This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 45, number 1/2 (2022).
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Evangelical elites often assume that evolutionary science should not be questioned, lest one look foolish and bring shame upon the church. For the past decade, proponents of theistic evolution (TE) or evolutionary creationism (EC) have convinced many evangelicals that modern-day human genetic diversity has refuted a historical Adam and Eve. But recent analyses have shown these arguments to be wrong, and that modern human genetic diversity is fully compatible with humanity arising from an initial pair within the past 500,000 years — or sooner if additional evolutionary assumptions are questioned. The lesson from the evangelical debate over Adam and Eve is that it is not necessarily intellectually dangerous to challenge evolutionary science, and one should never rush to abandon important doctrines based upon unclear evidence.
Unfortunately, some evangelicals are not fully appreciating this lesson. In his book In Quest of the Historical Adam, William Lane Craig credibly challenges TE/EC arguments and affirms a historical Adam and Eve. However, he cites “broken pseudogenes” as evidence that we share common ancestry with apes — a position that implies that Adam and Eve aren’t our sole genetic ancestors and/or weren’t miraculously created de novo (“from new”). However, a growing body of peer-reviewed scientific papers support functionality for pseudogenes, undercutting the case for common ancestry. The evolutionary consensus may view pseudogenes as “junk DNA,” but the evidence challenges this view. Evangelicals should appreciate the lesson of the debate over Adam and Eve and be willing to challenge the evolutionary consensus when warranted by the evidence.
In his book In Quest of the Historical Adam (Eerdmans, 2021), William Lane Craig convincingly argues that Adam and Eve are historical persons supported by both science and biblical teachings about the creation of humanity, the corruption of sin, and the need for Christ’s redemption.1 But does everyone appreciate why we are having this conversation?
It started in June 2011 when Christianity Today (CT) published a cover story on “The Search for the Historical Adam.”2 The article’s title (which coincidentally resembles the title of Craig’s book) was misleading. The article did not promote a historical Adam and Eve but highlighted evangelical thinkers who accept modern evolutionary biology and reject traditional beliefs about a historical Adam and Eve. Filled with praise for Francis Collins — an evangelical celebrity scientist — it stated: “Collins’s 2006 bestseller, The Language of God…reported scientific indications that anatomically modern humans…originated with a population that numbered something like 10,000, not two individuals.” The 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 the genetic diversity observed in humans today.
Four years prior to the CT article, Collins founded the BioLogos Foundation to promote theistic evolution (TE) or evolutionary creationism (EC), aiming to show that an evolutionary scientific viewpoint is fully correct and fully compatible with Christianity.3 The CT article praised BioLogos’s 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 an informational document 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.’” Other evangelical evolutionary scientists were quoted as saying things like Adam and Eve “do not fit the evidence,” or although there was “wiggle room in the past” to believe in Adam and Eve, “human genome sequencing took that wiggle room away.”
CT also provided endorsements from heavyweight biblical scholars suggesting that Adam may not be a “literal” historical figure. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke 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.”
