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Made in the Image of God: Theological Implications of Human Genomics

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January 4, 2011 Tags: Human Origins, Image of God
Made in the Image of God: Theological Implications of Human Genomics

Today's entry was written by Denis Alexander. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

This post first appeared on The Huffington Post.

The tenth anniversary of the human genome has been marked by some striking new genetic insights into human evolution and diversity. Do these new discoveries have any significance for the dialogue between science and religion in general, or for our sense of human uniqueness in particular?

The publication of the Neanderthal genome sequence in May 2010 set the pace. Not surprisingly -- given that our last common ancestor with the chimpanzee was around 5 to 6 million years ago, compared to a mere half a million years for our last common ancestor with the Neanderthal -- it turns out that we are genetically far closer to the Neanderthals than to the apes. In all, only seventy-eight changes in the genetic letters ('nucleotides') that would change the amino acid sequence of particular proteins were found in the Neanderthal DNA that were the same as the chimpanzee sequence but different in the human. Amongst other differences, 111 duplications of small DNA segments were found in the Neanderthal but not human sequence. Genetically we are closely related twigs on the great evolutionary bush of life.

But we knew that already. More surprising for many was the provocative finding that non-African humans are genetically closer to Neanderthals than African humans. In fact, the European and Asian genomes that were sequenced appear to contain one to four percent DNA of Neanderthal origin, and the gene flow that occurred appears to have been almost entirely from Neanderthal to human, rather than vice versa. How come? The most likely scenario is that there were a few instances of sexual reproduction between Neanderthals and human individuals belonging to the population that is thought to have emigrated out of Africa to populate the world sometime after seventy thousand years ago, explaining why the Neanderthal DNA sequences are not found in African genomes. The contribution of the Neanderthal genome has remained in European and Asian populations ever since.

To put this in perspective, most of our genes are very similar anyway to those found in Neanderthals and chimpanzees, and to other mammals like mice. We all share a "how-to-build-a-mammal" instruction manual, and the relatively minor genetic differences between us (minor relative to those we share in common) are the icing on the cake, as it were, that make us a human rather than a mouse, a chimp or a Neanderthal.

The year 2010 saw yet another twig appear on the hominin branch of the evolutionary bush, this time one even closer to the Neanderthals than our own. This story begins with the discovery by a Russian team of a sliver of finger bone from a remote Siberian cave in the Altai Mountains, known as the Denisova Cave. The team stored it away, thinking it was from one of the Neanderthals that frequented the cave between thirty thousand and forty-eight thousand years ago. But when DNA extracted from the bone was eventually sequenced, the results -- published just before Christmas -- revealed a population distinct from both humans and Neanderthals.

The finger appears to belong to a novel hominin population that shared a last common ancestor with Neanderthals more recently than humans, and overall is genetically closer to Neanderthals than to humans. It is too early to say whether the so-called 'Denisovans' represent a separate species and fossil data will be required to clarify that question. But what the results do suggest is that Melanesians -- the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea and islands northeast of Australia -- have inherited as much as one-twentieth of their DNA from the 'Denisovans', indicating that some limited inter-breeding took place between these ancient populations. Most fascinating of all is the idea that multiple hominin lineages were coexisting in Europe and Asia, along with modern humans, as recently as twenty-thousand to forty-thousand years ago.

Do these findings have any particular theological significance? It is difficult to know why this should be the case. In the Judeo-Christian tradition humankind uniquely is made "in the image of God". The suite of capabilities that emerged during human evolution is necessary but not sufficient to do justice to this much discussed theological insight. Our particular genetic instruction manual generates large frontal lobes, advanced cognitive abilities, rationality, language, consciousness and the ability to choose between right and wrong. It is this suite that gives us the ability to pray, worship and engage in communal religious practices.

But the idea of being made "in the image of God" is not encompassed simply within a static list of such human qualities. Theologians have drawn attention to the dynamic, relational aspects of the concept. It is humanity-in-relation-to-God, together with God-given responsibilities to humans in relationship with each other, that are thought to be more central to the idea. When did such spiritual capabilities and responsibilities first come into being? It is really difficult to know, but the answer certainly seems more rooted in God's intentions and purposes for humankind than in genetic change per se. Students can spend a long time being trained in the finer points of drama, but the play only gets off the ground when the actors are finally given their lines.

