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A vintage engraving of Adam in the Garden of Eden
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A vintage engraving of Adam in the Garden of Eden

A biblical and scientific Adam

Science | A challenge to evangelicals who have backed away from an historic Adam, using a theologically informed look at ape ancestry genetic claims

As the battle between Darwinism and the Bible rages, some evangelicals have backed away from maintaining that Adam and Eve were real, historical individuals created in the way Genesis 2 relates:

“… the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. … So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.” 

In a just-published article from the Westminster Theological Journal, Westminster Theological Seminary professor Vern Poythress brilliantly explains why such a surrender is wrong biblically and scientifically. Poythress, with both a Th.D. and a Harvard Ph.D. in mathematics, is well-positioned to write about both theology and evolutionary theory. He has published 13 books, including Redeeming Science and Redeeming Sociology, and numerous scholarly articles. We post this new one with the author’s and WTJ’s permission. —Marvin Olasky 

Adam versus claims from genetics

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Did Adam and Eve exist? Does science say otherwise? The human genome project has produced voluminous data about the information contained in human DNA. Various news media and scientists tell us that this information demonstrates our ape ancestry. How do we evaluate these claims?

vern_poythress0518.jpgEvaluation is important for theological reasons. As the claims based on genetics have mounted, the theological discussion about Adam has heated up. From people with biblical and theological training we hear the argument that we must revise our understanding of the Bible and theology because we have to accept that evolution is an established fact.[1] In response, we hear the opposing argument that the Bible and theology call on us to retain the conviction that Adam was a historical individual whose fall into sin resulted in guilt and sin for all his descendants.[2] On both sides, people with training in biblical studies have understandably avoided discussing in detail the character of the scientific claims, and yet these have obviously greatly influenced the side that has abandoned the traditional understanding of Adam.[3] It is important to undertake a theologically informed evaluation of claims coming from genetics.

We cannot within a short compass examine all the claims and all the evidence in detail. But we can summarize some of the main points, and direct readers to more extensive information.

I. Ninety-nine percent common DNA

We may begin with a commonly cited statistic, the 99 percent identity between human DNA and chimp DNA. In 2005 the Cornell University News Service reported: “Chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestor, and even today 99 percent of the two species’ DNA is identical.”[4] In 2010 the University of California at San Francisco News mentioned the same figure: “The genetic codes of chimps and humans are 99 percent identical.”[5] In 2005 the National Institutes of Health News reported, “Our closest living relatives share perfect identity with 96 percent of our DNA sequence.”[6]

But assessing these claims is more challenging than it may appear. Note that the NIH report mentions 96 percent instead of 99 percent. Why? The same NIH report also includes the figure of 99 percent further on in its description, so none of the figures is an error. It turns out that the 99 percent figure arises by using a number of restrictions: (1) ignore repetitive portions, (2) compare only sequences that can be aligned naturally with one another, and (3) consider only base-pair substitutions, not “indels” (see below).

Comparisons of this kind get technical, because there can be several kinds of correspondence and noncorrespondence between DNA strands. Let us lay out briefly some of the issues. At the level of molecular structure, DNA contains a “code” composed of four “letters,” namely, ACGT (the letters stand for four distinct bases, adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine). The DNA code uses a particular sequence of letters, such as ATTGTTCTCGGC, to specify the exact sequence of amino acids that are to be used to construct a protein.[7] Human DNA and chimp DNA align when one finds the same sequence of letters in both kinds of DNA:

001adam.jpg

A variation is called a “substitution” when there is a different letter at some one point in the sequence:

002adam.jpg

(The T does not match the G in the middle of the sequence.) A variation is called an “indel” (short for insertion/deletion) when one of the sequences has extra letters:

03adam.jpg

If the comparison focuses only on substitutions within aligned protein-coding regions, the match is 99 percent. Indels constitute roughly a 3 percent difference in addition to the one percent for substitutions, leading to the figure of 96 percent offered by the NIH.

