Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Genetic Evolution of Adam and Eve: Francis Collins and Theistic Evolution

On June 26, 2000, in Washington, D.C., in the East Room of the White House, "the language of God was revealed." 

That's the way Francis Collins describes his experience that day as he stood next to President Bill Clinton for the public announcement that the Human Genome Project had produced a first draft of the human genome. "Today," President Clinton said, "we are learning the language in which God created life.  We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift."  This phrasing in Clinton's speech--describing the human genome as the "language of God"--was suggested by Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, who is an evangelical Christian and a theistic evolutionist who sees a fundamental compatibility between science and faith.

In 2006, Collins published a best-selling book--The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief--defending theistic evolution, or what he has called "BioLogos," as the best way to reconcile science and faith.  In 2007, he established the BioLogos Foundation to promote this position.  In 2009, he was appointed by Barack Obama as the Director of the National Institutes of Health.  This was controversial for some scientists at the time who worried that his management of federally funded scientific research might be distorted by his religious beliefs.

Collins has also created a controversy among some evangelical Christians who worry that his theistic evolution denies the truth of the Bible, particularly the teaching in Genesis about the creation of Adam and Eve.  This controversy was highlighted in a cover story in the June, 2011, issue of Christianity Today entitled "The Search for the Historical Adam." 

Collins and other evangelical Christians who have adopted his position have argued that the story of Adam and Eve cannot be historically true, because it contradicts the scientific evidence for the evolution of human beings from ancestral species.  Now that we have complete drafts of the genomes not only of human beings but also of chimpanzees and other animals closely related to human beings, Collins and his colleagues argue, we can identify the genetic similarity of these species, and we can reconstruct the genetic history of human evolution from other primate species.  We can also see evidence in the human genome that the human species descended from a common set of founders, approximately 10,000 in number, who lived about 100,000 to 150,00 years ago.

If this is true, then it cannot be true that all human beings are descended from two individuals--Adam and Eve--who were separately created by God in His image.  Here it seems that the Book of Nature contradicts the Book of Revelation.  To overcome this apparent contradiction, we must decide either that we have misread the Book of Nature or that we have misread the Book of Revelation.  The theistic evolutionists like Collins argue that the genetic evidence for human evolution is convincing, but that the Genesis creation story needs to be read as an allegorical story that teaches a moral or spiritual lesson and not as a literal history that teaches anything about the science of human origins.  Thus, the debate here is both a scientific debate over the genetic evidence and a theological debate over the biblical evidence.  Both the scientific and the theological arguments for Collins' theistic evolution have recently been elaborated by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight in Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (2017).

This debate has serious consequences for professors who teach at evangelical Christian colleges--like Wheaton College and Calvin College, for example--where the faculty must sign a statement of faith that affirms (at Wheaton College) that "God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race."  Professors who publicly endorse theistic evolution can be fired for violating their college's statement of faith.  And, indeed, a few professors have lost their jobs for this reason.

But what I find most remarkable is that in recent years many of these colleges have allowed their professors to embrace theistic evolution, and this seems to show a general movement in the American evangelical community towards accepting the sort of theistic evolution advanced by Collins and others connected to the BioLogos organization. 

There seem to be two reasons for this.  First, the recent advances in genetic science have produced overwhelming evidence in favor of the evolutionary theory of human origins.  So, for example, the genetic evidence for human evolution from primate ancestors is so compelling that even a young-earth creationist like Todd Wood must admit that this is a "problem" for his reading of the Genesis creation story as literal history, and even the anti-evolutionist intelligent design proponent Michael Behe admits that the genetic evidence for the evolution of humans from primate ancestors is convincing.

