Historical Adam: Wearing the genes

Editor’s note: This is the second in an ongoing Think Christian series. Look for other installments by Deborah Haarsma, Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Harrell.

As a scientist in my late 30s, I’m (just) old enough to have worked in the pre-genomics era. As a graduate student, I worked on an organism that did not yet have a completed genome sequence available, and I spent some of my time sequencing DNA the old-fashioned, manual way, with technology that is today hopelessly inefficient and out of date. The genomics revolution, driven by the human genome project, was coming, but it would take a few more years for the results to come in and the technology to drop in price.

Today, only a decade later, we live in a different world scientifically. Our ability to acquire and compare DNA sequences has grown exponentially. What was once enough sequencing work for an entire PhD can now be completed in an afternoon, with ease. We now have not only the entire human genome sequenced, but we’re sequencing scores of human genomes from individuals all over the globe.

Unfortunately, for many Christians this technological tour-de-force is nothing to celebrate. Yes, this work promises to help us diagnose diseases, tailor treatments to individuals and reduce suffering - all aims that strongly resonate with Christians. The problem is that in addition to these benefits, modern genomics has convincingly demonstrated two things about the human race that many Christians find troubling: that we came on the scene through an evolutionary process, and that we arose through an evolutionary process as a population numbering in the thousands.

The lines of evidence for these two conclusions are deep, and get deeper with each new study published. In the human genome we see clear marks of our evolutionary past - from defective genes used for making egg yolk (from a time in our lineage when our ancestors laid eggs, before lactation evolved) to patterns of mutations shared between our species and other primates (such as the mutation that destroys our ability to make vitamin C, which we share with chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans).

Studies on human genetic diversity in the present day show us that we are too genetically diverse to descend from only two individuals at any time in our evolutionary history. Studies have used many different measures of our diversity with different assumptions, yet have nonetheless agreed that the lineage leading to our species has never numbered below about 10,000 individuals. (And no, “Mitochondrial Eve” is no help here, despite widespread confusion about her among Christians.)

Of course, neither of these findings sit comfortably with the stories I remember well from Sunday School as a child; indeed, some Christian groups are beginning to require denying these findings as part of their theology. In particular, there is a concern that moving away from the view that the entire human race descends from one ancestral couple threatens the doctrine of original sin. (Examples here would include Mark Driscoll and the Evangelical Free Church of America.) These sorts of moves put scientifically knowledgeable believers in such groups in a difficult position - do they deny the science to remain theologically “on side,” or do they risk membership in their faith communities by accepting the science?

As the information coming out of the various genome-sequencing  projects trickles down to the pew level, these difficulties are only going to increase. For believers who value God’s revelation both through Scripture and His creation, there is some serious theological work do be done here. And the sooner we start, the better.

Dennis Venema is an associate professor and department chair for the biology department of Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling. / Illustration by Schuyler Roozeboom.

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One of the hardships I have with this debate (other than overly outspoken leaders like Mark Driscoll) is the degree of certainty with which some scientists are willing to express their theories as fact. Last time I checked, there’s no way to “prove” anything about human origins (even if we think we can rule some things out). From what I remember from Biology 101, scientists can only ever give us a “best guess” (albeit an educated and informed one)—following the data—but never fact.
Maybe I’m wrong there, but I still wonder whether it isn’t only overzealous Christian “fundamentalists” who put Christian scientists in a rough spot, but also overzealous scientists (Christian or otherwise) who put fundamentalist Christians in a rough spot. I think both sides have seen that, if you try to corner a beast, it lashes out. So let’s (both sides) name our parts in this ongoing debate and move on.
Thankfully, though, I don’t see this article trying to corner anyone! And if we’re trying to make theological progress, here is my two cents:
Genesis (and the whole of the Old Testament) is not at all concerned with our terribly modern idea of history—eg. (1) chronicling the “facts” (2) in order (3) one right after another with nothing missing.
Instead, Genesis (and other OT books) talk about things that happened, but they also highlight events, rearrange the order, and even leave things out—all with a particular intent. And that intent is for God to tell his people (then and now): “You were nothing and I made you something; You were not a people and I made you a people; you were enslaved and I set you free—now follow ME and no one/nothing else!” The bible is not scientific, but relational!
The point is a description of the kind of God we ought to worship—one who made heaven and earth and upholds them with his mighty hands, yet also desires us—and the kind of people whom we should be—servants of that God in whatever capacity we find ourselves. You can assume an historical Adam and Eve—or not—but the assumption that the Bible’s primary concern is to accommodate our modern scientific and historical worldviews just might be the most destructive dimension of this whole argument.

