Repeating Biology

Posted on April 24, 2010


If you looked into the creation/evolution debate recently, you were probably examining a different set of evidences and arguments than those in the 1980’s, the 60’s, and during the Scopes Trial in 1920’s. I looked at this issue at several distinct points in my life, from different angles as different discoveries and advancements were being made.

I found myself in the unusual circumstance of taking high school biology twice: first at a Christian school in 10th grade, and then again in public school my junior year (this was due to a misunderstanding of my credits.) I was a rather inattentive, distracted student to begin with, so when I repeated biology at a public school in my junior year I didn’t pay much attention except when the freshmen around me couldn’t answer one of the teacher’s questions. It was this apparent foreknowledge of the material partnered with the fact that I was older than my classmates and did not smoke pot that inspired the rumor among some that I was a NARC. I was not an undercover cop, I was just a musician with no aspiration of attending college that found myself repeating biology by accident. I was also a creationist. For whatever reason I didn’t see the need to apply myself and be a model student for God throughout the year, but I did feel compelled to champion the campaign against evolution to my teacher when it finally came up. I really knew nothing about it except that Lamarck was wrong (unaware that it was Darwin who debunked him) and I had been taught that teaching evolution was the reason society had become so violent and immoral.

In my senior year, I didn’t even bother to take any science or math classes, and focused on music and writing. I found my calling as a producer, and ended up diving into the around-the-clock job of a recording engineer. I studied the technical complexities and artistic skills used to manipulate audio signal and acoustics in such a way to capture and develop a song. This delayed the soul-searching and academic pursuits that many of my peers were afforded as they wandered through college. While they were partying and avoiding commitment I started my own recording studio, got married at age 19, and my daughter was born when I was only 21.

A few years later, as my intellectual curiosity grew and my study of theology advanced, the creation/evolution debate once again caught my attention as the Dover Trial made headlines. This was a fascinating case that I would love to cover in more detail at another time. I noticed something very interesting as I followed the media coverage; although the news made it sound as if atheistic evolution was at war with literal creationism, the reality was much more gray.

The leading scientific witness for the supporters of Intelligent Design was biochemist Michael Behe. It turned out that he wasn’t defending Creationism at all, just outlining his particular objection to one aspect of Darwinism. He ultimately agrees with other biologists that life emerged slowly on this planet and even though he is a believing Christian, he concludes that man and chimpanzees both evolved from a common ancestor. The lead scientist for the anti-creationist plaintiffs was Kenneth Miller. He had written the textbook which the defendants wanted to stick a disclaimer upon. Again, in contrast to the black and white, God v. Science narrative playing out in the media, Miller is a practicing Catholic, not an atheist.

In the end, the judge ruled against the Intelligent Design supporters, and was accused of judicial activism by disappointed conservatives and Christian leaders. Here again the facts didn’t fit the image being presented since the judge, John E. Jones III, was a proven conservative appointed by George W. Bush and a Lutheran.

In the years between my second biology class and the Dover trail, scientists had made some remarkable discoveries in DNA. The human genome was completely sequenced for the first time in 2000. By 2005, when I began to seriously examine the issue, significant revelations in the genetic codes of living things had come to form what I consider the most powerful evidence for universal common descent. Therefore, my studies did not rely on artistic renditions of trace fossils or speculations on the length of time needed to form certain strata. My interest centered on what could be plainly observed within the genome.

I view genetics as being so much more clean and certain than comparative anatomy and paleontology. For example, you could observe a woman and a little girl walking together and make the assumption that the adult is the parent of the child. You could also look at a playground full of children and parents and compare traits, ethnicity, and other details to make a very reasonable guess as to which child belongs to which parents. You could also be dead wrong. A geneticist, on the other hand, can look at hundreds of samples of DNA and successfully link parents to children, cousins, and people of the same race and also determine their genetic predispositions to certain diseases with remarkable accuracy.

