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Hmm, Much of Dennis Venema’s Adam and the Genome Isn’t About Adam and the Genome

Adam and Eve

We have already commented on biologist Dennis Venema’s book, co-written with Scot McKnight, Adam and the Genome. See Andrew Jones, most recently, “On Prejudiced Models and Human Origins.” While Discovery Institute takes no view on Adam and Eve, the book does offer an opportunity to weigh a variety of arguments made by theistic evolutionists, of whom Dr. Venema is a leading representative. In fact, despite its title, one of the first things that jumps out at you about this slim volume is that much of it has little to do with the first couple in the Bible.

True, some of the issues Venema raises bear on whether humanity shares a common ancestry with apes, and yes, one or two scientific arguments he makes are relevant to whether humans arose from an initial couple. However, Venema seems much more interested in pursuing longstanding debates with intelligent design and with certain ID proponents. And that, of course, is just fine.

So let’s see here. Stephen Meyer is a major focus of Venema’s attacks: Meyer is mentioned by name 36 times on 10 pages across 6 sections spanning 2 chapters of Adam and the Genome. But a close look at those discussions shows all but two of those mentions of Meyer are completely irrelevant to Adam and Eve. Similarly, Michael Behe is mentioned by name 39 times across 11 pages in 6 sections of 1 chapter of the book. Arguably, nothing of that is of any relevance to Adam and Eve.

For instance, Chapter 4 focuses on the evolvability of new proteins. Venema wants to show that blind evolutionary mechanisms can generate new complex and specified information. For the sake of argument, let’s say he’s right. That wouldn’t demonstrate that the traditional view of the biblical Adam and Eve is wrong. From a theological perspective, all it would show is that God created a world where natural mechanisms can create new proteins.

In fact, most of the issues Venema raises have to do with whether various aspects of biology could evolve, not whether they did evolve. Just because something could evolve doesn’t mean it did so. And the aspects of biology he’s discussing say very little about whether human mental and intellectual capacities, such as those many believe first appeared with Adam and Eve, can arise via blind evolutionary mechanisms.

The list below summarizes Venema’s scientific arguments in the book:

