Realism in Science and Scripture

I actually haven’t read the published version of the GAE, since I only managed to order from Amazon and it’s being released tomorrow. But I have read the draft before, and the arguments that Johnson cites seem to be similar to the PSCF paper anyway. I was particularly struck by this passage:

Added 3/23/20: Joshua Swamidass has clarified that the quote by Johnson above depicts his position inaccurately.

Johnson continues:

In the rest of this post, I will not quibble with Johnson’s arguments that the crossing across the Bass Strait is very unlikely. It is not my area of expertise. My concerns are more about the hidden philosophical assumptions inherent in Johnson’s posts, symptomatic of the more fundamental disagreement between Josh and many TEs.

Realism in Science and Scripture

I think this is the point of misunderstanding, or disagreement, between Josh and many theistic evolutionists. The bulk of Johnson’s review is to argue that it is unlikely that anyone made a crossing over the Bass strait. Hence, it is likely that Tasmania was genealogically isolated since 10,000 BC. Even Scripture (i.e. Genesis 1-3 as interpreted through the GAE lens) cannot overturn this.

This is in line with the trend of many TEs, that that Genesis 1-3 cannot be used at all as a complementary means of evidence with regards to the ancient past. If science alone says that something is unlikely (though not impossible), we should not interpret Genesis in a way which contradicts that at all. This is seen in Johnson saying that the burden of proof is on Swamidass to show (presumably scientifically) that a Bass Strait crossing did happen. It is not acceptable to assert that the “evidence” is Scripture itself.

At the other extreme are YECs, who would like to overturn many findings of mainstream science and substituting it with their own idea of what happened. In the YEC worldview, the methods of science as currently practiced are completely unreliable to determine the past. Science should be governed by radically different presuppositions (such as that the universe is 6,000 years old). Another type of YEC would take the Omphalos view, in that they concede the universe looks old, but it actually isn’t - God simply created it 6,000 years ago with the appearance of age.

Personally, of course I think there are problems with both versions of the YEC view, as it is basically taking a non-realist view of science. (In this context, non-realism simply means that we cannot trust what science tells us to reflect what actually is true in the world.) This criticism also applies to OECs who reject evolutionary science. But I think the line of thinking espoused by the TEs could go to a different extreme, in that it takes a non-realist view of Scripture. If one applies this to the Gospels, the conclusion would be that Jesus likely didn’t do miracles or rose from the dead, since science says such things are exceedingly unlikely. Atheists of course go to this extreme.

Of course, many TEs still affirm the Resurrection, indicating that they don’t take this hermeneutic to that extreme. And TEs could also point out that the Resurrection and the crossing of the Tasmanians are two very different events - one is explicitly believed to be a miracle, while the other isn’t supposed to be, at least not to the same degree.

The Moderate View

I take it that Josh is making room for a middle road, for those who want to take a realist view of science (contra YECs), but also want to interpret Scripture in a slightly more realist way (contra some TEs), such that we preserve the historicity of Adam and also take his fatherhood of all of humanity by AD 1 to be true. In this moderate view, we accept all of what mainstream science has positively shown to be true, but we also accept many historical events that Scripture says happened, even if they are unlikely (though not completely ruled out) by the standards of science. And of course we accept several isolated miracles which flatly contradict science.

Thus, this moderate view introduces a little bit of non-realism to science in order to crank up the realism of Scripture. Some people will complain about this in general: for example, Johnson and other TEs have offered the deceptive God objection against the GAE (see here and here). A more mundane objection is that Adam’s bellybutton (if he had one) would be deceptive if he was created de novo.

As someone sympathetic to the GAE, I concede that yes, there is a bit of non-realism in the model. In fact, I think that it is inevitable once one says that science does not give us the full picture of reality, but must be complemented by Scripture. In this case, it forces us to say that yes, it must be the case that some people crossed over the Bass Strait to the Tasmanians, even if it is scientifically unlikely and we have no other evidence than Scripture for it.

An Acceptable Amount of Non-Realism?

That being said, the non-realism in this moderate view is far lesser than that of the YEC and OEC views, even if it will disappoint the TEs who are scientific purists. For once, it does not contradict science directly. It only accepts claims that science has not decisively proven to be false. And I think there is a real difference.

If Johnson’s arguments are right - i.e. that it is scientifically unlikely that anyone crossed the Bass strait after 10,000 BC, then we can simply push back GAE before that (which personally, I have always thought to be more plausible independent of this consideration, to give more time for the development of civilization). This would be the most realist option, requiring us to assert nothing that science has proven to be false or even unlikely.

