Puck Reviews the Genealogical Adam and Eve

@Puck_Mendelssohn is an atheist known for his thoughtful reviews of scientific and ID books. I’m really honored to be graced by a review from him. There is much to engage in what he writes. What do you think?

:star: :star::star::star::star: An engaging, unconventional take on Biblical “creation” and evolution

Several years ago, here on Amazon in the review threads, I made the acquaintance of a man who is an evangelical Christian scholar. In the course of talking about working to promote understanding between scientists and those Christian communities that deny evolution, he raised a number of interesting points. He believed Adam and Eve were paranormally created, but did not think that there were no people before Adam and Eve. He thought humans shared common ancestry with the modern great apes, and so on down the whole history of life. He did, however, think that Adam and Eve were real, and that they had been “created” de novo in a world where others already lived, and that the Genesis account was compatible with these things. He thought that someone ought to write a book about this.

Well, Joshua Swamidass was not my correspondent, but he has written a book very much along these lines. He argues that nothing in our understanding of genetics and population dynamics excludes a paranormally-created Adam and Eve several thousand years ago, created on a world where there were already humans produced by evolution, who would by this time (and, indeed, by some time ago, which he considers important for theological reasons), having mixed with those earlier humans, be genealogical ancestors (along with many of their contemporaries) of all people everywhere on the planet. He provides some insight into the mathematics of ancestry, all of which seems in line with other credible sources, and which confirms this. He proceeds to discuss this in relation to scripture and theology, arguing that such a reading of Genesis is quite reasonable. This approach has much to recommend it, if one is trying to hold as closely as possible to the text of Genesis; among other things, it does solve the “where did Cain find his wife” problem that flummoxed William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial.

For many of us, these are solutions without a problem. We do not feel a need to defend belief in Adam and Eve in any sense. But for Swamidass and others, the problem is very real. It is no secret that in America, we have many people who are unwilling to let go of cherished beliefs, and for whom there can be no peace between religion and science; Swamidass shows that peace of this sort may be found in surprising places, through careful reevaluation of scripture in relation to science.

I have reservations about whether this peace is, however, something that many of those who believe in a literal Adam and Eve can accept. To some such people, the whole thing may simply smell of apostasy because this is not how Adam and Eve have been conventionally understood by most Christians; and they are certainly going to be troubled by the OTHER population bottleneck which a conventional reading of Genesis presents, and about which Swamidass says only a few lines: the flood of Noah, which must be assumed to be non-global for the genetic problems not to be merely transported to another Biblical tale. Meanwhile, the mainline Christians who are characteristically more flexible have already mostly discarded a literal Adam and Eve altogether, and do not seem to be yearning for a chance to dig it out of the dustbin.

I hope, against my own sense of probabilities, that Swamidass is right and that I am wrong. It may well be that there is a silent majority of relatively literalistic Christians who find themselves at war with science very much against their inclinations as people living in a modern, scientific culture. Their reaction to this book may be very positive indeed, and if this approach is successful in helping to bridge the gap between religion and science within our culture, it surely is a good thing. I give the book five stars in recognition of its noble cultural purpose, in recognition of its significant value in informing its audience of the sometimes surprising and counterintuitive features of populations, and in recognition of what seems to me to be the deep sincerity and goodwill of the author.

That said, it does seem to me that there are problems in the presentation which it is reasonable to note. I really do not think it is surprising, as Swamidass repeatedly suggests it is (and at one point characterizes this view as an “audaciously entertaining flip!”), that one-off paranormal occurrences such as the creation of a couple of people cannot be the subject of any sort of logical refutation or compelling scientific disconfirmation. While it is true that scientists have often said that our knowledge of biology excludes the possibility of Adam and Eve, that statement has generally been aimed, as Swamidass indicates, at a factual scenario where Adam and Eve are the only humans, created in a world where there never have been any humans at all, a few thousand years ago, and are not merely among our ancestors but, at that level of our family tree, our only ancestors. Swamidass agrees that such a scenario is foreclosed by the evidence. But when one revisits the question of just what the “Adam and Eve” scenario involves, and concludes that scripture does not demand that Adam and Eve be our sole ancestors at that level of our family tree, any scientific objection based upon genomics vanishes completely.

