“The Search for the Historical Adam” and Population Genomics

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on June 3, 2011

The June 2011 issue of Christianity Today spends a lot of ink searching for the historical Adam, or more precisely, explaining why we shouldn’t expect there to be one . . .

Yesterday I received the online preview June issue of Christianity Today and the cover story was “The Search for the Historical Adam.” I hope you will be able to review this article and point out the many assumptions being made by the evolutionists and theistic evolutionists. B.G.

The June 2011 issue of Christianity Today spends a lot of ink searching for the historical Adam, or more precisely, explaining why we shouldn’t expect there to be one unless we’re willing to redefine what we mean by historical. The issue, which gives a hearing to many opinions, eventually concludes with something analogous to “No, Virginia, there really wasn’t one, but if you think his existence is really foundational to your beliefs, we’ll just agree that the jury is still out and not worry about it. After all, science rules.”

Christianity Today Cover

The cover art leaves no doubt as to the topic to be explored. But alas, that’s the last we’re destined to see of Adam unless we want to redraw him as the recently promoted king of the primates touched by the finger of God.

The magazine editor’s opening column, “Adam, Where Are You?” does declare the magazine’s commitment to the “authority and infallibility of Scripture.” The editor also assures us that while the issue will try to provide “balanced reporting,” the reader can peek to the end and see the magazine’s position. Indeed, the closing comments on page 61 do convey the message I’ve relayed above in a considerably more pat-on-the-head sort of way.

Before getting to the scientific issue around which “the search” orbits, we note that the online version provides a video preview of the topic. The video opens with, “In the beginning God created Adam and Eve. Per God’s request, they then got busy being fruitful and multiplying …” Let’s pause right there. Per God’s request! Therein lies the crux of the issue. The God who created heaven and earth—and all that is—has the right and the power to set the rules for all of us. God does not request; God commands. People may then rebel or obey. But God didn’t request. While the script-writer did make a cute turn of phrase, he really summed up the issue: Who has authority? Who is the source of truth? Whose word can you trust? If man gets to decide truth for himself, if truth is only knowable through the changing concepts of science, if the Bible must be reinterpreted at mankind’s whim—then the God we’re claiming to worship is a God created in our own image, not the other way around.

Soon the video lets the other shoe fall. It warns us that “there’s these scientists that mapped out the human genome. They say there’s all this stuff in our DNA … that we couldn’t have come from just two people … It had to be a population something like 2000 people, or 10,000. So no actual Adam, no actual Eve; you could say we’ve lost our mom and dad.” The magazine does try to maintain a comforting demeanor while it delivers the bad news. The video continues, “So have we been wrong about Adam and Eve? Is this just a bedtime story?”

Finally, the video closes with a teaser about the doctrinal consequences: “How about [the apostle] Paul? Was he wrong when he called Jesus the Second Adam?” Clearly, the writers understand the doctrinal connection between the Genesis account of the first Adam and the New Testament account of Jesus Christ as our Redeemer, the Last Adam. Doubtless, many of the quoted leaders of Christendom do, too. Apparently they, like we, have read John 5:46, where Jesus said, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me.” Their problem becomes how to reinterpret Adam in light of the “absolutely clear” and “unnerving new genetic science.”

Enter Dr. Francis Collins, current director of the National Institutes of Health, the key player in the 2003 completion of the Human Genome Project, the man who should know all there is to know about human genetics. His list of accomplishments in the field of genetics is impressive, including elucidation of the genetic cause of cystic fibrosis. Dr. Collins is a professing Christian, much to the vocal horror of many in the secular scientific community.

Dr. Collins’s 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, told the world that all members of the human species “descended from a common set of founders, approximately 10,000 in number, who lived about 100,000 to 150,000 years ago” (page 126 of the book). Along with a later book co-authored with Dr. Karl Giberson, The Language of Science and Faith, Collins tells us that the concepts of the ancestral “first couple” and the “Genesis time frame” do not “fit the evidence.” He attempts to comfort us with his idea that the Genesis story is a nice allegory explaining how God gave human beings “a spiritual and moral nature.” Indeed, in his book, he makes it clear that it is only a moral nature and a yearning to search for God which distinguish the human from the animal.

Collins founded BioLogos Foundation, a coalition of scientists and theologians dedicated to promoting “theistic evolution.” A staunch defender of Darwinian evolution from a single-celled ancestor, Collins believes that “the biblical God was the creator of all earthly organisms, humanity included, and used as his method the standard evolutionary scenario of gradual natural selection among genetic mutations across eons.”

