A Critical Reflection on Adam and the Genome, Part 1

A Critical Reflection on Adam and the Genome, Part 1

Who doesn’t like a bargain? I sure do. And I am a sucker for 2-for-1 specials.

For those interested in science-faith discussions, the recent book by biologist Dennis Venema (Trinity Western University) and New Testament scholar Scot McKnight (Northern Seminary) is quite the deal. Two books in one, Adam and the Genome presents a scientific and theological case for evolutionary creationism—the idea that God employed evolutionary processes to bring about the design, origin, and history of life, including humanity.1

The first half of the book, written by Venema, presents a case for human evolution from recent work in comparative genomics and population genetics. As part of his case for human evolution, Venema makes it clear that the genetic diversity of humanity is too extensive to have come from a primordial couple—Adam and Eve.

As an author who works in the science-faith arena, I am impressed with the writing of Venema’s portion of the book. He does a masterful job of communicating complex ideas in genomics and population genetics in an accessible way. He makes it easy for the uninitiated to understand why a growing number of evangelical Christians feel compelled to embrace evolutionary creationism.

The author of the book’s second half, Scot McKnight, assumes the reality of human evolution along with the inevitable requirement that humanity emerged as a population, not a primordial pair. Making these two concessions, McKnight explains why he doesn’t think the Christian faith depends on a historical Adam and Eve as the sole progenitors of all humanity. Instead, he argues that Adam and Eve should be viewed as archetypal—as literary and theological concepts.

So, have Venema and McKnight made their case?

Even though I can’t resist 2-for-1 deals, I am not going to offer the reader a 2-for-1 review. Instead, I am limiting my critical reflections to Dennis Venema’s portion of the book. Because I’m not a biblical scholar or a theologian, I will refrain from sharing my thoughts on McKnight’s contribution to Adam and the Genome. Instead, I encourage the curious reader to take a look at articles by theologians Ken Keathley and Gavin Ortlund. Both scholars offer insightful commentary on McKnight’s analysis of the historical Adam—a much better bargain than anything I could hope to offer.

Venema’s Case for Human Evolution

Venema opens his case for human evolution by maintaining that the theory of biological evolution is well evidenced—the real deal. He argues that the theory of evolution has broad explanatory and predictive power.

He then turns to recent work in comparative genomics, explaining why many biologists regard the shared features in genomes as evidence for common ancestry. Applying that insight to whole genome comparisons of humans, chimpanzees, and other great apes, Venema explains why biologists think humanity shares an evolutionary history with the great apes—and, in fact, with all life on Earth. Focusing on pseudogenes, Venema concludes the case for common descent by discussing the widespread occurrence of nonfunctional DNA sequences located throughout the genomes of humans and the great apes—usually in corresponding locations in these genomes. Venema argues that these one-time functional DNA sequence elements were rendered nonfunctional through mutational events and are retained in genomes as vestiges of evolutionary history.

Venema then turns his attention to the question of Adam and Eve. If humanity arose through an evolutionary process, then Venema rightly points out that humanity must have begun as a population, not a primordial couple—by definition. According to evolutionary biologists, evolution is a population-level phenomenon. That being the case, if humanity arose via evolutionary processes, then there could never have been an Adam and an Eve. In support of this idea, Venema then discusses population genetics studies that indicate humanity began as an initial group of around 10,000 individuals. Based on these methods, the genetic diversity among humans today is too great to have come from just two individuals. Venema then goes on to explain how evolutionary biologists reconcile the existence of mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam (understood to be an actual woman and man, respectively) with the idea that humanity began as a population.

Finally, Venema closes out his portion of the book by offering a critique of the two most common challenges to biological evolution raised by the intelligent design movement: (1) irreducible complexity, and (2) the improbability of biological information arising by chance. Venema does a nice job of explaining why most biologists are not impressed with these challenges to biological evolution, and hence, the case for intelligent design.

Venema’s Story

One of the things Venema does exceptionally well in Adam and the Genome is interweave throughout his four chapters the story of his intellectual conversion—from intelligent design to evolutionary creationism.

Venema recounts growing up in a conservative Christian home and attending a private Christian school where he learned that “‘Darwin’ and ‘evolution’ were evil, of course—things that atheist scientists believed despite their overwhelming flaws, because those scientists had purposefully blinded their eyes to the truth.”2

Venema tells how, at an early age, he was fascinated with the natural world and wanted to be a scientist. His frustration evident, Venema describes how his dreams of becoming a scientist were waylaid because of the influence of the young-earth creationism that perfused his home, school, and church community.

