Is the biblical Adam a scientifically valid concept?


Adam of Genesis 1-5 is basic to much biblical teaching. The Genesis account makes it plain that we are all descended from this one man.

This is reiterated by Paul, who says that we are all descended from Adam (Acts 17.26; cf. 1 Corinthians 15.45; Genesis 3.20). Of course, continuing with the biblical record, we are all descended from Noah too. Paul also uses Adam’s existence as a base for various theological arguments, especially in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5. His arguments for the historicity of Adam are powerful and make it difficult to deny as he links Adam’s actions to those of our Lord Jesus. In accordance with these teachings, evangelicals have traditionally believed that Adam and Eve were directly created by God and are the historical parents of the entire human race.

Creationists are known to take these principles seriously, but Dr. Denis Alexander, who opposes the creationist approach, also recognises the historicity of Adam and seeks to compare his historical occurrence to the evolutionary timescale. He sees Adam and Eve as a couple among Homo sapiens types in whom God planted his image. Of course, Dr. Alexander does appear to dispute that all modern humans have descended from Adam.

Source of authority

How we argue our case will be dependent on our primary source of authority. For evangelicals, the Bible has been our foundational guide and has traditionally been understood to speak of the special creation of the man, Adam, and his woman, Eve, from whom we all descended. Others, especially non-Christians, use scientific thinking as their authority. ‘Science’ is the current consensus of the thinking of leading scientists. We have to acknowledge that we scientists can get things wrong and often have to change our theories or models of explanation. For all of us, our interpretation will be within our own paradigm, especially that of the ultimate authority.

Is Adam historical?

So, where is the problem that we are addressing? There has been a growing momentum, especially in the US, among evangelicals that Adam was not historical after all. This is highlighted on the BioLogos website which has a strongly theistic evolutionary approach to the interpretation of Scripture. Its founder, Francis Collins, a world leader in human genome research, does claim to be an evangelical who believes the Bible is a trustworthy document, but he re-writes our interpretation of its opening chapters. A theological response to the BioLogos argument has been presented by Prof. A.B. Caneday (Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 15.1 (2011): 26-59, available on the internet).

Arguments

What are the arguments for a scientifically acceptable understanding against the historical Adam as portrayed in the Bible? They seem to centre on two things: the genetics of man compared with the chimpanzee and the population genomics based on a historical interpretation of the Genesis claim.

Collins says that claims that Adam and Eve were the first couple from whom all are descended does not fit the scientific evidence. This is not a statement saying that there is an apparent discrepancy between current genetic understandings and biblical teaching which needs to be researched, but it is a blatant dismissal of the clear claims of Scripture. That is a serious situation and needs a thorough study. Creationist research in the field of genetics is in its infancy (not surprisingly as the whole field is developing rapidly) and there is a challenge to creationists to research in this discipline. However, we can make some significant responses pending more research.

A key argument, which has been circulating for a number of years, is that the human genome and the chimpanzee genome have at least a 95% commonality. (The term ‘genome’ refers to the whole genetic content of a cell.) Furthermore, the genome contains a substantial quantity of so-called pseudogenes, which evolutionists claim to be ancient genes that are no longer active and again have similar structures in same relative positions and with identical mutations indicating that humans and chimpanzees have come from a common primate ancestor. This, in turn, requires a belief that the common ancestor existed some five million years ago.

Population genomics argument

Studies in the genetic diversity among modern humans have included attempts to identify how long ago modern Homo sapiens originated from supposed earlier Homo species. Current estimates place this at around 150,000-200,000 years. In this approach, it would seem that there were a small group of hominids at that time and from whom we have developed. Estimates put the group size at several thousand. Dennis Venema says that the human population ‘was definitely never as small as two’.

