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In the last article I explored contemporary developments in biology that now permit it to proceed in a precise quantitative fashion. This was a very important article that built the foundation for this current article. With this in mind I turn now to one of the most controversial parts of evolutionary science—that having to do with common descent. Since antiquity the Judeo-Christian narrative has held that humans were a specific creation of God on day-6 of creation week—not the product of common descent. Yet science is finding evidence that would seem to fit a different narrative.
Perhaps the best way to start this discussion is to revisit a memorable exchange that occurred between Thomas Huxley, Chair of Natural History at the Royal College (now known as Imperial College of London) and Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of the Church of England at Oxford. It occurred during a meeting of the British Association at Oxford in June 1860, where Huxley presented some formal remarks supportive of Darwin's Origin of Species. In response to these remarks, Wilberforce arose to his feet and in a light scoffing tone, attempted to ridicule Huxley by asking whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey. Huxley thereafter slowly rose to reply and is reportedly to have muttered, “He has been delivered into my hand,” and then proceeded to say that he would rather have been descended from an ape on both sides of his family than from a bishop who used his talents to obscure the truth. Wilberforce is reported to have retreated in resentment.
The point of my repeating this story is to illustrate the passions this subject can generate; after all it is a very difficult subject and I am not particularly interested in inflaming the passion of readers. So keep in mind that I am looking at scientific findings, and not advocating for one side of this issue or the other. I hope to simply lay out the data in a straightforward, unbiased manner. Intelligent readers can draw their own conclusions.
As a 4th generation Adventist, reared in a family that most would characterize as very conservative, I held very traditional notions of Genesis 1 & 2 well into adulthood. A couple of decades ago—certainly well before genome mapping—I was confident that an increased understanding of genetics would once and for all settle a major issues of evolution—the issue of common descent. I had a religious tradition, of course, that rejected common descent, but it also just seemed to me intuitive that differing biological classifications were sufficiently distinct that common descent was not possible, genetically speaking. It was my personal working hypothesis that as solid data emerged it would become clear that science was headed down the wrong trail. Because of my interest in the outcome of this issue I have followed the developments in the field of genetics through the years with interest. Unfortunately, most of the research findings have been very disappointing to my Adventist sensitivities. Instead of getting compelling proof that common descent was not feasible, the published data over the past few years tantalizingly renders the possibility more than likely. In what follows, then, are some of the significant findings that, at present, lead knowledgeable scientists to infer common descent.
First let me refer back to the last article discussing the quantitative progress that has been made. The ability to read the DNA code has reached a level of refinement that permits (to use an example), the degree of relationship to be seen quite transparently and quite definitively—all the way from identification of a blood relative, such as a sibling, to a comparison of humans to primates and on down the genetic tree. All life can literally be catalogued, with the DNA code quantifying the degree of relatedness. Mammals (and all life for that matter) can be placed metaphorically on a genetic tree, with branching based on degrees and closeness of relationship. In DNA terms, Chimpanzees are the closest of the mammals to humans. The latest assessments have concluded their DNA is 98.8% matched to human DNA.
Other than examining DNA code commonalties, there is a strategy for evaluating and validating the relationship of two species in terms of common descent. It is the use of a forensic method looking for mistakes in the genetic code that are shared across closely related species. We are talking here about a specific mutation(s), or mistake that occur out of the billions of base arrangements in a genome. Such mistakes are passed down to posterity and so can be traced back through the linage. Yes, humans and apes share some of the same genetic mistakes. Those who would dismiss such data will have to face the statistical probabilities of such occurrences in a code the size of the biological genome, where the odds increase against the exact same errors showing up independently. An analogy would be to randomly select the correct code to a combination safe—it may be possible—but not very probable. In the real world we must consider probabilities. Let’s consider, then, some of these mutations.
1. One mutation is found in hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein within red blood cells. One of the molecules of human hemoglobin is beta-globin, and is composed of six genes; five are functional, and one right in the middle is broken. It is referred to as a pseudogene. This broken gene contains a series of errors that make it nonfunctional. This error is one that every human carries, and interestingly gorillas and chimpanzees also carry six beta-globin genes, and they are arranged in exactly the same way —five working copies surrounding a pseudogene. 
