DNA: Happy Anniversary

If you’re any kind of nerd, you know that today marks the anniversary of the discovery of the DNA helix by scientists James Watson and Francis Crick, who discover the now-iconic “twisted ladder” structure in February of 1953.

DNA itself had been discovered years earlier, but no one had figured out what the molecule itself looked like. It was actually data from a woman named Rosalind Franklin that formed the key piece of the puzzle. Using a technique called “X-ray crystallography” (think of it as a fancy version of casting a silhouette on a wall), Franklin was able to take the first polaroid snapshots of the molecule. If you’re nerdy enough to read Watson and Crick’s book The Double Helix, you learn that they had something of a frosty relationship with Franklin, despite the fact that her data proved essential to their final discovery. It should also be mentioned that they weren’t even supposed to be working on the project; their employer had sent them in another direction. Which goes to show what can be discovered when you abuse company time.

Watson and Crick have henceforth became something of the “patriarchs” of modern biology. So much of modern science is contingent upon our ongoing understanding and knowledge of DNA and how it gives birth to entire legions of proteins, which in turn introduce other molecules (DNA’s grandchildren) into the macromolecular family.

SCIENCE VERSUS FAITH

But scarcely can we let such a holiday slip by without recognizing the tension (if not outright antagonism and hostility) that exists between science and faith.

Since I have degrees in both fields, I am occasionally asked regarding this subject. Well, maybe “asked” is too strong a word. When we speak of the intersection of science and faith, what subject comes up more than any other? Evolution. It is often expected, judging by the questions I’ve been asked, that there can be a definitive answer on the issue of creation versus evolution debate. My favorite moment, of course, being the young man who proved his point by asking the (presumably rhetorical) question: “When’s the last time you saw a monkey go to church?” His sharp elbow to my ribs was the punctuation mark to his unassailable wisdom.

The sad thing? There is more – much more to discuss on the issues of science and faith than this singular, polarizing issue. Yet it has nonetheless erupted into such mudslinging and hostility on both sides of the aisle, that Stephen Jay Gould proposed a perspective known as NOMA – “Non-Overlapping MagisteriA.” The idea being that faith and science should remain in their respective spheres and never the twain shall meet.

The grand assumption here is that one can do scientific work in the absence of one’s own worldview – or, worse, that one should only “do” science from a purely naturalistic worldview. But I don’t buy it.

SCIENCE AND FAITH: A HISTORY LESSON

Historically speaking, while science and faith have not always been easy allies, they have not always been the antagonists that they are today. Regardless of theological nuance, even a casual glance at the writings of Newton and Galileo reveal a deep commitment to God. The church often saw science as presenting new ways of understanding God’s created world, a creation that revealed the very character of the Creator (cf. Psalm 19:1).

Consider what Galileo wrote of “the language of mathematics:”

“Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.” (Galileo Galilei, The Assayer: Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo,trans. And ed. Stilman Drake. 237-8. In Alister McGrath, A Scientific Theology, 1:210)

Problems did not emerge until the 19th century. It was then that two things happened simultaneously:

  1. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. It was this theory that Richard Dawkins would later declare as making it possible “to be an intellectually satisfied atheist.” Without going into tremendous detail, Darwin’s theory effectively unseated the “Biblical” idea of creatures being created according to their “kind.” Years later, Darwin’s theory is still thrust forward by critics as the unassailable proof that of God’s absence.
  2. Literal reading of scripture. It should not escape mention that Darwin’s theory was not a big deal when it first came out. The theological fabric of the nineteenth century was radically different then that of the previous century. Many were willing to embrace Darwin’s theory, as it matched their own ideals of evolutionary optimism and ongoing social development. But it was during this time that something else was developing. From the Bible conference movement came a new way of reading the Bible. Dispensationalism, a theological tradition popularized by the publication of the Scofield reference Bible, was initially designed to help make sense of the confusing passages of Old Testament prophecy. It solved the problem by taking everything in the Bible literally. But if the Bible was literal, then you could not possibly hold to Darwin’s theory. And it was then that these two systems began to butt heads.

