The Search for the Historical Adam: How One Scientist’s Faith is Changing the Conversation

Faith and Science Week: Part 3

One of the principal controversies in the contemporary science vs. faith debate is the intended “historicity” of the Genesis creation account in general and the creation of humanity in particular.

Senior correspondent for TIME magazine, Richard N. Ostling‘s does a great job of summarizing the four historical “camps” in modern attempts to harmonize science and scripture, but also introduces how Francis Collins as the driving force behind the move of many scientists toward faith. (See The Search for the Historical Adam in Christianity Today).

Four Traditional Approaches to Harmonizing Science and Genesis

The first camp, which consistently enjoys support from at least 40 percent of the general public in Gallup surveys, is ‘young earth’ creationism, [which insists that] …God created the mature, fully functioning creation in six literal days about 6,000 years ago. For young earthers, the “firewall” of the Bible’s historicity is Genesis 1.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” are the first words of a historical account of precisely what an outside observer would witness if they were standing with God, including six 24 hour days of creation.

A second competitor, the ‘old earth’ version of creationism, is far more prevalent among evangelical intellectuals. It basically rejects evolution but affirms science’s longstanding and lopsided support for the planet’s vastly ancient age.” Old earthers normally put the “firewall of historicity” at Genesis chapter two. They regard Genesis chapter 1 as an overarching creation “poem,” and Genesis chapter two as the beginning of a more-or-less ‘historical’ account.)

A third alternative is the newer ‘intelligent design’ approach, which “deems the Darwinian natural selection model of evolutionary theory to be improbable and posits that some designing force lies behind nature, but does not explicitly define this as the God of Judaism and Christianity.”

A final alternative is ‘theistic evolution,’ “affirms 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…” Like the old earthers, many (but not even close to all) Theistic evolutionists keep the firewall of historicity somewhere near Genesis 2:1.

The Human Genome Project

Ostling then traces how the Human Genome Project has proven to be an unexpected ‘game changer’ in this discussion, especially as it relates to the question of Adam and Eve. The project was a groundbreaking mapping of “the complete sequence of several billion DNA subunits (‘bases’) and all of the genes that determine human heredity.” Completed in 2003 the project is yielding a cornucopia of data for understanding heredity, disease, and human origins.

In the opinion of Randall Isaac, executive director of the (Christian) American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), the human genome sequencing has taken away much of the “wiggle room” in interpreting the Adamic account in Genesis. By moving the debate over the origins of humanity from the arguably subjective-interpretive world of fossils, and archeology, to evidence currently “visible” to the electron microscope, the human genome project provided a more objective viewpoint for evaluating theories of human origins.

The leader of this historic project Francis Collins—now director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—has become at the epicenter of the current conversation between  scripture and science. He is not only one of the “most eminent scientists ever to identify themselves as an evangelical Christian,” he also “staunchly defends Darwinian evolution even as he insists on God as the Creator.”

Leading Scientist, Dynamic Christian, Committed Darwinist

You read that right.  Collins is both a dynamic Christian Theist, and a committed Darwinian scientist. In fact, in his 2006 bestseller, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Collins recounts how it was his investigation into the “Language of God” found in DNA that transformed him from an Atheist into a Christian Theist. (See video above)

The dilemma is, that Collins not only rejects the three most common traditional Christian positions on faith and science—old earth, young earth, and intelligent design—he does so in favor of a version of Theistic Evolution that goes so far as to question the historicity of Adam an Eve. The human genome project has pointed to the likelihood that evolutionary processes produced an original population pool of modern “humans” numbering about 10,000 individuals, not two.

“Instead of the traditional belief in the specially created man and woman of Eden who were biologically different from all other creatures, Collins mused, might Genesis be presenting “a poetic and powerful allegory” about God endowing humanity with a spiritual and moral nature?” Thereby pushing the “firewall” of historicity until at least the end of Genesis chapter 3, perhaps later.

In Good Company

On the one hand, Collins’ perspective is really nothing new. In 1940, C. S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain that, “for long centuries, God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of himself.” Around the same time, Wheaton College president James Oliver Buswell III pointed to the transition from ‘Neanderthal’ to ‘Cro-Magnon’ man as the point where God stepped in and chose to put something into at least two of these creatures that biology alone can never account for—the image of God.

This viewpoint certainly answers some of the most vexing Sunday school questions regarding the Genesis account: Where did Adam and Eve’s son Cain find a wife? (Gen 4:17) Why did God have to protect Cain from other men if his younger brother Seth was only the third man on the planet? (Gen 4:15) Where did the Nephilim come from? (Gen 6:4), etc. As Ostling summarizes author John Collins’ (no relation to Francis) Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? (Crossway, 2011):

“(I)f both biblical and scientific clues suggest a larger population contemporary with Adam and Eve… we can still conceive of Adam and Eve as leaders of that original population. That suggestion has the virtue of embracing both a prehistoric couple and a prehistoric population.”

Theological Dilemmas

Unfortunately, Francis Collins’ position may actually create as many problems as it solves. As CT’s editors note in No Adam, No Eve, No Gospel:

What is at stake?

First, the entire story of what is wrong with the world hinges on the disobedient exercise of the will by the first humans. The problem with the human race is not its dearth of insight but its misshapen will.

Second, the entire story of salvation hinges on the obedience of the Second Adam. The apostle Paul, the earliest Christian writer to interpret Jesus’ work, called Adam “a type of the one who was to come” (Rom. 5:14, ESV), and wrote that “[j]ust as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven [Jesus]” (1 Cor. 15:49, ESV). He elaborated an “Adam Christology” that described a fallen humanity, headed by Adam, and a new, redeemed humanity with Christ as its head.

This understanding, that Christ’s obedience undoes Adam’s disobedience, is not some late development, but is integrated with the earliest interpretations of what God did and is doing in Christ. This conceptual framework is almost impossible without a first human couple.

Need for a Broader Respectful Conversation

Are there ways to harmonize Collins’ position with these biblical/theological realities? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Since this new approach to theistic evolution is proposed by a dynamic Christian who happens to be one of the most eminent scientists of our age, it commands tremendous respect and a careful ongoing conversation. However, that doesn’t guarantee that it’s correct.

One need look no further than Copernicus to see that there is tremendous danger in wedding your theology to a prevailing scientific wisdom. Scientific theories are often like Chicago’s weather. Don’t like what you have now?  Just wait a minute.

Perhaps new discoveries will strengthen the initial findings of the human genome project. Perhaps, they will unexpectedly point to the likelihood of a single set of human parents, or to the historicity of a post-Babel dispersion of 10,000 humans, or even to the likelihood that evolution alone cannot account for human life as we know it. Truth is, no one knows.

No Need to Discard Genesis

No matter where this conversation eventually leads, no one is questioning the theological truths revealed in Genesis. (See Sue Stratton’s three-part explication of the Presence of God, true language, and the results of the fall.) Whether God formed Adam from “the dust of the earth” by an immediate act of creation, or through an eons-long evolutionary process, all four Christian positions agree that God endowed humanity with something that can’t be accounted for through biology alone–“the image of God.”

Video: Francis Collins Describes his Faith Conversion

4 Replies to “The Search for the Historical Adam: How One Scientist’s Faith is Changing the Conversation”

  1. It’s really a remarkable development to see evolutionary thinkers recognizing the need for God in the whole process. The awesomeness of that takes away some of the fear I feel over how many Bible scholars are embracing biologists ‘ conclusions….

  2. This may take me years of study but I am glad to hear that even scientists can show that you can have a faith in the Lord and still work in the sciences.

    1. I agree. It is an uphill battle to overcome the personal and cultural forces that have divided faith and science for so long. Scientists like this give me hope that it can be done.

Comments are closed.