Navel gazing

Navels are a testament to human biology. If Adam had one, then everything we know about navels means that he was born like you and me, in contrast to a story you may have heard in which he was created from dust. In his latest book, In Quest of the Historical Adam, the theologian William Lane Craig does not discuss navels per se, but his argument is essentially that Adam had one. On theological grounds, he argues that Adam, and, by extension, Eve, lived as real individuals in a specific time and place, rather than as abstract placeholders for the ancestors we all share. Craig spends most of his time outlining the theological context of this original pair; His final few chapters review how the scientific literature bears on their existence.

Non-theologians will regard this as so much trivia, but for Christians there is a lot at stake. Young Earth creationists argue that if God created the world as good, and if death results from the evil let into the world by original sin, then death cannot have predated that sin. Before Adam and Eve’s disobedience there was no disease, predation or scarcity; everything was “good”. Evolution, in contrast, is a process by which the biased timing of death (with due consequences for reproduction) has resulted in the diversity of life over the course of a few billion years, a span during which humans and their sin were generally absent. From this perspective death is part of a creative force, without which life as we know it could not exist. No wonder Bible-thumpers have spent decades trying to discredit, or at least evade, the evolutionary basis of biological science.

So either the Genesis creation account is not literally true or our understanding of the world is wrong. Lots of authors, including Craig and mainstream Christian traditions since Augustine, have leant towards the former. I have struggled for years with the tension of the belief system in which I was raised (Protestant Christianity), which holds up canonical scripture, including Genesis, as divinely inspired, even though it is so clearly the product of human authors and the times in which they wrote. I suspect Craig has struggled too, although this is not obvious from his decades in front of evangelical Christian audiences, writing and performing as a champion against secularism and its influence on modern society.

Most of Craig’s book is about theology. Science comes second:

We want first and foremost as Christians to know what the Bible has to say about human origins independent of modern science. We want to know what our biblical commitments are concerning the historical Adam, and we can know those only insofar as our hermeneutical approach to Scripture is not shaped by modern science. After all, if biblical teaching is at odds with the deliverances of modern science, then we want to know that and act accordingly.

Exactly what he means by “act accordingly” is not spelled out, but a substantial part of his book is coming to grips with Genesis and, in spite of this preamble, shaping its claims by “modern science”. Craig’s conclusion is that the Genesis story, literally understood, did not happen. However, to deliver this message and stay in the good graces of his audience, he has to be careful about his wording. So Craig spends over 150 pages dissecting various texts to make the case that no, lions were not herbivores before the Fall; no, snakes did not speak. Those who believe otherwise should view the Judaeo-Christian creation account as “Mytho-History” with “fantastic” elements – two phrases he chooses carefully. He seems to have started down the slippery slope towards non-belief, but applies the brakes when it comes to the miraculous. The events of Christ’s life, not least his bodily resurrection, are not “fantastic” but represent “miracles”. Rest assured, he writes, objecting to pre-Fall herbivory in Tyrannosaurus rex “has nothing to do with a naturalistic bias or a prejudice against miracles”.

The last third of Craig’s book is a review of the science documenting our evolution. His goal is to define the lineage that encompasses “humanity”, and his answer is fairly precise: the biblical Adam and Eve were members of Homo heidelbergensis and existed between 1 million and 750,000 years ago. He’s read a fair amount of the relevant literature and correctly notes, for example, that our own species probably shared a common ancestor with neanderthals, that archaic Home had large brains and that their cultural and technological records indicate sentient, intelligent creatures. They are biologically “human” enough, Craig concludes, to count Adam and Eve among their members. The earliest record of anatomically modern H. sapiens doesn’t appear until about 450,000 years after the younger bound of Craig’s estimate for the original pair of Genesis, but the Young Earth creationists in his audience won’t believe these dates anyway, and archaic Home did have a lot in common with our own species.

One glaring omission from Craig’s book, made worse by his amalgamation of archaic Home into his definition of “humanity”, is a serious investigation into the discrepancy between our physical emergence and the appearance of civilization. If Adam and Eve existed 750,000 years ago, it took their descendants another 740,000 years to live together in large groups with the key features, such as agriculture, written languages ​​and possibly monotheistic religion, that set us apart from non-human animals. Why such a long delay? The answer is probably related to the fact that archaic Home did not have anything near the basic technology of hunter- gatherers, much less settled farmers. Furthermore, loving others as yourself was probably not as accessible to species such as H. heidelbergensis as it is to contemporary humanity. There is evidence that over the course of the past 80,000 years, our species became socially cohesive to an degree. The origins of high-level social units, ones in which unrelated strangers are willing to put their lives at risk to save yours (and in which religion probably played a key role), would seem relevant to the search for a potential divine behind humanity , but you won’t find this spark in Craig’s book.

It is always difficult to delve into a new discipline to try to make a positive difference, and insights often come from the synthesis of different academic traditions. Yet Craig has seemingly come to evolutionary biology more to validate than to inform his views as a theologian, and the contradictions flow accordingly. On page 257, for example, he writes: “The presence of shared physical features … cannot in any case be supposed to indicate even an evolutionary connection between hominin forms, much less their humanity.” But on page 276 we are told that “evidence from [teeth] is not only consistent with the humanity of neanderthals but counts against the humanity of Homo erectus“. Regarding the fossilized external surfaces of brains, “doubt has been cast on the linguistic ability among australopithecines”, based on “studies of hominin endocasts”, yet the next sentence claims “paleoneurologists can learn little about hominin language precious ability from fossil endocasts”. Still, maybe William Lane Craig can convince some of the Young Earth crowd not to discount evidence from biology and geology, and instead carefully to consider nature itself as the substance of God’s works. I hope he succeeds, and I hope he keeps looking into God’s works for himself.

Robert J. Asher is an evolutionary biologist based in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge. His book Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a religious paleontologist was published in 2012

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