The First Biologist, in the Garden of Eden

Hello everyone. It’s been a while since I’ve published here regularly, but I look forward to getting started again. The creative agency I launched, Polymath Innovations, has expanded dramatically and we’ve had many wonderful clients and projects. At an Oxford event last year, we worked with BioLogos to develop videos now housed at Patheos here — be sure to check out the feature. I’ll especially include this video, since it relates to the guest post below: And with that, I’d like to welcome our guest blogger, Andy Walsh, courtesy of the Emerging Scholars Network. Andy is Chief Science Officer at Health Monitoring Systems. He has a Ph.D. in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (2005). More information in the bio below. 

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Before Darwin, There Was Adam

The origin of species; that’s what brought us all here. Charles Darwin’s seminal book offers an account of where species came from; we’re still left discussing whether it is the same narrative as Genesis 1 or an entirely separate sequence of events. Before Darwin, one could have had a similar discussion about Genesis 1 and Genesis 2; are they complementary or contradictory accounts of the order in which species came to be? Well, what if Genesis 2 actually is the account of the origin of species, only not until the second half of verse 19?

“The Lord God formed out of the ground every living animal of the field and every bird of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them, and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.” Genesis 2:19 NET, emphasis added

Naming animals is the very first job God gives to Adam. This activity is Adam’s first opportunity to collaborate with God, on a small scale, in the act of creation. Creation is described in Genesis 1 as speaking order into chaos. Formerly a shapeless void, the world is organized by God’s words. God then gives Adam an opportunity to organize his world with words of Adam’s choosing. Perhaps Adam is afforded this privilege because he was made in God’s image, or perhaps this is Adam’s first opportunity to fulfill that commission.

In naming those animals, Adam becomes the first scientist. Science is the process of making sense of the world around us. Scientists observe that world, and then create descriptions to organize those observations in order to understand them. Sometimes that involves creating new language, just as Adam would have. Over time, those descriptions become more precise and more complex; often, they are expressed in mathematics, a language invented to accommodate very compact descriptions of the complex in precise terms. Those descriptions transform the very way that we think about the world (how hard it is to be convinced that your sniffles are the result of a rhinovirus infection and not the ambient temperature when cold is right there in the name!), and even transform the world itself by making it possible to describe and then create new technologies. These transformations are rooted in the language innovations of those organizing descriptions.

If Adam was the first scientist, what was his discipline? Would it surprise you to learn that Adam was the first evolutionary biologist? He initiated the process of deciding how to organize the animals, and in doing so he was the first to participate in one of the central activities of evolutionary biology. That’s a discipline we usually associate with “how” questions. How did the different species we observe come to exist? How did life begin? And so forth. These are the questions Darwin sought to answer, and evolutionary biologists continue to add details to those answers today. Yet they depend on even more fundamental questions. What is a species? What is a living organism?

What choices did Adam have when naming the animals? The details in Genesis are scant, but it seems clear that God gave Adam substantial freedom. Maybe Adam gave each individual a unique name – Niels and Rocket and Shadowfax – or maybe he kept things very simple – two-leggers, four-leggers, flyers, etc. We don’t know what he chose; the exact details don’t matter and his naming scheme needn’t correspond to the one we currently use. The important point is that he was free to choose a naming scheme, an organizational system, and the choice he made would stand. And so the concept of grouping animals was introduced to the world, which would ultimately give us the idea of a species.

Of course, when Adam named the animals he didn’t affect their genomes, their breeding preferences, or any aspect of their biology. Aren’t those the features that really determine an animal’s species, not the name Adam gave them? Well, yes and no. Breeding compatibility and more recently genome composition are the criteria we commonly use to define species. The actual organisms we so label, however, may not care as much about those features as we do. Bacteria in particular defy these criteria; they don’t have mates and they do share genes – share like a sandwich, not like a common value – without caring much about what the recipient looks like. That doesn’t mean the concept of species is completely useless, or that it is disconnected from biological reality. It has proven very useful over the years; still, it may represent more of a choice than we commonly appreciate.