But what if someone, for any reason, wants to maintain a 6,000 BC Adam? Then they would have to posit that somehow, somebody managed to cross the Bass Strait, despite the lack of archaeological and/or anthropological evidence that anyone had the means to do it (again assuming Johnson’s arguments are right). We would have to believe in something that science (in the broad sense) has shown us to be unlikely, based on only Scripture. However, there are multiple reasons why this is still a significantly less dire form of non-realism, compared to a YEC stance:

  • This crossing needs to occur only once in several hundreds, or even thousands of years. It would be similar to a one-time “miracle” rather than ongoing miracles (which is what many YEC theories end up positing).
  • This crossing does not require the violation of any fundamental laws of physics, chemistry, or biology. It perhaps violates the current consensus of Tasmanian anthropologists on Tasmanian peoples’ seafaring capabilities. But anthropology is a much less certain science than physics, chemistry, or biology. It is more subject to fortuitous discovery of new evidence (e.g. if someone suddenly digs up Holocene watercraft in South Australia capable of making this transit). It does not possess any fundamental universal laws.

In the end, I’m not sure if these two reasons are sufficient to rescue this version of the GAE, again assuming Johnson’s arguments are correct. Perhaps the amount of non-realism is still too much. I personally don’t favor this version, and prefer the 15,000-20,000 BC Adam. But I think the above considerations surely show that this view is miles different from the extreme non-realism of YECs. If one’s goal is to get more evangelicals to accept the harmony of evolution and a historical Adam and Eve, it could be an acceptable price to pay.

I would also like to bring up the point that some other parts of the OT (such as the Exodus from Egypt) are not backed by solid archaeological evidence that is universally acknowledged by all archaeologists. Yet many Christians still believe in these events, and they are criticized less for it compared to YECs, because (in my opinion) archaeology and Egyptology are less ironclad compared to physical and biological science.

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve tried to articulate in this post what seems to me as the hidden assumptions of some TEs such as Jay Johnson and contrast them with the hidden assumptions of other camps, including that of the GAE model. In my opinion, I think this is one of the root reasons why Josh disagrees so much with TEs and refuses to identify with that label. For productive dialogue to happen, these assumptions (on all sides) must be uncovered and discussed. We must be brave and open in confronting the important epistemological decisions: how realist should we take Scripture, and how realist should we take science?

It will not do to simply quote a secular scientist saying that "it is on the author to make the case, not on the reader to prove a negative.” It’s not that the quote is wrong within the context of science; it’s that the context of this dialogue is bigger than just science. For as Christians we have more than science: we also have Scripture, and if we have evangelical commitments, we should be very careful of dismissing large parts of it as only literary myth and no more.

Now, it is right to point out that many evangelical theologians have had a tendency to overemphasize Scripture without being aware of the science, as many TEs would like to say. But it is also right to point out that some TEs have had the tendency to not give sufficient thought to Scripture and unwittingly adopt all of the philosophical assumptions of non-Christian scientists, some of which are not necessitated by the scientific evidence itself. I think this is what sometimes makes me disappointed with TEs. My hope is that we can continue this conversation in full cognizance of these different assumptions instead of continuing to talk past each other.


Thanks @dga471.

An alternate solution, discussed in the book (and curiously omitted by Jay), is that they decide “nearly universal” descent is sufficient, and have a good case for why Tasmanians have human worth and dignity regardless. Remember, theology does not speak with scientific precision. With this in mind, there is no reason to doubt that Adam and Eve, if they are real, are ancestors of (nearly) everyone, even if they lived only 6,000 years ago.

Of course, if nearly universal descent is not sufficient, your analysis holds. I’m just not sure “non-realism” is precisely the right term. Let me think about that.

In the end though, your response is strong. In particular:

I think this is right.

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There are a few points to be made in response to the “Tasmanian problem.”

The first, as made by Josh, is that in principle, at least, Scripture’s use of “all” is seldom absolute, but nearly always conditioned by context. It would still be legitimate language to say “all men have sinned in Adam” whilst admitting the possibility that there was some isolated population nobody would aware of for two millennia that were not descended from him.

That would, of course, pose problems about the spiritual status of such a tribe once it was discovered: except that once the Tasmanians were discovered, interbreeding could and did happen, so the question would be virtually as academic as that of those outside the garden at the time of Adam: it would be Europeans who brought both the sinful heritage of Adam and the means of redemption from it, only in a way peripheral to the general tenor of Scripture.

