Some recent scientific developments
Christians researching any area of the created world need to continually interact with the relevant scientific research and assess the work and their position in the light of the outcomes.
Is there an alternative interpretation of the results? Do they harmonise with Scripture — or our interpretation of it? If not, why not? This obviously affects the matter of origins, whether we hold to a position of ‘special creation’ or ‘theistic evolution’.
Like the evolutionists, creationists recognise the value of the empirical science (and are often engaged in such research). In fact, this is a scriptural imperative for them. The obvious example of this is given by Paul in Romans 1.20. Indeed, Paul goes on to point out the danger of ignoring this, which is frequently described as general revelation.
The other source of information is God’s direct or special revelation through his Word. It is often pointed out (correctly) that the Bible is not a scientific textbook, but, where it impinges on science or other areas of learning, it is clearly to be taken as authoritative. Obviously we need to take into account the literary form, etc.
For illustrative purposes, I take three areas of dispute between Christian brethren in the origins debate. The first area is the geographical distribution of life. In his book1, Jerry Coyne, a non-Christian, writes: ‘The biogeographic evidence for evolution is now so powerful that I have never seen a creationist book, article, or lecture that has tried to refute it. Creationists pretend that the evidence doesn’t exist’. That statement is simply not true. A single example of such a work would be that by Todd Wood2.
Both groups of scientists point out the similarities in fauna and flora in isolated islands and across the continents. They also remark on the differences between organisms in the various continents, in which similar plants or creatures have developed in distinctive ways. The debate is about the mechanism resulting in these observations.
The similarities would reflect the times when the earth was a single or connected land mass. The differences would arise from the modification of the isolated species. The work on the Galapagos finches is a well-known example of this.
The evolutionist tends to concentrate his or her arguments for this in terms of changing genes. The creationist does not deny that this happens, but argues that there is a ‘gene pool’ arising from the creation from which various characteristics can be selected by environmental pressures to modify the phenotype (the displayed features). Another important genetic factor is the role of mobile genetic elements. This, again, is a recognised empirical observation of diversification.
The argument for genetic mutation controlling the differentiation is, I believe, weak. A recent paper in the prestigious science journal, Nature, demonstrates this. The editor sums it up as: ‘Experimental evolution reveals resistance to change... The authors … conclude that unconditionally advantageous alleles rarely arise’.3
Similarly, Nelson and Platnick4 summarise their research by saying, ‘Biogeography (or geographical distribution of organisms) has not been shown to be evidence for or against evolution in any sense’ (emphasis added).
Another widely held argument is the fossil evidence, which is believed to demonstrate gradual change from one life form to another. The fossil evidence for evolution is based on the ordered arrangement of the fossils within the various strata. There is, for example, an apparent order of first appearances from invertebrates to fish to amphibians to reptiles to birds and mammals.
This apparently gradual change in the class of animal (or plant) in the fossil record is seen as evidence of a gradual change in the animals themselves. So, the fish gives rise to the first tetrapod by a series of small changes in their constitution. But is this a correct interpretation?
Recent work has challenged one popular proposed example of such a change. The claim is that a fish (such as Panderichthys) gradually evolved into the amphibian (for example, Ichthyostega). They are close in the geological record. It had been proposed that Tiktaalik, which has a mosaic of fish and amphibian features, is the key transitional species.
This suggestion has been thrown into doubt because new evidence of a true tetrapod has been found from even earlier — 18 million years before Tiktaalik (on the conventional geological time scale). This creature was apparently ‘crocodile-sized’.5
In fact, Campbell sums up the general case well: ‘Many evolutionary biologists since Darwin’s time, and even Darwin himself, have been struck by how few sequences of fossils have ever been found that clearly show a gradual, steady accumulation of small changes in evolutionary lineages. Instead, most fossil species appear suddenly, without transitional forms, in a layer of rock and persist essentially unchanged until disappearing from the record of rocks as suddenly as they appeared’.6
Another reason given for believing in the evolutionary approach to the origin of life is the DNA evidence for common ancestry. Our brother, Denis Alexander,7 sums up the position: ‘It should be emphasised that our shared inheritance with the apes is one of the most certain conclusions of contemporary biology’ (emphasis added). But is this confidence so well established?
