Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Primate Ancestors?

Dr. Jitse van der Meer in his essay, “Primate Ancestors: Evidence from DNA Comparison,” posted over at the Reformed Academic, puts forth the argument that man and chimpanzees have common ancestry. He explains that humans and chimpanzees have similarities in both chromosome structure and in gene structure. He concludes, from that evidence, that humans and chimpanzees must, therefore, have a common ancestry.

Although he writes for the “well-educated non-specialist,” I would state forthwith that my two post-secondary degrees did not equip me well to understand everything said in the essay. For that, I humbly apologize to my brother. However, I believe that I have understood enough to formulate an opinion.

This response makes three points: Dr. Van der Meer concludes more than he should; his conclusions call for a new way of reading scripture; his conclusions are beyond the pale of the Reformed confessions.

1. Dr. Van der Meer concludes more than he should.

Near the beginning of his essay, he states “the principle” in simple terms: “Assume a man suffers from a genetic disease. His father as well as his daughter and grandson suffer from the same disease. His uncles and aunts from his father’s side do too. The explanation is that they have all inherited the disease from their common ancestor.”

That would, indeed, be a sensible explanation. However, it would not be sensible to say that two people who have the same disease must be related. That would be saying too much. But that is what Dr. Van der Meer says: Humans and chimps have a similar chromosome structure and (defective) gene structure; the sensible conclusion is that they have a common ancestry.

Dr. Van der Meer, in his argument, is “begging the question” (in the formal sense of the expression). He assumes what he is trying to prove. He argues, “When relatives share in suffering a genetic disease, it is because there is a common ancestor,” or, “When relatives share in suffering a genetic disease it is because they are relatives.” That is “begging the question.” However, there are many who share in similar genetic disorders that are not related. We can cite for example Down Syndrome or many cancers. That the sufferers share in similar, even identical, genetic disorders proves nothing about common ancestry. He then moves on to the error of “affirming the consequent.” He argues that relatives who share in common genetic diseases are relatives; therefore, all those who share in genetic distinctives are relatives. Humans and chimpanzees share genetic distinctives; therefore, they are relatives. QED. This is fallacious reasoning.

At first he is more tentative in his conclusions. Under 2.2, he says, “The banding patterns of all 23 human chromosomes perfectly align with chimpanzee chromosomes. This means that human and chimp chromosomes have a very closely matching pattern in their chemical structure.”

That is an observation, and nothing more. From the observation, one cannot argue more. The observation that humans and chimps have similar chemical structure is simply an observation that proves nothing else.

Dr. Van der Meer says more than the observation allows him to say.

Under 3.2, where he explains that “…humans and chimpanzees share six hemoglobin genes,” he ends with saying: “Explanation: an ancestor of humans and chimps sustained the gene duplication as well as the six mutations in the pseudogene and passed it on to humans and chimps.”

Here Dr. Van der Meer shifts from making observations about what science sees to how the seen things came to be as they are.

Under 3.3, he boldly concludes, “…chimps and humans have a common ancestor.” And under 4, “So the answer is that an explanation in terms of common ancestry remains called for.”

In my opinion, Dr. Van der Meer decisively concludes more than he ought.

2. Dr. Van der Meer’s conclusions call for a new way of reading scripture.

The “old” way of reading scripture is to read it plainly. Although there is room for freedom of exegesis when reading and interpreting scripture—also the first chapters of Genesis—in our tradition, we have usually tried to set forth the plain meaning of scripture.

In our churches, we have read Genesis 1-11 as history. If Dr. Van der Meer’s conclusions are correct, and man shares with the chimpanzee a primitive ancestor, a different way of reading scripture would be demanded. I can only guess what that might be. The early chapters of Genesis would need to be understood as myth, or legend, or aetiology, or polemic — something other than history.

The other passages of scripture, also those of the New Testament, which plainly intimate that Adam was the product of a direct creation of God (Lk 3:38; 1 Cor 15:45-49; 1 Tim 2:13) would need to be read though a new interpretative lens.

The reader of scripture would need to become somewhat of an expert to understand what is written. The Canadian Reformed Churches have always confessed the clarity of scripture. If we were to read scripture through a hermeneutical grid which has as a premise that man shares a primitive ancestor with animals, we would have to make a global shift in the reading and teaching of scripture.

3. Dr. Van der Meer’s conclusions are beyond the pale of the Reformed confessions.

The Reformed confessions teach fiat creation.

Article 12 of the Belgic Confession says: “We believe that the Father through the Word, that is, through His Son, has created out of nothing heaven and earth and all creatures, when it seemed good to Him, and that He has given to every creature its being, shape, and form….”

One wonders how it could be said more simply. All creatures were created out of nothing. “All creatures.” “Nothing.” Important words.