2. Most mammals have a gene that codes for an enzyme called gulonolactone oxidase, or GLO. This enzyme manufactures vitamin C, allowing mammals with this functional gene to not need any dietary intake of vitamin C. Humans, of course, need vitamin C in order to maintain good health, and interestingly human’s have a remnant of the GLO gene that is broken. It has accumulated so many changes in its base sequence as to become nonfunctional. Assuming the viability of the evolutionary model, this very strongly suggests that every human has descended from a common ancestor that also had this broken gene. Yes, some primates—the ones we are most closely related to in terms of DNA patterns such as chimps and gorillas—also have a broken GLO gene. Other more distantly related primates do have a functioning GLO gene. As noted by Kenneth Miller, in the field of forensics, “this notion of unique, matching errors is widely used to determine when one document has been copied from another.” In the case of the GLO gene, the document we can analogize to would be the DNA code. 
3. Humans have 46 chromosomes—23 inherited from each parent. Apes, however, have 48, raising the significant question as to how humans and apes could possibly be related (particularly closely related) when humans are missing a couple of chromosomes. Well, this is where it gets interesting, because chromosomes have distinctive structural features with telomeres at the tips, and with a centromere at the center of the chromosome (see the graphic below). Quite unexpectedly humans have a fused chromosome #2. It has fused telomeres and two centromeres right where they would be expected to be if a fusion had occurred. Furthermore, genes on these two chromosomes are arranged in a pattern that is almost an exact match for corresponding genes on the two corresponding chimpanzee chromosomes. The match is so close that scientists have changed chimpanzee genes #12 & 13 to 2a and 2b so as to correspond to the human chromosome #2. This, of course, suggests an explanation for the “missing” human chromosome. 
Well, what should we make of findings such as these? Are they all mere coincidences, or do they lead to the conclusion of common descent? The good news for traditional Adventist thinking is that none of these observations result in conclusions that are definitive on questions of common descent—just tantalizing data that seems to point that direction as determined by subject matter experts. For many this will be enough to casually dismiss this discussion and its implications. But this is not the end of the story, for we can be sure that there are many chapters yet to come. Yet, the data we have just discussed should cause us to pause before offering up knee-jerk responses of ridicule.
Those who have a defining narrative that would deny or ignore the data just discussed can easily find creationists who will be dismissive of the substantive points just made. So the problem for all truth-seeking laypersons is in whom to place trust for a study of very complex issues—the actual subject matter experts or the opinions of those who aren’t? The answer should be obvious.
Another point to consider—most credible experts will openly discuss both strengths and weaknesses of the findings they put forward. Those “experts” who misrepresent the known scientific reality by only presenting one-sided arguments as is done on many radio talk shows, where cherry picked data is presented and problematic data is avoided, are by their very approach untrustworthy. Those who openly discuss vulnerabilities are, by this measure, more credible. In the spirit of this latter point, I have provided readers in footnote form, a website sponsored by an Adventist who dismisses the findings we have just discussed. But should you review that material, please consider the general lack of any discussion of vulnerabilities of the arguments being made.
What I have attempted to provide is a general overview of this challenging subject for the average reader. In actual fact, the details of a discussion like this can very quickly become much more complex and technical. But one thing to keep in mind now that biology has moved into the digital age is that the science community now has the ability to progress rapidly beyond mere speculation by providing mathematical levels of confidence in sorting out some of these issues. Until some more of this can be worked out I would suggest that we are best served by moving away from a dogmatic nineteenth-century worldview, and towards a position of neutrality. If science is on the wrong track, given the recent advances in genetics it should soon become apparent to the science community. In the meantime a position of neutrality can be a way of showing respect for tradition while awaiting further data.
Most of us don’t like to live with ambiguity, and for some nothing short of mental certitude is adequate—never mind the reality. However, those who can adopt a position of neutrality should recognize that scientific knowledge of genetics is still in its infancy. This brings with it the possibility that in time a more mature understanding will emerge that perhaps may salvage aspects of traditional Adventist thinking. But there is also another possibility, and that is that the reality is quite different from what many of us have long assumed.
In the next article I will look at one aspect of evolution that Adventists generally find more encouraging—the question of origins. Then in the last article of this sub-series I will attempt to put some of the varied piece of this discussion together and develop a possible philosophical approach that could lead to helpful theological considerations. Perhaps there is a path forward that is respectful to both Adventist traditions and to the message emanating from science. In the end, the truth of the matter will prevail irrespective of our preferred narrative; the only question that remains is whether we will be open to the evidence—whatever direction the evidence may lead.
1. Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, Kenneth R. Miller (Viking, 2008)
2. The Language of God, Francis S. Collins (Free Press, 2006)
—Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California. Previous articles in Jan M. Long's curated series "Bringing the Real World to Genesis" can be found here.
Art: Josh Keyes, Howl, 30"x40", acrylic on panel, 2009
 By Mrs Isabella Sidgwick, Macmillan's Magazine, LXXVIII, no. 468, Oct. 1898, `A Grandmother's tales', 433-4. I owe the identification to Mr. Christopher Chessun, of University College, Oxford.
Kenneth R. Miller, Only A Theory (Viking Press: 2008) indicates a 96% DNA match; more recent assessments have upped the correlation. See for example, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/05/100506-science-neanderthals-humans-mated-interbred-dna-gene/
Ibid, p. 101
Ibid, p. 100
Ibid, pp. 97-99; see also Michael Behe, The Edge of Evolution (Free Press, 2007), p.71
Ibid as to Miller, pp. 105-107
Regarding the usage of the term “subject matter experts” I am referring specifically to biologists, geneticists, or other specialists in closely related disciplines. To assist your efforts I have footnoted a number of subject matter experts that can assist the reader in doing their own due diligence on the subject.
 Included here would be professionals in other fields of science who pretend to be experts but are not.
The North Pacific Union’s Regional Affairs Department is advertizing a conference called “Gays in the Family,” to be held April 5-6 at the Holden Convention Center in Gladstone, Oregon. As the wife of a retired pastor, the mother of a gay son, the founder of a ministry for other parents and family members of gays and lesbians, and a 20-year resident of Washington State, I am happy to see our union take this first step in starting a conversation about a topic that many people find uncomfortable. My husband and I first learned that our youngest son is gay some 23-years ago when we were at the General Conference. That was a time when homosexuality was something no one talked about. I am glad that today we can begin to talk about something that affects so many of us.
My husband and I are planning to attend this conference, and I do hope that it will initiate a real dialog about this difficult topic. It appears to be set up to look at the issue from only one viewpoint—that of gays and lesbians who have walked away from a life of promiscuity and drugs and have come back to God—praise the Lord! But there are other voices that also deserve to be heard, and I hope that at this or a future conference their stories can also be embraced.
There are many gays and lesbians who have never left the church. After praying for years that God will change them, they are still left to seek a way to reconcile their spirituality with their sexuality. There is almost never any support for them in this process from the church. How should the church respond to people like this?
What, for example, is the church’s responsibility in ministering to a lesbian couple who want to bring their children to Sabbath School and raise them in the church? Would we expect a divorced/remarried heterosexual couple to stop living together before allowing them to bring their children to Sabbath School? Or what should a church do if a gay couple offers to provide beautiful floral arrangements for services each week? Would we object to inviting a musician from another denomination to provide music at our church?
Nearly every gay or lesbian person who comes to one of our churches has parents who are praying that their son or daughter will find love and welcome there. Yet, nearly all gay and lesbian members say they feel rejected and ostracized in our churches. Shouldn’t we, as their Adventist brothers and sisters, be trying to make them feel like loved members of the family? If you were in their shoes, wouldn’t you long for someone who would make an effort to understand you and listen to your struggles?
These are just some of the questions that I think need to be considered in the church’s discussion of this topic. After all, presenting only this one perspective would be equivalent to having a conference to discuss women’s ordination, but only allowing those who oppose it to speak. There are many people qualified to help us look at this issue in a pastoral way and bring us new information that would help us understand it better.
As a link to further discussion, a screening of the documentary movie, Seventh-Gay Adventists has been scheduled for 8:00 pm, Saturday night, April 6, at the nearby Clackamas Mall Century Theater for those who are interested in hearing other voices that will not be represented in this conference. Free seats can be reserved at http://sgaportland46.eventbrite.com.
This is what happens when you try to mail The Great Controversy to people in New York City.
A reader writes, "twelve discarded Great Controversy books in my building. This is what we do with junk mail." It eventually gets tossed into the trash.
As we said during my time colporteuring: a give away is a throw away.
This effort is part of the NY13 evangelistic series that General Conference President Ted Wilson will be headlining this summer in lower Manhattan.
It's kind of sad to see Adventists treating Ellen White's work so poorly in that they find the cheapest paper and dump them on people. Having the books sit out like this communicates a lack of respect by the senders to someone who comes across this scene. Also, a note on presentation—whoever designed this is doing a terrible job. It looks like a Jehovah's Witness magazine met a pulp science fiction novel about chess pieces taking over the world.
