Ever since Charles Darwin first published "On The Origin of Species" nearly two centuries ago, Christians have struggled to locate Adam and Eve within an evolutionary history. According to the traditional reading of the first chapters of Genesis, God created Adam and Eve directly and all of humanity have been their descendants. Yet many Christians have discarded this belief of evolutionary science, holding that human beings descended from animals first appeared on earth as a population rather than as a single, divinely created couple.
Dr. Joshua Swamidass, computational biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, seeks to reframe this contentious debate. In his book, "The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry", Swamidass affirms both evolution and traditional reading of the Genesis creation story. Drawing upon expert findings from his own field of computational biology, he contends that the lineage of Adam and Eve must be traced using genealogy instead of genetics. Viewing the origins of debate through a genealogical prism, Swamidass paints a scenario in which the special creation of Adam and Eve millennia ago unfolds on a parallel continuum with Darwinian evolution.
His fascinating book carries a wide range of endorsements from theologians, atheist biologists, and believing scientists from across the origins-debate spectrum. He uses artificial intelligence to explore the scientific intersection of biology, chemistry, and medicine. According to Swamidass, there has been a great deal of unnecessary conflict about how science expresses its understanding of Adam and Eve. It has to do with misconstruing the word "ancestor." We can understand it in the genetic sense, meaning someone from whom we derive our DNA; or we can describe it in a genealogical sense, referring to someone from whose lineage we descend.
For Swamidass, genetics operates in a very non-intuitive way. For example, a set of parents are both 100% our genealogical ancestors, and the same is true of our grandparents and great-grandparents. But our parents are each only half of our genetic ancestry; our grandparents are only one quarter; our great-grandparents only one eighth. Genetic ancestry just dilutes to the point where the majority of our genealogical ancestors pass on no DNA to us at all. This is important because Scripture does not tell us about genealogical ancestry. Historically, we have believed that Adam and Eve are our universal ancestors. But are they our genetic or genealogical ancestors? Scripture cannot possibly speak about genetics, so it must refer to genealogical ancestry.
This recognition opens up an immense space for theology. As Christians, we have suffered angst over what science tells us about Eden. But these apparent conflicts are based entirely upon what science says about our genetic ancestors. If we instead focus upon genealogy, there is far less conflict than at first blush. The two starting points are (1) that humans share common ancestry with the great apes and it really looks like God created us through a providentially governed process of common descent; and (2) that it seems like there is no moment when our ancestors drop down to a single couple in the last few hundred thousand years.
Scientists have marked these starting points and concluded (1) that humanity never gets down to a single couple; and (2) that Adam and Eve, if they existed, must have shared common ancestry with the great apes. If we keep straight what the science is actually saying, then the Eden story could be literally as true as we can imagine, with Adam being drawn from dust by God breathing into his nostrils and Eve being made from Adam's rib. But evolution was also happening outside the Garden, and there were people out there whom God created in a different way and who ended up intermingling with Adam and Eve's descendants. According to Swamidass, none of this actually conflicts with evolutionary science.
In science, there are a whole range of answers. For instance, there is a thesis that humans must be Homo Sapiens, but that is not even the consensus opinion of scientists. Many use the term 'Homo Sapiens' to refer to our species, or they expand the Homo genus to include other species like Neanderthals. Thinking about humans in that way might just place the most important part of this conversation under a false sense of security. Scientists cannot agree upon a precise definition of our species or our genus. The further we look to the past, the more opaque our vision becomes in this respect.
In theology, humans are sometimes defined as those made in God's image. But theologians and interpreters of Scripture cannot reach exact agreement about what that means. There are three main views on this issue: the substantive, which locates the image in our capacities, such as thinking and feeling; the relational, which locates the image in our relationships with one another and with God; and the vocational, which locates the image of God in our calling to rule over creation. But these simple categorizations cloister much complexity and disagreement. Theologians are just as unsettled upon the meaning of the image of God as scientists are on what it entails to be human.
Swamidass suggests that one validation from the Scriptural perspective is to define humans as Adam, Eve, and their descendants. That might be biological humans, fully human, or outside of Eden, but Scripture is bound to their lineage history. It does not speak of others, even if they have the same degree of humanity as us. That leaves open many questions about the meaning of the image of God, the essentials of humanity, and how we think about the possibility of people existing East of Eden. This prospect has been the subject of discussion for centuries. Scripture suggests that such people did exist in a sort of peripheral vision. It is a grand invitation to theologians to ponder who they could have been.
Swamidass also stresses that the science of origins is solidly against the idea of biologically distinct races. Genealogical science clearly shows that we are all connected in one human family. All of the science that once supported racism by arguing that we are disconnected populations turns out to be quite false. Some Christians were skeptical about evolution because it appeared to challenge the historical doctrine of monogenesis-the notion that all human beings descended from Eden. But it turns out that the rival theory, polygenesis, is completely untenable.
