Blind denial is not the answer

After many medical tests come back and the doctor tells you that you have a life-threatening disease, is it better to accept it as fact and look for an appropriate medical response, even if that means radical surgery? Or is it better to pretend there’s no problem … convince yourself that the tests are wrong … the doctor is mistaken … you will be the exception to the rule?

While your subconscious mind chews on that question, let me develop another analogy to ask a second related question.

Part of my job involves marking long assignments from university students. Sometimes my reward is seeing evidence of brilliant, original thought. But then other times …

Let’s just say I’m marking essays on American history. One student writes on the Civil war: the circumstances that led up to it, the main details of the war itself, and the societal changes that followed after it. Another student goes through a similar exercise around the Great Depression. A third student steps back and takes a ‘bigger picture’ approach by covering 250 years of American history, which means it includes many of the same points and details found in the first two essays. But I’m not concerned: there’s bound to be some overlap in the essays if they’re all dealing with basically the same set of historical facts.

It’s the next two essays that make me feel really uneasy.

Essay #4 covers yet a different aspect of American history, but bounces back and forth through the historical time-line, sometimes in directions you wouldn’t expect, and even draws a bizarre parallel with a particular episode of the TV series The Simpsons, and has two unfinished paragraphs where the student started developing something but didn’t finish.

Sure, I’m going to have to be harsh with this paper, but that’s not what unsettles me. Instead, it’s the fact that essay #5 does exactly the same thing. Same historical event. Same hop-scotching around the time-line, and in the same sequence. Same reference to The Simpsons episode. Same half-finished paragraphs. It even has the very same spelling and grammatical mistakes in the very same places.

What am I to conclude?

I could be open-minded and non-judgmental: “Perhaps they just happened to pick the same topic, and when you’re dealing with a limited number of historical facts, they’re bound to include some of the same points. It might hurt their feelings too much if I actually accused one or both of copying from the other. And to prove the offense might take too much effort: I’d have to interview the students … ask them for their early drafts and preparatory notes … look into their computer hard-drives and recycle-bins.” So I could chose to ignore my suspicions and convince myself of what I would hope is true: it’s entirely possible that “these two just happened to be on the same wavelength and wrote those papers completely independently“.

On the other hand, I could be realistic. The facts speak for themselves: clearly one of these two authors copied from the other. This is a serious matter. The consequences shouldn’t deter me from concluding the obvious.

Before you read any further, I want you to stop and consciously choose where you stand on these two questions. It’s important for the purpose of this blog post.
… what would you conclude about these two students?
… would you take the radical surgery, or hope for the best and try to convince yourself that there really isn’t a medical problem?

I’m sure you’re asking: What have these two questions got to do with each other and where is he going with this?

This week, scientists from Arizona found the jaw bone of a human which is now our oldest relative yet (see articles from the CBC or the BBC). This one “pushes back human evolution at least 400,000 years ”. Radio-dating puts its age at just under 3 million years ago. This adds to a large and growing pile of other bones and tools which document a long history of humans migrating out of Africa millions of years ago and spreading across the globe. Along the way, they left traces of encampments, rock drawings, burials, and religious artefacts. You can even trace the evolution of languages over the most recent portion of that migration (see a really interesting article from the BBC on this point).

The response of some, including myself, to this news is “Wow! This is really cool!”

Others, as soon as they hear the words ”evolution“ or ”millions of years“ or ”radio-dating“ will automatically dismiss it. To them, all of this goes against the tradition of church history. They can’t deny the shadow cast by that growing mountain of bones and artefacts. But when it’s pointed out that each of the pieces in the pile have been radio-dated and placed in a consecutive sequence that goes back millions of years into a story that makes perfect sense, they’ll ridicule the dating techniques. Most often, they’ll criticize the key assumption for this technique: that radio-active decay occurs at a constant rate and can be back-tracked mathematically to a certain point in our past. As if that’s up for debate. Or they’ll re-tell the story of one or another hoax that was uncovered involving a misguided scientist making up some fossil species, and try to imply that “this happens all the time”. These and other strategies of denial have been laid to rest many times, and I’ve blogged about that before in much more detail.

