If you have studied logic, you have used them. The English logician John Venn (1834–1923) left a fine analytical tool for later generations of students to employ: the Venn diagram. These figures, which provide a graphical method for representing the logical relationships among sets, propositions, and concepts, were much on my mind as I read Joshua Swamidass’s The Genealogical Adam and Eve (hereafter, GAE). A Venn diagram or two would be helpful here, I often said to myself: the reader should understand fully what GAE wants him to accept as a given.
Mapping the Deepest Premises of Genealogical Adam and Eve
GAE is dedicated to showing how the traditional biblical understanding of Adam and Eve, as the unique, specially-created progenitors of humanity, can be reconciled with the findings of genetics and evolutionary theory, or what Swamidass calls “evolutionary science.” GAE offers the reader what Swamidass thinks is the best possible deal, concerning the historical existence of Adam and Eve, any Christian could hope to get.
The best possible deal, that is, given certain boundary conditions—and that is where my desire for more Venn diagrams comes in. Now, another reader, who also has GAE in hand, might object that the book already supplies what I am asking for, right in its opening chapter. On page 11, GAE features a detailed Venn diagram, which is reprised, with a few amendments, later in the book (p. 90). Here is the diagram as it first appears:Figures from The Genealogical Adam and Eve by S. Joshua Swamidass. Copyright (c) 2019 by S. Joshua Swamidass. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com
Admirable effort: the data representation guru Edward TufteEdward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 1983). might well applaud this figure’s elegant compression, into a single diagram, of a great deal of information about competing positions concerning Adam and Eve.
But this Venn diagram conceals as much as, or more than, it reveals. The category “mainstream science,” for instance, the largest circle in the diagram, sounds plausibly neutral, capturing the sort of objective knowledge to which any reasonably well-educated adult, whether Christian or not, should assent (e.g., elements are composed of atoms, the Earth is an oblate spheroid, humans have 46 chromosomes in their diploid cells, and so on). These are the facts of the universe as we best understand them.
“Mainstream science,” however, when we analyze the meaning of this term in GAE, turns out not to be neutral at all—not for science, or philosophy, or theology. To see why, let’s look briefly at a Venn diagram which has nothing to do with any of those areas. This exercise will provide what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls “an intuition pump,” to warm up the reader’s thinking for the more difficult questions ahead.
The Rules of the Game
Figure 2 (below) shows five offensive plays permitted within, or consistent with, the rules of baseball: (1) a bunt, (2) hit and run, (3) a sacrifice fly, (4) drawing a walk, and (5) stealing a base. Then we have a curious outlier circle: the forward pass.
A forward pass is not permitted by the rules of baseball, and doesn’t even make sense—passing forward to where, exactly? Given the rules, the shape of a baseball field lacks any such linear, up-and-back orientation. Wrong game, friend. No forward passing allowed, or even imaginable.
Given the rules . . . in a parallel sense, the whole enterprise of GAE is looking for the closest similitude to historical orthodoxy, i.e., Adam and Eve as the original, de novo created parents of humankind, but only given the strict boundaries, or rules, set by mainstream science, where concepts such as creation de novo are as incongruous as a forward pass in baseball. This accounts, incidentally, for some of the peculiarities of the GAE hypothesis, such as the complete invisibility of Adam and Eve to biological detection. If we allow for the empirical possibility that the defining characters of the genus Homo signal a created or aboriginal discontinuity, we would step instantly outside the privileged circle of “mainstream science” (see section 4, below). That’s a no-go. No forward passing, remember?
It is impossible to play football and baseball at the same time, of course, within the same square footage of grass. One set of rules must govern the outcome of the game; indeed, only one set of rules can govern the game. Look again at Figure 1, and find the location of “GH,” the abbreviation designating the Genealogical Adam and Eve hypothesis. Notice where GH resides—within “mainstream science.”
But why is GH/GAE located there? Because Swamidass has accepted, as defining the game of science (as it is currently played, anyhow), these rules or conditions: methodological naturalism (as a philosophy of explanation; hereafter, MN) and common ancestry (as the pattern of evolutionary relationship which best explains the biological data; hereafter, CA). Both MN and CA are problematic, however, and thus any hypothesis which takes them as its givens, or starting points, will be problematic as well. The building can be no sounder than its foundation.
Consider MN. “As I understand the rules,” Swamidass writes, “mainstream science does not consider whether or not God exists or acts in the world” (p. 29). Later on, he adds that “science is doing fine as it is; we need not change it” (p. 218).
