Nelson: On the Swamidass Hypothesis — The Cheese Stands Alone

@pnelson published his next installment engaging the GAE.

I’m thankful to him for including this text:

Joshua Swamidass wonders why I reviewed The Genealogical Adam and Eve (GAE) unfavorably. Other ID advocates, he notes, such as Sean McDowell or Walter Bradley, liked the book. And scientists not explicitly affiliated with ID, such as the UK botanist and geneticist Richard Buggs, or Rice University synthetic chemist James Tour, also liked it.

Indeed, they did. Buggs said that Swamidass might be nominated for a Templeton Prize. Tour put him on the list for a Nobel Peace Prize.

And also for wishing me well:

Hence, I see no good grounds for starting the Adam and Eve conversation where Swamidass wants to begin it, with common ancestry as received knowledge. Nonetheless, as a fellow Christian, I wish him well in his project. I’ll find it a lot more significant if, or when, Swamidass defends the GAE scenario as true. A menu item? Not interested.

His piece backs off the critique of MN from his first piece (Paul Nelson: Which Rules? Whose Game?). I responded in a rejoinder to this (S. Joshua Swamidass: The Rejoinder for the Sapientia Symposium).

The GAE Does Not Assume Common Descent

He does however press the idea that the book assumes common descent. It does not. As I wrote, in my rejoinder:

Supposedly because of MN, I hinged my argument on the truth of common descent. This is just false My reasoning and conclusion do not depend on the truth of common descent. Even if common descent is ultimately false, now we know that it would not have been in conflict with the de novo creation of Adam and Eve.

Now, @pnelson clarified that he doesn’t think that I affirm CD because of MN, but that leaves intact my point that my argument does not depend on the truth of CD. Even if CD is false, we now know that if it were true it would not have been in conflict with Adam and Eve as I defined them.

I am not requiring people take CD as “recieved wisdom,” but rather invite people to enter the thought experiment. What if it were true? I’m not demanding we agree its true, but consider together what it would mean should it be true. That is the exact opposite of @Pnelson thinks it is.

The GAE Does Not Stand Alone

He also argues that the GAE “stands alone” with no one willing to take it up as true:

So we have a lonely hypothesis standing by itself in the center of the room, which no one, including its author, will own as true (meaning, as noted above, will put forward as the best established in the array of possible hypotheses for human origins). The cheese — the GAE hypothesis — stands alone.

This just isn’t the case.

There are several people who have adopted the GAE. One example is @naclhv: David Kwon and the Genealogical Adam and Eve.

Another is @jongarvey: Garvey Contemplates The Generations of Heavens and Earth, who has written his own excellent book on the topic.

As I recently pointed out to @pnelson:

One commenter on FB writes:

So [@pnelson is] using a passage about honesty to argue that someone who isn’t sure of something should pretend they believe it? I could point to a number of passages about humility that would apply to not taking a stance on something that you don’t have good reason to affirm.

Ogres Have Many Layers

On a deeper level though, I think @pnelson is on to something. The book has layers, just like an Ogre has many layers (The Genealogical Adam and Eve is Like an Ogre). Part of the reason it must be hard to respond to this book, it seems, is that he agrees with some parts of it, but disagrees with others. Perhaps clarifying what some of those layers might help us figure out where the conflict and the common ground really lies.


@pnelson writes:

Any hypothesis worth proposing is also a hypothesis worth defending, personally, as probably the case , at least until shown otherwise.

This just isn’t true. That isn’t how science works. As one counter example, we often propose hypothesis we know are wrong to show how we know they are wrong. Also, we don’t defend hypotheses, we try to falsify them.


Indeed, Paul should know my own positive embracing of GAE, since he was aware of my book before it was published.

I’ve commented before on the validity of Josh’s “agnosticism” for the purposes of his particular project, but I’ll say a word on my own attitude.

To commit fully to a particular belief about Adam and Eve would seem to require, for a Christian, either that it is scientifically probable, or that Scripture demands it.

In the case of GAE, which considers A & E as individuals who are the first of a spiritual line, rather than a biological one, clearly scientific certainty is as inappropriate as trying to prove the existence of Julius Caesar, or even Jesus from science.

And quite obviously Scripture doesn’t require GAE, any more than it requires a particular cosmology, whether Ptolemaic or Copernican. Sound theologians have taken different stances, and (to paraphrase Augustine) “each one agreeable to the rule of faith.”

