Scientists announced that they had completed deciphering the chimpanzee genome. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, called the accomplishment a “really big deal.”
Decoding “3 billion building blocks of chimp DNA” is, by any reasonable measure, a “big deal.” But that’s why it’s so important to keep in mind what this news does and doesn’t “prove.”
While the genome being deciphered may have belonged to the chimpanzee, the real subject of this research was man. As the New York Times put it, what is being sought is a definition of “what makes people human.”
The reason, of course, they say that is because chimps are considered to be the “closest living relative of humankind.” Depending on how you calculate it, chimpanzees and humans have as much as 98 percent of their DNA in common.
So, scientists hope to identify those genetic changes most responsible for the emergence of modern man, but not so fast: Two percent may not sound like a lot, but it represents at least 40 million differences between the chimp and human genomes. For scientists to find the key genes is like looking for a microscopic needle in a gigantic haystack.
Even before the researchers can draw any meaningful conclusions, however, some are rushing in to draw their own dramatic conclusions from the announcement—conclusions that are patently false.
The first of these is that the shared genetic material “proves” evolution and common ancestry. You’ve seen that in the press repeatedly, but it’s simply not so.
Now it’s true that you don’t have to be a Darwinist to see the physical resemblances between chimpanzees and humans. Given that resemblance, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the species share a great deal of their genes. That, however, proves very little, since all life on Earth, from bacteria to humans, share at least 25 percent of their DNA. For instance, humans and nematode worms share 75 percent of their DNA, but it proves nothing about their common origin.
But for the believer in naturalism, this can only be an indication of evolution and common ancestry. That’s because he has ruled out any other possibility beforehand. This new data is simply used wrongly to support a prior philosophical commitment to materialism. The difficulty with that, however, is that it is just as plausible to infer that an intelligent designer, who made DNA the building block of life, didn’t need to start from scratch when creating man. It’s not a question of data, you see, but of the worldview that determines how we will use that data.
A second unwarranted conclusion is that since there are similarities between the chimp and human DNA, it proves that man is nothing more than, as a famous book put it, The Third Chimpanzee (the common chimpanzee and the Bonobo being the other two). That argument overlooks not only the number of differencesâ€•40 millionâ€•but also the difference a single gene can make. As the esteemed philosopher Alvin Plantinga has jested, it makes you proud of what we’ve done with our unique 2 percent.
So while the deciphering of the chimpanzee genome is “a really big deal,” it shouldn’t obscure an even bigger deal: No matter how many genes we share, man is fearfully and wonderfully made—a unique work of the Creator.
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“Big Differences in Duplicated DNA Distinguish Chimp and Human Genomes,” Science Daily, 2 September 2005.
Malcolm Ritter, “Scientists decode chimp’s DNA, finding clues on human evolution,” New Jersey Star-Ledger, 1 September 2005.
Brad Harrub, Ph.D., “Do Human and Chimpanzee DNA Indicate an Evolutionary Relationship?” Apologetics Press.
Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (Harper Perennial, 1992).
William Dembski, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design (InterVarsity, 2004).