Various claims have been made about the genetic relationship between man and the chimpanzee, usually expressed in terms of a 95-98% similarity. The evolutionist, Prof. Steve Jones commented: ‘The fact that humans and chimps share 98.8% of their DNA is fairly amazing, but it still does not explain the nature of differences between humans and chimps. You have to bear in mind that humans and mushrooms share 60% of their DNA.’8
Research by H. Watanabe and colleagues9 puts a different complexion on this data. They studied the chimpanzee chromosome 22 and the human chromosome 21, which are considered to be equivalent. They found that 83% of 231 genes on the chimp chromosome 22 produce different amino acid sequences (and so different proteins) to the human counterparts on our chromosome 21.
They also demonstrated that only 4.8% of the human Y chromosome could be matched to chimpanzee sequences. Amazingly, the authors found that only 48.6% of the whole human genome matched chimpanzee nucleotide sequences.10
Of course, we would expect a significant degree of genetic similarity as the metabolic processes in the humans and chimpanzees are similar and would be generated by similar proteins, etc. However, the differences are significant barriers to an evolutionary ancestry.
Some writers still claim that ‘junk DNA’ composes 97% of the human genome and is the ‘fossil graveyard’ of our genetic ancestry. Obviously some evolutionists have been researching this matter for some time to see if the common assumption was correct. But, as Prof. Makalowski pointed out in 2007, the prevailing view hindered many researchers from studying this material for many years.11
A project has been launched by the National Human Genome Research Institute (in 2007) to examine the role of information embedded in our genes. They have shown that 93% of the genome is transcribed (not just 3% as expected). They have collated information on the human genome which, I believe, further demonstrates that our DNA (the chemical stuff of the genes) must have had a divine Creator.
‘Pseudogenes’ are a part of the ‘junk DNA’ classification. In the newly published Encyclopedia of Life Sciences, Podlaha and Zhang indicate that this terminology is becoming increasingly inappropriate as research progressively demonstrates meaningful biological function.12
Respect and research
Clearly, whether ‘creationist’ or ‘evolutionist’, we need to be sensitive and honest to the information available to us. Each side has, over the years, had to modify its position in the light of new discoveries. We must respect each other as brothers and sisters in Christ and seek to pursue our study of Scripture and science to understand better the world into which the Lord has placed us to be stewards and witnesses.
1. J. Coyne, Why Evolution is True, Oxford University Press, 2009; p.95.
2. T.C. Wood, Understanding the Pattern of Life, Broadman and Holman, Nashville, 2003; chapter 12.
3. G. Nelson & N. Platnick, Systematics and Biogeography: Cladistics and Vicariance, Columbia University Press, New York, 1981; p.223.
4. M.K. Burke et al., ‘Genome-wide analysis of a long term evolution experiment with Drosophila’, Nature, 2010, 467 (September 30); 587-590.
5. G. Niedzwiedzki, P. Szrek, K. Narkiewicz, M. Narkiewicz & P.E. Ahlberg, ‘Tetrapod trackways from the early Middle Devonian period of Poland’, |Nature, 2010, 463 (January 7); pp.43-48.
6. N.A. Campbell et al., Biology Concepts and Connections (3rd ed.), Addison Wesley Longman Inc., 2000; p.290).
7. D. Alexander, Creation or Evolution: do we have to choose?, Monarch Books, Oxford, 2008; p.200.
8. Cited in The Times Higher Educational Supplement, September 10, 1999.
9. H. Watanabe et al., ‘DNA sequence and comparative analysis of chimpanzee chromosome 22’, Nature, 2004, 429 (May 27); pp.382-388.
10. A. Fujiyama, H. Watanabe, et al., ‘Construction and Analysis of a Human-Chimpanzee Comparative Clone Map’, Science, 2002, 295 (January 4); pp.131-134.
11. W. Makalowski, ‘What is junk DNA, and what is it worth?’, Scientific American, 2007 (February 12); at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=what-is-junk-dna-and-what
12. O. Podlaha and J. Zhang, ‘Pseudogenes and their Evolution’, Encyclopedia of Life Sciences (Wiley, Chichester; 2010).