As I've said many times, we all have a tendency to try to organize ideas and information into neat little "either/or" categories, then overlook or obscure any nuance or subtlety. A great example of this concerns Christianity and beliefs about evolution: if you believe in modern science, you'll certainly believe in Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, and also probably reject what the Bible says; and conversely, if you believe the Bible, you'll reject modern science.
My book, The Unexpected Perspective, shows why this is a false dichotomy and a vast oversimplification. In this post I'd like to introduce you to another book that explores in greater detail why there is no religion/science dichotomy. The book is call Old Earth or Evolutionary Creationism? and was recently published by InterVarsity Press. I'll explain in a moment why I think it's worth your while to pick up this book, but let me first give you some background on how it came to be published, which is an interesting story in itself.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is one of the largest Protestant Christian denominations in the USA. By its own estimate, most of its members are young earth creationists. That means they believe the Bible literally, including the idea that the world is no more than about 6,000 years old. They also believe in a literal seven day creation cycle; that all humans descend from an original pair named Adam and Eve; and that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is hogwash.
The Southern Baptists appear to reinforce the stereotype that religion and science are mutually exclusive. But the SBC realizes this is an oversimplification; and to their credit, they've sought out a dialogue with two key Christian groups who look at science and the Bible differently than does the SBC: Biologos and Reasons to Believe (RTB). Both Biologos and Reasons to Believe are composed of people who are simultaneously committed Christians and committed scientists. Biologos was founded by Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, and Reasons to Believe was founded by Hugh Ross, who holds a PhD in Astronomy and spent five years as a postdoc at California Institute of Technology. By no means can one consider either founder to be a scientific slouch!
As such, this new book represents a dialogue between three groups of committed Christians about the relationship between modern science and Christianity, with the young earth creationist group (the Southern Baptists) posing questions to the other two groups (Reasons to Believe and Biologos). So just what are some of the similarities and differences in their viewpoints?
The first concerns the age of the universe. While young earth creationists believe the universe is only about 6,000 years old, based upon a literal interpretation of Genesis, both Reasons to Believe and Biologos embrace the evidence that the universe started with a Big Bang and is about 13.8 billion years old. This is hardly surprising given that RTB's founder is an astronomer, and Deborah Haarsma, the president of Biologos, has a PhD in Astrophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The second is that both accept the reality of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, but they do differ on the extent of its applicability. The key to the disagreement appears to be the question of "common descent". Common descent is the theory that all creatures have a common origin. In particular, humans and lower primates such as apes, monkeys and orangutans all have a genetic common ancestor. Biologos embraces this idea, as do I. In contrast, Reasons to Believe maintains that God created humans separately and specially: we do not have common ancestry with the lower primates, or any other organisms, for that matter, even though we appear to share a large amount of DNA.
Reasons to Believe further insists that the literal narrative of Genesis is true. With respect to humans, that means God created Adam and Eve in a special way, and that all humans are descended from that pair. Reasons to Believe and the Southern Baptists are very much in agreement on this, in contrast to Biologos. Much of the book focuses on various aspects of the question, are humans common descendants (the Biologos viewpoint, as well as that of Darwinians) or a special creation (the Reasons to Believe viewpoint)?
SBC posed a broad range of questions to Reasons to Believe and Biologos. These questions covered not only biology and genetics, but also geology, anthropology, the fossil evidence, and a range of issues related to Biblical interpretation. While one may disagree with their thinking, one cannot accuse the Southern Baptists of not giving serious thought to the entire subject.
As mentioned earlier, the people at Reasons to Believe are serious, competent scientists, so one must ask, what scientific evidence could they present that would support the idea of Adam and Eve as a real pair of humans, from whom all are descended? The RTB spokesman cited the evidence of mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam. That's evidence that all females can trace ancestry to a single woman called mitochondrial Eve and all males can trace ancestry to a single male called Y-chromosomal Adam. Until recently, data suggested that mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam lived about 80,000 to 100,000 apart from one another, thus they never could have been a couple. RTB says new research suggests they lived at the same time, but the spokesman never cites any specific evidence.
