A Tennessee College is Forcing its Faculty to Swear They Believe Adam and Eve Existed
BY JERRY A. COYNE
Things are in ferment at Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee. Named after William Jennings Bryan, one of the prosecution attorneys of the 1925 Scopes Trial (which also took place in Dayton), Bryan is an extremely conservative Christian school that adheres to Biblical literalism.
Until now. The press of science is beginning to discomfit even literalists, and is making incursions into Bryan.
The most recent scientific finding that’s causing Christian ferment is the calculation by evolutionary geneticists that the smallest size the population of humans could have experienced when it spread from Africa throughout the world was about 2250 individuals. That comes from back-calculating the minimum size of a human group that could have given rise to the extensive genetic diversity present today in non-African humans. Further, that figure is based on conservative assumptions and is very likely to be an underestimate.
2250 is, of course, not 2. That means that humanity could never have had just two ancestors within the time frame accepted by Biblical literalists. In other words, Adam and Eve did not exist—at least not in the way the Bible says. And that has huge repercussions for Christianity, for if Adam and Eve weren’t the literal parents of humanity, how did their Original Sin spread to us all? Original Sin is, of course, a pivotal part of most Christian doctrine, for without it there is no reason for Jesus to return and exculpate humanity from sin through his death and Resurrection. If Adam and Eve didn’t exist, but were simply a fiction, then Jesus died for a fiction.
More liberal Evangelicals have responded by engaging in various species of special pleading, including assuming that Adam and Eve were merely the “federal heads” of humanity: two individuals among many who were designated by God to represent everyone else. That, of course, fails to explain how Original Sin started and spread.
More liberal theologians simply claim that the Adam and Eve story is a metaphor for our inborn “selfish” nature: our genetic endowment that leads us act for ourselves rather than others. But that then makes animals of many species the bearers of Original Sin as well, and doesn’t explain how Jesus’s return helps us fight the tyranny of our “selfish genes”.
One of a zillion examples of the adolescent silliness with which “rationalists” write about religion, the above piece appeared in the March 4, 2014 New Republic. No, 2250 does not equal 2, nor even 200. Then again, if after all these centuries of modern science one can still read the Bible as if its language applied in the laboratory, then I imagine that this particular fact wouldn’t make all that much difference. After all, the cosmologists’ estimates for the age of the universe differ from Bishop Ussher’s by even more degrees of magnitude.
As for the “liberal theologians” (I am willing to take Coyne’s word for this) who blithely assimilate human sinfulness to our possession, along with amoebas and fungi, of “selfish genes,” this is “religious thought” in name only. If religion should do one thing, it should maintain the insight that, at our origin, an event occurred that cannot be undone and that forever distinguishes humans, as users of signs and representations (and in consequence, sufferers from “original sin”), from our animal friends who know neither sin nor language. When a religious tradition has forgotten this, it is time for it to close up shop.
Although it is easy enough to respond in kind to the sub-Voltairean irony of Dr. Coyne’s text, this will not allow us to make any progress, even in the protected context of these Chronicles, beyond the familiar dialogue de sourds about religion. This dialogue has been going on for several centuries, but seems to have been renewed in its most platitudinous form in recent years—not coincidentally the years that have seen the metastasis of victimary thinking into a victimocracy whose intolerance of what used to be accepted as “normal” has reached a degree of fanaticism found in the past chiefly in the speeches of fire and brimstone preachers, and exceeded today only by the rhetoric and actions of the jihadists.
In my previous Chronicle, I attempted to deal with the fact that language, including declarative language, that of propositions, is not bound a priori by the straightforward criterion of truth and falsity that has brought us the miracles of science. I do not say this because I “believe in Adam and Eve” or in alien abductions. But Hamlet’s famous quip, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” which refers to both the kingdom of God and our own earthly habitat, has real anthropological substance. Even as we use language in a logical manner, and certainly there is no other way to develop rational arguments, we should realize nonetheless that that is not how language got started, and even today, not the way language is most often used as a tool of human interaction.