This is of course relevant to the origins debate because the principle assertion that 42% of Americans reject is the claim that humans evolved from the same ancient ancestor of other primates. Mike Huckabee made clear his wish not to be viewed as a descendant of a primate in his response during a presidential debate (humans, it should be noted, have been classified as primates for a long time and specifically by a Christian creationist named Carolus Linnaeus.) If we apply the same science used to settle important custody debates and even to exonerate or condemn a suspect of a capital offense, what do we see when we study our DNA in comparison to other primates? Who’s the daddy?

Well, we see a lot of things that I find very significant. When we compare our DNA with chimpanzees, the species that scientists believed to be our closest living relatives even before DNA was discovered, we find that our genetic codes are very similar. Not only are the similarities important, but the nature of the differences are also revealing.

Although our codes closely match, humans have only 23 chromosome pairs while all other primates have 24. This could have presented a challenge to those claiming that humans are directly related to other primates. It didn’t take long to discover that the unusually long 2nd chromosome of humans looked very much like a merging of two chromosome pairs found in other primates. The material is all still there, just wrapped into one long pair of chromosome instead of two. This apparent fusion rendered the 2nd chromosome’s original closing telomere ineffective, causing the chromosome to continue and include the information that would have normally been divided into a distinct chromosome until the chromosome finally terminates with an intact telomere. This finding is consistent with evolutionary predictions and offers a perplexing challenge to proponents of special creation. Those who believe that God designed human DNA exclusively for humans need to explain why it looks like it contains “mistakes” that link us with other primates. They may also find it hard to understand why most of the 3 billion base pairs in our genetic code do not produce working proteins and are full of jumbled code and vestigial information for producing tails and other traits no longer expressed. Again, this is exactly what evolution would require and presents an extremely difficult problem for creationism.

VIDEO: Miller explains 2nd chromosome fusion

Another fascinating discovery is the recognition of around 100,000 points of inserted viral information in our genome. Retroviruses, such as HIV, attack a cell’s nucleus and can insert their own genetic material into the host’s DNA. When they infect a germline cell, the inserted viral code is permanently embedded in the genome of the host’s future offspring. This is called an endogenous retrovirus (ERV). Scientists can use these as markers to determine a relationship between organisms. If two things have the same ERV at the same insertion point within the vast genome, it’s compelling evidence of a genetic link. When we see that humans have many of the same ERVs in the same loci of other primates and share the most with chimpanzees, scientists confirm the genetic links that the Darwinian tree of life predicted. If these were randomly scattered throughout the enormous number of different species in different geographical locations they would mean nothing, but since they consistently adhere to the relationships predicted by comparative morphology and other biological tools, they become a powerful and independent tool for determining relationships. Anatomy, genetics, and geology all tell the same incredible story independent of each other. Evolutionary theory is an amazing tool for studying biological structures, classifying life, and understanding how and why things work within living organisms. This is why evolution is so strongly supported by diverse disciplines and is considered the unifying theory of biology. Its implications are huge for medicine and determining the cause of many diseases and problems, as well.

The progress made since the acceptance of this model 150 years ago is tremendous. To declare that it is all nonsense and that the bright minds identifying and treating diseases have done so using a pseudoscientific hoax seems to me as arrogant as it is ridiculous. Unprecedented advances have been made in our understanding of how the cell and the body functions, and we’ve nearly doubled our average life span, improved our quality of life, and developed an amazing ability to save lives through medicine and other new innovations. In this unprecedented era of discovery and advancement, Darwin’s theory has been successfully applied and repeatedly confirmed as our knowledge increases. I wholeheartedly disagree with Answers In Genesis’ claim that we have experienced “150 lost years” thanks to Darwin, and find most of their criticism baseless and demonstrably false. While headlining atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are all too eager to let people like Ray Comfort chain Christianity to the sinking ship of Young-Earth Creationism, the reality is that many, many Christians around the world accept what science teaches us about origins and still believe in an active, loving God and confess Jesus as their Savior.