Polygenesis was a false theory of origins often conjured to provide support for racist politics. It is the idea that humans alive today are divided into distinct biological groups separated in the past, with differing biological capacities, theological roles, and varying degrees of rights and basic human dignity. One of the main reasons people historically rejected evolutionary science is that it seemed to be teaching polygenesis. For about a century, many scientists endorsed that theory. Then, about 50 years ago, several new lines of evidence emerged to show that polygenesis is utter nonsense. According to Swamidass, if we go back only a few thousand years-a mere blink in earth's chronology-we all share the same family. As Christians, we know that our origins are important. But we also realize that what we inherit is beyond mere DNA. Christians need to be thinking more broadly about ancestry and specifically about our inheritance. Swamidass poses this as the great challenge to humanity in the technologically advanced 21st century world.
Eric Metaxas approaches the tension between Christianity and science from a rather different perspective than Swamidass in his recent book entitled, "Is Atheism Dead?". In an impressively wide-ranging, carefully researched work, Metaxas dismantles the best arguments of the four horsemen of the new atheism: Richard Dawkins, Samuel Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. He delivers a decidedly provocative answer to the famous 1966 Time Magazine Cover that asked "Is God Dead?" Metaxas intentionally echoes C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton in cheerfully and logically making his astonishing case, along the way presenting breathtaking-and often withering-new evidence and arguments against the idea of a Godless universe. Taken altogether, he shows atheism not merely to be implausible and intellectually sloppy, but now demonstrably ridiculous. Perhaps the only unanswered question on the subject is why we could not see this sooner, and how embarrassed we should be about it:
"We are living in unprecedentedly exciting times. But most us don't know it yet. That's essentially the point of this book, to share the news that what many people have dreamt of-and others believed could never happen-has happened, or at any rate is happening this very minute and has been happening for some time. By this I mean the emergence of inescapably compelling evidence for God's existence..almost every month someone uncovers another small or large piece to add to the jigsaw picture of the Bible as an historically accurate guidebook of the past."
Science, Metaxas insists, has undeniably proven that an omnipotent divinity exists who created every actuality in the universe, including us. The God who has made us in his image has fashioned all of creation to point us to himself in every conceivable way. We are not incidental to what he has done; rather, we are central to it, which makes us see that his love for us is so impossibly and unimaginably great that it really is infinitely too much for us to bear. If he did not shield us from it in some way, it would really and truly undo us. It would destroy us. Hence the grand mystery of creation.
Metaxas further posits that belief is self-evident because of what science has revealed, and not in spite of it. Due to scientific advances, we can look more closely at the nature of things and see with greater clarity than ever that things in our universe and on this earth could not have emerged by chance, as we once so readily believed. Metaxas begins by pointing out that the Big Bang Theory-holding that the universe began about 13.8 billion years ago-has posed a serious problem for the intellectual habits of most scientists, who tend to interpret data atheistically. That is, any consideration of God, a Creator, or an Intelligent Designer is immediately excluded by a simple appeal to infinite time in order to foreclose the conversation. In other words, given enough time, a certain state of affairs is likely to emerge. Here then, there is no need for an Appeal to God at all and so atheism is once again confirmed. However, with the indisputable reality of the Big Bang in play (confirmed by the measurement of cosmic microwave background radiation, among other things), not only does time have a limit, but so does science. There are clear barriers which science alone cannot traverse. To illustrate, prior to the point of a fraction of a second immediately after the Big Bang (ten to the power of -43 of a second), the laws of physics break down and no one has yet discovered a unified theory. Moreover, since time/space began with the Big Bang, to then pose the question "What was before the Big Bang?", can only yield an unintelligible, unscientific inquiry.
Metaxas also makes out a convincing case for the "fine-tuning" argument. The idea here is that so many factors in our physical world have been set just right, fine-tuned in a Goldilocks fashion, to allow for the miracle of life. Change any of these factors even infinitesimally, and life simple cannot occur. The list of such factors includes:
-the size of the earth and its moon, permitting eclipses;
-placement of the earth in its orbit around the sun to create a uniquely habitable zone;
-large planet neighbours (such as Jupiter and Saturn) gathering up asteroids;
-placement of the solar system within the Milky Way galaxy;
-overall density of the universe;
-mass of the universe;
-strength of the four physical forces; &
-properties of water and sunlight, including the miracle of photosynthesis.
Each of these and countless others are fined tuned, set perfectly, to permit life. The odds of any one property being set just so are truly astronomical. However, the larger picture does not yet emerge until each one of these probabilities is then multiplied by the probabilities of all the others to end up with a very unlikely scenario indeed. In fact, the odds at this point are so great, the propensity for life happening by chance so nearly impossible, that Alan Sandage, the late American astronomer, once shocked his colleagues by pointing out "how the scientific evidence of a creation event had contributed to a profound change in his worldview", leading later to his becoming a Christian.
