What about Adam and Eve? Part 1


This is the fourth in a series of blog posts concerned with Christian questions about evolution. One of the biggest dilemmas is what to do about Adam and Eve.

  • Were they real people?
  • How were they created?
  • Was Adam the father of all mankind?
  • What about the story in Genesis 3 of the fall of Adam and Eve and consequently all of mankind into sin?
  • Do the creation stories in Genesis communicate real, historical events or are they myths that God is using to communicate timeless truths?

These are the concerns I want to address in this and my next post.

Two book model of revelation

God reveals himself through the Bible/Scripture (special revelation) and through what we observe in nature (general revelation).

In my first post in the  series I talked about dealing with the tension between science and the Bible. The Bible teaches that God reveals himself to man in two ways. One is through scripture (the Bible) and the other is through what we observe in nature (using science). This is perhaps best seen in Psalm 19 and in Romans 1:20.

There can be no real conflict between God’s revelation in nature and God’s revelation in Scripture. Because of God’s character, his infinite wisdom and his righteousness, what God reveals in nature and what God reveals in Scripture must both be true. But human understanding of these revelations requires human interpretation and that is fallible. Thus any apparent conflict between God’s revelations in nature and Scripture must be due to faulty interpretation of one or both revelations. Let’s look at what God has revealed about the creation of mankind in his two books.

The origin of man: The story from Scripture (the Bible)

There are two accounts of the creation of man and woman in Genesis. One is in Genesis 1 and the other in Genesis 2. Genesis 1 tells of God’s creative activities from a cosmic perspective and ends with the creation of man and woman as the pinnacle of God’s creation. They were created in the image of God with a purpose, namely to serve on earth as God’s vice-regents.

The Genesis 2 creation account has a human rather than a cosmic focus. It is set in a sacred place, the Garden of Eden, and it tells the story of the creation of Adam from the dust of the earth and the creation of Eve from Adam’s side. It describes God’s covenant relationship with man. This relationship is personal. Both God and man have certain responsibilities in the relationship. God’s role was as the loving creator who gave Adam and Eve abundant provisions as well as instructions for life. Man’s responsibilities were to work and keep the Garden and to obey God’s instructions.

Blake, William, 1757-1827. The Temptation and Fall of Eve (Illustration for Paradise Lost, by John Milton), from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=50212 (retrieved April 7, 2014). Original source: http://www.mfa.org/.

Genesis 3 describes the fall of mankind into sin from the initially “good” state in Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 2 God gave Adam one rule, don’t eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Satan, appearing in the form of a snake, tempted Eve by implying that God was holding out on Adam and Eve by forbidding them to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Satan said that when you eat from the fruit your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing the difference between good and evil. Eve ate the fruit and also gave some to Adam. As a consequence of their sin, Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden and sin entered into the world.

How the story of Adam and Eve fits into the bigger storyline of Scripture

The original good creation as described in Genesis 1 and 2 was followed by The Fall in Genesis 3. This sets the stage for the rest of the storyline of the Bible concerned with God’s plan for redeeming his creation. The plan unfolds through several stages. The first is the call of Abraham and the establishment of a holy nation, Israel, who were to serve as a nation of priests representing God to all the peoples of the earth. The second stage is the coming of Christ who was the perfect embodiment of Israel and whose death on the cross provided atonement for sin. While spiritual death entered the world through one man, Adam, spiritual life was restored also by one man Jesus, the second Adam (Romans 5:12-17; 1 Cor. 15:21-22). After Jesus’s death and resurrection, he returned to heaven to be with the Father. Now God’s redemptive plan entered the third stage in which the followers of Jesus assumed the priestly role previously held by the nation of Israel. This part of the plan called the church age is where we are now. The last stage is the return of Jesus in glory and the final restoration of God’s creation to the original Edenic state as described especially in the book of Revelations.

The origin of Man: The story from nature (science)

In a previous post, I discussed four lines of evidence that support the idea that all living creatures, including man, descended over a period of millions of years from a common bacteria-like ancestor. These are

  1. the common cellular and molecular basis of life,
  2. family relationships among living organisms,
  3. transition forms in the traditional fossil record,
  4. the use of genetic fossils as markers to trace the family history of organisms.