But it is (a) compatible with both secular knowledge and an orthodox, historical, understanding of Scripture, and (b) brings the two together in a way that other interpretations do not.

A key argument in my own book is that for various reasons, the kind of Adam and Eve described by GAE may well be what the original author of Genesis, far closer to the events than us, had in mind. It would not be the only assumption of that ancient text about which we have lost the context (for example, the significance of the geographical clues in Genesis 2, or the meaning of the “sons of God/daughters of men” passage in Gen 6).

That is what I seek to show in Generations of Heaven and Earth, and it is those lines of argument that make me happy to affirm it as my own belief - but like all of the whole field of “speculative theology” I remain as open to correction on the theology as Josh is on the science.

One could compare serious theological reflection on the interface between God’s sovereignty and human free will, which for me takes more the line of someone like Hugh McCann than the Molinism of Bill Craig. We hold such views with some conviction because they make sense of important theological issues, but whilst I would willingly die for the Lord Jesus, I wouldn’t stake my life on Hugh McCann. And should Molinism turn out to be true when Christ returns, it might be humbling to my powers of reasoning, but it would not affect my salvation.


And further explained in another thread to @r_speir:

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@jongarvey ,

I was unaware that you had adopted the GAE scenario.

If you have a pdf of the relevant section of the book, please send it to me, and I’ll publish a correction at ENV.



Here are some good links for you:

On a less formal level, several people have stated that the GAE or some variant of it is what makes most sense to them personally. Academic reviews and endorsements are not meant to be personal confessions of belief, so in that context people will be far more ambiguous.

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Taking @jongarvey’s post to heart (similar to those which I raised in the FB group), is it ever appropriate for a particular GAE model to be part of one’s personal confession? As I said earlier, as Christians we are only required to confess what Scripture teaches, which for many of us is embodied more succinctly in the historical creeds and (for some of us) perhaps more specific confessions like the WCF or the Lausanne Covenant. Anything more than that is speculative theology - a hypothesis that we form using a combination of Scripture, philosophy, scientific evidence, and other methods of reasoning, which we then humbly offer to the church for consideration. If that hypothesis turns out to be rejected by the majority of the universal church then that is a sign that we should go back to the drawing board. On the other hand, such a hypothesis could also be affirmed as acceptable, but not the only orthodox option.

Only in very rare cases does a new theological hypothesis becomes codified in one of the historical confessions. Because of the nature of the evidence surrounding the historical Adam, I don’t see that ever likely to happen. There will always be uncertainty and tentativeness, as there are multiple moving parts - genetics, paleontology, biology, biblical studies, and interactions with other theological doctrines such as original sin, creation, and so on. Thus, I don’t quite understand this common criticism of tentativeness applied to the GAE, which has also been somewhat raised by Hans Madueme (another YEC). GAE models are always meant to be “working models”, not the “final word” on something. However, the nice feature about GAE is that it happens to be a working model which seems to be in harmony (instead of conflict) with the latest scientific evidence. Thus Joshua’s “personal agnosticism” on which model is the “best” doesn’t irk me at all, but actually reflects the reality of the evidential and theological situation.


The assumption might be that I am following a common (and irresponsible) pattern in this space, of claiming that I have the model that is correct and better than everyone else’s. I’m just not doing that.

The fact of the matter is that I’ve shown that all plausible models of historical Adam and Eve are GAE models of one sort of another. The book focuses on recent Adam and Eve, with humanness outside the Garden, but WLC and I worked out what an ancient GAE could look like too. Between those two tent posts, throw in RTB for a third, everything else just lies as a modification within that range.

So it really comes to be a choice between GAE or a totally mythical no-Adam view. That, I think, is what is really unsettling for some evolutionary creationists groups. They become the odd ones out, who at times have clung to bad science…

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Lofty language does not remove the fact that this will be a first for me – To experience someone writing a thesis of magnitude equivalent to theology surrounding the creation account of the first Humans and not be personally convinced of their own beliefs.

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I certainly believe my own ideas. Then are far more nuanced than you might think. And maybe you need to read more theology. Consider this analogy:

I’m doing here exactly what Plantinga did. Are you familiar with his work? He convinced many atheist philosophers that he had solved the logical problem of evil:

@tim1 just wrote a thesis on this and I perhaps he will jump in with some thoughts.

