Evolution Icon Evolution
Faith & Science Icon Faith & Science
Human Origins Icon Human Origins

Lessons from the Evangelical Debate About Adam and Eve

First Couple
Image: Adam and Eve, by Tintoretto, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: In a multipart series, Casey Luskin is reviewing a new book by philosopher William Lane Craig. Look here for the full review so far.

As we saw in Part 3 of this review, in his book In Quest of the Historical Adam William Lane Craig is highly reticent about criticizing evolutionary science. That’s the case even when genetic and fossil evidence pose potent challenges to a mainstream evolutionary view. This reticence is common among evangelical elites. As soon as someone recommends challenging evolutionary science, many intellectual evangelicals immediately have a gut response warning that it’s dangerous to do this. We’re told that the history of science and faith is littered with examples of religious people trying to stand against science — especially evolution — only to get mowed down by its inexorable progress. Doesn’t questioning Darwin risk our looking foolish before the world? Isn’t it wiser to just shut up, get out of the way, and let evolutionary science speak without challenge? 

William Lane Craig is to be commended for trying to see if a historical Adam and Eve existed, even as he tries to fit them within an evolutionary model. Perhaps Dr. Craig personally harbors doubts about evolution (I don’t really know), but if so, his book takes a rhetorical posture of silencing those doubts. His aim instead is to see if Adam and Eve can fit within an evolutionary view. This strategy has value in certain regards, but is it really required by the best science available? What if cautionary tales can be told of a different nature, leading to the opposite conclusion — that sometimes evangelicals prematurely latch on to what they think is “settled” evolutionary science, only to later find out that it was flawed? What if evangelicals are trying to conform to mainstream evolutionary ideas that are simply wrong? What if abandoning 2,000 years of orthodox beliefs, and capitulating to the evolutionary “consensus,” actually makes us look foolish because we’re letting go of important beliefs without having confirmed that science requires it?

It Started with a Christianity Today Article

In June 2011, Christianity Today (CT) published a cover story on “The Search for the Historical Adam.” However inadvertently, the article’s title (which sounds conspicuously similar to the title of Craig’s new book!) was misleading. The real purpose of the CT article was not to search for a historical Adam and Eve, but to highlight evangelical thinkers who fully accept modern evolutionary biology and reject traditional doctrines about a historical Adam and Eve. Filled with praise for Francis Collins — an evangelical celebrity scientist who made it big in the secular world — the article states:

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 … 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.1

The basic argument is that modern day human genetic diversity is so great that it could not be explained by humans descending from a mere initial pair of two individuals. Many humans — thousands — would be necessary to generate a population with the genetic diversity that humans possess today. (There are other genetics-based arguments against an initial pair that Craig covers in his book but this has turned out to be the most important. Craig also does a good job in his book of showing that the Bible as a whole teaches that Adam and Eve were historical people, not merely allegorical.) 

Four years prior to the CT article, Collins had founded the BioLogos Foundation with the purpose of promoting theistic evolution (or as some call it, evolutionary creationism), aiming to show that an evolutionary scientific viewpoint is fully correct and fully compatible with Christianity. The June 2011 CT article had high praise for BioLogos and its affiliated scientists, noting that “Dennis R. Venema, the BioLogos senior fellow for science and the biology chairman at Trinity Western University, is among the BioLogos writers who are not only advocating theistic evolution but also rethinking Adam.” Venema and then-BioLogos president Darrel Falk co-wrote a white paper on Adam and Eve, which CT quoted:

The BioLogos paper by Venema and Falk declares it more flatly: The human population, they say, “was definitely never as small as two …. Our species diverged as a population. The data are absolutely clear on that.”

CT provided endorsements for this from heavyweight theologians and biblical scholars suggesting that Adam may not be a “literal” historical figure. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke even seemingly expressed the view that science is more authoritative than Scripture:

“We have to go with the scientific evidence. I don’t think we can ignore it. I have full confidence in Scripture, but it does not represent what science represents.” 

Other evangelical evolutionary scientists were quoted as saying things such as that Adam and Eve “do not fit the evidence,” or that although there was “wiggle room in the past” to believe in Adam and Eve, “human genome sequencing took that wiggle room away.”

Entering the Wider Culture

Three and a half months later, this in-house conversation among evangelicals spilled out into the mainstream media. A religion correspondent for NPR, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, participated in an NPR conversation with host Neal Conan, titled “Christians Divided Over Science Of Human Origins,” which retold the story:

CONAN: In particular, I was fascinated to read that some genetic evidence, DNA, was investigated by some of these Christian scholars and say, wait a minute, there’s no way you can have the diversity of human beings we have on the planet if you start with two people.