© 2013 Westminster Theological Journal. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

____________

ENDNOTES

1 Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012).

2 J.P. Versteeg, Adam in the New Testament: Mere Teaching Model or First Historical Man? (translated and with a foreword by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.; Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2012); C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).

3 Enns, Evolution of Adam, ix-x; Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., foreword to Adam in the New Testament, by Versteeg, xii: “The scientific issues involved, certainly important and in need of careful attention, are not my concern here.”

4 Krishna Ramanujan, “Genetic Divergence of Man from Chimp Has Aided Human Fertility but Could Have Made Us More Prone to Cancer, Cornell Study Finds,” Cornell University News Service, May 13, 2005, http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/May05/Chimps.kr.html (accessed September 19, 2012).

5 Jeffrey Norris, “What Makes Us Human? Studies of Chimp and Human DNA May Tell Us,” UCSF News Center, June 28, 2010, http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2010/06/5993/what-makes-ushuman-studies-chimp-and-human-dna-may-tell-us (accessed September 19, 2012).

6 “New Genome Comparison Finds Chimps, Humans Very Similar at the DNA Level,” NIH News: National Institutes of Health, August 31, 2005, http://www.genome.gov/15515096 (accessed September 27, 2012).

7 But some DNA has functions other than coding for proteins. See below. Further explanations of DNA can be found in many places, e.g., Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperOne, 2009).

8 Ingo Ebersberger et al., “Genomewide Comparison of DNA Sequences between Humans and Chimpanzees,” American Journal of Human Genetics 70, no. 6 (June 1, 2002): 1490-97 [1492-93], http://www.cell.com/AJHG/abstract/S0002-9297%2807%2960701-0 (accessed September 19, 2012).

9 Ingo Ebersberger et al., “Mapping Human Genetic Ancestry,” Molecular Biology and Evolution 24, no. 10 (2007): 2266, http://mbe.oxfordjournals.org/content/24/10/2266.full.pdf (accessed September 19, 2012); referenced by Casey Luskin, “Study Reports a Whopping ‘23% of Our Genome’ Contradicts Standard Human-Ape Evolutionary Phylogeny,” Evolution News, June 3, 2011, http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/06/study_reports_a_whopping_23_of047041.html (accessed September 19, 2012).

10 For a clear exposition of different meanings of “evolution,” one may see John C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion, 2009), 100-108.

11 Similarly Alvin Plantinga distinguishes between unguided and guided evolutionary processes (Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011], 16-17, 39, 55, 63).

12 Lennox, God’s Undertaker, 96-99.

13 Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), esp. ch. 1.

14 On “methodological naturalism,” see ibid., ch. 19.

15 Because of “redundancy” (“degeneracy”) in the DNA code, two distinct codons, consisting of triplets such as CTT and CTA, may code for the same amino acid, such as leucine. In spite of the fact that distinct codons could code for the very same amino acid, distinct species tend to reuse the same codon at the same position in analogous proteins. This evidence is not explained merely by appeals to common protein function. So an additional explanation is called for, and of course Darwinism supplies it in the form of common descent and gradual modification.

16 On the importance of frameworks of interpretation, see Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition (4th ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

17 See Poythress, Redeeming Science, ch. 18.

18 John Bloom mentions the wine in John 2 and suggests further illustrations of special action that authenticate the special character of the product: the president of a firm personally signs a letter typed by his secretary; or, in the ancient Near East, a king might personally make the first brick for a temple (“On Human Origins: A Survey,” http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/origins/humans-jb.htm [accessed September 26, 2012]).

19 Ibid. (italics original).

20 The Bible focuses on man’s religious status and relationship to God. This focus is appropriate because it is vital to our understanding of God Himself, human sin, and Christ’s redemption. In addition, our personal relation to God really does constitute what is most weighty and distinctive about humanity in comparison to animals. A number of authors, observing the importance of religious status, have theorized that a sudden appearance of religious consciousness or a sudden transition to relatedness to God or a sudden initial act of divine revelation is compatible in principle with a gradualistic origin of humanity at the biological level. They distinguish sharply between religious relationship and biological history.

