What Lessons Can Christians Learn from the Evangelical Debate Over Adam & Eve?
In his 2021 book In Quest of the Historical Adam, William Lane Craig convincingly argues that Adam and Eve are historical persons supported by both science and biblical teachings about the creation of humanity, the corruption of sin, and the need for Christ's redemption. But what spurred this conversation?
It started in 2011 when Christianity Today (CT) published a cover story on "The Search for the Historical Adam."1 The article's title (which incidentally resembles the title of Craig's book) was misleading. The article did not promote a historical Adam and Eve, but highlighted Evangelical thinkers who accept modern evolutionary theory and reject traditional beliefs about a historical Adam and Eve. Francis Collins—an Evangelical celebrity scientist—was quoted saying that humanity "originated with a population that numbered something like 10,000, not two individuals."
Four years earlier, Collins had founded the BioLogos Foundation to promote theistic evolution (TE), the idea that evolution is fully correct and compatible with Christianity. The CT article praised BioLogos's scientists, quoting biologists Dennis Venema and then-president of BioLogos Darrel Falk saying that the human population "was definitely never as small as two. . . . The data are absolutely clear on that." Other Evangelical evolutionary scientists were quoted saying things like Adam and Eve "do not fit the evidence" or, although there was "wiggle room in the past" to believe in Adam and Eve, "human genome sequencing took that wiggle room away."
The basic argument was that modern-day human genetic diversity is so great that it could not be explained by humans descending from a mere initial pair of individuals. Many humans—thousands—would be necessary to generate the genetic diversity observed in humans today.
CT then provided endorsements from heavyweight biblical scholars suggesting that Adam may not be a "literal" historical figure. Bruce Waltke seemingly expressed the view that science is more authoritative than Scripture: "We have to go with the scientific evidence. I don't think we can ignore it. I have full confidence in Scripture, but it does not represent what science represents."
Three months later, this in-house conversation spilled into the mainstream media. NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty co-hosted a conversation titled "Christians Divided over Science of Human Origins," which retold the story. "Given the genetic variation," Hagerty explained, "we can't possibly get the original population to below about 10,000 people at any time in our evolutionary history."2 Daniel Harlow, a religion professor at Calvin College, articulated the motives behind the push to abandon a historical Adam and Eve: "I think this anti-science, anti-evolution rhetoric typical of evangelicalism brings disrepute on the Christian faith, and it brings unnecessary shame upon the name of Jesus Christ."3
This debate broke before a wider church audience in 2017, when Venema and theologian Scot McKnight co-wrote Adam and the Genome, arguing that Adam and Eve are as decisively refuted by science as the geocentric model of the solar system.4
Venema & BioLogos Admit They Were Wrong
After the 2011 CT article, BioLogos-style arguments against Adam and Eve were immediately challenged. In 2012, biologist Ann Gauger, a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute, found that genetic diversity in HLA genes, some of the most diverse genes in the human genome, could still be explained if we originated from an initial couple.5
After Adam and the Genome, Venema was engaged on the BioLogos discussion forum by Richard Buggs, a Christian and a geneticist at Queen Mary University, London. Venema admitted that the papers he had cited in his book had not actually addressed, and thus could not have refuted, the existence of an initial couple.6 The conversation culminated in 2018 when Buggs wrote:
You would do your readers a service if you wrote a blog to tell them now, as far as you are able, that present day genomic diversity in humans does not preclude a bottleneck in the human lineage between approx. 700K and 7myr ago. I think you owe this to them. . . .7
The "bottleneck" Buggs mentions is the idea that the human population was reduced to two individuals—equivalent to humanity being founded by Adam and Eve. Venema acknowledged he was mistaken: "I've already agreed with this. . . . You're welcome to publicize it."8 Buggs then noted that the question is no longer whether a historical Adam and Eve could have lived, but when.9
In fact, Gauger had already begun collaborating with Ola Hössjer, professor of mathematics at the University of Stockholm, to address those questions. They published a population genetics analysis in BIO-Complexity showing that human genetic diversity can be explained by a single pair of ancestors—e.g., Adam and Eve—who lived about 500,000 years ago.10 S. Joshua Swamidass, a Christian and an evolutionary computational biologist,11 similarly calculated that Adam and Eve could have lived 495,000 years ago as our sole genetic progenitors.12 If additional evolutionary assumptions are questioned, Adam and Eve could have lived even more recently.
