary account of the rise of life and evolution of homo sapiens. He assumes that genetically, we arise from a population, not a single couple. Yet he also assumes the possibility of the special creation of Adam and Eve, in the special setting of the garden, even as recent as 6,000 to 10,000 years ago although a greater time is also possible. Critically, they existed alongside a human population outside the garden and were genetically and reproductively compatible with that population (one of the first questions that arises when one reads Genesis is “who did Cain marry?”).
From this he argues that by 1 AD it is possible genealogically (not genetically) that all human beings can trace their ancestry back to Adam and Eve, and that we can all be claimed to be universal descendents of Adam and Eve. A friend of mine researching genealogy mused in a recent Christmas letter how many ancestors we might have if we went back a thousand years. He was assuming 20 generations or 50 years to a generation. He figured it would have equaled the world population at that time. So that got me curious. Using the same assumption and a geometric progression, it appears that it would take approximately 33 generations to equal the current world population or roughly 1650 years. From a mathematical perspective, it appears to me, as well as to a number of scientists who reviewed Swamidass’s work, including Nathan H. Lents, an admitted atheist, that if one accepts the premises of Swamidass argument, there is nothing in evolutionary theory to controvert the possibility of what he proposes.
One of the keys to this argument is the existence of a human population outside the garden. When most evolutionary scientists argued against universal descent from Adam and Eve, what they argued, on the basis of genetic evidence, that there is no support for common genetic descent from Adam and Eve. That is not what Swamidass argues. He simply argues for the possibility of Adam and Eve as common genealogical ancestors of us all. While he accepts the possibility that his hypothesis may not be true, he also contends that it shows there is no compelling scientific reason that one must deny a historic Adam and Eve as an impossibility, either for scientists or biblical scholars.
The second half of the book explored scientific and theological implications for this idea. He explores intriguing questions about what it means to be human both in science and theology. He discusses the problematic nature of theories of polygenesis in both science and theology, and how this has often been used in racist ways. He explores intriguing implications of why Adam and Eve were specially created in the garden when there were other human beings outside (a question this hypothesis especially raises). He also explores theories of the fall and human sinfulness, which raises the question of whether common genealogical descent from Adam is necessary for pervasive human sinfulness.
There are some unusual elements in the theological section. One was his use of the “periscope of scripture” language, by which he means different tunnel vision views of reality. This may be confusing to some because of the common use of “pericope” in biblical scholarship, a narrative or thought unit. He also takes a view of Genesis 1 and 2 as consecutive accounts (first the earth and its creatures including humans, then Adam and Eve), rather than the second being an expansion of the first. He also raises an interesting question about what the status of humans outside the garden was. Are they also in the image of God? Plainly, there is more theological discussion to be had and this seems to be something Swamidass welcomes and even has facilitated (cf. online responses from theologians).
Both in the introductory chapter and in the concluding materials, we may discern some of what motivates this proposal. Swamidass sees a sad fracturing or splintering that has occurred between Christian and scientific understandings of beginnings that assumes no place where Christians and scientists may meet. Furthermore, there is significant splintering among young earthers, old earthers, and theistic evolution camps. Most would not be fully sympathetic with what Swamidass proposes, but he writes respectfully of all. He advocates for courage, curiosity, empathy, tolerance, humility, and patience among scientists and theologians.
I believe this book is a good faith effort that exemplifies these qualities. It involves professional courage to write, he exemplifies curiosity in the questions he both explores and opens up, empathy for points of tension, tolerance of different views, humility in his interactions with scientists like Jerry Coyne, an outspoken atheist. I pray for the grace of patience he will need to carry forth this conversation over time in an often contentious climate.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance galley of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.