Adam, Eve and human population genetics, Part 14: addressing critics - Poythress, population genomics, and locating the historical Adam (conclusion) | The BioLogos Forum

(system) #1

Note: In this series, we explore the genetic evidence that indicates humans became a separate species as a substantial population, rather than descending uniquely from an ancestral pair.

When the RMS Titanic sank in April of 1912, the tragic circumstances of one family made headlines. Canadians Hudson and Bess Allison, along with their two-year-old daughter Loraine, infant son Trevor, and various servants, were first class passengers – and as such Bess and the children had ready access to the lifeboats. In the chaos, however, things went awry: Trevor was borne to safety in a lifeboat by his nurse, likely with Hudson and Bess unaware. While it is not certain, it is likely that Bess and Loraine remained with Hudson in the ensuing search for Trevor until it was too late: Hudson, Bess and Loraine went down with the ship, and only Hudson’s body was recovered. Bess was one of only a handful of women in first class to perish; Loraine was the only child in first or second class to do so, leaving her infant brother as the sole surviving member of the family. Tragically, he too would die at the age of eighteen, leaving the sizeable Allison estate to more distant relatives.

In 1940, however, an American woman named Helen Loraine Kramer came forward claiming to be the long lost Loraine Allison, and heir to the Allison family wealth. Her claims were rejected by the Allison family, and after a time she dropped out of the media limelight. It was not until 2012, the 100-year anniversary of the sinking, that Kramer’s claims would again surface – this time championed by her granddaughter, who also was seeking interviews and a book deal. In 2012 there was, of course an easy way to determine the truth of the matter that had not been available in 1940: DNA evidence. Since the claim involved a continuous line of female descent, mitochondrial DNA evidence was relevant. Though Kramer’s granddaughter did not submit a DNA sample, another female relative of Kramer was willing. A female relative of Bess Allison also provided a sample, keen to finally put the trying ordeal to rest. The resulting analysis demonstrated that Kramer’s mitochondrial DNA was not at all a match to that of Bess Allison, indicating that Kramer cannot be Loraine Allison. The case is thus closed, though Kramer’s granddaughter still maintains a website where she attempts to cast doubt on the results and promises forthcoming evidence in her favor.

We have been examining the arguments of Vern Poythress in his short book Did Adam Exist? – a book written to persuade Evangelicals that holding to a literal Adam and Eve as the specially created, sole genetic progenitors of the entire human race remains a credible option for Christian apologetics. As we have seen, Poythress’ scientific arguments have not withstood scrutiny. His final argument, however, is not scientific but rather theological in nature: that Christians should withhold judgment on human genetics because God may have employed miracles when creating the human race.

The argument in Did Adam Exist? takes the following form:

Now consider the second issue, the issue of gradualism. According to the picture in the Bible, God can work as he wishes. Many times he works through gradual processes, as we have observed. The regularity of these processes reflects God’s faithfulness. But he is not a prisoner underneath these processes. His rule over the world is what establishes the processes in the first place. He is free to work exceptionally, whenever he wishes. The experimental aspect of science is possible because of the regularities in God’s rule. But, rightly understood, science is subject to God and cannot presume to dictate to him what he has to do. It cannot forbid exceptions. Thus, exceptions are possible in the case of one-time, unrepeatable events, such as the origin of the universe, the origin of the first life, and the origin of human beings. The gradual processes that represent the usual means for God’s rule may have exceptions…

Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:34-37 indicate that Jesus was born of a virgin. If a scientist had been able to test a sample of DNA from Jesus’ cells, would he have found a normal human Y chromosome, such as is present in the human DNA of men but not women? The Bible does not speak directly about such details, but Heb 2:14, 17; 4:15, and other passages indicate that Jesus was fully human. (Other passages, of course, indicate that he is also fully divine. He is one person with two natures, a divine nature and a human nature. This is a great mystery.) It is reasonable to infer that Jesus’ full humanity extended even to details like the Y chromosome. If so, the Y chromosome is an example of a thorough-going DNA match that was not the product of ordinary mammalian reproductive processes…

Jesus’ virgin birth is clearly a most exceptional case, but it shows that we must reckon with more than one possible account for DNA matches.