Let's assume, for a moment, that RTB is correct in saying that mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam could have been contemporaries. The spokesman for Biologos, however, presented the argument that there never could have been an original pair simply because the original population of humans could not have been fewer than 5,000 or so, likely more.
Biologos presents a strong set of arguments to counter those made by RTB. I think the case could been even stronger, but there was obviously an editorial limitation placed on the participants. So what additional evidence might Biologos have presented? The work of Francisco Ayala, cited in my book, is an excellent example of this evidence. Ayala traced the DRB1 gene, present in humans and other primates, back to identify a common ancestor who lived about 105 million years ago. We, and our non-human primate cousins, all have one of the variations of this gene. The variations in this gene are excellent evidence that there could not have been just an original pair of humans. Note that there are other forms of evidence supporting the Biologos argument, but Ayala's evidence seems pretty compelling.
But apparently it still isn't sufficiently compelling to convince lots of evangelicals to reconsider the "common descent" issue. I sensed frustration on the part of the Biologos spokesman in chapter 10. No matter how much evidence, and how many compelling arguments, he couldn't get RTB to budge on the question of "common descent".
The reason, I believe, has to do with the "historicity" of Adam and Eve. Evangelical Christians believe that there had to have been a literal Adam and Eve. Absent that, in their minds, it's "game over". On the surface, it appears that evangelicals are faced with the choice of either accepting the science that there couldn't have been an original pair, or accepting the Biblical account. Looks like "game over", unless someone can present a case that includes three key elements: 1) a real life Adam and Eve; 2) consistency with the available evidence for common descent; and 3) consistency with the Biblical narrative.
Elsewhere, Biologos builds a strong case that Adam and Eve may have been archetypes, not real individuals. Unfortunately, that tends to leave many evangelical Christians cold. Thus, even though the Biologos case for common descent being consistent with the Bible may be strong, it feels like "game over" to unpersuaded evangelicals.
I think Biologos is right, so how might they reframe their arguments so that they might be more appealing to many "un-persuaded" evangelical Christians? For the answer, consider the argument I make in my book, The Unexpected Perspective. Let me briefly summarize the argument. I believe modern science is correct in saying that the original group of humans could not have been fewer than five or ten thousand. The evidence looks pretty strong. How, then, could there have been an historical Adam and Eve? The simple answer is that Adam and Eve could have been two people in the original multi-thousand human population. They were merely representative of everyone.
Is such an interpretation consistent with the Bible? Actually, yes. Assume for a moment that there had been just an original pair, Adam and Eve. They had children, Cain and Abel. Cain married a woman who bore a son, Enoch. Well, if Adam and Eve were the literal first humans, who were the parents of Cain's wife? If Adam and Eve were the parents of us all, Cain's wife was also a child of Adam and Eve, so Cain married his sister! Does that mean that incest is okay because it's in the Bible? Ugh!!
Another piece of evidence is found at Genesis 4:15. As is well known, Cain killed his brother Abel. As punishment, God banished Cain, sentencing him to a life of wandering. Cain protested to God, saying that if anyone found Cain, they would kill him. God reassures Cain that won't happen.
Well, if there had been just an original pair, that dialogue would have been moot because there wouldn't have been anyone else to kill Cain. But the words are there, suggesting that there were other humans besides Adam and Eve and their descendants. What this means is that the Bible is more in accord with the science of an original human population of many thousand than with the original pair scenario.
As such, by adopting the Biologos position, the Southern Baptists could actually address each of their major concerns: a) a real life pair named Adam and Eve; and b) consistency with the evidence of modern science. If the Southern Baptists rely upon the RTB position, there will be two key problems: a) it will imply incest; and b) it will not be in accord with the genetic evidence.
Unquestionably, evangelical Christians believe it is critical to have a real life Adam and Eve. If Biologos, and other Christian groups who embrace Darwinian science, hope to win the hearts and minds of evangelicals such as the Southern Baptists, they'll need to provide a way to embrace both common descent, and everything that goes with that, and a literal Adam and Eve. As discussed, there is such a way.
There are many other dimensions to this book, in recognition of the fact that this is a multi-faceted issue. I strongly commend it to a broad audience of readers, and thank all three groups – the Southern Baptist Convention, Biologos, and Reasons to Believe – for their dedicated efforts to find common ground.