Genetic Predictions of Special Creation vs Darwin
After that introduction to genetics, it is pertinent to ask: Why are we interested in genes in studying human origins?
You may be aware that DNA, the substance of genes, is used to identify criminals in rape and murder cases. By studying enough sections of DNA and the variations in many different bases and base sequences, an individual can be identified much more surely than by fingerprints. The only people who share the same bases at all sites are identical twins. If you can rule that possibility out, you can confirm with certainty that the DNA on a murder weapon, or in semen, matches the DNA of an accused from just a few sites unique to their DNA.
DNA is also used in paternity suits. It’s not too hard to identify the biological mother who bears a baby. When the question is which man helped conceive a child it is sometimes difficult and disputed. Sequences of DNA bases in a child that match the same sequences in the same parts of a chromosome in a man, and are not present in the mother (or in other men), provide very strong evidence that the man is father to the child. But it is potentially even stronger evidence to show that the child and man share certain gene sequences that are unique to the man’s lineage, and not shared with other people.
How will this help us in our study of human origins?
Although body structure, organs and tissues may be very similar between species, people have argued that God by Special Creation could have separately created each species but using a similar body plan – why not use a formula that works, after all?
But genes are different from the rest of our body parts. They are inherited, and indicate a person’s ancestry. They can be used to identify a person, and to identify their paternity. It doesn’t stop with just one generation though. Just one or two rare and unlikely gene sequences that are identical in two individuals, however far apart those individuals seem to be in body form or in geography, indicate those sequences were inherited from a person who was an ancestor of both individuals (or ‘common ancestor’). Not only that, but as Denis Alexander has pointed out, there are no gaps in the genetic record.55 We have a complete continuum of life forms from the simplest to the most complex, from the oldest forms found in the rocks (bacteria) to the most recent (eg humans), represented in the genes of animals and plants living today.
The most difficult of Darwin’s ideas for Christians to accept is the evolution of humans from non-human primates. Christians have always believed that humans constitute the pinnacle of God’s creation; the only creatures that can communicate with, question and either disobey or love God. There is, for some, a feeling of repugnance about the suggestion that we are physically related to animals. Such a concept also provokes unsettling questions about the meaning of the story of the creation of man and woman, the Fall, and the human soul. That is why I want to address human origins specifically, rather than questions about whether amphibians evolved from fishes, or birds from dinosaurs. Once the question of the origin of humans is settled, the other issues will not seem so pressing and will settle themselves.
Darwin had no genetic evidence because genes and the role of DNA in inheritance would not be discovered for another 100 years (see timeline box).
Timeline of Genetic Discoveries in relation to Darwin
1859 Darwin publishes The Origin of Species.
1866 the augustinian monk Gregor mendel publishes his work on the inheritance of dominant and recessive traits in the pea plant, but his work is largely ignored.
1869 miescher isolates DNa from the cell nucleus but its structure and function are unknown.
1871 Darwin publishes The Descent of Man, outlining his ideas about the relationships between humans, apes, old World monkeys and New World monkeys.
1870s Chromosomes are discovered and in 1888 they are named chromosomes by von Waldeyer.
1882 Charles Darwin dies.
1889 de Vries christens the unit of inheritance a ‘pangen’, later modified to ‘gene’ by Johannsen in the early 1900s.
1902 Chromosomes are shown to be inherited like physical characteristics.
1910 T H Morgan shows that genes reside on chromosomes.
1944 DNA is shown to be associated with genes and chromosomes.
1953 Watson and Crick discover the double helix structure of DNA.
1960s Nirenberg, holley and Khorana decipher the genetic code by which DNA codes for amino acids.
1972 Fiers and colleagues analyse the sequence of bases in a gene (in a microbe) for the first time.
2003 the Human Genome Project, led by Francis Collins, completes its draft sequence of the whole human genome.
We can therefore use Darwin’s assumptions about relatedness between humans and apes or primates, and the assumptions of the idea of the Special Creation of Humankind, to set up a virtual experiment and make predictions from these two views about how human and ape genes will compare. We can then test these predictions by looking at some of the available genetic data, and see which predictions fit the data better. This is a scientific means of comparing the validity of theories, as discussed in Chapter 2.
