Mitochondrial Eve: Should Christians be Worried? – Part II
As a quick refresher, Part I of this blog focused on topics that are necessary precursors to a fuller understanding of the present research into mtDNA in light of the Genesis account of creation in Scripture. In Part I, we used Scripture to show that the account of Eve’s creation in Genesis should be interpreted as literally and historically accurate. Thus informed, we now endeavor to answer the following two questions: First, should Christians be worried by the conclusions reached in the research at hand; second, does the science behind mitochondrial Eve (mtEve) refute the Bible account of Adam and Eve’s creation?
In Part II, we will now be taking a deeper look at the science behind the research leading to the biblical controversy surrounding mtEve and the heresies it could promote. We intend to show one example of the logical traps scientists can fall victim to when failing to incorporate Scripture into the equation during the interpretation phase of their research.
Incidentally, two examples (out of thirty-four plus) of scientific mysteries hidden in Scripture by God are available on this website for viewing. They help to show that Scripture could not have been written by human authors (fishermen, tent makers, tax collectors, and so forth) without the inspiration of a divine intelligence. As it so happens, both examples of this are related to this blog post. One discusses Eve’s creation from a scientific viewpoint and is located here. The other is located here.
mtEve Research Details
Researchers sought to ascertain when and where the woman lived from which all human populations descended (including modern man). To arrive at their conclusions, they used only the mitochondrial DNA from one hundred and forty-seven people from five different geographical regions; specifically Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and aboriginal New Guinea.
What Is Mitochondrial DNA And How Does It Differ From Nuclear DNA?
To begin with, ‘nuclear DNA’ is the DNA which is located in the enclosed nucleus of every human cell. Nuclear DNA contains approximately 30,000 genes in every molecule of DNA. By comparison, mtDNA contains only thirty-seven genes. Mitochondrial DNA is located outside of the nucleus, in the watery part of cell which is called the cytoplasm. Mitochondrial DNA is an organelle. Organelles are specialized structures within each cell that are dedicated to certain functions. They are usually enclosed within their own lipid membrane (resembling the outermost cell membrane). Incidentally, cell membranes are mainly lipids and proteins ... none of which are considered dust or salt.[3-a] What is the special process reserved for mtDNA? The mtDNA organelle performs several functions within the cell. Two of which are: 1) converting food into energy which is usable by the cell, and 2) the regulation of cell death (apoptosis).
In human reproduction, the gametes, i.e. sperm cell of the father and the egg cell of the mother, each contain 23 chromosomes which contain a complete set of their nuclear DNA. When the egg becomes fertilized, the two sets of DNA combine through a process aptly called recombination. Both the sperm cell and the egg cell contain mtDNA. However, the resulting offspring (i.e. the fertilized egg), regardless of gender, gets its mtDNA only from the mother. So what happens to the father’s mtDNA? It does not survive the fertilization process. Immediately upon entering the egg, the father’s mtDNA is attacked by enzymes within the fertilized egg cell which virtually always kills the mtDNA of the sperm cell. While there are hypotheses regarding the phenomenon, it is still a mystery exactly why and how this occurs.
Why use only mitochondrial DNA?
Researchers used mtDNA because it does not go through the recombination process which is necessary to combine the two separate sets of chromosomes received from the parents. Recombination could result in genetic mutations that are not the result of the normal evolutionary processes, thus tainting the ‘molecular clock’ that would be used to estimate mtEve’s placement in historical time. The passing of mtDNA from mother to offspring results in only minor random mutations to mtDNA sequence. Furthermore, there are multiple identical copies of mtDNA in each of the mother’s cells. Researchers believed the lack of recombination would result in a greater sensitivity of mtDNA across generations in small communities that would then expand into large populations. Cann et al, estimated that two to four percent of mtDNA mutates every million years.
In the research conducted by Cann et al, they used two assumptions. First, all mtDNA came from the maternal side of the offspring’s parents. Second, all the mtDNA within each individual was identical. It is the first assumption that we will be focusing on later in this blog post.