How might this argument apply to questions of our origins? In raising the possibility of miracles, Poythress is effectively claiming that no conclusion of genetics is sure, because there may be, unknown to us, the exceptional acts of God at play that render the evidence unintelligible to the methods of science. Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument would establish that no conclusion of science as a whole is sure – because, as Poythress would surely agree, the exceptional acts of God are not limited to genetics, but could in principle apply to any area of the natural world.

It should go without saying that I find this a puzzling, weak argument. I find it puzzling, because I know that Poythress does treat certain conclusions of science as settled, such as the evidence for an old earth. If God is free to work exceptionally in genetics, surely he is also free in geology, radiometric dating, cosmology, dendrochronology, and other fields that attest to the age of the earth. Yet Poythress does not argue for exceptions here (at least, not that I know of). Why does Poythress not do so? Because there is an overall pattern of evidence within those disciplines that point to the same conclusion (the earth is old), and to argue otherwise requires one to postulate that God is performing exceptional acts in an ad hoc manner to maintain a charade. It is formally possible, yes, that the earth is actually young and that God miraculously arranged the evidence, repeatedly, in such a way to give it an appearance of age – just as it is formally possible that God engineered the genomes of billions of people to give the unmistakable impression that we descend from a population of thousands and, further back, share ancestors with other species. But why would he do so? What possible end could it serve? While the Incarnation presumably required Jesus to have a Y chromosome, the patterns of DNA variation we observe in humans are not necessary. Perhaps some miraculous engineering of variation underlying our immune system might be explicable, but the vast majority of human DNA variation has no biological relevance – we’d all be fine being much more similar to each other than we are. Genetic diseases aside, most genetic variants in humans are neutral in their effects.

Taken to its logical conclusion, Poythress’s argument means it is not appropriate for geneticists to settle paternity disputes, use DNA evidence to solve murders, seek causes or treatments for genetic diseases, or investigate 75-year-old cases of fraud – because there is no necessary reason to suppose that what we observe is in fact the result of God sustaining natural genetic processes. Surely Poythress would not accept an appeal to miracle to explain away DNA evidence in the courtroom, yet that is the equivalent (and more) of what he asks of geneticists in the service of his apologetic.

In the next post in this series, we’ll turn to the arguments of a second apologist as they pertain to Adam and Eve: those of Dr. William Lane Craig.

Further reading on the scientific and theological issues related to Adam and Eve:

Note: this list is mostly drawn from my BioLogos colleague Ted Davis's excellent series on Evolution and Original Sin, found here.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Dcscccc) #3

the article claim that there is “overall pattern of evidence within those disciplines that point to the same conclusion (the earth is old)”-

not realy. we actually have a lot of evidences for a young earth. for example: we found a DNA and proteins from a dozens milion years fossils(when test in a lab give us only 100000 years to survive of DNA). we found that the length of an average stalactite(50 cm) give us near 5000 years(average growth rate is 0.13 mm (0.0051 inches) a year- so a 50 cm stalactite ia about 5000 years old. we found that radiometric methods can be wrong in a factor of a 10^9 from the real age( in plasma temp) and so on. so even radiometric method isnt scientific because a method that can be wrong in about 10^9 from the real age cant be trust.

(Preston Garrison) #4

Any possible pattern of evidence can be accounted for by miracles. When you have invoked miracles to account for what is observed, you have said, for some reason or motivation, I stop paying attention to science here. The important question is why at that point? What is the exact nature of the hill you have chosen to take your stand on and why is it so important?

It seems that the answer varies for different people. Is it Biblical inerrancy? Is it some philosophical/theological belief about maintaining the uniqueness of humans? Often it seems that it is not clear even to the person themself why they draw the line at a certain point on taking seriously scientific results. I think something would be gained if instead of expending all their attention on defending their chosen hill, they would ask themselves, why this hill? Why is a particular point perceived as essential to Christianity, when it apparently has nothing to do with the gospel or the content of Christian morality?

