Tuesday, March 02, 2021

McLatchie on Swamidass

Jonathan McLatchie comments on Joshua Swamidass' theory regarding Adam and Eve and human evolution:

An innovative and provocative attempt to harmonize evolutionary theory with an historical Adam and Eve has recently been proposed by computational biologist Joshua Swamidass of Washington University in St. Louis. [10] Swamidass proposes that Adam and Eve lived approximately six thousand years ago, in accordance with the traditional creationist understanding. He argues that Adam and Eve did not have parents and were in fact created de novo, as described in Genesis 2. Consistent with a face-value reading of Genesis, Swamidass proposes that Adam was formed from the dust of the earth and Eve from Adam’s side. However, Swamidass argues that Adam and Eve were not the first humans. Rather, their genomes became ‘mixed’ with the rest of the human population outside of the garden through interbreeding (that is, humans who, unlike Adam and Eve, arose naturally through evolutionary processes), such that all extant humans can be said to trace their genealogical ancestry back to Adam and Eve, even though their genetic ancestry includes other lineages, unrelated to Adam, as well. Swamidass points out that universal genealogical ancestors (that is, individuals to whom all modern humans can trace their ancestry) are common, arising often throughout human history. Swamidass proposes that “Adam and Eve are to work as priestly rulers alongside Yahweh Elohim, to expand the Garden across the earth. Civilization is rising, and a new era is coming. Their purpose is to welcome everyone into their family, in a new kingdom of God.” [11] Swamidass distinguishes between what he calls “biological humans” and “textual humans.” [12] For Swamidass, “Biological humans are defined taxonomically, from a biological and scientific point of view. From at least AD 1 onward, they are coextensive with textual humans.” [13] On the other hand, “Textual humans are the group of people to whom Scripture refers. I argue that this group is defined by Scripture to be Adam, Eve, and their genealogical descendants, including everyone alive across the globe by, at latest AD 1. They are a chronological subset of biological humans, meaning that some biological humans in the past are not textual humans, but all textual humans are biological humans.” [14]

While Swamidass’ model is superficially attractive in that it does not require positing thousands of gaps in the Genesis genealogies, the problems that it raises are too intolerably great for me to commend Swamidass’ solution. For one thing, in what sense, if any, can non-Adamic biological humans be considered to be fully human? Are they affected by original sin, and did Jesus die to save them? Swamidass conjectures that these biological humans bear God’s image but “are not yet affected by Adam’s fall. They have a sense of right and wrong, written on their hearts (Rom. 2:15), but they are not morally perfect. They do wrong at times. They are subject to physical death, which prevents their wrongdoing from growing into true evil (Gen. 6:3).” [15] The Scriptures, however, make no such distinction between biological humans and textual humans. Swamidass’ view would seem to suggest logically that those individuals who were biological (but not textual) humans are qualitatively indistinct from other animals. But in that case it makes no sense to call their deeds evil, or to postulate that they had a sense of right and wrong. Moreover, if they, as Swamidass suggests, “do wrong at times”, then does this not suggest that Adam’s fall is but one of many falls that have occurred in human history? The theological ramifications that accompany this scenario are too severe for me to entertain Swamidass’ proposal.


  1. Jonathan is completely right, and puts the matter more calmly than I would. It is, in fact, difficult to see what possible value there is to a Christian in accepting Swamidass's suggestion. (I do not call it Swamidass's view, since I doubt he believes it.) Swamidass himself is openly a methodological naturalist. He does not claim that this suggestion is scientifically supported. Far from it. He fully embraces the supposed scientific evidence for human evolution by apparently natural processes. The *only point*, then, of this suggestion is that it's supposed to be a sop to Christians so that they can shoehorn their theology (supposedly) into the scientific consensus that man evolved from ape-like ancestors by what appeared to be naturalistic processes. This is a Swamidass version of the omphelos hypothesis. It is a great irony, then, that is is so theologically poor. By no means does it accommodate anything like a robust, theologically orthodox anthropology. What this means is that Swamidass has nothing to offer Christians by making up this view. It has nothing to commend it whatsoever. It disturbs me to think of Christians being pleased or charmed by it or thinking that it is helpful in any way whatsoever. Indeed, in an important sense it is condescending, a theologically heterodox toy scenario made up for the Christians to play with, to be entertained and pacified with, meant to look oh-so-conservative by making the couple in question be created (voila!) a bare 6000 years ago. But in fact, it embraces to all intents and purposes full human evolution of the human body and (like so many such theories) relegates the human body and the image of God in our embodied human nature to unimportance. It is difficult to respect it.

    1. I couldn't agree more with you (and of course Jonathan)!

      To be frank, even though Swamidass doesn't like the term, I think his position still amounts to theistic evolution. Sure, Swamidass argues for the neutral theory of evolution (at least he did in his debate with Michael Behe), which is in tension with or even challenges key aspects of neo-Darwinism, but it still takes for granted the sorts of things that you've pointed out, especially in assuming methodological naturalism which - as I've heard some of the ID guys point out (e.g. Steve Meyer) - is really the crux of the debate between a "theistic evolutionist" like Behe who can accept "intelligent design" and those "theistic evolutionsts" who can't and won't.

      To be fair, I haven't read Swamidass' book. However, I'm not sure I need to. I've watched several of his debates and interviews, and I've read several articles or posts he's written, and I think I have a fair sense of what he's arguing. Yet all this has left me quite unimpressed with his argument, as both Jonathan and you have pointed out. At the very least, I mean, I presume these interviews and articles are, if nothing else, meant to whet one's appetite to read his book, but they do the opposite for me.

