Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In Quest of the Historical Adam:
A Biblical and Scientific Exploration
by william lane craig
william b. eerdmans, 420 pages, $38

Christians who accept a theory of human evolution are still faced with the question of Adam. Was there a single human being who could be said to be first and the ancestor of all other human beings? Christians have traditionally thought so, following the account given in Genesis and the idea that the sinfulness that afflicts every human being (Jesus excepted—as well as Mary, according to Catholic teaching), “original sin” in one sense of the term, is inherited from the first human beings, who committed the original sin. The Catholic Church has thus affirmed that Adam was “the first parent of all,” notably at the Council of Trent and in Pius XII’s Humani Generis. Yet those approaching the question from a purely scientific point of view have long wondered whether, and sometimes doubted that, the human race began with a single couple. The problems are not primarily paleontological. However much fossils might add to our evidence for animal ancestry, they provide no evidence of population size. The problem is rather the Darwinian theoretical presumption that species originate in a group—“No …‘first man’ ever existed,” Ernst Haeckel said, “just as there was never…a first individual Englishman or German”—and human genetic diversity.

Analytic philosopher and Baptist theologian William Lane Craig, like many Christians interested in these questions, has the goal of reconciling the historical reality of Adam with modern science. But Craig approaches the subject somewhat differently: He makes few references to the Fathers, and is less concerned about the question of original sin. He is not sure that the concept is even essential to Christianity and in any case his understanding of the doctrine (with propagation by imitation rather than by generation) is not Trent’s. What is at stake for Craig is the veracity of Scripture; if not of Genesis, then at least the words of Paul and Jesus, both of whom refer to an original parent of the human race. 

Craig’s book has two parts. The first interprets the relevant passages of Scripture; the second addresses the scientific evidence. In the first part, Craig argues that the early chapters of Genesis should be read as “mytho-history.”

He defines “myth” not by specifying necessary and sufficient conditions, but by identifying features the presence of most of which would be sufficient to call a narrative a myth. The features he identifies include being a traditional sacred narrative set in a primeval age and featuring deities as central characters, without being troubled by logical contradictions or incoherence.

The nature of myth having been established, Craig goes on to show that the Genesis account fits the definition. The discussion of this topic goes into great detail, perhaps too much for some readers; but in Craig’s defense, it is crucial to his argument to establish the literary genre of Genesis, and this requires a close reading. The stories in Genesis are not, however, myths exactly like those found in Hesiod and Ovid; rather, says Craig, they are “mytho-history.” Unlike pure myths, the narratives of the Genesis proto-history are explicitly connected to stories (about Abraham, for example) the historical intent of which is undeniable.

That historic intent extends to Adam. On Craig’s view, Adam was not merely a group of individuals or another way of saying “the human race.” While the “fantastic” character of some of the elements of the Genesis proto-history (the snake, for example) justify non-literal interpretation of those elements of the story, key New Testament passages (Romans 5:12-21 in particular) refer too clearly to a real-world individual whose sin had real-world effects to allow anything other than a historically real individual Adam. 

Craig then turns to scientific questions, and here the argument at some points becomes highly technical (as it must), but is, for all that, particularly interesting.

Can science say anything about whether there was a single first human couple? Some geneticists have claimed that the extent of human diversity is too great for there ever to have been just two human beings. Craig reviews their arguments and gives his reasons for thinking that they are unsound, though I am not sure that he is entirely successful here. It is, he acknowledges, a scientifically open question. Christian curiosity about how the debate will be resolved is natural, perhaps inevitable, but, in my opinion, Christians would be well-advised to avoid too much theological investment in its outcome. In an article that I published about ten years ago, I argued that Catholic doctrine does not require a genetic bottleneck of the kind that scientists have said is impossible. If God created human souls for only two individuals out of a larger population of hominins, and then (only) for the descendants of those two, Adam and Eve would be among the ancestors of every other fully human being, which is all that theology requires. If those human beings continued to interbreed with the non-human hominins, there would be no genetic bottleneck.

A search for the historical Adam has to do more than just prove the genetic possibility of his existence, however. It has to say something about when, if not where, he lived. In this, I think Craig’s arguments are stronger. To establish a date, Craig begins by looking for the earliest evidence of rationality. What fossils show hominins with bodies capable of using language? What artifacts—complex tools, art, and evidence of complex social interaction—reveal the existence of rational beings? Craig argues that Neanderthals and Denisovans were rational and that therefore the first human beings must have lived roughly 850,000 years ago. 

Was a Neanderthal really one of “us”? The idea that they buried their dead dates back at least to French priests Jean and Amédée Bouyssonie, who discovered the first complete skeleton in 1908. Those more familiar with the beauty of the paintings at Altamira than with that of Acheulean hand axes and more influenced by the caveman of modern imagination than by the physiology of Heidelberg Man might at first be reluctant to accept such kinship and such a long human pedigree. The alternatives, however—either rational men before Adam or an Adam too recent to be the ancestor of all rational beings—would create theological problems much more serious than would recognition of the full humanity of Neanderthals.

Was Adam’s body entirely the product of evolution? Craig thinks that it was not. On his view, God selected two out of a larger population of evolved hominins and made them human by “biological and spiritual renovations” (emphasis mine). Since this could have been done “miraculously,” “there is no problem here.” Such a mixed view has been proposed before—by A. R. Wallace, who thought that evolution simply could not have produced a brain capable of higher mathematics, and by Zeferino Cardinal González, who thought that Scripture strongly favored God’s direct involvement in the formation of Adam’s body. It is not clear whether Craig’s reasons for positing biological renovation are scientific or theological. In a very recent article in Scientia et Fides, I gave reasons for thinking that perhaps no such renovation would in fact be scientifically or philosophically necessary. An evolved body might be both functional as a mere animal body and capable of receiving the rational soul that would make it human.

No one could write about this topic without generating, or at least participating in already existing, controversy. Nevertheless, Craig’s book remains an excellent treatment of its topic.

Kenneth Kemp is emeritus associate professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles