A Place in the Family

A Place in the Family January 16, 2013

I pretty much only listen to radio in the car, which explains how I stumbled on just a few minutes of a call-in show which featured an evolutionary biologist. I suppose it shouldn’t have been surprising that the question I heard as I was pulling into my driveway went something like this: “Scientists have looked at millions of fossils, but no one has found the fossil that shows the transition from a fish to a lizard, or a chimp to a human. Why should I believe that I’m related to a chimp or a giraffe or sludge at the bottom of the sea when there’s no real evidence?”

I tend to be a little…unsympathetic toward this kind of question. Luckily, I was alone in my car as I shouted back at the caller: “DNA! Have you never heard of a little thing called DNA?” Fortunately, the presenter responded calmly that the caller had brought an excellent question. Then he went on to describe how, based on their scientific knowledge, he and a colleague had predicted where one would find a fossil that showed the transition of species from fish to lizard, and what such a fossil might look like. And then they found it. Where they had predicted (Canada), and with many—but not all—of the characteristics they had expected to find.

The biologist went on to explain how DNA shows us the way in which we are related to all other living beings. “It’s beautiful!” he said. “The chimpanzees are our close cousins and the sea sludge is a distant cousin and the giraffe is somewhere in the middle, but we’re all related.”

And then I got it. The two world views I was hearing about were not simply between someone sophisticated in the uses of the scientific method and someone with less understanding. The caller didn’t want to be related to a chimp or a giraffe or, God forbid, sea sludge. He wanted to be the pinnacle of creation, something utterly different from—and  better than—the rest of the living world. To see himself as related to a giraffe would mean being shoved off of the pedestal, removed from his rightful place in the Great Chain of Being. Being related to a chimp would, I imagine, mean losing his relationship with the God who had placed him, as a human, in dominion over the rest of the world.

The biologist, by contrast, couldn’t have been happier to be related to sea sludge. He loved being cousins with the chimp and the giraffe, and his devotion to understanding more and more of the family genealogy was part and parcel with his joy in being a part of the family of things. I don’t know anything about this man’s theology, but as someone who shares his joy in this web of relations, I would imagine that if he believes in God at all, it is a God who is within all beings, in relationship with all beings. He, or at any rate, I, would find the Holy in the whole creative process of evolution, in the unfolding of diversity over time. There would be no worry about losing a relationship with God if we tumbled from the top of the pyramid, because God was never at the top to begin with. Neither were we humans. God was—is—in the connections, in all the crazy ways that we are interrelated with the Family of Life.

I have no idea whether anything shifted in the caller when he heard about the fish/lizard fossil or the linked DNA. How could he process such information, when the price of believing it was so high? But I couldn’t help but wonder whether it felt lonely up there, at the top of the Great Chain, looking up toward God and the angels in the invisible distance, disconnected from the chimps and giraffes and lizards below. Me, I’d rather be down here with the sea sludge, representing just one of the crazy cousins in this massive family gathering we call Planet Earth.

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