Evolution and the Imago Dei
If you believe that God is the creator, how could the truths about nature we discover through science be a threat to God?
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:26-27)
Immediately after Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, the consequences for human origins, biblical interpretation and humankind’s relationship with God were apparent. The potential disparity between this Genesis creation story and Darwin’s theory leads people to assume the church at the time felt threatened and opposed evolution. But many church leaders in the late 19th century actually embraced Darwin’s theory as insight to the means by which God created the world. As just one example, the conservative Christian theologian B. B. Warfield wrote, “I am free to say, for myself, that I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Gen. I & II or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution.”1
The idea that humans might be related to the great apes was not universally well received, however. The wife of the Bishop of Worcester, England, upon hearing this news, reportedly responded with some alarm. “Descended from the apes? My dear, let us hope that it is not true,” she said. “But if it is, let us pray that it will not become widely known.”
Now 150 years later, we still seem to be fighting this battle. A recent Gallup poll indicates that 44 percent of people in the United States believe God created humans in their present form fewer than 10,000 years ago.2 The Washington Post writer Kathleen Parker points out one of the serious consequences of this situation. “The problem of not believing in evolution as one might not believe in, say, goblins or flying pigs has repercussions beyond the obvious—that the United States will continue to fall behind other nations in science education,” she writes.
The study of DNA—the hereditary material—has enabled the study of human origins to achieve a level of detail Darwin never could have imagined. The decoding of the entire DNA sequence of humans—the Human Genome Project, which I had the privilege of leading—along with the genomes of dozens of other vertebrates has been a rigorous test of whether the data actually fits a model of evolution from a common ancestor. And the evidence is overwhelming. Although some people might still argue that DNA similarities do not prove common ancestry—after all, God might have chosen to use the same DNA motifs for animals of anatomic similarity—the details of the analysis make that conclusion no longer tenable.
Most mammals, for example, do not need dietary sources of vitamin C because they can make their own using an enzyme encoded in their genomes. But primates, including humans, require vitamin C in their diet, or they will suffer a disease called scurvy. What happened here? Well, if you search through the human genome, you will find a degenerated copy of the gene for this vitamin C synthesizing enzyme. But it has sustained a knockout blow, losing more than half of its coding sequence. A claim that the human genome was created by God independently rather than being part of descent from a common ancestor would mean God intentionally inserted a nonfunctioning piece of DNA into our genomes to test our faith. Unless you are willing to contemplate the idea of God as a deceiver, this is not a comfortable explanation.
This past week I attended a meeting about the human genome at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. I heard many astounding presentations on comparisons of our own genome to that of other species—all consistent in exquisite detail with an evolutionary explanation. A particularly interesting paper described the latest findings on Neanderthals, whose DNA sequence is being painstakingly pieced together from several 30,000-year-old bones of different individuals. The DNA similarity to Homo sapiens is striking; but the evidence is most consistent with a separation of humans and Neanderthals nearly 500,000 years ago.
One particular finding about genetic variation caught the audience’s attention immediately. To explain this discovery, it’s first important to know that we humans are a lot alike at the DNA level. But if you compared your DNA sequence to mine, about one of every 1,000 letters of the code would be different. Most of these differences are common in the human population and fall in parts of the genome that tolerate variation. Therefore, those differences don’t seem to have much effect. But they are interesting reflections of our history. So here’s the new information: about one-third of those exact same variations are also found in Neanderthals. That means a precise location of the human genome where some individuals have the letter A and others have the letter G will often show that same exact variation in DNA from Neanderthal bones. That does not imply there was interbreeding between humans and Neanderthals in Europe 30,000 years ago—so far, there is no DNA evidence to support that. Instead, this new discovery points unequivocally to a population of common ancestors of both humans and Neanderthals with these exact genetic variations living more than 500,000 years ago.
Why do so many people find it difficult to accept these conclusions? First of all, there is the general problem that evolution is somewhat counterintuitive. Our own human experience does not easily accommodate the vast intervals of time necessary for natural selection to produce the marvelous diversity of living things we see all around us. For believers, there is the additional problem of fitting together the concept of the creator God and the imago Dei, or image of God, with the words of Scripture and a process that seems so random. But does this struggle need to exist?
Suppose God chose to use the mechanism of evolution to create animals like us, knowing this process would lead to big-brained creatures with the capacity to think, ask questions about our own origins, discover the truth about the universe and discover pointers toward the One who provides meaning to life. Who are we to say that’s not how we would have done it? If you believe that God is the creator, how could the truths about nature we discover through science be a threat to God? For many scientists who believe in God—including me—it’s just the opposite. Everything we learn about the natural world only increases our awe of the God the creator.
Yet many evangelical churches continue to fear the whole fabric of faith will be torn apart if the words of Genesis 1 and 2 are not taken literally. It surprises many to learn this ultra-literal interpretation was not considered necessary by many profoundly dedicated believers long before Darwin arrived on the scene. In A.D. 400, St. Augustine wrote no fewer than four books about the interpretation of Genesis, ultimately concluding it was not possible to arrive at a confident view of how creation occurred. In words that presciently warn against the current conflict, he writes,
In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.
I urge us all to step back from the conflict and look soberly at the truth of both of God’s books: the book of God’s words and the book of God’s works. As people dedicated to truth, let us resolve to move beyond a theology of defensiveness to a theology that celebrates God’s goodness and creative power.
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Charles Foster | Inhabit the World