7 Sep 2013

Can biology make sense?

About 150 years ago, I graduated from Melbourne University with an Honours Degree in Human Genetics.  My thesis had been in the area of Copper Metabolism and Menkes Disease research, and when I leaf now through its pages I realise what a huge amount I've forgotten.  My, I was so clever back then!

My degree in the early 80s (isn't that 150 years ago?) included such subjects as Principles of Genetics; Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; Population Genetics; Genes and Genomes; Human and Medical Genetics; Genes, Organisation and Function; Genetic Analysis; and Protein Structure and Function, as well as Chemistry, Mathematics, Statistics, Physiology, Psychology.  The course also offered a subject called Evolutionary Genetics, a single term third year  unit that I chose not to study, given that I am a Creationist, and all that stuff.  It wasn't a problem - I completed my undergraduate degree well enough to be accepted into the Honours programme, and the rest is history.

If I chose to do genetics now, my life wouldn't be so easy.  You can't even choose to major in genetics at my alma mater, The University of Melbourne, without taking Genetics and the Evolution of Life in first year, while in third year you'll study Evolution and the Human Condition, and Evolutionary Genetics and Genomics, amongst other things.  Being a Christian Geneticist in 1981 was a little bit difficult.  In 2013, it appears almost impossible.

During the past few weeks I've been bringing myself up to speed with the latest advances in this fascinating field.  The genetics of my university days is practically antediluvian - not a single gene had been isolated back in 1981; the entire human genome has been mapped since then.  IVF, revolutionary in 1978 with the birth of Louise Brown - who is now 35 - is now a routine, albeit still very expensive, procedure.  Gene Therapy, then a dream, is now very close, especially in Parkinson's disease and cystic fibrosis. Genetic Engineering and the alteration of genetic material are possible, and genetically modified food is a reality.

What I've been reading makes me realise that modern day genetic studies present a real and significant challenge to to Christians attempting to accommodate new scientific knowledge to biblical teaching.  Which is something we should all want to do.

Take for example, Sam Kean's new book, The Violinist's Thumb.  If you've read The Disappearing Spoon, you will know that Kean is a skilled writer of fascinatingly entertaining living science books, and The Violinist's Thumb is no exception.  The thing is, though, that the book is not just a summary of the genetics I learned in University and any subsequent advances.  Rather, the blurb on the back tells us that the book 'untangles the secrets of our genetic code, explaining how genetics has shaped our past and how DNA will determine humankind's future.'  Sam Kean's book is based on Theodosius Dobzhansky's premise that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, and he takes much time and many pages to explain just how our DNA shows that we evolved from the primeval slime, and how and why.  Although The Violinist's Thumb is definitely an informative and fascinating book, it is not one I would recommend to young Christians until they are confident of their own beliefs.

At the same time as I've been reading The Violinist's Thumb, I've also been reading Francis Collins' The Language of God.  Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, is one of the world's leading geneticists.  He is also a Christian.  In The Language of God, Collins explains how he reconciles his faith with science.  Collins believes that Evolution is part of God's Creation process, and he asserts that fundamentalist Creationism forces believers to choose either their faith or science, but not both. To be honest, I haven't found Collins' book easy reading either, since he also challenges many of my beliefs, in a different way from Sam Kean, but in an equally insidious way.  For the first time in my life I found myself reconsidering many foundational beliefs that I had been quite comfortable with before.

Last week I neared the end of  The Violinist's Thumb, and on page 373 I came across my friend Francis Collins.  He's described - and sort of ridiculed -  like this:
Francis Collins took over the (Human Genome Project) after Watson's resignation, albeit over the objection of some scientists.  Collins had done fundamental genetics work at the University of Michigan; he'd found the DNA responsible for cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease and had consulted on the Lincoln DNA project.  He was also fervently Christian and some regarded him as 'ideologically unsound'. (After receiving the consortium job officer, Collins spent an afternoon praying in a chapel seeking Jesus's guidance.  Jesus said go for it.) 
(In Collins' book, he explains the same situation by saying that during those hours in the chapel a peace settled over him and a few days later he accepted the offer. He specifically states that he did not 'hear' God speak. Our Lord certainly did not tell him, "Go for it!")

