Writing in USA Today, biology professor Nathan Lents says that a forthcoming book by the physician and genome scientist Joshua Swamidass makes a plausible scientific case for the existence of a pair that was the mother and father of us all. Excerpts:
The scriptural challenge is that Adam and Eve are purported to be the ancestors of everyone “to all the ends of the earth,” by the year 1 BCE. But we know with as much certainty as scientifically possible that our species does not descend from a single couple and instead has its origin in Africa around 300,000 years ago. We have evolved through a long line of ancestry that connects with all other living things going back nearly 4 billion years.
So there’s that.
And yet, in his upcoming book, “The Genealogical Adam & Eve,” Swamidass makes an audacious claim: A de novo-created Adam and Eve could very well be universal human ancestors who lived in the Middle East in the last 6,000-10,000 years. This is not the first attempt to reconcile the Garden of Eden story with science, but rarely does someone with Swamidass’ credentials do what most scientists would deem unthinkable: Take the story seriously. However, some atheist scientists are taking Swamidass seriously.
Swamidass is not peddling pseudoscience. Indeed, earlier this year, he and I teamed up on the pages of Science to rebut claims by evolution critics. In addition, “The Genealogical Adam and Eve” went through a rigorous process of open peer review, involving scholars from many diverse disciplines and even some secular scientists, including myself and Alan Templeton, a giant in the field of human population genetics. Invited to find fault in his analysis, we couldn’t, partly because the hypothesis is so narrow, but also because it appears to be correct.
Prof. Lents, who is not a religious believer, explains that Swamidass, who is an Evangelical Christian, believes in evolution. And:
To be clear, Swamidass’ theory does not prove anything about the Adam and Eve story. It doesn’t even offer positive evidence for it, but that is not the goal. Instead, he provides a bridge for those whose faith insists on the real existence of Adam and Eve. Until now, they have had little choice but to reject evolutionary science, at least partly but often wholly. Classes are taught in some evangelical churches that discount evolutionary science in its entirety, a troublesome prospect, being that 1 in 4 Americans identify as evangelical Christians. But if Adam and Eve could exist within the natural world, we might have a resolution to one of the greatest cultural conflicts of the past two centuries.
If memory serves, this was the Catholic writer and physician Walker Percy’s supposition: that at some point, a man and a woman who had developed normally, according to evolution, became ensouled by the action of God. Thus, Adam and Eve.
This is not going to satisfy Biblical literalists, but it is still fascinating stuff. Many of us Christians read Genesis as a “true myth,” one that tells a fundamental truth about something that happened in the spiritual history of mankind, but that is not literally true. In other words, there may not have been a literal garden of Eden, but at some point there was a metaphysical and spiritual event called the Fall. The Fall happened because of the exercise of human agency. It was not a symbolic event, the Fall: it represents the aboriginal catastrophe for humanity, and indeed for the Cosmos. It is not necessary to believe that there was actually a physical Garden of Eden to believe that Genesis tells the truth about Creation and Fall.