Friday, June 17, 2011

Francis Collins on Adam

I heard Francis Collins yesterday here at Pepperdine.  As you may know, he is author of The Language of God and co-author of The Language of Science and Faith.  He was leader of the project that cracked the entirety of the human genome, a project that I believe will quickly result in curing most diseases like cancer, diabetes and  other gene related illnesses.  Obama appointed him to head the National Institutes of Health, an appointment new atheists like Sam Harris publicly opposed.

His faith is very evident.  Let's be clear about that.  He has a spiritual autobiography something like C. S. Lewis where he started as an atheist but was driven to faith.  It is also evident that he sees no contradiction between science and faith, and he was founder of BioLogos to that end.

I won't pretend that the question of evolution is not a difficult one at one point in particular, namely, our theology of Adam and the Fall.  Genesis 1 is a piece of cake, since it seems rather easily read as a poetic rather than a literal presentation of creation.  The problem is not even with Genesis 2-3.  The problem is with what Paul does with Genesis 2-3 and what Augustine did with Paul and with what Calvin and Wesley did with Paul.

I might describe it like this:
1. The rest of the OT doesn't do anything with Genesis 2-3.  Genesis 2-3 is not of major significance for the theology internal to the Old Testament.  Further, Adam and Eve's sin only stop them from not dying.  It does not seem to bring human death into the world except in that it prevents endless life.
2. The rest of the NT doesn't do anything with Genesis 2-3.  Genesis 2-3 is not of major significance for the theology internal to the rest of the New Testament outside Paul.  Adam is not mentioned elsewhere.
3. Adam in Romans and 1 Corinthians, however, provides Paul's explanation for where sin and death came from.  Adam seems to play a central role in Paul's theology.
4. This became central to our Christian understanding because Augustine and Protestantism focused on Paul and Adam, and made him a centerpiece in the Christian reading of Scripture.  When anyone reads Scripture, s/he must prioritize passages to form a coherent reading.  Adam would not have to be a centerpiece of such a reading.  He is central because we have inherited the readings of Augustine and the Protestant tradition.

The idea that death entered the world through Adam is one issue, since evolution requires lots of death.  There are strategies you can make.  Perhaps spiritual death entered through Adam.  Perhaps we could go with Genesis--Adam stopped life rather than started death.

Collins presented a new problem yesterday I was not aware of.  In his opinion, the human genome is too diverse to have come from one parent (remembering that Eve got her DNA from Adam).  He thinks thousands would have been necessary (he also pointed out that the genome of homo neanderthalis, which they have also decoded in full, is very similar to homo sapiens, possibly implying continuity between the two species.

He presented several possibilities.  One is that God created thousands of Adams and Eves.  One is that God did something special with two of the newly evolved thousands and then retro-did the others or it spread to the others.  Collins doesn't like the metaphorical route, that Adam and Eve are a story expressing the mystery of human identity and our condition before God, but not historical individuals.

Here is some exploration of Adam by RJS on Scott McKnight's blog, including a link to a recent CT article.  I do not offer an answer.  I do have two ground rules:

1. Having grown up with a fundamentalist view of the Bible and then feeling repeatedly stupid--indeed feeling like a complete ignoramus--as I studied the Bible in context, I reject the idea that the Christian position on these sorts of issues is a slam dunk.  The interpretation of the Bible is often complicated and unclear, and its appropriation even more susceptible to debate.

2. I reject any glib dismissal of science by those who couldn't pass a science class to save their life and yet insist on using cell phones and surgeons.  It is one and the same scientific method which has given us lap tops and evolution.  I am not a scientist.  I am not competent to judge the issue.  But I fear basing my faith on the opposite side of the vast and overwhelming majority of those who are competent to judge the evidence, in a field where you make your reputation by coming up with new discoveries, when every single scientist against evolution does so because of a presupposition they start out with rather than because the evidence drove them to that conclusion.

So have at it.  What do you think?


Nathaniel said...

One possibly helpful distinction, is to view Adam not as the "only" man but the "first" man. This solution would seem uncomfortable to many Protestants due to their monergistic soteriology which insists that all metaphysical merit come from Christ as the "sole" mediator. However, if one takes the more Orthodox/Catholic view that Christ is the first/primary mediator and that others are able to contribute to our salvation through him, than one might in turn be able to see Adam as the protos rather than the only man.

That is, Adam and Eve were not alone in the garden but that, as the first created, they were essentially "elders" of the human community. This does not contradict even Augustine's strong insistence that by Adam sin entered all mankind, since Adam is the vicar (so to speak) of that community. In one sense this actually strengthens the whole meta-narrative of fall and redemption since mankind is held captive by the actions of one man. Further, reading it like this answers the question about all the "extra" people who saw Cain's mark.

That being said, I should also acknowledge that such an interpretation is definitely a novum, that is I am not aware of any truly historic version of this interpretation and that this interpretation is clearly mired in modern concerns.

Robert said...

Mitochondrial analysis has shown that we're all descended from a single woman, if that's any help. What's wrong with Adam as a symbolic 'first man' though?

FrGregACCA said...

Robert: we are also, apparently, all descended from a single male ancestor, but the problem is, the male lived much later than the female, and this does not at all mean that we are all descended ONLY from these two.

Ken writes: "One is that God did something special with two of the newly evolved thousands and then retro-did the others or it spread to the others."

Lewis apparently believed something like this, and if one feels the need to hold to an historical Adam and Eve, I think this is the way to go. It certainly explains things like Cain's wife.

I find it interesting that Collins doesn't like metaphorical understandings here. "Adam", after all, simply means "human" and is used as such in Genesis 5:1-2

Rick said...

Since they do not give as much weight to Augustine on the sin issue, and since they read Paul's verses on Adam somewhat different, the Eastern Orthodox may have the best solution(s) to the issue.

Anonymous said...

I read the article in CT about Adam and Collins' statement that our genetic diversity requires an initial population of at least 10,000. Let me offer a few observations from a guy who has passed a few science classes but makes to no claim to be in the same league as Collins.

[1]According to the CT article, there is an ongoing debate as to how the genetic diversity calculations should be made. The estimate of a population of thousands is uncertain.
[2]In this discussion we seem to have forgotten Noah's family and the flood. Genesis indicates the current human race descended from them. Perhaps this family provided enough genetic variety.
[3] Science is constantly in flux. For years, Newton's observations about physics were unquestioned then along came Einstein. After him, quantum mechanics were presented and still we don't know it all. So there is no need to rewrite our creeds or articles of religion based on today's scientific discoveries.
[4] My theology states that science is the study of natural revelation which means its final conclusions will be in line with the Bible and sound theology.

If we are patient and discuss these questions with loving respect, God will be honored.

freetoken said...


You wrote:
"...statement that our genetic diversity requires an initial population of at least 10,000."

Given the poor quality (at least as far as the science) of the CT article I can see where people are being left with that impression.

However, the claim coming from genetics is not quite that. Rather than "initial", what the study of genomes is telling us is that there was a "bottleneck", a time of a minimum population. This bottleneck would be dated differently than the most recent common ancestor, male or female.

As far as Noah - if you take the biblical chronology as literalists calculate it then Noah lived roughly the same time as the Ubaid culture in Mesopotamia. Problem is, there were human societies all around the world, now document, at that time.

And as far as genetics is concerned the Noah story is in even deeper water. Since all males are supposed to be descended from Noah, through his three sons, there is then a testable hypothesis. Of all the genome articles and literature I've come across none, exactly none, would support the idea that all living male humans are descended from a single male 5000 years ago.

Yes, science continually learns more and more - thankfully!

You wrote: "So there is no need to rewrite our creeds or articles of religion based on today's scientific discoveries. " Agree, only because you've yet to rewrite your creeds from facts discovered a 100 years ago. You've got at least 100 years worth of discoveries to digest, which you've avoided so far.

However, genetics is becoming so central to medicine and agriculture that it is unavoidable, and that will force (hopefully) significant changes throughout all of Christendom.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for stating what is obvious, now that I read it, namely that Genesis 2 and 3 are unimportant in OT theology.

::athada:: said...

Some would question my faithfulness to the Biblical text (as they use that as their absolute starting point), but I first accept evolution as an overwhelming case for today's biological diversity (including humans) and only then do I see where the texts might give us trouble. Instead of saying, "It just doesn't line up with our tribe's theology" I'm more inclined to say, "What does this reality then mean for how we think theologically?" A crucial distinction, I think, and one that I have grown into on this issue over the last 5 years or so.

I believe you were referencing this NPR blog on cell-phone-using-science-deniers?

Anonymous said...

This coming from an un-educated man and believer, but, what IF Neanderthal and humans had a close enough DNA that the discoveries of a Francis Collins might be seeing Neanderthal in our current human genome studies?

Might not thousands of them and 1 pair of "humans" be seen as the same so many years later by us today?

Just asking. Or, substitute X for Neanderthal, whatever is supposed to be the closest human relative.