Results of Research and Implications for Bible Believers
The data gathered from the research led researchers to originally estimate that mtEve lived between 140,000 to 290,000 years ago. In 1990, scientists modified that estimate to approximately 170,000 years ago. Further adjustments have been made as a result of two studies that were published in 2013. Both of those studies incorporate estimates of when Y-chromosome Adam (hereafter referred to as Y-Adam) and mtEve lived. Carlos Bustamante and his research team at the Stanford University School of Medicine, estimate that Y-Adam lived between 120,000 to 156,000 years ago. They also estimated that mtEve lived between 99,000 to 148,000 years ago. Bustamante stated that the idea of all descending from a common set of ancestors is just not that true. A team led by Paolo Francalacci at the University of Sassari, Italy, estimated Y-Adam lived between 180,000 to 200,000 years ago, which is not even within the range of the potential ages for mtEve.
By now, I’m sure you can start to see some potential problems for Bible believers as a result of extrapolations of the research. I am amazed at the number of good intentioned Christians I have encounter who are adopting heretical beliefs as a result of their misinterpretations of this research. Let’s emphasize something from the start. The scientific community that refer to the research revolving around so-called Y-chromosome Adam and mtEve are NOT referring to the “persons” of Adam and Eve. In other words, Bible Eve =/= mtEve. They are referring to the earliest genetically common ancestors of us; people created in the image and likeness of God.
What are some of the theological and exegetical problems arising from this research? The following are a few examples:
1. The very significant difference in the historical time ranges between the existence of Y-Adam and mtEve can make it seem as though the biblical Adam and Eve came from two different lineages.
2. As a result of #1 above, the interpretation that Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib is merely symbolic of a covenantal marriage is more likely.
3. The erroneous interpretations of the research promotes the belief that the biblical Adam and Eve were not two particular persons, but representative of a small group of people located in a particular region of the world.
4. It could be believed that Adam and Eve were real persons, but existed at different times and had never even met each other.
Unfortunately, there are too many good-intentioned people who, perhaps subconsciously, believe if a seeming conflict arises between what contemporary science teaches and what the Church/Bible teaches, then science trumps theology. This is particularly relevant when we try to understand the Genesis account of the origins/creation of Adam and Eve. As a consequence of this belief, they will engage in intellectual/exegetical gymnastics in an effort to “make” interpretation of the Bible “fit” the science. This whole two-part blog about Adam, Eve, and science was written to show this effort is unnecessary, as long as we don’t place artificial and finite limits on the capabilities of an all-powerful and infinite God. At this time, I want to talk a little bit more about polygenism.
According to Dr. Ludwig Ott, it could lead to heresy relative to two dogmas of the Church to believe that “the various races are derived from several separated stems (polygenism), the Church teaches that the first [rational, i.e. created in the image and likeness of God--SML] human beings, Adam and Eve, are the progenitors of the whole [rational] human race (monogenism). The teaching of the unity of the [rational] human race is not, indeed, a dogma, but it is a necessary pre-supposition of the dogma of Original sin and Redemption…The encyclical “Humani Generis”, promulgated by Pius XII (1950), rejects polygenism on account of its incompatibility with the revealed doctrine of original sin. (D 3028).” There are potentially more problems, but these are enough to demonstrate the bad fruit that can result from incorrect extrapolations of the research. This could further degrade the trustworthiness of Scripture for both believers and non-believers alike.
From the papal encyclical, Humani Generis, we read:
When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion [emphasis mine] which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true [rational] men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own [cf. Rom. 5:12-19; Conc. Trid., sess, 5, can. 1-4]. (#37)
The following, I believe, is how seriously Pope Pius XII intended the first two sentences of #37 of Humani Generis to be taken. He writes, “Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority …. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians” (Humani Generis, n. 20). In other words, the "question open to discussion" in #20 is the "conjectural opinion [polygenism as defined in #37] ... the faithful cannot embrace."
Let’s examine polygenism from the standpoint of Scripture. We read, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned …. Consequently, just as the result of one trespass [not several trespasses, as would be the case if polygenism was correct-SML] was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:11, 19), and “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Cor. 15:22).”
As Msgr. Charles Pope tells us, “Scripture also affirms our connection to the one man, Adam when it records that God sent one, Jesus Christ, as the New Adam. This sets up a parallelism: One Adam, One New Adam. God did not send a committee, or a squadron to save us which would be the parallel for polygenism and/or group sin.” His article can be read here. This parallelism (comparing and contrasting an individual person and act) would fail, and St. Paul would be misleading us (given his choice of wording) by comparing and contrasting an individual person performing a singular act on one side, with groups engaging in multiple acts on the other.