Every creature created has its existence, its shape, its form, by the creative act of God. To suggest that creatures received their existence, shape and form via a process of natural selection is beyond the pale of the Reformed confession.

In Article 14 of the Belgic Confession we confess that “…God created man of dust from the ground.” I think it fair to say that most Canadian Reformed confessors mean quite simply what it says according to the plain meaning of the words and do not read them through a new interpretative grid that gives a novel meaning to the words.

After having read Dr. Van der Meer’s essay, I conclude that, from the evidence, he incautiously concludes more than he should; his conclusions call for a new way of reading, interpreting, and understanding scripture; his conclusions are beyond the fence of the Reformed confessions.

Several other Canadian Reformed ministers have reacted to Dr. Van der Meer's article here:


Wes Bredenhof said...


Thank you for that thoughtful analysis.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this.


Tony Jelsma said...

George, I appreciate the time and effort you have spent reading our blog and formulating a response to Jitse’s article. We want an open and forthright yet respectful discussion on these issues and you have provided that. Please allow me to make a few comments on what you have written.
You state that Jitse concludes more than he should because the sharing of a genetic disease doesn’t require common ancestry and you’re right. However, we’re not just talking about the sharing of a few mutations, we’re talking about sharing over 98% of three billion base pairs of DNA sequence, most of which can tolerate mutations without loss of function. If two of my students handed in term papers that are over 98% identical, you can be assured of what my response would be!
Secondly, you state that “in our churches, we have read Genesis 1-11 as history.” I’m not sure what you mean by “our churches” but Max Rogland’s 2001 article “Ad litteram: Some Dutch Reformed theologians on the creation days” in Westminster Theological Journal clearly shows how a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 is NOT part of our Dutch Reformed heritage. George, please go back to my article on the interpretation of Genesis 1 and Freda’s articles on the history of creationism. You will see that such a hermeneutic does not come from our Reformed heritage, but rather from North American dispensationalism.
Further, reading Genesis 1 as history misses the rich theology of this chapter, as I tried to explain in my article. I understand the principle of the perspicuity of Scripture but that applies to the Gospel message, not to every part of Scripture. Some parts of Scripture are difficult to understand, as even Peter acknowledges in 2 Peter 3:16, otherwise we wouldn’t need preachers :).
You claim further that the Belgic Confession teaches fiat creation. I respectfully disagree. It does state that God has created everything out of nothing but the confession does not describe HOW God created. In fact, twice in Genesis 1 (v 11, 24) we read that the earth brought forth some of the things that were created (whatever that means).
Finally, you seem to argue that there are only two options, a literal interpretation and common ancestry. Those are not the only two options, let’s continue to discuss this to find a middle ground somewhere.

George van Popta said...


Please note that you supplied the word "literal" where I wrote "historical." There is a bit of a difference.

Think about what Jesus said here: (Mat 19:4) "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female'…. Or, as Mark has it: (Mark 10:6) "But at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.'"

The Lord Jesus taught a historical creation of Adam and Eve at the beginning of creation. One would need to apply a new hermeneutic to make that mean something other than what it plainly says. If one holds the premise of common ancestry, of necessity he will look at texts such as these through a new interpretative lens—one, which I think, has not been used in our (I mean, the Canadian Reformed Churches) heretofore.

I did read your and Freda's articles (but I will reread them). The ideas of Kupyer, Bavinck, Schilder, etc., on the days of creation and whether the flood was local or universal can be discussed within the bounds of our confessions. The Three Forms of Unity form a big tent, and we can have good and vigorous discussion within that roomy tent. There's lots of oxygen in there! But, in my opinion, the discussion of primitive ancestry is outside the confessional tent. And I don't think it's the guys inside the tent that have pushed the theistic evolutionist out; rather, the theistic evolutionist has joined another discussion somewhere else. I think the real point of that discussion is whether evolution is by natural selection or by kazillions of miraculous little actions of God as he brings one type of being out of another. Or, possibly the idea of some sort of evolution would be comfortable to a Deist. Regardless, I think that discussion is outside the tent.

I am intrigued by your position on the perspicuity of scripture. I am going to have to think about the idea that the principle applies (only?) to the gospel and not to every part of scripture.

Dave Van Es said...

I have read the article and to be honest I was rather lost at times with terms and such I did not understand. My question is, however, did the "mutation" of the human line occur before or after the fall? or another way... did the seperation of man and chimp occur before or after the fall?

George van Popta said...

Dave, I'm not sure what those who hold to this idea would answer you. I, too, would be interested to know. It's a good question to ask Dr. Van der Meer.

Reformed Academic said...

We thank George for posting his comments on our blog, and note that Jitse has posted his reply on our blog as well.

Marinus Veenman said...

Original sin and evolution are irreconcilable and mutually exclusive concepts. No orginal sin, no need for Jesus (Rom. 10(?))
'Nuf said.