And emphatically not the way to read the Bible. Not that I want to claim for GA a “new way of reading” that will reconcile all sides around an irreproachable or even probable “truth.” GA is no magic bullet. But as le grand Jacques taught us, language is about deferral, and the thing to do when someone suggests, even ironically, that if the geneticists had found 2 instead of 2250, the “Adam and Eve hypothesis” would have been corroborated (to use Popper’s admirably skeptical term), is to defer any such conclusion. The very fact that people can seem to argue about such things without ever agreeing on a criterion of truth that will permit the argument to end is a sign that such discussions can only be understood on the basis of the originary, anthropological source of deferral: the prevention, for a time, of human conflict, the originary threat of which was presumably somewhat more dangerous than an exchange of barbs in academic publications.
How can we find a better way to talk about such things? In the first place, we must not be obsessed with the paradox of speaking in the language of truth about forms of language whose claim is rather on faith. Once one accepts that there is a gradient of language from the “naked” deferral of the originary scene to the extreme discipline of the modern laboratory, one can see language as throughout history pulling itself up as it were by its bootstraps to higher degrees of rigor. But this process is not simply a function of time, and there are periods of backsliding and confusion. I think of GA as a response to the current such period, where religious discourse is read with a crude literalism, and in its stead, an equally crude victimary morality is imposed on human relations. We can only hope that the current phase of postmodernism will burn itself out, and that GA’s capacity for progress and reconciliation will one day be made use of in a constructive effort at dialogue.
It is not condescending to either science or faith to point out that the great religious texts, and even the lesser ones, contain valuable anthropological insights, and above all, provide an explanation of human origin that is a degree of magnitude more specific than the variants of the (Darwinian) theory of evolution. For the latter has no way of dealing with the phenomena of culture and representation, which whatever their biological impact do not exist in the world of biology and cannot be explained by the transmission of genes. That the “myths” of the Garden of Eden and its variants outside the Genesis narrative offer a better explanation of human origin than the theory of evolution should not be taken as an ironic quip. The biblical text has long been interrogated for the light it sheds on the human condition and the place of religion within it, and there is nothing in “modern science” that can take the place of this interrogation.
What religious discourse has going for it that the usual anthropogenic narratives lack is the sense, paradoxical but indispensable, of the presence of a Subject presiding over the event of the birth of humanity. (Whether this Subject is creator or created is a question in itself undecidable.) The paradox of a narrative of origin lies in the impossibility of introducing the element of the sign into a world in which it does not yet exist, although clearly such an outcome is demanded by common sense in relation to human history. We use signs, and far enough in the past, our ancestors did not, so we must assume that at some later point they first used signs. But the methodologies of empirical science do not permit the construction of a speculative hypothetical scene of the origin of the sign, which is also the origin of the human. Speciation is presumably a genetic matter, and must be explained in Darwinian terms. The change realized by humanity in transmitting organized data by signs rather than genes, that is, in making it into consciously-processed information as opposed to accumulated unconscious mechanisms, has until now been recognized by religious discourse alone. Which suggests that the status of one’s “belief” in the (explanatory power of the) story of Adam and Eve is not as simple as debunkers like Coyle claim.
Faith in such material is grounded on allegiance to the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, which has been by far the most successful of its kind in fostering political freedom and economic, scientific, and technological progress, the down side of which, however egregious, should not be allowed to dominate the terrain. That the Enlightenment was at its root a Christian phenomenon is not a new idea. The scientific use of empirically testable language, which such as Coyne take for granted, stands on a foundation of deferral that is rooted in the West’s religiously based moral tradition.
Let us then reflect on the significance of the particular element of the Genesis story that Coyne’s article, and Bryan College, are focused on. There’s a lot in Genesis that we are asked to put our faith in: creation, flood, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Lot, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Tower of Babel, Joseph and his brethren… Why then is the Adam-Eve story singled out? It seems to me that there are two essential reasons. On the one hand, it is the story of our first ancestors that makes clear the anthropological significance of the Bible as the story of human origin. It’s clear that the Bible is not much help in understanding cosmology or geology, and Creationist literalism on these points is simply a category error. But with respect to the origin of the human, the idea of a punctual origin is, precisely, the point where the Bible story shows itself to be wiser than the tracts of the biologists.
