Adam and Eve or Bust

Definitely not African.

You’ve probably heard about Professor John R. Schneider, who lost his job at Calvin College, a Christian school, for claiming that Adam and Eve could not have been real people. Science agrees that the number of genetic mutations it takes to go from from homo erectus to homo sapiens couldn’t have emerged from a population of only two. This sparked an interesting controversy within the evangelical community. (See coverage in Christianity Today and on NPR.)

For some reason, this scuffle of academic politics and the book of Genesis keeps reminding me of a much older one, which I relate in my new book Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden. Let me take you back to 1896. On a big-game hunting trip in the Somali desert, British adventurer Henry W. Seton-Karr found a number of very old stone tools. He believed, quite rightly, that they were made by our hominid ancestors. A colleague at the peer-reviewed Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain agreed that they were certainly of a “very great antiquity.” Maybe that’s what inspired Seton-Karr to announce, the following spring, that he’d found relics “from the original Garden of Eden.” Oops. This drew attention, all right, but of the wrong kind. As an August 26th, 1897, New York Times headline put it: “Prof. Lyon Laughs at Alleged Discoveries by Seton-Karr.”

Professor David Gordon Lyon, a Harvard theologian, “was much inclined to treat the subject jocosely.” Fair enough. It would indeed be impossible to prove that the tools came from our very first ancestors. Lyon really had a good time with the whole thing: “He asked if Adam’s monogram had been found on any relic, as he thought that might as well have been asserted, too, while they were establishing theories.”

At this point I’m agreeing with Lyon. But I was feeling bad for poor Seton-Karr. He was just trying to get his stone tools noticed. And then Lyon stops laughing jocosely and continues, “more seriously”:

If any one will read the first ten chapters of Genesis, I think the idea will be fixed that Eden must have been in Western Asia. … There ought to be some grand discoveries some time in Palestine and the vicinity of the Holy Land.

Really? They both believe that Eden can be found, they just disagree on where? Both men are assuming that “Garden of Eden” stands in for “human origins.” It’s a longstanding confusion, made even longer by racism and cultural egotism: The Garden of Eden could not possibly be in Africa.

But the first people—if not Adam and Eve, exactly—did live in Africa, not in what would become the Holy Land. Darwin speculated that human evolution probably began in Africa. Even the Biblical land of Cush, supposed to be an Eden landmark, was often presumed to be Ethiopia. But surprisingly few people seemed willing to fill in that gap between “origin of man” in Africa and “origin of civilization” in the Middle East. (With the notable exception of David Livingstone, who insisted in the 1880s that Eden was at the source of the Nile. But he was mad with malaria at the time.) Until 1974, when the Australopithecus skeleton known as “Lucy” would be found only a couple hundred miles to the west of Dr. Seton-Karr’s stone tools, in Ethiopia’s Awash Valley. And we finally started to have a stand-in for Eve. (I’ve written about Lucy’s impact on the Garden of Eden search for Killing the Buddha.)

So I happen to think we’ve made progress here, even though it’s sad that a person of good faith can be kicked out of a Christian college for believing a reasonable scientific assertion. At least the debate is no longer about the “where” of Adam and Eve. We’ve moved on to the “how many” of Adam and Eve. In theory, this seems pretty easy for science to answer. Which is not to say the debate will end any time soon. Because the reality of Adam and Eve is, for some believers, really about the reality of sin. And that’s a whole other story.

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (Grove Press, 2011). An editor of Killing the Buddha, she lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Follow Brook on Twitter: @modmyth