A book review: The Genealogical Adam and Eve

This is a review for the The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry, by Dr. Joshua Swamidass.

Now, I am in the rather unique position of having independently arrived at much of the same ideas as the ones expressed in this book. This will make my review a bit weird - more like a reaction, rather than a review.

First, I want to say that the idea of Adam and Eve as a recent common ancestor is absolutely groundbreaking, and Dr. Swamidass does an excellent job of explaining it. Personally, I've been thinking about how to interpret the Genesis creation story for a very long time - most of my life, really - and this idea was the key piece that finally put everything in place for me. It opens up many interpretations, all of which compromise nothing on the inerrancy of the Scriptures, or the scientific data on evolution.

Thanks in large part to this idea, I now consider the whole creation/evolution debate to be a "solved problem" at the highest levels. The idea is so compelling that I sometimes have trouble even remembering what the initial problem was. And I think that's how the whole creation/evolution debate will be remembered in the far future: as a historical footnote, which inflamed passions for some time but got neatly resolved with a better understanding of human ancestry. Of course, there's still a ton of work to be done in the details, of how certain Bible passages should be interpreted, or how certain people's histories or genetics could be reconstructed or studied. But the major planks are all in place for the general framework of harmonizing evolution with the Genesis creation account.

Insofar as a book review is supposed to tell you whether you should read this book, I hope the above paragraphs make it absolutely clear: read this book. If you've ever wondered about the creation/evolution question, this book will completely reshape the problem space in your mind.

The book spends the first portion explaining how a relatively recent genealogical Adam and Eve, ancestor to all of us living today, is nearly certain to have existed. This opens up a very simple way of fitting in things like the big bang and evolution, way before the Genesis narrative really gets started in chapter 2 with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve are then created, tempted, fall, and go on to become the ancestor to all of us alive today. This account harmonizes all the relevant scientific, historical, and biblical facts.

Perhaps my favorite part of all this is that your poor, pious grandma - who just wanted to believe the Bible and didn't know or care about science - was right all along. The Bible, interpreted at this level of analysis, can be understood exactly how your grandma would have understood it, and she would have been essentially correct.

Now as I said, I came to much of these ideas independently, but even I learned quite a bit from reading the book. I did not know, for example, just how robust the simulations were, or how close the Identical Ancestor Point (IAP) was. I learned about the prevalence of possible common ancestors and genetic ghosts. And much of my earlier concerns about isolated people groups were greatly assuaged, due to the newer research presented in this book. Overall, the book made me much more certain of my conclusions in my previous work - not just because Dr. Swamidass came to the same conclusions on the key points, but also because he gave me lots of new evidence that added to my understanding. Again, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this problem space.

The book becomes less focused when Dr. Swamidass moves into the theological portion, but even this works towards his ultimate end. His overall point here is that this new understanding of the Genealogical Adam and Eve opens up a lot of space theologically: of course a single interpretation is not going to be singularly compelling. There are now many, many interpretations of Genesis that work quite well with the scientific accounts, including some quite literal ones, and Christians are now free to explore this much larger space in our search for the right interpretations.

I do appreciate his approach here: in my work I do advocate for a much narrower interpretation - the one that I think is most likely to be correct. I point out which parts of the interpretation are crucial and which have some wiggle room, but my overall approach is to try to nail things down as much as they can be warranted. I think I gain something in being able to explain more, but lose something from the hyper-skeptical readers who will see the first thing they disagree with and proceed to throw the baby out with the bathwater. So here, I'm glad that Dr. Swamidass went with an approach that complements mine - a gentler, more minimal approach that merely points out the vastly expanded possibilities, instead of nailing them down.

For the last time: I highly recommend this book. The ideas in it are hugely significant and they'll radically change the problem space it addresses.


You may next want to read:
Interpreting the Genesis creation story
Bayesian evaluation for the likelihood of Christ's resurrection
Another post, from the table of contents

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