Faithful Reasoning and Reasonable Faith: Genetics at the Dawn of Humanity

How far can genetics take us in explaining what makes humans different from other animals?

Is the Theory of Evolution compatible with the Christian faith? It depends on who you ask. For many traditionally-minded Christians, the answer is a quick “no.” But is the answer that easy? The bad relationship between Science and the Church is proverbial, but it need not be.

“Reality is like a jewel with many facets that can be looked at from various angles, from different viewpoints,” writes the Dutch geneticist Gerard Verschuuren. He has focused much of his career on this very question of examining the facets of reality that science unlocks for us. As a Catholic, though, Verschuuren has also penned quite a number of books that seek to provide a place for fruitful conversation between faith and reason, science and theology. His goal is “faithful reasoning and reasonable faith.” 

He comes to discussions of Galileo, evolution, or genetics not from the background of a popular apologist but from a background rigorous by secular standards: his alma maters include Leiden University, Utrecht University, and the University Amsterdam. He has specialized in areas of study that include human and population genetics, philosophy of science and biology, and various aspects of anthropology.

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Thus, Verschuuren’s book At the Dawn of Humanity: The First Humans is an excellent introduction to the place of genetics in the Theory of Evolution. Specifically, his question is: How far can genetics take us in explaining what makes humans different from other animals? As he says, are features such as “faculties of language, rationality, morality, self-awareness, and religion” unique to humanity or “did they come from the non-human animal world?”

The first couple of chapters are devoted to an exposition of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest, leading into an introduction to genetics and the “gene pool.” This leads to the question: if gene mutations can lead to genetic diversity which produce changes in populations “as we see it happen, for instance, in our domestic dogs and cats” still the question of whether or not this can “ever lead to a new species” remains.

This leads to one of Verschuuren’s fundamental topics. At the heart of his book is a discussion of “gradualism,” the idea that small steps in gene mutations lead over time to large changes so that no change ever need be explained by one large, drastic change: “What, ultimately, it all boils down to are small gene changes with large effects.” 

Many biologists have doubts as to whether or not “Neo-Darwinism can achieve what Darwin thought he could achieve.” The “irreducible complexity” of such “structures as brains or eyes” leads some to question whether or not such structures could have ever passed through stages of incomplete development: “What good is half an eye?” However, there are examples—such as blood clotting—where gradual, incomplete development of a function is still beneficial. Yet “saltationism” is a position that advocates for occasional “super mutations” or giant leaps in the mutation process responsible for “sudden, discontinuous, and crucial changes…supposedly responsible for the sudden appearance of new, higher taxa” or species. The “irreducible complexity” of such “structures as brains or eyes” leads some to question whether or not such structures could have ever passed through stages of incomplete development.Tweet This

All this background is setting the stage for whether or not humans are just “part of” or “came from” the animal world. There are lots of biological considerations for and against seeing human physiological features as arising from and yet also distinct or unique from similar animals. For example,

Analysis of the human genome shows us that chimpanzees are two to four times more genetically diverse than the global human population—which tells us that humans of the species Homo sapiens are all extremely closely related to each other, much more so than even our closest living non-human relatives.

This is an interesting confirmation of the “unity of the human race…presupposed by the doctrine of Original Sin.” 

Yet anatomical features are not the only unique aspect of being human. 

Although we do breed, feed, bleed, and excrete as other creatures do…what does in fact set us apart from the animal world is something not necessarily of a biological nature, namely our faculties of language, rationality, morality, self-expression, and religion. 

The rest of the book is devoted to these topics and the question of how unique we are in comparison to the animal world. The “language divide” continues to be an insurmountable difference, with even the most “advanced” mammals showing nothing close to the human ability to parse language.

I love Verschuuren’s treatment of the “hierarchical structure of human language,” an important aspect of which is “merge,” the operation that “builds the hierarchical structure required for human language syntax.” Reviewing numerous scientific studies in which apes were forced “to say something,” Verschuuren finds that despite the ability to “link words or visual symbols to objects,” apes have “never been able to link them to other symbols in a grammatical, recursive, and structured way.”

While “the faculty of language requires a body with the ‘right’ features” and these could have been achieved by gene mutations, whether or not these mutations were sufficient to cause language capability is impossible to know—it cannot be explained by science: “it is worth as much as the opposite claim that a scientific explanation will never be fully possible.” Of course, the language divide immediately feeds into the “rationality divide” because it is a “system of thought.”

Rationality includes conceptual reasoning and understanding, the ability to abstract and form ideas about universal, nonmaterial realities. For the gradualist, of course, concepts must be discoverable in the animal kingdom—for if humans possess “more” of the same things that animals have, then there must be vestigial or signs of primitive rationality in the animal kingdom. But Verschuuren explores why “concepts are not something we could ever possibly find among non-human animals.” He argues that neither categories, nor associations, nor sensations, nor signals, nor commands, could ever be concepts: all measurable things in animals which never equate to the abstraction of “concepts.” 

This leads to an explanation of how animals can use “intelligence” but “without having intellect.” Additionally, reasoning often has nothing to do with “survival,” making it hard if not impossible to fit into the program of natural selection. “Knowing that the earth is not flat doesn’t help us in the struggle for survival. How could one possibly explain that natural selection gave us a genetic program that was vastly more sophisticated than was required for survival?”

Verschuuren examines numerous studies of animals in which the ability to “reason,” communicate, or give signs of “self-awareness” were purportedly found. He shows that most if not all of the findings are inconclusive, and researchers who claimed that they had found signs of “self-awareness,” for example, could easily have been falling prey to anthropomorphizing assumptions about what they observed in the animals’ behavior.

At the Dawn of Humanity goes on to discuss the “morality divide,” “self-awareness,” and “religion” divide. Verschuuren explains how similar moral laws are to the laws of nature, “inborn if you will, but not necessarily genetic.” His discussion of facts and truth—true and factual regardless of whether or not we recognize them as such—is an excellent philosophical fireworks show. 

He writes: 

After all we have seen, it is hard to believe that the moral code is merely a matter of genetic code…. Might there be any genes involved? Only time can tell, but even if we do find such genes, we can almost predict ahead of time on logical and philosophical grounds that they would play only a very minor role. 

Despite being a strong advocate of evolution himself, this is ultimately Verschuuren’s conclusion in regard to all of the aspects of humanity that do in fact distinguish us from other animals.

“The Universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine,” Verschuuren quotes astrophysicist Sir James Jeans commenting in regard to the seemingly intelligent design of creation and its irreducibility to “brute fact.” Verschuuren’s book is barely two hundred pages and is an easy read. It is certainly an introduction, not the last word on the subject of genetics and evolution. If you are not generally conversant with these topics, I believe this book can serve as a good springboard to a further study of this topic. 

At the very least, it is an important reminder for anyone, whatever their view on evolution, that there is much that genetics can explain—and perhaps even more it can’t explain. More positively, however, it is an excellent example of how “faithful reasoning and reasonable faith” support rather than detract from understanding the transcendent aspects of our humanity which ultimately imply a Creator.


  • Julian Kwasniewski

    Julian Kwasniewski is a musician specializing in renaissance Lute and vocal music, an artist and graphic designer, as well as marketing consultant for several Catholic companies. His writings have appeared in National Catholic Register, Latin Mass Magazine, OnePeterFive, and New Liturgical Movement. You can find some of his artwork on Etsy.

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