The second reason why American evangelicals are becoming receptive to theistic evolution is that in recent years they have been moving away from their fundamentalist literal reading of the Bible and towards a reading of the Bible as shaped by cultural traditions of poetic story-telling that were never intended to be a scientific history.  One indication of this is the publication last year of the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible by Zondervan, one of the leading publishers of Bibles for evangelical Christians.  This Bible has been edited by John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, and Craig Keener, Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Seminary, Wilmore, KY.  As the title of this Bible indicates, Walton and Keener provide notes on the ancient cultural traditions that shaped the lives of those who first wrote and read the books of the Bible. So, for example, the Genesis story of creation is compared with other creation stories in the ancient Near East, which suggests that creation story-telling was more about symbolic meaning than about physical existence.

But if we believe the Bible to be truly a revelation of God's eternal truth, then the Bible cannot be entirely a work of poetic fiction, because we must believe that at least some of what it says is a literally true history of God as the Creator of the universe and of ourselves, who cares for us, who gives us a moral law, and who redeems us when we fail to live up to that moral law.  And that history must include supernatural miracles that are beyond the comprehension of natural science.

So we must wonder whether theistic evolution can really reconcile the supernatural faith in the Bible and the natural science of evolution.  Collins claims this can be done if theistic evolution is based on six premises (The Language of God, 200):

1. The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.

2. Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.

3. While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.

4. Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.

5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.

6. But humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature.  This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.

In formulating these premises, Collins indicates that he continues the tradition of theistic evolution that stretches from Asa Gray to Theodosius Dobzhansky to Pope John Paul II.  But the primary influence on Collins' thinking is C. S. Lewis.  Collins' conversion to Christianity from atheism began when he read Lewis' Mere Christianity.  And Collins attributes most of his arguments in defense of Christianity to Lewis's writings.

Notice that while "no supernatural intervention was required" in the unfolding history of evolution, according to premise 4, supernatural intervention does seem to be required in premises 1, 2, and 6.

For premise 1, the initial creation of everything out of nothing was a miraculous act by the Creator.  "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (Genesis 1:1).  For Collins, that is not just figurative language.  That is a factual statement of God's creative activity at the beginning.

For premise 2, God's initial creation of the laws of nature provided the "fine tuning" of the universe--the precise setting of certain mathematical constants in nature--so that the conditions necessary for the eventual evolution of intelligent life on Earth could be satisfied.

Here the appeal to the miraculous creative power of God is the only way, Collins argues, to answer questions that science cannot answer--questions about why the universe came into being, about what came before the Big Bang, and why the universe seems to be so finely designed for us to be here (6, 81).  These are not scientific questions because they are questions about what is outside of Nature--outside of space and time.

After all, even Darwin, as an agnostic, had to confess that "the mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us" (Autobiography, 94).

But then I don't understand the need for supernatural intervention that is implied in premise 6.  If the spiritual nature of human beings is unique to them in ways that "defy evolutionary explanation," that seems to imply that while natural evolution could explain the physical body of human beings, divine intervention was required to create the spiritual soul.  This is what John Paul II said in 1996.  It is also what C. S. Lewis suggested in a passage in The Problem of Pain quoted by Collins.  Lewis identified the story of Adam and Eve as a "Hebrew folk tale" that conveyed a moral lesson rather than a scientific history.  Lewis offered this interpretation:
"For long centuries, God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself.  He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all of the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated.  The creature may have existed in this state for ages before it became man: it may even have been clever enough to make things which a modern archaeologist would accept as proof of its humanity.  But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends.  Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say 'I' and 'me,' which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty, and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past. . . . We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state. But sooner or later they fell.  Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods."
Notice how much Lewis concedes to the Darwinian account of human evolution.  The human species evolved from ancestral species over long periods of time.  Then, at some point, "God caused to descend upon this organism" a new kind of consciousness that is unique to human beings and that constitutes the "image of God."  This looks like the same idea that William Tearle suggested in a letter to Darwin (in April 1880).

This seems to require a supernatural intervention for God to create the uniquely human soul, and this seems to be what Pope John Paul II suggested in 1996: natural evolution created the human body, but the creation of the human soul required direct divine intervention.  But why couldn't this have been a natural process of evolution through which "a brain sufficiently complex" for uniquely human consciousness evolved by natural selection?  Why couldn't the human soul arise from the emergent evolution of the primate brain passing over a critical threshold of size and complexity?

That the human mind arose from the emergent evolution of the primate brain is perhaps suggested by Michelangelo's famous Creation of Adam fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  In an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Frank Meshberger has pointed out that the image surrounding God and the angels has the shape of a brain, with God's right arm extending through the prefrontal cortex.  Since Michelangelo was known to have performed dissections of the human body, he could have learned enough about neuroanatomy to convey the message that God's gift of human ensoulment was actually the gift of a human brain that could have arisen by natural processes.

Collins would seem to agree with this in so far as he says that "once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required."  He writes:
"But how could God take such chances? If evolution is random, how could He really be in charge, and how could He be certain of an outcome that included intelligent beings at all?"
"The solution is actually readily at hand, once one ceases to apply human limitations to God.  If God is outside of nature, then He is outside of space and time. In that context, God could in the moment of creation of the universe also know every detail of the future. That could include the formation of the stars, planets, and galaxies, all of the chemistry, physics, geology, and biology that led to the formation of life on earth, and the evolution of humans. . . . In that context, evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God's perspective the outcome would be entirely specified.  Thus, God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time, this would appear a random and undirected process" (205).
Asa Gray thought he saw a similar conception of theistic evolution in Darwin's Origin of Species. For example, he saw this in Darwin's explanation of how the eye could have evolved by natural selection, and then Darwin asked: "Let this process go on for millions of years; and during each year on millions of individuals of many kinds [under variation proceeding long enough, generation multiplying the better variations times enough, and natural selection securing the improvements]; and may we not believe that a living optical instrument might thus be formed as superior to one of glass, as the works of the Creator are to those of man?"

Thus, we can see the eye as intelligently designed by the Creator allowing the eye to emerge from a natural process of evolution, without any need for miraculous intervention into nature beyond the original miracle of God's creation of the laws of nature.

But even if theistic evolutionists like Gray and Collins do not need to believe in the historicity of the Bible's six days of creation, including the creation of Adam and Eve as the first two human individuals, they must believe in the historicity of Jesus Christ's miraculous birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection as God incarnated as a human being.

The apostle Paul seems to teach, however, that the historical reality of Jesus depends on the historical reality of Adam, because the whole story of salvation depends on understanding the obedience of Jesus as the Second Adam overcoming the fallen condition of humanity from the disobedience of Adam (Romans 5:12-17, 1 Corinthians 15:49).  If so, then this seems to demand belief in Adam and Eve as the first human couple.

And yet the first chapters of Genesis do suggest that Adam and Eve were part of a larger human population.  Whom did Cain marry?  Whom did God protect Cain from after he killed Abel?  We might say that Adam and Eve were the leaders of an original population, and then we could recognize both a prehistoric couple and a prehistoric population.

1 comment:

sykes.1 said...

Most of these problems arise because of the Protestant insistent on Scriptura Sola and that the meaning of the Bible is plain to men of normal intelligence. Orthodox Jews, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians dispute both claims, and insist that the many contradictions in the Bible need The Tradition to be reconciled. One of the most blatant contradictions is the two, incompatible versions of creation. Another is the two, incompatible flood stories.

Of course, on the other side is this piece of nonsense from Collins:

"If evolution is random, how could He really be in charge,..."

Evolution is not random. That is a gross misreading of Darwin. Mutations do arise via various random processes, but evolution occurs when selection choses some mutations to preserve and eliminates others. Selection is not random; it is a deterministic filter. As to God, the Christian Tradition (that word again) has Him outside space and time, seeing all Eternity as a single "event", everything that has, is and will happen are simultaneous to Him. The phrase "how could He really be in charge" is a gross misunderstanding of Christian Tradition.