This is MN as ordinarily understood: no explanatory appeal can be made in science to the actions of a transcendent intelligence. Swamidass doesn’t like the term “methodological naturalism,” calling it a “misnomer,” but the name isn’t the relevant issue; MN’s philosophical, boundary-setting content is. Here is GAE’s explication of MN:
This rule of avoiding appeals to God’s action in science is often referred to as “methodological naturalism,” but this is a misnomer. This rule . . . has been firmly established in science for hundreds of years, and was originally placed in science by Christians like Kepler, Bacon, Pascal, and Boyle for theological reasons. Their conception of science was not rooted in naturalism, but in their faith as Christians, so referring to this rule as methodological naturalism, as if it was a product of naturalism (and atheism), is not correct (p. 230).
Below, I dispute the historical or descriptive accuracy of this view of MN. For the moment, however, realize that if we define “science” as GAE does, bounded by MN, then the explanatory options for a Christian (or anyone) seeking to know if Adam and Eve existed, with respect to the genetic, paleontological, and archaeological evidence, on the one hand, and biblical theology on the other, will be limited to a narrow slice of all the possibilities—that is, much narrower than if science had been defined differently. The Genealogical Adam hypothesis makes what Swamidass thinks is the best possible move within the MN-restricted playing field of science. But why accept that field, or those boundaries?
Consider next GAE’s other boundary-defining criterion of mainstream science, common ancestry (CA). In Figure 1, “evidence” refutes the de novo creation of Adam and Eve, if that scenario means that they were the original progenitors, sharing no ancestry with other primates, of all humankind—meaning every person who ever lived. The GAE hypothesis, by contrast, nests within the non-negotiable boundary of CA:
We [humans] arise genetically as a population, not a single couple; we also share ancestors in common with the great apes. This is the story our genomes appear to tell, and it is the starting point of this conversation . . . Common descent is the only known scientific theory that mathematically explains why humans and chimps are more genetically similar than mice and rats (p. 12).
Again, CA sets the boundaries, in concert with MN; together, therefore, they limit our explanatory options. But should we accept CA? Although openly doubting CA will carry an undeniable cost with the administrators of mainstream science, akin to that of challenging MN, Christians have always paid cultural costs, sometimes severe indeed, for what they believe to be true.
Let us next take a critical look at GAE’s treatment of MN. It is erroneous. As a consequence, the GAE hypothesis, built on the premise of MN, cannot be any stronger than its flawed foundation.
MN As a False Description of Scientific Practice
To focus the discussion, we should use a formulation of MN offered in 1998 by the exemplar of mainstream science, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), consistent with GAE’s own position: “The statements of science must invoke only natural things and processes.”Working Group on Teaching Evolution, National Academy of Sciences, Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science (Washington DC: National Academy Press, 1998), 42. I lack the room within this review to explore fully what “natural” means in this definition; for immediate purposes, however, we should understand the adjective to denote “derived from physics, bottom-up; not based in immaterial mind.”
Well—is it true, simply as a descriptive matter, that the statements of science invoke only natural things and processes? No it is not.
Consider: in 2010, geneticist John Avise, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and professor of biology at UC-Irvine—the university where Swamidass earned all of his degrees—published a book with Oxford University Press entitled Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design. The Library of Congress assigned this book a QH 325 call number, placing it squarely in the middle of the biology subject heading “1. Evolution, molecular.” But consider the fourth subject area in the book’s LC listing: “4. Religion and Science.” Why would that heading be there?
Avise himself provides the answer:
Do molecular details inside the complex human genome finally provide theology’s long-sought holy grail: direct and definitive evidence for attentive craftsmanship by a loving Creator God? Or do they point in a different direction? (p. ix)
Doing epistemology by LC call number may be somewhat quirky, but it reinforces the truth that evolutionary biology is the most theologically entangled science going. Excise the theology from Avise’s book, and little would remain in the way of an argument. Philosopher and historian of science Steve Dilley has shown that biology textbooks,The enthronement of naturalism, as expressed today by the rule of MN, is very much a late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century development, owing almost nothing to theism. including those most widely used in colleges, are permeated by theological arguments.Steve Dilley and Nicholas Tafacory, “Damned If You Do and Damned If You Don’t: The Problem of God-Talk in Biology Textbooks,” Communications of the Blyth Institute volume 1, issue 2 (2019): https://journals.blythinstitute.org/ojs/index.php/cbi/article/view/44 (last accessed April 14, 2020). Evolutionary biologists, in short, don’t follow the rule of MN. When it suits them, they ignore MN entirely, and publish their theological arguments in otherwise scientific venues: the biology primary research literature,Rui Diogo and Julia Molnar, “Links between Evolution, Development, Human Anatomy, Pathology, and Medicine, with A Proposition of A Re-defined Anatomical Position and Notes on Constraints and Morphological ‘Imperfections,’” Journal of Experimental Zoology B (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 326B (2016): 215–24. technical monographs,George Williams, Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992). and textbooks.See Dilley and Tafacory 2019, note 1.