  1. Intermediate whale fossils demonstrate whales evolved from land mammals: Obviously, whether whales evolved from terrestrial mammals has nothing to do with whether Adam and Eve were historical persons or the progenitors of humanity.
  2. High degree of genetic similarity between humans and apes: At most, human/ape genetic similarity can tell us about human/ape common ancestry. But this line of evidence does not say anything about Adam and Eve. Some evolutionists might disagree, but common design can explain genetic similarities just as easily as common ancestry does, as these similarities may exist to fulfill functional requirements.
  3. Large-scale genomic similarities between human and ape genomes (“synteny”): This subject is part of the debate over human/ape common ancestry, but again, common design can explain large-scale functional genomic similarities just as easily as common ancestry does. Large-scale genomic similarities probably exist to fulfill functional requirements and do not reflect arbitrary architecture inherited via common ancestry. Questions about common ancestry, though, don’t necessarily tell us whether Adam and Eve existed. Obviously, some believers in the Bible reject common ancestry. But it is also possible to accept a historical view of Adam and Eve as the progenitors of all humanity, while accepting common ancestry.
  4. “Nonfunctional” pseudogenes shared by humans, chimps, and other organisms: Pseudogenes are relevant to the question of human/ape common ancestry, but not, strictly speaking, to Adam and Eve. Shared pseudogenes would be best explained by common ancestry if (a) pseudogenes are truly non-functional and (b) other explanations like hotspot mutations can never explain these shared similarities.
  5. High degree of human genetic diversity refutes Adam and Eve as the initial parents of humanity: If certain aspects of human genetic diversity are extremely high, then maybe that cannot be explained by humans descending from an initial pair like Adam and Eve. ID proponents are working on population genetics models and simulations to test these questions.
  6. Hominid fossils show humans evolved: If hominid fossils clearly demonstrate a gradual chain of intermediates between humans and ape-like precursors, this could bear on human/ape common ancestry. However, as noted already, whether Adam and Eve existed as historical people who were progenitors of the human race is a different matter.
  7. Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA shows they are related to humans: Even if we are related to Neanderthals and Denisovans, this does not preclude Adam and Eve as an initial couple who were progenitors of all living humans. But genetic similarities among humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans aren’t dispositive as to our common ancestry with them either. Just like genetic similarities with chimps, similarities between humans (Homo sapiens) and other members of the genus Homo can be explained by common design to meet functional requirements.
  8. Mitochondrial Eve and Y-Chromosome Adam probably weren’t an actual couple: Whether or not humans descend from a single pair or a large population, you would expect that our mitochondrial DNA eventually traces back to a single female, while our Y-chromosome traces back to a single male. Venema’s argument isn’t to claim that Mitochondrial Eve and Y- Chromosome Adam disprove the traditional Adam and Eve, but rather to say that their existence doesn’t prove Adam and Eve. He’s right on this point.
  9. Proteins can readily evolve new binding sites, structures, functions, and even folds through blind evolutionary processes — and this refutes intelligent design arguments: Whether or not proteins can evolve via blind evolutionary processes has nothing to do with Adam and Eve. If Venema is right and proteins can evolve, it’s still entirely possible that Adam and Eve were real people who were the progenitors of the entire human race. On the flip side, if proteins are unable to evolve in the absence of design, that doesn’t therefore show Adam and Eve did exist, nor does it say whether humans evolved from an initial pair. It would mean, though, that unguided Darwinian mechanisms are false, while intelligent design is a better explanation for the origin of proteins. The fact that Venema spends so much time on this topic suggests that he’s more interested in debating with certain ID proponents than he is in discussing the presumed topic of his book.
  10. Criticisms of Doug Axe’s research in the Journal of Molecular Biology showing the difficulty in evolving new protein folds: This pertains to the evolvability of proteins. It is relevant to intelligent design but has nothing to do with Adam and Eve.
  11. Direct templating of RNA and amino acids via biochemical attraction helps explain the evolution of the genetic code: This topic relates to the origin of life and has nothing to do with Adam and Eve. On the other hand, it may be relevant to evidence of design at the origin of life.
  12. Whole genome duplication (WGD) events in our genome explain how new genes evolve: Once again, the evolvability of new proteins really has no bearing on Adam and Eve. Perhaps Venema wants readers to think that if we’re descended from an organism that experienced various WGDs, then this suggests common ancestry with other animals, and a fully naturalistic history of humanity, thus arguing against Adam and Eve. But that is a matter of rhetoric, not science. Even if there were WGD events, that doesn’t preclude an initial couple. Nor does this subject bear on the validity of intelligent design. ID is compatible with common ancestry. If there are WGDs in our ancestry, it doesn’t mean natural mechanisms can produce new complex and specified genetic information. Venema’s purpose here seems to be to rebut Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer, not to say anything about Adam and Eve.
  13. Genes can arise “de novo” from non-coding DNA: Once more, this pertains to the evolvability of new proteins and has nothing to do with Adam and Eve. Instead, Venema is attempting to rebut Steve Meyer and ID.

In short, someone put the wrong title on this book. Venema spends all of Chapter 4 on items 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13 which are entirely irrelevant to Adam and Eve. He discusses these subjects primarily to argue that new proteins (or other complex systems, like the genetic code) can evolve by blind, unguided evolutionary mechanisms — which is highly germane to the debate over intelligent design. Over and over again, he insinuates that leading ID proponents like Steve Meyer and Mike Behe are ignorant of the evidence or hiding it from their readers. It seems that Venema’s main goal is to encourage the reader to distrust ID and its proponents.

Behe and Meyer, of course, are neither ignorant nor deceptive. But that’s a subject for another time, as we consider Venema’s 13 lines of evidence in more detail in future posts here at Evolution News. Looking forward, the purpose will not be to exhaustively discuss these items. Rather, we’ll point to sources that have already addressed Venema’s subjects at some length. We will also identify a common theme in his repeated “God wouldn’t do it that way” arguments. Ultimately, as we’ll see, Dr. Venema leaves ID unscathed.

Image: Adam and Eve, Doge’s Palace, Venice, via Wikicommons.