The next section after this one compares human genes and DNA with that of chimpanzees and other primates. If you have studied biology and are familiar with the basics of genetics you should skip directly to that section. For many of you, however, it will be helpful to first give an outline of genetic principles so that you can fully understand the comparisons we are going to make, and so you should familiarise yourself with this section. You will have to indulge in a little delayed gratification, but the outcome will be worth it.Proteins – the workhorses of the body
The body is composed of 76–100 trillion microscopic cells. These cells, which form the organs and tissues of our bodies, are connected by a framework of proteins, and use other proteins to perform most of their vital functions.
Some proteins are structural. Hair and nails are principally made of proteins called keratins. Another protein, collagen, helps to form the supple, strong framework – connective tissue – which binds cells together in organs, bones and fat and holds the body together with a series of layers of membranes of which the outermost is the skin.
The active substances that produce and control the functions of the body are also proteins of different kinds. Functioning proteins include many thousands of enzymes, which are catalysts of chemical reactions. Digestive enzymes break our food into molecules we can absorb, other enzymes store or release fat and carbohydrate from storage, yet others degrade toxins, attack bacteria, copy DNA and control the development of the embryo. Haemoglobin is an iron-containing protein that carries oxygen in our blood. Insulin is a hormone protein, regulating glucose metabolism. Actin and myosin are the proteins producing motive power in muscles, and antibodies are proteins that target bacteria and viruses for killing. There are also proteins that store memory.
So what are these multifunctional substances? Proteins are very long chains of molecules called amino acids. You can think of a protein as being like a string of beads of different colours.
Some amino acids carry small electrical charges that attract or repel other amino acids in other parts of the same protein. The sequence of these amino acids makes the protein chain fold into a complex 3-dimensional shape that gives the most stable arrangement of the electric charges, and by doing so gives the protein its special function. A different sequence of amino acids would result in a different 3-D shape and a different function. Proteins can fold into more shapes than origami, and they are more versatile than duct tape, or, as we say in New Zealand, a bit of 4-by-2 timber and number 8 fencing wire. Proteins have more applications than an iPhone has apps.
Let me give you one example of how the shape is important. Lysozyme, an antibacterial protein in saliva, has a complex folded shape with a deep fold or cleft part way along it. When it encounters a bacterium, lysozyme’s cleft enfolds a structural molecule called polysaccharide in the bacterial cell wall. The wedged polysaccharide is broken into two bits by its reaction with the charged amino acids in the cleft – it’s a bit like breaking a stick across your knee. The lysozyme releases the fragments and goes on to do the same to other polysaccharides in the same or other bacteria. With their cell walls breached, the bacteria lose their integrity and die. (You can see various animations of this reaction if you do a Google search on “lysozyme reaction animation”.)Genes are the blueprints for making proteins
It is easy to see that whatever controls proteins, controls the structure and workings of the body. The master architects of the proteins are genes, responsible for producing and regulating all the quarter of a million or so proteins in the body.
Just as proteins are long chains of amino acids, so the genes that code for proteins are also long chains of information called ‘DNA’. The sequence of code in a gene determines the sequence of assembly of amino acids into the protein chain. A gene is a bit like a knitting pattern, which uses English words like ‘knit’ or ‘purl’ to code for stitches that are added one by one to the piece of garment. Genes are inherited, which means the characteristics of the body are passed from parent to child.
Here is an imaginary conversation between Charles Darwin and an opponent of his ideas. (Charles Darwin’s answers are inferred from ideas he implied in his books.)
Darwin: “I believe humans are related to apes.”
Opponent: “how can your theory be scientific? you can’t test it.”
Darwin: “I can only do so in a limited way myself. But I can make predictions about what future scientific findings about humans and apes will reveal based on my theory. If I am right, the science will bear me out. If future study shows that these predictions did not come true, then it will cast severe doubt on my theory, as it stands. So these predictions offer a way of testing my theory.”
Opponent: “So what about the missing links? If your theory was true wouldn’t there be fossils that were half-ape, half-human?”
