genetics and the incarnation
The Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ was a unique event in history and nothing was the same again.
History of the idea of evolution
Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution through natural selection in 1859 here in Britain. It was a controversial theory because it challenged the view that God had created all the species on earth exactly as we see them today. This led to debate within the Anglican Church and in universities that were essentially run by the church. The debate spread to the Catholic Church on the continent.
My first point is that debate is good and new ideas are good – if we all agreed on everything, we could not debate anything. Church parishes are a good place for debate since Christians are encouraged to think about things.
By the end of the 1860s, Thomas Huxley – sometimes called Darwin’s bulldog – was succeeding in separating the church from universities and making science into a secular occupation.
During the 19th century what was called the Materialist Philosophy was gaining support in some quarters. It was the belief that matter had always existed and was eternal, and so it was not necessary to believe in God as the originator of matter and the universe. This led to modern Atheism.
Through the 20th century the big idea of evolution started to replace God as the ultimate explanation for all things. To the question where do things come from? The answer was no longer that God created them, but that they had evolved.
The rise of Communism and the Soviet Union brought a new idea – that life had evolved from non-life in some kind of primeval ocean full of organic molecules. (This idea was brought to Britain by Marxist biologists). This idea was not the idea of Charles Darwin who believed in the original creation by God of multicellular life as a few or one basic type.
How was the church going to survive what appeared to be an onslaught on one of its core beliefs? Namely that God had created life?
Anglican theologians in Britain and Catholic theologians in Europe were quick to get to work to sort out the church’s response to the new scientific theory.
They adopted a new theology: that God is still the Creator, but he had created life through the processes of evolution. Christians who believe this are called Theistic Evolutionists. Historically there have been two types of Theistic Evolutionists:
- By the 1950s Theistic Evolutionists were claiming that God guided evolution according to his own purposes. Thus, God caused evolution to lead to the evolution of human beings from apes. Many Christians who held this view worked in biology.
- More recently Theistic Evolutionists inspired by observations of constraints on the natural world and on evolution, changed their belief to state that natural processes are constrained such that humans would evolve anyway whatever happened. So God had to just wait for it to happen, and it was not necessary for him to intervene at all.
This is where we’re at now. Most Christians see no conflict between their Christian faith and the theories of modern science. They believe that God metaphorically created the universe with its galaxies and stars, and life on earth. However, the real active principle was the natural processes of evolution as described by science.
Why do we Christians still need a God if everything was going to happen under its own impetus anyway?
Possible answers are:
- God is present in people’s personal lives
- God lends meaning to the whole in a theological way
Theology has embraced modern secular science almost without question. Science is equated with truth, and theologians tag along behind. This certainly makes life easy and comfortable. It allows us to avoid conflict with the secular world around us. But do we now worship a pocket-sized God? A little God who we don’t need often?
Genetics is the key
My first love was science, especially biology – from my earliest years.
In 1992 when I was 31 and by this time living in Chile something came to my attention that needed sorting out. The upshot was that I decided that I would apply myself to discover through learning about scientific facts, what part divine creation and what part evolution played in the coming into being of life.
This became my passion and my life’s work. It was as if I had found the spring of life that never runs dry – because inspiration welled up day after day and has not stopped.
An inner voice told me to start with genetics. So I started studying genetics by reading scientific journals and buying textbooks in Cambridge when I went back to England to visit.
My studies soon showed me that random mutations to DNA could switch off the expression of genes. I learnt that the non-expression of genes often underpins modifications in plants and animals.
Some of the classic examples of evolution given in biology textbooks involve loss of structures.
One of the examples was of the evolution of the horse, often cited as a classic example of evolution by evolutionists. The horse started off as a small creature in the Eocene eating leaves in forests and walking on three toes on the back legs and four on the front legs. Later with the spread of grasslands, the horse grew larger so it could run faster; it developed teeth that could cope with tough grasses instead of soft leaves as its diet; and it lost toes. The horse now runs swiftly on hooves that represent a single toe for each leg. The horse’s evolution involved loss of digits. Vestigial digits are still found part way up its leg.