By 2021 BioLogos had deleted articles from its website claiming that a historical Adam and Eve were impossible.13 Its president, Deborah Haarsma, acknowledged that its scientists "made premature claims . . . that evolutionary science and population genetics rule out scenarios with a recent universal human ancestor or with a de novo created ancestral pair."14 She further admitted they had "overstated scientific claims, that unnecessarily excluded theological positions that are consistent with scientific evidence."15
The Lesson to Learn
Everyone makes mistakes—and Venema and BioLogos should be commended for modifying their positions when warranted by the evidence. But if we leave the story there, we miss its lesson.
For the past decade, theistic evolutionists affiliated with BioLogos forcefully promoted to the church a standard evolutionary view of human history and argued that the genetic data refutes a historical Adam and Eve. Numerous Evangelicals bought their arguments—either abandoning wholesale important 2,000-year-old doctrines about Adam and Eve or toying with the possibility of doing so. Whether driven by a quest for certainty, a fear of embarrassment, a desire to please secular elites, or something else, many Evangelical leaders eagerly embraced ideas inimical to Christian orthodoxy.
Those ideas turned out to be based upon junk science. But why did Evangelicals embrace ideas that were theologically hostile when the science wasn't established? As we saw in the NPR rhetoric, Evangelical elites often assume that evolutionary science is correct—an immovable rock that should neither be questioned nor touched, lest one bring embarrassment on the church. But the Adam and Eve saga shows that this assumption is false and that the fears and behaviors that follow from it are unnecessary. Sometimes claims have been made in the name of evolutionary science that are false. Even well-credentialed and well-intentioned Evangelical TE scientists can get things wrong.
This saga's lesson is that it's time to abandon the Evangelical assumption that evolutionary claims are indisputable and must be accepted no matter what. In many cases evolutionary claims are challenged by the evidence. In others it may be better to tolerate some uncertainty and adopt a "wait and see" approach—pending careful scientific analysis—than to run headfirst into the arms of Darwin.
Unfortunately, some Evangelicals still seem intent upon sticking with the evolutionary consensus, repeating past mistakes despite a lack of compelling evidence.
Not Learning the Lesson?
To his credit, in his book, William Lane Craig challenges arguments against the existence of Adam and Eve. But he repeatedly cites Dennis Venema in endorsing "broken pseudogenes"—junk DNA—as potential evidence for human-ape common ancestry.16
As the argument goes, pseudogenes are "broken" genes that once had function but were later inactivated by random mutations. God would never put the same broken genes into two species; therefore, if humans and apes share identical pseudogenes, they probably got there through some undesigned natural mechanism—inheritance from a common ancestor. Because of this, Craig endorses models of human origins that require human-ape common ancestry over a more traditional view, where Adam and Eve were our sole genetic ancestors and miraculously created de novo, independently from animals.
Intelligent design (ID) is not necessarily incompatible with common ancestry, so pseudogenes don't necessarily test ID on the macro-scale. But on the smaller scale, the logic seems correct that broken DNA shared by two species is better explained by evolutionary mechanisms than intelligent causation. However, if pseudogenes aren't broken, non-functional junk DNA, but are important elements of our genome, then the reason we share "pseudogenic" DNA with apes isn't necessarily common ancestry, but the result of a design made to meet common functional requirements.