But then we come to a whole new line of evidence that has nothing to do with radio-dating fossils, and which is even more convincing. We’re learning about our DNA. How it’s like a book, in which the lines of letters on the pages are replaced with strings of chemicals. How enzymes in our cells can zip-line down those strings and literally ‘read’ the chemical coding and turn that into the building blocks of our bodies. We have thousands of those stretches of chemical codes … we call them genes … which are analogous to paragraphs or chapters in the book. All other living things also have these genes. And we can compare those genes … the paragraphs in the book … between the many species of plants and animals. When you compare two different organisms that everyone agrees are unrelated … say, a human with an octopus or a daffodil … you will find many, many differences, as well as some similarities. But when you make comparisons between two seemingly related organisms … say, humans, chimps, gorillas and orangutans … you find them to be nearly identical.

And what makes this evidence really interesting is that you find mistakes in the DNA … ‘mutations’ … which should be random, but we find them in the exact same places in the genes between these species. They could have occurred in thousands of other places, but these are in the same position in the various primate genes.

There are genes in which part of the sequence has been cut off, kind of like a half-finished paragraph in a book, in the exact same places between the species.

Some genes which have become completely non-functional due to all kinds of damage and rearrangements: again, all of these disruptions occur in the very same places in the human and primate DNA.

There are genetic scars in which one of our ancestors had a virus insert its viral DNA into the ancestor’s genes, and then passed those viral genes on to all its off-spring, including you and me: the interesting thing is that some of those genetic scars will be found in the exact same place in the human and chimp DNA, but be absent in the DNA of gorillas or orangutans (which are on a different branch of the evolutionary tree than humans and chimps). (As an aside, one recent study explored the idea that those viral gene insertions may have contributed directly to the evolution of the human brain.)

Another fascinating piece of the story was found when the entire human ‘DNA book’ was compared side-by-side with those from the other primates. While the chapter layout for ours was mostly the same as theirs, ours seemed to be missing two whole chapters! As if we had just thrown away tons of valuable genetic information … which would be evolutionary suicide! But later we found those two chapters, spliced onto the end of one of the other chapters in a different part of the ‘DNA book’. Just do a search for ‘human chromosome 2 fusion’ and check it out for yourself.

Finally, for any given gene … the equivalent of a single paragraph in the student essays … you have two copies, one from your father and one from your mother, who in turn each had two copies. For example, you are one of four blood types depending on which of two genes you inherited from your parents: either you got one of the two genes (so you’re type A or type B), or you got both (type AB) or you got neither (type O). For any given gene in our body, there should be no more than four different types if we all began from a literal ‘Adam and Eve’, because the most we could inherit from Adam is two different types, and then two others from Eve. And yet for some genes there are dozens of different types. You can’t explain that happening in a population beginning with two individuals only 6000 years ago (the equivalent of three or four hundred generations), unless you choose to believe that the rate of gene mutation was massively higher in Biblical times than they are today. Instead, we’ve got lots of DNA evidence which tells us that gene mutation rates have been constant for thousands of years. DNA extracted from teeth that are many tens of thousands of years old, and which tell us a little about how we’re related to Neanderthals and another group of human cousins called Denisovans. As well as lots of DNA from just a few thousand years ago: from Egyptian mummies and Peruvian sacrificial victims and even a wandering hiker in the Austrian Alps.

I could go on and on with many other examples and details, but my point is that this situation is exactly the same as the one with the fourth and fifth student essays on American history. It’s absolutely undeniable that the human DNA code, with all its mistakes and dead-ends, is directly related to that of chimps, gorillas and orangutans. We’re genetic cousins in a long genealogy going back millions of years.

On top of this new genetic evidence, and together with the large pile of radio-dated fossil bone and artefact evidence, there’s also biological evidence that we evolved. The hints of a tail-bone at the bottom of our spine. The sparse hairs on our bodies, equipped with tiny muscles to raise them in response to cold or fear (‘goosebumps’), which do nothing to keep us warm or look more threatening as is the case for animals. The bizarre design of our eye, our respiratory system, and some peculiarities in our cardiovascular system (I’ll blog on that someday).

There’s just too much evidence that humans evolved over millions of years. The alternative explanation is that God planted all that evidence intentionally. Some would say he did that to test our faith: to see if we would believe him or the scientists. Faith versus fact. But that turns him into a liar, making things appear to be what they aren’t. That’s like me leaving all kinds of evidence that I’m having an extramarital affair in order to test my wife’s love for me: my reasoning would be that if she can’t overlook the overwhelming mountain of data saying that I was being unfaithful, despite my insistence otherwise, then she isn’t good enough for me. To do that would make me a horrible husband. Is the deception supposedly carried out by God any different?