Secondly, although it’s convenient to think of “universal Adamic mankind” existing by the time of Jesus (“1AD”), nothing much is changed if there were still non-Adamites then. The gospel was geographically restricted for centuries, and during all that time Adam’s genealogical influence would be moving ahead of it. The NT writers are speaking practically, and assuming the providential control of God over human affairs past, present and future.

Thirdly, there is a vast difference between scientific findings that appear to disprove a biblical truth, and those that appear unable to prove it. Science cannot prove the existence of the biblical Patriarchs - or of Adam himself, for that matter. But theology has no need of scientific proof for historical matters, and little in history can be so proved. What possible weight can the argument “Science cannot demonstrate this contingent event, so it is not true” have?

The problem with YEC Adam is that not only genetics, but the whole range of historical sciences, appears to rule it out except by ad hoc fixes like the false appearance of age. In other words, science appeared to disprove it. But the fact that science considers a Tasmanian crossing unlikely is not evidence, still less proof of the negative.

As a parallel case, it is extremely unlikely, in absolute terms, that the first monkeys rafted to South America across a wide ocean, but that rafting is the standard explanation for their presence there now. If, by chance, that first raft-load of monkeys had died out after arrival, what would be the value of a scientific claim that the journey was “unlikely”? We knew that already, but it happened nevertheless in the real world. What makes a human voyage from Australia, or India, or China any more or less incredible than the origin of the new world monkeys?


More incredible: The distance was greater.
Less incredible: Humans had better technology.
Maybe they balance out.


If your theology requires certain dogmas, then neither the Scripture nor the science will be treated realistically. That’s what I see overwhelmingly commonly on the non-TE side. I see dogma driving conclusions.

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In both cases, they would be very rare and unlikely events that are amplified. Science doesn’t do so well with events like these, nor does our human intuition.

The monkeys had less technology and traveled farther. That is more unlikely on both counts.

The monkeys had a larger window of time, not thousands, but at least several hundred thousand years. So that is more likely.

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All religion contains certain dogma (for example, that God exists). Most people have a sliding scale. Some dogma (e.g. the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, the Resurrection) could be more important than others (the age of the Earth, how God created the universe), etc. It’s not a simple matter of black and white (i.e. either you’re dogmatic or you’re not). People should just be honest about which dogma are more important (and why). That’s one of the primary contributions of Josh to this discussion (more than just the GAE itself) - making a space that can accommodate different camps.


Multiple crossings of the Bass Strait have been made in modern times by kayak, and even by paddleboard.

Maybe we need a modern Thor Heyerdahl to show it might be done in an aboriginal bark canoe. Allegedly aborigines stopped island-hopping the Bass Strait when it became “too dangerous.” But sometimes people achieve dangerous things through necessity, ignorance of the risk or sheer foolhardiness - and 8000 years provides a big window for all of those.

Danger didn’t stop successful, much longer, epic voyages in rowing boats by risk-embracing westerners like Captain Bligh and Shackleton. Not to mention those monkeys, which appear somehow to have travelled at least 1400Km before boats existed.


This “review” so thoroughly obfuscated what I actually stated in the book, I decided to make it more clear with my first question post for the main blog:

Several things make this “review” misleading:

  1. @Jay313 himself, in the article, acknowledges that his point is exaggerated: “the title of this article is an exaggeration. Genealogical Adam and Eve aren’t dead;”. In the discussion he also misquotes and quote mines the book and my posts at BL (where I’m no longer allowed to post).

  2. @Jay313 makes no mention of the actual conclusions of the chapter (p. 78). I state that the isolation of Tasmania may be real, so the total universal ancestry of AE at 6,000 years ago is legitimately disputed. He seems to be very contentiously agreeing with my point.

  3. @Jay313 makes no mention of nearly universal ancestry, which in fact is the mentioned at the beginning and end of the chapter (pp. 66 and 78), as reason for why this debate is ancillary to the theological conversation.

  4. @Jay313 quoted 5 scientists, but none of these scientists appear to have read the book. Instead, they seem to be commenting on @Jay313 description, which we have reason to suspect. I’ve reached out to these scientists for whom I can find contact information. I’m happy to correct any errors that scientists find as they read the book for themselves. Please report errors here: The Genealogical Adam and Eve, Erratum

It does not seem like much more of a response is needed to this article at this time.


9 posts were split to a new topic: Is Nearly Universal Ancestry Enough For Theology

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