I hadn’t seen your appeal to Plantinga, but even while reading GAE, I noticed many, many similarities to his approach - not just the problem of evil. Plantinga’s flagship project of Reformed epistemology is explicitly structured this way. He doesn’t argue R.E. is a true model of human knowledge but that if it is true, then Christian belief is warranted in a properly basic way; thus, the de jure objections to Christian belief fail. I took the GAE to be a similar project: if this genealogical model is true, then the objections to literal A&E fail.


Yes, that is exactly what I am doing @zacharylawson. It goes the other way too. You can’t reject evolutionary science because it conflicts with literalism if in fact it does not conflict with literalism. You’d first have to rule out all variants of the GAE to make that case, and that does not seem to be possible.

Exploring the implications of ideas, without personally confessing them, is fairly standard in academic work in all the relevant fields, including philosophy, theology and science. It is interesting, however, that it may be unusual among non-scholars proposing models of Adam and Eve. But I am a scholar, so the inability to follow the logic here is hard to understand.

Also, a better and citable reference to Plantinga is here:

Following the pattern of Alvin Plantinga’s free will defense,[fn2] I am not arguing that this specific scenario, or any specific detail, is necessarily true. My point is, instead, that recent monogenesis and de novo creation are not in conflict with evolutionary science. All could be true at the same time.

[fn2] It appears that a good God’s sovereignty over all things is in direct logical contradiction with the existence of evil and human free will. Plantinga expounds one particular understanding of reality, which may or may not be ultimately true. This understanding shows that divine sovereignty, free will, and evil can all be held in the same reality without contradiction. Even if Plantinga’s solution is not ultimately correct, we now know that these things are not in contradiction.

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@pnelson - since the whole book is about GAE, I’ll get a pdf to you.


This is a key point. Apart from extreme (and rare) YECs who believe that the whole of the evidence that there were clearly “different” hominins, increasingly shown to have quite advanced cultures, we all have to grapple with the theological status of Neanderthals, Homo erectus, and the rest, and with both the biological AND spiritual status of Adam and his descendants in relation to them.

As soon as you make a decision where your line between biblical mankind and the rest lies (and it makes no difference whatsoever whether you consider them to be created directly or arising by common descent), you have formed a distinction that needs explaining.

I leave to one side the evidence, which has nothing to do with evolutionary theory, that there were large, worldwide populations of these earlier hominins even before we find large, worldwide populations of modern humans.

You can attempt to solve that by placing Adam and Eve so far in the past that they hide behind all that evidence, but at the severe cost of jettisoning the historicity of the Genesis account simply to retain a single (inferred) feature of the account, ie the sole progenitorship of all rational “humans.”


Let me add a general point about academics and belief in their own theories. In science, as an ideal, one is supposed to hold one’s ideas lightly, and immediately abandon them when counter-evidence comes along. The same is true in theology or any other evidence-based discipline.

In practice, such altruistic idealism is rare, because academics are children of Adam too, and science never cured human sin. Many academics fight to the death not only in defence of their own views against all evidence, but in using whatever means they can to suppress or denigrate their opponents. One significant example would be how Hermann Muller pushed his own view of “no-threshold” radiation risk after the second world war, despite knowing about counter-evidence, which has had all kinds of negative ramifications for science and public policy ever since. You can read the story in Scientocracy by Michaels and Kealey (2019). But there are countless other examples, which is why cynics say that new theories flourish only when the old guard dies off.

But in that regard Josh is an idealist - he practices his science according to the textbook (as I’m sure do many other working academics). Whilst arguing hard for his own views, he not only has a track record of openness to alternatives, but of assisting others develop their own alternative views.

Apart from any other consideration, refusing to stake all on one’s theory lessens the risk of the Old Adam gaining hold and turning one’s love of inquiry into pure self interest.


I always find the work of @pnelson intriguing and worth considering, and glad to see him engaging on various forums. In fact, I think his and others’ philosophical contributions to the Crossway Theistic Evolution book the most (only?) beneficial parts (the rest, honestly, was really disappointing). I guess my observation is quite simple: Nelson rejects the “canon” of MN, and thus criticizes @swamidass on those grounds (rightly or wrongly). But GAE is speaking to a different audience, one that either accepts or at least doesn’t dismiss mainstream evolutionary science. So I see Swamidass offering a “pastoral” approach (olive branch) for discussion, but not trying to “settle” all the issues at once. I guess I don’t see those solidly committed against evolution (rightly or wrongly) as the intended audience, so the back and forth, while interesting, sort of misses the point. Perhaps I’ve missed the point (though I do recognize the extended “pastoral” point that orthodox Christianity need not be afraid of the science).


