Evolution and the Historical Adam

When the Christian apologist William Lane Craig was asked what the biggest challenge to Christianity is, he answered that it was the recent challenge to a historical Adam based on an analysis of the human genome. Theistic evolution (the view that God, who is sovereign over everything, created people made in his image by a process of evolution) is said to reconcile the Bible’s account of human origins with the scientific hypothesis of evolution. But this particular challenge to the historical Adam threatens most accounts of theistic evolution, since it argues that there was no historical Adam and Eve from which all of humanity is descended from.

Professor of biology Dennis Venema and New Testament scholar Scot McKnight have recently written a book called Adam and the Human Genome, where Venema lays out the genetic analysis behind this challenge, and McKnight offers a way of understanding Genesis and the New Testament without affirming a historical Adam and Eve. While McKnight’s exegesis of the relevant sections of Genesis and the New Testament is interesting and thoughtful, the first question to ask is: does a scientific analysis of the human genome challenge the existence of a historical Adam and Eve? Venema argues his case as follows:

“Put simply, DNA evidence indicates that humans descend from a large population because we, as a species, are so genetically diverse in the present day that a large ancestral population is needed to transmit that diversity to us. To date, every genetic analysis estimating ancestral population sizes has agreed that we descend from a population of thousands, not a single ancestral couple” (Venema, Adam and the Human Genome, p55).

Venema is right in that there certainly was a population of thousands at some point in our lineage, but this doesn’t actually contradict the existence of a single ancestral couple. If all life evolved from the first living organism, then every species, including ours, has a most recent common ancestor. Identifying that ancestor is simply a matter of going high up enough along the evolutionary tree. Unless humanity evolved twice (or more) at different times and in different locations, then the population of thousands that humanity evolved from, all had a common ancestral couple. The real challenge comes in what Venema says next:

“Even though many of these methods are independent of one another, all methods employed to date agree that the human lineage has not dipped below several thousand individuals for the last 3 million years or more – long before our lineage was even remotely close to what we would call “human”.” (Venema, Adam and the Human Genome, p55).

On the surface, this sounds like the science suggests that the most recent common ancestor of humanity was also an ancestor of chimpanzees (or something else). However, the science suggests nothing of the sort, and neither does Venema. While Venema certainly argues that humanity evolved from a group of thousands, he also affirms the existence of Mitochondrial Eve – the most recent female ancestor of all of humanity, typically dated to have lived between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. Venema also explains how these seemingly contradictory views are actually compatible:

“All four grandparents contribute regular chromosomal DNA to [their grandchildren], and the DNA diversity in this generation requires that we infer that they have at least four ancestors. These children descend uniquely from one man (for their Y-chromosome DNA), one woman (for their mitochondrial DNA), but from at least four ancestors for their regular chromosomal DNA. This, in microcosm, is exactly the reason why all humans can descend from one Mitochondrial Eve for our mitochondrial DNA, one Y-Chromosome Adam for our Y-chromosomes, and 10,000 other ancestors for our regular chromosomal DNA” (Venema, Adam and the Human Genome, p64).

In other words, if theistic evolution is correct, then our most recent female ancestor (Mitochondrial Eve) and her partner (say, Adam, though not necessarily the one labelled Y-Chromosomal Adam), would have had parents (from whom we are also descended), siblings, cousins, and other relatives at the time. These relatives would become the ancestors of Neanderthals and Denisovans (and perhaps the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4); however, scientifically speaking, all of humanity is directly descended from Mitochondrial Eve. By definition, Mitochondrial Eve is the most recent “mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20), and if she had just one partner and father of her children, then they would be the perfect candidates for the Adam and Eve of Genesis 2 and 3.

There is, therefore, no contradiction between the recent analysis of the diversity in the human genome, and the historicity of Adam and Eve – the most recent ancestral couple from whom all of humanity is descended. In order to disprove the historicity of Adam and Eve, one would have to demonstrate, either that humanity evolved twice (or more) at different times and in different locations, or that our most recent common ancestor (Mitochondrial Eve) is also an ancestor non-human animals alive today (such as chimpanzees). Until either of these can be demonstrated, Christians need not re-interpret the biblical descriptions of Adam and Eve.

While McKnight has some interesting and thoughtful exegesis of Genesis 1-3, Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15, and 1 Timothy 2; his view that Paul (and Jesus) did not necessarily consider Adam to be a historical figure, is a stretch. McKnight rightly rejects the doctrine of alien transferred guilt (that God blames us for Adam’s sin), but rejecting our inheritance of Adam’s fallen nature (original sin) requires some exegetical gymnastics, which are, for many, unpersuasive. If there were either scientific evidence or biblical warrant to reject the historicity of Adam and Eve, then I would follow the evidence and/or the Bible wherever it led. However, as it stands, the straight forward reading of the Bible’s description of our human origins is simply where the evidence leads.

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