Review — The Genealogical Adam and Eve

GenealogicalAdamEveSwamidass, S. Joshua, 2019, The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry, IVP Academic, 246 p.

There have been many books written on origins, most of which don’t have anything new to say. The Genealogical Adam and Eve by S. Joshua Swamidass is a book that has some new things to say about the historical Adam and Eve and human origins in a way that attempts—and succeeds—to be faithful to both science and the Bible.

The traditional Christian understanding of Adam and Eve is that they are the sole progenitors of humanity, created by a direct act of God. In this interpretation, Adam and Eve did not descend from pre-human apes, they were created de novo (from scratch), and there were no other humans in existence when they were created. The argument in this book follows this traditional understanding with one secondary exception.

Geneticists, including some vocal Christian geneticists, have been telling us that this traditional account of human origins is scientifically impossible. The present genetic diversity of humans could not have developed from a single pair, and the population of humans never dipped down below something like 10,000 individuals, let alone down to two individuals at the headwaters of our species. Theologians have responded either by rejecting the genetic evidence, or by re-interpreting Adam and Eve as representatives of all humans though not the ancestors of all humans; as archetypes of all humans, but again not our universal ancestors; or as mythological figures who may or may not have even existed.

I have never felt comfortable with interpretations of Genesis that relegate Adam and Eve to archetypes or mythology. Swamidass argues we can have something very close to the traditional understanding of Adam and Eve without discarding scientific theories of human origins. It is not scientifically necessary to demote Adam and Eve to a representative, archetypical, or mythological role. There is nothing in science that requires us to dismiss a historical Adam and Eve who lived several thousand years ago, and who are the ancestors of every person alive. The only variation from the traditional interpretation that is required is that there must have been humans outside of the Garden when Adam and Eve were created.

According to Swamidass, we need to think about the historical Adam and Eve in terms of genealogy, not genetics. Consider your ancestors. You have two biological parents, four grandparents, eight grandparents, and so forth. If you extend that back less than thirty generations (less than a thousand years ago), the number of entries on your family tree is in the hundreds of millions, exceeding the population of Earth at that time. Genealogies are more complicated than that, with numerous duplicate entries, and geographic and cultural barriers to interbreeding; topics Swamidass addresses. The point is that every person on the planet has a vast family tree, and there were almost certainly people who lived six thousand years ago who are ancestors of everyone who has lived on Earth for the past few thousand years.

A key component of the argument in the book is that there had to be humans outside of the Garden. These people had been around as biological humans for a long time, bestowed with intelligence, value, honor, and dignity by God. These people were created in Genesis 1, and Adam and Eve were subsequently created de novo in Genesis 2 to be the heads of humanity. The descendants of Adam and Eve interbred with the people outside of the Garden, as was intended from the beginning, eventually leading to a world where every person is a descendant of Adam. Swamidass accepts that the broader humanity created in Genesis 1 originated by biological evolution. The Scripture is silent on whether there were people outside the Garden, so their identity and history must remain somewhat of a theological mystery. The existence of people outside the Garden of Eden would solve some problems such as the identity of Cain’s wife, or the presence of whole cities and people groups in Genesis 4.

My fear as I started this book was that my undergraduate-level education in genetics would not be enough to allow me to critically evaluate the arguments in this book. It turns out that there is not a whole lot of genetics in the book, as Swamidass considers genetics to be of secondary importance in his argument. His case is about genealogy, not genetics. It is significant that scientists who were once highly skeptical about the existence of a traditional Adam and Eve have written positive reviews.

Swamidass covers many other topics, such as how a Middle-East couple 6000 years ago could be the ancestors of people in remote places like Tasmania or the Americas; the existence of ghost ancestors (most people in your distant family tree have passed on no genes to you); polygenesis and racism (both among Christians and scientists); exile as a theme in the Bible, and original sin. Swamidass does not claim to have set forth an airtight theological and scientific argument and invites further dialog. The book is not so much an argument for theistic evolution as it is for a real Adam and Eve of whom we are all sons and daughters. As such, it should prove to be valuable to Christians with various perspectives on origins, and as a tool to break down barriers to the gospel in the skeptical scientific community.

Grace and Peace

I was provided a review copy of The Genealogical Adam and Eve by IVP Academic. I was under no obligation to review the book, or to give it a positive review.

©2019 Kevin Nelstead,