Richard Buggs: Adam and Eve our ghostly ancestors?

In a recent book, The Genealogical Adam and Eve , S. Joshua Swamidass, an Associate Professor at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, seeks to resolve the dilemma faced by believers. He makes a major contribution to the debate, taking both sides seriously. Swamidass is a Christian himself, and a well-established scientist in chemical bioinformatics and drug metabolism. He has clearly read widely and deeply in evolutionary genetics. He outlines his ideas with caution and many references to the literature. He deserves a hearing by anyone who is interested in a better relationship between science and religion.

A great turn of a phrase:

It may also make believers ask questions about their hierarchy of beliefs about Adam and Eve. Is the most important thing about them the time in which they existed, or something that made them objectively unique? Are they genetic ghosts, or ghostly ancestors?

A good catch on a major error in the book (soon to be explained in a blog post):

Confusingly, Swamidass describes his created Adam and Eve as “monophyletic” with evolved human beings, but by this he means “of the same biological type” (p. 85), rather than the more usual definition of “sharing common ancestry”.

And a nomination?

No doubt Joshua Swamidass will be on this year’s shortlist for the Templeton Prize.


Josh wrote (in the other, just-closed thread):

Relevant to you @pnelson, I am not seeking to “hide” AE or trying to make an unfalsifiable hypothesis. That is a claim about motives that is not actually correct. It isn’t my fault (or even in my control) that genetics is not powerful enough to detect AE.

Richard Buggs wrote the Nature review, not me. My review will not be published for some time yet, as you know.


Yes, I know, but he brought up that point, and I’ve heard from you too. I just want to be clear, that I did not form the hypothesis with motivation to hide it or to make it unfalsifiable. That is just false, even though it seems to be a common confusion.

I hope I’ve convincing you enough to avoid restating it in your review. Why do people make that jump?


I’d say it’s an inference from your endorsement of methodological naturalism (MN). Some form of NOMA follows quite naturally from MN.

1 Like

Also, another point that both Hans and Richard missed, is that I don’t think it makes sense to think the human mind arises with a recent AE, but that could work with an ancient AE. We can certainly posit God was involved in bringing the human mind about in our ancient ancestors, even if AE are recent. So the second tension Buggs raises (about the human mind) not entailed by the proposal, and not actually found within Ch. 14.

I was clear about this in the book, but I wonder if the strong presupposition of the human mind arising with AE is controlling these readings more than what I actually said, which directly and specifically questions this idea.

He does note this:

Therefore, he concludes that, long before Adam and Eve, people had “minds and souls” and “science legitimately tells us the story of how they arose” (page 175). Believers may find this decoupling of Adam and Eve from the origin of the soul more questionable than an ancient date for an Adam and Eve who could be universal genetic ancestors of all humans with “minds and souls”.

Well that is true if AE are recent, and it is also true that a more ancient date for many, such as WLC. So I understand and appreciate his point.

Well, the good news is that I can tell you that was not my motivation. So at least we know now it is a bad inference.

It is becoming increasingly clear I mean something wholly different by MN than do you. Right? In the book, I might only mention it once or so…

NOMA grants science magisteria over the physical world, which the GAE certainly does not.


You seem to be applying MN to MN. :slight_smile:


Philosophical question, though: does it matter whether this is the intent? It matters, perhaps, to someone who is trying to analyze your reasons for holding the views you hold, but it may not matter if one thinks, as I do, that it is wise to be suspicious of all claims which are framed in a way that causes them to recede from scrutiny. If Adam and Eve may have existed, but no competent evidence can possibly exist which bears upon their existence, are we simply back around to Wittgenstein and “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”?



It certainly is suspicious if I am trying to hide my claims from scrutiny, but I’m not.

It is another thing entirely if I have good independent justification of that framing. In this case, I have very good justification for my framing at every point. Perhaps I am not corrrect, but it is certainly motivated at every point, and never motivated by “hiding” or stacking up a “unfalsifiable” Goldberg-machine hypothesis.

