Most weeks in my work as an immunologist, I am faced with the reality of our evolutionary origins. Someone will give a talk, describing the function of this or that receptor in humans and – in passing – will mention that the same receptor is seen in bacteria. Or (hoorah!) we find that an antibody, created to identify a protein in rats, nicely targets the same protein in human cells. Or an online search to identify a human DNA sequence ends up with a piece of armadillo DNA as the closest match (yes that did happen!)
But as a Christian, I am troubled by Darwinian evolution. What does it say of the character of God? On the face of it, God chose to make humans by a process which requires genetic mutation. Most of the time, mutations have no effect at all. When they do affect the creature carrying them, they can make them more fit for their environment – which is what drives evolution forwards – but more often they cause early death, pain, disability or disease.
I used to think of illness as the product of a fallen world, but now I cannot. Firstly, I cannot see any biological reality to the Fall. Secondly, I have to accept that suffering is a necessary part of our creation. It seems God requires suffering for our creation. God has mandated our suffering. And what sort of God is that?
I am also a doctor, and in fact I am writing this in between patients in an outpatient clinic. Every week, I see people with serious disability from neurological diseases. Some of these diseases arise because of genetic mutations interacting badly with our environment. The same process that made me able to flourish as a healthy human, “wonderfully made”, means the person in front of me experiences progressive contraction of their possibilities, capacities and hopes. Their health has, innocently and unwittingly, been sacrificed for mine. Many past humans have had limited lives, and animals before them, and simpler organisms before them, so that I might live life to the full. There is a terrible danger of feeling these blighted lives are instrumental for me; and that surely is not right.
I don’t often talk to other Christians about this, because in the past these views have caused hurt, confusion, or worse. I wish these thoughts would not nag away at me. But then the next experiment comes along, and there it is: the antibody we are using to identify a human target has just picked up something that the databases say belongs to a mouse. And a little later, I am seeing someone whose life is limited by a genetic mutation.
What helps me is reminding myself that we are all disabled. We are all, more or less, constrained and limited. Our myopic perspective is that some humans are gloriously able whilst others are terribly disabled, and we are full of a sense of unfairness. But I suspect that to God, all our capabilities are childishly tiny and His sense of fairness is more about his great and underserved gift of grace to us, rather than the differences between us. Perhaps what matters is how we work out our calling within our particular disability, as a member of His generous creation, open and full of possibilities.