It occurred to me when I read this passage that Francis Collins should be a real hero for young Christians. Regardless of whether his beliefs are the same as mine or not, I have absolutely no doubt that he is a Christian.  His faith has given him significant grief, and has most definitely affected his career in a negative way. Have a look at this article written by Sam Harris in The New York Times on the occasion of Collins appointment as Director of the American National Institutes of Health. In this, and in an expanded article on his website, Sam Harris questions Collins' appointment:
Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?
Of course, Sam Harris fails to understand the point - the link between moral behaviour and genetics can be explained by Christians.  One explanation is here, if you want to read it.  The issue is greater than this, though, since Harris is almost implying that Christians can't be good scientists. Not even one with such 'liberal' views as Francis Collins.  Where does that leave those of us who believe in Creation - young or old earth, or Intelligent Design? Are we just dismissed as fools and crazy things?

When I read Theodosius Dobzhansky's quote on FaceBook this past week, it was followed by a long list of comments by irate Christians defending our faith.  What I'm betting many of them were not aware of, though, is that Dobzhansky was not an atheist - he was a Russian Orthodox Christian.  Dobzhansky was a geneticist and evolutionary biologist, and like Collins, was highly critical of anti-evolution creationism. In 1973 Dobzhansky wrote an essay entitled Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution. Here are a couple of quotes from that essay:

I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God's, or Nature's method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way.

Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts. ...the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.

What I am coming to realise as I muddle my way through the genome and evolutionary biology is that there is no topic more divisive amongst Christians, none more likely to raise the hackles.  Christians parents need to think very carefully about their own position on these subjects, but they also need to recognise that they are not salvation issues.  Many of our Christian brothers and sisters will believe very differently from us, and their opinions do need to be respected. Our children may reach a different conclusion to us on this topic, and still be firm in their faith.

Modern day scientific knowledge can be challenge to Christianity, but the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  We must not dismiss all science as dangerous and unreliable.  If we believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, then we do believe that eventually we will find science to be compatible with what is contained within the pages of our Bibles. Science and faith must overlap eventually, and one day we will discover just how that will pan out.  Beware, though, it may be in quite different in appearance than what we are expecting now. Take care not to end up with egg on your face.

I will have Jemimah read both of these books, but not until Year 11 or 12.  By then, she will know what she believes, and it will be wonderful to discuss the way science is now... or then.  I wonder what we will discover in the next 6 years!  If you're looking for a book to read with your younger kids, you may enjoy Who made the Moon by Sigmund Brouwer.  My muddled thoughts about this book are here. I read it as a read aloud with Jemimah and her Daddy in AO6.  Jemimah remains a young earth creationist.  Her Daddy is not so sure.  Her Mummy is just confused.  As you can tell.

I have written a few posts now about this topic and those like it, as I work on AO's Living Science project.  I'm sorry if you're finding me repetitive.  I promise that usual programming will resume shortly, but thank you to those of you who are still listening and helping me grapple here.  I really appreciate it. I have also now finished both of these books, and I'm now reading The Monk in the Garden. Maybe it'll be a bit less controversial.  Maybe.


  1. I appreciate you taking the time to work through some of this. It is very very interesting and I have not even delved into it on the level you have by any means. What I do keep coming back to--and I really appreciate that you point out--is that they are not salvation issues. My belief in Creator God remains firm.

  2. Appreciated your thoughts, Jeanne & feel much the same way. As with a lot of stuff that's not a salvation issue we try not to be rigid but we do have heated discussions & arguments because we all think we're right.

  3. It is very interesting...... Perhaps topics like this are simpler for the simple :-) I just don' have any inclination to study it up. On the contrary, I do love the scriptures and am seeking to live by them. As you say , in th end, it will all come together.In the begining God created.......

  4. I think you're right, Ruby, and have felt much the same in the past. That's why I didn't study Evolutionary Genetics in third year. Nowadays I do feel a need to know where mainstream science is heading, both for my own family, and for other AO users. I don't regret the study.