So are pseudogenes broken and non-functional junk DNA, or are they functional? In fact, the literature is replete with papers reporting specific functions for "pseudogenes,"17 including producing functional proteins18 or functional RNA transcripts,19 or performing functions without producing any RNA.20
It's important to emphasize that even pseudogenes that don't produce a protein aren't necessarily broken; they can still have important regulatory functions.21 RNA transcribed from a pseudogene (but never translated into a protein) can bind with transcripts from protein-coding versions of the gene, regulating protein production. These functions require the pseudogene to have similarity (homology) to the protein-coding counterparts.22 Thus, the reason our genomes contain sequences that resemble protein-coding-genes (but don't produce proteins) isn't because they are discarded evolutionary "pseudogene" junk but because they are designed to be that way as important genomic control elements.
Many mainstream scientific papers now recognize this new paradigm of pseudogenes, often emphasizing how little we know about them and how difficult it is to detect their functions, and recommending that we stop calling them "junk."23
A 2020 paper in Nature Reviews Genetics observes that "where pseudogenes have been studied directly they are often found to have quantifiable biological roles," and warns that "the dominant limitation in advancing the investigation of pseudogenes now lies in the trappings of the prevailing mindset that pseudogenic regions are intrinsically non-functional." It cautions that pseudogene function is "prematurely dismissed" due to "dogma."24
Relearning the Lesson
Despite this evidence, many Evangelical intellectuals still follow the evolutionary "consensus" and assume that pseudogenes are junk DNA, demonstrating human-ape common ancestry. Those who presume that pseudogenes are simply broken DNA are betting on a horse that's barely begun to run its race—and the horse isn't doing so well. Even those who don't feel ready to endorse pseudogene functionality should consider an agnostic "wait and see" approach, given the poverty of our knowledge and the trendline of the evidence.
Challenging the consensus shouldn't be done lightly and requires taking a risk based upon what you think the evidence says. But it was the right thing to do on evolutionary arguments against a historical Adam and Eve. Let's learn the lesson from the Evangelical debate over Adam and Eve, take a risk on pseudogenes, be willing to question human-ape common ancestry, and follow the evidence where it's leading.
1. Richard Ostling, "The Search for the Historical Adam," Christianity Today (June 3, 2011): christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/june/historicaladam.html.
2. "Christians Divided over Science of Human Origins," NPR (Sept. 22, 2011): npr.org/2011/09/22/140710361/christians-divided-over-science-of-human-origins
3. Ibid. (emphasis added).
4. Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight, Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture After Genetic Science (Brazos Press, 2017), 55.
5. Ann Gauger, Douglas Axe, and Casey Luskin, Science and Human Origins (Discovery Institute Press, 2012), 120.
6. Richard Buggs, Comment at "Adam, Eve and Population Genetics: A Reply to Dr. Richard Buggs (Part 1)": https://discourse.biologos.org/t/adam-eve-and-population-genetics-a-reply-to-dr-richard-buggs-part-1/37039/61. See also "Adam and the Genome and Citation Bluffing," Evolution News (Feb. 7, 2018): evolutionnews.org/2018/02/adam-and-the-genome-and-citation-bluffing.
7. Richard Buggs, Comment at "Adam, Eve and Population Genetics: A Reply to Dr. Richard Buggs (Part 1)": https://discourse.biologos.org/t/adam-eve-and-population-genetics-a-reply-to-dr-richard-buggs-part-1/37039/1061.
8. Dennis Venema, Comment at "Adam, Eve and Population Genetics: A Reply to Dr. Richard Buggs (Part 1)": https://discourse.biologos.org/t/adam-eve-and-population-genetics-a-reply-to-dr-richard-buggs-part-1/37039/1063.
9. Richard Buggs, "Adam and Eve: lessons learned," Nature Ecology & Evolution Blog (April 14, 2018): https://ecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/32171-adam-and-eve-lessons-learned.