Unable to afford a private Christian college, Venema headed off to a secular university, sure that his faith would be challenged by his course work. Enrolled in a premed program (because he felt it safer than pursuing a science major), Venema describes how biology failed to capture his interest, until he began to do research in a university lab as an undergraduate student. That experience transformed him from a lackluster student to one who was highly motivated. It also inspired him to give up on medicine (even though he had the grades to get into medical school) and pursue a career in science. After completing his undergraduate education, Venema earned a PhD in genetics. Venema recounts how his antievolutionary views remained intact throughout his undergraduate and graduate training. In fact, he recalls how deeply impacted he was by the challenges biochemist Michael Behe leveled against Darwinian evolution in his book Darwin’s Black Box. In this book, and elsewhere, Behe argues that biochemical systems are irreducibly complex, and because of this property cannot arise in a stepwise evolutionary process, but must originate at once, with all components simultaneously coming together.

It was only later that Venema realized the deficiency of Behe’s case and other intelligent design arguments. According to Venema, he eventually concluded that intelligent design was based on god-of-the-gaps reasoning. Venema states, “Over the course of my personal journey away from ID, I came to an uncomfortable conclusion: ID seemed strong only where there was a lack of relevant evidence.” 3

Is Evolutionary Creationism an Overreaction to Ill-Conceived Science-Faith Models?

Venema does a masterful job of explaining why so many biologists are convinced that life’s design, origin, history—including humanity’s origin—are best explained by the theory of evolution. Reading through Venema’s chapters, it becomes clear that strong evidential support exists for the theory of evolution, and along with it, human evolution. But, in my view Venema doesn’t tell the full story. There are also significant events in life’s history that evolutionary theory fails to explain—for example, the origin and design of biochemical systems. In fact, Venema readily acknowledges the scientific community’s failure to explain the origin of life through evolutionary means. It was this failure combined with the elegant, sophisticated, and ingenious designs of biochemical systems that convinced me that life’s origin and design at a molecular level must be the handiwork of a Creator. Despite Venema’s assertion, when it comes to the origin and design of biochemical systems, the case for intelligent design, and hence, a Creator’s role in life’s origin has become stronger over the last three decades—not because of our ignorance, but because of what we have learned about the origin-of-life problem and the structure and function of biochemical systems.

Yet having staked out and defended this claim in Origins of Life, The Cell’s Design, and Creating Life in the Lab, I am sympathetic to the critique Venema levels against: (1) Behe’s idea of irreducible complexity, and (2) the popular claim made by many Christian apologists that evolutionary mechanisms cannot generate biological information. Like Venema, at one time I found both arguments compelling. But as I carefully listened to the rebuttals to these arguments from origin-of-life researchers and evolutionary biologists over the years, I found myself less convinced that these specific arguments represent valid critiques of the abiogenesis and evolutionary theory. (For more details, see the Resources section of this review.)

Unlike Venema, I didn’t abandon progressive creationism for evolutionary creationism when I soured on these two popular design arguments. Why? In spite of the limitations of these two arguments, I am more convinced than ever that the origin of life and the design of biochemical systems can’t be explained by evolutionary mechanisms. The case for a Creator doesn’t rise and fall on the validity of the arguments from irreducible complexity and the improbability of evolutionary mechanisms generating information. Instead, as I outline in a recently released video, How to Make a Case for Biochemical Design, the case for God’s role in the genesis of life and design of biochemical systems finds its basis in several different lines of evidence that collectively form a powerful weight-of-evidence case for biochemical design.

Yet Venema doesn’t see it that way, even though he acknowledges the challenges facing an evolutionary explanation for life’s origin. Why?

I am sure Venema would answer that his reluctance to embrace any form of intelligent design/creationism is the overwhelming evidence for common descent and human evolution. But given his story, I can’t help but wonder if there is more to it. I can’t help but wonder if Venema’s move away from intelligent design to evolutionary creationism isn’t possibly an overreaction, in part, to feeling duped by well-meaning Christians who authoritatively taught flawed scientific ideas as truth. I can’t help but wonder if Venema’s embrace of mainstream scientific ideas about evolution finds some motivation in the safety of this approach. By embracing evolutionary creationism, he will never be at odds with mainstream scientific thinking again. Those of us who espouse ideas about the design, origin, and history of life outside of the scientific mainstream know the cost of adopting these views. All of us have been ridiculed and dismissed by skeptics and people in the scientific community simply because we have the impertinence to challenge mainstream scientific ideas regarding origins and the temerity to claim that the evidence points to God’s role in the origin and design of the universe and life.