  5. I've appreciated following your thoughts on this topic as well, Jeanne, as I am trying to sort out my thoughts on this issue as well. I grew up sort of vaguely old-earth creationist, but really honestly never thought about it much. I grew up hearing about evolution in public schools in the 80s and 90s, but don't recall it being terribly prevalent or shoved down my throat...it's a very different environment that our kids are growing up in. I also never really realized until fairly recently how divisive new vs. old earth creationism can be since I don't remember a distinction being made growing up either (and quite honestly it makes me sad what a polarizing issue that can be among Christians). I am realizing the importance of looking into all the various angles of the issue so that I will be well-equipped to discuss it with my children as they grow older. (And grateful that all of these issues and viewpoints are being considered with the upper-level AO science plans...even more reasons to love AO!)

  6. Thank you for this post. I need to stop shying away from these topics.

    I think one reason Christians get so upset about evolution is the bioethical implications of human worth. Social Darwinism has not been good to civilization, and with all the spooky troubles of human dignity mixed in (abortion, euthanasia, state rationing of heathcare) it's hard not to get emotional.

  7. Oh, Jeanne, I do hope you are carrying on a constant conversation with the Lord about all these matters.

    Partaking in your musings, along with our conversations while you were here, I couldn't help but be reminded of Galileo's own regarding science. He said, "God is a Spirit. From His Divine word, Holy Scripture and Nature do alike proceed. I think in discussing Nature we ought not to begin with texts from the Scripture, but with experiment and demonstration. The Holy Scriptures cannot err, but its interpreters can."

    Much love and enjoyment of all His riches. R

  8. Amazing post. This is such an incredibly difficult issue, especially when all sides preach their view with so much vitriol. I read books on topic and come away emotionally exhausted, and can see why people avoid it. But realistically I know we need to continue to tackle this with our children.

  9. i think as the primary teachers of our children we have the responsibility, not only to teach them what we believe is truth but to encourage them to plumb these depths themselves. They will benefit so much from us if we can be Christians who can defend our position or perhaps even debate with others where necessary IN A GODLY MANNER! I am completely over all the heated and spiteful "discussions" which Christian brethren are conducting on the net. It makes me fearful to meet some in person :-( It is nice to be able to read a well thought out and calm post and its comments here. Keep it up Jeanne and friends.

  10. "Christians parents need to think very carefully about their own position on these subjects, but they also need to recognise that they are not salvation issues."

    I really needed to read this. I worry sometimes because I am not and have never been a Creationist, in the sense of the word that means dismissing evolution. However, I do believe strongly that God created the earth. Any apparent incompatibility between scripture and science is simply due to human imperfection of understanding. But I do tear myself in pieces wondering if my comfortable acceptance of two conflicting viewpoints is perhaps lazy complacency. So it helps to read that others struggle with the same issue from different angles, and to be reminded that at the end of the day it is not the most important thing! May

  11. Thanks for this post.
    I think it's so important not to be dogmatic about 'non-essentials'.
    In my own family some have struggled hugely with Christianity because of the what they perceive as the rejection by some Christians of scientific facts.
    Please continue to tell us about your wrestle with this huge topic.

  12. Please don't apologise! This is really interesting and it's good for us to know how much thought and care has gone into the new science plan.

  13. Thank you for sharing what you are learning so thoughtfully. I am a creationist but I also see the harm in spewing vitriol and questioning the salvation of another person over an issue that is not an essential of faith. I tend to look at presuppositions when it comes to these models because, if the assumption is faulty, then there can be misinterpretation. Have you looked at the assumptions of these models that seem to "prove" genetic evolution?

  14. I think you may find the book entitled Genetic Entropy & the Mystery of the Genome by John Sanford to be of interest. http://www.amazon.com/Genetic-Entropy-The-Mystery-Genome/dp/0981631606/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top If you're interested in the book and have a hard time getting it in Australia I'd be happy to send you my copy.

    I wonder if you've thought about the consequences of thinking of the creation story as a myth. If it is just a pious story not based in reality then the fall did not happen. If the fall did not happen there would not be original sin. If there was no original sin Christ would not have had to die on the cross to redeem the world. Catholics refer to the sin of Adam in their Easter Vigil Liturgy as "Oh Happy Fault"

    If you're interested in the book you can e-mail me at eleboeufathotmail.com


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