This same individual parallelism is used to compare and contrast the person of Eve with the person of Jesus’ mother, Mary. In The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), it is written, “Hence not a few of the early Fathers gladly assert in their preaching, ‘The knot of Eve's disobedience was untied by Mary's obedience; what the virgin Eve bound through her unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosened by her faith.’ Comparing Mary with Eve, they call her ‘the Mother of the living,’ and still more often they say: ‘death through Eve, life through Mary’” (Lumen Gentium n. 56). Describing Mary as the Mother of the living is significant. It is a parallel to how Adam described his individual "helpmate", Eve, in Gen. 3:20.
Right now you may be thinking: oh great! Since science is always right, Christians who believe Adam and Eve are the first and only parents of all man created in the image and likeness of God are going to look like idiots. My response: not to worry. Read on.
There is much more that can be said in this matter of polygenism, but I will save that for a different article.
Why Does This Research Leads to Faulty Interpretations
According to Professor John Ioannidis, the majority, or even vast majority, of all modern published research contains false findings. Unfortunately, false findings lead to incorrect conclusions that can radically affect our beliefs and actions. Two of the big reasons, cited by Ioannidis, for these research errors is research bias and/or poor research design. False assumptions would fit into the latter category. This lack of reliability is true of even the gold standard of reseach, i.e. peer reviewed studies. The reliability problems with peer review can be seen here, here, and here.
Scientism, is the belief that all truth about the material world comes through scientific research and discovery … and only through material science. They believe religion has no part in determining the truth. Many (if not the vast majority) of the adherents of scientism are atheists or agnostics. If there is a conflict between scientific theory and Scripture, they believe Scripture is de facto wrong. In a sense, their intellect has become self-imprisoned within a box labeled, “Big Bang and By-Products Only: God NOT Allowed.” This self-imposed intellectual imprisonment does not allow them to even consider God’s intervention into, and supremacy over, all that exists.
Let me emphasize something before going any further. I am not trying to make the case that the research at hand is wrong. In fact, I would say that, most likely, it is probably fairly (but not absolutely) reliable. What I am saying, however, is that the theological extrapolations being derived from the research in question (by researchers, believers, and unbelievers alike) are just plain wrong. It was Albert Einstein who said, “Science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind.” I would add to that meaning by substituting the word “religion,” with the word “Scripture”.
One of the assumptions researchers made in designing their research model is this: all mtDNA in their studies came from the maternal side of the offspring’s parents. They completely ignored the Genesis account of Adam and Eve’s creation. Because of that, they produced conclusions that can lead to heresy. Adam and Eve did not have parents in the traditional sense (further explanation to follow). Furthermore, their assumption about where all rational modern human mtDNA came from is also wrong. From a theological standpoint and as a result of research bias, they may well have pinpointed the common ancestor for the pre-existing genetic material from which God instantaneously formed Adam, but they missed the boat concerning Eve. Eve did not have an earthly mother.
The Creation of Adam and Eve
Let’s talk about Adam’s creation first. To begin with, Adam could not have been created ex nihilo (out of nothing) because God tells us that Adam was made from the dust of the earth and to dust he will return. Furthermore, I do not recall anywhere in Scripture where God clearly created a material something from absolutely nothing (ex nihilo) after the “first day” of creation in Genesis. As I see it, there are two main possibilities concerning Adam’s creation, both of which would not contradict Church teaching. At this point, you might find it very helpful to read the page titled, "Is DNA in the Bible?". The first possibility is this: God took actual dirt, clay, and/or mud from the ground and formed Adam. However, all of us are described as being made from dust of the earth ... but we know this is not literalistically correct. After all, we got our dust from our parents. So the literalistic interpretation of Adam's creation is not, necessarily, the correct interpretation. The second possibility is the one I believe is most likely. It is this: God took a stem cell from some other hominin male. With this material, he breathed the Breath of life into it, and it began to grow and multiply as a man created in the image and likeness of God (because of the Breath). As a consequence of this creation method, the mitochondrial DNA of our early ancestors would be present in Adam’s cells because the stem cell donor would have contained it.
What does the Church say about this possibility? “The Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires [sic] into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter - for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that [rational human -- SML] souls are immediately created by God.” The Church is not saying this is the way it happened; it is simply saying that the possibility would not be contrary to any Church doctrine.
