I first learned about this book from a book review published in the journal Evolution (Johnson, 2014). It sounded interesting so I bought a copy and read it.
There are four main chapters and each one covers a specific topic related to genomes and function. The topics are: Retroviruses, Transposons, Pseudogenes, and New Genes. There's lots and lots of interesting information in these chapters including an up-to-date summary of co-opted DNA that probably serves a biologically relevant function in our genome. This is the book to buy if you want a good review of the scientific literature on those topics.
I was surprised to discover that there's no mention of junk DNA in this book even though most of the subject material is about junk. It's difficult to figure out exactly what point the author is making but I agree with the reviewer (Norman Johnson) that the tone is hyperadaptationist and that "the book would have benefited from a firmer footing in population genetic principles."
Human evolution over the past few million years has been profound. Striking innovations in our biology include bipedality and the increase in brain size. It has been suggested that this rapid evolution may correlate with, and may have been driven by, a high rate of retrotransposition. John Mattick has championed the paradigm that non-coding RNA has vital roles in the genetic regulation of complex organisms. He suggests that waves of Alu insertions into primate genomes have provided a substrate contributing to the versatility of transcriptional and epigenetic regulation, necessary for interactions between the environment and epigenetic regulation of the genome, and thus contributing to the development of cognitive function.There are hints of human exceptionalism in those paragraphs but those hints become explicit in the last chapter: "What really makes us human?"
It is generally stated that half of our genome is derived from ERVs and TEs. The application of more-sophisticated software that allows identification of more degerated (fragmented)TEs has raised this estimate to two-thirds of our genome. TEs have expanded, modified and eloborated our ancestors' genomes at least as far back as genetic analysis can detect. Mattick's revolutionary theorising may be generalisable over biological history. (pp. 130-131)
Biologically, we constitute a twig of the mammalian branch of the phylogenetic tree. It does not follow that we are merely another one of the millions of species that comprise that tree. Physically we are apes, genetically contiguouos with lemurs platypuses. It does not follow that metaphysically we are nothing but another kind of ape. (p. 266)It seems strange to bring up metaphysics in this way but it's consistent with what Graeme Finlay wrote in the Prologue. It seemed strange then as well ...
Darwinism as science entails the random generation of variation screened by lawful natural selection, leading to biological adaptation and diversification. But when this mechanism is asserted to be either purposive or non-purposive, Darwinism is changed into a metaphysical consideration. Such deliberations may be properly carried out, but not as a scientific activity. For science is blind to the concept of purpose. Whether the process of natural selection entails no purpose (as a materialist might suppose) or is a means to an end, such as a creature that expresses the image of God (as a Christian might suppose) are equally metaphysical interpretations. Neither teleology nor a denial of teleology shoudl be accepted as an integral component of a scientific understanding. (p. 9)I profoundly disagree. I think it's possible for science to investigate whether there's any evidence of purpose in evolution, especially the evolution of humans. So far, there's no scientific evidence that humans are special or that their evolution was preordained. Thus, we can tentatively conclude, scientifically, that evolution lacks purpose.
This is not just "metaphysics." The irony here is that Graeme Finlay seems to be making the argument that there's scientific evidence for purpose in human evolution.
I was wondering why a cancer researcher in New Zealand would feel compelled to write things like that so I looked him up on Google. Turns out that Graeme Finlay is active on BioLogos, the website founded by Francis Collins and funded by Templeton. The goal is to show that science and Christianity are compatible.
Finlay has posted an article on that site with the same title as his book: Human Evolution: Genes, Genealogies and Phylogenies. He explains how evolution is compatible with his belief in a Christian God.
So how did this demonstration of human evolution fit in with my Christian faith? The biblical concept of creation emphasized that all of reality is given existence by God. This biblical understanding was very important for the development of science during the Middle Ages, because it entailed that creation was ordered and behaved lawfully (and therefore was worthy of investigation). It also meant that the entire universe was creation, distinct from God (and therefore was amenable to investigation). The concept of an independent and lawful creation was foreign to polytheistic or pantheistic worldviews. On the biblical account, biological evolution is merely the history of life, and an aspect of God’s created world.It's okay to post stuff like this on BioLogos but I wish he would have kept even the softer version out of his book.
Old Testament scholars have shown that the creation stories in the book of Genesis were written to present a vision of the nature of God – in his peerless sovereignty, faithfulness, and goodness. This God was wholly different from the violent and petty gods of the ancient Babylonians or Canaanites. When read in this way, the Genesis stories may be seen as one of the greatest-ever revolutions in human understanding. Genesis used the literary forms of the day to introduce its readers to a rational God who cares for people – and whose faithfulness made science possible. Genesis is expressly about theology, not science.
Ultimately, of course, Christian faith comes from God’s revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. As David Hart states, Christianity is the only major religion that arose from a single historical claim. A lifetime of study can only emphasize the authenticity and power of this history. And I have a deep sense of satisfaction that the God who is revealed in human history is also the God of cosmic and biological history. All such histories run freely, but they follow channels that are constrained by divinely-ordained laws, and they have culminated in astonishing climaxes. Science reveals the universe, the solar system, and all living organisms to have an authentic history. In the same way, the Christian faith is irreducibly historical. The wonders of biological development and of Resurrection come from the same faithful God. That’s exhilarating.
The books is a good read and very useful. References to human exceptionalism and gods detract from an otherwise valuable resource.
Johnson, N.A. (2014) Making sense of the human genome. Evolution 68: 3047-3049.