It seems quite likely that more twigs will continue to appear on the hominin branch of the bush of life as genomics continues to extend its reach. Such discoveries as such do not appear to raise any new theological questions. But other 2010 discoveries did highlight two genomic insights that do have relevance for religious views of human identity. The first insight comes from further Genome Wide Association studies that continue to subvert any lingering commitments to genetic determinism, for example the idea that there are genes "for" a particular human trait. The second insight comes from the finding that we are all more genetically different from each other than we realized even a few years ago. Genetics is underlining the uniqueness of each human individual. By the end of 2011 it is estimated that more than 30,000 human genomes will have been sequenced. Watch this space. Theological reflections on these findings will be the topic for Part 2.

Denis Alexander is the Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, to which he was elected a Fellow in 1998. Alexander writes, lectures, and broadcasts widely in the field of science and religion. He is a member of the International Society for Science and Religion.

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Jon Garvey - #46147

January 7th 2011

@Steve Ruble - #46135

Steve, I think it’s arguable that the two refs you quote still fit the “representative” meaning I cited. The mice and tumours were votive offerings made to Yahweh by pagans, the originals being messengers of punishment from him. The Babylonian soldiers, though actually visionary, were likely modelled on palace bas-reliefs etc in which the king’s glory was represented, as per my second meaning. above.

But neither reference deals with the fact that in Genesis we are talking about an image of divinity, and the Biblical usage, as you’ve seen, is universally consistent with the ANE concept of divine imagery. This is compounded by the fact that both Genesis 1 and 2 describe the foundation of God’s temple: ch 1 the cosmos as temple (in direct contrast to the equivalent Sumerian texts in which a temple is dedicated within a city) and ch 2 the garden as a temple precinct to God’s sanctuary (all kinds of temple imagery there). (...)

Jon Garvey - #46148

January 7th 2011

“Demuth” was not the subject of your original post (about “image”), and is the word with more limited examples to compare. But as per my post to normbv it would seem to be either a synonym (see 5.1) or to carry the sense of “resemblance”, but usually at more than a physical level (eg in Seth’s case it clearly means more than that Seth looked more like Adam than Cain or Abel had.)

But again, “likeness to God” is a special case not only generally in the ANE but especially in the case of Israel for whom the same, or an earlier, author wrote Deuteronomy 4.15-19. The writer of Genesis could not have used “tselem” without being well aware that his hearers would make the connection with widespread usage and understand far more than “physical appearance.”

Nevertheless, you’ve done the work of looking, which immediately increases the value of your opinion over those who praise it without realising you looked up the wrong word initially!

normbv - #46152

January 7th 2011

Here are a couple of good articles to start with on the ANE background of the Image of God.

Created in the Image of God: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Imago Dei
by Scott N. Morschauser


The Liberating Image?
Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context
By J. Richard Middleton


Steve Ruble - #46265

January 8th 2011

Jon, you continue to ignore (even when you mention it!) the obvious fact that the author of Genesis was perfectly willing to use tselem in reference to physical resemblence. All your meaning-mining in far-distant verses can’t dispel that fact.

Jon Garvey - #46331

January 8th 2011

@normbv - #46152

Thanks for those linksnormbv - both interesting and thought provoking articles. And of course they both answer Steve’s position directly (especially the first).

Steve Ruble - #46362

January 8th 2011

Actually, Jon, the first article helps sharpen my critique by providing evidence that the “image” language in Genesis is just part of an idiom meaning “God in his entirety” or something like that. Although the author still believes that the “image” language also indicates something about humans (via punning, basically), it does open up the possibility that much of the imago dei bloviation in the history of the church is based on a misunderstanding of a figure of speach. That would be funny.

Nevertheless, the more I read about this the more I’m convinced that you are correct, Jon. The scholarly consensus does seem to be that language used in Genesis 1 & 2 is similar to the language used in other ANE descriptions of god/human relations. One more piece of evidence that the god in Genesis is not some transcendent being from outside the universe; it’s just part of the myth of one culture reacting to and mimicing the myths and mores of the cultures around it.  It’s as plausible that Adam and Eve were really “in the image of God” as it is that the kings of the nations who conquered Isreal were “images” of their gods. In other words, not very.

Jon Garvey - #46398

January 8th 2011

@Steve Ruble - #46362

Thanks for the response, Steve.

However, you need to look at both the similarities and the contrasts with ANE worldviews to come closer to what the writer of Genesis(and the other Biblical writers) believed. Much of the early part of Genesis is actually a polemic (if not necessarily an active one) against the pagan worldview around them.

Witness, for example, the cosmic elements such as astronomical bodies, sea monsters etc which, in the ANE myths, are named deities, forces of chaos etc, but which in Genesis are merely part of God’s good creation.

You can still, of course, decide that they were wrong, but the option that they weren’t extremely sophisticated thinkers and writers doesn’t exist. The old “bronze age peasants” jibe isn’t even remotely true of the Sumerians or Egyptians, let alone the Hebrews.

