Genetics, evolution, cancer, suffering and God

An interview with Dr Graeme Finlay – August 2016

Dr Graeme Finlay is a New Zealand cell biologist investigating cancer at the University of Auckland. He is also a Christian who ponders the theological links between his cancer research and Christian thinking about suffering and about the origins of humanity. Graeme toured Australia as a guest of ISCAST (Christians in Science) in July. This interview moves from Graeme’s science through his faith and on to the theological challenges raised by the science, including whether cancer and suffering are part of God’s creation.

Graeme, how did you first get involved in genetics and cancer research?

I was raised in Asia of missionary parents. My Asian friends hugely valued education and that attitude rubbed off on me. When I returned to New Zealand as a 15-year-old, I found I could not understand Kiwi kids—I experienced culture shock with a vengeance—so it was easier just to keep to my books. I obtained my PhD in cellular immunology and was offered a job in the Auckland Cancer Society Research Lab. My task was to try to grow cells from patients’ tumours in order to identify effective anti-cancer drugs. Work on anti-cancer drugs followed for 20 years, and then the group started studying the genetics of cancer cells. The early days in the 1980s were exciting times, because people overseas were starting to identify genes that, when damaged, caused cancer. Part of this research involved a fascinating class of cancer-causing viruses called retroviruses. So I read about retroviruses in cancer, and suddenly found myself reading about evolutionary genetics. Before this, I had never been interested in biological evolution—it seemed to be a morass of controversy. But the new genetic data were so convincing, I felt that I just had to tell people about it.


So, in your explorations of cancer, you realised that cancer genetics is a model for evolutionary genetics, is that right?

Exactly. When retroviruses infect cells, they insert their little piece of genetic material, more-or-less at random, into the DNA—the genetic code—of the infected cell. The retroviral insert is then inherited by all the cells that are descended from the first infected cell. To put it another way, if all the cells in a cancer share the same retroviral insert, we can be sure that all those cancer cells are descendants of the one original cell in which that retroviral insertion event occurred. Now amazingly, about 8% of the DNA that we have inherited from our ancestors is retroviral in origin. That 8% represents about 400,000 individual inserts into our DNA code. And remember that each of those inserts has its origins in one cell which has had its DNA (including the retroviral insert) passed on down the generations. Now if multiple species shared exactly the same retroviral inserts into their genetic code, we could be sure that all those species were descendants of the one original reproductive cell in which that insertion event occurred.

And I think the punchline is …

Nearly every one of those inserted pieces of retroviral DNA in humans are shared with other primate species.

So, in effect, you are saying that the genetic revolution of the last 20 years or so offers incontrovertible evidence for the biological evolution of humans from other species? It is genetically obvious that we and the great apes have a common ancestor?

I do not wish to minimise the work done over the decades by people in other fields, but the era of comparative genomics has provided an amazing new level of precision in mapping out our genetic history. The human genome sequence was first published in 2001 and has been refined and extended ever since then. DNA is an extraordinary information-bearing molecule: it bears the instructions for our body plan. And it bears a detailed record of its own formative history. In addition to the retroviral inserts, millions of uniquely arising genetic features are shared with other species. So, yes, we know with a huge degree of confidence that we share the same ancestors with those species—not only great apes, but all primates, cats and dogs and opossums.


This is very powerful science, and, for many Christians, it might come as a threat to their faith? How did it affect you?

I was never troubled by the concept of evolution. In fact, when I started uni, I decided to accept what I was told in my introductory bio courses. I accepted evolution in a lazy way—I thought it was the thing to do as a student of biology. And I did not want to base my faith on any ideas that might prove to be shaky foundations. So when I stumbled upon the genetic evidence, I did not have any anxieties—in fact, I found it to be exhilarating because the genetic data provided such compelling, lucid answers to the question of our evolutionary history. My biggest concern was that Christian opposition to evolution was so obviously wrong that I knew it would bring Christian faith into disrepute, if not contempt.

So where did you go from there?

The development of my thinking was greatly helped by exposure to Christian scholars. My professor of zoology, John Morton, made no secret of his Christian convictions. I read Donald MacKay, a British neuroscientist; he was probably the person who helped me to distinguish between evolution as science and evolutionism as atheistic philosophy.


Is this a distinction between the natural and the supernatural? A sharp divide between God’s world and a natural world that gets along without God?

No; the laws of nature are not alternatives to God’s action, but simply the ways we have described and codified God’s action. All too often, Christians reject ‘natural’ explanations as being ‘naturalistic’. But if natural laws are ordained by my all-wise heavenly Father, then I should study them as expressions of his will and purpose, and I should not expect to find ‘gaps’ in natural processes, where God needs to miraculously tweak the system.

Are you saying that what we call the laws of nature are just as much an expression of God’s sovereignty and action as when an apparent ‘miracle’ occurs?

Absolutely. Biblical creation entails that God gives being to all of physical reality, including the way by which matter and energy behave with such fruitful consistency. Take, for example, the current mystery of the origin of the first living things. As a scientist, I recognise that the mechanism of the origin of life is a legitimate question for chemists to tackle. As a Christian, I have the confidence in the wisdom of God to believe that that world is so constituted that, yes, long ago, organic molecules assembled into cells. I do not expect that a mechanism for the origin of life will be discovered in my lifetime—but if it were, I would worship the God who ordained that such a thing should be possible. And what we call ‘miracles’, and the gospels call ‘powerful deeds’ or ‘signs’, are equally expressions of God’s faithfulness representing the laws, if you like, of the New Creation, for example in Acts 2:24: ‘It was impossible that death should hold him prisoner.’ What we now call ‘natural laws’ are just a subset of the ways by which God acts in total faithfulness, and which will be manifested in new and wonderful ways when his purposes are fulfilled.

