My daughter-in-law Gillian, a student at Columbia Medical School in New York City, recently graduated from Syracuse University with a PhD in Biochemistry. I'm proud of her achievements. Her dissertation is entitled "High Throughput Screening of Aptamers." Gillian developed and patented a new process for sequencing DNA much faster than older methods. Her research will aid in the development of new drugs, and interestingly, the speedy detection of cryptosporidium in our water. Cryptosporidium is a pathogen that is responsible for one of the most common waterborne--and sometimes fatal--diseases in the world.
I understand the basic thrust of her research because I've been long interested both how evolution works, and especially how DNA analysis sheds new light on the evolutionary history of our species. The theory of human evolution has always been based on independent and converging lines of evidence from many fields, such as archeology and biology. Modern DNA analysis that shows how different groups of people are related through time by comparing minute mutations in their DNA is just the most recent line of such evidence.
Christians often struggle to integrate new evolutionary science into their ancient faith. We have options. One is to argue that evolutionary science must be wrong because the story of Adam's creation out of the soil is an exact description of what happened. On this approach, genetic similarity between us and other species, such as Neanderthals or lemurs or fish is a red herring that God threw into the DNA--maybe for fun, or maybe to test our faith in the literalist interpretation of Genesis.
This approach is unacceptable for many reasons. At heart, it makes God's revelation of himself in the book of creation intentionally duplicitous. We gladly make use of our new understanding of the science of DNA to identify genetic diseases or for forensic analysis of trace amounts of DNA to identify people (usually criminals). Gillian has moved from a PhD in biochemistry to medical school because the scientific research in both places is completely interdependent. It is high irony that many of us are glad to take advantage of new medical advances when it comes to our health but reject the same science if it challenges our theology. I liken it to sailing around the world while continuing to insist that it is flat.
A more helpful approach would be to accept that contemporary science is forcing us to rethink traditional interpretations of the Bible. Of course, this has happened many times before. No one believes the earth is flat, that the universe revolves around the earth, or that there are waters above and below the earth.
We do have a lot of theology to rethink. For starters, a doctrine of original sin can't be based on a historical fall by an original human person. Calvin professors Daniel Harlow and John Schneider have done a wonderful job of getting a discussion about what we need to rethink restarted for Christian Reformed people.
In the meantime, though, I often think about my daughter-in-law Gillian. Telling her to reject human evolution from other, prior species would basically require her to discount the very science on which she bases her daily research, her patents, and her contributions to defeating the scourge of cryptosporidium. Gillian is a person of faith. She loves going to church. But she won't go to one where she has to check her science vocation at the door and enter into a pretend alternate reality. Why should she, or any of our children, have to make such a sacrifice?
The time is ripe for us to put this evolutionary tempest in a Fundamentalist teapot behind us, and get on with the adventure of working out a theology that is a better reflection of both the book of scripture and the book of nature.
PS: I'm often asked what books I'd recommend to those who are curious about human evolution. Here are three that I would highly recommend. Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True is a very accessible introduction that is sensitive to traditional Christian concerns. Francisco Ayala is a former Dominican priest, and his Am I a Monkey? is a very spiritually mature reflection on evolution. If you're looking for a rollicking good read, I suggest Neil Shubin's entertaining Your Inner Fish. This article first appeared in the August 8 issue of Christian Courier (christiancourier.ca/).