Three months later, this in-house conversation spilled into the mainstream media. A religion correspondent for NPR, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, participated in a conversation with 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.…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.4
Daniel Harlow, a religion professor at Calvin College, articulated the motives behind the push to abandon traditional beliefs about Adam and Eve: “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” (emphasis added).5
This debate broke out before a wider church audience in 2017 when Venema and theologian Scot McKnight cowrote Adam and the Genome, which argued that Adam and Eve are as decisively refuted by the data as the geocentric model of the solar system.6
Venema and BioLogos Admit They Were Wrong
After the 2011 CT article, BioLogos-style arguments against Adam and Eve were immediately challenged. In 2012, biologist Ann Gauger, a senior fellow with Discovery Institute, found that genetic diversity in HLA genes, some of the most diverse genes in the human genome, could still be explained if we originated from an initial couple.7
After Adam and the Genome was published, Venema was engaged on the BioLogos discussion forum by Richard Buggs, a Christian geneticist at Queen Mary University of London. Venema admitted 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.8 The conversation culminated in 2018 when Buggs 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.9 I think you owe this to them.”10 The “bottleneck” Buggs is referring to is the idea that the human population was reduced to two individuals — equivalent to humanity being founded by Adam and Eve. Venema responded, acknowledging that he was mistaken: “I’ve already agreed with this….You’re welcome to publicize it.”11 In a summary post at his Nature Ecology and Evolution blog, Buggs noted that the question was no longer whether a historical Adam and Eve could have lived, but when.12
In fact, Gauger had already begun collaborating with Ola Hössjer, professor of mathematics at the University of Stockholm, to address those questions. They published a population genetics analysis in BIO-Complexity showing that human genetic diversity can be explained by a single pair of ancestors — e.g., Adam and Eve — that lived about 500,000 years ago.13 Computational biologist and TE/EC proponent Joshua Swamidass also calculated that Adam and Eve could have lived 495,000 years ago as our sole genetic progenitors.14 If additional evolutionary assumptions are questioned, Adam and Eve could have lived even more recently.
In response to all this, by 2021 BioLogos had deleted articles from their website claiming that a historical Adam and Eve were impossible.15 BioLogos’s president Deborah Haarsma acknowledged that their scientists “made premature claims…that evolutionary science and population genetics rule out scenarios with a recent universal human ancestor or with a de novo [“from new”] created ancestral pair.”16 She further admitted they had “overstated scientific claims, that unnecessarily excluded theological positions that are consistent with scientific evidence.”17
The Lesson to Learn
Everyone makes mistakes — and Venema and BioLogos should be commended for modifying their positions when warranted by the evidence. But if we leave the story there, we miss its lesson.
The standard evolutionary account of human origins holds that the human population has always been in the thousands and humanity did not descend from an initial pair. Over the past decade, TE/ECs affiliated with BioLogos forcefully promoted this standard evolutionary view of human history within the church and argued that the genetic data refutes the existence of a historical Adam and Eve. Numerous evangelicals bought into these arguments — either abandoning wholesale important 2,000+ year-old doctrines about Adam and Eve or toying with the possibility of doing so.
Those arguments against Adam and Eve turned out to be based on bad science. But why did evangelicals embrace ideas that were theologically hostile when the science was not established? As we saw in the rhetoric used in the NPR article, evangelical elites often assume that evolutionary science is correct, or at least is an immovable rock that should be neither questioned nor touched, lest one bring embarrassment on the church. But this assumption is false and the fears and behaviors that follow from it are unnecessary. Sometimes it is claims made in the name of evolutionary science that are false. Even well-credentialed and well-intentioned evangelical scientists who promote TE/EC to the church can get things wrong. Whether driven by a quest for certainty, a fear of embarrassment, a desire to please secular elites, or something else, many evangelical leaders eagerly embraced ideas inimical to Christian orthodoxy that were ultimately based upon junk science.
The big lesson from this saga is that it’s time to abandon the evangelical assumption that evolutionary claims are indisputable and must be accepted no matter what. In many cases, evolutionary claims are challenged by the evidence. In others, it may be better to tolerate 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, many evangelicals seem intent upon sticking with the evolutionary consensus, repeating past mistakes, and embracing certain evolutionary ideas, despite a lack of compelling evidence.
Not Learning the Lesson?
To his credit, in his book In Quest of the Historical Adam, Craig challenges TE/EC arguments against the existence of Adam and Eve. But his model isn’t necessarily committed to a fully “traditional” Adam and Eve. Craig repeatedly cites Venema endorsing “broken pseudogenes” — junk DNA— as evidence for human-ape common ancestry.18 As the argument goes, pseudogenes are broken genes that once had function but were inactivated by random mutations. God would never put the same broken genes into two species, therefore if humans and apes share identical pseudogenes, this suggests they got there through some non-designed natural mechanism — namely, inheritance from a common ancestor. Because of this, Craig is open to models of human origins that involve human-ape common ancestry over a more traditional view, in which Adam and Eve were our sole genetic ancestors and miraculously created de novo, independently from animals.
