Dead Bones with a Living Message
As we noted in our response to the June article in Christianity Today “The Search for the Historical Adam,” the evidence for gradual creation is overwhelming, with more studies supporting the evolutionary process being published each year. We’ve looked at many of these evidences: from fossils, from comparative anatomy, from genetics. Today, we’d like to highlight for our readers a compelling video from the annual TED Conference featuring geneticist Svante Pääbo. You may remember Pääbo from his efforts to extract and sequence DNA from 30,000(+) year old Neanderthal bones (we mentioned his work here).
In this eighteen minute video, Pääbo covers a lot of ground, noting several lines of genetic evidence for the evolution of modern humans from earlier hominids in Africa, as well as for the interbreeding between early humans and Neanderthals. We’ve covered some of this data before, but it’s particularly compelling to hear it described by one of the scientists leading the field of study.
However, our goal at The BioLogos Foundation isn’t just to make the Church aware of the fascinating and convincing scientific evidence for gradual creation. As we have said before:
BioLogos exists to help Christians think carefully about the ramifications of these new data in light of long-standing traditional ways of viewing human creation. We have some re-thinking to do, but it can be done and will be done within the context of a Christian faith that is fully orthodox and thoroughly evangelical. Any time we draw closer to truth, to God’s truth, we have nothing to fear. There is still much to learn, but we can look back at what we have learned with awe—absolute awe.
It is truly amazing that we know so much now about our early days. For example, Africans do not have DNA which is specifically derived from Neanderthals, whereas people in the rest of the world do carry a small amount. This confirms the picture of human history derived from studying fossils. Neanderthal bones have not been found in Africa, so it isn’t surprising that their DNA is not there either. The fact that non-Africans have some of the DNA found in Neanderthal bones confirms that which geneticists knew from other studies: we have two distinct groups of human ancestors—those who left Africa in ancient times and those who stayed.
God chose to reveal himself and to begin working with a distinct sub-group of ancient humans, those descended from Abraham and Sarah. To Abraham, God made a marvelous promise. Drawing his attention to the stars above, God said that someday Abraham’s descendents would outnumber the countable stars in the universe. And so it came to be. Indeed through our adoption into the family, we are all children of Abraham. The God of Abraham is our God too and each one of us is one of those stars too numerous for Abraham to count.
Sometimes, it seems that we are uncomfortable with the notion that God made us through a gradual process that included apes in our family tree. It is almost as though we would prefer dirt to apes. Perhaps, in at least some cases, this is due to an inadequate appreciation for the fact that God loves, really loves, all of creation, not just us. As special as we know we are, we can’t read Psalm 104, Genesis 1, Genesis 9 (where the covenant is not just with Noah but with all living creatures), or Job 38-41 without being reminded that all living creatures are God’s creation (see here). The Neanderthals, the Denisovans, Homo erectus, and the australopithecines were God’s creation too! Still, we modern humans have been singled out. We’ve been called out.
True our family tree, as Pääbo shows here, is intriguing. But let us never forget, that the most important thing about this tree is that God is the vine which exists at its core, and we are called to be the branches which bear fruit. The fact that many of us have a small amount of Neanderthal DNA, some of us have Denisovan DNA, and others have neither is interesting, but it is really just a side issue for people of faith. As a result of God’s visit to Abraham, followed eventually by God’s taking on flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, we can all know God as our heavenly Father. We are children of God and as such, we are God’s representatives. We are called to image God. We are called to love God. And we are called to love each other and to deeply respect all that he has made.
Darrel Falk is former president of The BioLogos Foundation. He transitioned into Christian higher education 25 years ago and has given numerous talks about the relationship between science and faith at many universities and seminaries. He is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.
Stephen Mapes served as webmaster for BioLogos from 2009 to 2013. He received bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and English from Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Mass. At ENC, Stephen was a teaching assistant for a general education science class about evolutionary theory and its relation to Christian faith. He was part of the web development team for the former Science & Theology News (which ceased publication in 2006) and has written for Science & Religion Today, a website aimed at a general audience. Stephen is currently pursuing graduate studies in mathematics at the University of California, San Diego.