HAGERTY: Yeah, that’s right. They say now that we’ve mapped the human genome, it is clear that modern humans emerged from other primates way before the timeframe of Genesis, you know, like 100,000 years ago. And they say given the genetic variation, we can’t possibly get the original population to below about 10,000 people at any time in our evolutionary history.

And one scientist put it to me this way. He said there would have had to have been an astronomical mutation rate that produced all these new variants in this short amount of time, and those mutation rates simply are not possible. We’d have to — we would have mutated out of existence, he said. So it’s not possible.2

Daniel Harlow, a religion professor at Calvin College, was a guest on the show, and he articulated plainly the philosophical ideology behind the push to abandon traditional beliefs about Adam and Eve:

Well, science isn’t privileged, but if this world is God’s creation, then we have an obligation as bearers of the divine image to study the creation. Science uncovers facts about God’s world. It’s his world, right? And if we’re going to ignore what mainstream science says, then we have no right to expect people to listen to us when we preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I think this anti-science, anti-evolution rhetoric typical of evangelicalism brings disrepute on the Christian faith, and it brings unnecessary shame upon the name of Jesus Christ.3

And there you have it: Harlow isn’t a scientist and although I’m sure he’s a smart guy, he probably is not equipped to evaluate the technical scientific details. Most likely, all he knows is that if “science” says that Adam and Eve could not have existed, then we must abandon this more than 2,000-year-old doctrine. To do otherwise is to be “anti-science” and “bring disrepute on the Christian faith” and “shame upon the name of Jesus Christ.” The push to abandon Adam and Eve was, in other words, driven by fears of looking bad before the world — not necessarily by compelling science. 

This debate broke out before a wider church audience in 2017 when Venema and theologian Scot McKnight co-wrote Adam and the Genome. They sought to take these arguments to the masses. BioLogos heavily promoted the book, which argued that Adam and Eve are decisively refuted by the data — so much so that the case for rejecting the traditional doctrine is as scientifically strong as the heliocentric model of the solar system:

The sun is at the center of our solar system, humans evolved, and we evolved as a population.

Put most simply, DNA evidence indicates that humans descend from a large population because we, as a species, are so genetically diverse in the present day that a large ancestral population is needed to transmit that diversity to us. To date, every genetic analysis estimating ancestral population sizes has agreed that we descend from a population of thousands, not a single ancestral couple.4

By implication, if you doubt Venema’s and BioLogos’s conclusions on this, you’re as ignorant and backward as a geocentrist. Venema continued in the book by claiming that there is no one in the intelligent design camp capable of properly evaluating the data on Adam and Eve:

[T]here does not appear to be anyone in the antievolutionary camp at present with the necessary training to properly understand the evidence, much less offer a compelling case against it.5

Venema was wrong on multiple counts. Not only were there scientists in the ID camp capable of evaluating these arguments, but they were capable of showing that, despite Venema’s claims of heliocentric-level certainty, it was indeed possible to explain modern-day human genetic diversity as arising from an initial pair of individuals. 

Venema and BioLogos Admit They Were Wrong

After the 2011 CT article, BioLogos-style arguments against Adam and Eve came under serious challenge. New voices in the discussion made different contributions ultimately showing that BioLogos was wrong. 

First, there was biologist Ann Gauger, a senior fellow and senior research scientist with Discovery Institute. In the 2012 book Science and Human Origins, she looked at human genetic diversity in HLA genes, some of the most diverse genes in the human genome. According to Gauger, the great diversity of these genes “seemed to provide the strongest case from population genetics against two first parents.” Yet she found that this diversity could still be explained if we originated from an initial couple: “if it were true that we share thirty-two separate lineages of HLA-DRB1 with chimps, it would indeed cause difficulties for an original couple. But as we have seen, the data indicate that it is possible for us to have come from just two first parents.”6

Another voice that joined the conversation was that of Richard Buggs, an evolutionary geneticist at Queen Mary University London. After Adam and the Genome was published in 2017, Buggs engaged with Venema and other scientists on the BioLogos discussion forum, leading Venema to admit that the papers he had cited in his book had not actually addressed, and thus could not have refuted, the existence of an initial couple such as Adam and Eve.7 Buggs wrote:

Dennis, I have to say the conclusion I am coming to is that you made a mistake in your book. If so, I would have huge respect for you if you were willing to admit it, then we could all move on and discuss the interesting science of the other methods you have written about, and the work that Steven Schaffner is doing. We all make mistakes, and those of us active in research are very used to having them forcibly pointed out to us when we get back peer review comments on our manuscripts and grant proposals. It is never much fun to have them pointed out, but part of being a good scientist is being willing to correct our mistakes and move on.