D. Laing - #46535

January 9th 2011

Finally, an intelligent Forum on a creation/evolution topic! 

You stated “In the Judeo-Christian tradition humankind uniquely is made “in the image of God”.”.  This is quite true - that it is a tradition. I recently pointed out the following to an associate that is teaching a course on the subject at a local university:

Genesis 1:27 states that God created man and woman in His image.  But Christians must acknowledge that John 4:24 (Jesus speaking) states that God is a spirit. It is emphasized, again by Jesus, in John 3:6 that flesh is born of flesh and spirit is born of spirit. It may be concluded therefore that if man is created in God’s image then it is his spirit and not his flesh that references. And just to punctuate the Bible’s opinion on the matter, Ecclesiastes 3:19,20 emphasizes that the flesh and breath of man is the same as that of the animals and that just as they return to the dust so will the bodies of men and to think otherwise is foolish vanity.

As a geologist, I’ll gladly debate the creation of man as soon as I’ve had a chance to examine a fossilized spirit.  Until then I’ll stick with less tenuous specimens.

Evolution, by the way, has its own misconceptions but I’ve run out of text for discussion.

Paul D. - #46795

January 10th 2011

Jon, it’s interesting, though, that the Creation stories in Psalms and Job (which are always ignored by the creationists) keep the ANE motif of God’s triumph over the sea monster.

Steve Ruble - #46827

January 10th 2011


You can still, of course, decide that they were wrong, but the option that they weren’t extremely sophisticated thinkers and writers doesn’t exist.

What a curious thing to say.  Do you mean that the Genesis story was created by “sophisticated thinkers and writers”, and that the meanings embedded in it are the result of their “sophistication”?  If so, I’m happy to discover that we’re on the same page when it comes to our position on the origin of the text: we both seem to think it was created by human authors using whatever ingenuity or insight they had. 

We differ, I guess, when it comes to our evaluation of their insight.  While I’d give them high marks for ingenuity, I don’t know of any reason to think that they were actually describing anything that ever actually happened.  They may have constructed a good myth, but it’s only that: a myth.  Treating it as anything like a source of information about anything (other than the beliefs and culture of the authors) is fundamentally absurd. 

You might be able to glimpse the absurdity if you imagine the arguments which might be made for treating the Enûma Eliš as a source of information about cosmology.  Why would anyone try?

Jon Garvey - #46907

January 11th 2011

@Steve Ruble - #46827

Oddly enough I did a somewhat tongue in cheek piece comparing Enuma Elish with the Bible and a third creation myth (http://www.jongarvey.co.uk/download/pdf/threemyths.pdf) pointing out that the Genesis account was used by early scientists as a pretty successful predicitive hypothesis for cosmology research.

But in that article I was actually unfair to the Babylonians in trying to squeeze a story primarily about the origins of the Babylonian political and religious systems (pretty accurate), and the theogony of their pantheon (beyond the remit of science), and primarily used as a component of ritual, into the straightjacket of a scientific account of the material Universe.

Inasmuch as their stories are cosmology, they are functional in purpose rather than structural, since that is what mattered to them. If they were offered a modern cosmology textbook and asked to translate it, they would probably say, “Why would anyone bother? It doesn’t explain anything important.” At the same time, they were not unsophisticated, coming from a culture that gave us cities, writing, maths, poetry, music, astronomy, calendars, the wheel, law codes, etc etc.

Not all that is worth knowing comes from science.

Steve Ruble - #46916

January 11th 2011

I’m glad you noted that your essay was “tongue in cheek”, as it certainly wouldn’t pass muster as a serious piece. Your decisions about which phrases from Genesis to treat as “predictions” are more than a little suspicious, and your criteria for what constitutes a “myth” seem somewhat opaque.  Would you consider quarks “mythical” because they have not been (and theoretically will not be) observed?

Not all that is worth knowing comes from science.

Obviously. But myths are still fiction, whether they are worth knowing or not.

Jon Garvey - #46921

January 11th 2011

@Steve Ruble - #46916

“But myths are still fiction, whether they are worth knowing or not.”

No, myths are a genre category. Strictly, they model reality in a way analogous to scientific models. The models can be accurate to a greater or lesser degree according both to the sources of information for them, and the questions that they are trying to answer.

Like scientific models, it is illegitimate to criticise those areas where strict realism has been sacrificed for meaning - so the Babylonian who pointed out that the evolutionary tree of life cannot be found in the real world would be no more or less mistaken than the scientist who says that the mythical tree of life cannot be found in the real world.

This discussion started on the meaning of “image of God” in Genesis. To call the whole account “fiction” is no more or less than a subjective judgement based on philosophical presuppositions.

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