How have ancient viral genes shaped our human genome?
These remnants from the past reveal a captivating story of evolution. Graeme Finlay’s new article for Christian Perspectives on Science and Technology unravels the hidden chapters of our genomic history, shedding light on the intricate interplay between genes, evolution, and God’s divine plan.
The genomic era has provided unassailable evidence that humans have evolved from common ancestors we share with chimpanzees and (further back in time) with all other primates and with all other mammals. One class of this evidence is the presence of ancient viral genes that were spliced into the genomes of our prehuman ancestors and transmitted to us. Retroviruses are the classical exemplar of this phenomenon, but more recently genes derived from potentially pathogenic bornaviruses have been discovered in our genome. At least two of these genes have been coopted to provide important functions. The advent of humanity, due in part to capabilities generated by random genetic mechanisms, is describable in theological terms as creatio ex vetere—creation of the new from the old (from stardust and antecedent species). This concept is applicable to the biblical depiction of human development, as seen in the commissioning of humanity as the image of God. Genetic changes are usually innocuous but may generate either disease or new capabilities. The cost of evolution reflects the biblical theme that suffering precedes glory, of which the history of Jesus is paradigmatic. Our biological history argues against our tendency to self-glorification—our hubris—but can be seen, from a theological point of view, to be part of the divine plan by which a redeemed and transformed humanity will be raised to share in the very life of God.