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Much Ado at BioLogos?


Theistic evolution, as I’ve argued before, may do more to confuse the public than does its atheistic counterpart. Hence the need for the massive yet beautiful forthcoming tome, Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, with numerous contributions from Discovery Institute scholars on the relevant science and philosophy.

The chief online home of the theistic evolutionist (TE) perspective is BioLogos. We have our Kremlinologists who observe the BioLogos website for indications of what ideas, and which people, are up or down in the world of TE. Perhaps because of the awkwardness of a forced marriage between Darwinian evolution and Evangelical Christianity, the site sometimes gives unwitting hints of behind-the-scenes intrigue, reflecting a clash of views that can be never fully resolved.

A recent debate at BioLogos about the possibility of an original human pair caught our attention. The debate was over the current genetic literature and how it may be interpreted. One BioLogos Fellow, biologist Dennis Venema, denied the possibility of such a pair, contributing to a far-from-collegial exchange with another TE proponent, computational biologist Joshua Swamidass. Subsequently, geneticists from outside the theistic evolutionary circle cautioned that Venema had gone too far, that he was saying more than the mainstream scientific literature itself does about ancestral population sizes and the genetic effects of population bottlenecks.

The week before last, I noticed that Venema had posted a reply to geneticist Richard Buggs, one of the scientists who had challenged Venema’s interpretation of the genetic literature, as the top new item on BioLogos. It was early in the morning, and I thought I must be seeing things when, very shortly thereafter, the post disappeared. I found that the URL worked, though. So, suspecting that something was amiss, I copied it as a PDF.

Subsequently, someone deleted the text of Venema’s reply and replaced it with this, “Dennis Venema has prepared a response to Richard Buggs. It will appear at this URL soon.” Oddly, though, they retained a comment below the now empty post from someone else at BioLogos, Ted Davis, praising Venema for the “great clarity” of his reply, saying that Discovery Institute owes it as a matter of “fair discourse” to tweet his response, chiding us that we risk “alienating Christians from science,” etc.

Meanwhile, on the front page, someone replaced Venema’s post with a statement by Jeff Hardin, a biologist on the group’s Board of Directors, addressing the Swamidass-Venema controversy. Hardin tried to make peace between Josh and Dennis by comparing them to Martin Luther and other contentious figures in the Reformation, and praising their religiosity:

We are grateful for both Josh and Dennis. They are both brilliant communicators and devout Christian brothers who love Jesus. We pray that their creativity will lead us all to celebrate both the glories of God’s created world and the glories of His revealed Word, so that we might all honor the living Lord about whom the Reformers cried, solo Christo! – by Christ alone!

If you hadn’t noticed, there’s a characteristic manner to the writing of many theistic evolutionists, which is interesting in itself. A Christian friend characterizes it as “pietistic” and “churchy,” adding that “I dislike this TE style intensely.” Well, you won’t find anything like it in the journal Nature.

Like a school teacher managing unruly children, Hardin also reported that one party had said sorry to the other:

Dennis has told me recently he has apologized to Josh for his blunt and forceful response and is sorry that he didn’t use more measured language.

This struck me as a bit infantilizing to both scientists. If Dr. Venema was going to apologize and considered that as worth being known to the public, he was capable of writing it himself.

From Hardin, there also seemed to be a veiled reply to us here regarding what the “BioLogos view” is on Adam and Eve. Previously BioLogos president Deborah Haarsma had said the “scientific consensus” holds that “the human race did not originate from only two individuals.”

Now Hardin says:

The BioLogos range of views on this topic has always included views of Adam and Eve as real individuals living in a real past. Evolutionary science does not exclude an historical Adam.

What? Among BioLogos watchers, this sparked some lively interest. Had the organization changed its position on Adam and Eve? After puzzling out what we had read, we concluded that no, there was no major change. Yes, Venema appeared to have lost face in comparison with Swamidass, apologizing without receiving an apology in turn. This seemed to signal something — though what might be behind it was lost in fog. But the organization’s rejection of the traditional idea of a single pair of historical parents for all mankind remains unaltered.

Discovery Institute has “views” on science, not on the Bible, but BioLogos is different. Their view is that an “historical Adam” (and Eve) is possible, but not in the sense that most Christians (and Jews and others who read the Bible) understand — a first couple as the sole progenitors of the human race, whether due to a bottleneck or other circumstances. Is this a position with any content to it? To me as an outsider observer, it seems on the order of saying the scientific consensus rules out the revelation at Mt. Sinai, yet a “historical Moses” is still possible.

Last week, I found that Venema’s original post had gone back up, complete with Ted Davis’s request that we “tweet [Venema’s] reply.” We’ll do better than that — we’ll quote it:

So, is there a genetic case to be made for Adam and Eve as the sole genetic progenitors of all of humanity? Have I overstated the scientific evidence to exclude this possibility? Note well: the question is not “were Adam and Eve historical individuals?” That is a question that science is not equipped to answer, as I discuss in the book. Science can tell us about our past population sizes, but it cannot weigh in on the historicity of any individuals within that population. Within the BioLogos tent, there are a range of views on Adam and Eve. What Buggs is asking here is whether Adam and Eve could have been the sole genetic progenitors of the entire human race.

