Searching for God in the genes


The recent news that scientists have completed a rough map of the human genetic code is fueling fresh speculation over the ancient question: How did human life begin?

President Clinton, speaking at the White House news conference, temporarily assumed the mantle of theologian-in-chief, musing that "Today, we are learning the language in which God created life."

One of the scientists, Francis S. Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, detoured from the hard certainty of scientific discourse, describing the achievement in the poetry of religious language: "We have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God."

What does this all mean for those who speculate on how life was created, and who, if anyone, created it?

One of the first to jump in was David Baltimore, the Nobel Prize-winning president of the California Institute of Technology. The genome, he wrote in the New York Times, "confirms something obvious and expected, yet controversial: our genes look much like those of fruit flies, worms and even plants."

This shows that "we all descended from the same humble beginnings and that the connections are written in our genes."

In other words, Baltimore says, this confirms human beings are the products of evolution. "That should be," he wrote, "but won't be, the end of creationism."

In fact, many creationists are just as excited by news of gene mapping as is the rest of the scientific community. The genome project, they say, proves their case.

The sheer complexity of the genome, they argue, points to divine authorship - a theory some prefer to call "intelligent design."

"I hate to use that word, 'creationism' because it's such a buzz word. It carries a lot of baggage with it," said Phillip E. Johnson, a UC Berkeley law professor and author of "Darwin on Trial."

"But the question is: Is there a creator?" he said. With the genome, "You're talking about an instruction book written in language, and that points to an author, which suggests a creator."

That language is not just complex but is nonrepetitive and is not random, signs of intent, Johnson said.

"There's no machine, natural selection or whatever that can produce the kind of complex information in that instruction book," he said. "It shows by its very nature it's the product of a designer."

And this stage in mapping the genome is just the first step. The sequence of genes must now be located, their functions determined, and that will further buttress the case for intelligent design, its proponents hold.

"As we develop all this information, it will reveal the complexity, the interdependence of all this material," said Duane T. Gish, a biochemist with the El Cajon, Calif.-based Institute for Creation Research.

"It will point to the origin as the result of an intelligent creator, an intelligent agent. I believe when that work is done, as it begins to cumulate it will strengthen our position as creationists, that it's there for a purpose and shows the compelling necessity for an intelligent agent for its origin."

"Professor Baltimore has it completely wrong," Johnson said. "And certainly in no way are believers in intelligent design going out of business. They are gaining confidence with each new discovery."

Kenneth R. Miller, a Brown University microbiologist, looks at the same genome data and sees irrefutable evidence of evolution.

"Clearly those sequences showed we share a common ancestry with other mammals, and specifically other primates," said Miller, author of "Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution."

There are places in the genome where mistakes occurred, an error in copying the genes, that has inactivated them.

"We and some of our primate relatives have exactly the same mistakes in exactly the same place," Miller said. "If our ancestors were not the same, that would not happen. It would have been random.

"This is a very clear indication that the copying error occurred in a common ancestor."

"This tells us, in a sense, how the creator made us," Miller said. "And quite specifically, the creator made us by the process of evolution."

The notion of our similarity to primates, and even lower forms of life, isn't troubling to a theologian like John Haught of Georgetown, who specializes in the intersection of science and religion. It "brings out the continuity we have with the rest of life," he said.

"There's a paradox here," said Haught, author of "God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution."

"Our knowledge of genetics on the one hand has linked us much more intimately with the story of life than we perhaps previously had been aware of," he said.

"But a knowledge of genetics also allows us to emphasize our discontinuity, because of the fact that each organism has a specific sequence that is not shared with others. So in a way it satisfies the need on the part of religion and theology to emphasize our distinctiveness."

"We all use the same code and that's an important idea," he said. "But it also allows for us to preserve the notion that some forms of life are distinct from others, and there's a qualitative difference along with the qualitative similarity."

The problem with creationists, Haught says, is that they're looking for evidence of divine design on too small a level.

"I don't want to pin the whole notion of God and cosmic purpose down to DNA, but I want to say that religious ideas and theological explanations are relevant when we ask the question, 'Why do we have a life-bearing universe?' he said.

"I don't want to make God into a tinker, someone who comes down and stitches together nucleic acids. ... I want to think about God in the widest possible sense. Otherwise, the notion becomes too small, the notion of God becomes a magician."

That's not only bad theology, Haught says, it's bad for science.

"If you bring in the notion of God every time you ask, 'How did things get that way?' it becomes a science stopper," he said. "God did it. That makes science somewhat irrelevant."

And while the genome project is a triumph for science, Ian Barbour, a physicist and theologian and a pioneer in the field of linking science and religion, warns against over-enthusiastic optimism that the code to the makeup of humanity has been broken. The genome can tell us a lot, he said, but it can't tell us everything.

"There's a temptation to think that we're just molecular machines, and I think human experience and religious tradition say we're a lot more than our genes, we're a lot more than molecular machines," he said.

"There are higher levels of organism in which very wonderful things occur," Barbour said. "We're social beings. We are who we are in relationship to other people. We are who we are in relationship to God. We are who we are in relationship to our neighbor.

"And those relationships are part of our being," he said. "And you can't describe them in the vocabulary of chemistry."

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