The past four centuries have not been especially kind to religious believers.
Every time scientists have peered through a microscope or a telescope, their findings have usually challenged popular notions about God. Religious authorities have often fought back. But the latest discoveries about the human genome have produced no such backlash.
At least, not yet. This week's revelations, published in the journals Science and Nature, have produced more scientific questions than religious consternation. But how society perceives the Creator will depend on how broadly the new genetics explains creation in years to come.
"Every age, every culture has articulated its belief system or philosophy within some kind of a framework," says Tom Shannon, author of "Made in Whose Image? Genetic Engineering and Christian Ethics." "That happened with Copernicus. It should have happened with Darwin. And we have that same opportunity again. What we're being given here is a new paradigm."
Perhaps the biggest reason for the lack of religious hostility stems from the relatively humble stance that many genetic researchers are taking. They reject the notion that genes explain what makes man tick.
"It is a delusion to think that genomics in isolation will ever tell us what it means to be human," writes Svante Paabo of Germany's Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in this week's edition of Science. "The history of our genes is but one aspect of our history, and there are many other histories that are even more important."
For example, the ancient Greeks contributed only a tiny portion of man's genetic pool, he points out. But their ideas about architecture, science, technology, and politics have had a powerful influence on Western culture.
Even revelations that man possesses only about 30,000 genes - not that many more than fruit flies or worms - have caused little religious hand-wringing.
"Biblically, everything's made from the earth," says Norbert Samuelson, professor of Jewish philosophy at Arizona State University in Tempe. So the finding that man's genetic makeup looks similar to a roundworm's seems logical to him. For Jews, he adds, man's uniqueness depends on his relationship with God, not his material origin.
Similarities with animals
The similarity of the genetic codes of man and animals poses problems for Christians, but perhaps not insurmountable ones, theologians say.
"The church has played up the uniqueness of the human person. [But] there's a continuity between humans and other forms of life," says Lou Ann Trost, program director for the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif.
The genome finding may prove positive, she adds. Perhaps it may lead to a stronger Christian basis for environmental stewardship.
Even conservative Christians who take the biblical account of creation as literal fact say the latest genetic findings don't pose a roadblock to faith. In fact, many evangelicals argue that the new research points out the implausibility of Darwinian evolution. Adherents of a movement called Intelligent Design claim the findings support their beliefs - though most genetic researchers reject these views as bad science.
The central idea behind Intelligent Design is that life looks too elegant to be explained solely by Darwinian evolution. An intelligent designer or Creator must have gotten the ball rolling. Thus, the key discovery of the new genetics is that DNA is literally an information-carrying molecule.
"That has very powerful implications when you begin to think of the origin of life," says Stephen Meyer, director of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in Seattle. "Information in our experience is a distinctive product of mind.... We can't really prove therefore that there is something called a spirit or a soul in a way that you can prove things in a laboratory. But we do have this first-person awareness of our own consciousness."
Here, paths diverge between strict creationists, who hold that the world was formed some 6,000 years ago, and those like Professor Meyer, who believe that a Creator's work has taken place through more gradual and lengthy change.
"What we're doing is saying ... what if naturalism isn't true?" Meyer says. "We want to go back to that great 19th-century question and say: Maybe they were wrong.... If there's evidence of real design, then the God question may be back on the table."
To be sure, many leading genetic researchers don't believe their work excludes God. They reject notions that genes explain all, or even most, of what makes man tick. But they - and more mainstream Christian thinkers - do hold that the accumulating genetic evidence does point to evolution as a key process through which man developed.
But once God created the process, perhaps He or She left it alone, some Christian thinkers say. That would suggest that man's appearance was accidental rather than predetermined.
"What we're discovering is that what God created was a process and that process has a lot of play in it," says Mr. Shannon, the author. "There's elements of surprises and spontaneity."
An accidental creation?
Other Christian thinkers reject the idea that man's creation was purely accidental. "I believe that God is somehow guiding the process," says Professor Trost of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. And "there's still a sort of unique relationship between God and human beings. Despite all these genes [in common], we don't see worms creating culture."
It is this sense of culture and, really, self-aware consciousness that may point to something unique about man. "It's a myth that science, with all the power of its reductive methods, can give us an understanding of the great products of human self-reflection, culture, knowledge," says Phillip Sloan, director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Values at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society