The Touchy Topic of Human Evolution or You Can’t Make a Monkey Out of Me

Seventeenth century Church leaders were not really all that upset with Galileo’s science – the science that put the sun (instead of the earth) in the center of the solar system. Of course there were the literalists who were genuinely upset about the Bible verses that said the earth was fixed and unmovable, but that wasn’t the biggest deal.

Galileo didn’t hurt the Church’s science feelings as much as he hurt their theological feelings: if the earth is not the center of everything, then man is not the central focus of creation. If the earth is just one of innumerable planets in the universe, the earth is not special to God and man holds no special place in creation. Creation-hands-L

If the earth is not the center of the solar system, the gospel is lost.

Monkeys Make a Mess of Things

trunk_monkeyDayton, Tennessee, 1925. John Scopes, a high school teacher, was tried and convicted in the most famous science-versus-faith trial to date. Actually, Scopes wasn’t in hot water for teaching that plants or even animals had evolved over time.
Scopes was convicted of teaching against the “Divine creation of man” and that man “has descended from a lower order of animals” – both violations of Tennessee’s Butler Act.

Evolution per se didn’t get John Scopes in trouble, but bringing in the monkeys did. Add monkeys into the mix, and your theology is ruined: man is no longer special.

Twenty-first century Americans aren’t much different. A 2005 Harris poll (p. 88) surveyed Americans about evolution – asking the question in different ways. In surveys that only mentioned plant and animal evolution (leaving out humans), 49 percent accepted evolution, topping the 45 percent who did not. But – if the survey included human evolution, only 38 percent accepted it, while 54 percent rejected it. If God was referenced in the question, the numbers changed dramatically. Only 22 percent agreed that humans evolved from an earlier species if the other option was “humans were directly created by God (62 percent).

Suggesting that humans evolved makes many people (theologically) nervous.

Evolution might be just fine to explain the ancestry of ferns and bluebirds and germs, but just keep those damn monkeys out of our family tree (p. 89).

Caps-for-Sale-07

If People Came From Monkeys, Why are There Still Monkeys Today?

Ever since Darwin published his work regarding our prehuman ancestors, skeptics have demanded to see “the missing link” – the one and only, definitive half-monkey, half human creature that bridges ape to man. patty_the_sasquatch_by_rowdyrobert-d2yqftm

But to demand a single “missing link” is to misunderstand evolution. The theory of evolution does not suggest that species to species change occurs in a straight-line, one-turning-into-the-other kind of process. Instead, evolution is a slow spreading and branching process that eventually results in greater and greater species diversity. Over the years, many of these branches became dead ends. Others survived, and are the modern species we see today.

So, there is no one “missing link” for humans. There are, in fact, more than a dozen “links” – distinct species exhibiting human traits – each found in Africa from the past four or five million years.

We have, in reality, discovered so many missing links that the real question has become how to deal with this embarrassment of riches – in other words, how to connect the dots (p. 92).

Evidence Right Before Our Very Eyes: The Human Genome Project

It’s really hard to overstate the magnitude of the announcement. It has been called one of the “great feats of exploration in history”.
In 2003, the Human Genome Project, headed by Dr. Francis Collins, announced the complete mapping of the human genome – a map of all the genes of human beings.
Here’s Dr. Collins:

…this Book of Life is actually at least three books. It’s a history book: a narrative of the journey of our species through time. It’s a shop manual: an incredibly detailed blueprint for building every human cell. And it’s a transformative textbook of medicine: with insights that will give health care providers immense new powers to treat, prevent and cure disease. We are delighted by what we’ve already seen in these books. But we are also profoundly humbled by the privilege of turning the pages that describe the miracle of human life, written in the mysterious language of all the ages, the language of God.

Already, mapping the human genome has

  • fueled the discovery of more than 1,800 disease genes
  • lead to the discovery of genes for inherited diseases in a matter of days, not years as it previous took
  • enabled physicians to determine genetic disease risks and diagnose genetic disease for more than 2,000 genetic conditions

And soon, information from the Human Genome Project will

  • allow us to identify all the genetic abnormalities seen in 50 major types of cancer
  • result in the development of drugs that are much more effective and cause fewer side effects than those available today

The information from the Human Genome Project has and will continue to revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of human disease.

But the human genome tells us more: “it is a history book: a narrative of the journey of our species through time”.

And that’s where the missing link appears right before our very eyes.