Now let’s turn to Eve’s creation. I have long maintained that the scriptural description of Eve’s creation is both literally and historically accurate, i.e. she was taken from Adam’s rib. I make, what I believe to be, a compelling case for this belief in: 1) the first half of Part I of this blog using Scripture; 2) an article about the creation of Eve from a scientific viewpoint here. If my hypothesis is correct, then Eve would have gotten her mitochondrial DNA directly from Adam, who would have gotten his mtDNA from so-called “mtEve,” (not the biblical person Eve) who is purported to be our common ancestor as identified by Cann et al. Because Eve's creation would not have been from a fertilized egg, Adam's mtDNA would not have been destroyed by the woman's egg enzymes. A further advantage to this understanding of creation is this: there is no necessity for a dependent correlation between the timing of the existence of the historical persons of Adam and of Eve on the one hand, and the historical timing of the existence of mtEve and Y-Adam on the other. Put another way, the Bible and science would not be in conflict if Adam and Eve (and, therefore, rational man) were created 100; 1,000; 50,000; or a 200,000 years ago.
Part I of this blog can be read here.
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. Dorothy R. Haskett, “‘Mitochondrial DNA and Human Evolution’ (1987), by Rebecca Louise Cann, Mark Stoneking, and Allan Charles Wilson,” (The Embryo Project Encyclopedia, Arizona Board of Regents, 2014), https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/mitochondrial-dna-and-human-evolution-1987-rebecca-louise-cann-mark-stoneking-and-allan October 10, 2014
. Ibid. Cited by Haskett: Pakendorf, Brigitte and Mark Stoneking. "Mitochondrial DNA and Human Evolution" Annual Review Genome Human Genetics 6 (2005): 165–83.
. Natalie Andrews, “What is an Organelle in a Cell?,” Sciencing, https://sciencing.com/organelle-cell-8733502.html, April 24, 2017
[3-a] Biology Dictionary editors, https://biologydictionary.net/phospholipid/
. National Institutes of Health, “What is Mitochondrial DNA?,” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/basics/mtdna, January 09, 2018
. Haskett, https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/mitochondrial-dna-and-human-evolution-1987-rebecca-louise-cann-mark-stoneking-and-allan
. Weizmann Institute of Science. "Inheriting Mitochondria: Where does your father's go?." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140515095637.htm (accessed January 11, 2018). Cited by ScienceDaily: Yoav Politi, Liron Gal, Yossi Kalifa, Liat Ravid, Zvulun Elazar, Eli Arama. “Paternal Mitochondrial Destruction after Fertilization Is Mediated by a Common Endocytic and Autophagic Pathway in Drosophila.” Developmental Cell, 2014; 29 (3): 305 DOI: 10.1016/j.devcel.2014.04.005
. Haskett, https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/mitochondrial-dna-and-human-evolution-1987-rebecca-louise-cann-mark-stoneking-and-allan. Cited by Haskell: Cummins, Jim. "The Role of Maternal Mitochondria during Oogenesis, Fertilization and Embryogenesis." Reproductive BioMedicine Online 4 (2002): 176–82. http://download.journals.elsevierhealth.com/pdfs/journals/1472-6483/PIIS1472648310619372.pdf
. Haskett, https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/mitochondrial-dna-and-human-evolution-1987-rebecca-louise-cann-mark-stoneking-and-allan
. Ewen Callaway, “Genetic Adam and Eve did not live too far apart in time,” Nature, doi:10.1038/nature.2013.13478, https://www.nature.com/news/genetic-adam-and-eve-did-not-live-too-far-apart-in-time-1.13478#/b1, August 6, 2013. Cited by Callaway: Poznik, G. D. et al. Science 341, 562–565 (2013)
. Ibid. Cited by Callaway: Francalacci, P. et al. Science 341, 565–569 (2013)
. Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Kindle Locations 3067 to 3070, 3071 to 3073). The Mercier Press. Kindle Edition.
. John P. A. Ioannidis JPA (2005) “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” PLoS Med 2(8): e124. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124, http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124 Note: John Ioannidis is a Professor of Medicine and of Health Research & Policy at Stanford University School of Medicine, and a Professor of Statistics at Stanford University School of Humanities and Sciences.
. Stacy A. Trasancos, Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science (Kindle Locations 588 to 589). Ave Maria Press. Kindle Edition
. Albert Einstein. BrainyQuote.com, Xplore Inc, 2017. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins161289.html, accessed May 20, 2017
. Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, n. 36, http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_12081950_humani-generis.html, August 12, 1950