You could say that the horse has ‘devolved’ – but devolution is a separate subject – what I mean is de-evolved.
The science of genetics has made huge progress with the Human Genome Project initiated in 1990.
These studies have started to reveal details about genes showing that mutations often cause dysfunction compared to the original function : for example, tortoise shell cats have a patterning gene that inhibits the production of black pigment. The gene is called agouti. When this inhibitor is switched off, the result is black cats which have no sortoise shell pattern. This occurs by a single mutation.
What I realized was that evolution at the genetic level involves loss of information in the genetic code. There is a move from function to dysfunction. But at the physical body level there is either modification or loss of parts.
The natural world has hundreds of examples of the reduction of parts through the processes of evolution.
An example of this is grass: grass has tiny green flowers that have lost their petals. The reason for this is that these flowers are no longer pollinated by insects, but pollinated by wind so colourful petals are unnecessary to the survival of grass.
Another example is that moles have lost their eyes, if moles had eyes they would get infected due to dirt getting in as they burrow underground, so fur has grown over the empty eye sockets.
In this way I started to develop a new theory of evolution.
what is advantageous mutation?
What is key to this new understanding of evolution is the definition of advantageous mutation.
Mutations are errors in the replication of DNA. Disadvantageous or deleterious mutation is very easy to understand – they cause genetic diseases. But what is advantageous mutation?
We know that when an advantageous mutation occurs, natural selection spreads the mutation throughout the population. This is the basis to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Is advantageous mutation the opposite to disadvantageous mutation? If disadvantageous mutation is the incorporation of the wrong nucleotide base, is advantageous mutation a change to the right nucleotide base?
The answer to this is no. Whereas a gene can be rendered dysfunctional by a single mutation, a new gene with new function would require hundreds of mutations to occur simultaneously and be fixed for the new gene to be a viable gene. The new gene would also have to be fixed in the population.
I realized that the term ‘advantageous’ is a qualification, not a thing. It is a way of describing what turned out, in hind sight, to be beneficial.
In certain circumstances the switched off version of a gene is useful. When it is useful because it causes a beneficial modification, it is spread in the population.
For example, the mutations that have changed a brown bear into a white polar bear in the Arctic could be described as advantageous mutations, but the actual basis to the change is loss of genes encoding the production of pigment in the fur.
Advantageous mutations and disadvantageous mutations are, in fact, exactly the same thing – they are both errors that cause dysfunction in the genome. But the effect on the physical body of the switching off of some genes is beneficial, and in these cases they are qualified as advantageous mutations.
Charles Darwin wrote about natural selection in On The Origin of Species. Natural selection, in fact, involves more than one concept. Darwin was ambiguous about what natural selection actually meant.
A well-known explanation for natural selection is that it involves the survival of the fittest. The weak die while the strong reproduce and leave more offspring. In nature many more offspring are produced than survive, and even a small advantage can give the edge to the lucky individuals.
If selection pressures are strong, a change can be observed in a short space of time, may be even as little as 30 years. For example, Darwin’s finches show different shapes and lengths of beaks depending on which seeds they eat. If there are droughts year after year birds with short beaks die out while birds with stronger beaks live because the food source has changed. The environmental change drives species change.
Another meaning of natural selection is the selection of modified traits such that plants and animals become adapted to new conditions and thus avoid extinction.
I fully endorse both of these meanings.
A third meaning to natural selection is the idea that life can become more and more complex by the building up of complexity bit by bit. This is the belief that new body plans, new organs and new structures can develop when an animal needs them.
The problem with this is that there is no actual explanation to show how a natural process could cause new proteins to come into existence to accomplish this.
Secular scientists just observe the natural world with all its levels of complexity and say because it is there, it has evolved. The building up of complexity through natural selection is based on belief in the theory, but lacks a real scientific basis or explanation.
