Sunday, January 26, 2014

Outmoded Metaphor

Joe, interesting post:

Y-chromosome "Adam" was not necessarily human.  I (kinda) like the opening:

"Metaphors in science play an important role in communicating results from one field to scientists in other fields and to the general public. In some cases, however, metaphors are so successful and so appealing that they actually obscure rather than enlighten."

It is time for us to entirely retire the "Adam and Eve" metaphor.  I'm telling you that coming from a family who were co-conspirators with John Knox and the Protestant Reformation and leading lights of the Church during the Middle Ages.  We have to ask Adam (and his consort) to kindly stay out of the corridors of Science.


To start with, statistically speaking, there will never be a clear horizon for humanness.

We will never know if "Y-chromosome Adam" and "Mitochondrial Eve" were human or not.  I frankly do not care.

There is also the issue that every time we use this metaphor, it clouds our already vulnerable scientific thinking.

As we study different cultures in the world, we discover that many do not conceive of creation in "Adam and Eve" terms.  You could even say that the creation stories of some indigenous people are closer to the scientific truth than the myth of "Adam and Eve".

As the article that Flo Débarre retweeted yesterday, Martin Nowak, Evolution, and God, only too clearly illustrates, the dollars are following "scientists" that incorporate "Adam and Eve" stories into their research.  I am horrified.  (Thank you, Flo.)

Regarding the use of the Y-chromosome as a measure of human evolution, I am not sure it is a good one.  I haven't fully understood the implication of the Melissa A. Wilson Sayres paper Natural Selection Reduced Diversity on Human Y Chromosomes.

I tire of hearing that the poor, dumb lay public cannot understand evolutionary science without these outmoded metaphors.  Evolutionary scientists and geneticists themselves are falling back on inappropriate metaphor and outmoded classification systems.  They themselves seem confused.  For some outside the field, that is all too clear.

It is time to entirely retire the "Adam and Eve" metaphor when trying to discuss or convey to the public concepts of human evolution.

Have a nice Sunday.  We're headed off to the Exploratorium.

Update:  Good, Joe.  ""Adam" confuses everyone."  Am here at the Exploratorium, gazing out at San Francisco Bay.  Am a bit buzzed after a "Seawater" martini.  Daughter wants to know if she can eat the legs on shrimp. Oysters. Yum.  Just realized in my above diatribe that I used the term "scientific truth".  Oops.  Sorry.  Wish we could all just down some "Seawater" martinis, eat oysters, let go of our individualism, and do Science.


  1. Yes, Marnie, I couldn't agree with you more. I would say that the problem is not that of metaphorical thinking (a mode of expression that frankly I'm very comfortable with) but that of using mixed metaphors to bridge science and religion. Original Adam and Eve (translate TMRCA for Y chromosomes and mtDNA) is just as deceptive a term as "God of the Gaps"--a phrase favored by the Templeton Foundation to tweak evolutionary biology and its "lacky" scientists, IMHO. Even though I'm a theologian (non-Christian), I see theology as a rich and variegated endeavor that can enhance doubting and scientific criticism, if done well. However, too often both theologians and scientists drift toward where their bread is buttered, towards sources of funding. Oversimplification is a hazard of reliance on financial support whether that be NSF, NIH, Templeton or congregational donations: Hence, the use of mixed metaphors to incite a reactive "yes" to funding from those more sure of their simplistic creeds or scientific models. Enjoy your seawater martinis!

  2. Roy, wow! I've never heard a better synopsis of why the use of mixed metaphors between science and religion are so problematic.

    As you've probably figured out from some of the material on this blog, I also do not reject religious belief and am very interested in comparative religion. It's fascinating to see how different societies construct themselves in order to share, determine what is morally acceptable, and determine roles and responsibilities.

    "Drifting toward where their bread is buttered." Some of these cases are so transparent! If the implications weren't so serious, it would be laughable.

    I did enjoy my seawater martini. It's a bit bourgeois but the view at the new Exploratorium is really fabulous. Maybe we should organize a conference there . . . on the crisis of mixed religious/scientific metaphors and self interest in science.

  3. Great idea, Marnie! A conference specifically on the use of metaphors in human population genetics, as well as images and metaphors among theologians pondering evolutionary biology would be an exciting meeting! I think that one of the problems is that geneticists utilize outmoded concepts from 19th century biology/sociology/anthropology to interpret their results. I'm thinking of ideas like wave of advance, admixture, elite dominance and race (read now continent of origin). The conference could bring in a triad of geneticists, bioethicists and theologians to tackle these thorny questions. Scientific results now are overturning old distinctions. The finding that a 7000 year old Iberian Mesolithic individual is Y haplogroup C, C being conventionally ascribed to the "Mongol Invasion", is one such example. We assume that there is an evolutionary series of progression: Paleolithic/Mesolithic/Neolithic/Bronze Age/Iron Age with each "higher cultural level" supplanting the one before it. Totally 19th century!

    1. Let's discuss at lunch. Are we still on for Thursday? Will follow up off line.

    2. Without getting into the detail, regarding the Olalde et al paper that you mention, to me it is not so much this individual paper, but the volume of papers coming out focusing on eye and skin color. You would think that Europe had no more pressing problem than to know the eye and skin color of Europeans during the Mesolithic.

      The unemployment rate in some parts of Europe is shockingly high. It is distressing to see even those with advanced degrees out of work (including my husband's second cousins in Thessaloniki.)

      I doubt that the intensity of research dollars focused on eye and skin color, and its celebrity nature, is the best way for genetics research dollars to be spent.

    3. Yes, our fascination with the surface and our blindness to depth. Choosing a dozen or so genotypes out of thousands to be obsessed about points to the political/power relationships between ideas and fact. We are so completely biased in our selective interpretation of genetic evidence so as unconsciously to reinforce neocolonialism. Very true about Greece and the Mediterranean. My main research collaborators are from Thessaloniki and Nicosia and it's sad how those with advanced degrees have no chance for a job, let alone a professorship. Still on for Thursday.

  4. If it's the lineage I think you're talking about, maybe it could be called "y-chromosome Nephilim"?


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