Metaxas further points out that in terms of abiogenesis-the process of non-life somehow coming together to produce a living single-celled organism-science has once again concocted "just so" stories to fill unbridgeable data gaps. Since the advent of the overly-touted Miller Urey experiment back in 1952, we have come to learn that one single cell is an incredibly complex entity, its dynamics akin to a tiny city. Metaxas explains that the kind of reasoning employed once a living cell is in place-that is, some form of evolutionary theory-is simply inappropriate to deal with the contested issue of abiogenesis. The mutation of life from inorganic to organic living cells is beyond the realm of biology or its methods. This reality has not however deterred the likes of Richard Dawkins from applying the intellectual apparatus of evolutionary theory to every other field as needed, whether in physics, astronomy, or even cosmology. This is of course intellectually and methodologically improper. Science is here transgressing the proscribed domain of the discipline itself. It veers off its own rails into sweeping, pontificating philosophical judgments that are totally unwarranted. Accordingly, in his pronouncements in this area, Dawkins stands upon precarious intellectual ground. The sands have shifted considerably of late, despite his apparent ignorance of the fact.
Metaxas also lays out a host of new evidence showing just how science-and archaeology in particular-is actually confirming the historical accuracy of both Old and New Testament accounts. These range from the historical reality of Sodom to the very house where Jesus lived. Metaxas then turns his attention to the reality of atheism itself as a worldview and raises the embarrassing question of whether or not popular atheistic icons of our age such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were able to live out their philosophies in a way that was aspiring or even logical. A priest was evidently called to Sartre's death bed to take his final confession. Camus was captivated by the transcendent and was contemplating Baptism right before his untimely death.
Metaxas insists that the belief that there is no God has-at least in recent decades-become untenable. Indeed, that the very intellectual viability of atheism as a belief system has now become obsolete. If that is so, then one can no longer hold an atheistic worldview with any degree of intellectual or scientific integrity. In short, as Metaxas puts it:
"Atheism is no longer an option for those wishing to be regarded as intellectually honest."
But we have yet to address the deeper question of what it is that we inherit-biologically, culturally, and socially? When we look at the question through these different lenses, we come upon a wealth of different understandings of concepts like original sin, justice, and even race. We enter into a grand dialogue in theology that is far richer than any DNA test results or archaeological finds could possibly be.
Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a distinguished palaeontologist and French Jesuit whose own church forbade publication of his books during his lifetime. He nonetheless achieved a justifiably remarkable posthumous following from Catholics, Protestants, and even non-believers. Teilhard sought to provide a Christian interpretation of evolution. In his renowned work "The Phenomenon of Man", Teilhard conceived what he calls "the Christian Phenomenon". The Christian fact stands before us, and for Teilhard-even at the level of observation and apart from religious conviction-it points to certain conclusions. Firstly, the Christian phenomenon, in its creed and the life it promotes, fits the phenomenological reading of evolutionary process. Its theology, with its personalism and universalism, parallels what is demanded by the direction of evolution. Its cosmic dimension, sometimes lost or overlooked in certain forms of Christian thought, duplicates the perspective demanded by evolutionary thinkers. The Kingdom of God is not just a big family; it is a prodigious biological operation -that of the Redeeming Incarnation. This is the meaning of the teaching of Paul and John about Christ, emphasizing the cosmic dimensions of Christ's presence and action. For them, to create, fulfill and purify the world is done by God uniting it organically with Himself.
How does he unify it? By partially immersing himself in things, by becoming element, and then, from that vantage point in the heart of matter, assuming control and leadership of what scientists like Darwin and others who him followed call evolution.
When Paul speaks of God's being all in all, it is just this culmination to which he points-God becomes the Centre of centres. But the parallel between Christian thinking and the projected implications of evolution goes beyond thought. Christianity embodies itself in the lives of men as well as in their thinking. It has brought into being a "specifically new state of consciousness", i.e. Christian love. Whether founded upon illusion or not, Christian love and its results are part of the Christian phenomenon. The mystics and thousands of ordinary people have incarnated this love in their lives. This genuinely universal love has not only been conceived and preached; it has proven to be psychologically possible and operative in practice.
What both Christianity preaches and what evolutionary process indicates about the meaning of human fulfillment implies a power of growth for Christianity and the possibility of coincidence-mutual enrichment of Christian and evolutionary thinking which means new vitality for Christianity even as the other ancient religions are in crisis because of their incompatibility with the new world of science.
