Can creationism and evolution be combined into a coherent whole?

Christian philosophers are using the latest genealogical and genetic research into human ancestry to reconcile evolution with the traditional concept of Adam and Eve as described in the scripture, proposing that both ideas can be true at the same time, but combining science and philosophy is always a tricky business, even for an atheist.

There was a time, not too long ago, when Intelligent Design was viewed by a segment of the religious right as the creationists answer to evolution.  The idea was simple and seductive:  Life was declared “irreducibly complex,” meaning there were adaptations present in animals that simply couldn’t have arisen through the incremental process that evolution requires.  The phrase was coined by Michael Behe in his seminal book on the subject, Darwin’s Black Box, published in 1996.  At the time, he identified blood clotting as an example of a system that simply couldn’t have evolved because it required some two dozen genetically coded proteins combining in complex ways.  By 2009, however, thanks to rapid DNA analysis, scientists had mapped out the origin of all the genes involved and demonstrated how they arose step by step.  R.F. Doolittle traced the origin of these genes all the way back to jawless fish with modern fishing adding some to the mix, and then the full system in place with marsupials.  They also determined that egg-laying mammals like the platypus, which diverged earlier in their evolutionary history, lack at least one of these factors.  In other words, evolution remained intact despite the challenge.

Today, Mr. Behe is focused on cilia, the hairlike structures used by bacteria and other cells, as an example of irreducible complexity, but the general concept isn’t taken nearly as seriously as it once was because the science has advanced, and the mysteries of evolution continue to be unraveled by a deep understanding of genes themselves.  This shouldn’t be surprising:  Because we do not currently know precisely how something has evolved, or what something might have been used for before taking its current form, doesn’t imply there is no evolutionary explanation.  If you asked a caveman how a modern car was manufactured, they’d be completely unable to answer, likely believe it must be some magical creation, but that doesn’t make it true.  Likewise, we are attempting to unravel billions of years of history with not even 70-years’ of understanding the underlying architecture.  Still, the stunning pace of progress in evolutionary theory powered by modern technology has placed creationists in something of a bind.  It’s become near impossible for anyone even remotely engaged with the topic to assert that evolution is fundamentally false given all we know today about our genes and how they are shared among the animal kingdom.  Over the past 20 years, we have mapped thousands of genomes, culminating in an interactive tree of life available online for all the world to browse, and have not encountered a single strand of DNA incompatible with evolutionary theory.

At the same time, the “pure” reading of evolution as the explanation for life on Earth remains incompatible with key aspects of theology.  Therefore, to hold both things as true, many feel this gap must be bridged somehow, and those of faith are turning to our increased understanding of genealogy and genetics itself for the answers.  For example, a new book, The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry by S. Joshua Swamidass, an associate professor at Washington University, proposes that genetics and evolutionary theory do not directly conflict with the traditional biblical conception of Adam and Eve as the universal ancestors of all humanity.  Mr. Swamidass explains, “For over 160 years, the societal conflict over evolution has been deep and stubborn. But now, in a surprise twist, evolutionary science is making space for Adam and Eve.  It turns out that the theological questions are about genealogical ancestry, not genetics. In this paradigm shift, we are finding a better way forward, a better story to tell.”

He bases his theory on the nature of human ancestry itself.  Everyone knows that we are a genetic blend of our parents, each contributing 50% of their genes to our DNA, and that our parents are a blend of their parents, meaning we carry approximately 25% of our grandparents DNA, but the further back in time you go, something surprising happens.  Populations were generally smaller in the distant past and therefore each of our distant ancestors must significantly overlap, meaning you and I could share a common great-great-great-great-great ancestor quite easily.  The further back you go, the more likely it is that you share this genealogical ancestor with a total stranger.  Think of the difference this way:  A genetic ancestor is a person from which you directly inherited a certain gene.  Given that you only share a quarter of your genes with your grandparents, an eighth with your great-grandparents, and a sixteenth with your great-great-grandparents, a universal genetic ancestor is rare.  The further back you go, the less DNA comes directly down an individual line.  By the time you reach even ten generations, the DNA becomes so blended that it becomes meaningless to say you inherited a thousandth of their DNA.

A genealogical ancestor, that is a shared great-great-great-whatever is far more common, however, because everyone has to have ancestors in general.  In fact, Mr. Swamidass believes that the proposed Genealogical Adam and Eve could be as recent as 6,000 years, meaning all of us could be directly descended from a couple that lived 4,000 years before Christ.  Further, he proposes a bifurcated approach to considering evolution and theology.  In his model, humans share a common ancestor with great apes, but Adam and Eve were created divinely by God as the scripture describes.  He believes the bible supports this notion because Adam and Eve’s son, Cain, marries someone not descended from his parents, building a city with people from outside their line.  As Mr. Swamidass explained it to Fox News Digital, “Most readers of Genesis understood Adam and Eve to be (1) ancestors of us all, and (2) miraculously created without parents of their own.  In contrast, evolution teaches that (3) we share common ancestors with apes, and (4) we arise from a large population, not a single couple. This conflict of fact only seemed solvable by revising foundational Christian theological beliefs, or by rejecting evolution.”  He continued, “But now, clearing up some big scientific understandings, we know that all four of these things can be true at the same time.  Even if Adam and Eve lived as recently as just 6,000 years ago, they would be the genealogical ancestors of everyone across the globe by AD 1. They could even have been created de novo, from the dust and a rib. Of course, at the same time, we would also descend from people outside the Garden, others whom God created by a providentially governed process of evolution.”

