Science news at the speed of thought

An old Earth, population bottlenecks, and Adam and Eve

by Mano Singham Story Source February 6, 2012

It is always interesting to see religious people trying to find ways to reconcile modern science with their religious texts. For people who have a literal interpretation of the Bible, the task is much harder, with the Genesis story being a nightmare. This is not because the Genesis story is particularly crazier than the other miraculous stories in the Bible but because it is the most familiar and you cannot easily finesse it away. Everyone knows the general outlines of it, even if they are unaware that there are two partially contradictory versions of it that require fairly strenuous efforts to explain away.

I suspect that readers of this blog do not believe in the literal truth of the story of Adam and Eve and are also bemused as to why so many Christians insist on its historicity. Why tie your faith to such a preposterous story? For that matter, why not dispense with pretty much the entire Old Testament and stick with the New? After all, isn’t it Jesus that is important?

For some Christians, they stick with the story because they think that the Bible is the word of god and hence must be inerrant. In this they are just like Muslims and the Koran. If the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden goes, then a literal view of the Bible as history has to be abandoned and it thus cannot be god’s word. More sophisticated believers may think the story is implausible but fear (correctly) that as soon as one concedes that some parts of the Bible are not literally true, they have no basis for justifying which parts must be taken literally and which as myth or metaphor. If you allow that Adam and Eve were mythical then how can you insist that Christ’s resurrection is historical? So they bite the bullet and insist on the truth of the story though probably wishing it were not there.

The most sophisticated fear the theological implications because you can draw a straight doctrinal line from Adam and Eve to Jesus. The doctrinal reason why Jesus had to die was to absolve us from the state of sin we are born into because of the original sin of Adam and Eve. No Adam and Eve means no original sin and Christ’s death becomes pointless. The ‘original sin’ idea makes little sense but let’s consider it for the moment.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, says that rebellious choice infected all of humankind.

“When Adam sinned, he sinned for us,” Mohler says. “And it’s that very sinfulness that sets up our understanding of our need for a savior.

Mohler says the Adam and Eve story is not just about a fall from paradise: It goes to the heart of Christianity. He notes that the Apostle Paul (in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) argued that the whole point of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection was to undo Adam’s original sin.

The problem is that almost all of Christian and other religious doctrines were created in the ages before the advent of modern science, which we can mark as the arrival of Copernicus and Galileo, and hence are the product of times when a small and young geocentric universe seemed eminently plausible. As science has developed, either the Bible has to be re-interpreted or doctrines have had to be revised. There is usually a lag time for this process with only those scientific facts that have been absorbed into popular culture and thus cannot be denied without being ridiculed being used for this revisionist process. So, for example, the idea that the universe is not geocentric is now undeniable as is the fact that the universe is vast. Biblical reinterpretation has accommodated those changes to persuade believers that there is no contradiction of these facts with a literal reading of the Bible, though the arguments are strained, to put it mildly. But the main point is that the scientific fact is accepted. You can see why the Big Bang theory was such a relief to religious people because at least this idea that the universe was created at some instant of time had parallels with the Bible story, and required no major revision.

Another big problem is the theory of evolution and that the age of the Earth and the universe run into the billions of years. These facts are now becoming so widely believed that biblical literalists are feeling the pressure because of the problems it causes for the Genesis story. This results in some truly bizarre attempts at reconciliation of it with modern scientific developments, especially by intelligent design advocates who crave scientific acceptance while not wishing to alienate their fundamentalist allies. They know that wholesale denial of the theory of evolution and a young Earth are both nonstarters scientifically.

I wrote some time ago in a post titled How Adam and Eve killed the dinosaurs about William Dembski’s attempts to reconcile the Genesis story of the fall of creation in the Garden of Eden with an old Earth model. He invoked time-reversal of cause and effect, where things that happened later could have effects earlier. His theory was not only laughable from a scientific viewpoint, he was attacked by his seminary bosses and colleagues for even considering the possibility of an old Earth and had to backtrack.

Another attempt is to use the scientific research from evolutionary DNA studies that suggest that the human population went through a small bottleneck at some time. If the size of that bottleneck was two, then voila! Adam and Eve. Alas, that is also not to be. A 2011 study published in Nature says that the smallest size of the bottleneck is of the order of 10,000. Jerry Coyne explains in more detail the conclusions of the paper. For most of the readers of this blog, there will be nothing Earth-shattering about this study. But it is a big deal in fundamentalist circles and has caused some theologians at some seminaries to give up on the Adam and Eve story altogether, and stand accused of heresy.

The old age of the Earth and evolution of life are scientific facts that are becoming universally accepted. The story of Adam and Eve simply cannot survive for long and religious people will be forced to abandon it. The only question of interest is how they will do so.