Furthermore evolution by natural selection is the biological mechanism that accounts for the common descent.

Hominid transition fossils, showing increasing brain capacity over time. Note that gorillas and chimpanzees are our contemporaries, not our ancestors. Photo from Encylopedia Britannica.

Transition forms

There is a rich fossil record of transition forms that connect modern man at least biologically to the common ancestor of humans and our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees. Before we talk about that, I need to define a couple of terms. Hominids are the group of great apes that include orangutans and gorillas as well as humans and chimpanzees. Hominins are a subgroup of hominids which includes humans as well as other species, known only through the fossil record, that are more closely related to humans than to chimpanzees.

Teasing out the precise relationships between the large number of transition fossils between chimpanzees and modern humans (Homo sapiens) has been challenging. The transition forms fall into five major groups or grades that have fuzzy boundaries. The transitions follow the progression of key characteristics such as the transition to bipedal walking, increasing brain size (as measured by the volume of the braincase in fossils) and the development of tool making abilities related to the increase in brain size.

The first group of transition fossils are the possible/probable hominins that were present 4.5-7 million years ago. This group sits near the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans. They had a small brain (350 cubic centimeter braincase volume) and exhibited hints of bipedal walking. The next group are the archaic hominins, present 2.5-4.5 million years ago. They exhibited an increased brain size (500 cubic centimeter braincase volume) and evidence of occasional bipedal walking. The most famous example in this group is Austalopithecus afarensis which was nicknamed Lucy.

The third group are the transitional hominins, present 1.6-2.5 million years ago. They exhibited a further increase in brain size (500-700 cubic centimeter braincase volume) as well as increasing but not full commitment to bipedal walking. There is also evidence for the use of primitive tool technology (Oldowan). An example of this group is Homo habilis.

The fourth group are known as pre-modern Homo, present from 50,000-2 million years ago. This group exhibited complete commitment to bipedal walking. Some members of this group had a brain size (1400 cubic centimeter braincase volume) near that of humans. There is evidence for the use of more complex tool technology (Acheulean). Examples in the group include Homo erectus, Neanderthals and Denisovans. There is genetic evidence for limited interbreeding of Neanderthals and Denisovans with modern humans (Homo sapiens)

The final group is modern man (modern Homo) which originated in Africa between 160-200,000 years ago. Modern humans are the only member of this group.

The journey of man

The Genographic project is an effort funded by National Geographic to trace the movements of ancient peoples using “footprints” in the genes of people today. This is done by mapping the appearance and frequency of genetic markers within different geographic and ethnic groups. There is a very interesting video describing this work that you can view on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-dDXIX-y6aY). You can see a map showing the movements at https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/human-journey/.

The Human Journey Migration Routes, https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/human-journey/. Accessed 4/7/2014.

After the human species arose in Africa 160-200,000 years ago in Ethiopia, genetic and paleontological records indicate that the species remained in Africa until about 60-70,000 years ago. During that time the population went through a crisis where it was reduced to about 10,000 individuals and nearly became extinct. Although the exact cause of the population bottleneck is not known, the crisis is associated with a climate change that occurred during the last Ice Age. Once the climate improved some members of the population began to move out of Africa and colonize Europe and Asia.

There were two waves of migration out of Africa. One wave took the southern route across the Bab-al-Mandab Strait separating present-day Yemen from Djibouti. From there they followed a southern coastal route across India and Southeast Asia finally ending up in Australia. The second wave of migration went into Central Asia followed by additional migrations into the northern latitudes of Europe and Asia.

About 20,000 years ago there was a further migration from East Asia into North America across a land bridge that was exposed during the Last Glacial Maximum. Once into the arctic region of North America, there was continued migration south all the way to the tip of South America.

Did Homo sapiens start from a single pair of individuals (i.e. Adam and Eve)?