Darwin: “yes, but fossil-finding is in its infancy. Remember also that fossils occur only by rare chance, and some intermediate forms may only have existed briefly. however, here is one of the predictions of my theory that can be tested: in the future I would expect we will uncover many new intermediate fossils.”
Are there any fossil links between apes and humans? Darwin had no fossil evidence for his theories. By the time he published The origin of Species in 1859 and even The Descent of Man, 12 years later, only the skullcap of a prehistoric human-like being, a Neanderthal, had been found, and its significance was not appreciated. In 1886 more Neanderthal bones were found and in 1895 Dubois brought back from Indonesia fossils of a human-type creature that we now call homo erectus.
Since then many fossils of humanoid type have been found, particularly in africa, China, europe and indonesia (Figure 13.1). These are more human-like than chimpanzees, but they are also more ape-like than modern humans. The diagram in Figure 13.2, adapted from the london natural History museum’s display Our Closest Relatives, shows the apparent progression of new human features that are evident in the different species. The coloured bands on the right cover the range of creatures on the left that shared that feature.
Fossil experts have tried for each species to determine, using many different criteria of the detailed structure of bones and teeth, if it is more like the species shown above or the one shown below – a process known as cladistics. The lines drawn show their best guess at similarities – neanderthals are shown for instance as more similar to modern humans than they are to Homo erectus.
Figure 13.2 shows only the basic groupings, but many more subgroups of pre-historic hominid fossils have been found. These have been classified as Oreopithecus, Paranthrapus, Australopithecus, Ororrin, Kenyanthropus, Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster, Homo georgicus, homo erectus, homo cepranensis, homo antecessor, homo heidelbergensis, homo rhodesiensis, homo neanderthalensis, Archaic homo sapiens (Cro-Magnon).
Figure 13.3 shows the progression in average cranial capacity, reflecting brain size in apes, hominids and humans. Brain size gradually gets bigger, and in the fossil hominids from homo habilis onwards it is intermediate in size between that of apes and that of humans.
So was Darwin right or wrong in predicting fossils intermediate between humans and apes?
God’s truth, according to Francis Bacon, is contained in two books:
• God’s Book of Words – the Bible
• God’s Book of Works – Nature
Theology is the human attempt to discover the truth about God’s words and his person. Science is the human attempt to discover the truth about God’s works and his creation. God’s Books do not spell out two different realities, but two complementary realities – one God, and one world. All truth is God’s truth. On the surface, however, the book of Genesis and science appear to tell different stories of the origin of the universe, life and humankind. We trust Genesis and its connection to the redemption story, but we worry when science appears to be undermining it. We trust science because its technological achievements – from rockets to roller blades, from heart surgery to iPhones – have been so successful, but we worry about its impact on our faith. We have seen in the previous section, however, that careful interpretation of Bible texts in the context in which they were written is necessary to avoid making the foolish mistakes that the church has so often made in the past, and avoid an apparent contradiction between Scripture and science.
In Chapter 2 we discussed how theologians interpret the Bible. Figure 9.1 is a broad outline with some of the key steps highlighted.
It is vital that we give prominence to the primary meaning and relevance of the passage for its intended audience at the time of writing. In his recent book Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose? prominent British biologist and biochemist Denis Alexander says:
If we come to the Biblical text with our twenty-first century mindsets firmly in place, without any willingness to educate ourselves in the culture and world of the biblical writers, then we are likely to miss much of what the inspired Word of God has to say to us.Our baggage
It is important, before proceeding, to discuss the baggage we may carry into the interpretation of Genesis. You may be suspicious that my agenda is not to understand Scripture but to twist it to fit my scientific beliefs. I can confess to desperately wanting Genesis and science not to contradict each other because I believe the one God is at the heart of both, but that has been true regardless of which way my interpretation of human origins has swung. And I do want to honestly appraise the book of Genesis in the light of biblical scholarship. If at the end of this section you feel I have done an injustice to the book I would be pleased to hear your criticism.
