Adam and Eve, ghosts of Eden, still haunt the evangelical conscience. Current scientific evidence, we’ve been told, sounds the death knell for a historical Adam. If you do believe the human race descends from a single couple, best keep that opinion under wraps.
Evolutionary theory has blown up such antiquated ideas, leaving evangelical scholars picking up the pieces, trying to refurbish Adam as the chieftain of a tribe, or the federal head of a hominid kingdom, or some similarly creative science-Scripture amalgam. Others dismiss such efforts as trying to square a circle. They conclude, instead, that Christians face a stark choice: dig in your heels and reject science, or accept evolution and disown Adam.
That choice is a false dilemma, according to the new book The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry.
Evangelical De-Weaponizing Evolution
Joshua Swamidass is a physician and a computational biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, and he wants us to think differently about our first parents.
Some context first. A decade ago, Dennis Venema informed evangelicals that the human population has never been lower than roughly 10,000 individuals, based on population genetics. This was old news, though not widely known among Christians. Geneticists arrived at this conclusion by inferring the smallest founding population size that could have generated the genetic diversity among humans today (see chap. 3 of Venema and Scot McKnight’s Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science). Purportedly, here was scientific proof that Adam and Eve weren’t ancestors of the entire human race.
Enter Swamidass, who thinks that reality is more complicated and full of surprises. At the heart of his book lies the distinction between “genetic” and “genealogical” ancestry. After years of high-school biology, most of us are familiar with genetics. DNA is that famous double helix, the molecular repository of heredity, by which we receive traits from our parents. Genetic ancestry is a recent method of tracing the history of DNA in our genome.
Genealogical ancestry is different. It’s an ordinary, non-technical way of recording our ancestors. As Swamidass explains: “Our fathers, mothers, and grandparents are our ancestors. Going back into our history, all their grandparents are our ancestors too. In this sense, genealogical ancestry matches an ordinary understanding of ancestry” (32). Human beings are reproducing creatures, which means that each of us has parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, and so on. Our genealogical records aren’t complete and are sometimes mistaken due to recording errors, adoption, or infidelity. Such problems reflect the limits of our knowledge, but they don’t change the fact of our genealogical ancestors. In this book, Swamidass explains, “we understand genealogical ancestry as the true and complete web of biological parentage stretching back into history” (32).
Human DNA doesn’t capture most of our genealogical relationships. Genetic ancestry is only one facet of a wider genealogy. Swamidass clarifies why:
Consider a child’s father and grandfather. They both are fully the child’s genealogical ancestors. However, they are only partially the child’s genetic ancestors, approximately 1/2 and 1/4, respectively. The same is true of the child’s mother and grandmothers. Genetic ancestry continues to dilute each generation: 1/8, 1/16, 1/32 . . . to a number so small it is unlikely a descendant has any genetic material from most of their ancestors. The many genealogical ancestors that pass us no DNA are not our genetic ancestors. (35–36)
As a result, we get an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist: mainstream evolution is entirely consistent with God creating Adam and Eve directly, about 6,000 years ago, to be the ancestors of all human beings alive today. How can that be? Adam and Eve are genealogical, not genetic, ancestors of all human beings; or, more accurately, they’re genealogical ancestors of all human beings alive today (i.e., not all humans who have ever lived, a point I’ll revisit below). Adam and Eve are our genealogical ancestors who leave no tracks in human DNA. In fact, Swamidass shows that universal genealogical ancestors are common, they arise often in human history, they arise recently in our past (as recently as 3,000 years ago!), and they often leave no trace in our genomes (42–55).
‘Minimalist’ Defense as the Best Offense?
Swamidass argues many points on behalf of Adam and Eve that may not be his own convictions. “In this book,” he writes, “I do not press my personal beliefs, focusing instead on explaining how science interacts with the questions put forward by others” (8). His book, to my mind, is a project in minimalist apologetics. Swamidass rejects the widespread assumption that mainstream evolution contradicts a traditional picture of Adam and Eve. If he can imagine another human-origins scenario that dissolves this conflict, then he has flipped the script. Whether he believes any of it is a moot point; what matters is demonstrating that conflict isn’t the only possibility. Swamidass, then, doesn’t defend his own convictions about Adam and Eve; his central argument is that current science is fully compatible with many different theological positions on the historical Adam (from the most literalist to the outright skeptical). He also argues that the relevant biblical texts are open to a range of exegetical perspectives. By thus making space for greater difference, he hopes his book will encourage a more dialogical relationship between all Christians and mainstream evolutionary science.
