What search for “Adam’s genes” tells us about ourselves

This week, FoxNews.com’s Jeremy Kaplan reported, that “a pair of scientific studies using the latest genetic evidence are seeking to identify the very first man to walk the Earth, the so-called ‘Adam.'”

The search for “Adam’s genes” tells a compelling story — a story of more than unlocking the genetic code of the first human, but also a story of the human desire to see meaning and purpose in all that we do, whether we consider ourselves religious or not.

To be clear, there is no scientific way to determine the biblical Adam’s genes, and no way to even prove the existence of the Adam portrayed in the biblical Book of Genesis.


The story of that Adam is grounded in faith, not science, even though, like contemporary science, it was that era’s best attempt to make sense of how we got here.

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Unlike science however, the biblical account not only tells the story of how we got here, but also the story of why we are here and what it means.

The biblical story has multiple purposes, and for that reason, hundreds of millions of people of faith around the world integrate both the wisdom of the biblical genesis story and best and latest scientific insights regarding human origins. Included in that number are both myself and Werner Arber, the Vatican’s chief scientist and head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Like the hammer and saw used by a carpenter to build a home, we integrators appreciate that both stories of human origins are critically important in building better lives, but also that they should not be confused with each other.

You wouldn’t drive a nail with a saw, and we should not look to stories rooted in faith for the answers which can only come from those rooted in scientific inquiry.

The fact, however, that otherwise secular or atheist scientists keep referring to their search for the first human’s genetic code is more than a marketing “schtick” designed to capture the attention of our largely believing American public. It suggests a recognition that all humans yearn to connect their lives and their life work to something more than a rendition of facts emerging from a laboratory.

Whatever science discovers about the original human genetic code, describing the search as the search for “Adam’s genes,” places that search in a larger context – a context which recognizes that without some sense of “why” and “for what purpose,” even the most sophisticated understandings of “how,” are not sufficient to answer the questions which keep even the most strident atheists up at night.

The search for “Adam’s genes” should go on, not because we will ever find Adam’s genes or prove that there was an Adam, but because that labeling the search that way reminds us that whatever our dominant approach to life, scientific or religious, traditionally religious folk have much to learn from science, and classically secular scientists have much to learn from religion.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism,” and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

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