Common Ancestry

“Yes, evolution by descent from a common ancestor is clearly true. If there was any lingering doubt about the evidence from the fossil record, the study of DNA provides the strongest possible proof of our relatedness to all other living things.” 

~ Dr. Francis Collins (Director of the Human Genome Project and professing Christian)

Evolution was one of those subjects that no one in my family or church talked about when I was growing up. If it was talked about, it was relegated to a category of people who wanted nothing to do with God and used evolution as an excuse to explain a world without God.

This is not to say my family or my fellow Christians who wrote off evolution years ago as anti-God propaganda weren’t critical thinkers. Even scientists admit it is not the answer one would intuitively arrive at. For most of my life I never gave much thought to it. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have questions pop up from time to time while I was growing up however, particularly concerning dinosaurs. The same intuition I relied on to tell me evolution was ridiculous, also told me that the earth was surely older than 6,000 years. The thoughtful explanation given to me by Nana when I was young was that there were civilizations before Adam and Eve, but they were wiped out and God started over with Adam and Eve.

The one or two times I would inquire about those races that existed previously; she would also tell me it was none of our business. 

The basic idea that I remember her sharing with me was that everything else may have been created over millions of years, but humans were separate and distinct from the rest of the animals; an explanation I found to be surprisingly satisfactory over the years.

Questions surrounding issues like people existing outside the garden were left to mystery and non-essential. The universe is billions of years old? No problem. There are hundreds of millions of galaxies? No problem. Radiometric dating shows animals alive on earth millions of years ago? No problem. Human-like creatures existed before us? No problem. I did not suffer from many of the issues that young earth creationists suffer from because I had happily accepted at a very young age that the earth was in fact old, very old.

The first event that would spark in me a desire to inquire about evolution occurred when we took a family trip to Arizona in 2012. Having lived in areas with plentiful forests and vegetation most of my life, it was never readily apparent (and I was consequentially not regularly reminded) how old the earth is.

Our first stop on our trip was the Petrified Forest. I had spoken to Nana on the phone before heading out to Arizona. She specifically told me that I should go visit the Petrified Forest National Park Museum. She told me to look at the petrified wood with cut marks in it and told me it was proof of an ancient civilization.

Nana had lived out here for nearly two years on the Indian reservation before my mother was born and was quite familiar with the area. She had also no doubt treaded down these paths of questioning, had reflected on the age of the earth back then and had concluded from her time out there that the earth was indeed very old. This added to the specialness of this vacation for me. I was, in a way, taking the same journey Nana had taken many years before and she was guiding me on part of that journey.

After our visit at the Petrified Forest National Park, it was time to go see what we had driven so far to see. I was exhausted from having driven through the night and worked the day before. I was never particularly fond of vacations, but that was about to change.

We arrived just before sunset and the park ranger told us the best place to go for the most scenic view in that area. We opened the van door and I stepped out at one of the more scenic points of the Grand Canyon during sunset. The magnificence and beauty overwhelmed me. 

In that moment I came face to face with the reality that the earth has been here for a very long time and I felt incredibly small. I didn’t feel small in the traditional sense of smallness, how there are millions of people in the world, but small in relation to the passage of time.

I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to be such a small and insignificant part of creation and yet be able to witness something that had formed into such beauty over millions of years. How what I beheld had touched infinitely more of life on the passage of time than what I would ever touch or even perceive.

“…For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”

~ James 4:14

I left Arizona and returned home with a profound sense of gratitude. With this positive experience however came questions that would take on a new urgency after my daughter came to me one day, visibly distraught, asking if evolution were true. In science class at school, her science teacher had told her that human beings evolved and she came to me asking if this was in fact the case.

I was caught off guard. I had never been in a position where I felt like I had to defend a point of view on this topic, one way or the other. I don’t remember what I said exactly, but I remember thinking I did not want to automatically undermine her science teacher without a legitimate reason for doing so. 

I set out on a personal quest where I would devote my attention to this question until I got to the bottom of it. I was convinced I was right from the outset. I was certain that evolution was just the naturalistic way of explaining what was more easily explained or rationalized through old earth creationism. After all, if one chose not to believe in God, evolution seemed like a reasonable, though equally miraculous alternative explanation for the origins of mankind.