The second point is even more crucial to our understanding of just why faith must be affirmed now and in this text. We cannot read the minds of the directors of Bryan College, but one obvious explanation for demanding an acte de foi in Adam and Eve is the resurgence, sharply accelerated under the current national administration, of a radical feminism that rejects the Bible story as “sexist,” along with the entire biblical tradition. This development, to which we might add the broad acceptance of non-heterosexual marriage, is likely perceived as a threat by the guardians of this tradition, and the request for the religious equivalent of a loyalty oath would then follow.
Significantly, the “argument” I have most often heard against the hypothetical scenario proposed by GA for the origin of human language is that only men were presumably present at the originary event. In our victimary world, that women are still excluded from many priesthoods, or that, for example, they only got the vote in France in 1945, are not considered as historical facts that must be explained—and for which the best explanation is indeed that which GA offers by tracing the origin of language back to men. On the contrary, in the victimary universe, such things do not deserve explanation; they can only be condemned as unmitigated evils, as one more example of the injustice done to victims by Nazi-like oppressors. Such moralistic irrationalities give evidence that Hitler’s destruction of the social logic of subordination in the inhumanity of the extermination camps and death-marches has unfortunately had an intellectual effect comparable in its way to the human effect of the Holocaust.
Perhaps as a “professor of ecology and evolution” Coyne is relatively indifferent to victimary attitudes, simply concerned to point out that the Adam-Eve scenario is irrelevant to the constitution of our genetic heritage—as though this were really ever in doubt. But when it comes to what the story is relevant to, the origin of the human, the question of “sexism” is inevitably raised in any but the most literalist circles.
Let me then put this more starkly. So long as we dismiss the Bible as “sexist,” we deny its validity as a source of insight into the origin of the human and its culture. In Chronicle 419 (February 2012), entitled “Originary Feminism,” I attempted to show how the story of Eve’s acquaintance with the snake and her eventual temptation of Adam to eat the “apple” reinforce GA’s originary hypothesis, according to which language would have first been a means of communication limited to men. Calling this “sexist” is simply refusing to consider a hypothesis that does not correspond with the pieties of our era. We should not have to choose between being the equivalent of Nazis and suggesting that men’s cultural priority over women throughout history be understood as something other than unjustifiable oppression. Whether or not we wish to claim that it was a “good thing” that men dominated public life virtually everywhere until the last five minutes is not terribly relevant in attempting to understand how the human arose.
For the anthropologically significant truth, which no amount of posturing can change, is that men are stronger and above all, more violent than women, whose indispensable biological function is to be the vessels of the next generation. To sign an oath to validate the Adam-Eve story may be old-fashioned and constraining, but rejecting an originary hypothesis based on male violence out of feminist prejudice is even more constraining. I think we can all agree on a minimal, respectful definition of what it means to “believe in” the biblical text. Whereas some may take Genesis on faith as a discourse of empirically verifiable fact (resolving the obvious contradictions as best they can), I think we can all agree that this text offers a set of models of human behavior that we should consider with the highest seriousness, if not out of faith, then because the society grounded on its principles has been humanity’s most successful. This is no small thing. To “believe” in Adam and Eve in the way I am suggesting is to reflect in all humility on the various moments of their story, including the contradictions between Genesis’ two versions of Eve’s origin.
When I wrote my piece on originary feminism, I hoped that feminists would appreciate the fact that in my interpretation, by attributing to Eve the first conscious and motivating feelings of resentment, the Bible in its wisdom was in effect making woman, not man, the source of human self-consciousness—the “knowledge of good and evil” that is, after all, what our anthropological activities are meant to promote. Adam may have invented language, but Eve was the first practitioner of GA. Let the feminists put that in their pipe and smoke it—provided that it not be on the tobacco-free UCLA campus.