Evolution most certainly is about survival, and it is about adaptation to new environmental conditions. But this adaptation is based on the switching off of certain genes by mutation, not on the evolution of new genes or new levels of complexity.
I uphold that natural selection allows modification of existing forms of life, but it does not cause those forms of life to exist in the first place.
I call my theory of evolution ‘Entropic Evolution’ because it involves a loss of information at the genetic level.
Entropy in this sense is about the loss of information that occurs during transmission of the message.
Therefore, I do believe that evolution through natural selection takes place, and to a very high degree but it starts with the creation of basic forms of life.
Life was created able to evolve.
god does not create through error
I believe it has been a very big mistake to conflate and equate God’s creation with evolution.
There are scientific reasons for affirming that random processes involving error cannot build up complete functional systems; random processes are not the basis to a message or code that can carry meaning – this includes a code such as the genetic code. Even the selection of certain fortunate errors would not give rise to complex functions.
I am absolutely certain that God does not guide mutation – on the contrary, he only allows errors to occur and people are born with genetic diseases sometimes, but never because God willed it to be that way. We live amongst error in a fallen world.
God has not used random mutation as his instrument to create life. God does not create through error.
Life in its wonderful, amazing perfection is the product of mind – the greatest Mind that has ever expressed itself.
An act of creation would be a miracle. God is capable of performing miracles on specific chosen occasions.
God is omniscient. That means he knows all things, and he knows all about science. Life was created as a message written in a DNA code. By investigation science thinks God’s thoughts after him.
the fall and mutation
Genesis expresses theological truths – our relationship to God.
God’s perfect creation is symbolized by the Garden of Eden. Perfection is followed by the fall. The fall is the coming into the world of sin and disorder. Genesis puts all the blame on a woman – I don’t want to argue about that just now.
In essence, Genesis shows that God created life and it was good. But over time it fell. It became imperfect.
Evolution fits into the picture as part of the fall. It is imperfect, based on mutation and it occurs over time.
There are two parallels here: the fall was a rebellion against God and a mistake, but it led to our redemption – so the fall was not all bad news.
Likewise, evolution is based on mutational error and so a mistake, but it leads to diversity and adaptation in the natural world, so evolution is not all bad news.
Evolution produces what is beautiful as well as what is ugly. The beautiful is the many different species of plants and animals we see around us; the ugly includes parasites that not only look ugly but also do horrible things to other creatures. So evolution is part of a fallen imperfect world.
It is not all bad news:
In the Easter Vigil liturgy the priest sings about the fall of Adam and Eve, ‘Oh happy fault, the fault that brought our redemption’. He sings this because the fall brought about our redemption through Jesus Christ. But just as the priest sings ‘Oh happy fault’ at the Easter Vigil referring to the fall, we can sing ‘Oh happy error’ referring to mutation since the processes of evolution have led to a great diversity of species adapted to the different environments on earth.
It is the original perfection and complexity of the genetic system that has allowed the evolution of diverse forms of life through genetic switching off.
Genetic switching off produces ‘lucky dysfunctions’ in that it guides a complex system towards new ends. You could call this a ‘tuning up’ of the original system.
Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution in 1859. For various reasons Atheism arose at the end of the 19th century and during the 20th century in the Western world. During this time evolution became the big idea – so rather than saying ‘God created it’, people now say ‘it evolved.’
The church survived the Atheist secular climate by proclaiming that the natural processes of evolution were God’s method of creation.
In our society science is equated with truth, while religious belief is an irrelevant side show, ignored by most people. Theology bows to the theories of modern science – in this way we avoid conflict with a secular world.
But who is this Creator God? Can he do anything? Can we do anything?
Is it right that we should bow down to the idols of science to the extent of not daring to question the theories of science?
Science was my first love and remains the focus of my life. But I serve God by asking the questions, searching for new understandings, and I believe I have found many of the answers.