You may fear that a critical approach to the text will undermine our belief in the inspiration or authority or relevance of Scripture. Quite the opposite. I believe that Genesis is a vitally important book of the Bible and fully deserving of the best scholarship we can give it. And that means studying the way texts were written and have come to us, and to whom they were addressed. The interpretation of a Biblical text can be based on a sound, scholarly understanding of the text and context, or on a superficial understanding of the surface meaning. I, for one, would prefer the former.
This means that we have to discover whether the main message of a narrative text, like the first chapters of Genesis, arises because it is historically true, or because it illustrates or conveys important messages. A strictly literalist view of passages in the Bible would be appropriate if it was all written as history, like the journeys of Paul described in Acts. But this is not true of all passages or all books. Some books have been treated as literal histories or literal predictions in ways that assume a 20th century understanding of the universe and completely ignore the type of writing, the original context and authorship of the text, and how it would have been understood by its first intended audience.
For example, the book of Revelation has often been understood in a literalist fashion as a book about the future, the ‘end times’. Many Christians of the twentieth century believed those end times were just about to take place around the year 2000 (just as Christians of previous centuries thought the end times would be in their eras). But if that is the case, why does Revelation not mention the great changes in communication and mobility that have occurred in the last 100 years: cars, trains and planes, the telephone, the computer and the internet? Why does it not mention the political struggles in African nations, or the many denominations of the church that exist today? Understanding Revelation as a prophecy about the end times fails to account for the local context in which the apostle John was writing, and the style or genre of his book.
The style (‘apocalyptic’) is very characteristic of Jewish writings in the period after the exile in Babylon, and it is not historical narrative. It was not written primarily to enlighten 20th or 21st century evangelicals about what would be broadcast on CNN news next year. Instead it carried a message to the followers of Jesus under the heel of Roman persecution. It came as a message of encouragement, of knowing that suffering for one’s faith was not a futile thing to do, of knowing that God had the final word over all oppressive authorities, a message of hope and a call to perseverance and endurance. This is the relevant aspect of the message for Christians today who are suffering in many ways under different types of oppression, rather than a secret code we must decipher to determine whether Osama or Obama is the next Antichrist.
I believe we have tended to come to the early chapters of Genesis in the same way, ignoring the context and the first audience, and mistaking the literary style. Hence we miss the principal message of the text to its first audience. That first hearing should focus our understanding of the Scriptures before we go on to applying it in our context and culture.
The issue that I see most obstructs communication about interpretation of the Bible, and particularly of Genesis, is the question of the authoritativeness of the text in all its detail. This arises from our view of how the text actually came to be written, and for many people it comes back to how one understands 2 Peter 1:20-21 and 2 Timothy 3:16:
No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21)
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16)
What do “God-breathed” and “carried along by the Holy Spirit” mean? Did God dictate to the writers word-for-word, or take over their mental and physical faculties, so that they wrote without conscious or voluntary involvement, like zombies or automatons? Or did they catch a glimpse of God’s mind and will that he revealed to them, and get caught up “with the Spirit” like the composer Handel, who described in a letter that while writing The Messiah he “saw heaven opened and the great God Himself ”? Did God leave their faculties intact? Did they report what they saw and understood within their own viewpoints, within their own lives, times and contexts?
The two views encapsulated in the previous paragraph are why Christians often talk past each other, completely misunderstanding each other’s view: one thinks the text is a direct omniscient pronouncement of God which human discoveries cannot contradict; the other sees it as an inspired pronouncement or telling, coming through a human, within the limitations of that humanity.
Many Christians have taken Paul’s words to Timothy to mean that all of the Bible (apart from quotations of people such as Pharaoh) is at the direct dictation of God, and is therefore inerrant, and absolutely authoritative over all details of life, faith, science, discovery, and art. And yet we have just seen the dire and sometimes (in retrospect) laughable consequences of applying just such an interpretation to sections of the Bible, eg those that talk about the pillars of the earth and God founding the earth upon the waters so that it can never be moved. In addition, all of us who come later must interpret the Bible in our own contexts and times, and that imposes limitations on us, due to our imperfect knowledge, just like imperfect knowledge of the tropics influenced Augustine’s interpretation of the Bible in relation to the existence of the Antipodes and the possibility of human migration to the southern hemisphere.
