Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Human Evolution and Divine Purpose

Reading this article by Graeme Finlay got me to thinking about Cornelius Hunter's perspective on genetics and evolution. Dr. Finlay is a cell biologist at the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre and he has a specialty in comparative primate genetics. The article in question is called "Human evolution: How random process fulfils divine purpose and it appeared in the June 2008 issue of Perspectives in the Christian Faith. His point is very clear:
Even as some Christians deny that new species can evolve, that macroevolution has taken place, and that complexity can develop through natural genetic processes, the genomic revolution of this century has established the truth of all three evolutionary concepts.
This perspective is absolutely contra Dr. Hunter's, who argues that genetics do not support "Darwinism's" predictions. In support of his argument, Dr. Finlay marshalls evidence from DNA transposons and retrotransposons, "recycled spare parts," and duplications. These are genes that figure in many illnesses that afflict humans and this evidence is similar to that of ERVs in terms of inferred shared ancestry. About transposons he writes:
DNA transposons are short segments of self-propagating DNA that reside in the genomes of many organisms. Their origins are lost in remote history. They possess an enzyme called a transposase which enables them to cut-and-paste themselves into new sites in the genome. They appear to increase in number by co-ordinating their activities with episodes of cellular DNA synthesis. There are nearly 400,000 individual DNA transposons inserted into our genome, of which essentially all are shared with apes and OWMs.[Old World Monkeys](citation omitted)
What is interesting is that these transposons reflect a fascinating example of exaptation (when one gene is co-opted by an existing system for a different function than what it was originally intended). Our DNA is rife with these. As Finlay states:
Many of the DNA transposons scattered throughout our genome have acquired genetic functionality since the time they inserted into the primate germ-line. Some now function as genes that generate RNA molecules involved in widespread and important regulatory functions (citation omitted)
So, how as Christians, are we to view this kind of evidence? How does this fit into a Christian perspective that has, as one of its central tenets, the fall and subsequent sinfulness/corruption of the world? Finlay writes:
If we are God’s creation, then our DNA sequence is an authoritative text that God has written. It is the Primal Testament that describes how God in faithfulness has created, via the randomness of genetic happenstance, the creature that bears his image and that he intends to glorify. Francis Collins has stated that shared transposable elements have implications for common ancestry that are “virtually inescapable.” We must listen attentively to this text, and respond appropriately (Citation omitted).
This is a critical piece of the puzzle in the evolutionary continuum because the vast majority of people that argue against evolution do so from the (mistaken) viewpoint that the fossil record doesn't support it. Very few people that argue against evolution would think to take pot shots at genetics. Genetics is as central to biology as evolution is and is (in so much as is possible) tangible. It can be shown conclusively that certain genes result in certain phenotypes when expressed, even though the genes themselves cannot be seen without a microscope. He concludes thus:
There is of course mystery in this. The achievement of God’s purposes in the light of genetic or human freedom is a paradox to which we must hold. The actions of God in history are not obvious to the casual observer. Butterfield wrote that we cannot find the hand of God in secular history unless we have first gained assurance of God’s involvement by personal experience. It is Christ who makes sense of Israel’s tumultuous past. Once we have recognized how God’s blessing for the world arose from Israel’s tragic history, we may perceive with worship that he has created humanity by the random evolutionary route attested by our genome.
Of course, this whole exercise sidesteps the problem of the historical Adam, the fall and sinful man, and the ancient genetic history of humans is an idea that most Christians cannot process and many won't. On the other hand, it is far from clear that a literal view of death is warranted from the scripture anyway, or else Adam and Eve would have physically died upon eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which they obviously did not. This is what allows the literal crowd to accept the ancient origin of humans and a literal Adam as well. Of course, the problems compound for the literal crowd when you get to the long lifespans, the worldwide flood and the Tower of Babel. This is why they call it the "primeval history" and why Conrad Hyers remarks:
...a literal interpretation of the Genesis accounts of creation is inappropriate, misleading, and unworkable. It presupposes a kind of literature and concern that is not there. In doing so it misses the symbolic richness of what is there and subjects the biblical materials, and the theology of creation, to a completely pointless and futile controversy. The "creation model" of origins is not what the texts are about. So the issue, ultimately, is not that creationism is scientifically and historically incorrect, but biblically incorrect.
If so, then the genetic evidence will fit right in with every other piece of evidence that supports the ancient age of the universe and the earth.

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  1. Hi Jim,
    Excellent post! Thanks for reminding me of Finlay's article and your astute observations. It was very timely ... I used one of Finlay's quotes above in a comment on my own blog.

  2. Thanks, Steve. Kind comments. This is the primary niggle that I have with the work by Hyers, the work by Carol Hill and this article: once we get past the creation of the universe, what is to be done with the flood, the repopulation of the world, the Tower of Babel and other assorted problems? The narrative sure looks mythological to me.