(James Stump) #6

[quote=“dcscccc, post:3, topic:661”]
even radiometric method isnt scientific because a method that can be wrong in about 10^9 from the real age cant be trust.
[/quote]The way science works is to develop explanations (hypotheses) for the data we find. The best explanations are the ones that account for the most data. Almost always there are anomalous bits of data that don’t quite fit. Sometimes these are due to experimental error, sometimes because the explanation needs to be tweeked; and then if these anomalies mount up, the explanation might be overthrown (which happens on rare occasions). Young Earth Creationism is very good at pointing out anomalies, and very bad at accounting for the massive amounts of data that are explained better by the old earth account. Scientists should not pretend there are no anomalies for their explanations; YEC’s should not pretend that they’re doing anything other than pointing out anomalies.

(Dennis Venema) #7

Typically, those sorts of margins of error are when inappropriate techniques are used, often deliberately, by those of a young-earth bent; eg attempting to use radiocarbon for samples far too old for radiocarbon, and you end up measuring background or contamination.

dcscccc - care to provide a link to peer-reviewed papers that show a 10^9 departure from a known age?

(Albert Leo) #8

Am I the only one who sees a way that this “credible option” can be maintained without miracles? According to the best current evidence,our biological ancestors, the Homo sapiens, lived in east Africa some 190,000 yrs ago, but for over 100,000 of those years they lived contemporaneously with the Neanderthals leaving evidence of similar life styles. By 50,000 yrs. BP there may have been a million of these Homo sapiens scattered from Africa and the mideast all the way to Australia. At this point in time there is ample evidence for a cultural Great Leap Forward–not initialed by mutations in an isolated segment of the species, but by some ‘programming’ (Dawkins’ term) that changed Brain into Mind. This ‘programming’ need not have been a miracle, but could have resulted from some epigenetic change in brain development that promoted conscious thoughts and invention of language through which they could be shared. Teilhard de Chardin called this the dawn of the Noosphere.

Noospheric genes (ideas that Dawkins calls ‘memes’) could be shared male-to-male, female-to-female and even child-to-adult, allowing evolution in the Noosphere to proceed at a rate many times faster than bio-evolution ever could. For theological purposes, this should be taken as history of human origins. Darwinian evolution brought our ancestors close to humanity, but it took an epigenetic change to push us over the brink. Was this gift that altered Brain into Mind given to some ancient couple in the mideast and then spread rapidly to the Cro-magnon peoples (Mousterian culture) in Europe? Genesis reports it as acquiring the knowledge of Good and Evil (getting a conscience) and considered it disobedience to God. Could God be jealous if one of His creatures became knowledgeable and wished to imitate Him? Hardly. I would rather believe that, not only can some passages of the OT be misinterpreted, but they can actually be in error. Does that make me an anathema?

P.S. Dennis, your blogs have been great, and your Lusitania survivor’s story is most interesting.
Al Leo

(GJDS) #9


“The way science works is to develop explanations (hypotheses) for the data we find.The best explanations are the ones that account for the most data. Almost always there are anomalous bits of data that don’t quite fit.”

This is an oversimplification, especially when we are discussing genetics, and relating genotypes and phenotypes within the Darwinian notion of variation and natural selection. A fascinating treatment of this is given by Wagner, “The Role of Randomness in Darwinian Evolution”, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 79, No. 1 (January 2012), pp. 95-119. This is not a paper for or against any position – and Wagner argues the current understanding of the bio-sciences is more likely to be considered non-random, and any attempts to develop a statistically valid system that would place natural selection on a basis that it can be examined experimentally, proves inadequate. He summarises his view as follows, “No statistical model or null hypothesis that could reproduce all or most aspects of genotype space organization currently exists. On the basis of what we know today, mutations affect both DNA and also complex phenotypes nonrandomly. Especially remarkable about their effects on complex phenotypes is that they facilitate Darwinian evolution. “

“Especially remarkable” means it cannot be explained scientifically, and instead the data shows the opposite conclusion is likely; it is belief in Darwinian evolution that prompts biologists to make, at times, ludicrous claims about how “science works”; rigorous science gives cold comfort to either sides of this odd debate, be it from atheists or theists, whatever persuasion any of them care to promote.

(Dcscccc) #10

hi jstump and dr venema.

im not talking about anomalies here and there but about overall pattern. here is the paper that show a speed up by a factor of 10^9 in radiometric acceleration:

and actually all (or most) of the radiometric method get similar result in plasma temp. combine it with the fact that the atoms in the earth expose to this temp in the past , and now we have a scientific evidence that all the radiometric method accelerated in the past.

now we actually have a lots of evidences for a young earth+evidence that the radiometric methods give us wrong result.

(Dennis Venema) #11

Ah - with a little digging, it was easy to come up with what dcscccc is alluding to.

Suffice it to say, the earth hasn’t been exposed to the temperatures required for this effect, since the temperatures required for a plasma state don’t occur outside of extremely dense stars, etc.

If anyone is curious about this issue, here’s a good start:

(Dcscccc) #12

dr venema. the main point is that those method can be wrong in a factor of about 10^9. so it cant be called a scientific method.

you said that this temp cant be possible in the history of earth. but actually we need a very high temp to get any star for the first place. its origin even can take us back to the big bang.

so we have all the evidences we need to doubt about the old earth.

(David Hume (nom de plume)) #13

If God is free to work exceptionally in genetics, surely he is also free in geology, radiometric dating, cosmology, dendrochronology, and other fields that attest to the age of the earth. Yet Poythress does not argue for exceptions here (at least, not that I know of). Why does Poythress not do so? Because there is an overall pattern of evidence within those disciplines that point to the same conclusion (the earth is old), and to argue otherwise requires one to postulate that God is performing exceptional acts in an ad hoc manner to maintain a charade.

I have not read Prof Poythress’ book. However, it takes but a little investigation to learn that he advances something called “presuppositionalism,” in which one presumes various things about reality based on one’s religious preferences. I would call this “madness,” but the relevant point here is that it is probably an error to suppose that Prof Poythress acknowledges scientific consensus on the age of the earth or other facts merely because he finds the science convincing. It is much more likely, I think, that he has found a way to work with those facts in the context of his religion. When a similarly clear scientific consensus on human genetic history threatens his preferred religious mythology, then we see flawed uninformed arguments and vague references to “exceptions.” I would suggest that the decisive factor is not the nature or strength of the evidence, but the centrality or importance of the threatened tenet.

This is an important theme to me as I consider ways to support believers working against creationism and other forms of science denial. Religious beliefs come in myriad flavours, but the ones that are potentially the most problematic are the ones that are both essential (to the believer’s system) and falsifiable (by virtue of constituting or entailing facts of the natural world). Poythress seems to be an example of someone who needs X to be true, and is willing to risk epistemic and scholarly disaster to protect X. Prof Smith, in his comments on “original sin,” is similarly committed to a claim that may be falsifiable and that he characterises as utterly essential to his preferred religious mythology. Collisions are inevitable.

(Chris Falter) #14

It is true that radioactive decay can accelerate under plasma states (at around 200 million degrees Kelvin). That is much hotter than the temperature in the sun’s corona.

So if you can explain how the earth could experience that temperature and not be instantly vaporized, you will be able to make a strong case that radiometric dating of geological formations is not trustworthy.

However, I don’t think you’ll find many scientists who think the earth could survive conditions hotter than in the sun’s corona.

(Dcscccc) #15

hi chris. if the origin of the all atoms in the earth was in the big bang, then there is no problem at all. i also find this option interesting:

“If accelerated decay had occurred at the same time as a rapid stretching of space, that would get rid of the excess heat. So accelerated nuclear decay could have occurred as long as it was accompanied by a rapid expansion of space.”

(Chris Falter) #16

There was no uranium at the time of the Big Bang. Heavy elements such as uranium are the product of stellar and/or explosive nucleosynthesis, which could only have occurred hundreds of millions (if not billions) of years after the Big Bang.

Closer to home, the standard geophysical theory of the origin of terrestrial uranium is that it is the result of several supernovae collapses/explosions at least 7 billion years after the Big Bang.

I read the creationwiki reference, but it only served to raise more questions in my mind. The notion that stretching space could save the theory of accelerated decay from the problem of heat accumulation seems highly dubious to me. Distributing heat energy from one location to another across space would dissipate it; stretching space itself does not make the heat energy in a particular location (i.e., on the earth) go somewhere else.

Moreover, if there is any shred of scientific credibility to this notion, a talented physicist would be able to calculate the approximate amount of space stretching that would be required, and would be able to delineate any other observable consequences of that stretching (besides the supposed dissipation of local heat). So where are the calculations? Until creationwiki contributors perform such calculations, this notion is no more scientific than an appeal to angels.

