Models for a historic Adam – 2

Kicking off the series proper, here is the first suggested “model” for understanding Adam named by David L Wilcox.

Generic Head – Sin originated with Adam, and has been passed along to all his descendents (which is everybody) like a genetic inheritance. (? Does this mean Adam was the only ancestor for the race –or just a particular man who is in all our genealogies? – AKA, Y chromosome Adam). 

This, of course, is pretty much the situation assumed in classical, pre-Darwin theology. It is only problematic nowadays because of the many streams of evidence that show that the human race cannot have been descended from a single couple just six thousand or so years ago – and more recently by the genetic indicators that it cannot have been descended from a single couple at all, without a good deal of abnormal genetic divergence since.

Wilcox’s notes sketch what makes this genetically the case. But we shouldn’t forget that we also have extensive archaeological and palaeontological, and even linguistic evidence for the wide spread of mankind well before the most obvious biblical time-frame. The more we push Adam and Eve into the past to remedy this, the less relationship to the details of the Bible narrative there seems to be.

Consider the cultural features of the story in Genesis: its setting in the Near East (what price “Out of Africa”?), and its neolithic or chalcolithic background. If it all actually happened in South Africa a million or two years before, one would be talking of a new-minted ANE tale relating to no human tradition, but inspired by God’s palaeolithic observations updated to an archaic ANE setting for Moses, or whoever else wrote Genesis. That is a concordist position, reading paleoanthropology back into an ancient text, just like a Creationist reading the Big Bang back into Gen 1.2.

Australian aboriginal tales allegedly preserve traditions many millennia old. But there is no way of remembering 200,000 years or more back. And there is no evidence of the knowledge of one God that far back – definite religion appears late, in the early Neolithic, and temples for named gods even later than that. An “old earth” version of the traditional historical “first man” would also mean that 200,000 years of sin were not dealt with before God called the patriarchs: there would be just an empty gap in the Genesis story. The genealogies and the other events of chapters 4-11 would not significantly related to the Eden story.

Moving on, I have a couple of problems with the way this position has been stated by Wilcox. In the first place, this:

Sin originated with Adam, and has been passed along to all his descendents…

The biblical Adam originated other things than sin. Before he sinned, he was the first to be in relation to Yahweh, the first to name the creatures in the cosmic creation and the first to have, and lose, eternal life. Perhaps you can think of other important things that Adam gave to the human race?

As I mentioned in the last post Scripture specifically calls Adam “the first man [who…] became a living soul” – but what does “man” mean? Is the race of Adam co-terminous with Homo sapiens? Or does it include the Neanderthals and Denisovans with whom, according to recent genetic studies, men interbred? Or the whole genus Homo, including Homo erectus? Quite apart from Darwinian mechanisms, the descent of man from other creatures poses the issue of human exceptionalism – there must be a discrete point at which mankind becomes truly human – you can’t be half sinner, half in communion with God, half eternally saved. Adam formed as separately-created “generic head” has none of these problems – but an Adam evolved from other hominins needs something further to make it work theologically. That’s not to say it’s wrong.

Another problem with Wilcox’s formulation – perhaps understandable from a population geneticist – is the comparison of sin to “a genetic inheritance.” For one thing original sin in some traditions is not only a character trait, but the imputation of guilt for Adam’s actual disobedience: legal responsibility is not genetics. But even regarding inheritance there is a fundamental difference between genetics and sin – a new gene is passed on only to some descendants, and suffers the vagaries of selection, drift and so on before, if it’s very lucky, it becomes fixed in the whole species. By contrast sin, according to Paul, passes to all Adams’s descendants. So it is not genetic, but spiritual.

That’s why the idea of Adam as “Y-chromosome Adam” (and of Eve as “MitoDNA Eve”) is thoroughly misleading – the phrase was, I’m sure, dreamed up for rhetorical effect, as it says nothing much about human origins as such. On the one hand, it misleads some Creationists into premature claims that science supports the Eden story, even though it actually places “Adam” and “Eve” thousands of miles distant, in populations of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of years apart. On the other hand it misleads those sympathetic to evolution into doubts about the Eden story by placing “Adam” and “Eve” thousands of miles distant, in populations of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of years apart…

But in fact Y-Adam was not an important human being – just one easily identified by geneticists as the originator of a particular linked set of genes (the Y-chromosome) that out-survived all the others that were around at the time. He is not the sole male ancestor of us all. Let me illustrate.

Suppose that sin actually came to mankind not through Adam, but through Herbert Jeffery of Stowmarket, Suffolk, in 1880; and spread to all his natural descendants. Now he happens to be my great-grandfather, but on my mother’s side, his youngest daughter being my grandmother. My Y-chromosome comes, in that generation, from John Garvey of Smethwick, Birmingham. Nevertheless I would be a sinner, as I am Herbert’s descendant.