According to Teilhard:
"Though frightened for a moment by evolution, the Christian now perceives that what it offers him is nothing but a magnificent means of feeling more at one with God and of giving himself more to Him...And it is in no way metaphorical to say that man finds himself capable of experiencing and discovering his God in the whole length, breadth, and depth of the world in movement. To be able to say literally to God that one loves Him, not only with all one's body, all one's heart and all one's soul, but with every fibre of the unifying universe-that is a prayer that can only be made in space-time."
Not all of Teilhard's thinking stays at the level of phenomena and their implications. He was not just dealing with ultimate causes or final interpretations, or with philosophical or theological issues in their own right. He repeatedly wrote that what he was looking for and what he discovered was "the experiential law of recurrence." He saw the synthetic vision-the whole phenomenon of mankind reaching back to the development of the cosmos and of life and is to be read forward upon the basis of the present and the past. Even his view of ultimate outcome and his conviction that the universe as a whole has a direction, which are strictly unprovable to science, seem to him to arise out of the phenomenological perspective and to remain within that sphere.
Teilhard avoided any transphenomonological perspective, both to win fellow scientists over and to skirt theological conflict with the church. But at other times, he looked at these same facts from a Christian perspective. He explicitly held, like Swamidass, that there need be no conflict between these perspectives and that they must enrich and support each other:
"Throughout my life, through my life, the world has little by little caught fire in my sight until, aflame all around me, it has become almost completely luminous from within...Such has been my experience in contact with the earth-the diaphany of the divine at the heart of the universe on fire...Christ; His heart; a fire: capable of penetrating everywhere and, gradually, spreading everywhere."
God really is everywhere and in all things. God is as outstretched and tangible as the atmosphere in which we are bathed. Only only one thing prevents us from responding to him-our inability to see him. Teilhard saw his own task as teaching us how to see God everywhere, to see Him in all that is most hidden, most solid and most ultimate in the world.
It is obvious for one whose vision of God is deeply related to his vision of nature and the world, and who has so vividly interpreted the evolutionary vision of nature and the world, that the two must unify. The world is one world; everything forms a single whole, and within the whole everything is linked to everything else. We live in the midst of a network of cosmic influences, and in each one of us, through matter, the whole history of the world is reflected. In and through this network of cosmic influences, Teilhard saw the power of the incarnate Word penetrating matter itself. The incarnation is not in this sense once and for all; it is an ongoing dynamic process which will be complete only when the part of chosen substance contained in every object has rejoined the final Centre of its completion. And mankind collaborates in this process of incarnation:
"With each one of our works, we labour-atomically, but no less really-to build the Pleroma; that is to say, we bring to Christ a little fulfillment."
God is thus not withdrawn from the tangible sphere. He is waiting for us at every moment in our action, in our work of the moment. Ergo, for those who know how to see, nothing earthly is profane. Even the destructive forces which press upon us are capable of entering into this process and being transfigured. God can be found even in and through every death, for these passivities of diminishment can become the means of deliverance from narcissism.
The presence of God in and through all things, creating and redeeming, moving the evolutionary processes toward consummation, is what constitutes the milieu of human life, a divine milieu. By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us and moulds us. Incomparably near and tangible-for it presses in upon us through the forces of the universe-it nevertheless eludes our grasp so constantly that we can never seize it here below except by raising ourselves, uplifted on its waves, to the extreme limit of our efforts. And yet, however vast this driving milieu is, it is a center drawing all together into one whole.
For Teilhard, the essence of Christianity consists in asking one question: "What is the concrete link which binds all these universal entities together and confers upon them a final power of gaining hold upon us?"
The answer is the Word Incarnate, Our Lord Jesus Christ. God is present to us not only by enfolding and permeating us, by creating and preserving us; he also grants us the gift of participated being-under a form of an essential aspiration toward Him. For Teilhard, such an understanding is another way of coming at the meaning of the divine milieu. In Christ we live and move and have our being. One should speak, he says, not so much of the appearance of God in the universe as of his transparence in the universe. The divine milieu disclosed itself as the incandescence of the inward layers of being, and such disclosure is a gift. We can only pray for it. Thus Teilhard, as a Christian, has a new perspective on man and his journey; a perspective not in conflict with what emerges from the evolutionary vision, but one which discloses a deeper meaning in that scientific vision.
Across the immensity of time and the disconcerting multiplicity of individuals, one single operation is occurring; the annexation to Christ of His chosen; one singular product is made: the Mystical Body of Christ, starting from all the sketchy spiritual powers scattered throughout the world.
The end, the Parousia (ultimate paradox, the God man), is a vision of Christ as all in everything: of the universe moved and penetrated by God in the totality of its evolution. To desire the Parousia, all we need do is let the very heart of the earth, as we Christianize it, beat within us. This is His dignity, His meaning, and His fulfillment.