Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The DNA Says Evolution. Is the Church Ready?

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/).


  1. Interesting. You raise a lot of issues worthy of discussion. Certainly we must honor the revelation God gives us in nature. However, we must be cautious at the same time to honor the divine revelation in Scripture. Poking fun at those who hold different interpretations of the Bible than you does not answer significant questions that makes those interpretations attractive to many. For example, I'm just wondering if God can now be accused of making the accounts of the Adamic fall in both the Old and New Testaments deliberately misleading? It seems that is a logical implication of what you say the book of creation is teaching us.

  2. I watched Stephen Hawking's "Curiousity" the other night, and it was his goal of the show to prove whether or not a god who created the universe. Or really, as it seemed in the end, the reason for God at all -- if God used scientific laws to create the world, and continues letting scientific laws govern the world, then what is HIS purpose? What do we need HIM for?

    And I wonder...

    Is our faith based on whether the account of creation is absolutely and 100% literal...or is there something else involved? Could there possibly be deeper meaning that God has not yet given us? *gasp* As if He hasn't given us the complete workings of His inner mind?

    Maybe people did start out as animals. And it wasn't until "Eden", that people received God's rational thought, reason. Up until then, maybe everything was done by instinct and natural selection.

    Maybe Adam was the first scientist - and named all of the animals, as it is written.

    Maybe Adam was the first descendant of a specific race (the Hebrew people, for instance). Might also explain where Mrs. Cain came from.

    Maybe the world was "perfect" up until that fateful day when Eve picked the fruit from the tree and disobeyed God.

    And maybe my points are completely wrong and way off base. But at least I'm willing to question and consider other options.

    And I think that's what's important. Although we do need to be careful (there's always that line between being open- and closed-minded), we can't sit here and disregard the science that God created.

    We need to listen to the Galileos of our world and let them lead us towards a deeper understanding of this amazing creator that we have. To realize that He is a WHOLE lot bigger and smarter and more creative than we could ever begin to imagine.

    So what is the point of having a God at all? Maybe that's what we need to ask Him. That's something we can't put into a box, we can't put into words. But I believe that He really wants us to have a "relationship" with Him, whatever that means. And the offer isn't open to some people, it's open to anyone and everyone who asks. And like any relationship, it's not automatic - it takes time and energy, and it's different for everyone. But just like Jeremiah 29:10-14 says...the promise is there.

    (Alright, I'll get down from my soapbox now. Pastor Suk, I know you'll find what you're looking for - God doesn't lead us through valleys unless there's a mountaintop waiting at the other end! See you at Christmas, DV.)

  3. So what is the point of having a God! Well, in a word, grace! But beyond that, he remains the creator, and I would argue that however he did it, including evolution, without him we just wouldn't be here. And that is point enough for me!

  4. Me too :)

    Tell that to Stephen Hawking.
    Smart...but...missing the most important mark.

  5. Good piece John. I recently participated in Regent College's Pastor-Science cohort and it was encouraging to see good reflections happening on these important issues. The program is dubbed "Refaithing Science" but could just as well be called "Resciencing Faith."

    If Gillian keeps doing good science and you keep doing faithful theology, we'll enjoy a deeper knowledge and wonder of God.

  6. I found Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, (Free Press, 2006), an engaging and helpful read. He argues that instead of faith in science and faith in God fighting and belittling each other (ending up only to show how little each knows of the other, and thereby making one's own position look silly), the two ought to talk, for they both have much more in common than they realize, and have much to learn from each other.

    At the time he was head of the Human Genome Project. In the chapter entitled, Deciphering God's Instruction Book, here's the sentence that I underlined, "For me, as a believer, the uncovering of the human genome sequence held additional significance. This book was written in the DNA language by which God spoke life into being" (pg 123).

  7. Hi John,
    I'm puzzled by your statement that Coyne's book is "sensitive to traditional Christian concerns" ... everything I've read on his blog (same title as the book) seems derisive to anything remotely Christian ... and he (ironically) seems completely close-minded to wrestling with the big questions. (I've read a bunch of early Dawkins, and he seems absolute tame & thoughtful compared to Coyne). I'm wondering if it would be more fruitful if Christians wrestling with these issues could start with material by Christians who support an evolutionary creation model; there is a lot of good stuff out there.

  8. I think this whole science-vs-religion discussion becomes moot once you learn that the Bible and especially Genesis is a largely a literary creation, and taking it as a literal news report ought not be a consideration for any educated person.

  9. A good philosophical contribution within the past few years is "Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism" by Alvin Plantinga.

    1. I have the book, got well into it, didn't finish it, and don't remember much of it! Thanks for the recommendation. I'll pick it up again.


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