Last Saturday Science and the Sacred highlighted a recent article, published in Cell and covered in the NY Times, where scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany produced a genetically engineered mouse with the human FOXP2 gene inserted in place of the mouse gene. (The picture is a generic one from wikipedia – I don’t know what kind of mouse was used for these experiments – probably not as cute.) The researchers used a mouse model to explore the influence of FOXP2 because it is scientifically and ethically impossible to perform such studies on chimpanzees – the animal species with closest genetic similarity to humans.
The FOXP2 gene is found in all mammals and is implicated in the development of speech in humans, Mutations in this gene affect language development, articulation, and grammar. This is not the only “language gene” but it is a key player. Inserting the human gene into the mouse caused the region of the brain called the basal ganglia to grow nerve cells that had a more complex structure. These changes also affected the sounds that the baby mice used in communication. According to Science and the Sacred
… researchers have found that the same FOXP2 gene has existed in a more or less stable state in all mammals with the exception of humans, where two significant changes in its coding have occurred. The change, which may have occurred as recently as a hundred thousand years ago, suggests that the evolution of the FOXP2 gene may have contributed to human language development. The mouse study seems to add credence to this hypothesis.
What do such studies tell us about the action of God in his creation? Can the observations help us understand the nature of God’s creation?
This mouse study is one example of the kind of complex experiments currently underway to understand the mechanics of biological function and proposed mechanisms of evolutionary development. These studies also lead us to ponder the material mechanisms used in creation and the role of God in directing and controlling the process.
I can think of several possible points of view:
One could argue that we lucked out when blind random chance resulted in the production of this mutation in an otherwise stable and essential gene assisting in the development of speech and language and thus in the development of abstract thought, communication, and civilization.
One could argue that God knew when he created the world that the structure of the universe would eventually result in the production of a being capable of abstract thought, communication, and relationship, and he simply waited for it to happen.
One could see the hand of God in the occurrence of an improbable mutation that helped to enable the capacity for language. Clearly the ability to communicate is necessary for a relationship with the creator.
One could try to construct an argument demonstrating that the mutation and all of the accompanying mutations that enable language and communication are so statistically improbable as to border on impossible – thus there must be a designer.
Perhaps you would suggest other options as well.
I lean toward the idea that the hand of God was active in the occurrence of improbable events resulting in the creation of humans in his image. We are not the result of blind random process, and I don’t find pre-programmed evolution an attractive option – it seems to border on deism. The God revealed in the Bible is more actively involved in his creation. There is no way to “prove” the active hand of God in the evolution of humans however, and I believe that it is pointless to try. The outcome is one of the many possible outcomes if in fact blind purposeless chance controls biological evolution. It is not “miraculous” requiring an agent from outside of the material world.
To ask if God is necessary for the evolution of mankind as we stand today misses the point. As a Christian I believe that there is no “natural mechanism” without God – because there is no creation without God. He made and sustains all. But we won’t be able to prove that his “natural” mechanisms are insufficient And if people choose to assume “ontological materialism” – science won’t prove them wrong.
God’s design in creation is not a scientific question and shouldn’t be brought into the science classroom. Science is the study of God’s creation and the “natural” mechanisms of that creation. Neither should it be asserted that science proves that there is no God, no purpose, no plan. This is a statement of faith not science.
What do you think?
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