Rumors of Adam’s Demise: One More and Counting

Adam and the Genome has appeared because of a growing conflict between theology and science

“In Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science, Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight contest my way of thinking. These are two authors at the top of their game—Venema a biology professor at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, who has written widely on evolutionary biology from a Christian perspective, and McKnight a New Testament professor.”

 

I believe I’m genetically descended from Adam and Eve, but not just me: every human being can trace his or her lineage through Noah’s family all the way back to this first couple. I also heartily confess the doctrines of the fall and original sin, with Adam at the heart of what went tragically wrong with humanity. I would even say we misunderstand how Jesus put things to right, and what he did on the cross, without taking the full measure of this backstory.

In Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science, Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight contest my way of thinking. These are two authors at the top of their game—Venema a biology professor at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, who has written widely on evolutionary biology from a Christian perspective, and McKnight a New Testament professor at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, whose writings on Christian faith are both edifying and remarkably prolific.

The book unfolds in eight chapters divided into two parts; the first four chapters by Venema address the scientific questions, while the latter four by McKnight deal with Adam and Eve in Scripture. This volume is a must-read for those interested in the debate over the “historical Adam.”

The Debate

The crux of the matter is this: The standard evolutionary account renders improbable a historical reading of the early chapters of Genesis; and with the genetic evidence scientists have amassed—especially since the completion of the Human Genome Project—many now think the traditional picture of our first parents is impossible.

In response to these developments, some repudiate the scientific consensus and cling to the biblical witness, while others accept the scientific verdict and eviscerate the Bible. Rejecting such strategies, Venema and McKnight develop an approach that accepts “the reality of genetic evidence supporting a theory of evolution along with an understanding of Adam and Eve that is more in tune with the historical context of Genesis” (173). Their book intends to offer hope for those disillusioned by the controversy who are seeking ways to transcend the alleged conflict between science and faith.

Recognizing that many evangelicals distrust evidence for evolution and sometimes take refuge in it being “just a theory,” Venema explains why such criticisms betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to say evolution is a scientific theory. Scientific theories are far more epistemically secure than non-scientists usually think; in fact, “evolution has stood the test of time and remains our best explanation for biodiversity on earth” (11).

The second chapter unpacks the genomic evidence for evolution and common ancestry; skeptical readers will come away impressed at the deep explanatory power of evolutionary theory. We shouldn’t fear evolution, Venema reminds us, for we know that God is the Author of the “two Books”—Scripture and nature:

If indeed nature and Scripture have the same author, as Christians affirm, then there cannot, ultimately, be any disagreement between what we “read” in one book and what we read in the other. (8)

Venema cautions, however, that we interpret these Books imperfectly.

Original Couple?

Even if evolution is true, why are people saying we can no longer believe humanity descended from a single, original pair? In the third chapter, Venema explains why scientists have concluded “that we descend from a population that has never dipped below about 10,000 individuals” (48, my emphasis). He concedes that future evidence may cause scientists to tweak current models, but

[W]e can be confident that finding evidence that we were created independently of other animals or that we descend from only two people just isn’t going to happen. Some ideas in science are so well supported that it is highly unlikely new evidence will substantially modify them, and these are among them. The sun is at the center of our solar system, humans evolved, and we evolved as a population. (55)

Can evangelicals dodge this conclusion? Is there any place to hide?

The large bunker for those dissatisfied with Venema’s conclusions has been the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. Chapter 4, then, is a hefty, detailed critique of the ID movement. Venema mainly interacts with Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, and Douglas Axe (all three affiliated with the Discovery Institute in Seattle); they think the evidence points to “common design” not “common descent.”

According to Venema, that view renders God a deceiver since the evolutionary and genomic evidence give the appearance of common descent. Intelligent Design strikes him as a God-of-the-gaps argument, one that fails each time science fills in more gaps in our scientific knowledge. He asks us instead to view evolution “as God’s grand design for creating life” (90).

Apparently, there is no place for evangelicals to hide.

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