The researchers state quite adamantly that a literal interpretation of the Bible couple cannot be true. Interestingly, the Bible account is not represented correctly in their arguments. Yes, Adam and Eve were the created pair from whom we are descended, but there was a ‘bottleneck’ at the Flood of Noah and his family, from whom, again, we are all derived. The number of descendents of Adam at the time of Noah has been estimated as several millions. The Flood wiped out most of these and so the ‘bottleneck’ reduces the population to a mere eight souls. That family had three daughters-in-law, who presumably carried a diversity of genetic information in addition to that of Noah and his sons. Another biblical event that needs to be considered is the Babel event, at which a large local population was dispersed from Shinar at God’s command. In considering these events, those of us who hold to the biblical account as historical have to review the genetic data in the light of the population sizes of those times as against the argument of those who consider the biblical account inadequate.

Early work on this biological concept proposed, for example, that it was possible to consider a ‘mitochondrial Eve’, as she was nicknamed. The mitochondria are the energy-producing structures in the cell and are passed on through the female line only. A study of the variation in modern women can be extrapolated back to a possible original source. She was nicknamed after the biblical Eve, but, as just indicated, in biblical terms she would probably have been one of Noah’s daughters-in-law.

The figure of 150,000 years also presumes that we know reasonably accurately the rate of genetic diversification, but that is not the case either. In fact, the estimate is based, in part at least, on the assumption of a common ancestor to humans and chimpanzees around 5-7 million years ago. It seems that this is an area which creationist research needs to explore from the aspect of the biblical data.
Genetic diversity

But, let’s go back to that supposed human-chimp genetic similarity. It is generally assumed that our whole nature (at least physically, though some consider other issues such as social and moral aspects too) can be traced to genetic variations. It is generally recognised that variable traits between humans can be related to genetic variations — for example, eye colour, straight vs. curly hair, etc. But these variations always result in human beings! Furthermore, the genetic differences or similarities between man and the chimpanzees are insufficient to explain our differences: in communication, mathematics, music, art and worship, to name a few of those things that make us human and distinct from the animals. We are more than genes.

Steve Jones (Professor of Genetics, University College, London) is no friend of creationists, but he has spoken out strongly against the assumptions about genetic similarity. ‘The fact that humans and chimps share 98.8% of their DNA is fairly amazing, but it still does not explain the nature of differences between humans and chimps. You have to bear in mind that humans and mushrooms share 60% of their DNA’ (cited in The Times Higher Educational Supplement, September 10 1999).

It is also apparent that our genes control metabolic processes, and any genetic damage (‘mutations’) in these genes can result in, for example, disease and disability. But, again, we are still human and not chimpanzees or other primates. Many of the metabolic processes in apes and mankind are similar and so we would expect a Designer to use the same genes for their control.

Overstated claims

But, how similar are these genomes? Other research suggests that some of these claims are overstated. It is often assumed that similar genes in different biological families have corresponding functions. 40 years ago, Sir Gavin de Beer (in Homology: an unsolved problem, Oxford University Press, 1971) pointed out that similar structures are often produced from dissimilar genes, and similar genes produce dissimilar structures. More recent work by Watanabe et al. confirms that the extent of genetic similarity is exaggerated. For example, 83% of the 231 genes on the chimpanzee chromosome 22 produce different amino acid sequences (and so different proteins) to the human counterpart. Also, only 4.8% of the human Y chromosome could be matched to the chimpanzee sequences.

More recently, David C. Page et al. have studied this chromosome in more detail and comment: ‘By comparing the [Y chromosomes] of the two species we show that they differ radically in sequence structure and gene content, indicating rapid evolution during the past six million years’. They conclude that 30% of the chimpanzee chromosome lacks alignment with the human analogue. Of course, these two examples are only a part of the whole genome and detailed studies of the rest are necessary as well, but these examples do show a significant differentiation.

Embarrassing pseudogenes

Over recent decades, as genetic research has advanced, it was apparent that large portions of our genome did not hold the code for the production of proteins as was assumed to be the function of the genome. These chunks of DNA (the chemical shorthand for genetic information) were considered to be evolutionary rubbish inherited from our non-human ancestors and were called ‘junk DNA’. Recent years have revealed that this name is inappropriate as it has been found that this genetic material does have an extensive variety of functions. Most geneticists now avoid using the term, preferring ‘non-protein-coding DNA’. This topic has been well covered by Jonathan Wells (The Myth of Junk DNA, Discovery Institute Press, Seattle, 2011).