There seems to be a mantra here:
In light of this “fact”, we as Christians MUST cease to believe that there was an actual single first Man - Adam - specially created DISTINCT and SEPARATE from the beasts (Genesis 1).
On the contrary, there is much well documented evidence which calls into question the veracity of evolutionary theory on many points. So, since there is so much at stake theologically, you better show me time-lapse footage of a fish growing legs and crawling out of the ocean (a la Tiktaalik) while simultaneously “evolving” the capacity to breathe air. Until then I’ll trust God’s eyewitness account, and my understanding of Sin and Salvation will remain intact (Romans 5)

The mantra actually seems to be “evolution is the theory that best fits the data.” If the data is looked at objectively, without presupposing the pattern into which the data must be fit no matter how much twisting or bending of the data is required, that is the case.

Were six-day creationism a scientifically-valid theory, it would be able to provide a scientific explanation why human beings share so much DNA with, and why human beings carry the vestigial DNA of many of, those species of “beasts” to which the six-day creationists claim we are completely unrelated.

You claim “much well documented evidence” against “evolutionary theory”... can you provide citations to back that up that follow the standards and conventions of scientific inquiry (i.e., published by peer-reviewed and established scientific journals or presses)?

Moreover, I would suggest that a theology viewpoint that cannot stand up to objective scientific inquiry—the means by which we know and understand the natural world—is a weak theology. If your “understanding of Sin and Salvation” requires that certain things be scientifically true that are not only not supported by the evidence, but in fact are contradicted by it, then I’d suggest that your theology needs to develop an “understanding of Sin and Salvation” that can withstand more severe scrutiny.

Nature, Vol. 394, No. 6691, p. 313 (1998) © Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
“... among the top natural scientists, disbelief is greater than ever — almost total.
Research on this topic began with the eminent US psychologist James H. Leuba and his landmark survey of 1914. He found that 58% of 1,000 randomly selected US scientists expressed disbelief or doubt in the existence of God, and that this figure rose to near 70% among the 400 “greater” scientists within his sample [1]. Leuba repeated his survey in somewhat different form 20 years later, and found that these percentages had increased to 67 and 85, respectively [2].

In 1996, we repeated Leuba’s 1914 survey and reported our results in Nature [3]. We found little change from 1914 for American scientists generally, with 60.7% expressing disbelief or doubt. This year, we closely imitated the second phase of Leuba’s 1914 survey to gauge belief among “greater” scientists, and find the rate of belief lower than ever — a mere 7% of respondents.”
So, the mainstream scientific community is by and large either atheist or agnostic. (A 2007 study showed basically the same thing) Therefore you would not expect scientific journals to spend much ink on any study which leads to the conclusion that there is a God. (Although there have been many peer-reviewed articles published in support of Intelligent Design http://www.discovery.org/a/2640)

On presuppositions: Studies of the origins of life cannot use the scientific method in the classic sense. They investigate events which cannot be repeated in the laboratory. It’s a forensic study which seeks to piece together how things came to be as we see them now by examining the evidence available. Any such study must necessarily be carried out relying on a set of assumptions. Those presuppositions will largely determine the conclusions of the inquiry.

Since the bulk of scientists reject God, you would not expect them to come at the evidence from a biblical or theistic viewpoint (that is why the notion of “intelligent design” is anathema to evolutionists - it shoots holes in random mutation as the driving force behind the development of life and posits an intelligence instead).
Answers in Genesis, Institute for Creation Research, and the Intelligent Design movement all count credentialed scientists among their ranks. But they apply a different set of assumptions as they examine the evidence. The real question is: Whose assumptions are correct?

