Book review by D. Gareth Jones, November 2022
Evolution and Eschatology: Genetic Science and the Goodness of God
By Graeme Finlay
Cascade Books: Eugene, Oregon, 2021
ISBN: 9781666704570, 218 pages, paperback
This is an ambitious book, ranging from Genesis 1 to evolution of the placenta, the developing brain, immunity, and on to created histories. Running through every aspect is genetics, with thoughtful and informed theological commentary throughout. Graeme Finlay is well-equipped to write on such matters, having degrees in theology and science. For many years, he has been a cancer researcher in the Department of Molecular Medicine and Pathology at the University of Auckland. He has written extensively on science-faith issues, and is currently a Project Director at NZCIS (New Zealand Christians in Science).
At first sight, this book could look forbidding to those without a reasonable grasp of modern genetics. That is not a criticism as such, since there are some things that require detailed insight, and that need to be wrestled with. What it does show is that Finlay’s scope is vast, and that he is guided by profound theological insights as well as by a deep Christian commitment. Consequently, this is not a book for those who would score cheap shots in the well-worn evolution-creation sphere, but it is for those who want to grapple with hard issues, and be led by an expert in genetics with a very firm grounding in Christian theology.
The respective contributions of science and theology come through repeatedly, as each of their spheres of activity are outlined, pointing out their essential tenets and their corresponding limitations.
Chapter Outlines and Reflections
The first chapter alone on Genesis and the beginning of things is a harbinger of what is to come, as Finlay lays the groundwork for clear thinking on the status of human beings, the imago Dei, human dignity, and their evolutionary connections. This is well informed and more than adequately referenced. In some ways, it stands on its own, and is worth studying by itself.
The chapter on the evolution of the placenta may come as a surprise, since rarely does the general public think much about this organ, especially from a Christian perspective. Nevertheless, there are many riches here as the significance of chance events and randomness emerge. Finlay argues that random gene mutations were essential features of placental development, contributing to the functionality of the placenta in its lengthy developmental period. This, in turn, has made possible the developmental characteristics of the human brain underlying God’s purposes for human beings. He rightly comments that “the postulate that evolutionary change is the bearer of God’s purposes, seem to sit uneasily with each other” (p.41). This perceptive insight leads to, what for many is, a startling conclusion: that reality is permeated with randomness and unpredictability, and that God achieves his ends in history despite and through the randomness that characterises the behaviour of his creatures (p.48). Coming back to the placenta, Finlay reminds us of the essential inter-relationship between parent and unborn child: “the advent of the placenta has provided the conditions enabling prenatal parenting” (p.56). This is a salutary perspective that is usually overlooked by those who regard the embryo and foetus as having absolute value in isolation of any considerations of their embryonic or foetal environments.
In turning to the developing brain, Finlay again seeks to follow genetic changes during brain evolution, leading him to conclude that there is compelling evidence of human descent from ancestors with recognisable genetic characteristics. Myriad tiny incremental steps have provided, he writes, genetic specifications underlying the complexity of the human brain (p.69). These emphasise our embeddedness in the materiality of biological history. However, he is no materialist, because he is forthright with his assertion that lasting meaning is closely tied in with humans as personal agents.
Finlay, therefore, is careful to avoid genetic determinism as he emphasises the central significance of community, our interaction with other personal beings, and the quality of our nurture as social beings. Much of this discussion veers away from genetic input, since it is less dependent upon an understanding of genetics. This is no bad thing, and it does underline an important point: that genetics is not everything. Nevertheless, Finlay is aware of some of the central drivers within neuroscience, all of which point to the interplay of biology, socialisation, and neuroplasticity. He concludes: “The structure of my brain … has been formed by God’s knowledge of me and by my painfully clouded and incomplete knowledge of him.” (p.90).
The chapter on immunity brings Finlay back to home territory, with his description of innate and adaptive immunity. Here he touches on the manner in which natural selection is distasteful to some because of its dependence upon free randomness, and hence its apparent incompatibility with a purposive God (p.103). Against this, he contends that in each of us as individuals, natural selection serves as a powerful mechanism for generating new immunological capacities. This is because immunity develops from the ongoing interaction between genes and their “indefinably complex environment” (p106). Hence, immunologically we are not self-sufficient, autonomous gene machines.
It is fascinating the way in which he sees the complex and manifold interdependencies of the immune system as paralleling the interdependencies of the body and of life in the Christian church. It could be argued that he pushes this parallel between the immune system and the Christian community too far, but it cannot be denied that, no matter how speculative it is, it serves to open up new areas for contemplation and creative thought.
The significance of the book’s title emerges in the final chapter on “created histories.” In this he argues against the notion that God micro-manipulates the world and human beings through mutations, especially through those that cause cancers. Rather, he puts forward an understanding of evolutionary process as history that recognises its ambiguity, contingency and genuine ontological freedom (p.116). More specifically, he contends that random, autonomous process (chance) leads evolution along particular trajectories, so that, in his view, phylogenetic history invites a teleological interpretation. In arguing like this, his strong Christian commitment shines through, even as his interpretation will be one among many.
I am grateful for the manner in which Finlay has brought his deep genetic expertise, especially in the cancer arena, to bear on evolutionary matters. He has been prepared to look deeply into evolutionary territory and has not been afraid to face up to the challenges this has for theology. The destructiveness of cancers poses enormous problems for Christians with their picture of a loving God who seeks only their best. Finlay writes: “the achievement of something resoundingly good may be attained only at the cost of undesirable side effects” (p.133). As he grapples with this dichotomy of good and evil in the world, he finds himself walking through territory already surveyed by countless other Christian thinkers. He is only too aware that the genetic mechanisms of biological evolution and tumour evolution are the same. How then can we affirm the creative purposes of God in the former, but deny them in the latter? He is prepared to confront this dilemma, not shirking the immensity of the issue.
I admire Finlay’s willingness to do this. In doing so, he delves into the significance of the “fall,” human sinfulness, the incompleteness of biological and human stories, the openness of history, and the completion of all stories in Jesus the Messiah. Inevitably, there is much in his perspectives that is open to debate. However, what is important is that his views are put forward with humility and integrity. He concludes with the phrase: “Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of eschatology” (p.158). This will not be welcomed by everyone, but Finlay has put forward enormous ideas that require ample further discussion by those seriously committed to dialogue at the science and faith boundary. This book is not light reading and its ready acceptance of evolutionary concepts will not be welcomed by all theologically conservative Christians. Nevertheless, there are riches in store for those prepared to engage with someone who takes theology and genetic science seriously.