Let me start with a couple of definitions. First a species is a population or group of populations of an organism that has the potential to interbreed in nature to produce viable, fertile offspring but don’t produce viable, fertile offspring with members of other groups of organisms. For example dogs can interbreed with other dogs to produce viable, fertile offspring but dogs can’t interbreed with cats. Second, speciation is an evolutionary process in which one species splits into two or more species.

Speciation doesn’t involve one individual suddenly turning into a new species. Rather speciation involves incremental changes in the population as a whole over many generations. Each generation of a population is slightly different from the preceding generation due to new mutations in genes or changes in the frequency of variants of individual genes. If two populations of the same species become separated in some way such that they are not routinely interbreeding, over time the two populations may accumulate enough differences such that they can no longer interbreed. If this happens one species has now divided into two species and a speciation event has occurred.

If the human species arose through the process of evolution, then the origin of our species (Homo sapiens) occurred through the gradual accumulation of genetic changes in a subpopulation of our last common ancestor. But how large was this population? The size of a population in the past can be estimated based on genetic variation in the present. Genes come in different forms known as alleles. Some genes in the human population exist in hundreds of different forms. However each individual in the population has at most two of the variant forms, one from the mother and the other from the father.

A large population can pass on a large number of gene forms but a population that goes through a bottleneck in which the population size is greatly reduced will pass on a smaller number of gene forms to succeeding generations. Numerous studies involving many different genes show that the human population went through a bottleneck which reduced the size of the human population to about 10,000 individuals. However, these studies also indicate that the human population was never as small as 2 individuals. In other words the idea that Adam and Eve were the parents of the entire human population is not consistent with the scientific data (i.e., the story from nature).

Conclusions and Looking Ahead

At the beginning of this post I said the Bible teaches that God reveals himself to man in two ways. One is through scripture (the Bible) and the other is through what we observe in nature (using science). We then compared the stories of the creation of mankind in the two books. We found that there are some differences between the stories. An obvious difference is in their focus. The story from nature (science) is focused on the origin of man from a biological perspective, but doesn’t provide much insight into the origin of the spiritual dimension of humans or what it means to be made in the image of God. On the other hand the story from scripture, while it speaks about the creation of Adam and Eve, it is primarily concerned with the personal, covenant relationship of humans to their Creator God.

Four Views on the Historical Adam, Matthew Barrett and Ardel B. Caneday, general editors. Stanley N. Gundry, series editor. Zondervan, 2013.

There are other apparent differences between the two stories that are not so easily explained. However, there must be a way of reconciling these differences since we know that both of the stories must be true in some sense because they both come from God. Next Wednesday, in part 2 we will explore four different Evangelical Christian approaches to reconciling these apparent differences. These approaches are outlined in a book entitled Four Views on the Historical Adam.

Questions for Further Reflection:

  1. What questions do you have about the differences between the story from nature and the story?
  2. What tensions do these differences raise for you?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

  1. Four Views on the Historical Adam, Matthew Barrett and Ardel B. Caneday, general editors. Stanley N. Gundry, series editor. Zondervan, 2013.
  2. Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? Denis Alexander. Monarch, 2008.
  3. Evolution Basics: From Primate to Human, Part 4, The BioLogos Forum (http://biologos.org/blog/evolution-basics-from-primate-to-human-part-4), Dennis Venema. 2/27/2014.
  4. The Human Journey, Genographic Project (https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/human-journey/), Spencer Wells.
  5. Understanding Evolution: An Introduction to Populations and Speciation, The BioLogos Forum (http://biologos.org/blog/understanding-evolution-an-introduction-to-populations-and-speciation), Dennis Venema. 9/15/2011.
  6. Added by the editor: PDF with the titles and links to the posts in Tom Ingebritsen‘s Christianity and Science series. Yes, this was created to meet the requests of readers and will be updated. Your interest in and encouragement of this series is much appreciated.
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Tom Ingebritsen

I am a retired Iowa State University biology professor and part-time staff person with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries. I am the husband of Denise, the father of Eric, Tracy and Isaac and the grandfather of Savannah and Emma.

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