When I examined genetics and what is known through the Human Genome Project (which is on-going), I found that mutation does not build up new genes, mutation disables genes and switches them off.
The switching off of genes may lead to genetic disease – this is disadvantageous mutation. But when the non-expression of genes is useful, it is selected by natural selection – this is advantageous mutation.
I developed a new theory of evolution called Entropic Evolution. Life was created able to evolve. For evolution to be possible, it is necessary to start with a high level of complexity. Complex life can evolve in many different directions and produce a great diversity of species.
It is right that the church should uphold science and accept belief in evolution – but in the right way. As citizens and as Christians we have the right to debate the meanings of things. The church is a good platform for debate.
So I put it to you – that evolution properly understood – does not fit into the picture as a means of creation, but as part of the fall.
The creation of life through the creation of genes made of DNA was:
- Perfect – this means that the information encoding the living being was complete and whole
- Each act of creation was specific and instantaneous
- Creation was a rare occurrence and happened only at the major branching points in the tree of life
- Creation happened according to the purposes of God
The evolution of this created life was:
- Based on random mutation which is an error in the replication of DNA and so imperfect
- Natural selection conserves the useful errors
- The processes of evolution occur over time. A time scale of millions of years reveals the changes that have taken place
- Evolution occurs in accord with general laws of nature
A true understanding of science and a true understanding of what evolution actually consists of – could lead to a true theology that would glorify God as the true Creator of life.
god created at least one gene
I believe that God created life through what I call Nanocreation. This is the idea that God created life by creating the genetic code made of DNA. It is creation at the microscopic nanoscale at the level of cells.
The creation of new genes would be a rare and specific event at the turning points in the levels of complexity of life forms.
How could I convince other Christians that God created life through creating complex codes called genes?
I had been working on the theory for nearly 14 years. I was thinking about this in the lead up to Christmas 2005.
An inner voice spoke to me and I felt something significant was about to occur. I waited. On Christmas morning I got up, and then the vision suddenly opened up before my mind’s eye, and I knew. I felt such joy; it was the best Christmas present ever. I knew that every Christian believes that God directly created at least one gene.
Gospel of Luke 1:26-37 paraphrase:
The angel Gabriel is sent to Nazareth to a virgin called Mary pledged to be married to a man called Joseph. The angel announces that she will conceive a son and name him Jesus. How can this be? She asks. The angel explains that although she is a virgin, the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her. And so the holy one she will conceive will be called the Son of God. The angel says, “Nothing is impossible with God.” Mary replies “I am the handmaiden of the Lord; may it be unto me as you have said.”
And so Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph played the role of father, but he was not the biological father of Jesus.
This is what we say in our Creed: “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”
This means that Jesus’ DNA came from Mary his mother.
Human beings have 22 sets of paired chromosomes plus two sex chromosomes that in the female are XX and in the male are XY.
Mary would certainly have supplied the maternal set of chromosomes, but what of the paternal set in the absence of a biological father?
It is not possible for a human being to have a haploid genome. Only bacteria have haploid genomes with only one copy of each gene. All multicellular organisms including humans have diploid genomes with two sets of chromosomes so that each gene is represented by two copies called gene alleles. One gene allele is of maternal origin and the other corresponding gene allele is of paternal origin for each gene.
It is our belief as Christians that Jesus was fully man and fully God.
There are two possibilities: Either God created a complete set of 22 paternal chromosomes and a Y chromosome carrying one copy of every human gene at the moment of the overshadowing. Or the Virgin Mary miraculously supplied an egg cell that was diploid and contained the full set of 23 paired chromosomes that included the two X chromosomes.
Normal egg cells are haploid because they have undergone the reduction divisions of meiosis when they were formed as gametes. The eggs in a woman’s ovaries were formed while the woman was still a fetus herself in her mother’s womb. When the woman becomes an adult, the eggs are released one per month from the ovary until they run out and menopause is reached.
