Where We All Come From

The distinction between genetic and genealogical ancestry may be valuable to theology.

Excerpted From
The Genealogical Adam & Eve
By S. Joshua Swamidass

Universal genealogical ancestors of everyone alive arise as recently as a few thousand years ago. We can now begin to assess our hypothesis. Could Adam and Eve, ancestors of us all, have lived in the Middle East as recently as six thousand years ago? What are the ranges of times they could have lived? Already, it seems as if this may not be as ridiculous a hypothesis as we first imagined.

Surprisingly, the distinction between genetic and genealogical ancestry in the 2004 Nature study went largely unnoticed in the theological conversation. David Opderbeck published a single blog article in 2010, noting the distinction between genetic and genealogical ancestry, supposing that universal ancestry from a recent Adam and Eve might be valuable to theology. Jon Garvey published the first of many blog articles in 2011, with his own reflections on how this distinction might be useful to theology. Later and independently, Kenneth Kemp, Gregg Davidson and Andrew Loke intuited that genetic ancestry was not the whole story, making contributions to the theological conversation of their own. From time to time, the instinct to think beyond genetics would pop up, but this instinct was largely passed over. Often, these contributions were incorrectly dismissed as variations of polygenesis, a theory of origins often associated with racism. This rush to judgment prevented recognition and inquiry. Some authors during this time, for example, knew of Kemp, Opderbeck and Garvey’s work but excluded mention of recent genealogical ancestry in their summaries of the field. Several scientific and theological objections were repeated, usually echoing objections against polygenesis. These objections, however, were rooted in deep misunderstanding of both science of ancestry and the monogenesis tradition. There was not yet a cohesive conceptual framework to bind these distinct contributions and insights together, so they were incorrectly lumped in with polygenesis. I will explain the depths of the error of this comparison in the next part of the book. As should be clear already, however, Olson and Kendall were both personally impressed by how universal genealogical ancestry demonstrates that polygenesis is false. The mythology of isolated races, nonetheless, remains strong. This mythology is, perhaps, one reason recent universal ancestry remains so counterintuitive.

In light of the 2004 Nature study, the genealogical hypothesis seems plausible now, but there are two remaining scientific gaps to bridge before we can be sure. First, we want Adam and Eve to be ancestors of, at least, everyone alive “to the ends of the earth” at some point in the past. The published literature, however, only considered the universal genealogical ancestry of everyone in present day. This literature demonstrates we have good reason to believe there were universal genealogical ancestors of everyone alive today. The most recent of these ancestors, however, would not be the ancestors of everyone alive, for example, in A.D. 1. How do we extrapolate these findings backward to consider universal ancestry at some date in the past?

Second, the estimates so far are for the most recent of all universal ancestors. This is a tiny number of individuals, possibly in specific areas of the globe, and only arising at some narrow window of time in the past. It would be almost inconceivably lucky for Adam and Eve to be part of this tiny group of people. Nothing in our hypothesis, however, requires them to be the most recent. Instead, we just want them to be universal ancestors, not necessarily the most recent ones.

Somehow, we want to know the time at which most people are universal ancestors of everyone at a later date. This is a more conservative approach than using the most recent date; it pushes any estimates we make of when Adam and Eve could have lived to more ancient times. The advantage of this approach, however, is that it gives us an estimate that does not rely on luck or miraculous intervention.

These are the gaps I bridged in my contributions. In mid-2017, I put out the basic details of the genealogical hypothesis, first in an informal presentation, then in a book review in a theological journal. It became clear that the proposal was important for theology, but it needed further development. In March of 2018, I authored an article, “The Overlooked Science of Genealogical Ancestry,” in an interdisciplinary journal, Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith. This paper shows how the findings of the 2004 Nature study can be extrapolated to test our hypothesis, bridging these last gaps. This analysis, accidentally, demonstrated that there would be no evidence against the de novo creation of Adam and Eve within a population. This, perhaps, was an even bigger surprise, as we soon explore.

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Excerpted from The Genealogical Adam & Eve by S. Joshua Swamidass. Copyright (c) 2019 by S. Joshua Swamidass. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. IVPress.com