Science of course cannot “disprove” in any sense that Adam and Eve were created de novo. But science does not operate in the realm of proof and disproof, which are concepts that properly apply only to objects of formal logical reasoning, anyhow. Science cannot prove, or even convincingly demonstrate, that Napoleon was not born to a virgin. Science cannot prove that God does not create a few people every year, sticking them in obscure places and endowing them with identification papers and literacy in their local languages. Science cannot prove that Jesus was not raised from the dead, that Carl Sagan cannot be raised from the dead, or that God does not raise people from the dead on a fairly regular basis, when nobody is looking. Without some sort of empirical purchase upon claims of the paranormal, science is powerless.

But the powerlessness of empirical scrutiny to rule out a claim of paranormal activity is very far from a demonstration that that claim is true, or even that accounts of it are credible. I know that Swamidass understands this – his epistemology is not flawed in any such respect – but the fact that claim that a paranormal occurrence took place in the distant past is not demonstrably false simply is not very meaningful, at least to those who have no strong inclination to accept it.

On that point, I cannot help but be reminded, again and again while reading this book, of the end of the film Plan Nine From Outer Space, by Ed Wood:

“You have seen this incident, based on sworn testimony! Can you prove that it didn’t happen?”

The answer, as always, is no. But I think that I speak for most viewers of the film when I say that I have never found myself looking for Bela Lugosi lurking behind the next bush.

It would have been better to my taste – not, perhaps, to the project of rescuing fundamentalists from grave scientific error, but to my taste – to simply acknowledge this generically. Not “science cannot disprove the de novo creation of Adam and Eve,” but “science cannot, even in principle, demonstrate the impossibility of anything, especially if one assumes that paranormal omnipotent forces may, at their own caprice or for any reason unknown, do anything at any time without restraint from any principle of nature.” With that, loose the dogs of religion! What more is there to say of any substance?

After all, when one reads the paranormal tales that open Icelandic sagas, slowly giving way to history, or other medieval stories of the paranormal, can science disprove THOSE things? When a Viking woman is said to have risen from the dead, uttered a prophecy, and fallen dead again, can science disprove THAT? Of course not. The point was underscored beautifully by Thomas Huxley in his essay, “On the Value of Witness to the Miraculous.” Paranormal accounts such as the creation of Adam and Eve, the virgin birth, and the resurrection cannot be given any place of privilege merely because they form a part of Christian tradition; if they may be true, a proposition that evades any definitive negation, then so may other stories of paranormal occurrences, regardless of whether they are tales we learned at our parents’ knees, tales that are told in far-away parts of the world, or tales that have been forgotten by all who once knew them. But this mere philosophical possibility is terribly thin gruel for people who feel they are in the possession of essential, universal truths about the very nature of reality and about their place in the universe.

The problem boils down to this: neither the tools of science nor the tools of history are competent to judge the paranormal tales contained in the folklore of this or of any other culture. Science cannot do it because these accounts of the paranormal are one-offs: they cannot be subjected to study to understand how they happened or to evaluate whether they indeed happened at all. History cannot do it because history cannot proceed without some kind of criterion of plausibility, which is precisely what must be discarded in order to admit stories of the paranormal into evidence. When a man says he can bend spoons with his mind, here and now, we can test that; when he says that a man once lived long ago who could do these things, or who could turn water into wine, we cannot.

I would have greatly enjoyed a deeper discussion of population genetics and dynamics, but do have to admit that this is as good a treatment of that topic, as it touches human ancestry, as I have yet seen in any book written for a general audience. I suspect that Swamidass could write a good deal more on this and related topics, and I hope he will; he is an able and engaging writer.

The theological portions of the book are undoubtedly of use to those who share the basic precepts of Christian belief. To the rest of us, it is a bit different. My own sense at first was that the theology is largely beside the point, except in the very limited role of showing that the text of Genesis, even if read more literally than most theologians would, does not require that Adam and Eve be the only people living on the earth at the time of their creation. But upon re-reading the theological sections, I began to feel that Swamidass did indeed have an important message for those of us whose dialogues with Christians have so often been frustrating. He has a gentle spirit and his attempts to find questions about values and humanity which are shared by Christians and non-Christians alike are perhaps a good guide to learning how to redirect those conversations into more positive avenues.

And so I find myself, at the end, very much in the same theater seat where I first saw Plan Nine. Can I prove it didn’t happen? No; but that is the wrong question, I think, to ask. A better question, and the one which I hope this book helps some people who are struggling with, is: must I reject science because I believe the paranormal claims of my religion? I approve heartily of Swamidass’s conclusion, even if I cannot join him as to method, and even if that question is one I would never ask; and when he brings his gentle spirit to more universal questions, like what it means to be human, as he does particularly in the later chapters, I find that we might disagree substantially as to method, and still wind up in the same place.