If Adam’s naming scheme was the first in a series of choices about how to organize living organisms, then it becomes clearer that evolutionary biology is as much about our “what” questions as the “how” questions. We observe a whole variety of individual organisms; that is true no matter how they came to be. We propose a system for organizing them. The tools of evolutionary biology then help us discern how well that system matches our observations. What organisms are at the boundaries of those categories? What new categories would help us organize our observations better? The answers we get help us to better frame some of our most fundamental questions. What does it mean to be alive? What is essential to be considered human?

The primary insight evolutionary biology provides for framing those fundamental questions is this: if you want to separate what is essential from what is coincidental, try a new context. New contexts will reveal what it is possible to part with, and what you have to hold onto. Different organisms in different contexts suggest the range of forms that life can inhabit. And in a striking convergence that suggests the same God is trying to teach us something through his world and his Word, this pattern is illustrated in the Bible as well. After Adam finishes his naming project, humanity is expressed in the new context of a female, perhaps stretching Adam’s concept of what it means to be human. In Acts, the Gospel is taken into a Gentile context where circumcision and dietary regulations are no longer considered essential. And in a delightfully self-referential way, evolutionary biology itself provides a new context for each of us to examine our theology and decide what parts are idiosyncratic what parts are essential.

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Andy_WalshAndy Walsh has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain’s hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer’s cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts — Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

Again, be sure to check out the BioLogos Feature at Patheos, and come back tomorrow for my own reflections on the topic.


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  • Jim

    First, you have to believe the Genesis story, and that’s the big problem.

    • Andy Walsh

      Thanks for that observation, Jim. Since I was asked to contributed to a conversation on evolution & Christian faith, I thought the audience would have willingness to engage with the Bible. For those who are not interested in engaging with the Bible, or who have and decided not to believe it, I would start a very different conversation.

      I would also add that I did not talk about Adam as an evolutionary biologist in an effort to establish some sort of historical primacy. I’m more interested in highlighting the fuzziness of the boundaries to our notions of species, scientific disciplines, and ultimately even theological categories. And in a way, you’ve hit on exactly that same theological fuzziness. As a Christian, I need to engage with Genesis 1-3 in some fashion, but reading those texts in the context of current evolutionary biology may reveal challenges to the categories that are traditionally applied when reading those texts. (See my reply to WeldonScott for some specifics.)

      • Jim

        One can still be a good Christian and good Jew without believing that Genesis is the last word in science. There are many other stories in the OT that never happened, such as the exodus, the great flood and Noah’s ark, Joshua and the battle of Jericho and the ten plagues.

        • Andy Walsh

          Fair enough, and I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. Your earlier comment referred broadly to believing Genesis, and I guess I should have asked for clarification on what you meant by that so that I could have understood that you specifically meant believing Genesis as the last word in science.

  • R2D3

    Adam was the first taxonomist. Linnaeus was called a “second Adam” (Jesus was not; he was the Last Adam). Peter Harrison, Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Centre of the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland, writes:

    Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (1707–1778) became known during his lifetime as a ‘second Adam’ because of his taxonomic endeavors. The significance of this epithet was that in Genesis Adam was reported to have named the beasts—an episode that was usually interpreted to mean that Adam possessed a scientific knowledge of nature and a perfect taxonomy. Linnaeus’s soubriquet exemplifies the way in which the Genesis narratives of creation were used in the early modern period to give religious legitimacy to scientific activities and to taxonomy in particular. Allusions to Adam’s work in the Garden of Eden thus became a way of investing the vocation of the naturalist with religious significance. (Linnaeus as a second Adam? Taxonomy and thereligious vocation, Zygon 44(4):879–893, 19 November 2009;interscience.wiley.com/journal/123188389/abstract)

    *
    Evolutionists love to take credit for disciplines and observations that are compatible with a creationist position, e.g. natural selection, variation.