The handling of the Biblical Hebrew seems quite ad hoc, as well. Since the firmament that contains the stars, sun and sky is depicted as an upside-down bowl over the flat surface of the earth in Hebrew cosmology, Morris’ and Humphreys’ interpretation looks like an eisegesis driven by the need to explain scientific anomalies inherent to YEC.

The theories proposed for the acceleration of decay itself are equally troubling. When “God could have simply adjusted the controls governing quantum tunneling so as to speed up nuclear decay for a time” is proposed as a mechanism, the possibility of exploring the question scientifically is pretty much out the window.

But I will say this: I found 2 Samuel 22 to be very edifying. God saved His servant David from his hour of deep distress: beautiful! Certainly we all face times of deep distress; the community of faith here in Charleston needs that message today.

(Chris Falter) #17

Hi dcscccc: You seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding about the origin of terrestrial radioactive minerals. They were not formed in the Big Bang; they were formed in the final few seconds before a Type II supernova explosion, which is something that could only happen long after the Big Bang. Let me repeat that: these conditions last only a few seconds in a Type II supernova. The explosion disperses the minerals (along with much larger amounts of hydrogen, helium, carbon, etc.), and eventually through gravitational forces they can become elements in a new solar system.

At no point after the supernova explosion(s) that created terrestrial radioactive minerals have they been exposed to conditions that could accelerate radioactive decay.

(Mitch Madsen) #18

The use of miracles to make things appear other than they are is theologically troubling. “Why would God do such a thing? It is so unlike how we see him acting.” I agree with this concern. But it is important to remember such explanations also go against the respect that Scripture pays to physical evidence. In Deuteronomy a prophet is tested by the physical reality of his prediction. The apostolic witness to the resurrection is validated only by the physical fact of the resurrection. Jesus even said of his own teaching in John 10: “If I do not do the works of my Father, do not believe me.” He was referring to the validity of his previous miracles and, like all the other prophets, appealing to physical facts to verify his divine mission. All such appeals to physical details depend on being what they are: divine revelation in their own right. In the biblical estimation, physical facts are accessible, comprehensible and authoritative regarding physical claims. They are not of dubious origin, unimportant, subject to any desired interpretation or subject to correction by a prophet’s words. On the contrary, they will verify or condemn the prophet! Certainly then they can teach us how to interpret a prophet. When we encounter people in the Bible who are trying to re-interpret the natural appearance of the physical facts due to religious concerns, they are not held up as role models.

(Dcscccc) #19

hi again chris. you said:

“terrestrial uranium is that it is the result of several supernovae collapses/explosions at least 7 billion years after the Big Bang”-

ok. so maybe it accelerate after this process.

you said:

“Until creationwiki contributors perform such calculations, this notion is no more scientific than an appeal to angels.”-

maybe this video will help:

“The notion that stretching space could save the theory of accelerated decay from the problem of heat accumulation seems highly dubious to me”-

that claim that the universe stretching in speed that is above the speed of light is also sound dubious. but all physicists believe in it. the claim that the whole universe come from nothing also sound dubious. but all physicists believe in it.

you said : “an upside-down bowl over the flat surface of the earth in Hebrew cosmology”

from what i know, according to the hebrew cosmology the earth isnt flat.

(Chris Falter) #20

Hi dcscccc:

Appreciate your response, and I hope you’re having a good day. Just last night my wife and I wrote our state legislators, asking them to support the removal of the Confederate battle flag from flying over the grounds of our state house, and one of them has already responded favorably. So it’s a good day in SC.

“Maybe it accelerated after this process”

There are only two scientifically detectable ways the acceleration of radioactive decay could have occurred since the earth was formed:
(1) The earth was heated to 200M Kelvin (far hotter than the core of the sun), or
(2) God changed the fundamental constants of physics, such as the weak force or the strong force, such that the radioactive decay rate would have accelerated. Note that this would have had strong effects on elements other than uranium. For example, a 50% decrease in the strong force would “adversely affect the stability of all the elements essential to living organisms and biological systems.”

Which of these 2 explanations would you adhere to, and why? Or is there a third that I overlooked?

