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Uncertainty Requires Courage: Adam and Eve, Strange Allies, and the Quest for Common Ground

January 21st, 2020 | 9 min read

By T. Wyatt Reynolds

An atheist, a Christian, and a Jew start talking about science and faith. This might seem like it is either the lead up to joke or the beginning of a fight. Instead, it was the setting of a meeting I attended last January where Dr. S. Joshua Swamidass gathered scientists and theologians of nearly every stripe to discuss his new book, The Genealogical Adam and Eve, from Intervarsity Press. Its argument, that there is no intrinsic contradiction between conventional evolutionary theory and belief in Adam and Eve as a couple specially created six thousand years ago. We met on the Washington University in St. Louis Medical School campus. I was easily the youngest in attendance, but I’ve also known Dr. Swamidass since I was a freshman at Wash U. We’ve collaborated on Veritas Forums and other events in the nearly seven years since then in addition to my having the pleasure of getting to know his wife and two boys.

My friendship and close collaboration with a scientist like Dr. Swamidass may be surprising given my ongoing training as a historian; however, as you enter his book it will become steadily apparent that I may in fact be an ideal person to describe, defend, and evangelize for it. With that in mind, this isn’t going to be a traditional review in most senses. It’s more an observer’s retrospective, the reflections of someone who watched the evolution of an attitude into an idea into a book from multiple perspectives. Less so than a description of the volume, I want this to be an apology for why you should read it, regardless of your position on the issues it addresses.

This book presents itself as quite strange, even before it is opened. Exceptional cover art aside, the book’s endorsements comprise a surprising gathering of individuals and groups, many of whom are difficult to imagine on agreeable ground, let alone advocating the same text with passion. There are the categories I’ve previously mentioned as well as the former director of BioLogos; the founder of Reasons to Believe; Sean McDowell; a founding father of the intelligent design movement; and multiple philosophers. For any intellectually curious individual, this should be enough to have your interest piqued. In fact, if you were to open this volume without seeing the title or cover, it might strike you as a strange amalgamation of a Michael Crichton novel mixed with an N.T. Wrightesque historical critique and a Sam Harris style popular-level science book. This volume is one which collects strange allies.

Swamidass explains in the introduction why he wrote the book, “…I discovered a curious fact. Everyone was convinced that evolutionary science unsettled our understanding of Adam and Eve, but I couldn’t find the evidence that demonstrated this as true.” (8) He describes how he came to want to write this book not because he was skeptical of either side, but because he was skeptical of the conflict. This introduction struck me as equally strange, with its presentation, not of a buttressed scientific argument, but of something far more profound.

Rather than an immediate argument, Swamidass offers an invitation to skeptics on all sides of the issue to enter a thought experiment. He invites us, depending on our starting position, to consider either a world where evolution could be true or a world where Adam and Eve could be real. He asks that we come along for the ride and see how long we can stay together. Reminiscent of—though I believe even more powerful than—John’s ride with Reason in The Pilgrim’s Regress by C.S. Lewis, Swamidass asks us to come along for the ride and discover, not only the limits of our companionship, but also the great distance and fertility of our shared ground.

Swamidass’s passion for unsettling our assumptions about faith and science extends far beyond the confines of one book, however. This is a project over which he has labored for some time and one that he intends to continue far into the future. Before fleshing this idea out into a book, Swamidass started a forum and blog called Peaceful Science. He wanted to find a way to avoid this conflict, which he found unnecessary. I didn’t join at first: as a historian, it was initially difficult for me to conceive of a place for me in Swamidass’s strange circle of allies. Moreover, being from a conservative, evangelical, home-schooled background, I’d spent a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and time arguing over the origins question throughout my life. Quite frankly, I was worn out with the debate, and I assumed this forum would just be more of the same.

When Swamidass did finally convince me to join, I was both fascinated and full of wonder at what I discovered. Having read John Inazu’s excellent Confident Pluralism (which makes an appearance in the introduction to this book), I was already sold on the idea of finding ways to not fight unless it was actually necessary. There are many hills on which I am willing to die, but none upon which I will kill anyone. This attitude shift is key to understanding the point of Swamidass’s book. He never presents his own opinions on the issue of origins. He describes others views and expounds on how they are historical or ahistorical, scientifically sustainable or untenable scientifically. This posture means that the book has the potential both for wide appeal and distrust. Fundamentalists both of science and Christianity will most likely have a hard time buying and opening the book—although I would argue that once they cross the barriers to entry, they will be rewarded, surprised, and excited by what they find. For anyone who is weary of endless conflict that the creation wars have been though, this book declares that there don’t have to be winners or losers. There is room for all.