    • Andy Walsh

      Thanks for reminding us of the contributions of Linnaeus to this area of scientific inquiry, R2D3. In particular, I’m struck by the notion that Adam possessed a “perfect taxonomy.” I’m sure that in Linnaeus’s day, the idea of a perfect taxonomy would have seemed reasonable and perhaps even necessary. With what we have since learned, particularly about bacteria, viruses, transposons, and the like, I’m not sure I expect that such a thing exists. I also think it is worth asking how much the concept of a perfect taxonomy owes to the Bible, and how much it owes to Plato.

      Also challenging is a taxonomy for science itself. The boundaries of disciplines are fuzzy and change over time. Certainly Linnaeus would not have considered himself an evolutionary biologist since that category did not exist. Nor would anyone have considered Adam a scientist of any sort until that category was created. Similarly, someone like Charles Babbage would not have been thought of as a computer scientist during his lifetime.

      I like the idea from that Harrison quote of giving “religious legitimacy to scientific activities.” Even when some have concerns about the details of the natural history and the answers to the “how” questions, I see no reason why we can’t afford some religious legitimacy to the discipline of evolutionary biology and affirm the value of the “what” questions it explores.

  • WeldonScott

    Sorry, science proves there was no Adam.

    This means, of course, that Adam and Eve couldn’t have been the literal ancestors of all humanity. Normally, such a scientific trashing of scripture could be absorbed, at least by liberal theologians. They’d just reinterpret Adam and Eve as metaphors. But that causes big trouble on two counts. First, if there really were 2,000 or more ancestors, then all of them must have transgressed to bring original sin into the world. That is hard to fathom: did everyone do something bad at the same time?

    Second, if Adam and Eve were metaphors, and the source of original sin is mysterious, then we have no idea why Jesus died. After all, his death and Resurrection occurred precisely to save us sinful humans from the transgressions of Adam and Eve. If you have to turn that story into a metaphor, then Jesus died for that metaphor. That’s not too palatable to Christians.

    Jerry Coyne (2013) Scientists Try to Reconcile Adam and Eve Story, Whiff. Again. New Republic. newrepublic.com/article/115759/adam-eve-theologians-try-reconcile-science-and-fail

    • Andy Walsh

      No need to apologize, WeldonScott. As I noted to Jim below, I’m not as interested in establishing some sort of historical primacy in the field of evolutionary biology as I am in exploring the fuzziness in the categories we apply to Genesis 1-3.

      For example, in that quote Jerry Coyne allows for Adam to fit into one of only two categories. Either he and Eve were the first and (for a time) only human beings, without peer, or they were metaphors. While there are a long traditions around both of those categories, they do not actually represent the full universe of possibilities. The video above touches on some of the options, as does this post in this same conversation (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godlessindixie/2015/03/13/will-evangelicals-ever-learn-to-embrace-evolution/). Some more details are available here: http://biologos.org/questions/category/the-first-humans

      All of which to say that what science has actually done is ruled out one specific notion of who Adam was, but many other notions remain and there is plenty of theology that can be worked out that is consistent with one or more of those available notions.

      • WeldonScott

        Metaphor? That’s a laughably lame apologetic effort. Did you actually read Coyne’s article? Did Jesus die for a metaphor? Coyne on metaphors:

        An easy and sensible way to solve this conundrum is to assume that the whole scenario is concocted: humans don’t have original sin; there was no Adam and Eve; and the Resurrection and divinity of Jesus were fictions. But Christians won’t have that, for the meaning of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection is the final, non-negotiable “truth” of Christianity. You can see everything else as metaphorical, but not that. For if you metaphorize Jesus, you’re basically abandoning Christianity.

        • Andy Walsh

          As I noted, a false dichotomy is being created here. There are more choices than “Adam and Eve were the first and only humans” and “Jesus died for a metaphor.” For example, Adam and Eve may have been called from among a larger population of humans to be representatives.

