February 24, 2017

Adam and the Genome 1

Adam and the Genome 1- Foreword and Introduction

We are going to blog through the new book, Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight here at Internet Monk.  I, Mike the Geologist, your erstwhile science nerd, will attempt a chapter by chapter summary and discussion of this important book.  Unlike the series on the Grand Canyon, here I am more of an informed laymen, but I will strive to my uttermost to faithfully present the science side to you, the Imonk blog readers.  But the science of genomics is literally (see what I did there) only half the book.  The first four chapters are by Venema and the last four chapters are by McKnight and cover the theological aspects.  Fortunately, our own Chaplain Mike is as big a theology nerd as I am a science nerd, and, in fact, knows Scot McKnight personally.  So you can expect insightful and thoughtful comments by him that will go to the heart of each issue (not that he doesn’t do that all the time anyway).  So, in the second half of the book if I tee up some thoughts and they shank or hook us into the rough, Chaplain Mike will get us back on the fairway, never fear.

Dennis Venema is a professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He holds a B.Sc. (with Honors) from the University of British Columbia (1996), and received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2003. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling using the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. – See more at: http://biologos.org/biologos-voices/dennis-venema#sthash.eDtRurRC.dpuf .  Dennis is one of the regular bloggers at the Biologos web site, and writes regularly about the biological evidence for evolution. Biologos has some recent introductory posts about the book by Denis Alexander, Ken Keathley, and Pete Enns.  In my Science and Bible series, I relied heavily on Dennis’ writings for the genomic portion of that series.

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author or editor of more than fifty books, is the Julius R. Mantey Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.  Dr. McKnight has given interviews on radios across the nation, has appeared on television, and is regularly speaks at local churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries in the USA and abroad. Dr. McKnight obtained his Ph.D. at the University of Nottingham (1986) and has been a professor for more than three decades.  Scot McKnight is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Society for New Testament Studies. He is the author of numerous books including the award-winning The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others (Paraclete, 2004), which won the Christianity Today book of the year for Christian Living.  Scot blogs at Jesus Creed (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/) Scot’s blog is my second click after Imonk.  There are introductory posts up at Jesus Creed about the book as well.

The chapters are titled:

  1. Evolution as Scientific Theory
  2. Genomes as Language, Genomes as Books
  3. Adam’s Last Stand?
  4. What about Intelligent Design
  5. Adam, Eve, and the Genome: Four Principles for Reading the Bible after the Human Genome Project
  6. Adam and Eve of Genesis in Their Context: Twelve Theses
  7. The Variety of Adams and Eves in the Jewish World
  8. Adam, the Genome, and the Apostle Paul

Did I mention that this is an important book?  The foreword is by Tremper Longman.  He serves as a Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California.  Tremper Longman, III is an Old Testament scholar, theologian, professor and author of several books, including 2009 ECPA Christian Book Award winner Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings.  Many of us at Imonk are familiar with Longman, who also blogs frequently at Biologos.

2009 was the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species”, and the evolution controversy has never raged harder within evangelical Protestant circles.  The mapping of the human genome was completed in 2003 under the leadership of Francis Collins, who is not only a leading biologist, but a devout evangelical Christian.  As Longman writes in the foreword, the evidence provided by the genome, added to the mounting evidence of hominid fossils, testifies to the persuasiveness of the theory presented by Darwin in the mid-nineteenth century.

Of course, the genomic evidence points to another conclusion that disturbs many evangelical Christians- namely, that humanity begins not with a single couple but rather with an original population of some thousands of people.

As Longman says:

“This evidence leads to the now-much-discussed question of the historical Adam.  If Adam and Eve were not historical individuals, is the Bible true?  Were humans originally innocent?  Was there a fall?  Is there such a thing as original sin?  If, so how does original sin affect us today?  These are crucial questions that aren’t easily answered.  They are also questions that cannot be ignored by refusing to address them or by vilifying those who hold opinions that are different from the ones we are used to…

I can’t imagine a better combination of thinkers to help us navigate the difficult and controversial waters of questions surrounding evolution and the historical Adam.   Dennis and Scot deserve our attention, and their arguments demand our careful consideration.  I, for one, thank them for their lifelong work in elucidating God’s “two books”, Scripture and nature, for us.”