10. See Ola Hössjer and Ann Gauger, "A Single-Couple Human Origin Is Possible," BIO-Complexity, 2019(1).
11. For a response to Swamidass and his arguments against ID, see Terrell Clemmons and Casey Luskin, "An Unpeaceful Peace: Joshua Swamidass's Methods and Models for Reconciling Science and Faith Are Problematic Scientifically, Theologically, and Rhetorically," Salvo 57 (Spring 2021): https://salvomag.com/article/salvo57/an-unpeaceful-peace.
12. S. Joshua Swamidass, "Heliocentric Certainty Against a Bottleneck of Two?", Peaceful Science (first post on Dec. 29, 2017): discourse.peacefulscience.org/t/heliocentric-certainty-against-a-bottleneck-of-two/61.
13. See S. Joshua Swamidass, "A U-Turn on Adam and Eve," Peaceful Science (Aug. 30, 2021): peacefulscience.org/articles/biologos-uturn-adam-eve-position.
14. See editorial note in Thomas H. McCall, "Will the Real Adam Please Stand Up? The Surprising Theology of Universal Ancestry," BioLogos (March 23, 2020): biologos.org/series/book-review-the-genealogical-adam-and-eve/articles/will-the-real-adam-please-stand-up-the-surprising-theology-of-universal-ancestry.
15. Deborah Haarsma, "Truth-Seeking in Science," BioLogos (Jan. 10, 2020): biologos.org/articles/truth-seeking-in-science.
16. William Lane Craig, In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration (Eerdmans, 2021), 376, 378.
17. Numerous papers could be listed. See Casey Luskin, "Lessons Not Learned from the Evangelical Debate over Adam and Eve," note 9, Evolution News (Nov. 23, 2021): evolutionnews.org/2021/11/lessons-not-learned-from-the-evangelical-debate-over-adam-and-eve.
18. Kim et al., "A draft map of the human proteome," Nature 509:575–581 (2014); Ji et al., "Many lncRNAs, 5'UTRs, and pseudogenes are translated and some are likely to express functional proteins," eLife, 4:e08890 (2015).
19. ENCODE Project Consortium, "An integrated encyclopedia of DNA elements in the human genome," Nature 489:57–74 (2012).
20. Poliseno, "Pseudogenes: Newly Discovered Players in Human Cancer," Science Signaling 5(242) (2012).
21. Cheetham et al., "Overcoming challenges and dogmas to understand the functions of pseudogenes," Nature Reviews Genetics 21:191–201 (2020); Rapicavoli et al., "A mammalian pseudogene lncRNA at the interface of inflammation and anti-inflammatory therapeutics," eLife, 2:e00762 (2013).
22. Salmena et al., "A ceRNA Hypothesis: The Rosetta Stone of a Hidden RNA Language?", Cell, 146:353–358 (2011).
23. Troskie et al., "Processed pseudogenes: A substrate for evolutionary innovation," BioEssays, 2021(43): 2100186; Wen et al., "Pseudogenes are not pseudo any more," RNA Biology, 9:27–32 (2012); Kovalenko and Patrushev, "Pseudogenes as Functionally Significant Elements of the Genome," Biochemistry (Moscow), 83(11):1332–1349 (2018); Pink et al., "Pseudogenes: Pseudo-functional or key regulators in health and disease?", RNA 17: 792–798 (2011); Poliseno, "Pseudogenes: Newly Discovered Players in Human Cancer."
24. Cheetham et al., "Overcoming challenges and dogmas."
is a scientist and an attorney with a PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg and a JD from the University of San Diego. In his day job, he works as Associate Director of the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute, helping to oversee the intelligent design (ID) research program and defending academic freedom for scientists who support intelligent design. Dr. Luskin has written and spoken widely on the scientific mechanics and implications of both intelligent design and evolution. He also volunteers for the "IDEA Center," a non-profit that helps students to start IDEA Clubs on their college and high school campuses. He lives and works in Seattle, Washington, where he and his wife are avid enjoyers of the outdoors.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #61, Summer 2022 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo61/unnecessary-shame