    2. By the way, I don't know if you might know, but has Swamidass flirted with Christian physicalism? He seems somewhat skeptical about dualism, but maybe he's not sure himself and is asking honest questions. Or maybe I'm simply mistaken.

  2. That I don't know, about "Christian" physicalism. I should ask around. That would seem to fit well enough with his ambivalence about the meaning of imago dei. OTOH, if people actually try to apply his view they may end up with a kind of hyper-dualism in which the soul and body are only very accidentally connected and God "ensouled" Adam and Eve like a cherry on top of an evolved body. But back on the other hand yet again, that would not be the first time that physicalists end up sounding like extreme dualists. Witness all the pop psychology in which people are just physical beings and yet at the same time you can be a "man in a woman's body." Huh? But I don't know what Swamidass's own official position is on physicalism.

    Since he's such a strong methodological naturalist and so thoroughly accepts the naturalistic evolution of man's body, I'm not evne sure one needs to call him a theistic evolutionist. Except that he's a theist. But I'm not sure that he makes any particular attempt to say that God guided the process of evolution, even invisibly. In his suggested theory he seems to put all the divine action (at least as far as mankind is concerned) into God's creating the so-called Adam and Eve.

    1. Thanks, Lydia! These are great points. In my snarkier moments, I think Swamidass might as well just come out and say something like, yes, he's an evolutionist of one kind or another - sure, not like Dawkins or Coyne who toe the standard neo-Darwinian line, but an evolutionist all the same - and, oh, he's incidentally a Christian too. That seems to put the balance in his beliefs more where they truly are in reality! Anyway, what bothers me is he seems intentionally ambiguous about his real beliefs and where his sympathies lie (though again I grant maybe I haven't read or watched enough of him to know), and that his ambiguity seems to be leading some genuine Christians to consider his position more seriously than they otherwise might.

      The same goes for "Christian" physicalism (I also should have placed it in scare quotes like you rightly did!). I'm sure I'm very late to the game, but I've only recently become aware that Alister McGrath is a Christian physicalist. I guess it's not a total surprise though in light of McGrath's other beliefs. I learned about this through Brandon Rickabaugh's paper responding to Alister McGrath.

    2. I suppose another possibility is that Swamidass is still working out his own position and doing so in public rather than being intentionally ambiguous about his true beliefs and laying out all his cards on the table so people can judge his position in its totality.

      However I find that hard to believe. Especially given he's an MD/PhD (though his own CV seems to suggest he never completed his pathology residency, it only looks like he did one year from 2009-2010) and a tenured professor with a long list of publications in prestigious scientific journals like Nature as well as his own lab at WashU - which is of course a prestigious medical institution. Surely his position should be a lot more settled than most at this stage in his life and career.

    3. My understanding is that Ann Gauger was getting very frustrated trying to let people know that Swamidass is not really "friendly" to creationism and getting the word out about, e.g., his methodological naturalism.

      What I've found in NT studies as well is that there is this strange thing that happens where the audience interprets the scholar as saying what they want to hear. Obviously, the more ambiguous the scholar is, the more likely that is to happen, but it can happen even when the scholar comes right out and says something. A motivated audience will be like, "Oh, I'm sure he didn't really mean that. I bet he meant this other thing instead." It's very strange. Or, "I don't think that's really important." This may be happening somewhat with Swamidass. I've found sometimes that even telling people that he's a methodological naturalist and holds that the human body evolved by what appear to be fully naturalistic processes sometimes doesn't faze someone determined to be a fan. The response will be something like, "But that just makes it all the more valuable that he thinks there could have been a real Adam, because he's not starting with Christian assumptions." Also, the fact that he's had a falling out with Biologos is used like a credential. "He must be truly neutral and truly open-minded, since he and Biologos had a falling-out." He himself pushes it that way.

    4. Hm, I don't even know what to say to people who insist on interpreting a scholar in a way they want to hear rather than what the scholar actually said. It almost seems reminiscent of 2 Tim 4:3, except the scholar isn't necessarily trying to cater to what they want to hear.

      Maybe Acts 17:21 would be more apropos. Many people love hearing the latest or newest idea, and many even want to interpret old ideas in new ways, because doing so tickles their fancy. They love to hear what they love to hear.

      Maybe this is (for some people) also in part related to the fact that we live in an age where people seem more attracted to superficialities like how a person looks and sounds more than whether what they're saying is reasonable or sensible or substantial. I suppose that's why there are so many people (even some Christians!) who consider Christopher Hitchens an amazing intellect and stellar debater, even though at best I think he was a good rhetorician.

      I have tons of respect for Ann Gauger in general and in particular I heartily agree with most of what she wrote on Evolution News in response to Swamidass' "review" of Theistic Evolution (and honestly I wonder if Swamidass even read most of the book). I can definitely relate to and even share her frustrations. Swamidass seems to be making in-roads with a lot of conservative Christians and this alone is frustrating enough at least for me. I mean, we can try to reason with people as much as possible, but some people just don't want to hear reason, and (maybe I'm a cynical mood right now) there seems little we can do against such a trend. Maybe baser instincts are involved to some degree here too (e.g. the pride or honor/shame of belonging to or not belonging to a particular tribe). I'm not really sure.

      Oh, I didn't know that Swamidass had a falling out with Biologos! Interesting. I wonder what caused it. I guess I can search online and there will probably be information about this.

      Not that my opinion matters much, since I'm no one of any note, but your work on the NT has been so informative, insightful, and (surprisingly, at least to me) even edifying! I'm going to order your latest book as soon as I finish a couple of other books. Thanks for all your outstanding scholarship in service to the Lord and his people, Lydia. :)

    5. Thank you, that's very encouraging!