Proponents of the idea that God planted the misleading clues also have to explain why God would create things full of mistakes (I’m referring to all those mutations, and a long list of problems at the whole organ level). Some will say he didn’t. Instead, everything was perfect at first (referring to the Garden of Eden), but that sin (the Fall) brought on environmental disruptions that in turn caused the mutations. Well, first, genetic mutations just do not occur that quickly: as I explained above, 6000 years is just far too short of a time. And second, they’re random: it’s like student essay #4 and #5 both using the word “and” 1,683 times, but both misspelling it as “nad” only on page number 571, line number 17. That’s not random. That’s copying.

I read a very long article a few days ago from a staunchly Young Earth Creationist organization which emphasized and repeated the point that science must give way to a plain reading of Scripture, that evolutionary theory must therefore be rejected and that no matter how much evidence that kind of science collects, it must be seen as misleading and bad science. No matter how much evidence is collected!? I try hard in my writing not to be insulting, but I can only label this as ‘head-in-the-sand’ thinking.

So now it’s decision time: in the same way that I asked you to conclude whether or not the two students of American history copied from each other based on the evidence at hand, we need to look at the data and conclude whether we continue to believe the human story began 6000 years ago on the sixth day of Creation, or that it unfolded over millions of years through a process of gradual evolution.

I’ll admit, the stakes are huge, on par with that first decision to go for the radical surgery or to pretend there’s no problem. In this case, accepting gradual evolution will mean drastic changes to other parts of your theology. … who then are ‘Adam and Eve’ … the Fall in the Garden … the nature of ‘Original Sin’ … the theological implications of death … the Flood … the various genealogies in the Bible, including the one that links Jesus directly back to Adam … inerrancy of Scripture … what does ‘inspired’ mean … how you read the Bible. A lot of re-thinking will need to happen. It won’t be an easy journey. I’ve written at much greater length in my book about all these points and my own journey to re-discovering my faith.

Samson used the jawbone of a donkey to confront the Philistines, and eventually took down the Philistine temple dedicated to their god Dagon. The discovery of a human jawbone in Ethiopia will contribute to the conflict between faith and science, and may be part of the story which takes down another temple dedicated to some human writings.

Going on that journey and tearing down that temple does NOT mean that you have to let go of your entire faith system. Many people, including myself, have been able to re-evaluate what we believe, go through that radical surgery, “throwing off everything that hinders” and come away with a much stronger and relevant faith. One that I no longer hesitate to share.

I hope you can do the same.


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2 thoughts on “Blind denial is not the answer

  1. I haven’t had this problem myself, but perhaps I can share something useful in reaction. First, it’s intellectually lazy to read scripture literally, Christian and those of other religions. There’s no way to even perform a “plain reading” for one thing, because unless you read the old, idiomatic forms of Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, you are reading a copy of a copy of a copy – in translation.

    The assertions of total accuracy in different languages are nonsense. I only read a few languages myself, and there are ALWAYS words and concepts tied to specific culture and history that make them untranslatable outside of the original. So what translators do is adapt on the basis of “functional equivalence”, like adapting books into movies. On a related note, I first learned Spanish to be able to read Don Quijote in the original, because I liked it in English translation. That took a few years to achieve, and the final result? The two versions are “close” but differ in thousands of passages, philosophical attitude, emphasis of important values etc.

    The second problem with reading The Bible literally is that it wasn’t originally written (being passed down orally) or taught to adherents that way, and the trend to view it as not being mostly (or entirely) symbolic is historically recent. Let’s take the great flood as an example. If you look at it as if “it happened just as it says” you will be contradicted by a thousand points of logic, because even a cursory estimation of the number of species of animals involved wouldn’t fit in a vehicle of the size specified. Then you have the problems of waste disposal, food etc. for 40 days and nights. There’s just no honest way to make it work out mathematically. And there’s no reason to try! The POINT of the flood story is to illustrate that God will act to save a small portion of goodness, even in a world full of evil. Don’t miss the forest for the trees.

    The wisdom contained in The Bible is not scientific, and should not need to be. And the usefulness of science is to measure and experiment in ways unavailable to the ancients. But as I said before, that’s not what our sage ancestors were up to when passing along these tales.

    I enjoyed reading, and in conclusion I’ll toss a wrench into your example about the student’s papers for the sake of amusement. What if they BOTH copied from an unknown source, a “Q” document?


  2. Fascinating ! When you think how little we really have in scripture, to cover the time frame included within it’s pages, there has to be huge gaps. It only touches the surface. I believe there is much we don’t know…will never know, until our journey is over. We are finite….how can we expect to understand the infinite?!


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