Over the years, I have gotten to know several evolutionary creationists who have similar stories to Venema’s. I have often heard evolutionary creationists express disappointment by being unintentionally mislead when they were young and scientifically naïve by well-meaning Christians who taught them young-earth creationism, only to later discover the scientific deficiencies of that idea. It seems to me that in abandoning young-earth creationism, they, like Venema, have moved to the opposite extreme, rejecting any science-faith model that doesn’t fully embrace mainstream scientific ideas—even if those ideas challenge key biblical doctrines.

In fact, I have had many evolutionary creationists say to me both publicly and privately: If evangelical Christians don’t accept the evolutionary paradigm, we will lose all credibility with the scientific community. I have heard evolutionary creationists argue that evangelical Christianity must adapt to the reality of evolution if the Christian faith is to remain relevant.

I will address these concerns more fully in part 2 of this review. For now, Venema’s story serves as a cautionary tale for all of us involved in science-faith discussions. We need to make sure that our ideas are scientifically credible, even if they lie outside the scientific mainstream. It is important that we faithfully communicate the scientific consensus and why the scientific community holds to it before we offer alternative models. We also need to be willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of our approach and models, whether our ideas fall within or outside the mainstream. Young-earth, old-earth, and evolutionary creationists alike need to exercise humility when it comes to advocating for their views. Perhaps if these practices were more commonplace, extreme views such as evolutionary creationism (and young-earth creationism) wouldn’t hold such sway.

What Motivations Influence My Views?

Venema’s story has caused me to reflect on my own intellectual journey: from an agnostic to a theist; from a theist to a Christian, who embraced theistic evolution; and, finally, from an adherent of theistic evolution to one who now espouses progressive creationism. Do I hold my views based on evidence alone? Or are there other motivating factors? Like Venema, I would like to think that I hold my views because they best account for all the evidence, both scientific and biblical. But maybe I have a deep-seated skepticism of biological evolution because I, too, felt duped by well-meaning biology professors who taught me that the case for the evolutionary paradigm was airtight, when, in fact, I later learned was not the case whatsoever. I feel as if my journey to faith in Christ was waylaid because of my wholehearted embrace of the evolutionary paradigm, again based on a simplistic treatment of biological evolution. At one time in my life, I reasoned that if evolution can account for everything, then why is a Creator needed? God becomes superfluous in the evolutionary paradigm.

My point is this: a complex interplay of several factors determines the views that each of us holds, including the relationship between science and the Christian faith. Sincere, thoughtful, highly educated Christians can look at the same scientific and biblical data and come to rather different conclusions. It is for this reason that when we discuss science-faith issues with others (both inside and outside the Church) we need to move past the evidence and learn about one another’s experiences and control beliefs. In doing so, hopefully we realize that no one position uniquely holds the scientific or biblical high ground.

Unfortunately, like many evolutionary creationists, Venema writes as if evolutionary creationism is the only scientifically credible view. And McKnight, like other evolutionary creationists, adopts the posture that it is exegetically unreasonable to embrace a traditional biblical view of human origins. But, what if one reaches a different conclusion? Namely, that Scripture teaches humanity was created in God’s image through direct and personal Divine action and that all humanity comes from Adam and Eve? Does that mean, as Christians, we must abandon the scientific high ground?

In part 2, I will argue that the answer is no. I maintain that it is possible to hold to a scientifically credible view of human origins, while at the same time embracing the traditional biblical view of human origins. However, to do so, we must abandon methodological naturalism as the philosophical framework for science. If we do so, we will find the theory of evolution doesn’t uniquely account for the data from comparative genomics and population genetics. It is possible to present a robust scientific model (see Who Was Adam?) that explains the shared similarities and differences found in the genomes of humans and the great apes as shared design features—manifestations of an archetypal design.

Resources—Theological Reflections on Adam and the Genome

Resources—An Old-Earth Creationist Perspective on the Scientific Case for a Traditional Biblical View of Human Origins

Resources—The Challenges to Two Popular Design Arguments

  1. Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight, Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2017).
  2. Ibid., 1.
  3. Ibid., 90.