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‘The Genealogical Adam and Eve’: showing evolution and Creation are compatible?

Or just making things more complicated?

It’s been 164 years since Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace jointly announced their theory of descent with modification, or what we understand today as evolution by natural selection. Despite the near unanimous agreement among the scientific community that the theory of evolution is true, according to Pew Research Center, “about one-in-five U.S. adults reject the basic idea that life on Earth has evolved at all.” Opposition primarily comes from adherents to the Abrahamic religions, for whom evolution conflicts with belief in Biblical creation.

Over the past century, many attempts have been made to reconcile the theory of evolution with religious teachings, and into this arena steps computational biologist S. Joshua Swamidass with his 2019 book, The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry. Swamidass makes his goal clear from the first page:

“[T]o make room for our differences, even as we maintain our own beliefs and practices. We all come from different starting points. Some are certain Adam and Eve are a myth. Some are certain evolution is a myth. Whatever the truth of the matter, let us travel together for a moment, seeking a common good.”

In other words, Swamidass thinks scientists who believe in evolution and Christians who believe in Creation ought to get along and respect one another. A nice enough sentiment, but he insists there’s more than just goodwill to motivate the seeking of some mutual understanding. Ultimately, what Swamidass proposes is that the Creation account of Genesis, in so far as Adam and Even are concerned, is perfectly compatible with evolutionary theory. How can this be?

According to Swamidass, whom I must credit for acknowledging this claim may or may not be true:

“[I]t 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.”

This “genealogical hypothesis” posits that all humankind shares ancestry in Adam and Eve, but the DNA of our ancestors comes from the Pre-Adamite humanoids with whom Seth and Cain intermingled. In this way, supposedly, one can simultaneously believe in both the Genesis account of Creation while also believing that Homo sapiens share a common ancestry with primates.

What exactly is genealogical ancestry, and how does it differ from genetic ancestry? Understanding this is crucial to Swamidass’ argument. According to Mathieson and Scally, genealogical ancestry “is defined in terms of identifiable ancestors in your family tree or pedigree,” and as such “reflects the most common and intuitive understanding of the term ancestry.” By contrast, genetic ancestry “refers not to your pedigree but to the subset of paths through it by which the material in your genome has been inherited. Because parents transmit only half their DNA to offspring each generation, an individual’s genetic ancestry involves only a small proportion of all their genealogical ancestors.”

There are Most Recent Common Ancestors (MRCA) that we genetically all share. This is not controversial; it’s a fact, and understanding why this is so will help us understand why our MRCA were nothing like the biblical Adam and Eve that Swamidass is defending.

We all have mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in our cells, which could only have been passed to us from our mother, and from our maternal-grandmother, and so on. Likewise, you could only have received a Y-chromosome from your father, and from your paternal-grandfather, and so on. By tracing the unbroken chain of mtDNA back far enough within a given population, we arrive at the mitochondrial MRCA, or if you like, Mitochondrial Eve. Similarly, if you trace the chain of Y-chromosomes back, you find the Y-chromosomal Most Recent Common Ancestor, or Y-chromosomal Adam.

So yes, it’s true that we all share a single common male and female ancestor, but there’s a catch. As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explains, “they never met and were separated from each other by probably many thousands of years.” There does seem to be some debate on the question of when mt-Eve and Y-Adam may have lived, and whether or not those timelines overlapped. As Michael Hammer, a population geneticist from the University of Arizona in Tucson explains, “Because of the random nature of genealogy, two different genetic lineages are unlikely to have common ancestors who lived in the same population at the same time.”

Ultimately, the designations of mt-Eve and Y-Adam are purely conceptual and do not in any way suggest the biblical Adam and Eve of the Creation narrative. There’s a further problem in The Genealogical Adam and Eve that Swamidass readily admits, that “there is no scientific evidence for or against them (Adam and Eve).” Swamidass dismisses this lack of evidence by claiming:

“Adam and Eve could have been de novo created or chosen from a larger population. They could have been in the Middle East, or some other part of the world. They could have been in a supernaturally created Garden, free of death, or in an environment much like our own. Those outside the Garden could be in the image of God, or not.”

Sure, and maybe Adam and Eve were extraterrestrials, as ancient astronaut proponents claim. This list of possibilities covers any potential objections to a lack of evidence and the believer is free to pick and choose among them. In this way, proponents of the genealogical hypothesis would be able to claim Adam and Eve are not incompatible with evolution without having to bother producing any actual evidence that Adam and Eve existed.

The question isn’t whether the biblical Adam and Eve are impossible, but are the Biblical Adam and Eve probable? Is it reasonable to believe in the existence of the biblical Adam and Eve? Our beliefs should always be provisional, subject to revision, and in proportion to the best available evidence. There’s no genetic or archaeological evidence that Adam and Eve, or any such place as the Garden of Eden, ever existed.

If someone wants to argue, “Well of course not, they’re supernatural,” then it doesn’t work to say, “Science doesn’t say they can’t exist,” or, “Science doesn’t say they’re incompatible with evolution,” because you’ve already moved the question beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. The supernatural, by definition, is that which is beyond the purview of science to understand or explain.

Biologist Ken Miller also points out that the genealogical hypothesis is needlessly complex. If the natural process of evolution can give rise to human beings, why would God need to specially create Adam and Eve, de novo? How did Pre-Adamite humans fit into the Divine Plan? The assumption of Pre-Adamite humans is a theologically controversial idea on its own, which isn’t scripturally supported by either the Torah or the Bible, though it is implied. After all, who else would Seth and Cain have been able to mate with?

The genealogical hypothesis is needlessly complex.

While it’s true that science can’t disprove the existence of Adam and Eve, it’s difficult to prove a negative in most any case. The burden of proof is typically on the claimant, and saying that something can’t be disproven is a not-so-clever way of shifting that. The Genealogical Adam and Eve is not the apologetic triumph it sets out to be, although it certainly tries. It is neither a “better way forward” nor a “better story to tell,” and no, evolutionary science is not “making space for Adam and Eve.”

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture. 

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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