It seems like a good review. I say that without having read the book myself. It gives a pretty reasonable account of what science can and cannot prove.

Puck is also clear about why he does not need the book, but he understands that others might.


I think this is an important point too @nwrickert.


I share his dubious attitude toward the ability of the book to convince any YECs or probably even OECs. Sanford & Carter’s review would seem to bear that out. But hey, it’s early.

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It is early. I was at a YEC university that heartily embraced it as a tool for dialogue and is doing a book study on it with faculty and including it in courses.

What I like about Sanfords review is that their critique is largely theological, and it misses the mark by not actually correctly representing what I wrote. That’s good news on several counts.

Remember, this is the beginning of the game. That was the first YEC article ever written about me. Wait till AIG responds, which will be negative, then let’s see if I find my silent majority over the year.

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I shall wait with bated breath. As you say, I am sure AIG will respond negatively, but the question is whether you can excite enough interest to get some of their people to have a read, and take a fresh look at things.

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Controversy is not a bad thing. Public controversy creates an opportunity for public theatre.

Also, I would not characterize Sanford and Carter’s Review as negative. It was more gracious at many point, and perhaps off target on the theology. It is notable also that the article does not appear to be linked on their main site, which may indicate a desire to reduce its exposure. If that is the case, they may realize it will strongly resonate with their base.

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One can easily be both gracious and negative. That review was negative at its core: they emphatically rejected your thesis.

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Yeah, but my goal isn’t to get them to accept it. So that is largely irrelevant.

Yes, but you seem to be misinterpreting the nature of that review. What color are your glasses here?

Long term strategy glasses. What color are those?

Remember this may be the first YEC article about me ever. This is literally the very beginning of the conversation.

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By the way, it seems to either be missing or to have been mis-indexed. The link you gave to it no longer works. I can only find it in the Google cache.

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Well, the Sanford/Carter review is weird, for sure. One thing that really struck me as odd was their assertion that the GAE would have been very likely to leave no modern descendants. I’m not sure what the likelihood is, but I cannot see why they, taking the subsequent genealogy from the Bible as literally true, would think this was possible.

The other aspect of it which is sort of funny is that they basically see the book as trying to shoehorn the Bible into science, and they see that sort of shoehorning as illegitimate. But how many shoehorns have they snapped in the course of trying to shoehorn science to fit the Bible? I find myself quoting the words of John:

“He wants a shoehorn – the kind with teeth.
People should get beat up for statin’ their beliefs.
He wants a shoehorn – the kind with teeth,
'cause he knows there’s no such thing.”

Oh, that was ambiguous. Perhaps the reader was expecting the Gospel of John. I meant the two Johns known as “They Might Be Giants.”

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So, @swamidass , in our correspondence you indicated that there was one point you felt might benefit from some further discussion. However, I didn’t quite understand what your view was, so would welcome the opportunity to discuss it here…

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Face-palm. Puck will agree with me that what @swamidass is describing in the GAE is the very opposite of shoehorning. Wow. (I’m grimacing as I write this.)

“Science doesn’t rule out X” is not the same thing as “Let’s shoehorn science into the Bible!” How many times does that have to be said?

Do people even read things before dismissing them? (I know. That’s a stupid question on my part.)


As, indeed, I do. There are always issues with fit for any explanation of Biblical stories, and so one has always got to scrutinize and adjust and be sure one’s assumptions actually work. But this is very different from force-fitting things which cannot be made to fit properly at all. I suppose the PROPER use of a shoehorn is merely to make two things that SHOULD fit slide together comfortably, which is what @swamidass is trying to do; but by “shoehorning” in this passage I mean something more like trying to get the evil stepsisters’ feet into the glass slipper, by hook or by crook, which is certainly NOT what he is trying to do.

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What I think is going on is “projection,” as shoehorning is so common that even those that do it are certain that this charge must have legitimacy. But as you both say, not in this case.

Projection is hard for any of us to avoid completely. But I do think that people at places like Answers In Genesis probably have burned out a lot of projector bulbs.

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Incidentally, my GAE review has managed to draw the attention of one obnoxious creationist, who has decided to make it a place to argue with me about ID Creationism. That’s a bit odd, because, as I keep pointing out to him, ID Creationism is not the subject of the GAE at all.

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Wow. Send me a private link to where? Private!