Portsmouth Institute, Day 3: Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, “What Can Genomic Science Tell Us About Adam & Eve?”
The Portsmouth Institute conference on “Modern Science, Ancient Faith” closed in spectacular fashion with Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, who teaches both biology and theology at Providence College. With the ease and humor of somebody used to speaking before college students, Austriaco explained what genomic science tells us about our ancestors and speculated about the timing and historical environment of the common ancestors whom the Bible calls Adam and Eve.
In brief, Austriaco said that, mathematically, one would have to have had between 1,000 and 2,000 mating pairs 50,000 to 70,000 years ago in order for everybody alive today to have common ancestors and yet to be as diverse as we are. That is, Adam and Eve were not the only human beings (or matable humanoids) alive at the time, but they did something to displease God (I would say something having to do with the choice of self-awareness and related knowledge) that made them distinct, and their ancestral lines blended with others as time went on.
(That would certainly ease quite a bit of the discomfort with which the modern is likely to read the first few generations described in the Bible.)
He elaborated that anatomically modern human beings date back about 100,000-150,000 years, but behaviorally modern humans go back only 50,000.
During the question and answer portion (which ran beyond what the schedule had initially allowed), Austriaco spoke about original sin and its application to all of nature, not just the children of Adam and Eve. He referred back to Aquinas, suggesting that before the Fall, “eagles were eagles and lions were lions,” but they killed in a somehow “ordered way,” meaning with the proper alignment of things… material to spirit, man to God.
It doesn’t take much effort to connect this thread with the idea articulated by William Dembski about two forms of information: one internal to nature and one entailing some form of creativity and intentionality. The information inside an acorn that leads it to “build” a tree can be seen as ordered; access to the disordered information that a material creature such as a human being applies to the creation of which he’s a part fits very well with the Old Testament’s description of events.
From there, one can see the accomplishment of Christ as being the reintroduction of the proper perspective for use of human beings’ capacity for knowledge, with the emphasis on that which is outside of nature, in the same way that God is outside of His creation. The cross is the symbol of this proper alignment of material life and spiritual existence.
But as the various speakers at the conference illustrated by their own talks, one needn’t go quite this far in order to see that science and religion can coexist, even as they press against each other along the uneven border between regions of human thought.