However, one persistent part of this argument concerns the material known as ‘pseudogenes’ (that is ‘false genes’). Jerry Coyne, a non-Christian evolutionist, says that these are ‘dead genes’ and expected on an evolutionary argument. They are seen as relics of good genes that have mutated to uselessness. So, Douglas Futuyma says that they are ‘hard to reconcile with beneficent intelligent design’ and Richard Dawkins says that they are ‘embarrassing creationists’!

Usefulness

But a study of the scientific literature gives a different perspective (see Geoffrey Barnard in chapter 10 of Should Christians Embrace Evolution? Biblical and scientific responses, edited by Prof. Norman C. Nevin, Professor of Medical Genetics; IVP, Nottingham, 2009). One example of a useful pseudogene is PTEN1, which has a ‘decoy’ function. It diverts other active chemicals away from the gene PTEN and so becomes a part of a tumour suppression system. Back in 2003, Balakiev and Ayala suggested the importance of pseudogenes in gene expression, regulation and so on.

Dawkins says that, because pseudogenes have no function, they are never transcribed or translated in the genetic system. This is clearly not true. This attitude illustrates the danger of allowing our ignorance of a function to define our scientific model and explanation.

Beyond DNA

There is another aspect of biological activity which seems to be overlooked by those who discuss the concept of a possible biological relationship between apes and men. Let us remind ourselves of a basic fact. When an egg is fertilised by male sperm, genetic information from each of the parents is selected for the new creature. But, this affects only the nucleus of the cell. The egg is more than a nucleus. We have already seen that the cell contains the mitochondrion which originates solely in the female’s egg. Relatively little work seems to have been done to determine what influences the rest of the egg has on the outcome. The egg has been passed from generation to generation from the time of Eve. Similarly, the egg of the female chimpanzee originates from the created animal of that kind.

Body plan

Several decades ago, the British creationist Dr. Arthur Jones spoke on ‘cortical inheritance’ with the proposal that the overall body plan is programmed into that and that the nuclear genetic information gives the variations we have noted. (Arthur’s presentations are available on YouTube.) This was work that was originally reported in the 1950s.

The cell membrane and cytoplasmic structure (the contents of the cell around the nucleus) are critical to the physical structure. The genes give variety within that structure, but they need the structure to direct their effects.

This work has recently been given a higher profile with the publication of The Mysterious Epigenome: What lies beyond DNA by Woodward and Gills (Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, 2012). A staggering conclusion is that there are around 210 different versions of the epigenome required to produce our variety of cells. Now there’s a massive research programme to challenge the wonders of the Human Genome Project!

Historical events

The fundamental biblical challenge to this argument about the historicity of Adam was outlined at the beginning of this article. As one theologian expressed it, ‘Can the Bible’s theology be true if the historical events on which the theology is based are false?’ Nowhere in the later biblical books are the events of Genesis 1-3 challenged or ‘down-graded’. There are plenty of occasions where our God could have corrected man’s understanding if the recorded events were less that historical. Our Lord Jesus never hesitated to correct his contemporaries if they misinterpreted the Scriptures. It is a serious charge (that this author has heard) that our Lord was merely a ‘man of his time’.

Scripture and science

Much more can be said illustrating the depth of our concern at the way Scripture is handled because of current scientific theory. We have seen that the scientific approach is not necessarily as ‘foolproof’ as it might appear and we have introduced a challenge to scientists with, for example, a creationist approach to take up this challenge and research in depth.

One of the disturbing aspects of this work is the way a number of outstanding evangelical theologians with no scientific training themselves are doing theological somersaults to try and accommodate even the tentative findings of scientists. We love these men and our scientific brothers in Christ, but we plead that they would trust that God means what he says.

Dr. John Peet

This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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