Beliefnet
Science and the Sacred

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Genesis 1:26-27 reads: “Then God said, `Let us make man in our image,
in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the
birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all
the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created man in his
own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he
created them.”

Immediately
after Darwin published “The Origin of Species” in 1859, the
consequences for human origins, biblical interpretation and people’s
relationship with God were apparent. The potential disparity between
this Genesis creation story and Darwin’s theory leads people to assume
the church at the time felt threatened and opposed evolution. But many
church leaders in the late 19th century actually embraced Darwin’s
theory as insight to the means by which God created the world. As just
one example, the conservative Christian theologian B. B. Warfield
wrote,”I am free to say, for myself, that I do not think that there is
any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of
creation, either as given in Gen. I & II or elsewhere alluded to,
that need be opposed to evolution.”

The
idea that humans might be related to the great apes was not universally
well received, however. The wife of the Bishop of Worcester, England, upon
hearing this news, reportedly responded with some alarm. “Descended
from the apes? My dear, let us hope that it is not true,” she said.
“But if it is, let us pray that it will not become widely known.”

Now
150 years later, we still seem to be fighting this battle. A recent
Gallup poll indicates that 44 percent of people in the United States
believe God created humans in their present form fewer than 10,000
years ago. The Washington Post
writer Kathleen Parker points out one of the serious consequences of
this situation in her recent column. “The problem of not believing in
evolution as one might not believe in, say, goblins or flying pigs has
repercussions beyond the obvious — that the United States will
continue to fall behind other nations in science education,” she writes.

The study of DNA — the hereditary material — has enabled the study of
human origins to achieve a level of detail Darwin never could have
imagined. The decoding of the entire DNA sequence of humans — the Human
Genome Project, which I had the privilege of leading — along with the
genomes of dozens of other vertebrates has been a rigorous test of
whether the data actually fits a model of evolution from a common
ancestor. And the evidence is overwhelming. Although some people might
still argue that DNA similarities do not prove common ancestry — after
all, God might have chosen to use the same DNA motifs for animals of
anatomic similarity — the details of the analysis make that conclusion
no longer tenable.

Most mammals, for example, do not need dietary sources of vitamin C
because they can make their own using an enzyme encoded in their
genomes. But primates, including humans, require vitamin C in their
diet, or they will suffer a disease called scurvy. What happened here?
Well, if you search through the human genome, you will find a
degenerated copy of the gene for this vitamin C synthesizing enzyme.
But it has sustained a knockout blow, losing more than half of its
coding sequence. A claim that the human genome was created by God
independently rather than being part of descent from a common ancestor
would mean God intentionally inserted a nonfunctioning piece of DNA
into our genomes to test our faith. Unless you are willing to
contemplate the idea of God as a deceiver, this is not a comfortable
explanation.

This past week I attended a meeting about the human genome at Cold
Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. I heard many astounding
presentations on comparisons of our own genome to that of other species
— all consistent in exquisite detail with an evolutionary explanation.
A particularly interesting paper described the latest findings on
Neanderthals, whose DNA sequence is being painstakingly pieced together
from several 30,000-year-old bones of different individuals. The DNA
similarity to Homo sapiens is striking; but the evidence is most consistent with a separation of humans and Neanderthals nearly 500,000 years ago.

One particular finding about genetic variation caught the audience’s
attention immediately. To explain this discovery, it’s first important
to know that we humans are a lot alike at the DNA level. But if you
compared your DNA sequence to mine, about one of every 1,000 letters of
the code would be different. Most of these differences are common in
the human population and fall in parts of the genome that tolerate
variation. Therefore, those differences don’t seem to have much effect.
But they are interesting reflections of our history. So here’s the new
information: about one-third of those exact same variations are also
found in Neanderthals. That means a precise location of the human
genome where some individuals have the letter A and others have the
letter G will often show that same exact variation in DNA from
Neanderthal bones. That does not imply there was interbreeding between
humans and Neanderthals in Europe 30,000 years ago — so far, there is
no DNA evidence to support that. Instead, this new discovery points
unequivocally to a population of common ancestors of both humans and
Neanderthals with these exact genetic variations living more than
500,000 years ago.

Why
do so many people find it difficult to accept these conclusions? First
of all, there is the general problem that evolution is somewhat
counterintuitive. Our own human experience does not easily accommodate
the vast intervals of time necessary for natural selection to produce
the marvelous diversity of living things we see all around us. For
believers, there is the additional problem of fitting together the
concept of the creator God and the imago Dei, or
image of God, with the words of Scripture and a process that seems so
random. But does this struggle need to exist? Suppose God chose to use
the mechanism of evolution to create animals like us, knowing this
process would lead to big-brained creatures with the capacity to think,
ask questions about our own origins, discover the truth about the
universe and discover pointers toward the One who provides meaning to
life. Who are we to say that’s not how we would have done it? If you
believe that God is the creator, how could the truths about nature we
discover through science be a threat to God? For many scientists who
believe in God — including me — it’s just the opposite. Everything we
learn about the natural world only increases our awe of the God the
creator.

Yet many evangelical churches continue to fear the whole fabric of
faith will be torn apart if the words of Genesis 1 and 2 are not taken
literally. It surprises many to learn this ultraliteral interpretation
was not considered necessary by many profoundly dedicated believers
long before Darwin arrived on the scene. In A.D. 400, St. Augustine
wrote no fewer than four books about the interpretation of Genesis,
ultimately concluding it was not possible to arrive at a confident view
of how creation occurred. In words that presciently warn against the
current conflict, he writes, “In matters that are so obscure and far
beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be
interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we
have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so
firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the
search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”

I
urge us all to step back from the conflict and look soberly at the
truth of both of God’s books: the book of God’s words and the book of
God’s works. As people dedicated to truth, let us resolve to move
beyond a theology of defensiveness to a theology that celebrates God’s
goodness and creative power.

For answers to the most frequently asked questions about science and
faith, see http://www.biologos.org.


Dr. Francis S. Collins is former director of the Human Genome Project
and founder and president of The BioLogos Foundation. 

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