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).


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).


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.


Do I Have to Believe in Evolution?

Do I Have to Believe in Evolution?

The 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, spawned theatrics inside the courtroom and out.  Ministers preached on street corners, vendors sold souvenirs, girls carried monkey dolls, and a chimpanzee named Joe Mendi sipped a Coca-Cola in the drugstore wearing a plaid suit, a brown fedora and white spats.

The trial inspired several popular songs, including this catchy hit (be sure to play the audio – you’ll be humming it all day!)

monkey music cover

Thus was set the adversarial context that defines the debate to this day: do you believe a bunch of unproven so-called scientists, or do you believe the truth in the Bible? Few theological discussions among Christians incur the level of heart-racing blood-pressure-spiking defensiveness as a discussion of evolution.

Opinions usually cluster around one of two poles:

  • An energetic denial of all evidence of evolution accompanied by a literal interpretation of Genesis OR
  • A passive stance – “It doesn’t really matter to me how God did it, I just believe he did it. I don’t want to think about it.”

Regardless of which pole you most nearly orbit, when there is near universal agreement by scientists that evolution is true, it is worth seriously considering.

What does the theory of evolution say?

Evolution is often dismissed because it is “just” a theory. It is important to understand what scientists mean when they use the term theory.  A science theory does not have the same meaning as the word “theory” used in casual, non-technical language. For example:

I have a theory that the Rangers will be in the world series again. (casual and hopeful)

Because of the theory of gravity, jumpers use a parachute when they jump out of a plane. (science)

When scientists use the word “theory”, they are not talking about a best guess, or even an educated guess. When scientists use the word “theory”, they are not implying speculation.

A science theory is a statement of the facts, laws, and principals of something known or observed.

Surgeons scrub before surgery because of germ theory. Jumpers use parachutes because of gravitational theory.

Would anyone suggest surgeons do not need to scrub because germ theory is “just” a theory?

Concisely, evolution theory states that all life on earth evolved from one primitive species that branched out over time, throwing off many new and diverse species. The mechanism that drives most of evolution is natural selection (Why Evolution is True, J. Coyne, p. 3).

It is also important to note what the theory of evolution does NOT say:

  • Evolution theory says nothing about the origin of life.
  • Evolution theory says nothing about the purpose of life.

This is the theory of evolution in a nutshell – the BioLogos worldview – and the grand story of the creative world God brought into existence (The Language of Science and Faith, p. 37).

Why do we often hear that there is not a consensus regarding evolution?

It is important to understand that tweaking a theory or refining details of a theory is not the same as rejecting the theory. Scientists may have differing ideas about details within a theory, but that is not the same as repudiating an entire theory. This is the process of science – constant tweaking, refining, adding to the body of knowledge.

While there are scientists that reject evolution, these are not premier scientists. Looking at the actual names of individuals, we rarely find a contemporary biologist currently working and researching in the field. The names are primarily academics outside of the field of biology and emeritus (retired) faculty, no longer active in research (pp.30-34).

The scientific community is not abandoning evolution – not even close. Theodosis Dobzhansky’s 1973 observation still stands strong:

Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.

Genetics 101

The basic units of heredity are called genes and are passed from parents to offspring. Genes are made of a substance called DNA.

Molecules in DNA have flexibility to change and move around on a long chain. These “changes and movings” are called mutations. When genes change, a change occurs in the plant or animal. Sometimes the plant or animal is changed in an important way, but most of the time, these changes are minuscule and irrelevant.

If a certain animal group undergoes a substantial number of changes, then the group can eventually turn into a new type of animal – a new species.

But here is a key point: species change very slowly.

We can’t watch a species change.

The term for the unimaginable past is deep time. The inability to imagine this change process and the vastness of the time required often makes people doubt its validity. However, our limitations are not nature’s limitations:

We have to distinguish between challenges to our imaginations, which have trouble conceptualizing slow process that take millions of years, and challenges to nature, which have no such limitations (p. 46).

Sometimes these changes are useful or beneficial. The change might result in an animal being more attractive to a mate. peacock

The change might result in an animal laying eggs that are better camouflaged or that are less fragile than before. In the cases of an attractive mate or hardier eggs, the changes are likely to result in more offspring for the new species. More offspring means more animals with the new trait. If the change happens to be harmful (weaker eggs, for example), then less offspring will result.

Interestingly, changes can be beneficial in one circumstance and harmful in another. The mutation that causes sickle-cell anemia also protects against malaria.

What is the best proof that evolution has occurred?

Even before Darwin, many scientists believed that life had changed over time. Others had previously proposed the idea of evolution. Darwin is considered the originator of evolution because his copious discoveries contributed concrete evidence that change had indeed occurred.

The Human Genome Project (headed by Dr. Collins) finished mapping the human genome in 2003. We now know the DNA code of humans and many other vertebrates. Genetic data from these studies conclusively fit the model that all life evolved from a common ancestor.

Take your vitamins. Most mammals do not need to have vitamin C in their diets because they have a gene that allows them to produce their own vitamin C. However, primates (including humans) need vitamin C in their diets because they cannot produce their own vitamin C. Without vitamin C, primates (including humans) will develop scurvy.

Genetic mapping revealed that primates (including humans) actually have the vitamin C-making gene, but it is “broken” – it has degenerated.

Did God create humans independently and insert a broken gene into our genomes? Giberson and Collins do not find this scenario plausible (Language of Science and Faith, p.43) – and I have to agree.

Over and over again, we find that the genomes of different organisms have the same genes. Some have suggested that God might have “reused” the same DNA pattern for similar creatures. But consider:

The genomes of organisms do not merely share common genes that successfully perform their intended functions. Genomes also share genes that are broken (Language of Science and Faith, p.49).

Did God specially and individually create animals and plants that show evidence of being related… but really aren’t related at all? Is this explanation consistent with your concept of God?

“You may have come from a monkey but I didn’t.”

Did we come from monkeys?

Short answer: NO.

All life on our planet evolved from an original common ancestor, but we did not “come from” a monkey or any other species currently alive on earth.  Humans share a common ancestor with primates, but the human part of the family split off an unimaginably long time ago.


This series is a chapter by chapter discussion of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins with my observations 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.