The Search for the Historical Adam
Secularist brows furrowed in 2009 when President Obama chose prominent atheist-turned-Christian Francis S. Collins to be the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Under the Los Angeles Times headline "Fit to Head the NIH?," Skeptic magazine's Michael Shermer fretted that Collins's beliefs might somehow corrupt America's biggest biomedical research agency. In a New York Times piece, atheist Sam Harris was similarly "uncomfortable," fearing in particular that a Collins administration might "seriously undercut" fields like neuroscience. Jerry Coyne, a University of Chicago expert on evolution, carped that the nominee's "scary," "bizarre," "inane," and "snake oil" ideas "pollute his science with his faith."
Nonetheless, Collins won unanimous U.S. Senate confirmation, thanks to sterling achievements in biomedical research and leadership of NIH's human genome research. Under Collins, this historic effort in 2003 finished mapping the complete sequence of several billion DNA subunits ("bases") and all of the genes that determine human heredity.
Collins, one of the most eminent scientists ever to identify as an evangelical Christian, staunchly defends Darwinian evolution even as he insists on God as the Creator. And he now stands at the epicenter of a dispute that increasingly agitates fellow believers. At issue: the traditional tenet (as summarized in Wheaton College's mandatory credo) that "God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race."
Collins's 2006 bestseller, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief—which so vexed those secularist critics—reported scientific indications that anatomically modern humans emerged from primate ancestors perhaps 100,000 years ago—long before the apparent Genesis time frame—and originated with a population that numbered something like 10,000, not two individuals. Instead of the traditional belief in the specially created man and woman of Eden who were biologically different from all other creatures, Collins mused, might Genesis be presenting "a poetic and powerful allegory" about God endowing humanity with a spiritual and moral nature? "Both options are intellectually tenable," he concluded.
In a recent pro-evolution book from InterVarsity Press, The Language of Science and Faith, Collins and co-author Karl W. Giberson escalate matters, announcing that "unfortunately" the concepts of Adam and Eve as the literal first couple and the ancestors of all humans simply "do not fit the evidence."
The Adam account in Genesis has long been subjected to scientific challenges, but "there was a lot of wiggle room in the past. The human genome sequencing took that wiggle room away" during the past decade, said Randall Isaac, executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation (asa), which has been discussing Adam issues for decades. The organization's 1,600 members, Collins among them, affirm the Bible's "divine inspiration, trustworthiness, and authority" on "faith and conduct," though not on scientific concepts.
The unnerving new genetic science was assessed with considerable detail in last September's issue of the ASA journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. The articles were elaborated versions of papers delivered at the ASA's 2009 annual meeting at Baylor University, the organization's first major discussion of the Adam question that included religion scholars as well as scientists.
Two of the Perspectives writers, biblical exegete Daniel C. Harlow and theologian John R. Schneider, teach at Calvin College. As a result of their writings, a personnel panel has been investigating whether they violated the doctrinal standards that the college's sponsoring Christian Reformed Church requires of faculty. (The investigation follows procedures that were established when Calvin astrophysicist Howard J. Van Till stirred an earlier ruckus over creation—though not Adam and Eve—with his 1986 tome The Fourth Day.) Harlow and Schneider could face discipline from the board of trustees, and revived denominational debate about evolution seems inevitable. Meanwhile, Calvin scheduled 18 lectures on human origins this past academic year.