In reply we may indeed acknowledge that in theory many possible biological stories for how God brought man into existence might be minimally compatible with the general principle that man is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-17). But Genesis 2:7 and 2:21-22 are more specific. These verses along with the entire context make points about man’s religious relation to God, but in my judgment they resist being interpreted as if they had no implications about processes (see Poythress, Redeeming Science, 249-51).

21 The ENCODE Project Consortium, “An Integrated Encyclopedia of DNA Elements in the Human Genome,” Nature 489 (September 6, 2012): 71, http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v489/n7414/pdf/nature11247.pdf (accessed September 25, 2012).

22 Jonathan Wells, The Myth of Junk DNA (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2011), 19-27.

23 Francis Collins, The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2006), 136-37. It should be noted that Collins, because he is a Christian, believes in divine purpose. Moreover, he has now changed his mind and stopped using the term “junk DNA” (Wells, Myth of Junk DNA, 99).

24 Magdalena Skipper, Ritu Dhand, and Philip Campbell, “Presenting ENCODE,” Nature 489, no. 45 (September 6, 2012), http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v489/n7414/full/489045a.html (accessed September 25, 2012); see also The ENCODE Project Consortium, “An Integrated Encyclopedia of DNA.” The issue is discussed further in Casey Luskin, “Junk No More: ENCODE Project Nature Paper Finds ‘Biochemical Functions for 80% of the Genome,’” Evolution News and Views (September 5, 2012), http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/09/junk_no_more_en_1064001.html (accessed September 25, 2012). In addition, we may note that many geneticists tend to interpret biochemical function narrowly to mean a coding function: the sequence of ACGT bases is functional if it is translated into RNA that has a function, or if it is recognized as a “promoter” or regulatory region that influences the expression of neighboring DNA. But in addition to these functions, parts of the DNA may serve “structural” functions, such as forming a key environment for the centromere, serving as spacers, and influencing DNA folding into chromatin (Wells, Myth of Junk DNA, 62-63, 72-77).

25 Ewan Birney, quoted in an interview by Stephen S. Hall, “Journey to the Genetic Interior,” Scientific American 307, no. 4 (October 2012), 82.

26 A biblically informed Christian framework can also flexibly accommodate many forms of biological data. The difference is that the Christian framework does not claim to establish its case by appeals to biology, but rather by appeals to biblical testimony, to history, and to the universal evidence for God (Romans 1:18-25).

27 There is also an ideological taboo against criticism (Lennox, God’s Undertaker, 94-96, 99).

28 Robert B. Laughlin, A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 168-70.

29 Lennox, God’s Undertaker, 112.

30 Francisco J. Ayala et al., “Molecular Genetics of Speciation and Human Origins,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 91, no. 15 (July 19, 1994): 6787-94 [6787], http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC44284/?tool=pubmed (accessed September 26, 2012).

31 Ibid., 6787.

32 Takashi Shiina et al., “Rapid Evolution of Major Histocompatibility Complex Class I Genes in Primates Generates New Disease Alleles in Humans via Hitchhiking Diversity,” Genetics 173 (July 2006): 1569; see also Ann Gauger, “The Science of Adam and Eve,” in Ann Gauger, Douglas Axe, and Casey Luskin, Science and Human Origins (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2012), 105-22.

33 Dennis R. Venema, “Genesis and the Genome: Genomics Evidence for Human-Ape Common Ancestry and Ancestral Hominid Population Sizes,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 63, no. 3 (2010): 166-78, http://www.asa3online.org/PSCF/2010/08/20/genesis-and-the-genome-genomicsevidence-for-human-ape-common-ancestry-and-ancestral-hominid-population-sizes (accessed September 26, 2012).

34 Albert Tenesa et al., “Recent Human Effective Population Size Estimated from Linkage Disequilibrium,” Genome Research 17 (2007): 520-26, http://genome.cshlp.org/content/17/4/520 (accessed September 26, 2012).