Intelligent design (ID) is not necessarily incompatible with common ancestry, so in discussing this topic we’re not necessarily testing ID on the macro-scale. But on the smaller scale, the logic seems correct that broken DNA shared by two species is better explained by evolutionary mechanisms than intelligent causation. However, if pseudogenes aren’t broken non-functional junk DNA and are important elements of our genome, then the reason we share “pseudogenic” DNA with apes isn’t necessarily common ancestry but could instead reflect design to meet common functional requirements.
So, are pseudogenes “broken” and non-functional junk DNA, or do they have functions? In fact, the literature is replete with papers reporting specific functions for “pseudogenes,”19 including producing functional proteins, functional RNA transcripts, or performing functions without producing any RNA.20 The standard evolutionary presumption is that pseudogenes are extra copies of functional genes that underwent mutations, preventing them from producing proteins (peptides). Yet many pseudogenes produce proteins: one study in Nature reported “more than 200 peptides that are encoded by 140 pseudogenes.”21
Similarly, the standard way that a “pseudogene” is identified is because it is similar to some protein-coding gene but has mutations that seemingly prevent production of a protein. Yet even pseudogenes that don’t produce a protein can still have important regulatory functions. As one paper observes, “Many pseudogenes contain a frequency of mutations that render them unlikely to be (or incapable of being) translated into proteins. However, such mutations do not necessarily preclude pseudogenes from performing a biological function.”22 Or another paper states, “Pseudogenes are thought to be inactive gene sequences, but recent evidence of extensive pseudogene transcription raised the question of potential function.”23 Indeed, researchers have identified hundreds of pseudogenes that are transcribed into RNA,24 and there are many functions these RNAs can perform. Pseudogenic RNAs can bind with transcripts from protein-coding versions of the gene, inhibiting translation and protein production. Such gene regulatory functions require the pseudogene to have similarity (homology) to its protein-coding counterparts.25 Therefore, the reason our genomes contain sequences that resemble protein-coding-genes that don’t produce proteins isn’t because they are discarded evolutionary junk, but because they are designed that way as important genomic regulatory and control elements.
Appreciate the Literature
While many evangelical elites were uncritically accepting what TE/EC scientists told them about pseudogenes, a scientific paradigm shift took place that has filled the literature with papers recognizing pseudogenes as key regulatory elements. These papers often emphasize how little we know about pseudogenes (i.e., we don’t know that they’re junk), how difficult it is to detect their functions (which may occur only seldomly, in particular tissues or cell types), and recommend we should stop calling them “junk.”
A 2021 paper in BioEssays, for example, explains that although pseudogenes have been “labelled functionless enmasse,” the truth is that “comparatively little is known” about them. It finds: “The implication of pseudogenes in biological processes including neurogenesis, inflammatory responses and cancer necessitates revisitation of the notion that pseudogenes are evolutionary ‘junk.’ However, the extent of pseudogene activity remains poorly investigated, in part perhaps due the bias inherent to the term ‘pseudogene,’ which presumes non-functionality. Furthermore, technical shortcomings have impeded unambiguous distinction of pseudogene activity.”26
A 2012 paper in Science Signaling notes that although “pseudogenes have long been dismissed as junk DNA,” recent advances have established that “the DNA of a pseudogene, the RNA transcribed from a pseudogene, or the protein translated from a pseudogene can have multiple, diverse functions.” The paper concludes that “pseudogenes have emerged as a previously unappreciated class of sophisticated modulators of gene expression.”27
A 2020 paper in Nature Reviews Genetics observes that “Where pseudogenes have been studied directly they are often found to have quantifiable biological roles,” and warns that “The dominant limitation in advancing the investigation of pseudogenes now lies in the trappings of the prevailing mindset that pseudogenic regions are intrinsically non-functional.” It cautions that pseudogene function is “prematurely dismissed” due to “dogma.”28 That dogma, of course, is the evolutionary junk DNA mindset.
