What to do with Adam and Eve? The consensus view within the scientific community is that modern humans, Homo sapiens, evolved from primates and that this process took approximately two million years. During this time there arose several transitional species of hominids along with parallel species that were close relatives. With some of these relatives, such as the Neanderthals and the Denisovans, our ancestors interbred. Somewhere around 200,000–500,000 years ago, modern Homo sapiens appeared, and we are the only species of Hominin that have survived to this day. So where, if anywhere, do Adam and Eve fit in such a scenario?
Evangelicals have typically given three answers. First, young-earth creationists contend that the scientific community is simply wrong. The original couple was created approximately 10,000 years on the sixth day of Genesis 1. Scientists, argue young-earth creationists, have misinterpreted the genetic data and the fossil record because of naturalistic pre-commitments.
IVP Academic, 2019
Second, old-earth creationists generally accept the scientific consensus. However, they do not accept the Darwinian explanation for biological development. Natural selection does not have the creative ability Darwin ascribed to it. They contend that the natural record gives evidence of intelligent design and, at times, even signs of immediate divine action (i.e., miracles). Adam and Eve were the special creation of God. The dates given by old-earth creationists for the original couple vary widely from 50,000 to 500,000 years ago.
Theistic evolutionists (or evolutionary creationists) give a third answer. Evolution is a fact. Current genetic models do not allow for all humanity to have descended from an original couple, or at least they make it very unlikely. But this is not a challenge to the Christian faith. The creation account of Genesis addresses the spiritual needs of its original audience, and provides no scientific information in the modern sense of the term. Perhaps God selected a couple or a tribe in a representational sense, entered into a relationship with them and then they rejected him. At any rate, most evolutionary creationists claim that holding to a non-historical Adam and Eve does not adversely affect any major biblical doctrine.
Into this fray steps Joshua Swamidass, computational biologist at Washington University in St. Louis. In his book, The Genealogical Adam and Eve (GAE), Swamidass proposes a recent genealogical Adam and Eve model. It can safely be described as a mediating position between old-earth creationism and evolutionary creationism, with a dash of young-earth creationism thrown in. The GAE model accepts the standard scientific view concerning human origins (including evolution). However, Swamidass contends that Adam and Eve, ancestors of us all, could have been the special creation of God, perhaps as recently as 6,000–10,000 years ago, and that this assumption is congruent with the findings of science.
Three Claims About Genealogy
Swamidass contends that current focus on genetics has been a distraction. The emphasis of Scripture is not on genetics, but genealogy. He makes three straightforward claims about genealogy that are striking in their simplicity and implications.
First, most of our genealogical ancestors are “genetic ghosts.” That is, even though you may have directly descended from an ancestor who lived, say, 1,000 years earlier, more than likely you possess no genetic evidence of his or her ancestry. This is because the number of direct ancestors grows exponentially with every preceding generation.Is the Genealogical Adam and Eve model a viable option for conservative Evangelicals? Has Swamidass managed to cut through the Gordian knot? You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, then 16 direct ancestors, 32, 64, and on and on. Therefore, you get approximately half of your genetic code from each of your parents, 1/4 from each grandparent, 1/8 from each great-grandparent, and so on. Trace back to around 1000 AD and you have approximately one million ancestors. The hypothetical percentage of genetic material that you received from any one of that million becomes so small as to be imperceptible. Genetically speaking, almost all of those ancestors are invisible; they’re ghosts.
Which brings up Swamidass’s second claim. Farther back in history, the hypothetical number of ancestors grows so exponentially that it becomes much larger than the total population of the world. For example, by the time of Christ one theoretically should have more than one billion direct ancestors. However, the world population at that time was around one-quarter that number. The disparity is even more dramatic the farther back in time. Only approximately 50 million people lived at the time of David (1000 BC) and less than 25 million at the time of Abraham (2000 BC)—in the whole world. Yet, hypothetically, by that time the number of direct ancestors for each of us grows into multiplied trillions, which is obviously impossible.
Third, that numerical mismatch leads to a remarkable claim. Almost everyone who lived in ancient times and had offspring can be reasonably assumed to be the direct ancestor of everyone alive today. Therefore, there are many individual couples that are each universal common ancestors of all of us. Adam and Eve, therefore, could have been ancient ancestors of all, but also they could have been recent. Swamidass argues that, as recently as 10,000 years ago, God could have directly created a man and woman, placed them in a garden and then expelled them when they failed to obey. Their descendants then intermarried with the existing population of people who were outside, and this is how Adam and Eve became our universal common ancestors. Therefore, there is nothing in science that prohibits a straightforward interpretation of the genealogical record given in Genesis.
I’m sure you noticed the sticking point. The GAE model assumes that, when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, people already were living outside. These Homo sapiens were scientifically indistinguishable from us. This would mean that, though Adam and Eve are universal common ancestors of all, they are not the original progenitors of all. For most conservative evangelicals, this is a problem.
Anticipating this objection, Swamidass gives two responses. First, he argues that the Genesis account gives indicators that people outside the Garden existed. For example, where Cain got his wife, whom he feared would kill him, and who were the inhabitants of the city he founded are questions that have long been matters of discussion. Second, it is helpful to recognize that science and theology have different definitions for “human.” He argues that the Bible is primarily concerned with “textual humans”—that is, those who are the descendants of Adam and Eve. The people outside the Garden are our ancestors also, but they are no longer with us and they are not the topic of Scripture.
Is the Genealogical Adam and Eve model a viable option for conservative Evangelicals? Has Swamidass managed to cut through the Gordian knot? Is affirming universal common ancestry of Adam and Eve sufficient, or must they also be understood to be the original human ancestors? These are the questions addressed by this forum.