35 “… pairwise r2 was calculated … only for SNP pairs between 5 kb and 100 kb apart … to avoid the influence of gene conversion on observed LD at SNPs that are closer [and that might otherwise probe more remote times]” (ibid., 521).

36 Ibid., 524.

37 Feng-Chi Chen and Wen-Hsiung Li, “Genomic Divergences between Humans and Other Hominoids and the Effective Population Size of the Common Ancestor of Humans and Chimpanzees,” American Journal of Human Genetics 68 (2001): 444-56, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1235277/ (accessed September 27, 2012).

38 Ziheng Yang, “Likelihood and Bayes Estimation of Ancestral Population Sizes in Hominoids Using Data From Multiple Loci,” Genetics 162, no. 4 (2002): 1811-23, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12524351 (accessed September 26, 2012).

39 In fact, Chen and Li explicitly mention the issue of a bottleneck at a later time: “The human lineage apparently has undergone a significant reduction in effective population size since its separation from the chimpanzee lineage” (“Genomic Divergences,” 455).

40 Zhongming Zhao et al., “Worldwide DNA Sequence Variation in a 10-kilobase Noncoding Region on Human Chromosome 22,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 97, no. 21 (October 10, 2000): 11354-58, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC17204/ (accessed September 26, 2012). This paper is one of many that use data from present-day human genetic diversity.

41 Zhao et al. (ibid., 11355) uses two models: (1) G. A. Watterson, “On the Number of Segregating Sites in Genetical Models without Recombination,” Theoretical Population Biology 7 (1975): 257; and (2) Fumio Tajima, “Evolutionary Relationship of DNA Sequences in Finite Populations,” Genetics 105 (October 1983): 438, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1202167/ (accessed September 26, 2012). Subsequent to writing my article, I have also had my attention drawn to another technical article, Stephen T. Sherry et al., “Alu Evolution in Human Populations: Using the Coalescent to Estimate Effective Population Size,” Genetics 147, no. 4 (1997): 1977-82, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1208362/ (accessed January 21, 2013), which also depends on Watterson’s 1975 model (p. 1978 col. 2) and shares the same limitations.

42 William Henry Green, “Primeval Chronology,” BSac 47 (1890): 285-303.

43 Genesis 4:2 describes Cain and Abel as engaging in agriculture and sheep herding. This description has suggested to some interpreters that the text is referring to the Neolithic period (around 10,000 B.C.), when archeologists can see evidence of these activities. But Cain and Abel may have lived earlier. They may have taken the first steps, and yet have had their steps aborted by subsequent human decline due to sin. For a discussion of still other options for interpretation of Genesis 4–5, one may consult any number of OT commentaries. Derek Kidner succinctly discusses the genealogies (Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary [London: InterVarsity, 1967], 82-83).

44 On the assessment of fossils, see Casey Luskin, “Human Origins and the Fossil Record,” in Science and Human Origins; also Bloom, “On Human Origins: A Survey.”

45 For critical appraisals of mainstream media claims, one may also look to websites like “Evolution News and Views” (http://www.evolutionnews.org/) and “Reasons to Believe” (www.reasons.org), which respond to current news.

46 Gaffin, “Foreword”; C. John Collins, Genesis 1–4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2006).

47 See Gaffin, “Foreword,” ix-xxv.

48 Vern S. Poythress, “Evaluating the Claims of Scientists,” New Horizons (March 2012): 6-8, http://www.opc.org/nh.html?article_id=739 (accessed September 26, 2012); also at http://www.framepoythress.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/2012Evaluating.pdf (accessed September 26, 2012).

49 Michael Polanyi analyzes the element of personal commitment at length in Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).

50 Poythress, Redeeming Science, esp. ch. 1.

51 On the broader question of the origin of various kinds of life, see ibid., ch. 18; on the creation of Eve, see ibid., 249-51.

52 Discussions on biblical authority and purposes are of course voluminous. See particularly John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2010).

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