Much More Than Diddly. There are real-world examples of prematurely dismissing pseudogene function, only later to be proven wrong. During the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, anti-ID biologist Kenneth Miller testified that our beta-globin pseudogene is “broken” because it has “molecular errors that render the gene non-functional,” indicating we share a common ancestor with apes.29 Two years later, leading anti-ID activist Eugenie Scott claimed this pseudogene “isn’t going to do diddly. It’s just going to sit there” and “not do a thing.”30 But a 2013 study reported this pseudogene is functional,31 and a 2021 study found it is “essential” and has “indispensability” for red blood cell formation.32
Relearning the Lesson
Despite this evidence, many evangelical intellectuals still follow the evolutionary “consensus” and assume that pseudogenes are junk DNA, demonstrating human-ape common ancestry. Those who presume that pseudogenes are broken DNA are betting on a horse that has barely begun to run its race — and as the horse is starting to run, it’s not doing so well. Just as a paper in Nature Reviews Genetics cited above argued that pseudogene function is “prematurely dismissed,” some Christians are prematurely dismissing orthodox Christian doctrines. Even for those who don’t feel ready to endorse the view that pseudogenes are functional, at the very least an agnostic “wait and see” approach seems prudent, given the poverty of our knowledge and the trendline of the evidence.
Don’t bet on the wrong horse. Be cautious about throwing away millennia-old doctrines because you’re being told, based upon outdated science, that the “consensus” demands you must believe that pseudogenes are “broken” genes inherited from our apelike ancestors. The dissolving consensus may have said this, but the evidence doesn’t. Challenging any consensus shouldn’t be done lightly and requires taking a risk based upon what you think the evidence says. But it was the right thing to do when it came to rejecting evolutionary arguments against a historical Adam and Eve. Let’s be willing to take a risk on pseudogene functionality and follow the evidence where it is leading.
Casey Luskin, PhD, is an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law. Dr. Luskin works as Associate Director of the Center for Science and Culture for the Discovery Institute and cofounded the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Center.
- Editor’s note: For a review, see Fazale “Fuz” Rana, “Who Was Adam? Summary Critique of William Lane Craig’s In Quest of the Historical Adam,” Christian Research Journal 44, no. 04 (2021): 32–39. https://www.equip.org/article/who-was-adam-a-book-review-of-in-quest-of-the-historical-adam-a-biblical-and-scientific-exploration-by-william-lane-craig-eerdmans-2021/
- Richard N. Ostling, “The Search for the Historical Adam,” Christianity Today, June 3, 2011, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/june/historicaladam.html.
- See Casey Luskin, “The New Theistic Evolutionists: BioLogos and the Rush to Embrace the ‘Consensus,’” Christian Research Journal 37, no. 03 (2014): 32–41, https://www.equip.org/article/new-theistic-evolutionists-biologos-rush-embrace-consensus/.
- “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.
- “Christians Divided over Science of Human Origins,” NPR.
- Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight, Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (Grand Rapids: MI: Brazos Press, 2017), 55.
- Ann Gauger, Douglas Axe, and Casey Luskin, Science and Human Origins (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2012), 120.
- Richard Buggs, Comment at “Adam, Eve and Population Genetics: A Reply to Dr. Richard Buggs (Part 1),” The BioLogos Forum, November 18, 2017, https://discourse.biologos.org/t/adam-eve-and-population-genetics-a-reply-to-dr-richard-buggs-part-1/37039/61.
- Editor’s note: myr means million years.
- Richard Buggs, Comment at “Adam, Eve and Population Genetics: A Reply to Dr. Richard Buggs (Part 1),” The BioLogos Forum, April 25, 2018, https://discourse.biologos.org/t/adam-eve-and-population-genetics-a-reply-to-dr-richard-buggs-part-1/37039/1061.
- Dennis Venema, Comment at “Adam, Eve and Population Genetics: A Reply to Dr. Richard Buggs (Part 1),” The BioLogos Forum, April 25, 2018, https://discourse.biologos.org/t/adam-eve-and-population-genetics-a-reply-to-dr-richard-buggs-part-1/37039/1063.