There is, however, no mention of sole progenitors in Buggs’s own words:

Does genomic evidence make it scientifically impossible that the human lineage could have ever passed through a population bottleneck of just two individuals? This is a question I am asked semi-frequently by religious friends. With my current understanding of the genetic evidence, I can’t state categorically that it’s impossible. In this view, I find I differ from a recent book chapter on the topic [from Venema’s book, Adam and the Genome]. I’m writing this blog to run my thoughts past other biologists, and check I am not missing something.

Buggs is asking whether the genetic evidence says it is impossible that there could have been a bottleneck of two, which is what Venema claims.

The Venema-Buggs debate continues. Richard Buggs has responded to Venema in the comments section and at his own blog. Buggs calls out Venema for sloppy writing and unsubstantiated claims.

What to make of all this? Let’s review the debate at BioLogos as best as I’m able to understand it.

It is an often-repeated statement from BioLogos that they embrace many views on the question of Adam and Eve, so long as those views accept that natural processes alone are responsible for the evolution of the human form. They accept genetic analysis that claims we came from a population of 10,000 or so. The question remaining for them is: Was there ever an historical Adam and Eve, in a meaningful sense?

Dennis Venema is one of those people at BioLogos who fully accepts the view that there never was an historical first pair. According to his book co-written with Scot McKnight, Adam and the Genome, we came from a population of 10,000, with all the genetic analysis agreeing on this point.

The distinction between a genetic origin from a population of 10,000, or a Biblically based Adam and Eve at our origin, poses a conundrum for Christians and others. Venema knows this. In his view, either you believe the science or you believe the Bible.

Here enters Josh Swamidass, the last player in this game. He sees the conflict between the two views on human origins and how they engender division within his religious community. He has proposed a possible solution in an essay in the journal Sapientia. His idea is that a genealogical Adam and Eve, created as in the first chapters of Genesis, were the common ancestors of all current living people, so that they might be called the parents of all the living.

However, Adam and Eve would not have been the only “humans” alive at the time. There would have been some thousands more human forms that lived outside the Garden and were the product of evolution by common descent from ape-like ancestors. The rest of the details — how God’s blessing, the effects of Original Sin, and the rest become part of their lineage — are a little hazy to me.

In any event, the matter led to a rift between Venema and Swamidass, that in turn lead to internal strife within BioLogos. Venema vociferously objected to Swamidass’s model. What followed appeared to be a prolonged internal negotiation. From clues on the surface, the post by Jeff Hardin seems to cast Josh as the favored son. Josh offers what may be an out for Biologos, a way for believers to accept the findings of population genetics, and retain a first couple as well, but not in the sense of a “sole” progenitor pair.

Josh is explicit that the first couple, Adam and Eve, would leave no trace in our genetics. As such, they can neither be proven nor disproven by scientific evidence. Their existence is left to faith.

Some problems with Josh’s model include the following. First, if Adam and Eve lived recently, possibly within the last 10,000 years as Josh speculates, it would be difficult to account for all the human population having interbred with Adam and Eve’s descendants, since Native Americans in the standard telling crossed the land bridge about 20,000 years ago and migrated down into South America. These peoples would have been isolated until the time of Columbus. Other groups would have been similarly isolated, not to mention all those who lived before Adam and Eve. The only way Josh’s model can work, however, is if there was a complete mixing of the human race. As a historical matter, this does not seem to compute.

Second, Josh clearly states that there is nothing detectable left of Adam and Eve’s genomes in us. So, there can never be any evidence that they existed. It’s hard to see what in this would appeal to the religious seeker. It’s simply allows a supposition, possibly fictional, to replace a Biblical story.

Third, Josh’s model requires a major theological innovation: a whole new category of humans, who have never lived inside the Garden, and whose spiritual state is unknown. According to Josh, they would look like us, and perhaps be better than us because they never participated in Original Sin.

This, all around, seems to be quite a stretch. It’s the makings of more confusion, and further evidence, if it was needed, that sticking to the science, as we do here, is the best course. We wish the scientists at BioLogos good fortune in sorting it all out.

Now one final thing. Normally the genetics of human origins would not be an area we would focus on, because it doesn’t bear on the question of design. But sometimes a problem presents itself. Richard Buggs tells how he got involved:

Does genomic evidence make it scientifically impossible that the human lineage could have ever passed through a population bottleneck of just two individuals? This is a question I am asked semi-frequently by religious friends. With my current understanding of the genetic evidence, I can’t state categorically that it’s impossible…. If I am missing something, then I would very much like to know. Whilst this issue may seem trivial to many readers, for large numbers of religious believers in the world, this is a critical issue.

Similarly, our biologist colleague Ann Gauger was asked how strong the genetic evidence is against Adam and Eve. The questioner was a friend who found claims on the matter to be overwhelming. She said she didn’t know but she would find out.

If scientists can make claims against religious beliefs, then those claims must be subject to scrutiny, as a legitimate scientific question. According to Ann, it has been an interesting journey, one she never anticipated. She came to the conclusion that science cannot rule out a first pair, at least not yet. Some of the evidence she has found and the current work she is engaged in with her coauthors Ola Hössjer and Colin Reeves can be found in the gorgeous monster of a book with which we began.

Photo source: Puzzlebug77, via Pixabay.