Friday, January 27, 2012

Science Friday: Evolution of Adam

Normally I want to post more pure science or culture on Friday, but since I haven't come to anything really interesting to me in the biography I'm reading about James Clerk Maxwell, I thought I would post about the introduction to the new book by Peter Enns I'm also reading, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say about Human Origins.

This is going to be a hard book to read, not because Enns himself is caustic or confrontational.  In fact, quite the opposite.  I have been impressed with how sensitive and "exploratory" a tone he has adopted in this book.  His evangelical background as an OT scholar comes through clearly, not as someone who has been burned (Westminster Theological Seminary effectively pushed him out, even if he did the resigning), not as someone bitter because they feel stupid from the past (very, very common).  The tone is thoroughly respectful and truth seeking. It doesn't have the condescending tone Giberson and even Collins sometimes seem to have.

His audience is Christian, especially evangelicals, and especially American evangelicals.  Yet he is also addressing those who believe evolution must be taken seriously.  Respect of Scripture is a primary value, although he clarifies that "the most faithful, Christian reading of sacred Scripture is one that recognizes Scripture as a product of the times in which it was written and/or the events took place--not merely so, but unalterably so" (xi).

I will not debate this claim, although I think there may be more to Christian hermeneutics than the original meaning.  Nevertheless, I agree it does no honor to the Bible to pretend that it meant something different than it did (even if I think there is room for self-consciously different readings).

In any case, the reason the book will be a hard read is because of his conclusion: "If evolution is correct, one can no longer accept, in any true sense of the word "historical," the instantaneous and special creation of humanity described in Genesis, specifically 1:26-31 and 2:7,22" (xiv).  In particular, he does not believe we should speculate about Adam in ways foreign to the original meaning of Genesis.  For example, he will not let us say that Adam and Eve were the first two homo sapiens in which God put a soul because that is certainly not anything Genesis itself was thinking.

Enns does not believe, rightly I think, that Genesis is, in the end, the real point of conflict between evolution and the Bible.  Paul is.  He sees four options:

1. Accept evolution and reject Christianity (he will say no to this).
2. Accept Paul's view of Adam as binding and reject evolution (he will say no to this as well).
3. Reconcile evolution and Christianity by positing a first human pair (or group) at some point in the evolutionary process (he thinks this doesn't respect Genesis enough in terms of its original meaning).
4. Rethink Genesis and Paul (clearly the option he believes has the most integrity).

So the book begins.


FrGregACCA said...

"For example, he will not let us say that Adam and Eve were the first two homo sapiens in which God put a soul because that is certainly not anything Genesis itself was thinking."

So wouldn't this be an example of rethinking Genesis?

::athada:: said...

2b: And add "flu shot abstinence" to the list of membership requirements (since the flu strain cannot evolve, we don't need new medicines) ;)

The ex-Calvin prof (as heard on NPR) pointed out that genetics shows us that our population couldn't have ever dipped below 10,000 individuals, mutation rates given what they are. Looks like that's still compatible with #3 if that's the way one wants to go. At this point, I don't see a huge difference between #3 & #4, though as battlegrounds shift maybe #3 will become the new 6 day creation decades hence?

Ken Schenck said...

Adam, maybe you can explain what it means to say it can't dip below 10,000. Assuming that homo sapiens emerged as a mutation in a single individual, are we saying that individual was able to mate with at least 10,000 others? If so, doesn't the definition of a species have to do with ability to cross-mate? I'm sure I'm revealing an immense ignorance in these questions, but I'm sure no one else is reading my blog...

Jose said...

"Assuming that homo sapiens emerged as a mutation in a single individual..."
I'm no evolutionary biologist but my understanding is that speciation is a longer, more complicated process than a single mutation. Think about it...for organisms that reproduce sexually there needs to be two members of the same species. A single mutation won't do.

It is possible for members of two species to breed and in some unusal cases they can even have fertile offspring, I think. It's just that they typically don't interbreed, and as a consequence the group develops a certain level of genetic distinctiveness.

Back to Enns. Does option #4 include the possibility of understanding Genesis as a statement of theological truths (e.g. "In the beginning God created...and it was good!") without requiring that it be scientifically or even historically factual (e.g. creation in seven days)? There's a difference between truths and facts, and it's a darned shame to ignore the former because you're obsessing over the latter.

Ken Schenck said...

I'm quite sure you're right on speciation. I'd love for someone to explain. If not, I'll get around to looking it up ;-)

I imagine his number four will involve relegating the conflicting parts of Genesis and Paul to their time and seeking deeper harmonies. But we'll see...

::athada:: said...

I see the 10,000 number cited by Collins (The Language of God), as cited by the recent CT cover story on Adam (

Ignorance also speaking:

I think it would be more helpful to see speciation at the population level. Perhaps it went like this: two+ populations of hominids 100,000 years ago were separated by some geographic / ecological barrier (later: cultural and technological barriers?) isolating each population, as a series (not just one) of mutations accumulated. I'm guessing the 10,000 number is a known range of diversity from which was minimally necessary to account for all the base pair differences we see in our own DNA. We know that mutations in DNA replication happen at a fairly constant rate (X per million base pairs). I don't know the details, but we have maternal DNA stored in our mitochondria as well - usually seen as more evidence for hominid-to-human evolution.