What Swamidass sets out to do is what science is made for: test a hypothesis. He states his hypothesis and then attempts to falsify it:

Entirely consistent with the genetic and archeological evidence, it is possible that Adam was created out of dust, and Eve out of his rib, less than ten thousand years ago. Leaving the Garden, their offspring would have blended with those outside it, biologically identical neighbors from the surrounding area. In a few thousand years, they would become genealogical ancestors of everyone. (10)

He points out that most scientific research to date has focused on whether Adam and Eve could have passed on genetic material to everyone living; however, this doesn’t seem to be the type of ancestry Bible is concerned with. Instead, the Bible is quite concerned with genealogy; extended genealogies fill eleven chapters of Genesis. Who begat whom, and what is the history of their line? This is an entirely different question, and as it turns out, one that can be explored with population genetics. While all genetic ancestors are genealogical ancestors, the inverse is not necessarily true.

So, what does this mean for Adam and Eve? Well, in 2004, a computer simulation of life on Earth was created to test and see when the most recent common ancestor for all humans was. The researchers put higher barriers than historically existed to stack the odds against there being a common ancestor in the recent past. Despite this, the results, published in Nature, found common ancestors only two or three thousand years ago. The study was then replicated many times over. Most of these common ancestors are genetic ghosts, meaning that though they are your ancestor, you have inherited no DNA from them. This means that universal ancestors are both surprisingly recent and surprisingly hidden. Each bit of the stated hypothesis is examined in this way, with engrossing theological, historical, and philosophical tidbits sprinkled in amidst the science. He then gives a history of the views on Adam and Eve and responses to those views.

The five sections of the book—Fracture, Ancestor, Human, Mystery, and Crossroad—are accompanied by a piece bringing together science and art. The book and author are truly making room for many voices at the table of discussion. Indeed, perhaps the most impressive bit amongst all this is that Swamidass is able to maintain a readable prose for the informed lay person regardless of their background in science or theology. The cover art plays a critical role here as it marries DNA strands (which I happen to know were originally spiraling in the reverse direction of actual DNA and had to be corrected by Swamidass) with a reflective gold foil reminiscent of Makoto Fujimura’s paintings. The cover brings together art, theology, and science much as the book itself attempts to create a common ground between these diverse modes of seeing and making sense of the world.

I had the privilege to watch Swamidass speak about this book at a Veritas Forum at Columbia University. There we both met for the first time in person an atheist from the Peaceful Science forum. He made a comment to me that strikes me as an apropos moment to conclude. He said to me that when the fundamentalists attacked Dr. Swamidass for this book, the atheists would have his back. It reminded me of the Book of Acts when Gamaliel tells the Sanhedrin not to execute the apostles because if their movement is of men, it will soon fall apart as have many other messianic movements of the time. However, if it is of God, then they are putting themselves at enmity with God. Without going into all the ways I believe this passage could be used in today’s wars within evangelicalism, I would like to submit that if you disagree with the book’s thesis you should at least read it and consider it with this attitude first.

What this book ultimately asks of the reader is that they be brave enough to open it and read without the answers being a foregone conclusion. He describes a moment between Tim Keller and a scientist friend as typical of how the conversation goes. Preacher states his opinion; scientist contradicts; a gulf opens between them; conversation ends.

I could spend much more room than I have here to describe the fascinating science—a lot of which I only wish I fully understood. I could write for pages on the fascinating use of history in describing the conflict over what it means to be human. The distinction between genealogical and genetic ancestry has already spawned a poem in one of my notebooks. The questions this book raises about justice, race, and communication are worthy of reviews all their own. And of course, none of this is touching on the implications this volume has for theology. However, my hope is that I have convinced you, dear reader, that this volume is important whatever you may think your position on origins is. If only because we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, if only because we might be wrong, if only because other image bearers deserve the benefit of our considering this thought experiment.

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