1. The head of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Jamaica has called on the Government and the church to look out for the poor and most vulnerable, as the country braces for new taxes which come into effect today.
2. Seven-year-old Seventh-day Adventist preacher makes the news.
3. Southern Adventist University's SonRise resurrection pageant involves hundreds and draws thousands.
On April 1st, with all appropriate documents signed, the Southern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists released a statement regarding Pastor Ryan Bell and the Hollywood Adventist Church. It said their Personnel Committee had “voted to accept the (his) resignation, under counsel.”
The Committee expressed “recognition of and gratitude for the many creative and effective ministries the Hollywood Adventist Church has extended to the interfaith community and to persons in need.” However, it also noted, “there are multiple areas of belief and practice outside the parameters of Adventist church positions that have been compromised. Therefore, the Committee voted to accept the counseled resignation of Pastor Bell.
“We sincerely extend our prayers for God’s continued presence and guidance to Pastor Bell, his family, and to the Hollywood Adventist Church.”
Previously, at the meeting of the Personnel Committee on Thursday, March 28, several members of the Hollywood Church were invited, at the last minute, to speak to the committee about Bell’s ministry to their church.
Bell was also invited to speak. He told the committee the story of his baptism and his journey in Adventism. After the committee released its statement, he shared his final statement to them, too:
Adventism was taught to me by my grandparents, but I also caught it from them. It was an ethos that pervaded our home, our church, our cars…every inch of our lives. From the food we ate, to the rhythm of our days, to the questions we were taught to ask about the Christianity that everyone else believed. I learned that we were a minority. Our views of about the Sabbath, state of the dead, and the immanent return of Jesus, made us different. Special, we said. Or weird, to my peers. Going to public high school I missed out on playing football because all the games were on Friday nights. In my Junior year I was cast in the lead role in the school play, but I turned it down because it meant performing on the Sabbath.
What really stayed with me from all those experiences was the deep commitment that my faith required of me—to stand for what I understood to be right, regardless of pressure from my peers. I also learned in those days about the foundations of the Adventist Church…the pioneers who courageously risked the ire of their pastors and church leaders to share what they passionately believed was “present truth.” They risked economic disaster—letting their crops spoil and their businesses fail—because they believed that Jesus was coming on Oct 22, 1844. They were wrong. But they stood for their convictions and then found the strength to “do theology” again to comprehend their devastating disappointment. The history of failure and doing theology as we go is central to the Adventist ethos. . . .
As I have gotten older the notion of present truth and progressive revelation also suggested to me that some truths that were “present” in the past might not always be “present” in the future, the way circumcision ceased to be “present truth” for Paul even though Genesis clearly says it is an “eternal covenant.”
Through the years my understanding of theology, ecclesiology and mission have evolved. At each step I have worked hard to connect my new learning to my Adventist roots. I believe that the heart and soul of Adventism is the passionate spark, driving our pioneers to know the truth and follow it, whatever the cost. That is Adventism. It remains to each successful generation to work out those commitments in the very different socio-political contexts in which we find ourselves. This “working out,” or “doing theology” will not look the same in every time or every place. It is up to each local community to weave together the story of their context, the story of scripture and the story of our tradition.
I am committed to the truth wherever it leads me. I have been committed to that pursuit of truth within the communal framework and accountably of the Seventh-day Adventist Church…its denominational structures, its universities and seminaries, and the network of other pastors and scholars that I have come to know through the years. This has not been a solitary journey. And while it may appear that I am alone in some of my beliefs and practices, it is simply that I am more vocal about sharing what we do with the world and that I have been a pioneer in some areas.
Both the conclusions I have come to on my journey and the spirit of pursuing new truth has put me increasingly at odds with the SDA corporation. I have over the past six weeks spoken with Elder Caviness about where I think I can fit better within the framework of the Southern California Conference and where I think it would be a violation of my conscience to change. The conclusion is that I should part ways with employment in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
He concluded by noting that he was at peace with the decision that had been made by Southern California Conference President Larry Caviness.
Image: Ryan Bell receiving the North American Division's Innovative Church of the Year Award in 2010.
"Less is changing than you think," explained Ryan Bell in his last sermon as pastor of the Hollywood Adventist Church. The church was close to full and it was clear that many had come because of this change—to try to understand. But the tone of the service itself, the liturgy, the multiple prayer times, the music by the band and the cellist was about much greater change than just personnel. In his remarks framing the Holy Saturday service commemorating the disciples' sadness and questions about their dead God, Pastor Ryan remarked that he prefers the Eastern Orthodox phrase: The Great Sabbath.