Nothing in this book disagrees with the mainstream evolutionary picture. Swamidass happily accepts that we share ancestors with chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos, and he believes that over the past 500,000 years our ancestor population has never dipped down to a single couple (e.g., 12). But he also claims we can believe all of that and hold to a “traditional” Adam and Eve. That is the genius of his argument.
According to Swamidass, traditional Christians can read the Bible as they’ve always done and still accept everything scientists are saying.
The genealogical hypothesis recalls other works that try to harmonize a strict reading of Scripture with what current science is saying. One thinks of Hud Hudson’s fascinating book, The Fall and Hypertime (2014)—Hudson doesn’t actually believe the thesis he lays out, but he offers it as a way for traditional Christians to resolve the tensions they feel with evolution (Swamidass doesn’t say, either way, whether he believes the genealogical hypothesis). I’m also reminded of the gap theory from a century ago, defended by Thomas Chalmers and then, later, by C. I. Scofield and other early 20th-century fundamentalists. They speculated that an angelic fall ruined an earlier creation, triggering millions of years of pre-Adamic animal suffering and death, followed by God’s do-over in Genesis 1:2 (for a helpful description of this view, see Bernard Ramm’s The Christian View of Science and Scripture , 195–210). Traditional Christians can read the Bible as they’ve always done and still accept everything scientists are saying. Swamidass’s genealogical argument tries to do for population genetics what Scofield’s “ruin-reconstruction” gap theory did for geology.
One should also note that the picture of God directly creating Adam and Eve in the garden, with other humans roaming outside the garden, is an old idea. Swamidass isn’t the first to propose it. (For historical background, see David Livingstone’s Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins.) His new insight is that a directly created couple as ancestor of all humans alive today is consistent with the best science.
Assessing the Main Thesis
The genealogical hypothesis has six propositions (25–26):
- Adam and Eve lived recently in the Middle East, perhaps as recently as 6,000 years ago.
- Adam and Eve are genealogical ancestors of everyone alive today, although at some point in our past biological humans existed who did not descend from them.
- God directly created Adam and Eve without any ancestors.
- Adam and Eve’s descendants interbred with biological humans outside Eden.
- The direct creation of Adam and Eve is the only miracle allowed.
- The biological humans outside Eden share common ancestry with the great apes, and their population size was always much larger than a single couple.
The core distinction between “genetic” ancestry and “genealogical” ancestry seems valid. Adam and Eve could’ve been genealogical ancestors of all humans alive today, without leaving any genetic trace. Based on the evidence Swamidass presents, multiple couples in our distant past are each individually ancestors of all humans alive today.
Nevertheless, the genealogical hypothesis itself is still dissonant with the biblical Adam and Eve. In that latter picture, Adam and Eve are genealogical ancestors of all human beings who have ever lived, not merely the ones alive today. This judgment has ample biblical witness, including Genesis 1–3, the biblical genealogies across the two Testaments (Gen. 1–11; Luke 3:23–38; see also 1 Chron. 1; Jude 14), Paul who believed Adam and Eve were exclusive progenitors of the human race (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:21–22; Acts 17:26), and so on.
The genealogical hypothesis itself is still dissonant with the biblical Adam and Eve.
I also worry that Swamidass’s argument may be too narrow, for it focuses on Adam and Eve as progenitors of all humanity. He seems to think that if he can resolve that problem, all is well—at least, that is my impression. However, from a Christian perspective—the one Swamidass is ostensibly seeking to engage—that problem is inseparable from an entire network of theological claims that together are even harder to reconcile with evolutionary science. Thus, when he says, “We, however, are testing the extent to which the traditional account of Adam and Eve is challenged by evolutionary science” (11), he’s taking a limited understanding of “the traditional account of Adam and Eve.” He doesn’t adequately address the significance of other pressing realities like the fall, original sin, salvation, and theodicy (while he does touch on some of these issues in chaps. 15 and 16, his discussion is too cursory and overvalues the contribution of his genealogical hypothesis).
