Jerry Coyne's Adam and Eve Contest

In 2011, Jerry Coyne held a contest.

BUT. . . we can help them! Like Michael Ruse, let’s lend our brains—and our considerable expertise in theology—to this enterprise, so we can relieve these poor Christians of their burden. For an autographed paperback edition of WEIT , in one short paragraph propose your own theological solution:

What is the best way to reconcile the Biblical story of Adam and Eve with the genetic facts?

You cannot answer that these issues are irreconcilable; remember, you’re being a theologian who is trying to help the Christians, and so have to propose a solution that sounds superficially plausible. If possible, write it in theologyspeak, too, and try to give it a name as interesting as “The Federal Headship Model.” I’ll hold the contest open for a week, and then award the prize. Entries will be judged on how well they conform to modern and sophisticated theological thinking.

This was a pretty interesting exchange. Here are the winners, declared a week later:

1. Overall theological and biological plausibility. This answer, by Drew , appealed to me because although it posited another miracle (multiple germ cells in the Ancestral Couple), the miracle made good biological sense: that added genetic diversity was there to prevent inbreeding depression among the incestuously-produced descendants of Adam and Eve. Although the soul part appeared a bit gratuitous, I think this is the kind of answer that BioLogos might have loved.

The Multi-Germic Theory

Roughly 140,000 years ago God slightly tinkered with the genes of two existing hominin pairs to ensure that the next baby they each had would have brains which were capable of interacting with a soul. These two individuals, one male and one female were Adam and Eve. God then imparted them both with many germ line cells each carrying a different genome, this allowed that each of Adam and Eve’s children would not be genetic siblings so that there would be no loss of fitness due to sibling interbreeding. Each distinct gene set was based roughly on the genomes of various human-like beings that had preceded Adam and Eve, which had evolved through natural processes, but was distinct enough that it allowed for the brains of the offspring also to interact with a soul. One consequence of this modification was that it gave the F1 generation enough genetic diversity to appear as though they sprang up from a large pool of existing ancestors. It may also have been necessary that for a few generations following F1 that the individuals continued to have the variable germ cells to further protect the offspring from inbreeding defects.

2. Sophisticated-sounding obfuscation. This one, by Aqua Buddha , just struck me as so outré , so incomprehensible in its lucidity, that it might just pass for serious theology. And I loved the gratuitous Biblical quote at the end.

The Existential Dispersion Model

A false dichotomy prevails in this debate, one in which a human Adam is said to either exist or not exist. A more nuanced formulation, informed by recent advances in theology, envisions Adam as the sum total of human genes that coalesce by some divinely delineated point in our genealogy. This point (the exact time of which is unknown to us, as is true of all temporally indexed divine interventions), corresponds to the moment at which the Almighty bestowed the soul upon mankind. Biblical Eve is an overdetermined formulation of this same concept. And the Lord saith “set thy face against Gog, the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal” (Ezekial 4:20).

3. Pure LOLz . Many of the entries were funny (I love my readers!) but this inventive one, by Ichneumonid , coopted modern physics in a way that might not convince a theologian, but certainly strikes the funnybone. It perfectly satirizes the crap emitted when modern theology tries to digest science.

The many theologies model

A consequence of quantum theory is the many worlds hypothesis. That is, every particle in the universe occurs in every possible location leading to an infinite number of universes in which all possible outcomes are realised. In at least one of these universes (actually an infinite number – this is the really neat thing about infinity, everything is infinite!) there actually is an Earth in which humans are descended from just two ancestors, Adam and Eve, and, remarkably, everything that is described in the Bible actually happened! Unfortunately, the minor shortcoming of this hypothesis is that there is no evidence that any of this actually happened in our particular universe. However, God in His infinite infiniteness, is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent in all of these universes and (I know this is the bit that doesn’t quite get me there) momentarily has confused our universe with another (does God get Alzheimer’s?) and so has inadvertently given His followers on this Earth the wrong information. But wait, this is where God’s test of faith comes in! HE knows this is NOT the universe where all that occurred, but has set this as a test for us, so that we can come to truly know Him through faith alone.

