Science Reader Question: Life on the Edge

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These birds know that interesting things happen on the edges. (Photo by GD Taber )

Throughout this ongoing series on evolution, inspired by some reader questions, we’ve looked at a lot of the challenges an evolutionary natural history presents for traditional Christian theology. Accounting for the modern biological understanding of life’s origin and diversity is usually framed as a series of conundrums requiring either substantial effort to resolve, or an ultimate rejection of either science or scripture. If evolutionary natural history is so problematic, why bother? If there’s any uncertainty, why give the benefit of the doubt to science? Do we even want to believe in a God who creates via evolution; wouldn’t we prefer a God who can do better?

As it happens, an essay on Medium about gender imbalances in the way that so many products are designed unknowingly highlights one of the benefits of an evolutionary perspective. What grabbed me first were the statistics on car crashes; I’m frankly a little embarrassed to admit I had no idea cars were significantly less safe for female drivers. The piece alleges that automakers optimized safety testing for an average man instead of covering a range of sizes from both genders. It’s one of many examples cited of how designing for the middle fails those on the margins, not just women but minorities, people with disabilities and anyone else who doesn’t fit “the norm.” A case is made for “designing for the extremes” both because it’s inclusive of more potential users and because it creates better designs for everyone.

Last week I talked about the fuzzy boundaries of species. Our intuition might lead us to imagine some kind of Platonic ideal cat or dog somewhere near the “average” of all cats or dogs. Our approach to design implies that we think of humans that way. Yet an Irish wolfhound or a chihuahua isn’t any more or less a dog than a Labrador, just as a toddler or 7’2″ Margo Dydek of the WNBA aren’t any more or less human than me, 5’10” white dude. Species are best understood by their entire range, not just their middles. An evolutionary understanding of biology helps to cultivate this frame of mind. It encourages looking at the edges and the limits of where one group ends and another begins, even and especially when those edges and limits are fuzzy.

Even more helpfully, evolutionary biology reveals the way to find those edges. When you want to understand what defines a group, see how it adapts to a new context. Over time, recontextualizing will reveal the important characteristics that define the group and which features were just happenstance of a particular environment. Take birds for example. It’s natural to think of flight as a defining trait of birds. Then maybe you meet a turkey or a chicken, birds that can fly but neither far nor well. And then there are the penguins and the emus, birds that don’t fly at all. Penguins are especially interesting, since they challenge not only our notion of birds but also flight. Many of the features that help other birds soar through the air make penguins excellent swimmers. Water is also a fluid, like air; maybe flight is about propelling yourself through a fluid rather than just a gas.

Of course, you don’t have to accept an evolutionary natural history to appreciate the challenge of classifying penguins or platypuses. But trying to account for all of life’s diversity through common descent provides greater incentive to consistently explain all the quirks. If anything can be an exception, a special case, then that’s the end of the conversation. When you have to integrate all of those edge cases and unique exceptions into a consistent framework, you have to look harder to see what they all have in common.

Cartoon illustrating phylogenetic relationship of birds and dinosaurs.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist returning to the xkcd well.

An inclusive perspective on diversity encouraged by evolutionary biology isn’t challenging to reconcile with the Bible; if anything, it connects to a central theme of its overarching narrative. We start with a model of common descent for all humans; there’s no “us vs them,” no notion of our tribe being made separately by God to be special or superior to whomever we might believe to be our opposition. And from the beginning, humans are encouraged to multiply, which can only lead to greater diversity. In the end, every tongue, tribe and nation is gathered to worship the same God. The diversity of the human race is not averaged out or homogenized since each group is still distinctly recognizable.

In between the admonition to multiply and an assembly of the resulting diverse humans, we have a series of stories in which someone has to ask “Is the kingdom of God for them too?” Invariably the answer is ‘yes.’ Right away, Adam meets a human who superficially might seem quite far removed from himself, but yes, the kingdom of God is for her. Abraham, whom God specially and singularly selected to father his chosen people, meets Melchizedek and discovers that the kingdom of God is bigger than he realized. The Israelite spies and Rahab, Naomi and Boaz and Ruth, Jonah and the Ninevites — in each case, the kingdom of God is revealed to be more inclusive than originally expected. Ultimately, the entirety of the Gentile world is invited to be a part of that kingdom.

One of the challenges of this expansive and inclusive pictures of God’s kingdom is that the same Word can be realized in different ways for different people. Paul in particular anticipates this, addressing questions of whether all Christians need to be circumcised or how some can eat certain foods in good conscience while others can’t. His metaphor of the body of Christ in which some are the feet, some are the hands, and yet all share an equal claim to being part of the body provides a sort of theoretical framework for understanding those specific scenarios. Interestingly, Paul’s biological metaphor only becomes more apt the more we learn. Each cell in a body is following the same word (i.e. its genome) and yet each cell expresses it differently. More recently, evolutionary biologists have come to appreciate that different bodies can also express the same genome differently, expanding the possibilities for variation and adaption beyond what is strictly associated with mutations.

Finally, if we take this metaphor of the genome-as-word one step farther, we might ask what story it tells. If we accept the notion of common descent, then the genome tells the story of how life has developed over time, the different environments it encountered and the different adaptations employed in those environments. And if God is the creator of life and of those environments, then the genome is a record of God’s work on Earth since life first emerged. Taken together with the cosmic background radiation and the light from stars and galaxies near and far which tell of God’s work since the visible universe began, and the Bible which tells of God’s work throughout recorded human history, and we’ve pretty much got a complete record of everything God has done to get us to this point. For me, the thought that every one of my cells tells a little part of that story in its DNA makes the theological challenges of reconciling evolutionary biology and natural history worth the effort.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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    Kenneth D. Litwak, Ph.D. commented on October 20, 2016 Reply


    I know I should have read and responded to this series much sooner. Sorry, but it’s nothing personal.