"maybe this video will help"
Unfortunately it did not, because I was looking for calculations regarding the transfer of heat energy away from the earth during the (proposed) flood year and its accompanying (proposed) period of accelerated decay. I strongly suspect that the calculations don’t exist, but I would be delighted if you could dig them up from somewhere.
As far as the other contentions Dr. Boudreaux made:
(1) It would take “enormous amounts” of environmental energy to accelerate decay. He doesn’t mention the actual quantity, but in the absence of any further citation I would assume he’s talking about the 200M Kelvin temperature we’ve discussed previously.
(2) Volcanic ash dating: The vast majority of K-Ar dates of recent lava flows are consistent with the known date, within a tiny margin of error on geological scales. The Hualalei formation is a special case because of the inclusion of olivine xenoliths which were carried by the lava. In fact, the study by Funkhouser and Naughton was not on the volcanic ash, but on the xenoliths. Dr. Boudreaux misrepresented the Hualalei findings (although I would attribute the error to a simple misunderstanding, not to any malice or deliberate deceit).

“The notion that stretching space could save the theory of accelerated decay from the problem of heat accumulation seems highly dubious to me” (my statement)

You misunderstood my point. I’m not saying that the stretching of space, per se, is dubious. Instead, I’m saying that the stretching of space does not affect heat density or heat transfer calculations, and it doesn’t provide a mechanism for the transfer of heat energy away from the earth.

“according to the hebrew cosmology the earth isnt flat”

You should read the articles by Seely, they’re quite fascinating. They were published in the Westminster Theological Journal, and as you may know, Westminster is among the most conservative Reformed seminaries in the world. I provided the links in my previous post.

(Dcscccc) #21

hi again chris. i will try to do this short. thanks for your response. you said that one option is that the earth was heated to 200 m kelvin. but what about before this? maybe this heat was in some point in the past even before the earth was formed. the main points to me is that:

  1. we find a process that can change the rate of radiomemtric method
    2)we have evidence that this process may was in the past.
    3)we find that radiometric method can be wrong in a factor of 10^9 from the real age. so it cant be a scientific method from scientific prespective
  2. it could be that there is another natural process that can change the rate that we dont know about them yet.
  3. we have evidences that the earth is young (i showed some of them above).

so from a scientific prespective- we at best cant tell what is the real age of the earth.

and, have a nice day:)


The problem with lab tests is that they don’t use conditions out there in the field. Also whether or not they actually found DNA has yet to be confirmed.

From this article:

Importantly, Schweitzer and her colleagues have figured out how to remove the iron from their samples, which enables them to analyze the original proteins. They’ve even found chemicals consistent with being DNA, though Schweitzer is quick to note that she hasn’t proven they really are DNA. The iron-removing techniques should allow paleontologists to search more effectively for soft tissue, and to test it when they find it.

Also I’m not sure what the average length of a stalactite has to do with anything. A scientist would look at the longest stalactite (not the average) to get a minimum bound on the age of the earth.

From this article:

By the way, geologic opinion holds that the Carlsbad Caverns began to be etched out 60 million years ago. The present chambers were excavated from 1 to 8 million years ago, depending on their depth. As for stalactites, the Bulletin of the National Speleological Society (37: p.21, 1975) gave their observed growth rates as ranging from 0.1 to 10 centimeters per thousand years. An exceptional spurt of growth might exceed the higher rate for short periods of time, but it could no more be maintained than a winning streak at the Las Vegas poker tables. Moore and Sullivan (1978, p.47) give an upper average rate of “only a little more” than 0.1 mm/year [10 centimeters or 2.5 inches per thousand years]. Stalagmites grow at a similar rate. Areas with a lot of overgrowth and tropical temperatures would have the higher rates. Thus, a 60foot giant, as might be found in Carlsbad Caverns, would have a minimum estimated age of about 180,000 years.

Fornaca and Rinaldi (1968) used the Th-230/Th-232 ratio method to date an old stalagmite, probably in Europe, and got an age of 180,000 years for its formation. That stalagmite had stopped growing 90,000 years ago, as indicated by the radiometric dating method, so its true age is 270,000 years. A flowstone in the famous Romanelli cave of Apulia was dated at 40,000 years. Thus, an extrapolation of the observed rates of stalactite formation and the radiometric dating method (using thorium) put us in the same ball park for large cave formations. Dr. Hovind’s figure of 4400 years for the oldest stalactites is much too modest!