In fact, John Garvey’s Y-chromosome is likely to die out with my son, as John has left no other reproductively active male descendants and my son has only a daughter. Yet any male children she might bear would still be sinners, despite her offspring having neither a Garvey nor a Jeffery Y-chromosome, because Herbert Jeffery would still be the ancestral source of her sin.

I hasten to add that Herbert Jeffery was actually a staunch Primitive Methodist rather than the author of all human sin.

But is there any way some ancient ancestor, even if not the fount of every existing Y-chromosome, could still be the ancestor of all people today, as in this Generic Head model? Yes – and my personal example above shows why. The human family tree is, in fact, rather more like a net – each of us has 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 greatgrandparents – and at 30 generations, just 6 or 700 years ago, 2^30 ancestors – over a billion, and far more than the population of the world at that time. Many of our ancestors must therefore be so by several different routes.

It takes just a few thousand years, statistically, for anybody who leaves descendants at all to become a common ancestor for the entire human race. Even for an isolated tribe, it would only take one out-cross (a captured neighbour?) for all to become descendants of the outsider in a few generations, even if his or her genes were completely diluted out. By the same kind of process, inherited sin – if some kind of non-genetic, spiritual taint – would spread throughout the human race from an Adam in a few millennia. The same would be true of any positive spiritual image endowed on this man and his descendants by God.

So the generic head model, genetics not withstanding, could potentially account for an historical Adam as the fountainhead of fallen humanity at more or less any time and place before a few thousand years ago. Physically, he could be one man amongst 10,000, that being the effective population – Ne – throughout much of mankind’s early history (though the actual “census” population might have been a good deal more, since Ne is a population genetics tool, not a true numerical measure).

Why then remember Adam as our Father, rather than his presumably sinless forebears? There’s a conceit in the UK that all Europeans are descended from the Emperor Charlemagne. It’s based of course on the kind of calculations I give above. But why does nobody mention that we’re also descended from Charlemagne’s father? It’s because Charlegmagne is more significant than his dad, Pepin the Short. Jesus also had many ancestors, but is remembered as David’s son rather than Menna’s or Maath’s.

In summary, then, this model can fit both the genetic evidence, and the Biblical account. The science causes problems if we assume that Adam must be, in Wilcox’s words, “the only ancestor of the race” in purely genetic and physical terms – but he can be the ancestor of all the race, without that being so, and even the first “Man” too, if by that we mean more than just our biological origin but an added divine image of some sort.

On the other hand there is really no merit in suggesting that “Y-chromosome Adam” would have anything at all to do with Eden: it would be an astonishing coincidence if he were the biblical Adam just because his Y-chromosome was selectable, when all the rest of his genes have gone through the mill of recombination and micro-evolution ever since.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Adam, Creation, Genealogical Adam, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Models for a historic Adam – 2

  1. Did the Adam of the Genesis 3 account ‘have and lose eternal life’?
    Or did he never have it and forfeit his right to it?
    Was ‘Adam’, whoever that represents, the first to be offered the opportunity of eternal life, and failed to achieve it?

    I’ve seen it suggested that, after sinning, Adam was prevented from partaking of the tree of life so that he would not live for ever in a corrupted (indeed, ‘dead’) state. Perhaps, but eternal life is not solely about duration (although it is eternal) but about quality of life and relationship (see the John 17.3 definition).

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      For the purposes of evaluating the model I guess the question of lost or never had is relatively academic. My own feeling is that to dwell in the presence of God is eternal life and that the tree is therefore a metaphor for that. So one way or the other, I don’t think Adam would ever have died in the garden.

      On that interpretation God’s words about forbidding access to the tree of life may speak to the truth that God is too pure to look on evil, and to be away from his presence is death.

  2. Peter Kirk says:

    Jon, I see a version of this argument which seems logically tenable, although I would not hold it myself.

    Suppose we go back to Y-chromosome Adam, or to one of his ancestors in the male line. (Actually if we take the Genesis account literally Y-chromosome Adam must be Noah.) In our hypothetical scenario, this person, who we can call the true Adam, underwent a mutation IN HIS Y-CHROMOSOME which gave him both a tendency to sin and a significant evolutionary advantage over his contemporaries. That advantage may simply have been a propensity to murder his rivals. Nevertheless, over many generations it would have led to all surviving male humans sharing this “sinful” Y-chromosome. In fact if at the time there was only a small tribe of humans this process might have been completed in only a few generations.

    This mutant gene in the X-chromosome would not be diluted in the same way as a mutation in the normal chromosomes. Instead, it would be passed on to all other humans.