- Richard Buggs, “Adam and Eve: Lessons Learned,” Nature Ecology & Evolution Blog, April 14, 2018, https://ecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/32171-adam-and-eve-lessonslearned.
- See Ola Hössjer and Ann Gauger, “A Single-Couple Human Origin is Possible,” BIOComplexity, 2019(1): 1–20, https://doi:10.5048/BIO-C.2019.1.
- 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.
- See S. Joshua Swamidass, “A U-Turn on Adam and Eve,” Peaceful Science, August 30, 2021, https://peacefulscience.org/articles/biologos-uturn-adam-eve-position/.
- 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-adamplease-stand-up-the-surprising-theology-of-universal-ancestry.
- Deborah Haarsma, “Truth-Seeking in Science,” BioLogos, January 10, 2020, https://biologos.org/articles/truth-seeking-in-science.
- William Lane Craig, In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2021), 376, 378.
- Numerous papers could be listed. See Footnote 9, Casey Luskin, “Lessons Not Learned from the Evangelical Debate over Adam and Eve,” Evolution News, November 23, 2021, https://evolutionnews.org/2021/11/lessons-not-learned-from-the-evangelical-debate-overadam-and-eve/.
- Laura Poliseno, “Pseudogenes: Newly Discovered Players in Human Cancer,” Science Signaling 5, no. 242 (September 2012), https://doi.org/10.1126/scisignal.2002858.
- S. Kim et al., “A Draft Map of the Human Proteome,” Nature, 509 (2014): 575–81, https://www.nature.com/articles/nature13302. Zhe Ji et al., “Many lncRNAs, 5’UTRs, and Pseudogenes Are Translated and Some Are Likely to Express Functional Proteins,”eLife, 4:e08890 (2015), DOI: 10.7554/eLife.08890.001.
- Seth W. Cheetham et al., “Overcoming Challenges and Dogmas to Understand the Functions of Pseudogenes,” Nature Reviews Genetics 21 (2020): 191–201, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41576-019-0196-1.
- Nicole A. Rapicavoli et al., “A Mammalian Pseudogene lncRNA at the Interface of Inflammation and Anti-inflammatory Therapeutics,” eLife, 2:e00762 (2013), DOI:10.7554/eLife.00762.
- ENCODE Project Consortium, “An integrated encyclopedia of DNA elements in the human genome,” Nature, 489 (September 2012): 57–74, https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11247.
- Leonardo Salmena et al., “A ceRNA Hypothesis: The Rosetta Stone of a Hidden RNA Language?,” Cell 146, no. 3 (2011): 353–58, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2011.07.014.
- Robin-Lee Troskie et al., “Processed Pseudogenes: A Substrate for Evolutionary Innovation,” BioEssays 43, no. 11 (November 2021), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/bies.202100186.
- Poliseno, “Pseudogenes: Newly Discovered Players in Human Cancer.”
- Cheetham et al., “Overcoming Challenges and Dogmas.”
- Kenneth Miller, Day 1 AM testimony, Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, September 26, 2005.
- “What Do Creationists Believe about Human Evolution? | Dr. Eugenie Scott,” The Leakey Foundation, YouTube, November 29, 2021, lecture recorded May 17, 2007, https://youtu.be/iZhO7_GhDH0.
- Ana Moleirinho et al., “Evolutionary Constraints in the β-Globin Cluster: The Signatureof Purifying Selection at the -Globin (HBD) Locus and Its Role in Developmental Gene Regulation,” Genome Biology and Evolution 5, no. 3 (2013): 559–71, https://doi.org/10.1093/gbe/evt029.
- Yanni Ma et al., “Genome-wide Analysis of Pseudogenes Reveals HBBP1’s Human-specific Essentiality in Erythropoiesis and Implication in β-Thalassemia,” Developmental Cell 56, no. 4 (2021): 478–93, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.devcel.2020.12.019.