Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Genetic Insights for Human Origins in Africa and for Later Neanderthal Contact

Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Genetic Insights for Human Origins in Africa and for Later Neanderthal Contact

Article excerpt

Presuppositions: Setting the Stage-Integrating Scientific Data and the Scriptures

The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord--it is God's creation. Therefore, expectations (predictions) about the earth that humans draw from the biblical narratives are verifiable or falsifiable by valid data from that creation. This includes theological statements that imply real world predictions. Creation's data cannot be simply rejected, but require theological reconciliation. Traditional understandings of the scriptures predict (expect or state) patterns of data far different than those reported by modern investigation, producing a serious dilemma. And, in fact, the data supporting alternate views grows stronger year by year. It is true that all theories (scientific or theological) are human formulations, but the data they explain are not human creations; they are discoveries of God's truth. Theology may reject the theories of science, but it cannot reject the data of the creation and remain honest before its Creator. And that means giving the data a rational explanation rather than simply rejecting it.

My intent in this article is to survey the recent genetic discoveries related to the origin, nature, and early prehistory of the human species. These are indeed difficult issues, but difficult issues which must be faced and worked out by theologians and scientists in open discussion. (1)

African Genealogies

Genealogies are constructed from genetic data by looking for slight differences in existing people, specifically changes in their DNA (mutations) caused at various times in the past. Since the most likely reason for two people to share one of these DNA differences is that the change happened in a common ancestor, computer algorithms can be designed to calculate the likely trees of descent. Likewise, the number of DNA differences which have accumulated between any two people can be used to estimate how long ago their common ancestor lived. Such comparisons can be carried out on mitochondrial DNA (female parent's line), the Y chromosome (male parent's line), and the autosome chromosomes (both parents' lines). These are the familiar tests done by commercial DNA genealogy sites such as "Family-TreeDNA" or "23andMe." By extending exactly the same techniques, one can construct "paleo-genealogy" lineages.

The traditional reading of Genesis would place the origin of the human race with two people living in the Middle East a few thousand years ago. This traditional reading generates a clear prediction for the genetic genealogy of the human race as a whole. It should be rather short (not too many accumulated changes), and the longest separate branches from the common root should be Middle Eastern. If other regions were settled from that center, they should all have equally shorter local genealogies. That is not what the data show. The basic message--an African origin for humanity--has remained the same since Cann, Stoneking, and Wilson's seminal paper in 1987.2 In contrast, Wayne Frair's Separate Creation paradigm assumes (predicts) four genetically equidistant continental populations. (3)

Of course, since this is an area of very active research, the complexity and clarity of the data are constantly changing. And yes, there are some slight but significant differences between the specific point of origin within Africa indicated by Y chromosome genealogies, mtDNA, and autosomal DNA, not to speak of languages and archaeology. (4) However, every study which has been done over the last twenty-five years--and there have been hundreds--has confirmed the conclusions of that first paper. Here are a few results of the latest research.

First, the female line: a recalculation of the base of the human mtDNA genealogy ("mitochondrial Eve") places her date at around 185,000 years ago. This paper places her location in South Africa among the hunting and gathering Khoisan people. All the other people groups on Earth are on one main branch of the human genetic tree, and the Khoisan are on the other branch. …

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