What about other theological challenges raised by your science?

Life has many perplexities and challenges, of course. But science has never been one of those challenges for me. In fact, science developed as a branch of Christian theology. The Greeks invented science, but they could take it only so far, because of their religious systems; the stars above the moon were gods, for example. It was the fusion of Greek physics (minus their magic, deified heroes and gods) with biblical metaphysics (one supreme faithful creator over all creation) that enabled science to develop. The journey from faith in God to the possibility of science has always had the effect of elevating science to be an integral and cherished part of my Christian worldview.

So faith in God can lead us to thinking in a sort of scientific way, to investigating the natural world?

Yes, but I should also say that, in general, I do not think the journey goes the other way: I don’t think we should expect to go from science to God. Two hundred years ago, William Paley tried to demonstrate God’s involvement in creation using arguments from nature, and made all sorts of problems for the church. The Intelligent Design movement has made the same mistake. To my understanding, we first encounter the Creator in Jesus, and then we can look at nature and see it as God’s handiwork, expressing his will, declaring his glory—for example in Psalms 8 and 19.

Given this view of God’s relationship to creation, can Christians meaningfully pray that God will intervene in everyday events such as illness and weather patterns? How do you see the relationship between divine sovereignty and human (and nature’s) freedom?

I have come to see that evolution is just a form of history. It has all the messiness of, say, Old Testament history. God brings his creatures into being, and places them in a lawful world. But he gives them freedom. DNA can change to produce new genetic capacities—or cancers. People can act in love—or in hatefulness. So creation is truly free, hence the random behaviour of atoms and the sinful behaviour of people. As God’s people, our deepest desire should be that we and the world should reflect God’s holiness and love. Hence the utter necessity of prayer. But I cannot claim to know how God responds to our prayers and works in his world. Except that, as chapter 12 of the Gospel of John says, he draws creation to himself—he does not coerce.

So nature’s ‘freedom’ to produce cancers for example, are akin to human freedom? God doesn’t force good outcomes to occur? In fact there are outcomes—in human choice and in nature’s freedom, such as cruelty and cancer—that do result in evil, but God allows that space of possibilities?

Yes, I think so, but that freedom occurs within the constraints of God’s faithful and wise creative action, which is so wondrously fruitful. We long for the time when the histories of matter and of Israel will come to their fulfilment in the Kingdom of God. In the mystery of prayer we ask that God will move creation closer to its fulfilment—and of course we seek to align our own wills with that of God.

Another theological elephant in the science-and-Christianity room is how we understand the first chapters of Genesis. Christians of all stripes take the Bible seriously, and some would say that if evolution is true, then we can’t take the stories of Adam and Eve seriously; that there is a conflict between science and faith at that point. As a conservative Christian, with a ‘high’ view of Scripture, how do you respond?

I am but a cell biologist, not an Old Testament scholar! But my understanding of Old Testament scholarship requires me to reject a simplistic dichotomy, which says that the early chapters of Genesis are either exact science or ignorant legend. They are in fact carefully constructed stories, based on themes that pervaded the pagan Ancient Near East, but filled with astonishing new theological content. These early stories of Genesis use familiar motifs like gardens, trees or snakes, to debunk, with extraordinary audacity, the vicious gods of the empires, and to proclaim the holy, good, and redeeming God of tiny Israel. How Israel came to this revolution has to be a marvel of revelation. It leaves us with the imperative, not to argue about whether Adam was a Neolithic farmer, but to discover how we, as Yahweh’s people, are to live in the face of the deepening wretchedness of twenty-first century paganism. Physical anthropology is not the point at issue—faithfulness to Yahweh is.

The way forward

As we have seen, this conversation is fraught with tension for many believers as they try to reconcile traditional Christian views with cutting-edge science. How do you advise people within the church—leaders, scientists, theologians—to tackle such questions in a healthy manner?

God is sovereign. He sustains the processes of creation—called ‘secondary causes’ in the past—in wisdom and faithfulness. We demean the work of God if we decry the laws of nature or the mechanisms of genetics as being in some way independent of, or contrary to, the action of God. Science, as the quest to understand, should have no shackles. But technology, as the quest to control and manipulate, is another matter. We can develop medicines or bombs; more efficient modes of horticulture or trivial consumer goods; we can alleviate suffering or degrade the life-support systems of other people. Our priority is the gospel of Jesus. Science knows nothing of repentance, justice, relationship or destiny. People formed by the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus need to see that they have been summonsed—elected—to serve. Western Christians must be re-orientated from protecting their privileges to bringing God’s wholeness to societies and ecosystems shattered by greed and selfishness. The fields are white but the labourers are disastrously distracted.

Chris Mulherin is an Anglican minister and currently locum vicar at St Jude’s in Carlton. He is also Executive Officer at ISCAST (Christians in Science). You can listen and watch some of Graeme Finlay’s Australian talks, as well as peruse other resources related to these matters, on this website.