I couldn’t agree more with that Longman quote.  He is absolutely right, this issue in NOT going away.  We evangelical Christians have no choice but to deal with it.  We can stick our heads in the sand and deal with it disingenuously, or we can hitch up our big girl panties and deal with it forthrightly. We can stick our fingers in our ears and yell, “BIBLE, BIBLE, BIBLE…” or we can engage honestly with the science and try to figure out what that means for our interpretation of the scriptural writings.

In the Introduction, Dennis recounts his childhood and early adulthood as a Christian steeped in suspicion of science in general and openly hostile to evolution in particular.  And yet at the same time he had a deep longing to be a scientist.  He resolved this tension by planning to be a medical missionary.  But by his third year in university, he was doing real research in cell biology, genetics, and how gene products work at the molecular level.  And he was hooked on real science; dropped the plans for medical school, and signed up for a PhD program in genetics and cell biology.  His childhood dreams were being fulfilled.  I can relate here, as I’ve shared before on this forum, I wanted to be a geologist from the time I was 5 years old.

Now he is on the other side of the equation, teaching biology to undergraduates—many of whom were coming from the similar evangelical background.  Like he did, they’ve heard evolution is evil and that they have to choose between the Bible and science.  So he is experienced in guiding evangelicals through the process of coming to terms with the science of evolution.  He met Scot at a Biologos conference where Scot was speaking, and, as they say, the rest is history.

Scot, for his part, took the time to read Dennis’ articles, and try to understand them.  He became convinced that Dennis was right about the genetics and realized that someone with the theological chops needed to put the context of the science in the context of the scriptures.  He decided, with Dennis’ urging to participate in a Biologos grant project, that it might as well be him.  To quote Scot:

“What follows in Adam and the Genome, then, is a basic introduction to the science of evolution and genetics and how it impinges on the basic claim of many Christians: that you and I, and the rest of humans for all time, come from two solitary individuals, Adam and Eve.  Genetics makes that claim impossible—as I understand it.  But instead of leading me to hide behind the Bible or insult scientists, genetics sent me into the stacks of books in the library to investigate science with freedom and to ask yet again what Genesis 1-3 was all about in its original context and then how Jews and the earliest Christians understood “Adam” when they said that name.”

Did I mention this is an important book?


  1. Just got the book. Looking forward to your review.

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    Does the book touch on the issue that the “Literal” interpretation of Genesis has *not* been standard orthodox teaching through history? As someone who has never been a YEC, nor even momentarily tempted by YEC, the aspect of “Why?” is something I find interesting.

    • I am blogging as I am reading, so I haven’t read Scot’s chapters yet. But from Pete Enns review of the book over at Biologos, I think Scot does indeed touch on that issue.

    • I’m also looking forward to Mike’s presentation of the ideas in the book. Scot & RJS have featured it on Jesus Creed, but they haven’t always highlighted what I’m interested in knowing (and the height of my “to read” book pile doesn’t justify me buying any more books). So thanks, Mike.

      The way I understand it, the question of the “literal” interpretation of Genesis began with the Enlightenment – which demanded empirical evidence about everything – but gained a lot of steam in the late 19th and especially early 20th century, with the boom in scientific discovery and application making Protestant Christians (who themselves were very much influenced by Enlightenment thought) feel like they had to keep up with Science on an equal footing. “True” came to mean only that which could be verified with facts-that-can-be-proven, sense-evident, intellect-dependent empirical evidence. That attitude was taken up by the early 20th century conservative Protestant academics and, over the years, trickled down to the people in Evangelical pews, and influenced even the conversion process. (“It’s not what you feel that’s important, but the reality of faith being the engine of the train; your intellectual belief manifested in your Decision for Christ is the proof that you are saved.”)

      Broken Record Alert: As you noted, Adam, our current point of view on this is very new. What a relief when I found out that the earliest (and most brilliant) Christian expositors of Scripture accepted the “literal view” – that is, the events recorded in Scripture happened. No one disputed that and nobody needed to “prove” that they happened “historically” because “History” as we understand it wasn’t even on their radar screen. But in terms of meaning and “truth value,” if you will, the “literal view” was least important. What was most important was the Christologic connection – how the events were seen through the lens of Jesus’ incarnation, cross and resurrection – and what realities those events pointed to (typology). No more need to do mental contortions trying to reconcile the unreconcilable, or make the Bible into a science book that was required to show all that empirical evidence (which is not really there), or to nail down exactly how God created. Another reason I kept on heading toward the oldest expression of Christianity. Again, its all a matter of hermeneutic.