History in our Genes

Drink your orange juice! Humans must have a source of vitamin C in their diets or the connective tissue in the body will break down – a disease called scurvy. British sailors limeys [640x480]brought limes aboard ship in order to stave off scurvy on long voyages – hence the nickname limeys.
Most mammals are able to make their own vitamin C from ordinary sugars – but humans can’t.
Here’s where things get interesting. Humans aren’t missing the gene that is needed to manufacture their own vitamin C. The gene is exactly where it should be, on chromosome 8, in approximately the same spot where the vitamin C-making gene is found in other mammals. But – the gene is broken and no longer works. In a sense, all humans have a “genetic disease” and we must treat it by ingesting outside sources of vitamin C.
Humans aren’t the only ones with a broken vitamin C-making gene. A certain group of primates, the ones that happen to be our closest evolutionary ancestors (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans) also have this broken gene. Other more distant primate relatives have a functioning copy of the vitamin C-making gene.
Mapping the human genome has shown us that the capacity to make vitamin C wasn’t lost in a human ancestor, but in a primate ancestor.

Plagiarism in the blood. Hemoglobin is the protein in blood that carries oxygen and makes blood red. On human chromosome 16, there are five genes that are responsible for the production of hemoglobin. Right in the middle of the five functioning genes sits one broken non-functioning gene. Humans aren’t the only ones with five functioning genes for hemoglobin production surrounding one broken gene – gorillas and chimpanzees have them, too, and the genes are identically arranged. In fact, the broken gorilla and chimpanzee genes have the exact same errors as does the broken human gene.

Like a cheating student copying another student’s work – mistakes and all -the matching errors are not coincidental. cheating-student

There’s no escaping the implication of these matching mistakes…The only sensible interpretation is that the original errors developed in a single ancestor of these three species (pp. 102-103).

The missing chromosome. Before the human genome was mapped, an abundance of fossil evidence indicated that humans share a common ancestor with the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans).
There was, however, a mysterious inconsistency at the chromosome level. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes (one pair from each parent) and the great apes have 24 pairs. At some point in the lineage leading to humans, had two chromosomes accidentally fused? The human genome map gave us a way to test this hypothesis.

Every chromosome has landmarks – specific structures that are only found at the two tip-ends of the chromosome (called telomeres) and a structure found only in the very center of the chromosome (a centromere).

Human chromosome 2 is unlike any other in the genome. Chromosome 2 has working telomeres at each tip-end, as would be expected. But Chromosome 2 has two more telomeres, fused together, right in the center of the chromosome. Chromosome 2 also has two centromeres instead of one.
What’s more, the genes on human chromosome 2 correspond almost exactly to the genes on chimpanzee chromosomes 12 and 13. The evidence for fusion is so apparent that scientists now number the chimpanzee chromosomes 2A and 2B to match the human chromosome to which they correspond (p. 107).

Chromosome2_merge

What About Design?

In Only a Theory, Kenneth Miller continually asks us to examine the evidence regarding Intelligent Design.

Is our genome … a modified copy of an earlier work, or is it an entirely new creation? …In every case for which we have data – and that now includes our complete genome and the genomes of many of our closest animal relatives – the answer is clear. We’re working with a modified copy, a genome loaded with inherited errors that has been shuffled and mutated and rearranged. We have, in short, a genome that evolved (p. 109).

The Same Science

There is historic, groundbreaking science emerging from the Human Genome Project. It is science that will heal diseases and prevent human suffering and for which believers will (and rightly so) give thanks to God.
This same science also tells us that we share common ancestry with all life. It tells us that we most closely share an ancestor with the great apes.

The science cannot be valid in one case, but invalid in the other. It is the same science.

The world renown geneticist at the helm of the historic Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, is a committed, all-in, vocal Christian. He described the genome as “the language of God” and wrote a book by that title, arguing for the compatibility of faith and science. Dr. Collins is currently the director of the National Institutes of Health, working at the cutting edge of DNA research.

Francis Collins is one of my all-time favorite examples of why we don’t have to be (theologically) nervous about human evolution.

This series is a chapter by chapter overview of Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory, with my discussion and commentary.

****************

I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

 2010-08-30-2010-8-30-Science-Cat

4 responses

  1. Excellent post, Janet. Thanks for continuing to write and discuss this.

    I guess the real stumbling block for someone is that, once convinced of all of this, they wonder how could God be involved in creation? If it all happened naturally, and Intelligent Design is not based on sound science, then what’s left? Why should we believe that God was involved somehow? And how, exactly, was God involved? I’d love to see you write a blog post on a theology of Genesis 1 and 2 (and other creation texts) in light of current science. 🙂

    • Thanks, James! You’re right – Actually I thought the next series should be “so what do we do with Genesis?” (I’ll have to let you vet the post for O.T. -setting validity!) I also thought I would end this current series with a theological post – like you said – where does a believer put God in all this?
      Thank you for reading and for your encouraging words!

  2. Hi Janet,

    It was great to meet you at the US Science and Engineering Festival. And your blog is terrific! I hope your readers have also found http://www.biologos.org, where there are lots of kindred spirits in this search for the truth of God’s awesome creation.

    Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.

    • Thanks, Dr. Collins! It was a great honor to meet you! I loved your panel discussion at the Festival. Yes, I’ve linked to BioLogos several times and I will continue to do so!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: