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Wash U's Dr. Joshua Swamidass Builds Bridge Between Science And Creation Myths In New Book

Dr. Joshua Swamidass
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Bring up Adam and Eve in contemporary conversation, and you’ll likely be met with either total skepticism or deep confidence, depending on the audience. Diametrically opposed views of the biblical origin story come with the territory of ongoing cultural battles between creationists and evolutionists and the typical right and left.

But Washington University’s Dr. S. Joshua Swamidass, who describes himself as “a scientist in the Church and a Christian in science,” is hoping to shift the conversation. In his new book “The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry,” he hopes to reach secular and religious readers alike.

“What if the traditional account is somehow true, with the origins of Adam and Eve taking place alongside evolution?” he asks.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, the day of the volume’s official release, Swamidass joined host Sarah Fenske in studio to discuss his uncommon hypothesis and findings.

He noted that from a theological perspective, the idea that there could have been other humans already in existence at the time of a de novo creation of Adam and Eve “from the dust” isn’t especially new.

“There’s been open speculation for a very long time about what we can call the mystery outside the garden [of Eden],” said Swamidass, whose book points out that according to scripture, Adam and Eve’s son Cain travels outside the Garden of Eden to find a partner. He said that’s just one biblical clue among others that suggests there were other people around.

What is new is Swamidass' work with genealogies. Based on that, he finds that it would actually be possible for everyone on Earth to include in their ancestors a Middle Eastern couple living 6,000 years ago. And that, he says, has profound implications.

The conversation also included comments from Nathan Lents, an author and biology professor who recently shared his perspective on Swamidass' book in USA Today, and from Washington University biologist Alan Templeton.

Lents is impressed with how Swamidass draws on modern population genetics and the science of genealogy and ancestry to consider the central question of his book.

“What I hope doesn’t get overlooked about this book … is this idea of universal ancestors,” Lents said, explaining that recent science shows that within the past 6,000 years “there were probably universal ancestors, real individuals either in North Africa or the Middle East, who ended up through pure chance as ancestors of every single person alive today.”

Swamidass said that this recent science, showing the interconnectedness of the recent human family, has significance for what has been “the center of the conflict between the Christian faith and evolutionary science for 160 years.”

“It turns out that that conflict might actually be resolved with a resolution where we have the science to show that those theological conclusions, all along, were not nearly as off base as we thought,” he said.

Another Washington University-based scholar, Emeritus Biology Professor Alan Templeton, also spoke with St. Louis on the Air about Swamidass’ new book.

Templeton, who wrote a forward for the volume, said several aspects of “The Genealogical Adam and Eve” appealed to him, including Swamidass’ documentation of population genetics and the difference between a genetic ancestor and a genealogical ancestor. He added that Swamidass approaches his topic scientifically, not trying to prove something is true but rather attempting to falsify his central hypothesis.

Templeton, who is an Orthodox Jew, said he hopes readers of this book come away convinced that science and religion can sometimes be synergistic.

“So much of the whole literature on science and religion is one of antagonism,” Templeton said. “I personally don’t feel that way. I’m a religious Jew and I’m a scientist, and I don’t see any conflict in that at all. And I know Joshua is a religious Christian and a scientist, and he doesn’t see any conflict in that.”

When Fenske asked Swamidass about the professional risk involved in his work on this front, he acknowledged that he’s felt pushback from many fellow scientists as well as fellow Christians.

“I find myself in the no-man’s land between the trenches,” Swamidass said with a laugh. “I think it’s a complex thing. I think this really unsettles the conversation. There’s been some pretty entrenched positions for a very long time, and this reshuffles the deck. A lot of the endorsers actually are from across the spectrum — many of them are creationists, many of them are evolutionists, some of them believe Adam and Eve are real, some of them don’t. It’s the whole range, and this is just surprising enough of an idea that it might even change what the camps are.”

Swamidass added that what he thinks is important about this dialogue between religion and science is that “origins is often a big, ugly fight.”

“Origins is a living part of our inheritance that’s continually inviting us to these grand questions about what it means to be human and the human condition,” he said. “We really miss out when we walk away from origins, and both science and theology is engaging those questions in depth. And for us only to pursue the science is to ignore the deep history of contemplation on it. And to just only look at the theology is to miss out on these amazing findings we’re finding out about our shared history.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.