On theology:

I can’t be sure whether you are a Christian, but if you are, and you reject an actual Adam and Eve based on a belief in Evolution, how do you account for humankind’s sinful condition? 
Was it the conscious choice of the first man, who was created perfect and sinless (Gen 1 - “very good” - high praise considering the source) to rebel against his Creator and thereby bring sin and death into the world, infecting all of humankind with hereditary total depravity (as is clearly taught in Scripture)?
Or did we inherit our sinful nature from the animals? That is:  Did God “create” us sinful to start with?
Where does the blame for our sinfulness ultimately lie? With God or with us?
That is the crux of the issue.

These questions that you end with are exactly what we will be exploring as the series continues. Look for the next installment Friday.

“Therefore you would not expect scientific journals to spend much ink on any study which leads to the conclusion that there is a God.”

If the creationists’ studies could actually demonstrate their theory by showing concrete evidence (not simply inference, but positive and affirmative evidence) of a guiding intelligence—in other words, if they actually had evidence strong enough to convince a skeptical scientist according to the rules of scientific inquiry—then I think they would find the publishing environment much more welcoming.

The fact that they have thus far proven incapable of doing so suggests to me that they are coming from a fundamentally un-scientific place; as a Christian, I think that’s all well and good, but I don’t pretend that my theology is science. Any theology in which belief in God is dependent on certain things being scientifically true had better be prepared to demonstrate that those things are true within the boundaries of scientific inquiry.

“The real question is: Whose assumptions are correct?”

Actual scientists have an answer for that: the assumptions about the pattern are proven correct or incorrect as new data comes in that either fits or doesn’t fit with the pattern. If, as new data comes in, that data is wildly divergent from the pattern, then something about the theorized pattern must be off.

And as we get more and more new data, that data strongly supports the pattern suggested by evolutionary theory. For example, Darwin wrote The Origin of Species almost 100 years before Watson and Crick discovered the DNA molecule—and yet, as the author of this piece writes, the evidence we have in the DNA molecule supports the theory of evolution, as it shows evidence that we are related to the other animals of the world. The DNA we share with other animals is something that cannot be explained by those who suggest a fundamental discontinuity between animals and humans.

Perhaps I will be starting a bit of a firestorm when I admit that some if these questions do not hold my interest. It is enough for me to know that sin exists, that it is inescapable, and that we need to be forgiven for so many of the things we do, say, and think. I really could not care less whether that sin is a result of a real person or not. I should probably admit, though, for the sake of full disclosure, that I regard the creation narratives in Genesis as metaphorical.

The origin of sin really doesn’t interest you, Tim? Even if you consider the Genesis creation narrative to be metaphorical, the arrival of sin on the scene still takes place within it. In metaphorical terms, what do you think that part of the story may have meant to communicate?

I think the arrival of sin in Genesis is a stylized way of introducing and explaining something that most humans innately feel—that we are constantly doing, saying, and thinking things we should not. On the other hand, I avoid questions about the origin of sin because they lead me to a very dark place, one which reveals a God who relies on sin, death, and pain to fulfill His own designs. That would be a very vain and manipulative God indeed, one in which I could not believe. So I suppose I was wrong to say that the questions do not interest me. Perhaps I should have said that I avoid them because I’m not sure I will like the answers.

This strikes me about your comment:
You say that contemplating the origin of sin reveals “a God who relies on sin, death and pain to fulfill His own designs”.
But this conclusion can only be reached by adhering to the evolutionary paradigm. As I previously made clear, if evolution is true, God built sin, death, etc into Creation, and in fact He did use it to “fulfill His own designs”.  Furthermore, the blame for our sinfulness ultimately is laid at God’s feet in that system. That is a dark place, and a dark God - not the God of Scripture.
The God of Scripture is perfect. He created us in a state of sinlessness - Adam did not inherit a sinful nature from the animals. Adam was not sinful until he sinned. And we all inherit that sinful nature from him. Sin is our (humankind’s) fault, not God’s. Study Romans, and you will see how a metaphorical reading of Genesis dismantles the theology of the Cross.
Putting the blame for the origin of sin where it belongs - where the Bible puts it - will keep you out of that dark place and bring you into the light of the glory of His Truth.

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