The Genetic Manhunt for Adam

The search for the first human has sparked a new debate among scientists. This debate is the focus of two studies published recently and reported by, in which two scientists debate their work in identifying the first human being. Below is an excerpt from the report published by FoxNews:

A pair of scientific studies using the latest genetic evidence are seeking to identify the very first man to walk the Earth, the so-called “Adam.”

The studies delve into phylogenetics, a forensic hunt through the Xs and Ys of our chromosomes to find the genetic “Adam,” to borrow the name from the Bible. And Eran Elhaik from the University of Sheffield says he knows exactly when that first man lived.

“We can say with some certainty that modern humans emerged in Africa a little over 200,000 years ago,” Elhaik said in a press release. That directly contradicts a March 2013 study from Arizona Research Labs at the University of Arizona, which found that the human Y chromosome (the hereditary factor determining male sex) originated through interbreeding among species and dates back even further than 200 millennia.

When people read the report about these two studies, they may believe that the genetic search for “Adam” means that the scientists are talking about the biblical Adam. Their studies may make an allusion to the biblical Adam, but their work has nothing to do with the Genesis story and what the Bible has to say about the creation of man and woman.

This allusion to the biblical Adam has been criticized by The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Vatican’s scientific academy that seeks to relate modern scientific studies to Christian faith:

Identifying the very first Y chromosome of a genetic “Adam” would not mean scientists had located the Biblical figure Adam, explained Werner Arber, the Vatican’s top scientist, told “Scientific investigations have no means to identify Adam and Eve and to sequence their genomes.”

Whether one believes in a literal Adam or not, genetic researchers will never be able to say that the skeletal remains of someone who emerged from Africa 200,000 years ago is the bearer of the chromosomes of the biblical Adam. The identification of Adam and Eve as the first human beings remains a matter of religious belief and can never be proved by science.

As a spokesman for The Pontifical Academy of Sciences said: “Contemporary scientific language is not the language of the Bible. Therefore, although the Bible adopted an early scientific language, it cannot be read in the light of today’s scientific language.”

Those who desire to read more about this topic should read the new book, Four Views on the Historical Adam. The book was published by Zondervan. What follows is taken from the promotional description for the book:

As a part of the Counterpoints series, Four Views on the Historical Adam clearly outlines four primary views on Adam held by evangelicals, featuring top-notch proponents of each view presenting their positions in their own words and critiquing the positions with which they disagree. Readers will come away with a better understanding of the key biblical and theological issues at stake and of the implications of Adam for contemporary Christian witness and church life.

Contributors and views include:

• Denis O. Lamoureux: No Historical Adam, Evolutionary Creation View
• John H. Walton: A Historical Adam, Archetypal Creation View
• C. John Collins: A Historical Adam, Old-Earth Creation View
• William Barrick: A Historical Adam, Young-Earth Creation View

Each contributor focuses his essay on answering the following questions:

• What is the biblical case for your viewpoint, and how do you reconcile it both with modern science and with passages and potential interpretations that seem to counter it?

• In what ways is your view more theologically consistent and coherent than other views?

• What are the implications of your view for the spiritual life and public witness of the church and individual believers, and how is your view a healthier alternative for both?

Concluding reflections by pastor-scholars Gregory A. Boyd (“Whether or Not There Was a Historical Adam, Our Faith Is Secure”) and Philip G. Ryken (“We Can’t Rightly Understand the World or Our Faith Without a Real, Historical Adam”) highlight the significance of the topic in the faith of everyday believers.

I have not yet read this book, but its content may be of interest to many readers who want to know more about the current debate about the historicity of the biblical Adam.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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