Reflections on Dr. David Wilcox’s Anthropology Seminar

Student reflections on
Dr. David Wilcox’s ‘Human Origins: Biogenetic and Theological Issues’
by David Gish, Maggie Parker, and Sarah Jones – November 2005

On Friday, November 11, 2005, Dr. David Wilcox from Eastern University , St. Davids , PA , presented a seminar entitled “Adam Where Are You? Issues on Human Origins.” He began by explaining the significance of this topic as it pertains to many theological issues. He stated that Christianity depends on real history and real changes. God is directly involved in the world, and all natural things found are put there by Him. Our predictions of the world should be a composite of both scientific and Biblical understanding. Science is done in order to explain visible patterns and predict the shape of the future. It is with this preface that Dr. Wilcox began his presentation on human anthropology.

The evidence that is available is only that which was preserved in materials that do not decay. Most of the information that we have is found in skeletons, which indicate a common ancestor. Skeletal artifacts fit together showing a progression from an ape-like ancestor to the modern human form. Artifacts, such as tools, help us to understand how these beings lived and why it is believed that there is a progression towards Homo sapiens.

The other main body of evidence is gathered from genetic information. Phylogenic trees visually describe how distant various species may be related. Such trees indicate more similarity between chimps and humans than between chimps and gorillas. One of the trees that Wilcox presented shows a common ancestor existing around 23 million years ago (mya). Humans and hominids parted ways with the ancestor that led to the animal groups of Orangutans, Gorillas, Chimpanzees and Bonobos shortly thereafter. An alternate tree represented humans and chimps sharing a common ancestor as recently as 6 mya. Although there is debate over how recently the common ancestor existed, most scientists agree that there was in fact a common ancestor.

Wilcox also mentioned a telomeric fusion chromosome which strongly supports the hypothesis that there is a common genetic ancestor. In humans one chromosome appears to result from the joining of two different chromosomes found in chimpanzees. This chromosome contains two centromere and telomere locations that are no longer functional, but apparently are relics of the fusion that evidently occurred in the past. These locations match with functional positions found on chimpanzee chromosomes.

Mitochondrial DNA data supports a maternal descent pattern. Minimal genetic diversity is seen from one human to the next, when compared to the diversity found within the ape species. The lack of human mitochondrial DNA diversity suggests that we started out as a small population around one million years ago. The oldest human populations, those with the most diversity, are those of Africa . Wilcox then discussed the models of human emergence. The reason human emergence is important is because it seeks to find out where the original “Adam” came from and how we arrived at the racial diversity we have today. The patterns of genetic changes suggest certain migration paths into Europe and Asia .

Towards the end of his lecture, Wilcox touched on some theological debates that surround human origins such as the origin of sin. Some of the models propose that sin originated with Adam, and were passed along to all of his descendants, while other models explain Adam as a symbolic figure. Wilcox’s resounding theme is that we cannot throw away puzzle pieces simply because they do not fit with our expectations. All of the scientific evidence should be considered because it is all from God’s creation.

In his final response, Dr. Wilcox emphasized that all things happen by God’s hand, and are not random. He explained that we are merely seeing a painting, and not the strokes taken to create the masterpiece. His seminar provided a relaxing and safe environment for open minded discussion on these somewhat controversial topics. Wilcox captured the atmosphere with his closing comment “I may be wrong,” leaving room for questions and further investigation, along with the development of our own opinions.

Respondent #1: Steve Cessna

Dr. Stephen Cessna, Associate Chemistry Professor at Eastern Mennonite University , was the first respondent to Dr. Wilcox’s presentation. As a fellow scientist, he was quick to affirm the reasoning behind Wilcox’s presentation. He expounded a bit on the background of molecular genetics by describing DNA as a sequence, or language capable of telling a story.

Dr. Cessna described how mitochondrial DNA is passed on from generation to generation. This type of DNA is only inherited from the mother and carries about a 10% probability that there will be a mutation during the replication. This means that over 10 generations, an average of one mutation can be expected. When looking at time over thousands or millions of years, this is considered rapid.

Dr. Cessna asked why it might be hard to accept this data in terms of human evolution. Genetic evidence is easily accepted in the court room when proving paternal relationships or forensic investigations, but when used to show common ancestry, much debate is aroused. Molecular genetics is readily accepted when it seems to be profitable, but when it goes against beliefs that have been held for hundreds of years, it becomes harder to comprehend. The evidence found with molecular genetics could be used to affirm and broaden our perspectives on the Bible.

Respondent #2: Sara Wenger Shenk

The second respondent, Dr. Sara Wenger Shenk, a Bible and Religion Professor and Associate Dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, presented a theological view on anthropology. She used the metaphor of a graduate student who was exploring an ancient excavation site. At first the student found nothing significant, but then she began to notice shards of pottery. When she started to put the pieces together, she began to discover the importance of what she had found. Meaning was found in piecing together the fragments. Dr. Shenk applied the metaphor to our history saying that it is the piecing together of many non-descript fragments. To expand on the metaphor, Shenk raised some other questions that may be overlooked. Who is the potter? How refined was the clay to start out with? Answers to these questions may never be found. The point is that we do not know the exact method God used for creation. It is something that we may never understand.

Dr. Shenk emphasized that both scientific and theological studies attempt to reveal the truth. However, people tend to distort the narratives and force them into theories to prove one thing or another. The Bible does not change, but people’s interpretations of the Scripture evolve. The Bible’s truth is something that is found outside of time and place. Dr. Shenk indicated that science and theology can work together to seek the truth.

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