I think what is going on here is actually far more interesting. For 160 years we’ve all been aculturated to think that if AE exist there is evidence for then, and if they don’t there would not be evidence for them. Essentially, we’ve all be indoctrinated into positivism in this question. We were just wrong on this.

  1. Like most elements of our past, genetics just doesn’t tell us one way or another.
  2. Like most things in science, Scripture just doesn’t speak to evolution.

So they are talking about different things, and we just feel for the positivist trap. Evidentialism is great, but a lot of things we care about and that are real don’t leave scientific evidence.

1 Like

Perhaps “suspicious” is the wrong word to express what I mean. I mean, I suppose, that our skepticism for an answer should increase when the explanation recedes from scrutiny, whether this is by design or not.

Agreed, and that is important, if one is seeking to find a way in which belief in Adam and Eve might be consistent with a scientific view of the world.

This may be. But it is also true that a lot of things we care about and that aren’t real don’t leave scientific evidence, either, and we do need to be attentive, especially when dealing with beliefs deeply embedded in our culture, to that as a straightforward possibility. The problem is that we cannot tell the difference between the “are real” and “aren’t real” in this situation.


I’m certain that this is me being pedantic, a right I claim as a journal editor, but: this is a blog post on an online community hosted by Nature Ecology and Evolution. The piece is not in that journal, and certainly not inNature.” The community section at NEE is devoted almost entirely to cool little pieces (“Behind the paper”) written by the authors of papers in various Nature-branded journals, in which they share some background to their work. The book review is tagged “Journal club.” In short: NEE didn’t review the book, nor did any other Nature journal. Maybe some journal will do that, and that will be interesting to see. But this is a blog post, and that should matter at least a little when describing and discussing it. IMO. YMMV.


I agree and note that I did not claim otherwise :slight_smile:.

1 Like


It is a grossly unfair INFERENCE.

It is like blaming the Jeweler for the black oclusions found in a large diamond!

1 Like


And in case you misunderstood @swamidass in this quote:

“At least we know NOW that the inference DOES NOT reflect Joshua’s intentions!”

That was a nice, positive review. @swamidass and @jongarvey, how would you respond to Buggs’ 1st point of “scientific weakness,” which to me read a bit like he might think that GAE is setting up a potential “God of the gaps” problem. Buggs says that more genetic data gathered in the future could push back the date for a de novo Adam and Eve. But the GAE idea is not really strongly tied to the actual date of the Garden story. The main point of the book is to say that science cannot tell us that a de novo creation never happened, right? But I suppose both Young Earth and Old Earth creationists are rather tied to a recent Adam and Eve, aren’t they? So perhaps that is what Bugg’s is getting at?

1 Like


Apart from proving some isolated population of humans, I don’t see how future discoveries could disprove GAE. There is no reason why universal common ancestors who are genetic ghosts should not exist in the relatively recent past.

It seems to me it might conceivably be shown that, in a recent timeframe, there is no guarantee that Adam and Eve would be common ancestors (as the current science suggests for any plausible date for Adam), but it is hard to see how it would be impossible. Genealogy is, after all, not rocket science…

GAE never set out to prove A&E scientifically, but to show that science did not preclude their existence as ancestors as was claimed on single sex models of transmission.

If one has to exercise faith in a degree of providence, then that is no more than one requires to believe any figure in history actually existed. Was Jesus actually descended from David? There’s no reason why not, but science isn’t going to tell us. But for providence, one step in the genealogy could, in theory, be an illegitimate birth outside the line.

I think the issue is different for Richard and Josh’s long discussion about ancient sole parents - it’s very dependent on the complexities of the population genetics models not holding unpleasant surprises.


@jongarvey Thanks for those helpful responses.