Thanks @deuteroKJ.

You are right that one layer of the GAE speaks to Christians who want to engage mainstream science, but that is just one layer.

The Genealogical Adam and Eve is Like an Ogre. As you may recall from Shrek, ogres are like onions, because onions have layers.

On another layer, the book challenges a key plank of the ID movement, that the rules of science have to be changed in order to make progress. I think @pnelson is objecting to the GAE because he is one of the architects of this plank. He wants to argue that the GAE depends on MN, but this is just unequivocally false (and the gymnastics required to make this link are telling). Rather, I found no reason to challenge MN, and therein lies the problem. It proves by demonstration that science doesn’t have to change for us to make progress.

Whether or not ID escapes the quagmire, there is a better way forward. Whether or not science follows MN, a cooperative exchange between theology and science is visible. This dialogue is that better way.

It is notable that several ID leaders feel different than @pnelson. To his credit, @pnelson writes,

Other ID advocates, he notes, such as Sean McDowell or Walter Bradley, liked the book. And scientists not explicitly affiliated with ID, such as the UK botanist and geneticist Richard Buggs, or Rice University synthetic chemist James Tour, also liked it.

Indeed, they did. Buggs said that Swamidass might be nominated for a Templeton Prize. Tour put him on the list for a Nobel Peace Prize

I won’t speak for @pnelson, but I think it is fair say that some people find these supportive comments for the GAE alarming. In an important way, the GAE is deeply appealing to the ID camp because it confidently and effectively shows that evolutionary science is not hte whole of reality, and there is space here for dialogue with theology.

That layer directed at ID is intentional, and I think @pnelson picked up on it, but he disagrees with it. Others in ID don’t disagree with it, so the conversation the book is provoking could be really interesting.

There are other layers too. This book has a layer directed at atheist scientists, and a layer directed at evolutionary creationists and other no-Adam Christians. There is a layer directed at questions of race and justice in a fallen world. There is a layer directed squarely at AIG and other YECs.

The book is multivalent, with many messages. In many ways, it is to be expected it will be a polarizing book, because (as @sygarte writes in his review) it challenges the assumptions of every camp in origins, and also of some camps outside origins. Some people want that challenge, because they are ready for something better than the quagmire we’ve all been stuck in. Others, I’ve observed, find the book maddening because it reshapes the conversation in ways that they don’t like. That’s okay, because that’s precisely the conversation I’m intending to provoke.

The key point, however, is that this book is not merely for Christians hoping to engage with mainstream science. It’s intended audience is much larger. @pnelson, though I disagree with him, did pick up on one important layer of the book. I did not need to challenge common descent or mainstream science to make legitimate progress. I can’t say for sure how he see it, but if I were in his shoes I might find it maddening. :slight_smile:

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I agree that the essays of Nelson and others in the “philosophy” section were the best in the book. The science part of the book contained not much that hadn’t already appeared in other ID writings, and the Biblical part of the book, for the most part, reflected a theological and interpretive approach to the Bible that is not my own.


I haven’t read everything in this thread, but yes, I’m perfectly willing to say that the GAE hypothesis is “true”: it is the most likely position among all of its competitors.

I think that part of the difficulty here is that the GAE is one of the few hypotheses on human origins that ACTUALLY bridges the gap between science and Christianity. Meaning, one needs a fair degree of knowledge of both, and any expert (or a body of experts) in either field will be hesitant to endorse it, for fear of their lack of knowledge in the other field. So I think a number of them end up only saying things like “it seems plausible enough from what I know”, or only saying that they personally believe it, without committing to it professionally.

On a tangential note: I think something similar happened with the question of mask-wearing in the early days of covid. Many professionals probably thought that masks were a good idea, but few were willing to stake their reputation and claim that as their professional opinion.

Anyway, I’m not a professional in this field, and perhaps just foolhardy enough to actually make some fairly simple truth claims: GAE is the best hypotheses among its competitors, and I’ve written at length to explain why.

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You mean between science and biblical literalism, quite a different thing.

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