Elephant in the Room
Swamidass assumes Adam and Eve weren’t alone. There were other people outside the garden. His key move, drawing on other scholars, is to distinguish between “textual” and “biological” humans. In this understanding, textual humans are “Adam, Eve, and their genealogical descendants, including everyone alive across the globe by, at latest, AD 1. They are a chronological subset of biological humans, meaning that some biological humans in the past are not textual humans, but all textual humans are biological humans” (134). Adam and Eve were textual humans whom God supernaturally created in the garden; outside the garden, biological humans had evolved from ancestors. As biblical support for non-Adamic biological humans, he recites the standard “clues” that previous exegetes have latched onto—e.g., who was Cain’s wife? who lived in the city of Nod? why did God put a mark on Cain? Swamidass includes the Nephilim as additional proof (on which more below). Adam and Eve’s descendants interbred with those outside the garden, so that by AD 1, Adam and Eve are genealogical ancestors of all human beings alive.
In traditional Christianity, being human and being a descendant of Adam are co-extensive. As far as I can see, Swamidass’s revisionism lacks a convincing exegetical or theological basis.
Swamidass zealously distances his position from earlier racist polygenetic theories. According to those accounts, racial groups that (allegedly) didn’t descend from Adam weren’t full human beings. I agree that his position is a vast improvement. However, the genealogical hypothesis remains polygenetic, at least to some degree. Swamidass defines all those outside the garden as biologically but not textually human.
This move, however, raises a host of questions: for example, in what sense are non-Adamic biological humans fully human? If these biological humans have a different origin from Adam and Eve, do they participate in original sin and salvation? Did Christ live and die for them, and were they able to experience justification by faith? And, if human beings are natural kinds—as Christians have always believed—then how is interbreeding even possible? In chapter 14, Swamidass speculates that these biological humans are made in God’s image, with minds and souls, but “they are not yet affected by Adam’s fall. They have a sense of right and wrong, written on their hearts (Rom. 2:15), but they are not morally perfect. They do wrong at times. They are subject to physical death, which prevents their wrongdoing from growing into true evil (Gen. 6:3)” (175). Although Swamidass is only speculating here, the notion of other people outside the garden, in my view, is nowhere in Scripture. In traditional Christianity, being human and being a descendant of Adam are co-extensive. As far as I can see, Swamidass’s revisionism lacks a convincing exegetical or theological basis.
This becomes evident in light of the analogy of Scripture. Swamidass repeatedly says things like: “Looking at Genesis alone, we cannot conclude that all people descend from Adam and Eve” (138, and passim). My weightiest objection to this claim, and my main objection to the book as a whole, is that Swamidass is almost certainly wrong in canonical context. In brief, God’s creation of humanity in Genesis 1:26–28 ostensibly depicts Adam and Eve as the sole original pair, hence Eve’s designation as “the mother of all the living” (Gen. 3:20). In biblical discourse, men and women are “sons of Adam” (e.g., Ps. 11:4; 1 Kings 8:39), while “Adam” is often translated as the generic term for humanity (“sons of mankind”). However, that linguistic nuance—the same Hebrew word for Adam and humanity—itself reflects the biblical mindset that the human race derives from Adam the first man.
Against the backdrop of a global flood (2 Pet. 2:5; 3:5–6), Adam as father of humanity foreshadows Noah as the second Adam and father of post-flood humanity. In the New Testament, Luke’s genealogy extends all the way back to Adam (Luke 3:23–38), Jesus in his discussion of divorce mentions the creation of Adam and Eve and their union (Matt. 19:4–5), and Paul sees him as the font of humanity (Acts 17:26; see also 1 Tim. 2:11–14; 1 Cor. 11:8–9). Indeed, the biblical story of sin and redemption makes little sense without Adam as first human being (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:21–22). The unity of the human race is rooted in him; although we sinned in the first Adam, God’s Son came down from heaven, in human flesh, as the last Adam—and therefore, astonishingly, Jesus is Savior of all people (John 4:42; 1 Tim. 4:10).