          Also, there is more to the death of Jesus than original sin; there are plenty of subsequent sins for which Jesus also died.

          It seems a bit odd to me that Coyne is so dismissive of theologians for (1) adapting to new data and (2) admitting areas of incomplete knowledge. Such behavior is commonplace in science; why should it be counted against theology? Is it a problem for science that we currently have so many interpretations of quantum physics, or that we don’t know whether RNA or a self-replicating metabolism came first? I am comfortable answering ‘no.’

          • WeldonScott

            Would you accept the Jesus story as metaphor? It was probably all made up as pure fiction.

            > adapting to new data

            No, you’re engaging in something called post-hoc excuse-making.

            > admitting areas of incomplete knowledge

            Your “knowledge” is make-believe, and isn’t evidence based; it’s nothing comparable to science.

          • Andy Walsh

            “Would you accept the Jesus story as metaphor?”

            That’s a fun question. On some level, even a very conservative Christian theology accepts the Jesus story as metaphor. If a Christian seeks to live a life like Jesus, the story of Jesus does not tell us exactly what to do, since we cannot literally live the exact same life as Jesus. Instead it provides a metaphor, or model, that each person has to apply to their context. This is a fairly broad view of metaphor, a la Douglas Hofstadter, and perhaps not to satisfactory to everyone.

            If we instead define metaphors to be exclusively fictional (which seems odd; isn’t “bedlam” a metaphor referencing a real place, for example?), things get more interesting. If the Jesus story is a complete fiction, that doesn’t necessarily change its ability to serve as a model for how we should live. Other elements of theology would probably need to be updated though. Specifying how would depend on at least one crucial detail: in this scenario, is the Jesus story a fiction that was (somehow) authored or communicated by God as a means of helping humans know about him, or is it authored exclusively by people in a world where either there is no God or whatever deities do exist have no connection to the story?

            “No, you’re engaging in something called post-hoc excuse-making.”

            So, I understand the concept of post hoc in general, but I’m not sure which event/point in time you are referencing to define pre & post. From context, my guess is that “post” means “after it was revealed by genomics that Homo sapiens never numbered fewer than a few thousand” or perhaps “after Darwin described his model for common descent.” Yet theologies incorporating Adam as a representative, for example, predate either of those events. When would an idea need to have been proposed to qualify as something other than “post-hoc excuse making”?

          • WeldonScott

            So Jesus isn’t any more real than Santa Claus. Gotcha.

          • Andy Walsh

            Thursday is non sequitur day. All three of them.

      • Without Malice

        You see, Andy, when the first Christians tried telling the Jews that Jesus had died for their sins, they answered back that they already had a perfectly acceptable way, given to them by God, to be forgiven of their sins. The Christians of course had no answer to this, but after a long while of reflection it occurred to one of them that the death of Jesus would rid people of original sin. So they tried this on for size. The Jews didn’t believe this either, since they had never been taught about original sin and knew that the Torah didn’t say a word about it or about how it separated man from God. So the Christians said, “to hell with your Jews, we’ll go to the gentiles.” To which the Jews replied, “Good riddance.”

  • https://myththepoint.wordpress.com Denis Eble

    Mythology as science is comical at best. I find it astonishingly pathetic that such a large percent of Americans are so deeply into make-believe. Maybe that’s why we are view as nincompoops by the rest of the world.

  • Donalbain

    If Adam existed, then there was no biological evolution. So he could not have been an evolutionary biologist.

  • swbarnes2

    [blockquote]The important point is that he was free to choose a naming scheme, an organizational system, and the choice he made would stand.[/blockquote]

    If the Bible claims he did this, then the Bible is wrong, because the evidence tells us that populations evolve, so no classification system can stand.

    Collecting data like stamps is not all it takes to be a scientist, it is only the first step. The more important step is to try and figure out what the data means; to look for patterns, to make predictions based on those patterns, and to test them. If you don’t have evidence that Adam did this, then you have no evidence that he was any kind of scientist.