If we all descended from only two individuals, either:

1) We are fundamentally wrong about how genetic diversity emerges, how mutation happens (and almost the entire field of genetics)

2) Mutation rates were radically different at some point in the past... which makes us wonder why God has been so "deceiving". Almost every other field of science is likewise deceiving, or our human faculties are so sinful that we can know almost nothing. Of course, God can do whatever He pleases. However, IMHO it seems that when 6-day creationists are up against wall of scientific credibility, they usually use the flood (or some other Biblical event) as a sort of game-changer in the way the entire world works (atmospheric composition, mutation rates, etc). Hard to deny it, as it is so hard to empirically test what "God just did" thousands of years ago. Thus they are in the very tough situation of trying to empirically substantiate claims of faith.

Of course, orthodox Christians ultimately must claim "God did it" in the resurrection and other certain Creedal events, or we no longer actually believe in the supernatural. (We are also all "literal creationists"... we believe God literally created the universe :) But where the line is between divinely inspired story-telling and supernatural interventions obviously creates a lot of tension. I have little interest in fighting to impose a 21st century scientific perspective on a lot of the OT. It is faith, after all.

Martin LaBar said...

The concept of species is somewhat controversial among biologists, although most accept it. See "Speciation," or "Species" in the Wikipedia for more information. Yes, an operational definition of a new species, accepted by many, is that it will no longer mate succesfully (produce fertile offspring) with those already in existence.

Alethinon61 said...

Hi Ken:

When I got to the part where Enns "reshapes" Paul's message to make it harmonize with what I would personally refer to as the ever-shifting sands of science, the big question that came to my mind was this:

Since a historical Adam is at the very heart of Paul's soteriolgoy, if we grant that he got that wrong, then on what basis do we maintain confidence that he got the other bits right? It's sort of like the rug's been pull out from under our feet.

On the other hand, I have yet to find a scientist who can explain how random mutations and natural selection can plausibly produce the many life forms that exhibit a patently purposeful arrangement of exquisitely coordinated parts, and until they can do that, I'm happy with Paul.


::athada:: said...

It is important to remember that though the mutations are random, the selection is decidedly not random. Only the fittest are selected. Some of these mutations are an improvement, and the individual goes on to have many offspring. Thus complexity and diversity emerge. It is an awe-some system. As Francis Collins said on the Colbert Report, evolution is God saying, "Upgrade!"

Ken Schenck said...

Kaz, I suspect most of us don't have to work out these issues. Adam did, because he's in science. I have to worry about them to some extent, because I'm in New Testament. But I think your approach works just fine. :-)

Alethinon61 said...


Thanks, but it seems to me that restating the theory doesn't make it plausible. Michael Shermer has gone so far as to say that the many life forms that exhibit a patently purposeful arrangement of exquisitely coordinated parts are the result of a "bottom up" design process, but this clearly incorporates an equivocation.

Neither natural selection nor random variations are a "design" process.

I explain the reason so many scientists accept Neo-Darwinism in my review of Darwin's Doubt, found here:

::athada:: said...

Thanks Kaz. I will add that book to my wish list!

Catholic biologist Kenneth Miller addresses many of these issues in "Finding Darwin's God," and that settled it for me at the time. Tellingly, I understand that transitional species are being consistently discovered, as well as transitional biochemical processes / complex anatomical adaptations (i.e. how does one go from no vision to a complex eyeball).

I suppose the "design" issue is a philosophical argument... my science adviser likens the design he sees in Creation as a melody (natural selection acting on DNA) off of which creation itself is constantly improvising under the Creator's sustaining hand, vs. millions of separate symphonies written out note by note ahead of time.

Alethinon61 said...


Thank you for sharing your science adviser's poetic words. I haven't found much in Darwinism to inspire me to wax eloquent, but I appreciate other perspectives.

I checked out Ken Miller's book too, and I've followed his interaction with the Intelligent Design community, but I haven't had the same positive response that you've had. I address one of his lectures in a blog entry, here:

Your point about design constituting part of a philosophical argument is ironic, because in my review of Darwin's Doubt, I point out how the rejection of intelligent design in nature is itself based on a philosophical view of what is and should be considered "science". You've probably seen this famous quotation by Richard Lewontin:

"Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door." (See:

Most scientists equate appeal to intelligent causation in biology to an appeal to supernatural causation (rightly or wrongly), and this isn't considered scientific. So my argument is that if you rule out intelligent causation as a precondition for practicing science, then the only conclusion you *can* reach is one that excludes intelligent causation. This makes the oft heard appeal to the scientific consensus circular. It's also why I often compare Darwinism to presuppositional apologetics, by which I mean the sort of apologetical methodology that Van Til and his students pioneered.

I'm sure that Ken doesn't want his blog to become a debate ground for creation vs. evolution, so I'll end here with two final questions, which are offered as food for thought.

If all the parts of an outboard motor were on a bench in front of you, could you assemble them properly so that you ended up with a functioning motor? If so, what would you rely upon more than anything else to accomplish the task?


Alethinon61 said...


Thanks, Ken, it's worked for me so far:-)