I sat with my tearful wife and friends and tried to understand the greatness of my tradition through this change.
There is no single reason. Each time I talk with Ryan or a board member or a conference leader it's about returning more tithe, publicly critiquing the church, discomfort with remnant theology, social justice advocacy, different generations misunderstanding each other, personal issues, tiredness, changing Adventist identity, and new opportunities.
Ryan Bell is not just leaving Hollywood Adventist Church or the employ of the Southern California Conference. He is taking a break from working as a pastor. (He's not the only pastor named Bell to do this recently.)
Less is changing than you think.
The purple church, as Hollywood Adventist is affectionately called by its members, exists as a far-reaching symbol as much as it is a small community. (It looks purple thanks to a clear glaze that has slowly changed to purple from the sun.) Ryan has ministered very locally in Los Angeles while modeling a prophetic vision in Adventism and beyond that combines social ethics, public advocacy, creative arts in worship, and community organizing.
Like a good symbol, what has happened there has often had multiple meanings elsewhere. That's why Ryan Bell's departure seems to mean more than just another burned out pastor taking a break. Does this mean that the Church is changing less than we want or that Adventists cannot bring their brains to church, much less their friends and family?
While I wrote that phrase down during the sermon, the more I think about it the more I have to disagree with my friend and pastor (we can do that constructively in our version of Adventism).
More is changing than you think.
Both at Hollywood and in the wider Adventist community—our interconnection means it's hard to predict what this change really means. But our Great Sabbath pause gives us a spiritual threshold as we look at the past and future. This idea of the liminal guided the sermon titled Sacred Imagination. According to Pastor Ryan:
Liminality describes a state of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of social rituals such as coming of age rituals in traditional societies. A young person might be sent out into the wilderness alone, for example, to accomplish a feat of manhood. In this space he is neither the child he once was, in the protection of his parents, nor the adult that he will be when he returns from this journey. During this liminal phase there are no promises, no certainties. The person stands on the threshold of something new, facing the abyss.
Holy Saturday is liminal space with a capital “L”—the terrifying pause between heartbeats, the darkest part of the night before a new day dawns.
That subversive paradox gives me hope. Ryan Bell graduated from Weimar College, a place that Ted Wilson has called the blueprint for Adventist education. I can think of hundreds of now forward-thinking Adventists who were first theologically formed by a similar fundamentalism. And the demographics show it: more change than remain the same.
Church at Hollywood came after a week of touring great cathedrals and museums in Rome, Florence, and Paris with Pacific Union College students. Much of the beauty we saw was created by one of the most morally bankrupt institutions in human history. But within its own patriarchy, sexism, racism, classism and ignorance, people subverted elements and reformed parts. And the world changed.
Those who try to vindicate Adventism through bizarre conspiracies and the politics of personal destruction or use their institutional power to shut down creativity and debate only create more of what they fear. They cannot appeal to wisdom or the fruit of the spirit so they push others out. Their certainty lies through exclusivity. Paradoxically, that's what separates and defines the human condition. Those who recognize the fundamental equality of all cannot but represent a threat to those who don't.
I watched the film Lincoln (2012) while flying back from Zurich. In it Abraham Lincoln quotes common notion number one from Euclid's Elements: "Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another." It is a powerfully subversive axiom drawn from the structure of the universe. And for those of us who believe in God, this calls us to a radical understanding of our relationships. If we are all equal in God's sight then what exactly is the problem again?
Equality wins. That's why I have hope. Love wins because equality always opens its arms wider, welcoming and affirming as Christ taught over and over.
The film did not note Euclid's fifth common notion which is that the whole is greater than the parts even though this clearly guided the preservation of the Union. And it guides Christianity. And it guides my imagination of the sacred.
The exclusivists cannot handle their truth because within the truths of the past lie the seeds of all transformation. As the head elder of the Hollywood Adventist Church said on that Great Sabbath, we're going to continue being as purple as ever.
Over time social change comes more or less to all. However, that change becomes more personally and globally transformational the more we do it together.
On March 16, Ched Meyers spoke at the Hollywood Adventist Church about Sabbath economics and repenting of consumerism and ecological exploitation. The scripture passages are Exodus 16:1–4; 13–19; 22–23; and Numbers 11:31–34.