Nor does the historical evidence support GAE’s interpretation of MN. The practices and publications of Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Francis Bacon, Carl Linnaeus, and the other theistic founders of Western science do not fit with MN in its current formulation. While Boyle, for instance, opposed Aristotelian principles that gave a form of cognition to physical objects (e.g., “natural place”), urging instead that experiments lead the way to knowledge of genuine efficient causes, he also argued strongly that living things showed unmistakable evidence of intelligent design.Ted Davis, “The Faith of a Great Scientist: Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation,” 2013, at https://biologos.org/articles/the-faith-of-a-great-scientist-robert-boyles-religious-life-attitudes-and-vocation/ (last accessed April 14, 2020). If we move to the mid-nineteenth century, and the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), had MN been previously well-established practice, Darwin would not have needed to argue against “independent creation” as “the view which most naturalists entertain.”Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1st ed. (London: John Murray, 1859), 6. But he did, because MN was not, contra GAE, “firmly established in science for hundreds of years.”
Rather, the enthronement of naturalism, as expressed today by the rule of MN, is very much a late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century development, owing almost nothing to theism. The most outspoken proponents of MN in the late-nineteenth century, when it gained the dominance it now holds, such as the agnostic T. H. Huxley, wanted to keep theism as far away from natural science as possible.James Moore, “Deconstructing Darwinism: The Politics of Evolution in the 1860s,” Journal of the History of Biology 24 (1991): 353–408.
In short, MN is not now, and never has been, a neutral rule, unobjectionable to theists or Christians who want to know the truth about the origins of the physical world. MN tailors reality before reality has a chance to speak for itself.
Common Ancestry (CA) As GAE’s Other Starting Point
Figure 3 shows a famous comparative view of human and other primate skeletons. Its date of publication is 1863, four years after the Origin of Species; the author, Darwin’s “bulldog,” T. H. Huxley; the book, Man’s Place in Nature.
Huxley knew nothing of DNA or comparative genomics, but the core of his argument for the CA of humans and other primates is identical to GAE’s argument: the relative degrees of similarity among species. Common descent is the only scientific theory—to paraphrase GAE—that explains why human, chimp, gibbon, and gorilla skeletal anatomies are more similar than those of bats and whales.
But similarity has never been the principal (or distinguishing) prediction of evolution. Linnaeus, Cuvier, and Agassiz, all creationists, knew about similarities and used them to construct their classifications. Rather, evolution asserts that the transformation of species, stemming from (unknown) common ancestors, explains how humans, chimps, and other primates came to be different. The origin of species, the title of Darwin’s masterwork, entails explaining why this group here differs from that group over there. Evolution, if it means anything at all, means that.
Material descent or CA, however, is not the only possible cause of similarity, as Darwin himself knew: “animals, belonging to two most distinct lines of descent, may readily become adapted to similar conditions, and thus assume a close external resemblance; but such resemblances will not reveal – will rather tend to conceal their blood-relationships to their proper lines of descent.Material descent or CA, however, is not the only possible cause of similarity, as Darwin himself knew.”Darwin, Origin of Species (1859), 427. Thus, any argument, such as that offered by GAE, that CA is the only scientific theory which explains DNA similarities, needs the most rigorous of testing. Unfortunately, the elucidation of the universally conserved structure of DNA in 1953, and the discovery of the sequence similarities that molecule exhibits when compared across species, occurred entirely within the theoretical framework, established a century earlier, of common descent. If Swamidass has tested his claim, therefore, that only CA explains patterns of DNA similarity, he hasn’t shown us the test. GAE certainly doesn’t provide it, taking CA as given. And recent publications claiming that CA is explanatorily superior to separate ancestry (e.g., Baum et al. 2016)David Baum et al., “Statistical evidence for common ancestry: Application to primates,” Evolution 70 (2016):1354–63., have opposed CA to the hypothesis that, under separate ancestry, biological characters should be distributed randomly. This latter is a strawman proposal that Cuvier and Agassiz would have found laughably incomprehensible.
CA fares no better than MN as a trustworthy boundary marker. Yes, both premises enjoy strong majority support, but that is a measure of what most biologists think, not what is true.
The Most Telling Sentence in GAE
In 2017, the massive anthology Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, was published by Crossway (I have three chapters in the book). Swamidass reviewed Theistic Evolution for the conservative theological journal Themelios, published by the Gospel Coalition. He concluded his review with this question (in italics), quoted again in GAE (p. 172), which I see as the most telling statement in the book:
As a scientist in the Church and a Christian in science, I see firsthand the strength of evolutionary science. What version of theistic evolution could be theologically sound?
Swamidass is hailing us from within the circle defined by MN and CA. What can I say over here where I’m standing, he asks us, that you folks—outside the boundaries I have assumed as given—will find acceptable?
Let go of MN, I reply, and consider that CA might be false, in the light of new evidence, and we can talk. Otherwise, there isn’t much to discuss.