The unity of the human race is rooted in him; although we sinned in the first Adam, God’s Son came down from heaven, in human flesh, as the last Adam—and therefore, astonishingly, Jesus is Savior of all people.
Swamidass recognizes the exegetical support that Christians traditionally invoke against the idea of people outside the garden (145–47), but he finds none of it definitive. I certainly don’t wish to minimize valid questions one can ask about early humanity in Genesis 1–4, but the biblical testimony supporting traditional monogenesis isn’t easily set aside.
In any case, the explicit passages of Scripture should guide our interpretation of less clear texts; they should delimit the significance of the alleged “clues” in early Genesis. The idea of people outside the garden is only plausible if one interprets Scripture atomistically, focusing on ambiguities in the text. Pressures from science prompt new interpretations gleaned from textual silences, interpretations that contradict what the text states explicitly elsewhere.
For example, while Genesis doesn’t tell us whom Cain married, Genesis 1–11 is a highly compressed, selective narrative that omits many other descendants of Adam and Eve. Cain would have married one of his sisters (and, presumably, incest had a different moral quality at this early stage of the human story). This traditional solution, whatever its defects, approaches Scripture as a unified, single-yet-polyphonic Word of God rather than conjuring up other non-Adamic humans, a move that negates explicit monogenetic texts. Scripture isn’t concerned with “biological humans of antiquity” (140) because that category itself is foreign to the redemptive-historical narrative and, indeed, is antithetical to its very structure.
Readers must remember that Swamidass is often not actually defending his own position but carving out space for a range of exegetical options that he thinks are consistent with science and Scripture.
Readers must remember that Swamidass is often not actually defending his own position but carving out space for a range of exegetical options that he thinks are consistent with science and Scripture. In principle, this minimalist approach makes sense when one wishes to commend a big-tent, inclusive orthodoxy. Yet I have two concerns with how Swamidass deploys his minimalism. First, by assuming the existence of people outside the garden this book excludes what I (and most of the Christian tradition) take as the explicit teaching of Scripture. His minimalism isn’t so inclusive after all. Second, evolutionary biology dictates the rules of engagement in The Genealogical Adam and Eve. Swamidass’s task is then to offer multiple interpretations of Adam and Scripture that don’t violate those rules. The asymmetry is telling—he’s confident about evolutionary science, meanwhile the relevant biblical texts have no fixed meaning. If Swamidass thinks that his many options are all equally defensible exegetically, then I disagree. Scripture is not so opaque.
Swamidass claims that young-earth creationists have comparable speculations about Adam and Eve interbreeding with “others” outside the garden (citing an article by Bodie Hodge). It’s an equivalency move that tries to level the playing field; since young-earth creationists accept interbreeding outside the garden, then Swamidass can too (115). Earlier, he cites an article by Gregg Davidson that argues that the Nephilim are the offspring of interbreeding between Adam and Eve’s descendants and hominins outside the garden. It’s unclear to me why he brings up young-earth creationists in this context, so I checked Hodge’s article. Hodge reviews four possible interpretations of Genesis 6:1–4, all of them standard fare in the exegetical tradition and without any hint of non-Adamic humans outside the garden. According to these four views, anyone outside the garden was either a descendant of Adam and Eve or a fallen angel. Whatever we might think of human beings interbreeding with fallen angels, it has a solid textual basis and presupposes all humans as descendants of Adam. Swamidass’s thesis about others outside the garden rests on a thin exegetical reed and presupposes that not all humans descend from Adam. Regardless of your convictions on origins, his equivalency move seems to be a big red herring.