Mr. Swamidass is not alone in this conception.  William Lane Craig, a professor of Christian philosophy at Houston Baptist University, makes a similar argument in his book, In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration, published last September, though he places Adam and Eve Further in the past.  In addition, BioLogos, a non-profit Christian organization founded by former NIH Director Francis Collins, that is known for embracing evolution and rejecting the traditional story of Adam and Eve has since adapted much of the same model.  Michael Murray, a Christian philosophy professor at Franklin and Marshall College, believes the work of Mr. Swamidass, Mr. Craig, and others have allowed us to arrive at the “the point where we can confidently affirm that the basic evolutionary story is not the threat to Christian orthodoxy that we once feared, and not because we had to compromise on orthodoxy.”  He told Fox News Digital, “My view is that recent findings in genetics and paleontology have shown that our best scientific theories and data do not rule out a historical Adam and Eve.”  To be sure, he added a caveat, saying these developments do not make Adam and Eve more or less likely, but show that “for all we know, there might have been a pair that is the ancestor of all extant humans or extant Homo sapiens.”

What is a self-proclaimed atheist like myself supposed to make of these developments?  Personally, I have always been leery of attempting to unite science with theology, or any philosophy for that matter.  The scientific viewpoint requires an essential skepticism, embracing the belief that the world is fundamentally rational and can be explained by analysis and experiment using the language of mathematics.  The “scientist” confronts a mystery with the fundamental assumption that there is a coherent, repeatable explanation, one that is discoverable and knowable by human beings, even though we have no evidence this position is strictly true.  In fact, it remains far more likely than not that there is a limit to human understanding and there are things in the universe we simply cannot explain, or, putting it another way, things mathematics, even some potential future mathematics, simply cannot express.  This takes us into the realm of philosophy and theology, and while healthy human minds require both, their day to day application in science is challenging, lest some scientist come up with a theory that reads [INSERT MIRACLE HERE].

As an atheist, I do not believe in God, but that doesn’t mean I think science can explain everything in the universe either.  It’s a simple, self-evident distinction, but one that is often confused in public discourse.  For me, I believe that science is the best tool we have for examining the world around us, but that mathematics remains a human construct and therefore is inherently incomplete and fallible, as Goedel demonstrated in his famous theorem in the early 1900s.  In other words, no edifice built on mathematics is capable of explaining every possible mystery in the universe.  If you were to ask me to get specific about what this means in practice, I would allude to the work of Lee Smolin and Roberto Mangabeira Unger who believe that mathematics is an abstraction with time removed.  In their view (and mine), physical theories do not have an accurate arrow of time because mathematics can’t capture the underlying reality of time itself.  You might remember this from high school physics:  Pick a theory, any theory, and the mathematics works forward and backward in time.  You can just as easily calculate the past as you can the future, making it just as likely that a glass magically reconstructs itself from shards on the floor as the other way around.

The real world of course, doesn’t work this way.  Things don’t reassemble themselves and time only moves forward as far as we have been able to determine.  Scientists generally skirt this issue by adding the concept of entropy, which broadly concludes that systems will devolve to the least ordered state over time.  Order, as in keeping the glass together, requires energy, but disorder just happens.  There is no doubt this is true, but entropy remains a statistical model, not a law of physics like gravity, and attempts to use it to explain why time only runs one way result in some odd contortions and assumptions, namely that the universe somehow sprung into existence in an incredibly low entropy state and time is playing out by moving to a higher entropy state.  There is no known mechanism or reasons or this, however, and Mr. Smolin and Mr. Unger propose that modern scientific theory is missing the forest for the trees as they say.  In their conception, time is not the fourth dimension from popular culture, interchangeable with length, height, and width, but instead is the change itself, up to and including changing mathematics and physical laws themselves, and it only moves in one direction.  Further, each moment is unique, something our mathematics completely fails to capture. Since we can only measure the universe based on how it works today, we are fundamentally limited in our ability to explore its origins and its history in the ancient, ancient past.  We can imagine and extrapolate using our gift for philosophy, but we cannot say for certain, ever.

Ultimately, this viewpoint is little different than a religious person in my opinion.  We both arrive at the notion that there are mysteries beyond explanation, albeit by greatly different paths and mechanisms.  This leads me back to my original assertion that science and philosophy occupy two different spheres in the mind, each not entirely compatible with the other, and therefore should be kept separate whenever possible, causing me to get a little squeamish when anyone tries to tie scripture to evolution.  At the same time, an increased understanding of how genetics works, how genes filter through populations via our genealogy, and an acceptance of evolution in general as the rational explanation for life on Earth strike me as positive developments.  If nothing else, the approaches used by Mr. Swadimass, Mr. Craig, and others seem far preferable to the pseudoscience of Intelligent Design.  Rather than claiming evolution is fundamentally flawed and evolutionists should start [INSERTING MIRACLES HERE], they are imagining the science and religion coexisting side by side.  While I don’t personally believe the two are compatible at that level, it is a noble effort to try, so long as science continues to be science.

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