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Adam and Eve and “Mainstream Science”

Adam and Eve, by Lucas Cranach the Younger
Image: Adam and Eve, by Lucas Cranach the Younger / Public domain.

Philosopher of biology Paul Nelson contributed a superb response to computational biologist Joshua Swamidass’s book, The Genealogical Adam and Eve. Writing in a symposium for the journal Sapientia, Dr. Nelson notes that the book’s use of the concept “mainstream science” artificially constrained Swamidass’s possible choices in seeking to preserve a historical first couple. The question is whether we will allow our own views to be similarly constrained.

The Embrace of Mainstream Science

Swamidass offers a Venn diagram, like a perfectly sliced hard-boiled egg, placing his preferred thesis in the embrace of Mainstream Science, from which competing views are excluded. Paul counters with a diagram of his own depicting the “rules of baseball.” From “Which Game? Whose Rules?”:

[Swamidass’s] Venn diagram conceals as much as, or more than, it reveals. The category “mainstream science,” for instance, the largest circle in the diagram, sounds plausibly neutral, capturing the sort of objective knowledge to which any reasonably well-educated adult, whether Christian or not, should assent (e.g., elements are composed of atoms, the Earth is an oblate spheroid, humans have 46 chromosomes in their diploid cells, and so on). These are the facts of the universe as we best understand them.

“Mainstream science,” however, when we analyze the meaning of this term in GAE [The Genealogical Adam and Eve], turns out not to be neutral at all — not for science, or philosophy, or theology. To see why, let’s look briefly at a Venn diagram which has nothing to do with any of those areas. This exercise will provide what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls “an intuition pump,” to warm up the reader’s thinking for the more difficult questions ahead.

Figure 2 (below) shows five offensive plays permitted within, or consistent with, the rules of baseball: (1) a bunt, (2) hit and run, (3) a sacrifice fly, (4) drawing a walk, and (5) stealing a base. Then we have a curious outlier circle: the forward pass.

A forward pass is not permitted by the rules of baseball, and doesn’t even make sense — passing forward to where, exactly? Given the rules, the shape of a baseball field lacks any such linear, up-and-back orientation. Wrong game, friend. No forward passing allowed, or even imaginable.

Given the rules . . . in a parallel sense, the whole enterprise of GAE is looking for the closest similitude to historical orthodoxy, i.e., Adam and Eve as the original, de novo created parents of humankind, but only given the strict boundaries, or rules, set by mainstream science, where concepts such as creation de novo are as incongruous as a forward pass in baseball. This accounts, incidentally, for some of the peculiarities of the GAE hypothesis, such as the complete invisibility of Adam and Eve to biological detection. If we allow for the empirical possibility that the defining characters of the genus Homo signal a created or aboriginal discontinuity, we would step instantly outside the privileged circle of “mainstream science” (see section 4, below). That’s a no-go. No forward passing, remember?

It is impossible to play football and baseball at the same time, of course, within the same square footage of grass. One set of rules must govern the outcome of the game; indeed, only one set of rules can govern the game. Look again at Figure 1, and find the location of “GH,” the abbreviation designating the Genealogical Adam and Eve hypothesis. Notice where GH resides — within “mainstream science.”

But why is GH/GAE located there? Because Swamidass has accepted, as defining the game of science (as it is currently played, anyhow), these rules or conditions: methodological naturalism (as a philosophy of explanation; hereafter, MN) and common ancestry (as the pattern of evolutionary relationship which best explains the biological data; hereafter, CA). Both MN and CA are problematic, however, and thus any hypothesis which takes them as its givens, or starting points, will be problematic as well. The building can be no sounder than its foundation.

Tailoring Reality

Read the rest and enjoy the diagrams over at Sapientia. Paul notes that methodological naturalism in particular “tailors reality before reality has a chance to speak for itself.” He concludes by asking:

Swamidass is hailing us from within the circle defined by MN and CA. What can I say over here where I’m standing, he asks us, that you folks — outside the boundaries I have assumed as given — will find acceptable?

Science, of course, isn’t a game. It is, or should be, an unfettered search for the truth. In the search, though, we must be very careful to see what rules we are permitting to constrain us.