Collins rejects the three alternative non-atheistic positions: young-earth creationism, old-earth creationism, and intelligent design. Answers in Genesis, the international flagship of the YEC position, is correctly quoted by CT as insisting “God created the mature, fully functioning creation in six literal days about 6,000 years ago,” adding that “if substantiated, this would of course demolish Darwinism because such a brief chronology offers no time for evolutionary processes to occur.” While 40% of the general public are said to embrace YEC, old-earth creationism “is far more prevalent among evangelical intellectuals.” Although it “basically rejects evolution,” it accepts “the planet’s vastly ancient age” which was sought in order to accommodate evolutionary change. The magazine calls the old-earth position “lopsided.” The third non-atheist position is intelligent design, which deems the randomness of the “Darwinian ‘natural selection’ model of evolutionary theory to be improbable.” Intelligent design “posits that some designing force lies behind nature, but does not explicitly define this as the God of Judaism and Christianity.”

So what about the science?

The two prongs of science mentioned in the Christianity Today article really spring from the same well. First is the chimpanzee-human common ancestry position. “Perhaps more troublesome,” it warns, is the required size of the human starter population demanded by “population genomics.” Both come from an examination of the vast amounts of DNA interspersed in between the genes which code for proteins. (Only about 1.5% of the human genome codes for proteins.) Collins states in chapter five of his 2006 book that silent mutations in these areas usually have no actual consequences for the organism and therefore do not get affected by natural selection. As such, those mutations can become markers to trace population groups. They also seem to occur at intervals which are seen in chimpanzee genomes.

The article recounts the usual chimpanzee-human comparison data, assuring us that the 95–99% match confirms common ancestry. “Especially important” are the “pseudogenes” which code for proteins in chimps but “are apparently no longer active” in humans, according to Dennis Venema of BioLogos, echoing Collins’s book. (Even the phrase, “no longer active,” reveals that common ancestry is assumed as an absolute by those interpreting the data.) In his book, Collins points to the presence of genetic similarities across species, genetic redundancies, apparent fused chromosome in the human genome, and mutations as proof positive against special creation. He says it would make no sense for God to design similarities and repetitions, much less the possibility of mutations.1

Since mammals share the same basic biochemistry...we should not be surprised to find that chimp and human bodies need many of the same proteins to live.
Since mammals share the same basic biochemistry—which AiG attributes to a common Designer who designed us to live in the same world—we should not be surprised to find that chimp and human bodies need many of the same proteins to live. Collins further asserts that similarities in the silent mutations in between the coding genes unequivocally prove a common ancestry. But like vestigial organs once mistakenly thought to have no function, we cannot be certain that those “silent” mutations in nonfunctional portions of chromosomes are really non-functional. Today’s junk, tomorrow’s regulators. Furthermore, the ability of genes to mutate and lose function can be understood in terms of the fact we live in a world cursed in the aftermath of sin. And as to the claim that human chromosome 2 is a fusion of chimp chromosomes, the data is not as cut and dried as Collins suggests. Human chromosome 2 does not have an extra centromere, which should be present had the chromosomes fused. And the telomeric-like “end-pieces” Collins says are placed within the chromosome are actually just patterns which can be found near telomeres but are not limited to that location. Even if a mutated harmless chromosomal fusion had occurred and persisted to be present in all people today, it would have been a fusion of human chromosomes, not chimp ones. Thus the inescapable evidence for common ancestry as presented in the magazine and expanded upon in Collins’s book does not prove common ancestry at all.

The magazine then tells us, in essence, that the Human Genome Project has blown the whistle on the Adam thing, what with the 10,000 people starter population 100,000 years ago, so we’d better find a way to deal with it. The remainder of the article is devoted to quotations by scientists and theologians, many from BioLogos and/or the American Scientific Affiliation, explaining ways to rationalize replacing Adam and Eve with something comfortably figurative. If we cannot reconcile ourselves with letting the first couple and their fall into sin be an allegory for the human condition, we could perhaps just let them be king and queen of a race of “pre-Adamic hominids” who one day got tapped by God with His image. That should be literal enough to satisfy our doctrinal qualms and still do obeisance to the science whose word is absolute and infallible.

We are assured that Paul was very sincere in his literal references to Adam because he simply didn’t know any better, having no access to the science we have. Before moving on to doctrinal concerns raised by Paul’s writings, we really should examine the “troublesome” science of “population genomics” unavailable to poor ignorant Paul. After all, we are being put on notice that the science is demanding a paradigm shift in our understanding of God’s Word. We’d better have a look at the assumptions underlying that bold conclusion.

Search the Christianity Today article much as you will, it never explains how the conclusion that there had to be 10,000 original people was reached. Oddly enough, neither does the BioLogos website. The latter does tell where to find the information. According to a footnote in one of its articles, “The genetic evidence [of a population of several thousand people from whom all humans have descended, not just two] is explained in: Francis Collins, “Deciphering God’s Instruction Book: The Lessons of the Human Genome,” in The Language of God (New York, NY: Free Press, 2006).”2

So what evidence for this starter population does Dr. Collins provide in his book?