I’d also be interested to hear your thoughts on Bugg’s second area of concern: How the origin of the human soul interacts with the creation of Adam and Eve. @swamidass’s book says that the people outside the garden were also fully human, so would also have souls, correct? However, many people would think of Adam and Eve being the first to have had a soul. But saying Adam and Eve were the first to have a soul would set up a difference between textual humans and people outside the garden in GAE, which could lead to the problematic idea of people outside the garden being “sub-human”

Although I do not fully understand Jay Johnson’s objections to GAE, I think one of them might have been related to this idea of when humans were endowed with a soul. Or perhaps his objection to GAE was unrelated to the soul and more related to when humans would have received moral sensibilities. In Jay’s podcast, his objection is: How were the people outside the garden socialized? I haven’t yet understood what he is trying to get at with that question.

1 Like

I am pretty clear in the book that is an open question because Scripture doesn’t tell us, but in Ch 14 And 11 I suggest they are in the image if God and that they have souls. The idea that somehow the GAE entails they must not have souls is an inference unmoored from any claim I make in the book.

The issue seems to be more that Jay and Hans find it objectionable that I acknowledge others might see it differently, because science and scripture don’t tell us much about people outside the garden. That seems to be the strangest sort of objection. They are objecting to me for what they see as deficiencies in another person’s view that I acknowledge is a logical possibility while showing a different option. That makes no sense.

I’d also add that the nature of the soul is an open question in theology. Our views here my be determinative about how we understand the people outside the garden in complex ways.

It seems tenuous to critique me for views I didn’t put forward and I explicitly presented an alternate.That’s what happened here.


I agree with what you say. The question of the soul is complex and open; many books have been written about it, and it is outside of the scope of your book.

I like how your book opens up more room for discussion about mysteries such as the human soul, our sense of morality and original sin.

The question as to how original sin could be transmitted seems mysterious in really any scenario. However, I see that tying original sin to genealogy could be a helpful and powerful symbol. Because we know genealogical relationships are real, a symbolic connection of sin with genealogy can help us understand that original sin is also real (albeit still mysterious).

This idea of mysterious permeation brings to mind an analogous parable of the yeast.

Matthew 13:33
He [Jesus] told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

The sin problem started with Adam (and somehow permeates through all humanity), but is solved with Jesus (imputed righteousness, available to all who believe).

Matthew 4:14
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”


As I understand Jay Johnson’s position, he places great stress on the origin of language as the origin of socialisation and hence of sin. The question of the soul, to my recollection of his argument, isn’t prominent.

On the soul, I agree with Josh that we lack information. The Hebrew concept is simply nephesh, life. A man is a soul, but animals are attributed nephesh too, being alive. In one case, the loose terminology of Scripture even talks of “dead souls.”

By the NT period, some idea of the possession of a soul creeps in, perhaps courtesy of 300 years of Greek (Platonic) thought, but the distinction of the soul (psuche) from the human spirit (pneuma) is not clear. Only in one place (1 Thess 5:23) does the “tripartite” idea of body-soul-spirit appear, and then in the context of God’s keeping blameless everything that needs it - it might be analogous to “lock, stock and barrel” rather than serious anthropology. In Heb 4 the sharp word of God divides even soul and spirit, joint and marrow, which again might be more about its power to “split a cigarette paper” rather than their actual separability as components of a person.

The traditional Christian “eternal soul” really comes more from Aristotelian philosophy, accentuated by Descartes, than the Bible: Aquinas reasons that the soul is rational, and therefore immaterial, and therefore eternal (and therefore directly created by God rather than by natural generation). It seems to be that understanding that causes most problem for people outside the garden - in OT terms, if Adam is a soul, and animals are, in their own way, souls, then obviously the same is true for those outside the garden. It’s not clear that the Bible writers believed in substance dualism, or even classical hylemorphism (though that comes closer).

Genesis says that man’s immortality is from the tree of life, not from nature: the “hope of Israel” is that God will raise the dead, the righteous and maybe (or definitely, according to the NT) the unrighteous. But that is God’s work, not the natural ability of a “soul.”