/end crap


@Agauger and @AJRoberts, did you know that this is considered plausible by Jerry Coyne? Do you think RTB would give this a go?

I remember @vjtorley mentioned this to me a long time ago. Great to finally find the reference.

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I’m assuming that nobody entered genealogical Adam in the contest?

Ah, I see that genetic Adam is part of the initial conditions of the contest.

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Not precisely. They did not have the genetic-genealogical distinction down. However, Feser, Kemp, and Flynn all pointed out that Coyne was making a profound error in his understanding of monogenesis and sole-progenitorship. Here are the key links (with some quotes):

Some choice quotes form this group of catholic philosophers (who care a great deal about monogenesis):

Dr. Coyne’s primary error seems to be a quantifier shift. He and his fundamentalist bedfellows appear to hold that the statement: A: “There is one man from whom all humans are descenced” is equivalent to the statement: B: “All humans are descended from [only] one man.” But this logical fallacy hinges on an equivocation of “one,” failing to distinguish “one [out of many]” from “[only] one.” Traditional doctrine requires only A, not B: That all humans share a common ancestor, not that they have no other ancestors.

Quantifier shift
(Flynn) (The TOF Spot: Adam and Eve and Ted and Alice)

And this:

This scenario accommodates both the genetic evidence and theological doctrine (if that it be) of monogenesis because it does two things. First, it distinguishes between true (i.e., intellectual) human beings and their genetically human-like, but non-intellectual, relatives. Second, it recognizes that the theological doctrine of monogenesis requires only that all human beings have the original couple among their ancestors, not that every ancestral line in each individual’s family tree leads back to a single original couple.

And this:

Supposing, then, that the smallest human-like population of animals evolution could have initially produced numbered around 10,000, we have a scenario that is fully compatible with Catholic doctrine if we suppose that only two of these creatures had human souls infused into them by God at their conception, and that He infused further human souls only into those creatures who were descended from this initial pair. And there is no evidence against this supposition.
(Feser) (Edward Feser: Monkey in your soul?)

Traditional doctrine is silent on interbreeding in the distant past… There are more scholars I can quote on this too (e.g. @Andrew_Loke , @jongarvey , @AntoineSuarez , and @davidson ). There is a fairly large group of us all saying the same thing right now.


If people don’t want those words to be misunderstood, they shouldn’t use them. The terms clearly imply what Coyne interprets them as doing. “Sole-progenitorship”, as I have mentioned to you repeatedly, is especially misleading if “sole” is said to include “one of many”.

Isn’t this going with the bestiality motif again?

The problem with this is that it makes God really weird, if anyone cares, as does any inheritance of something special from Adam.

It seems to me that all these Catholic scholars are working hard to weasel around Humani Generis, generally by redefining what “true human” means.

Yes, and that is one of the contributions of the genealogical Adam, to avoid this pitfall.

Not necessarily. Give us some time to explain. I know you’ve asked about this before, but hands are currently full. We will get around to it soon.

Of course. But in the meantime, I will remain exceedingly skeptical that any such thing can be rescued so as to make sense. Certainly all previous attempts I have seen do not.

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I will grant you that it is a “hard” problem in that a lot of people have tried and failed ot make sense of this. I’m certain a group of us have found a way out of the thicket though. If I’m right, this is very significant, we should expect it will take a few years to fully work out and then a few years more to be understood in the wider conversation.

Just give us time.

As I have also pointed out, they are not “clearly implying” this. They are rather widely misinterpreted. As you yourself acknowledge, they are theological not scientific terms.

Shouldn’t that suggest something to you? They’re misinterpreted because the intended meaning doesn’t fit the word. Tradition at the expense of clarity is not a good bargain.

That is precisely the problem that has to be untangled.

Simple: use another word, one that fits. Also, “progenitorship” appears to be a superfluous 50-cent word for “ancestry”.

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I have to agree with @John_Harshman on this point.

The phrase “sole progenitorship” is guaranteed to get you into hot water, Joshua.

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