      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        That attitude was taken up by the early 20th century conservative Protestant academics and, over the years, trickled down to the people in Evangelical pews, and influenced even the conversion process. (“It’s not what you feel that’s important, but the reality of faith being the engine of the train; your intellectual belief manifested in your Decision for Christ is the proof that you are saved.”)

        I remember a tract from the Seventies which had a little diagram of a train; the locomotive was labeled FACT and the car it was pulling FAITH. (FACT in this case referred to the word-for-word literalism of the Bible.)

  3. Wow. Looking forward to this discussion.

  4. He is absolutely right, this issue in NOT going away.

    You say that now, but after this week in America…

  5. What would be a good primer iMonk article to link to that first deals with the question of whether the Bible or science should be ‘superior’, or how that’s a bad question and both are authoritative?

  6. Paul Connors says:

    Does the book cover Kenneth Kemp’s proposal, which allows for a literal Adam and Eve consistent with evolutionary theory? If not, the book is radically incomplete, to the point of being misleading.

    • Mike the Geologist says:

      As I said in an earlier reply, I have not read that far ahead to definitively answer your question. I do remember Venema saying that science can not prove one way or the other that there were a literal Adam and Eve; the genomics speaks to the question of were there two and only two humans from which we all genetically descended. The answer to that, to my understanding is no.

      • Paul Connors says:

        To be scientifically precise: the genomics speaks to the question of were there two and only two humans from which we all genetically descended through a line of humans only. That proviso is very often silently not given as an explicit assumption, but it is key to the (apparent) scientific claim that we cannot all be descended from a literal Adam and Eve. But if that proviso is relaxed, then there is no problem with us all being descended from a literal Adam and Eve. Kemp’s paper has more details.

        • Dennis: I appreciate you following along. Feel free at any point to expound on the science, or correct me if I misspeak.

        • Mike the Geologist says:

          Paul: thanks for commenting. You will have to explain yourself, though, I’m not following your argument.

        • I read Feser’s piece. It depends on the notion that you had creatures who were human in every physical way, so the biologists think there were several thousand breeding pairs, yet all but two lacked rational souls. The lack of this rational soul means that somehow the brains of these non people were unable to generate the sort of thinking we associate with humans today. They could maybe simulate rationality in some way, but they didn’t have it for real.

          This is just more God of the gaps thinking. It,s only advantage is that it is inherently untestable unless we invent time machines. Suggest any form of culture that you could identify in the archaeological record that you define as separating soul people from soulless people and all you have to do is say that the soulful behavior started after Adam and Eve. Cave paintings, for instance. Must be after Adam. What if it turns out that Neanderthal Man had art? Well, maybe it was just a nonrational imitation of what the souled people practiced, or maybe Adam was the common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals and that other group whose name starts with a D– Denovisians or something like that.

          i bought the book– I sure hope the authors are able to reconcile evolution and Genesis in a way that doesn’t seem as silly as Feser’s article.

          • Paul Connors says:

            God of the gaps thinking? I’m not sure why you claim that. If some part of a species somehow gains a very significant genetic advantage, that part will gradually come to fill the whole population. That is an entirely unremarkable feature of evolution that has happened an uncountable number of times in evolutionary history.

            As for testability, the idea does not have any more or less testability than other evolutionary events. But it does serve to emphasize the fact that a literal Adam and Eve is not contrary to science.

            • Being generous i.e.: If we ignore the scholastic metaphysics, if God created two people with souls, and they suffered original sin, and both these conditions were passed to all their offspring then sure there can be a literal Adam and Eve as long as we stick them back far enough in time.

              • Paul Connors says:

                The difficulty with that supposition is that population genetics shows that such a couple would be to have been at least about a million years ago. Which, even in the conservative case of one million years, makes human history quite hard to understand — it means there were (e.g.) no tools, no buildings, no agriculture, for over 90% of human existence. That’s a flaw that Kemp’s proposal does not have.

                • I’m a little confused. if ensoulment and sin are passed to all offspring (not genetically which I dont think makes theological sense). You really wouldn’t have to put Adam that far back at all, because the number of ancestors doubles each generation once you are a thousand years back or so basically everyone is someone’s descendent or no one is. If you want all humans to have souls you’ll probably need to put Adam before the migrations that led to humans living in the new world and Australia.

