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Adam and the immune system

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Joshua C from Arizona asks about a pre-Fall role for the immune system, given that God created everything “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Medical doctor Carl Wieland responds.

JC: I did my senior project on biblical validity and in the process of my research, I found numerous amount of evidence supporting The Holy Bible, the literal six day creation, and the young earth.

However, I have one question lingering regarding human creation and The Fall. I understand that all creation was once perfect before Adam & Eve’s fall. There was no death, disease, and such, correct? Then they sinned and death entered creation. This brings me to my question. If life was perfect before The Fall, did life, especially humans, have an immune system? I mean, there was no need for one before The Fall, right, because life was perfect and there was no disease to fight off. So did life acquire an immune system after The Fall? Or did we have one and it was just not in use before The Fall? If the second one is true, then we had vestigial organs in the beginning.

Please get back to me on this one, for this question is the only one that lingers for me and I’ve not seen addressed.

CW: In writing about pre-Fall conditions, we have to bear in mind first of all that there will always be an element of “maybe”. Biblical information is very compact, and often indirectly deduced. And we can’t make any actual observations. However, I have found a few principles to be helpful in ensuring that one’s speculations are as informed as possible, especially concerning the issue of biological structures or systems used to either harm or defend against harm.

  1. We are the physical descendants of Adam. This is very important theologically. Isaiah spoke of the coming Messiah (Jesus) as literally the ‘Kinsman-Redeemer’, i.e. one who is related by blood to those he redeems (Isaiah 59:20, which uses the same Hebrew word גּואֵל (gôēl) used to describe Boaz in relation to Naomi in Ruth 2:20, 3:1–4:17). Without being in the line of the first Adam, we would be excluded from the possibility of salvation through the sacrifice of “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), the Lord Jesus Christ (a descendant of the “first man, Adam”, through Mary (Luke 3:23–38)—see Christmas and Genesis). So Eve had to be a physical descendant of Adam, too, or else she could not have been a potential heir of salvation. Hence we truly have our inheritance “in Adam”, not “in Adam and Eve”. Thus, she was made from the bone in Adam’s side (bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh”)—i.e. his rib, not directly from raw materials as was Adam.1

    Our physical descent from Adam indicates a biological/DNA connection, or continuity, if you like, from Adam (and Eve) to ourselves. This immediately makes it highly unlikely that Adam and Eve’s bodies were radically different from our own. The structures and organs in our body are coded for by the DNA in our genes. These are the programs we inherited from our parents, who in turn inherited them from our grandparents, and so on backwards—in varying combinations, of course, so that each of us is genetically unique. Trace this back to Adam and Eve, and why would these same programs have coded for anything else in our first ancestors? In short, their bodies would have been much the same as ours. From this alone, one would be reluctant to propose that Adam did not have an immune system.

  2. Creation was finished at the end of Creation Week (Genesis 2:3). This would seem to preclude anything other than perhaps a limited amount of redesigning at the Fall—for example, the serpent’s body and Eve’s (re. childbearing). A wholesale new creation or recreation is therefore unlikely.

Both points 1) and 2) suggest that Adam’s immune system was probably very much like our own (though without any inherited genetic copying mistakes, known as mutations, of which we all inherit many hundreds from previous generations).

But then, what was the immune system for pre-Fall? First, a few extra points.

  1. The Fall was most only a few weeks after Creation Week, probably much less time. This is a deduction from the fact the Eve was not pregnant until after the Fall. Adam and Eve were two healthy married people, who had been commanded while still in Eden to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:22). In a pre-Fall world without suffering and disease, there would have been no blocked fallopian tubes or other defects or deficiencies leading to infertility. It is highly unlikely that Eve would have gone through more than 1–2 fertility cycles at the most without conceiving. However, the first conception recorded is that of Cain, which was after the Fall. See also The Fall, Curse and Satan.

  2. God foreknew the Fall. As creator of time, God is outside of time. Jesus in John 8:58 does not say, “before Abraham was born, I was”—He says, “before Abraham was born, I am”.2 He, Yahweh (YHWH, Jehovah), the great “I am” of Exodus 3:14,3 the eternal present tense if you like, is the one who also says, “I am the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 21:6). In Isaiah 46:10 God tells us, “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.” In short, the future does not take God by surprise.

Points 3) and 4) taken together would allow for God having built structures into His creatures (including Adam and Eve) that were only going to be utilized or fully utilized after the coming Fall.

So one possible answer to your question is that the immune system was there in Adam because it was required to defend against the pathogens of the soon-coming Fallen world.

However, I think it is very likely that the immune system in humans already had an important role to play pre-Fall. The function of the immune system is not just to fight against living organisms such as germs that actively cause disease, but it also helps the body to distinguish self from non-self (as we have pointed out before, e.g. Vaccines and Genesis: Questions and Answers on Vaccinations and the Immune System).4 One function of the immune system is to build up antibodies as a protection against any foreign protein (not just germs) that enters our body.

It has been estimated that only a small minority of all bacteria and viruses are pathogenic, less than 1%; no pathogens are known in the Archaea domain.5 But there are a number of beneficial functions of bacteria and viruses.6

In particular, there are today germs that do not cause us any harm, in fact are helpful to our bowel function, if they stay inside the bowel. Recent research shows that the appendix is a ‘good safe house’ for such “good” germs (see Appendix: a bacterial ‘safe house’). If those same germs were to enter the bloodstream, they could cause an overwhelming blood poisoning. This is what can happen when an inflamed and infected appendix that is not removed in time becomes gangrenous, leading to peritonitis and thereafter septicemia (blood poisoning)—those same germs that were harmless in their “proper place”, having invaded the bloodstream, now threaten that person’s life.