The lengthy conversation continued into 2018, and Buggs later wrote:

You would do your readers a service if you wrote a blog to tell them now, as far as you are able, that present day genomic diversity in humans does not preclude a bottleneck in the human lineage between approx 700K and 7myr ago. I think you owe this to them, and to everyone who has taken the time to participate in this discussion.

The “bottleneck” he refers to is the idea that the human population was reduced to two individuals — the equivalent of our species being founded by Adam and Eve. Venema responded to Buggs, acknowledging that Buggs was correct and he was mistaken: 

I’ve already agreed with this, and it’s been up there ^^ for weeks now. You’re welcome to publicize it as you wish. I no longer write in an official capacity for BioLogos, except by invitation from time to time. This means I’m just another commenter like you for the time being.

In a summary post at his Nature Ecology and Evolution blog in April 2018, Buggs noted the real issue was no longer whether Adam and Eve could have existed, but when:

To my mind, the question has now moved on from “Is an ‘Adam and Eve’ bottleneck inconsistent with human genetic diversity data?” to “At what timescale could an ‘Adam and Eve’ bottleneck be consistent with human genetic diversity data?”

Rewind to 2016

In fact, Ann Gauger had already embarked on a project with Ola Hössjer, a professor of mathematics at the University of Stockholm, to address that exact question: could Adam and Eve have existed, and if so, when? Gauger and Hössjer performed a comprehensive population genetics analysis of 1,000 human genomes to assess whether modern human genetic diversity could be accounted for if we descended from an initial pair granted “primordial diversity.” In a series of three papers published between 2016 and 2019 in the journal BIO-Complexity, they developed a population genetics model for investigating these questions. In their final paper, they showed that human genetic diversity can be accounted for even if humans are descended from a single pair of ancestors — e.g., Adam and Eve — that could have lived about 500,000 years ago. If additional evolutionary assumptions are questioned, they could have lived even more recently. Their BIO-Complexity papers are as follows:

Ann Gauger has summarized much of this research at the website UniqueOriginResearch.com. Computational biologist and theistic evolutionist Joshua Swamidass also performed an analysis, posted at his online discussion forum, which found that Adam and Eve could have lived 495,000 years ago as our sole genetic progenitors.8

Thus, two robust analyses — one from Swamidass and the other from Hössjer and Gauger — concur that Adam and Eve could have lived about 500,000 years ago as our sole genetic progenitors. And again, that date could be sooner if we are willing to question additional evolutionary assumptions about human history. 

Further Retractions

As the exchange with Buggs reflected, Dennis Venema eventually admitted he was wrong. Swamidass also engaged privately with BioLogos and documented that they had “quietly deleted several articles from their website”9 that had claimed a historical Adam and Eve are incompatible with evolutionary science. Last year, BioLogos’s president, Deborah Haarsma, acknowledged BioLogos’s past mistakes on this topic, including that some BioLogos scientists “made premature claims…that evolutionary science and population genetics rule out scenarios with a recent universal human ancestor or with a de novo created ancestral pair.”10 She further wrote:

Over the years, we have removed old content from our website for many reasons, including articles…that overstated scientific claims, that unnecessarily excluded theological positions that are consistent with scientific evidence…we need to be honest when we overstate an argument.11

William Lane Craig reviews this saga in his book. He notes “six genetic features that have been put forward as allegedly incompatible with an original human couple” (p. 339) and finds that each one either does not actually address the existence of an initial pair or turns out to be flawed on closer analysis. Craig cites a 2019 blog post from Venema admitting he (Venema) was wrong on this crucial point. As Craig writes:

Venema came to acknowledge the failure of his arguments against a single-couple origin. “Based on some new simulations and some other published studies that we drew on, our group came to an agreement — that if an event like this had happened, we would be able to detect it if it happened more recently than 500,000 years ago. That was surprising to me, to be sure — I thought beforehand that an event like that would show up even further back in time.” Though he doubles down on the claim that “there is no positive evidence at all that such an event occurred,” that is a red herring, since no one has asserted that there is. 

pp. 353-354

Craig cites the work of various Christian biologists and other scientists in his book — Swamidass, Buggs, Gauger, and Hössjer, for example — and his analysis is detailed and carefully written. After affirming the existence of Adam and Eve, he concludes, “Challenges to this hypothesis from population genetics fail principally because we cannot rule out on the basis of genetic divergence exhibited by contemporary humans that our most recent common ancestors, situated more than 500 kya, are the sole genetic progenitors of the entire human race, whether past or present.” (p. 359) 

Thus, I want to be clear that Craig isn’t part of the problem in this particular story and he should be commended for being willing to find room for Adam and Eve despite previous evolutionary claims to the contrary. But the implications of this saga for evangelical thinking on evolution are profound. Craig doesn’t discuss them, but they need to be stated. 