When these two trends collided, the end result was a long series of debates and conflicts, the culmination of which is often seen as the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of the 1920s. The courts ruled in favor of not teaching evolution, but in the process scriptural literalism had been dealt a heavy blow.

It was this climate that gave birth to fundamentalism, first made incarnate in a series of tracts defending the essentials of the faith. Christian culture flourished, giving rise to (among other things) “Christian” alternatives to the secular university system.

The final outworking is what we have today.

NEW STRIDES FORWARD

The danger in all this is that we invite the contrast between the intrepid, pioneering spirit of those like Watson, Crick and Frankin, and the sallow, uninspired nature of the Christian “culture war” of creation and evolution.  I believe resolutely that God has gifted man with creativity and intelligence, but that we have both tarnished and neglected our innate capacity for boldness and discovery. 

But there are some encouraging new trends by those who – unlike Gould – are unconvinced that science and faith must remain in separate, “non-overlapping” spheres. Oxford theologian Alister McGrath advocates a position known as “partially overlapping magisteria.” While he would concede that science and faith are far from synonymous, there is much to be learned from each.

“One of the most significant parallels between the natural sciences and Christian theology,” says McGrath, “is a fundamental conviction that the world is characterized by regularity and intelligibility” (Alister McGrath, A Scientific Theology, 1:218).

Perhaps the most popular voice in this new movement is that of Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project. His book, The Language of God is perhaps one of the most well-written works in this area. He calls the overlap between faith and science “biologos.” He says:

“In the twenty-first century, in an increasingly technological society, a battle is raging for the hearts and minds of humanity. Many materialists, noting triumphantly the advances of science in filling in the gaps of our understanding of nature, announce that belief in God is an outmoded superstition, and that we would be better off admitting that and moving on. Many believers in God, convinced that the truth they derive from spiritual introspection is of more enduring value than truths from other sources, see the advances in science and technology as dangerous and untrustworthy. Positions are hardening. Voices are becoming more shrill.

Will we turn our backs on science because it is perceived as a threat to God, abandoning all of the promise of advancing our understanding of nature and applying that to the alleviation of suffering and the betterment of mankind? Alternatively, will we turn our backs on faith, concluding that science has rendered the spiritual life no longer necessary, and that traditional religious symbols can now be replaced by engravings of the double helix on our altars?

Both of these choices are profoundly dangerous. Both deny truth. Both will diminish the nobility of humankind. Both will be devastating to our future. And both are unnecessary. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate and beautiful – and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we imperfect humans can start such battles. And only we can end them.  (Francis Collins, The Language of God)

There is of course, much distance to cover in this great field. But it is encouraging to see a rediscovery of both natural theology and a firm commitment to scientific inquiry.

So happy DNA day. I’ll leave you with some recommended reading.

RECOMMENDED READING

The Double Helix, James D. Watson. Not just for nerds. It’s a fairly down-to-earth read, given the complexity of the material. I recommend it for no other reason than to acclimate yourself to the discovery of the DNA molecule, and for a good history lesson besides.

 

 

 

The Language of God, Francis S. Collins. There’s a reason the book was a bestseller on the New York Times list. It’s a great, well-balanced book that deals with the larger issues of faith and science, complete with appendices on current issues as well as discussion questions for small groups.

 

The Open Secret, Alister McGrath. Easily one of the best books available on the issue of natural theology. McGrath deals with the way Christians can uniquely view God’s creation, and his strong historical background makes the book a valuable and highly readable resource. Academic types would do well to read his three-volume work, A Scientific Theology, which is considerably more advanced but thorough in his ability to spell out the intersection of faith and science.

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2 thoughts on “DNA: Happy Anniversary

    • I’ve heard of the book. Don’t know much about it, but sounds like a good recommendation.

      And I forgot that Collins had the position, but now that you say that I remember the outrage many expressed about his appointment.

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