    This can even explain the link between the virgin birth of Jesus and his sinlessness: he did not inherit the faulty Y-chromosome, but presumably had a specially created one.

    But the theory has a weakness: it implies that women are not subject to original sin. This is both theologically problematic and at odds with experience. Of course the whole thing could be turned round, making mitochondrial Eve or her ancestor the first sinner and passing sin down the female line.

    Nevertheless this does seem to be a logically tenable scenario, unlike any that linked sin to a mutation in a regular chromosome.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Peter

      Don’t you think that idea’s rather contrived? “We’ve discovered Y-chromosomes, so they have to get into the story somewhere.” To the man who has only a hammer, everything is a nail.

      As you say, the theory’s rather scuppered by explaining original sin for only half the race. And, of course, by placing Noah’s shipbuilding skills and winemaking back in the palaeolithic!

      It has an ad-hoc supposition of evolutionary advantage for sin, doesn’t explain why a spiritual shortcoming becomes a genetic trait, doesn’t explain why all the subsequent variants of the Y-chromosome retained the “sin gene”, and of course makes salvation a simple job of genetic engineering rather than the death of Christ…

      Apart from that, though, it’s fine!

      • Peter Kirk says:

        Well, I think Noah is going to be a problem for all your theories if you take the story literally, that he and his sons were the only male human survivors of a not very ancient catastrophe.

        I agree with your point that my idea “makes salvation a simple job of genetic engineering”. But isn’t that true of any version of this “Generic Head” idea, in which sin is an inherited characteristic.

        But I reject the suggestion that my idea is contrived in response to the discovery of Y-chromosomes. It is a long standing suggestion, far older than modern genetics, that sin is passed down in the male line only, and that Jesus was sinless because he had no human father. I think Augustine said something of the sort. I brought the Y-chromosome into the argument as providing a plausible but incomplete mechanism for this inheritance.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Peter – it gets a bit more plausible if the Y-chromosome isn’t the sole vector – after all, royalty passes down the male line, but is independent of chromosomes! I’d have to research to see if Augustine thought that – his main concept was of a kind of influence of lust (“consupiscence”) which now, through sin, affects every act of intercourse – essentially a Lamarckian mechanism. Probably not tenable – though Lamarck’s coming back into facshion again, it seems!

          Again, “generic head” needn’t necessarily mean “genetic head” (assuming for the moment the truth of the “male line” issue) – or even “epigenetic head”, though in fact if we had to talk physically an epigenetic mechanism from the cell sounds a better fit than anything in the genome.

          But I still maintain that if we hold to sin as being inherited “in the flesh”, it’s conceding too much to materialism to look at any physical mechanism: sin is a spiritual problem. A parallel is J A T Robinson’s complaint in “Honest to God” that Jesus would have to be female if he had no father – he was assuming more than the text ever claims, and putting odd limits on the miraculous.

          On this “generic” model, I don’t think Noah poses insoluble problems if he’s placed the requisite number generations after Adam, particularly if the Flood is taken as localised and affecting only Adam’s progeny. Shifting the fountainhead down 10 generations still leaves plenty of time in both a “palaeolithic Adam” model and the “most recent common ancestor” picture I mentioned in the OP.

          Certainly there are big problems genetically if Adam is placed in deep time and Noah is left in the bronze age.

          • Peter Kirk says:

            I suppose my point here was that I thought we were discussing how, as one of several hypotheses, sin might have been inherited “in the flesh”. So I don’t see why I am being more materialistic in discussing mechanisms for that, within the hypothesis already set up.

            In the post you outlined at least two objections to the hypothesis. One was a genetic one, “a new gene is passed on only to some descendants, and suffers the vagaries of selection, drift and so on”. My point was that this is not true for the Y-chromosome, and so this objection is not fatal to the hypothesis. But I agree with you that another objection which you made is fatal, the one that “legal responsibility is not genetics”.

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

              Well, Peter, between us we seem to have laid to rest “the genetic fallacy”…

              As a point of detail, though, the Y-chromosome is no less subject to selection and drift than other genes – bits of it even recombine with the X-chromosome. It’s the divergence that enables the geneticists to date “Y-Adam” (and genealogists to trace families). So we would still have to answer what sequence on this particular “Y” makes it sinful, and why it’s been conserved.

              Overall, though, I think we’ve not excluded sin being inherited – even absolutely “in the flesh”. But it doesn’t look like it’s in the genes – so we need a Saviour, not a transhumanist engineer.

  3. pngarrison says:

    Whatever else the Y chr. contains, all the female biochemists I knew were convinced that it contains the gene that keeps you from asking for directions when you’re lost.

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