Sometimes Accepting Evolution, Rather than Challenging It, Causes Trouble

Everyone makes mistakes — and Venema and BioLogos should be commended for modifying their positions when that was warranted by the evidence. Those mistakes can be forgiven and we can leave their particular details in the past. But if we leave the story there, then we miss its lesson. 

The standard evolutionary account of human origins holds that our population has always been in the thousands and humanity did not descend from an initial pair. For years, theistic evolutionists (TEs) and evolutionary creationists (ECs) — specifically BioLogos and its affiliated scientists — forcefully promoted within the evangelical and wider Christian community this standard evolutionary view of human history. They argued that it eliminated the possibility that we were descended from Adam and Eve. These promotional efforts took the form of interviews with prominent news outlets along with conferences, books, and web articles. By the group’s own admission, BioLogos, with its philosophy of never challenging evolutionary science, made “premature claims” and “overstate[d] an argument” that “unnecessarily excluded theological positions.” Many evangelicals accepted their arguments that Adam and Eve did not exist.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen numerous instances of evangelical elites arguing — and buying into the argument — that the genetic data require us to reject 2,000+ year-old doctrines about the existence of a historical Adam and Eve. Those arguments have now turned out to be based upon bad science. The philosophy that it’s wrong for evangelicals to challenge evolutionary claims led many down a needless and most unfortunate path.

For those who have ears to hear it, the lesson is simple. Evangelical intellectuals in certain circles often assume that evolutionary science is correct, or at least should be treated as an immovable rock which should neither be questioned nor touched, lest one bring embarrassment on the church. But this assumption is false and the behaviors and fears that follow from it are unnecessary. Sometimes it’s claims made in the name of evolutionary science that are false. Even highly qualified, well-respected, and well-intentioned and well-credentialed evangelical scientists who promote TE and EC to the church can get things wrong. 

Whether driven by a quest for certainty or a desire to please secular elites or something else, some evangelical leaders eagerly embraced ideas inimical to Christian orthodoxy, ideas that have not been established by good science. These leaders rejected important doctrines because of what was tantamount to junk science, and influenced many others to do likewise.

This story shows that it’s time to abandon the evangelical assumption that evolutionary claims are indisputable and must be accepted no matter what. It’s often better to live with some uncertainty and adopt a “wait and see” approach — pending careful analysis of the science — than to run headfirst into the arms of Darwin. 

Unfortunately, some in the evangelical community have not learned from this experience. Instead, they seem intent upon repeating past mistakes. In the last installment of my review of In Quest of the Historical Adam, I’ll consider two illustrations.


  1. Richard Ostling, “The Search for the Historical Adam,” Christianity Today (June 3, 2011), https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/june/historicaladam.html
  2. “Christians Divided Over Science Of Human Origins,” NPR (September 22, 2011), https://www.npr.org/2011/09/22/140710361/christians-divided-over-science-of-human-origins
  3. Ibid. Emphasis added.
  4. Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight, Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (Brazos Press, 2017), p. 55.
  5. Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight, Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (Brazos Press, 2017), p. 65. 
  6. Ann Gauger, “The Science of Adam and Eve,” in Science and Human Origins, by Ann Gauger, Douglas Axe, and Casey Luskin (Discovery Institute Press, 2012), p. 120. 
  7. This story is told at “Adam and the Genome and Citation Bluffing,” Evolution News (February 7, 2018), https://evolutionnews.org/2018/02/adam-and-the-genome-and-citation-bluffing/
  8. S. Joshua Swamidass, “Heliocentric Certainty Against a Bottleneck of Two?,” Peaceful Science (first post on December 29, 2017), https://discourse.peacefulscience.org/t/heliocentric-certainty-against-a-bottleneck-of-two/61
  9. S. Joshua Swamidass, “A U-Turn on Adam and Eve,” Peaceful Science (August 30, 2021), https://peacefulscience.org/articles/biologos-uturn-adam-eve-position/
  10. See editorial note in Thomas H. McCall, “Will The Real Adam Please Stand Up? The Surprising Theology Of Universal Ancestry,” BioLogos (March 23, 2020), https://biologos.org/series/book-review-the-genealogical-adam-and-eve/articles/will-the-real-adam-please-stand-up-the-surprising-theology-of-universal-ancestry (emphasis added).
  11. Deborah Haarsma, “Truth-Seeking in Science,” BioLogos (January 10, 2020), https://biologos.org/articles/truth-seeking-in-science