Natural Science as Judge and Jury
According to Swamidass, science is most reliable when shed of all theological assumptions. Early in the book, he writes:
Scientists, at our best, engage questions like these without a polemical agenda. Careful, rigorous, and honest engagement with questions is how we come to understand the true structure of the world. The scientific analysis is still controlled by the evidence. This means we all must set aside theological agendas, whether they be for or against Adam. Nothing in this book is outside mainstream science. It is meant as much for secular scientists as it is for theologians and pastors. Whatever our personal understanding of Adam and Eve might be, we can still come to agreement about what science tells about them, and what it leaves unsaid. (23)
He thinks that science’s exegesis of the physical data is better off without theological assumptions. I doubt that. Natural science is and always has been laden with theological assumptions—e.g., that scientific laws are uniform, that nature is intelligible, that we have the cognitive ability to make sense of it, and so on. Such tacit commitments are hard to account for outside Christian theology. Peter Harrison has even argued that natural science emerged with 17th-century natural philosophers who assumed that the fall of Adam and Eve ruined our cognitive capacities; fallen human minds can’t rightly understand nature, they believed, so they had to explore God’s creation directly. Hence the rise of empirical science.
Natural science is and always has been laden with theological assumptions—e.g., that scientific laws are uniform, that nature is intelligible, that we have the cognitive ability to make sense of it, and so on.
One should note that, with the exception of a de novo creation of Adam and Eve, Swamidass assumes methodological naturalism throughout the book (though he dislikes the term, e.g., see 230n9). I bring this up not to disagree with him on this point—although I do have reservations with an all-embracing methodological naturalism—but because it underscores the dominant role that mainstream science plays in his argument. This commitment to methodological naturalism lies behind the fifth proposition, “No additional miracles allowed” (26), which leaves one wondering why he even allows one miracle—and if you allow for one, why stop there? (For a helpful critique of methodological naturalism, see this article by Andrew Torrance.)
Methodological naturalism also helps explain the incongruity of an evolutionist sanctioning the de novo Adam and Eve. After all, their direct creation finds support in Genesis 2 (especially Gen. 2:7) and implies a particular hermeneutical approach to Scripture, one that some would deride as “conservative” or “literalistic.” That interpretative stance denies any people outside the garden, given texts like Genesis 2:18 and the logic of the traditional understanding of the biblical story, a logic in which a sole original couple and their de novo creation go hand in hand. A Christian who accepts mainstream evolution rejects that kind of hermeneutic, implicitly if not explicitly. At this point, the genealogical hypothesis seems double-minded and Swamidass’s reassurances that science doesn’t conflict with a de novo Adam and Eve will strike some as hollow (87–89).
The entire book challenges nothing in mainstream science. . . . Secular science doesn’t give an inch, while Christian tradition keeps merrily renovating.
Swamidass recounts going public with his genealogical views prior to receiving tenure at Washington University. Despite this risky move, he still received tenure in 2018. His takeaway: “As I have come to understand it, ‘secular’ means ‘fair,’ not atheistic or anti-Christian. My secular colleagues were fair to me” (14). Perhaps. For all I know, his secular colleagues are magnanimous people in whom God’s common grace shines fair. The genealogical thesis, however, hardly threatens the scientific establishment. “This book,” Swamidass writes, “is written following the rules of secular science. It is not a challenge to my colleagues’ understanding of our origins” (217). Precisely. The entire book challenges nothing in mainstream science. From their perspective, Swamidass is a good soldier, playing by the rules. Secular science doesn’t give an inch, while Christian tradition keeps merrily renovating.
Keeping Doctrinal Balance
This book aims to remove evolutionary science as a stumbling block to faith. Swamidass hopes the genealogical Adam and Eve will defuse the conflicts between evolution and different Christian traditions: “A recovery of a common account de-weaponizes evolutionary science, enabling a rapprochement between different traditions” (156). He argues for a rich diversity of faithful views of Genesis, including those who defend Adam and Eve as mythical. Part of his justification for this stance appeals to dogmatic rank and the early creeds. Getting Adam and Eve wrong isn’t the same thing as bungling Christ’s resurrection. They aren’t comparable errors: “Christians that take heterodox or non-traditional readings of Genesis also affirm far more important doctrines, such as the Resurrection of Jesus” (157). I agree with his emphasis on dogmatic rank; some doctrines are indeed weightier than others. Swamidass and I, brothers in Christ, rejoice together in the Lord’s resurrection! Nonetheless, while I’m all for having a generosity of spirit, I don’t share Swamidass’s optimism about no-Adam theologies.
