It is my pleasure to review The mysterious Epigenome: What Lies Beyond DNA, a new book from Kregel Publications. As part of this review, I want to also reflect on my journey with reconciling science and faith. For the purposes of full disclosure, I disagree with authors Woodward and Gills in their conclusions because I am a theistic evolutionist as opposed to an Intelligent Design advocate(their position). I regard Intelligent Design (ID) as a valid Christian option and will readily admit that Woodward and Gills have more scientific cred than I do, but I have reservations to their approach. However the gifts of ID is that it weds scientific inquiry to wonder. What Woodward and Gills find within human genetics and the cell evidence for a Master Designer behind it all.
The Human Genome as God’s Other Book
Christian theology has long-held that God reveals himself generally in creation as well as in a special, unique way through God’s covenant relationship with Israel and Jesus’s Christ’s new covenant with all humanity as described in the Bible. Therefore Woodward and Gills look at the created order for evidence of a Creator. Where they find the fingerprint of God, is the human epigenome (no that isn’t an epilady for small woodland humanoids). Despite the completion of the Human Genome project in 2003, scientists have been unable to unlock the genetic roots of common diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s. Thus scientists have turned their attention to what lies beyond DNA, the epigenome. Epigenome refers to a ‘multi-layered system of chemical tags’ connected to the double helix genome of human DNA. Woodward and Gills broaden the term to include ‘all layers and levels of cell memory and stored information beyond the DNA(10).’
What follows is a fascinating exploration of DNA, RNA and proteins as ‘genetic language,’ what information we know about cells and what remains mysterious, the complexity of methyl and histone codes, the way genetic information is inscribed in the human zygote (beyond just DNA) and the implications of the epigenome for human health. They make their case that from examining the evidence, we see the ‘inference to Design.’
I respect their argument and am in awe of the human makeup but I had two objections to this book’s contents. The first, was stylistically it fell flat for me. Much of the information in the book is relayed through a fictitious tour through a high-tech cellular display and trips into the cell using ‘miniaturized exploration subs.’ For the life of me I can’t understand how learning about human genetics is less interesting than reading a story about wooden stilted characters learning about human genetics. This is not a good use of story! My second objection is more substantive. The majority of scientific references in the book are to projects and initiatives of the Discovery Institute, an Intelligent Design organization. If Intelligent Design wants scientific street cred, they should throw open the door and actually engage the wider scientific community (I know that this was likely an apologetic tool to get readers to delve into other ID literature, but it seems a little dishonest somehow).
But let me be clear, when I read the book which Woodward and Gills crafted, I too am moved and excited by the intricacies of human epigenetics and praise God for his handiwork. The way information about life itself is written throughout the cell is remarkable!
Science and Faith: My journey and personal reflection
So, you may be asking, if I see a ‘designer’ why do I bother distinguishing my position as a theistic evolutionist from Woodward and Gill’s Intelligent design? Certainly Woodward and Gills would probably claim that my position is a version of intelligent design (they claim the same for Francis Collins). Some critics of Intelligent Design argue that they are too ideologically motivated and methodologically flawed to count as science. I am not a scientist, so am really unqualified to speak to these claims. My issue is that I think that what is formally called ‘Intelligent Design’ is philosophically flawed.
Intelligent Design advocates are always looking for systems of irreducible complexity from which we can infer design. This is actually a step up from the sort of scientific engagement I imbibed in my youth. I grew up before the heyday of Intelligent Design publications; when I was young the big debate was between creation and evolution. I was taught that ‘evolution was just a theory’ without any regard for how the word ‘theory’ functions in scientific discourse. I was taught to read Genesis 1 and 2 as a literal, and scientific description of how God created the heavens and the earth (not necessarily ‘young earth creationism’ because there was some give in my theological circles with what ‘day’ meant in the Biblical account). As a result I was taught to mistrust anything my science teachers told me in school, because their belief in evolution undermined the truth of the Christian faith (I was a bad student for lots of reasons, but this view certainly didn’t help). As a side note, I wonder if conservative Christian mistrust of climate change stems from this suspicion of science.
When I first heard of intelligent design it seemed to me to be a way to be both faithful to the Bible, without disengaging from academic endeavor. Here were scientists like Michael Behe who see God in a microscope! For a while I think I camped here and was grateful for their work.
If I have moved towards theistic evolution it is not because I think Woodward and Gills are wrong about the Designer, but because I think they are wrong about systems of irreducible complexity. It is all irreducibly complex and God’s stamp is on every part of it! I have heard the so-called New Atheists refer to Intelligent Design as a belief in the ‘God of the Gaps.’ What was revealed to me by the fount of all knowledge (Wikipedia) was that the term actually originated with a 19th Century Scottish Evangelist Henry Drummond.
The idea of the God of the Gaps is this: Gaps in our scientific knowledge (systems of irreducible complexity) point toward the need for a creator (inference for design). The problem with this is that as scientific knowledge increases, God gets smaller and retreats to the next ‘gap in scientific knowledge.’ Theistic evolution on the other hand accepts both a creator and natural processes, the creation story and the explanatory power of evolutionary theory, and God is not threatened by vigorous scientific inquiry. In reference to a book of physics he was reading, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge:
It has been brought home to me how clearly how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact all frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved. (Letters & Papers from Prison, p311, May 29, 1944)
Certainly as a Christian I accept the truthfulness of Genesis 1-2 (and the rest of the Bible) but I do not read the creation account as scientific description. Instead I read of God’s care for humanity and the subversion of ANE gods and creation myths. It is really actually possible to belive the Bible is true and evolution is true too. This has been shown by Evangelical scholars like John Walton who teaches at that bastion of liberalism, Wheaton College (see especially his Genesis commentary or the Lost World of Genesis 1).
So my failure to be fully convinced by Woodward and Gills of ‘Intelligent Design’ is not because I am not moved with them to wonder and awe at the handiwork of God, but because I am awed by the whole range of God’s work in natural and supernatural ways and my hermeneutic of Genesis is not the least threatened by evolution. Woodward and Gills would not agree with my fear about the God of the Gaps making God smaller. They assert with President Kennedy, “The greater our knowledge increases, the more our ignorance unfolds(9).” For them the case for God is always implicit in what we do not know. But God is at work throughout the whole shebang. Even the parts we do know.
Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.