One of the reasons why Darwin encountered so much opposition from Christianity when he published On the Origin of Species in 1859 was evolution’s seeming negation of the creation of humanity via a first couple, Adam and Eve. Although much of Christianity now accepts that God created us through natural processes, the question of who the first humans were and how we are related to them remains open and has stimulated much theological speculation.
Up until the beginning of the 21st century, the multiregional evolutionary hypothesis predominated in palaeoanthropology. The scholarly consensus was that our species Homo sapiens evolved in parallel fashion in various regions of the world, which contradicted the biblical assertion that the whole of humanity is unified by descent from a common source. This consensus changed radically with fossil and archaeological discoveries in Africa, backed up by evidence from the human genome. We now know that Africa is the cradle of humanity, and that all hominin species evolved there. We also know that all non-African humans are descended from one small group of Homo sapiens who migrated out of Africa about fifty thousand years ago, and populated the rest of the world. Interestingly, in comparison with the genomes of closely related primate species such as chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas, the human genome is notably lacking in diversity. This is particularly striking given the widespread geographical distribution of humanity compared to the limited range and habitats of the other great ape species and that the genetic similarity between humans transcends race and ethnicity. Our limited genetic diversity has actually given rise to what is known as the “Garden of Eden Hypothesis”, which maintains that humanity originated as the result of an evolutionary bottleneck in a single favourable location, most likely in East Africa. So what are the implications of these findings for the Genesis story of Adam and Eve?
Molecular anthropologists argue that our lack of genetic diversity notwithstanding, a single couple could not have generated sufficient diversity to produce a whole species. Arguments that scientific understanding of how DNA functions has changed over the years, and that there are ways in which genetic diversity can increase faster than population models predict have been made by evolutionary creationists in order to allow for the possibility of a founding pair. Given the fact however that we are a social species whose predecessor hominin species evolved in groups, as well as the calculations based on our genetic diversity, evolutionary creationists also try to harmonise the scientific and biblical accounts by drawing upon both Genesis accounts of our origins. Taken together, the contrasting Genesis stories allow for an expanded theological understanding of who the first humans were.
In Genesis 1:26-27, the Hebrew word ‘adam’ literally means ‘humankind’; ‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind (adam) in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground”. So God created adam in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’. Genesis 1 therefore can be interpreted as describing the creation of a first population rather than a first pair. The theological and scientific accounts can be even more closely harmonised with the assertion that God brought a pre-existing hominin species into a new spiritual category of human – Homo divinus – by the direct infusion of souls, hence creating a new species. This theological claim is supported by the archaeological and fossil evidence, which indicate that our species attained the cognitional faculties, spiritual awareness and complex culture that distinguished it from other hominin species very suddenly, in a way that evolutionary mechanisms cannot account for. Evolution therefore does not rule out a special creation event which is a form of direct creation.
In contrast to Genesis 1 which gives an overview of the process of creation and places the creation of humanity at the end, Genesis 2 focuses more specifically on male and female human nature, and hence on a personal Adam and his wife Eve. So their creation is placed at the beginning of the creation account rather than the end. At first however ‘adam’ is not used as a personal name, but literally means ‘the human’. It becomes a personal name with the creation of his female companion whom he names Eve, “because she was the mother of all the living” (Gen 3:20). In Hebrew Eve resembles the word for ‘living’, and can also be understood as ‘giver of life’, a defining characteristic of the female sex. In the second creation account, Adam and Eve can therefore be understood archetypally as models for men and women and how they should relate to one another, to the environment and to God.
So how does all of this relate to the scientific account of origins? In an evolutionary context it is quite common now theologically to take the two accounts together and to treat the Adam and Eve of Genesis 2 as the first leader of the first human grouping and his wife. We are a ‘follow the leader’ kind of a species, so that the behaviour and decisions made by the first leader/chieftain and his wife would have greatly influenced the behaviour of the first human group, leading to a rapid coevolution of genes and culture. Interpreting the scientific evidence in terms of Genesis 1 and 2 permits both the scientific evidence for a first group, and also the traditional Judaeo-Christian emphasis on Adam and Eve as a pair who were of crucial importance to the shaping of the moral and spiritual nature of humanity. In conclusion, scientific monogenism is compatible with theological monogenism in that we are all descended from this original group. As we will see in next month’s column, our mode of evolutionary descent as a species is vital to the integration of the Darwinian account of human behaviour with the Christian one.