First, while I agree that Christ’s resurrection and human origins aren’t equally important, they’re not as disconnected as some evangelicals think. The apostle Paul saw important redemptive-historical connections between the first and last Adam (e.g., Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:21–22). Christ’s incarnation, I’d argue, is inseparable from the biblical genealogies that go all the way back to Adam (Luke 3:23–38).
There’s an obvious reason most creeds make little of Adam. All Christians assumed Adam was the first human being, as real and historical as they come.
Second, there’s an obvious reason most creeds make little of Adam. All Christians assumed Adam was the first human being, as real and historical as they come. No one questioned those beliefs. A belief so universal that it never came under attack and didn’t need creedal defense is more secure than one virtually absent from the early Christian communities. Creeds were fashioned in response to doctrinal aberration—had Isaac La Peyrère’s views appeared in the fifth century, Adam would doubtless have loomed large in the creeds.
Third, creeds don’t work the way Swamidass thinks they do. That an ancient creed doesn’t mention a specific belief (e.g., a historical Adam) doesn’t imply said belief is peripheral to faith. Consider that none of the ecumenical creeds mentions the doctrine of infallibility that is so central to Swamidass’s understanding of tradition (157). Does that mean infallibility is superfluous to Christianity? Of course not. Swamidass strongly affirms infallibility, and rightly so—which is my point, that creeds don’t work that way. Donald Fairbairn argues that early creeds were intended primarily as pledges of allegiance to the three persons of the Trinity (see his “Fides Quae Creditur? The Nicene Background to the Reformation,” in Reformation Celebration: The Significance of Scripture, Grace, Faith, and Christ, ed. Gordon Isaac and Eckhard Schnabel, 191–203). Early creeds never claimed to be exhaustive doctrinal summaries.
Fourth, Swamidass should nuance his claim that “[h]eterodoxy on Adam is not heresy” (157). Strictly speaking, the early church did tie Adam to confessional orthodoxy—at least once. In the fifth-century fight against Pelagianism, the first canon of the Council of Carthage states: “If any one says that Adam, the first man, was created mortal, so that, whether he sinned or not, he would have died from natural causes, and not as the wages of sin, let him be anathema” (Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church, 4th ed., 62). By these lights, if a Christian denies, say, that Adam was historical, then the anathema applies with even greater force! I cite this canon to set the historical record straight, not necessarily to defend its hard line.
In sum, there’s a lot to learn from this book. Swamidass is a Christian who writes with verve and scientific authority. He knows his stuff. He’s helpful at explaining the esoteric mysteries of genetic science (much of which is left out of this review). As Augustine famously argued, Christians will be mocked if we don’t know what we’re talking about scientifically. Swamidass raises the level of our conversation.
His argument is also impressive as apologetics by showing how the idea of a single couple as the ancestors of all humanity isn’t so ridiculous after all. This book incarnates the theme of his blog (i.e., Peaceful Science). Swamidass is trying to foster peace between evolutionary science and Christianity, making space for difference and inviting others into charitable dialogue. For reasons outlined above, I doubt that this book will convince readers who have exegetical and theological misgivings with mainstream evolution. Christian evolutionists, however, will want to raise three cheers to Swamidass. They can have Adam and Eve as well as evolution. They can have their cake and eat it too.
Ambition is risky, but we need more scholars like Swamidass who think big and bring together different fields of discourse.
Swamidass wrote the book for three distinct groups: secular scientists who want to understand religious people, evolutionary creationists who have abandoned a traditional Adam and Eve, and traditional Christians who reject evolution out of allegiance to Scripture. The book is admirably interdisciplinary, bringing science into dialogue with exegesis, theology, church history, philosophy, and more. That kind of ambition is risky, but we need more scholars like Swamidass who think big and bring together different fields of discourse.
The Genealogical Adam and Eve joins a long line of efforts to reconcile evolution and faith; it makes a substantive contribution to the dialogue, especially in alerting us to the genealogical versus genetic distinction. That insight alone is worth the price of the book.