The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


We began with Eve

New discoveries about the origin of human life are compatible with biblical views

Most of us have trouble reconciling the faith we learn in church with the science we were taught in school. Relating the theory of evolution with the biblical accounts of creation has been a particular problem for American Christians. I understand that struggle. I've faced it too.

Throughout most of the 20th century, American society has fought about whether and how to teach evolution. Lutherans tend to dodge the question of how evolution relates to their faith. Too often we dread broaching the subject for fear of offending or stirring controversy.

New look at evolution

Old science is a major barrier to the discussion of religion and science. Relating Christian faith and scientific explanations of evolution is less a problem when we examine new theories and models, which overlap with the Bible's creation accounts.

The evolution theory never taught that humans descended from apes. Charles Darwin claimed that we evolved from ape-like creatures, something in between humans and monkeys.

Today, a new theory, widely accepted in scientific circles, shows great promise and compatibility with biblical faith. It holds that human beings descended from a common African mother.

This "out of Africa" theory, also known as the "Eve hypothesis," is supported by impressive archeological and genetic data. Archaeologists have discovered skeletons of Neanderthals (long believed to be the ape-like humanoid creatures from which humans evolved) that lived as recently as 36,000 years. But older human fossils, dating from more than 100,000 years ago, were discovered in Africa.

Clearly, old theories suggesting evolution from such ape-like creatures over millions of years must be revised since human beings appeared on Earth before the extinction of these creatures.

Genetic information even more impressively rules out our evolution from apes. A remarkable similarity exists in the genetic makeup of all humans concerning DNA that resides in the mitochondria (structures inside all human cells), which convert food into energy. This similarity cuts across all racial lines.

This similarity combined with the differences between the mitochondrial DNA of humans and chimpanzees, for example, is further evidence against the likelihood of humans having descended from apes or ape-like creatures.

A study released in July by a prominent research team has shown that the mitochondrial DNA of Neanderthals was so distinct from that of humans that it is highly unlikely that human beings desended from them.

Since mitochondrial DNA is inherited almost intact from one's mother alone, researchers suggest that the amazing similarities in human mitochondrial DNA means that humans descended from a common female ancestor. The similarity of this widely accepted scientific theory and the Genesis account of our common roots in Adam and Eve is so apparent that it needs little elaboration.

Out of Africa

To conclude that all humans are descended from a common mother (researchers have called her Eve) doesn't mean that she was the only female living on Earth in her lifetime. This doesn't negate the compatibility of the Genesis accounts of creation and science. After all, Genesis refers to Cain's wife who wasn't clearly noted as Eve's daughter (Genesis 4:17). The new scientific theory or Genesis also don't rule out that Eve may have evolved from some other intermediary creature.

The "Eve hypothesis" has other intriguing dimensions. DNA studies suggest that humanity's common mother must be of relatively recent times, a mere 150,000 to 200,000 years. The great gap between the Earth's age, which is billions of years old, and the creation of humans need not undermine Genesis' reference to creation in six days. The Bible teaches that God doesn't tell time like we do (Psalm 90:4).

No less striking is the recognition that the genetic variations among humans differ most among African people. This suggests that the African stream of humankind must be the oldest. In short, "Eve" (humanity's common ancestor) must have been African.

Researchers are still considering a competing version of the "out of Africa" theory--the "theory of multiregional evolution." But it doesn't seem likely that one biological species with such similar DNA and common heredity would have developed by random gene flow on different continents.

Divine design

The Bible teaches that the beginning of life isn't an accident but the result of intelligent design. This, too, is suggested by the observations of modern physics. The big-bang theory, which holds that the universe exploded into existence 15 billion years ago, is consistent with the Christian idea of creation out of nothing.

No less striking is a consensus developing among physicists that the universe is calibrated, finely tuned, to develop and support life (see page 10). If the force of gravity were altered slightly, for example, the sun would have burnt out faster, leaving insufficient time for life to develop. If the relative masses of protons and neutrons changed ever so slightly, stars might never have been born.

Such data doesn't prove the existence of God. But they do indicate compatibility between the recent and generally accepted scientific portrait of the universe and a Christian portrayal of a cosmos structured by divine intelligence.

Our faith isn't based on science. Scientific theories change; God's word does not. But it's obvious that if the American public knew about these cutting-edge scientific developments, we would be more confident in our faith's intellectual respectability. It's time we started teaching and proclaiming the doctrine of creation in relation to new scientific data.

For further reading

The scientific theories discussed above are highly respected in the academic world. For in-depth reading, consider:

* A Common Sense Theology: The Bible, The Faith, and American Society by Mark Ellingsen, Mercer University Press, 1995. Develops the ideas discussed in this article.

* Clay Minerals and the Origin of Life, A.G. Cairns-Smith and H. Herrman, eds., Cambridge University Press, 1986.

* The Evolution of Complexity by Means of Natural Selection by John Tyler Bonner, Princeton University Press, 1988.

* "The Recent African Genesis of Humans" by Allen Wilson and Rebecca Cam, Scientific American, April 1992, pages 68-73.


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February issue


Embracing diversity