So the question is: Does God’s word come to us within the limitations imposed by human channels or not? The New Testament answer is an emphatic Yes! The Logos, God’s ultimate Word to humanity, came to us as a baby, grew up as a child and adolescent, and lived and died as a man among us.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
In Jesus, God emptied himself – a concept called kenosis in Greek – of his limitless nature, and became finite and limited, like one of us.
[Christ Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8)
Jesus in his humanity was limited by the world of Second Temple Judaism and first century Roman domination. His platform of communication to people was limited by the geographical and scientific knowledge of his day (no telescopes, gene therapy, theories of relativity, or books from the Antipodes). He was limited in the amount of travelling he could do (no cars, trains or planes). He never even wrote a book (no printing presses or internet).
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. (Hebrews 1:1-2)
If Jesus had retained (had not emptied himself of ) the divine quality of omniscience, you would think that as the one through whom the world was created and in whom it is sustained (Colossians 1: 15-17) he would educate his hearers about all sorts of aspects of the physical world which could be of vital importance to them – botany, zoology, mineralogy, geology, psychology, physiology, genetics etc. But he doesn’t. Through story and explanation and action, he tells his hearers about God and shows them their relationship with God. About the rest of the universe he talks and behaves just like any other Jew of his generation. The sun rises and sets: “he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
This, above all, is how God comes to us, and communicates with us. If he was limited like this in Jesus, it is no disrespect to him to understand that his inspiration of the ancient writers was also limited by their humanity and understanding.
What happens when the church’s understanding of the Bible collides with scientific findings, such as with the debate over creation and evolution? Often Christian reaction, spoken or unspoken, will follow these lines:
• “It’s God’s word vs. human wisdom”
• “Scientific ideas keep changing, but the Bible remains unchanging”
• “The theory of evolution spawned Nazi ethnic cleansing”
• “Evolution blurs the distinction between humans and animals”
Let’s examine some of these ideas in the light of three previous instances where the official church view conflicted with scientific ideas, or was later shown to be false.God’s word vs human wisdom
I am writing this book in the Antipodes – the area of the globe opposite Europe, now loosely thought of by the British as Australia and New Zealand or ‘down under’. Until the voyages of Abel Tasman and James Cook, there was serious debate about whether land existed at the Antipodes. Curiously, many clergy up until the Middle Ages argued that to believe in the Antipodes or in the existence of people there was to contradict and scorn the teaching of the Bible. Belief in the Antipodes was a heresy – the Antipodean Heresy – based on the teachings and writings of the church fathers, especially those of Augustine (354–430AD), bishop of Hippo Regius in Algeria.
For many people from a very traditional Christian background the whole question of the origin of the universe, of life, of humans and even the nature of life, is accorded a special status that puts it beyond any human scientific enquiry or questioning. God revealed to Moses (as recorded in the book of Genesis) that the universe and earth were created in six days, and that animals were created ‘after their kind’ as fully differentiated species. This happened no earlier than 10,000 BC going by the genealogical timescale given in Genesis with some allowance for incomplete genealogies. Disease, predation and death originated from the Fall, when the first two humans, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God. All human sin originates from this event.
If you come from this background you may believe that the scientific understanding of the world must fit into this scheme. Thus you would say that fossils of extinct animals such as dinosaurs are either fanciful reconstructions from tiny bone fragments, or were exterminated by the global flood of Genesis 6 and fossilised in the mud. All humans are descended from the only survivors of that flood: Noah, and his family. Estimates that the earth and stars are older than 10–12,000 years are based on flawed assumptions. Even if they appear true, the omnipotent God could easily have initiated the current state of radiation from the rocks, and made the light from stars travel as fast and as far as he wanted before he put the current laws of physics into place.