But with countless millions of those same bacteria in close contact with blood capillaries, etc. how come such a hostile invasion does not happen on a regular basis? Part of the answer is the immune system7 which is there to mop up any such “accidental invader” before it has the chance to multiply. The same immune system also ensures that the bacteria in the large bowel (which are supposed to be there) do not enter the small bowel (where they are not supposed to be).

I think that the same situation likely pertained pre-Fall, i.e. that microbes inhabited our large bowel for various ‘good’ functions. This is also relevant to the origins of those (and other) bacteria, because a similar question could be asked about this—when did God create E. coli bacteria, for instance. These can nowadays cause disease, but are also a part of our normal “gut flora” as it is called, i.e. the inhabitants of our large bowel. I suggest that the answer is that they were part of the original creation. Just because something has the potential to cause harm under the right circumstances does not mean it would be excluded from a perfect world. What is excluded is actual harm. For example, there would have been lakes for Adam to fall into, and stones that could theoretically be thrown at someone with force. Neither lakes nor stones are intrinsically “bad”, though each is capable of causing “bad things” in certain circumstances. In the same way, E. coli would have been there already before the Fall, because they are not intrinsically “bad” any more than lakes or stones.

We can safely assume that in a perfect, pre-Fall world, God would have ensured that no harm would come from anything, whether lakes, rocks or E. coli. We don’t know of any general mechanism (other than His perfect supervision of all situations, similar to the situation of the Israelites in the wilderness when their shoes did not wear out for 40 years (Deuteronomy 29:5)) that God could have used to prevent harm from things like lakes or stones. But we do know of a general mechanism which God could have used to prevent harm from E. Coli, for instance—namely, the same immune system that would give humanity protection (albeit no longer perfect) after the Fall.

The same sort of argument could be put for the immune system’s role in warding off other potential “invaders” of our body—pre-Fall it serves the same function as post-Fall, only post-Fall involves the possibility of failure, i.e. organisms being able to overwhelm a body’s defences. Post-Fall there would also be increasing challenges from pathogens (disease-causing entities) which can mutate towards more virulent strains, or from strains that do not cause disease in humans mutating to become ones which do (to show why this is not evidence of microbes-to-man evolution or any part of it, see Has AIDS evolved?).

The notion I’ve tried to develop here is that if Adam has a mechanism that protects against potential harm pre-Fall, this does not conflict with the notion that there was no scope for the actual harm to occur in that harm-free world.

To clarify this still further, consider this analogy—the human skin. One major function of our skin is to prevent harm to us by way of our body drying out, losing its internal fluids. This “natural mechanism” is there to prevent an ever-present potential harm. There would be no argument, I trust, with the proposition that Adam had skin like ours. So here we have Adam being protected from a potential harm (loss of vital bodily fluids) pre-Fall via a built-in physiological system (skin). We can be sure that there was no actual chance of this harm happening to Adam, due to God’s protection and oversight. But in this case, the mediate mechanism God used was a “natural” physical mechanism He himself designed—one that served the same “protection from harm” function both pre- and post-Fall. Ditto for the immune system. Hope that helps.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Carl W.

Update: See feedback response, When was Cain conceived? And is CMI “male dominated”?

Published: 30 May 2009

References and notes

  1. This does not mean that she necessarily had to be a biological clone, with duplication of Adam’s X chromosome. While this is possible, it is not only unnecessary, it limits the scope for biological variability in the human population. This is because the maximum number of alleles (varying forms of the same gene) at any locus (a position on one of the chromosomes) in the absence of any post-creation mutational change would then be two, rather than four. Return to text.
  2. The Greek is clear: by contrasting Abraham’s γενέσθαι (genesthai) denoting that he came into existence, with His own ἐγὼ εἰμί (egō eimi I am) which avoids the past tense because He just exists. So not only is Jesus proclaiming that He pre-existed Abraham, who died long before He was born, but even more: that He didn’t even come into existence. Here is a detailed study on John 8:58 and Ex. 3:14. Return to text.
  3. To evade the force of this, some cultic groups claim that Exodus 3:14 is better translated “I will be who I will be”. But maybe they should inform the Jewish Publication Society, since their translation is “I AM THAT I AM”, and they hardly have a Trinitarian axe to grind. The Hebrew is אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה ’ehyeh ’asher ’ehyeh. The LXX, translated c. 250 BC, has ἐγὼ εἰμί ὁ ὢν (egō eimi ho ōn I am the being). Return to text.
  4. See also Sarfati. J., By Design (above), ch. 13: Why are there “bad things” in Nature? 2008. Return to text.
  5. Pace, N.R., A molecular view of microbial diversity and the biosphere. Science 276:734–740, 1997. Return to text.
  6. See also Bergman, J., Did God make pathogenic viruses? J. Creation 13(1):115–125, 1999; Kim, M., Biological view of viruses: creation vs evolution, J. Creation 20(3):12–13, 2006; Francis, J.W., The Organosubstrate of Life: A Creationist Perspective of Microbes and Viruses, Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Creationism, pp. 433–444, 2003. Return to text.
  7. The immune system is here used in the broad sense, to encompass all of the mechanisms by which the body blocks and fights off “invaders”. Return to text.