    So, in a previous post you talked about humans as part of God’s overall intention, without God specifying exactly what he wanted. Does that not then imply that the genome that is expressed in humans is not something that tells anything except what other species we are related to? Why would we infer that it says anything about God’s intention? On the astronomical level, assuming God made matter and energy that exploded in some way, his intention may have been to create a universe but can we assume from that that he made sure there was some planet that would express uniquely his intention for living beings? Granted the huge flexibility within some constraints for how life developed in an evolutionary scheme, it’s hard to see the genome as being anything but the result of billions of accidents. From your post about understanding creation as a general intention, and not specifically a plan, I’m not even clear on why we should see humans as the end goal of that intention.

    Does the human genome really tell a story or is it more postmodern, reflecting numerous unrelated events that have little to do with each other except that they may be somewhat sequential–by accident?

    As always, my point is not to make a statement about eh validity of evolutionary theory, Rather, it is to ask, if this is how things came to be, why would we need a g/God at all? Is it compatible with Scripture? Of that, I’m not convinced. I feel somewhat desperate in wanting to find a reason to hold to the Christian faith in light of affirmations from science, genomes included, that make human existence almost fully explicable apart from any intention at all. How does the genome express what God, according to Scripture, has done over time? You’ve lost me there. It has provided for variations on a “theme,” but what is that theme and what does it imply, if anything? I’m not seeing a way to put all the pieces together.


      Andy Walsh commented on October 22, 2016 Reply

      You have no obligations to me; the blog will be here whenever you’re ready. Thanks for these probing questions.

      Actually, I think we are closer in perspective than it might seem. I’m also not sure how much of the details of God’s intentions we can infer purely from the human genome. After all, under the model I’m suggesting, the actual contents of any given human’s genome represent a combination of God’s plan and the free choices of creation. Separating the two without any other information would be challenging, if not impossible. And science in general isn’t well equipped to identify intentions. Yes, there are certain applications of science that are used to infer intention, but those usually require some original known examples of intentions and their results to compare to. In the case of creation, we don’t have definite known examples where we can say “This is 100% God’s intended result” or “This is 100% not God’s intended result.”

      What we do have, however, is the Bible and its record of God’s stated intentions. For example, God clearly intended for life to be abundant as expressed in the command to be fruitful and multiply. And sure enough, life in some form or another exists in just about every nook and cranny of the Earth. God intended for humans to be able to love one another, and while we don’t always exercise that ability, humans clearly have a great capacity for selfless love, greater than any other species exhibits. In general, I think this is the most fruitful approach to understanding God’s intentions as they relate to creation: to look at his stated intentions and desires as recorded in the Bible, and then ask whether the capability to realize those intentions and desires exists in the world we live in. Personally, I find that the answer is ‘yes’ in all cases, and so I think this world is consistent with one created by the God revealed in the Bible.

      Flipping it around, without the Bible I’m not sure what we could infer about God purely from scientific data. Some people focus on the grandeur and beauty and capacity to flourish and suspect that some benevolent higher power is involved — sometimes because of a Christian or other religious background, but not always. Others focus on the pain and death and vast expanses of nothingness and conclude that either there is no God or whatever higher powers do exist must be cruel or indifferent. And obviously all kinds of variations in between also exist. If nothing else, we can at least say that there is no scientific consensus on whether God exists and what he is like if he does exist.

      Thus I think it is necessary to read the Bible and creation in parallel to get the most complete picture. Some may be satisfied with just one or the other, but I find that they complement each other. I’m not satisfied with either alone. Science helps me satisfy my curiosity about how the world works, and the Bible helps me understand purpose for my life and how to relate to the rest of creation especially my fellow humans.

      You also asked about how we know that God made sure his intentions would be realized. Honestly, I don’t know. We could say it was a numbers game — enough planets and enough time and it’ll happen. We could say it is all encoded in the laws of physics or the properties of chemicals, that eventually something sufficiently human would result, or at least something adequate to realizing God’s intentions. What I currently imagine is something more along the lines of the prodigal son — God faithfully and consistently expresses his expectations and waits patiently for his creation to freely choose to meet them. I don’t know if any of these are the right answer. What I am more confident in is the conclusion I expressed earlier, that however it came to be the world we live in is capable of realizing God’s intentions.

      Should we see humans as the end goal of that intention? That is a great question. In my understanding, the business of creation isn’t done and won’t ever be done. So I think it’s possible there are further developments to come. If nothing else, the resurrected Jesus seems to have capabilities beyond what we humans currently possess. Were those unique to his divine nature or are they a foretaste of where humanity might be headed in the new creation? I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out. In the interim, I am content that humanity was part of the intention, since our linguistic abilities permitted God to express himself more explicitly and since God chose incarnation as a human.

      As for the genome expressing what God has done over time, all I mean by that is that the genome tells a story about our evolutionary history. It is a partial record of how humans came to be humans, a record which can be enhanced with information from all the other genomes. I don’t mean to say that there are great spiritual truths hidden in the genome. I simply mean that it tells us something about what God has been up to. And as before, the evidence that it was God comes not from the genome itself, but from God’s claims in the Bible to be the creator of life.

      I hope something here brings some clarity. And I hope that one way or another you find the reasons you seek to hold onto your faith.

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