                  If you want Adam to explain things like language and art and stuff through the vector of the rational soul that’s not going to work. Those things didn’t come into exsistence all at once, and mental faculties are not organized in a at that is consistent with 700 year old developments of Aristotle. Also these attempts (not yours but Feser is guilty of this) end up with weird views about animal psychology based on a goofy combination of Aquinus, circular reasoning, and ignoring anyone who knows anything about the subject, and I really don’t want to spread that stuff into human anthropology. Things like Native Americans were not really human and don’t have souls because of goofy readings of the bible were real live historical arguments.

                  • Paul Connors says:

                    The rapid doubling of ancestors is not a solution to the problem. The central scientific difficulty comes because (roughly speaking) there are some markers in human genetics that can be extrapolated back in time in order to determine how large of population humans are descended from. This (under some usually unstated assumptions) apparently indicates that humans can’t be descended from an initial population of two.

                    Of course, Kemp’s proposal solves the problem.

                    I, too, am a bit unhappy with Feser’s description of the problem. He brings in all kinds of things that obscure what is really a fairly simple evolutionary problem. We can all be descended from an initial population of two, provided we allow the possibility that the line of descent early on had some mixture of other human-like ancestors.

                    • ok we are not really disagreeing. We can all be descendants of Charlemange as he is probably an ancestor of everyone living, we of course, also have non Charlemange ancestors. So Adam-Eve can function like that. Saying that they’re human and all the other genetically similar/identical hominids were not, is not a scientific theory but it is a story you can tell.

                    • Paul Connors says:

                      For a significantly advantageous genetic change to start with one couple, and subsequently spread throughout succeeding populations is not a story, but a entirely ordinary evolutionary event.

                      But the timing of the beginning and subsequent spread of the the genetic advantages that humans possess is something still to be explained. There is apparently nothing special about humans that could not have been evolved by animals (e.g.) a hundred million years ago or more.

                      In any case, the often-repeated view that the spread of humans from a single initial couple is impossible scientifically is simply false. So if some Christians swallow that view they will end up going in useless directions.

              • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

                Which tends to go aground on the definition of “Soul”.
                Which can bring in the whole baggage of Greek body/soul dualism.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            > This is just more God of the gaps thinking.


            It is also a rather twisted kind of bestiality.

  7. Thanks Mike – looking forward to following along as you blog through the book. Your readers are also always welcome over at the BioLogos Forum.

    • Mike the Geologist says:

      Dennis: I appreciate you following along. Feel free at any point to expound on the science, or correct me if I misspeak.

      • I’m sure you’ll do just fine, Mike. Thanks for taking the time to engage the book. It was a lot of fun to write, and it’s great to see it getting “out there” to the folks we hoped would read it.

  8. senecagriggs says:

    “Of course, the genomic evidence points to another conclusion that disturbs many evangelical Christians- namely, that humanity begins not with a single couple but rather with an original population of some thousands of people.”

    And this is one of the areas where conservative Evangelicals will always differ with the more liberal church.

    There truly is a signifiant theological divide between conservative theologians and all others.

    [As an afterthought, did we jump from no people to thousands?]

    • That much is absolutely correct – the divide is theological, or more precisely, theological and philosophical. Evangelicals approach the Scripture with the assumptions of the Enlightenment and the superiority of deductive (reading from the general/”theology” to the particular/”facts”). We’re trying to do the opposite, and read the Bible as it as historically understood by the cultures to which it was written, and to use an inductive approach (facts to theses).

      We should probably focus our arguments over how we disagree on these points, otherwise we will just shout past each other over the specific questions of genetics and how various verses are to be interpreted.

  9. This seems to be great book. And it needs to be written, read, and studied.

    But from my experience the people that need to be engaged on this topic have no interest in the discussion in any way shape or form.

    To them the authors are heretics (Canadian to boot) and spouting heresy. In their minds these books should be banned and the authors stripped of their Christian labels. And just shut up and quit confusing the real Christians with their nonsense.

    I know this comes off a bit harsh but after the last 10 years of dealing with the YEC crowd, (and trying to be be argumentative), they are never going to come around. And neither will most of their kids.