Christians with these beliefs claim that to say otherwise is to deny the Bible, which is the only infallible guide given to humans. Not only that, but the whole doctrine of human salvation through the death of Christ is linked into Genesis because the universal sin that requires forgiveness through Christ came from the ‘original sin’ of Adam and Eve. Both Jesus and the apostle Paul referred to Adam and Eve as historical people, and Paul contrasts Adam’s legacy of sin and death with Christ’s legacy of forgiveness and life (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15). If Paul said this, inspired by God, then to deny the historicity of Adam is to deny the historicity of Christ.
According to this view there are two categories of truth: revealed truth and discovered truth. The former is recorded in the Bible and has primacy over the second, which is merely a flawed human effort to discover the truth about the world.
These beliefs are stated and defended with extraordinary vigour. Although the proponents claim the authority of Scripture for these beliefs, their activity is also driven by certain fears or perceived dangers. A fear that people will lose the sense of the importance and authority of the Bible. A fear that science, and how it is taught in school, will undercut the very things on which we base our beliefs – God’s revelation in Scripture and the historical truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection. A fear that the Bible will lose its coherence, its relevance and its uniqueness if science is given too much free rein over the subject of human origins in particular. A fear that once you stop interpreting one passage or book of the Bible literally, you are on a slippery slope to believing none of it. Ultimately it is a fear of betraying one’s faith and one’s God, a common and very understandable fear.
The more recently developed types of Old-Earth Creationism accept an old age for the earth and the universe, and accept that the scientific evidence for evolution on a small scale has become too solid to be ignored. They can accept microevolution, but state that there is no substantiated evidence for macroevolution. The most visible subgroup within this movement is the Intelligent Design movement, as described in the previous chapter.
The view of truth here is similar to the first group – revelation and discovery are two different means of acquiring truth, but in this case proponents of Intelligent Design appear to believe that scientific study of the natural world can be used to confirm and even prove revealed truth. People of this persuasion also find much to wonder and praise God for in the scientific discoveries of the universe. However there are serious issues, both biological and theological, with the Intelligent Design movement. Intelligent Design is vulnerable to attack by secular scientists for having conceded one battle (microevolution) to the theory of evolution while still believing in a ‘God-of-the-Gaps’. That is, according to Intelligent Design, the Designer repeatedly interrupted the natural process of events to create new animal groups or new complex structures. Intelligent Design proponents are also vulnerable to attack from ‘Young-Earth Creationists’ for giving science some sway over the Bible.
Does Intelligent Design harbour undercurrents of fear too? I suspect it does. A fear that having given way to evolutionary theory over microevolution they have embarked on a slippery slope. A fear that their own science is fragile and may not stand up. A fear that they have started interpreting the Bible according to science, and not vice versa. Perhaps even a fear that through ongoing discovery, God’s role in Creation will gradually diminish and be lost. Unless we take the initiative now (they may think), secular scientists will assume the monopoly on scientific truth. We will be left with meaninglessness.
Secular scientists probably have fears too, if they admit to them. The fear that in spite of believing that they know enough to dismiss the existence of God, the arguments might have a flaw somewhere – God might exist and hold them accountable. Maybe there is another form of truth.All truth is God’s truth
To my mind all these beliefs exhibit a vulnerable and fragile understanding of truth. When we believe that there are different sorts of truth, and some have primacy over others, we have already begun to doubt some of the truth, or perhaps to confuse what truth is. We can view the universe from many viewpoints – there are many facets to our understanding. Ultimately, however, there is only one sort of truth – the sort that accurately describes what is, whether it is truth about the world or about the nature of God. Ultimately truth is one because the God of truth is one and is involved in everything there is. The only other way to think is that somehow we are experiencing a very complex virtual reality, so that there is a type of truth within our virtual reality, and a different type of truth for someone outside.7
The issue is, I believe, not so much that there are different sorts of truth but that we know truth with different levels of certainty. We perceive truth through a number of filters. We can know and appreciate truth, but our knowledge of the truth is inevitably imperfect. As Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthian church:
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
These filters are there whether the truth we are talking about is a vision of an angel, a word from God, the age of rocks, or the brightness of a supernova.
For instance, we each have a greater or lesser grasp of past history due to our nearness to the original events or words. The further from the primary experience we are, the more filters there are between the truth and us.