Nathan H. Lenz
Scientists, even religious scientists, spend little time analyzing religious creation myths. After all, these stories are often in direct conflict with what we know about Earth’s natural history, literally. Science is left behind when belief demands that people adhere to these myths no matter what. It’s hard to think of a biblical story that is more contrary to physical evidence than the Garden of Eden.
Still, and perhaps because of this, a prominent public scholar—physician and genome scientist Joshua Swamidas of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri—is making a bold new attempt to combine the biblical Adam and the Eve’s story is in harmony with ours. Learn about the genetic lineage of humans. His “Genealogy Hypothesis” comes at a time of cultural upheaval, where facts are malleable, politics distorts science, and the gulf between our red and blue tribes is reminiscent of another biblical myth: the separation of the Red Sea.
what we already know
The biblical challenge is that Adam and Eve are said to be the ancestors of all people “to the ends of the earth” in 1 BC. But we know with the greatest possible scientific certainty that our species did not come from a couple, but originated in Africa about 300,000 years ago. We have evolved through a long lineage linked to all other organisms nearly 4 billion years ago.
So that’s it.
However, in his forthcoming book The Genealogy of Adam and Eve, Swamidas boldly claims that Adam and Eve, created from scratch, are likely to be the common ancestors of humans living in the Middle East for the past 6,000-10,000 years. This is not the first Attempts have been made to reconcile the Eden story with science, but few have done what most scientists consider unthinkable like Swamidas: take the story seriously. However, some atheist scientists are taking Swamidas seriously.
Swamidass isn’t peddling pseudoscience. In fact, he and I teamed up in Science earlier this year to disprove the claims of evolution critics. Additionally, Genealogy Adam and Eve has undergone a rigorous public peer-review process involving scholars from multiple different disciplines, and even some secular scientists, including myself and Alan Templeton, the giant in the field of human genetics. Invited to find errors in his analysis, we can’t, partly because the assumption is so narrow, but also because it appears to be correct.
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As surprising as it may seem, it’s scientifically plausible that among our billions of other ancestors, we could all be descended from a human couple that lived over the past 10,000 years. In fact, as Swamidas carefully explains, this is almost certainly the case based on current estimates of so-called identical ancestry points, where all genealogies converged into a common common ancestral pool over time in the past . This amazing hypothesis is compatible with science for two obvious reasons.
First, Swamidas acknowledges the undeniable scientific fact that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors and share a common lineage with all living things. He is a defender of modern evolution, not an opponent. Second, according to Swamidas, Adam and Eve may have been a special creation whose descendants slowly interbred with humans already existing outside the Garden of Eden—those descended through the normal process of evolution. Some scholars claim that when the Bible refers to “the Nephilim,” it itself implies the existence of these people. As Nephilim continued to interbreed with the descendants of Adam and Even, the “seed of Adam” could easily spread to all humans over thousands of years without leaving any genetic footprint behind this common ancestor.
So, as long as one reads Genesis in a way that allows the evolutionary tree of life to coexist with the Garden of Eden, and allows humans to derive their ancestors from both sources, modern science may actually be silent on the question of Adam and Eve. The effect of this new realization is that Christians, Jews, and Muslims can effectively move the Adam and Eve story from one of the miracles that science has thoroughly refuted (such as the recent global flood) to one that science cannot, such as Birth of the Virgin of Jesus.
Possibility, not evidence
To be clear, Swamidas’ theory does not justify the Adam and Eve story. It doesn’t even provide positive evidence, but that’s not the goal. Instead, he provides a bridge for those who believe in the real existence of Adam and Eve. Until now, they had no choice but to reject evolutionary science in part, but often completely. Some evangelical churches teach courses that completely ignore evolutionary science, a troubling prospect given that one in four Americans identify as evangelical Christians. But if Adam and Eve could exist in nature, we might resolve one of the biggest cultural clashes of the past two centuries.
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This does not tempt someone like me to believe in the creation story in Genesis. But it may make those who do believe more open to evolution and, God willing, to accept science more broadly. For those who take the Adam and Eve story literally, the value of this effort is obvious. But it also has value for unbelievers. Widespread skepticism of science weakens the fabric of our society and undermines the common good. From the urgency of climate change and medical research, to the frontiers of artificial intelligence and space exploration, scientific discoveries have enormous potential to improve human life. So the effort to bring more people into the scientific mainstream is not in the service of one political party or one particular belief, but in the service of all humanity, to the end of the earth.
Nathan H. Lents is a professor of biology at CUNY John Jay College and the author of “No Difference: Finding Humanity in Animals” and “Human Error: A Panorama of Our Malfunctions, From Meaningless Bones to Broken Genes” . ” Follow him on Twitter: @nathanlents