None. On pages 126 and 207, the conclusions presented about the required population size are simply repeated. They are said to come from “population geneticists” who “look at the facts about the human genome.” They assure us that “studies of human variation . . . all point to an origin of modern humans approximately a hundred thousand years ago, most likely in East Africa.” That’s it. And since the magazine article offers no new information, it seems this faith-shaking data is just a rehash of the mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosome Adam data.

All scientific facts are interpreted according to the biases of the observer. Consequently, the things a scientist assumes are true will greatly influence his interpretation of the data. What does Dr. Collins assume is true?3 He says that “we [evolutionists] do agree upon descent from a common ancestor, gradual change over a long period of time, and natural selection operating to produce the diversity of living species. There is no question that those are correct. Those are three cardinal pillars of Darwin’s theory that have been under-girded by data coming from multiple directions and they are not going to go away. Evolution is not a theory that is going to be discarded next week or next year or a hundred or a thousand years from now. It is true.” Given that Dr. Collins plainly states his unswerving faith in the idea of common ancestry—the only reasonable explanation he acknowledges for similarities in genomes—and in eons of time, we know that he will necessarily interpret the data from the Human Genome Project in that light.

Mitochondrial Eve and Y-Adam calculations are ways of looking at the mutations present in a population’s genome to estimate how long ago they shared a common ancestor. Until recently, most evidence has indicated that mitochondrial DNA (and any mutations in it) is only passed along from mothers. Similarly, any mutations in the Y-chromosome are passed along through fathers. People with few differences in their mitochondrial or Y-chromosomes are assumed to have shared a more recent common ancestor. Mutations in DNA occur fairly often, even though many do no harm. These mutation patterns are used to track populations over geography and over time. Greater elapsed time since people groups shared a common ancestor should be reflected in greater genetic diversity. The rate of mutation is assumed to be a reliable molecular clock, but in fact those rates are not the same in all populations, differ in different sections of mitochondrial DNA, and are actually calculated using the assumed time of divergence of chimps and humans on the tree of life. Thus the reasoning is completely circular.

But where does the 10,000 person starter population come from?

Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosome Adam calculations assume that there was a starting population group. Over time many (most) of their personal genetic footprints died out. The Human Genome Project provided a way to track the DNA differences among people worldwide. Then, given the expected rate of mutations over the time needed to allow evolution to happen, and considering the current world population, the population geneticist calculates how many people would have been needed way back then to leave only one genetic footprint for each gender today. (That person whose footprint survived to the present is the last common ancestor.)

Thus the “troublesome” science we are told to accept over a natural reading of Scripture claims only to prove what it assumed to be true in the first place.

And what of doctrine? The article plainly states that Paul “links the historical Adam with redemption through Christ” in Romans 5:12–19, I Corinthians 15:20–23, and Acts 17. Despite the suggestion by some contributors that Paul only thought that Adam was real because he didn’t know better, two pastors make clear the doctrinal necessity of Adam. Tim Keller, though not a young earth creationist, (see Which Well-known Pastor Participated in This Pro-evolution Workshop?) acknowledges that denial of Paul’s teachings about Adam strikes at “the core of Paul’s teaching.” Furthermore, a literal Fall is necessary for biblical credibility, for “if it [the Bible] does not correctly explain the origin of a problem, why should one trust its solutions?” Pastor Richard Phillips rightly adds a warning that theistic evolution is a “Trojan horse that, once inside our gates, must cause the entire fortress of Christian beliefs to fall.”

So what is the upshot of all this? The magazine’s position upholds the fact that “the entire story of what is wrong with the world hinges on the disobedient exercise of the will of the first humans.” It further affirms that “the entire story of salvation hinges on the obedience of the Second Adam.” But then it insists of finding a middle ground, not even acknowledging the fact that false assumptions could undermine the reliability of the science. Bottom line: the science cannot possibly be wrong, so we must re-interpret the Bible. Find some way to let Adam and Eve be real people but just leaders among the population, the magazine counsels. “That suggestion has the virtue of embracing both a prehistoric couple and a prehistoric population.” That suggestion also has the “virtue” of embracing the Serpent’s words to Eve, “Yea, hath God said?” Either we trust what God said, or we don’t.


  1. For more information, see Greater than 98% Chimp/human DNA similarity? Not any more., If human and chimp DNA are so similar, why are there so many physical and mental differences between them?, and Chimp Genome Sequence Very Different from Man.
    Also see How Genomes are Sequenced and Why it Matters: Implications for Studies in Comparative Genomics of Humans and Chimpanzees by Jeffrey Tomkins to learn the full story about the biases and limitations which affected earlier chimp-human genome comparisons as well as the current state of the technology.
  2. http://biologos.org/questions/evolution-and-the-fall
  3. http://biologos.org/blog/francis-collins-and-karl-giberson-talk-about-evolution-and-the-church-2/

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