Book Review: The Genealogical Adam and Eve by S. Joshua Swamidass

I just finished reading “The Genealogical Adam and Eve” by S. Joshua Swamidass. He is a medical doctor and researcher at George Washington University in St. Louis. I used to dialogue with him and others at his forum “Peaceful Science” and still do on occasion in a social media group. At the time I purchased his book, I did not know that he cited my book, along with that of many, many others.

The buzz I kept hearing about the book was that it had “the power to change the conversation” about evolution and creationism, along with questions about the veracity of scripture. That is no easy task, but to the degree a book can do that, I’d say he’s pulled it off. And he is networking and possibly doing the other things that are necessary to “change the conversation” to go along with it, so this is an opportunity.

His “big idea” is that both sides of the debate on human origins can be right. Swamidass proposes that a population outside the garden evolved into humans over time as suggested by “mainstream science”, but that this doesn’t rule out the possibility that Adam and Eve were specially created by God in the fairly recent past. He says that science cannot prove or disprove whether such an event happened. Further he goes to some trouble to demonstrate that because the number of our ancestors goes up exponentially, Adam and Eve could easily be “the ancestors of us all” in the sense that Adam could be somewhere on our family tree, even if others outside the garden also contributed to our ancestry. So the idea that humanity evolved from shared ancestors with apes could be true, but that doesn’t make the account about the creation of Adam in Genesis untrue. Both can be true.

Swamidass suggests what seems an elegant symmetry between science, scripture, and vision. Scripture, in his view, can’t tell us about the population outside the garden that evolved because that’s not what the story is about, but science can. Conversely, science can’t tell us about the pair that God created in the garden but scripture can. If neither community can peer into the contents of the other’s narrative, then what is there to fight over? That’s the vision, and of course it is an appealing one for many people.

Biologos has largely failed in its effort to get bible-believing Christians to accept evolution as described by “mainstream science”. They too claimed to want a “conversation” but in practice they attempted to execute a monologue where they are supposed to do all the talking and “educating” while ignorant fundamentalist Christians get assigned the role of listeners to be corrected of their silly errors and enlightened by the superior wisdom of naturalistic speculations on origins. I think they are still shocked it didn’t work. I don’t want to go too far into mocking them, because while I don’t share their particular ideas I understand where they are coming from. I am very much like them in fervor for the things I believe are true. I too think there are some bad ideas out there and I too want people to accept what I believe are the right ideas. But the conversation has broken down, and the “total victory” they seek is not intellectually defensible anyway, for reasons Swamidass makes clear in his book. Science has its limits.

The guy can turn a phrase, the book is well-written. But what I am most impressed with, because it is a skill I lack concerning things I deeply believe, is the gracefulness of his rhetorical approach. I too, for scriptural reasons having nothing to do with evolutionary origins questions, believe there was a population of humans inside the garden and outside the garden, But when I talk about it I can’t help but put it so it comes off like “everyone has Genesis wrong but me”. Joshua’s genius here is to take the same basic premise and show how it can mean that everyone was right after all. How the heck did he do that?

Part of how he did that is that he did not commit to a particular set of details about the text of Genesis, outside of that framework. Nor should he, if conversation is the goal. Therefore I can’t say I agree with the theology of the book. It didn’t even have a set theology, other than the cross which of course I do agree with. It just listed options and the list was not exhaustive. For that matter, I am not sure of all the science in the book, particularly the claims about “genetic ghosts”, but none of that matters. In a call to conversation, these questions can be part of the conversation.

So the book is an achievement and a difficult one at that. But to truly unlock its potential and actually “change the conversation” is going to require something even more challenging: having an actual conversation. It is much easier to call for open and honest dialogue than it is to really do it, because it means you let go of the details of where the conversation goes- the people participating with you get some say in that too. It means accepting that some people, most people even, who you are inviting into the conversation don’t just want to solve a problem, but discover truth. Therefore using Hegelian premises and tactics is inappropriate. A real conversation can explore ideas that aren’t a part of the agenda of the facilitators, so long as those ideas can be defended with reason and fact. Put me down as one who is willing to participate in that conversation.


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Hi Mark,
Thanks for sharing your perspective. I agree that we can often get entrenched in our own views, and since I’m coming out of YEC I’ve had to let go of having “answers” for everything, so I can appreciate that point of view. Could you clarify, based on what you said above – is his proposal something you personally hold to, or do you just think it’s good for it to be available for the sake of other people who might hold to it?

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Remember he doesn’t espouse a particular proposal, just gives options around an idea. That said, I agree with him that there were humans around before Adam and Eve and I think Adam and Eve were specially created. It explains so much, scripturally and scientifically.

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Yes. He won’t even say he believes his own idea.

Actually, he did, and then he didn’t, and then he did.

Keep any eye on becomingadam.com if you want to read a real review.

I think you have misunderstood the Biologos effort. They are building a set of long-term resources for the church (and, yes, the world), and have only existed for a decade. It is far too early to say what the long-term result will be.

I think Joshua’s thesis is very useful, and I believe that it will be helpful. How helpful? Still too early to tell. I’m really glad he’s published his book, is going on a book tour, and runs a good forum.

Best,
Chris

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" Biologos has largely failed in its effort to get bible-believing Christians to accept evolution as described by “mainstream science"

I agree that this is a mis-statement of BioLogos’ efforts. BioLogos seems to concentrate more on getting EC accepted in the Christian community as a faithful position to hold. I think some inroads have been made, though there is still work to do in that regard. It also works to provide a community framework to assist those navigating rough waters in their journey.

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Personally, I struggle with this approach for personal and philosophical reasons. But before I slam my gavel down and take off my wig, please could someone help me understand Joshua’s motives? What is his hoping to a achieve by not outlining his own theological commitments?

Congratulations and best wishes to Dr Swamidass and to you, Mr Moore. May the book bear the fruit that God intends.

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So do a lot of folks. Like population geneticist Graham Coop, for instance:

It's a neat parlour mathematical trick and a mathematical true that genealogical CAs exist. However, saying that this reconciles science w. the idea of Adam and Eve, sweeps a lot of stuff under a very patchy, ugly carpet. 5/n

— Graham Coop (@Graham_Coop) October 6, 2019

Swamidass identifies as TE/EC in this old post from 2016. “I, for one, am a theistic evolutionist (evolutionary creationist) that (sic) beleives (sic) in a historical adam and eve (sic). So does John Walton too. … So there you have. I just defended a YEC. =)”

He stopped identifying as EC because … well, who knows? I suppose because it was inconvenient for marketing a book on 6000-yr-old Adam to YEC.

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Absolutely, and all of that has worked and been very valuable for me. I appreciate BioLogos’s resources that are aimed at educators and homeschool teachers, which acknowledges some of the many ways that lay-level women like me help to shape this multifaceted conversation. It’s not all about scientists and theologians. Still, I do hope this book helps people and gets them asking questions they may not otherwise have asked.

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I agree. Biologos has been uniquely helpful for me, too. I encourage those who can to join me in supporting it financially, as able, too. https://give.biologos.org/give/245868/#!/donation/checkout

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A great observation. Thanks for the remiinder.

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My guess is that his goal is to break down barriers within the church, and that identifying with a specific theological position on this question would trigger tribal loyalties. But I don’t know – why don’t you ask him?

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C S Lewis, “Mere Christianity”–one of my favorite works. :slight_smile:–is an example of that type. Great point!

Ah, so you imply that my review is not real? Great way to convince me, and a good example of what I am talking about when I say Biologos has largely failed to convince people. (I realize that Jay does not speak for Biologos,)

I may have. Perhaps I should have said “mostly failed so far”. But I also think a key to continuing on with any endeavor like this is a little self-reflection and adjustment on how it can be done better.

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You can post links to your stuff in any thread, just not in an OP.

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Josh offers an account of his motivations of his motivation here. Read and judge for yourselves

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Thanks that is helpful.

How would I go about doing that? I’ve seen the book in passing (it was on pre-pub at Logos not that long ago) but in truth in this is the first I’ve heard of the author (as far as I can recall).

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He’s got a discussion forum, https://discourse.peacefulscience.org/. There’s even a pinned discussion thread about the excerpt from the book (but I’d suggest reading the excerpt before going forward).

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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