Around this time, a Christian friend of mine I greatly respect, threw me a serious curve ball when I told him about the issue. He confessed that, while he found it problematic for the conservative Christian evangelical faith that we both shared, when he investigated the matter, he found considerable evidence for evolution that is hard to deny. Hearing him say this disturbed me and I confess, I moved at a considerably slower pace after hearing him say that, afraid of what I might find. I wanted to fully take in and reflect on the information I came across to be as certain as possible.

There would be weeks, even months, where I had to stop and not go any further while the ramifications of new information I had just become aware of sunk in. With each new layer I encountered, I feared my worldview and possibly even my faith would not survive this journey, at least not in any recognizable sense.

The first serious second guessing of my old earth creation view occurred when I saw the statistics that showed the genetic similarity between human beings and different animal species, with Bonobos being our closest genetic relatives, sharing 99% of human DNA.

Could it be a conspiracy in the scientific community to come up with those kinds of numbers? I knew deep down that seemed absurdly unlikely. However, it wasn’t until I learned of the recent advances in DNA that my faith in old earth creationism began to seriously unravel.

The tipping point for me was something called chromosome two in human DNA. Keep in mind, I was not trying to disprove the earth was old or that animals had not macro-evolved. I already accepted at face value most of the scientific community’s findings, though I never had given any of it much thought.

My only issue was with attempting to validate my position within old earth creationism, that God had wiped out all life on earth and started over, with Adam and Eve as overseers of creation. It didn’t even matter to me how God started over, just that God had started over and had made human beings, separate and distinct from all other creatures.

If we shared a common ancestor with the great apes, then my entire world view had to be reevaluated.

I discovered from Dr. Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University and Catholic Christian, that it has been known for some time within the scientific community that humans have one less chromosome than the great apes which could be explained by one of two theories.

One theory was that the difference demonstrated human uniqueness in creation, and that we are all together separate and different from other animals.

If human beings evolved however, then at some point in the evolutionary chain of events, two chromosomes had to have fused and the evidence for that fusion would still be recognizably present in the human DNA helix strand itself.

Once the technology became available to make such observations, if the evidence was not there, this would destroy the theory of evolution in relation to humans and prove that humans are indeed a special creation, separate and distinct from the rest of the animal world.

This is the single biggest reason why evolution is so powerfully convincing, because it is a scientific theory that is testable in the natural world. If that marker was not there showing how the two chromosomes had mutated together, it would have scientifically disproven via direct observation, the theory of evolution in relation to humans.    

In 2001, the long-awaited results from the Human Genome Project were finally published giving a map of human DNA to the world.

With this unprecedented scientific event, it was now also possible to confirm or refute evolution in relation to human origins via examination of chromosome two. Did God really wipe out all mankind and start over with Adam and Eve resulting in a 23 pair chromosome or did we progressively evolve from a common ancestor we share with the great apes and a chromosome fuse to create 23 pairs instead of the 24 that the great apes have?

In 2005, Dr. Miller testified in a precedent setting trial as an expert witness about the discovery of telomeres in human DNA on chromosome two, demonstrated that the chromosome had in fact been fused, verifying through DNA evidence and direct observation, the scientific validity of human evolution through common ancestry beyond any reasonable doubt.

For those who have spent years studying the Bible from a conservative evangelical Christian perspective, it is generally understood that accepting macro evolution (to include Common Ancestry) as fact has serious negative ramifications. There are doctrinal issues as well as reliability issues that one is faced with concerning the Bible in a world brought about by evolution.

In my quest to answer the questions surrounding evolution, the bar for me was set quite low due to the Old Earth Creationist worldview I was raised with. I did not need compelling evidence that we evolved from algae on a rock over billions of years. I only needed to go as deep as human Common Ancestry with the great apes.

If we shared a common ancestor with the great apes, then my entire world view had to be reevaluated.

With the discovery of the chromosome two evidence, I found it impossible to hold on to Old Earth Creationism in good conscience, despite its comforting familiarity.

A Crisis of Faith

With this new information, my worldview had been proven false at a foundational level and while I could see how this new framework had tremendous explanatory power, I felt lost, not just in a religious way, but in a way where I no longer understood my place within the world around me. I almost instantaneously felt alienated from the Christian evangelical community in a way I had never experienced before and did not know was possible.

This paradigm shift created a shroud of uncertainty over everything. If I was wrong and my Christian evangelical worldview had been in error all this time, what else might I be wrong about?

What source of knowledge or truth could I trust?

Could I trust any?


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