I've always wondered about the state of mind of the authors of the bible. What were they thinking when they told the story of Adam and Eve, stories about 900 year old people and whatshername who got transformed into the pillar of salt and ... all that. Jerry Coyne's been having a debate with Mark Shea, Ross Douthat, and Andrew Sullivan that's (partly) about that question.
So what have we got?
#1 The story of Adam and Eve (the focus of the current debate) "uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event." That's from Mark Shea, here, who attempts to reconcile the A&E account with scientific evidence. He says Genesis uses figurative language "because mythic language is precisely the best way to affirm such an event, an upheaval that inflicted incalculable spiritual damage to the whole of the human race." Yet the basics are nevertheless true.
#2 Jerry Coyne responds to Mark Shea here and disputes the notion that the Adam and Eve story has even a core of truth. But he agrees that the author or authors were attempting to tell the truth about human origins.
#3 Ross Douthat then gets into the debate, and chastises all for taking A&E so literally. I must say, he makes an atrociously bad argument--"some of the details of the Genesis story seem to contradict one another as well, in ways that should inspire even a reader who knows nothing about the controversies surrounding evolution to suspect that what he’s reading isn’t intended as a literal and complete natural history of the human race."
Instead of acknowledging the standard explanation, he says there are two possible explanations for the contradictions--"the authors and compilers of Genesis weren't just liars, but really stupid liars" or "Genesis was never intended to be read as a literal blow-by-blow history of the human race's first few months, and that its account of how sin entered the world partakes of allegorical and symbolic elements -- like many other stories in the Bible, from the Book of Job to the Book of Revelation -- to make a theological and moral point"
But no -- everyone knows that the bible was written by many authors, over a long period of time, and then stitched together. The contradictions are artifacts of this process, so tell you nothing at all about the intentions of the authors or editors.
Jerry Coyne scolds Douthat, and quite rightly too, but comes back to the notion that the authors and compilers intended to tell the truth in A&E. He writes--
The Bible is a jerry-rigged, sloppily-edited, largely fabricated, and palpably incomplete collection of oral traditions and myths, once intended to be the best explanation for the origins of our species, but now to be regarded merely as a quaint and occasionally enjoyable origin fable related by ignorant and relatively isolated primitive ancestors. It’s a palimpsest that is largely fictional, a story reworked many times, but based on our ancestors’ best understanding of how we came about. It’s simply a myth, no truer than the many myths, religious or otherwise, that preceded it. Embedded in it are some good moral lessons, but also many bad moral lessons. And the “good” morality doesn’t come from God, but was simply worked into the fairy tale by those who adhered to that morality for secular reasons. [my itallics]But there's another possibility. Someone makes up a story, and everyone likes it, so they keep telling it, and telling it, and new generations tell it, and ultimately someone writes it down, and they all lose track of whether it's the truth or it's a story. And it starts being combined with activities and rituals, like the story about the pilgrims and Indians is associated with Thanksgiving. All this is sustained by the way the stories and activities gratify human needs, aspirations, etc.
If something like this is the case, there need be no point at which anyone telling the story of Adam and Eve is either speaking metaphorically or (precisely) intending to tell the truth and explain human origins. They're just passing along stories, forgetting that they're stories, and gradually taking it all more seriously because it's gratifying and functionally important on many levels--it creates a unified community, among other things.
Now, if there are people today who think A&E is the truth--and obviously there are--it's perfectly reasonable for biologists like Jerry Coyne to say it isn't remotely compatible with scientific evidence. And if there are people who think A&E has a meaningful core, even if it's false, it's all very well to argue about what that core is, and whether it really is meaningful. But why impute to the A&E author(s)/editor(s) either of these states of mind--whether intending to be truthful or intending to be metaphorical? It seems to me much more reasonable to think "none of the above."