The more minimal belief is that the Virgin Mary supplied a diploid egg cell that had not undergone reduction divisions like other egg cells. This diploid egg cell contained the full complement of chromosomes containing the two copies of each human gene.
If this were the case, the special egg cell would have been prepared in the ovary of the Virgin Mary while she herself was a fetus in the womb of St Anne. Traditionally, Catholics believe that Mary was chosen to be the mother of the Messiah at her conception in the womb of St Anne, her mother. (This is named the Immaculate Conception).
Thus, Mary would have been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah before she was born. A special egg cell that had not undergone reduction divisions would have to have been designated in Mary’s ovaries before her birth, awaiting her ‘yes’ to God’s plan at the appointed time.
It is my belief that Mary’s DNA became Jesus’ DNA. Something like a clone produced by genetic engineers. However, if this alone were the case, the Messiah would have been female.
A male human or any mammal has a Y chromosome. The mother cannot supply this chromosome since she only has X chromosomes; only the father can pass on the Y chromosome.
Thus, a second miracle must have taken place.
The Y chromosome is much shorter than the X chromosome, but it carries one crucial gene for maleness. This gene is called TDF standing for testis-determining factor. The same gene has also been named SYR standing for sex-determining Y region.
This TDF or SYR gene is switched on very early in fetal development. It produces a protein transcription factor that causes the gonads to develop into testes. The testes produce testosterone that inhibits the development of female structures and causes male structures to develop instead in the fetus, the child and later in the adult.
Both males and females have testosterone, but males produce five times more testosterone than females; it is the higher level of this hormone in males that has masculinising effects.
The sex chromosomes in most males are XY. However, in rare cases a male can have an XXY genotype. It has also been known that a male had a genotype that was XX, but the TDF gene had been transferred to an X chromosome through mutation. Despite having female chromosomes, this one gene made the individual male. The condition is called XX male syndrome. These individuals are infertile. There are also people with an XY genotype, but who lack the TDF gene, and they are female.
Therefore, for Mary to give birth to a male Messiah, one of two possibilities must have occurred:
Either God created a whole Y chromosome and added it to the genome of the egg cell provided by Mary giving an XXY genotype, or God created only the TDF gene and inserted it into one of the X chromosomes.
Thus, the minimum requirement for the incarnation of a male Messiah is firstly that Mary supplied a diploid egg cell rather than the normal haploid egg cell. Secondly, that God created one gene – the TDF gene directly and inserted it into the genome.
The other option is that God created a full set of autosomal chromosomes carrying every human gene and a whole Y chromosome. I have opted to believe in the minimum requirement.
There are various very important conclusions to draw from this.
The first great conclusion is that God can and did create at least one gene at one point in time.
Secondly, the significance of the Virgin Mary: She actually supplied the DNA of the human body of God Incarnate.
If Mary alone provided the genome of the Christ, the Messiah, God Incarnate, she must have been chosen very carefully. She would impart to the Son of God her body type, physiological health, personality and intelligence. This is an insight into the specialness of Mary.
The Gospels testify to the closeness of Jesus to Mary, Mary to her son. If they were the male and female version of the same genome, with identical DNA, this in part, would explain their closeness. They would have the same physical type and personality traits in everything except in masculinity and femininity.
The Incarnation is the sign that God created at least one gene on at least one specific occasion. This sign that took place at the overshadowing of Mary by the Holy Spirit shows how God could create life through the creation of the genetic code of life, the creation of genes.
God created life that could evolve.
God created DNA that could mutate.
Evolution consists of on-going processes that take place in a fallen world. But creation belongs to God. It is about purpose; it springs from Mind; life is inherently complex.
Evolution consists of natural processes. It is about the modification of pre-existing life forms; adaptation to new conditions; and diversification of species.
Let us put evolution in its rightful place, and not in the place of God.
Article written by Clare Merry in October 2018