Astrobiologist Professor Stephen Freeland, whose research includes the genetic code used by the majority of life on Earth today, talks to Nigel Bovey about the origin and future of the universe, and why he believes God is no ‘smoking gun’ designer.
Professor Freeland, what are your responsibilities?
I am part of the Hawaii team of the Nasa Astrobiology Institute, but my main work is as the Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Maryland, which is in Baltimore, USA.
What is astrobiology?
According to Nasa, it is the search for life’s origin, distribution and future within the Universe. More generally, it is an interdisciplinary effort to understand life in a physical universe.
What fascinates you about astrobiology?
On one level, it connects with my doctoral studies within the field of evolutionary biology on very early life. I was given a puzzle, discovered the solution and that interested me.
On a deeper level, I like the fact that astrobiology is interdisciplinary. It is extraordinary how big paradigm shifts in scientific knowledge can occur when scientists step beyond the boundary of their specialities – when chemists talk to physicists who talk to biologists and so on.
What made you want to become a scientist?
Coming from a humble background in a small village in Kent, I was absolutely charmed intellectually and aesthetically by Oxford University, where I read zoology. Richard Dawkins was one of my lecturers briefly. On the subject of evolution, Dawkins speaks beautifully with clarity, grace and dignity about a fascinating process.
My father was a biology teacher who became a Methodist minister. I grew up in a home that richly rewarded scientific-type questioning and that never saw a conflict between science and faith, which was the bedrock of family life.
Have you discovered anything?
The hallmark of every scientific research career is to discover that every good idea you have has been had before. Perhaps the nearest thing I have to a claim to fame would be the work that started in my PhD on the extraordinary properties of life’s genetic code. We used computer simulations to look at alternative biologies and measure them against real biology.
Although I received some gratifying press coverage, what I’ve later discovered is that all those ideas were in place in the 1960s but people didn’t have the tools for exploring them. So, yes, I have made discoveries – about me and my relationship with nature and with God, and that there are people who have mistakenly credited me with scientific discoveries.
In the big bang theory, scientists are rewinding the tape of time to a fraction of a second before the beginning. If we were to rewind the tape of Homo sapiens, what would we find?
I’m convinced that the way we teach science in schools creates an illusion. We draw attention to the bits that we are able to glimpse, spin them into a fabric that convinces pupils that it is the story of what we know and then we fill in the missing details.
Big bang and Homo sapiens are extraordinarily successful as glimpses, but are surrounded by oceans of fog. So, move a few seconds beyond the big bang and it gets very foggy for a very long time.
In the origin of Homo sapiens, we can identify specific moments but, again, they are all surrounded by fog. If we’re going to motivate children to become scientists, we need them to understand that. I’m a scientist because of the fog.
Scientists can tell a story about an upright ape or deforestation caused by climatic change so many millions years ago, but, at best, it is an educated guess. I suspect that in time there will be new instruments that will give us new glimpses that we currently consider unknowable, and that the answers will contain many surprises.
So, what do we know about Homo sapiens?
I specialise in events that happened 3,900 million years earlier, but it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that humankind is very closely related to other great apes, coming through a lineage that is marginally closest to the chimpanzee.
The beginning of the split was some 6.5 to 7 million years ago. We are likely to have originated in Africa and the human gene pool tells us that we are all African. We have fragments that link us through Homo habilis and Homo erectus. But they are fragments. It is difficult for us to be sure of the exact lineage through which we came.
Is it a case that the fossil record is incomplete and, therefore, it is impossible to draw conclusions about human origins?
It is extraordinary how many fossil fragments have been collected and insights gained that suggest that the rough picture is well established. However, the fossil record is incomplete. But then all data is incomplete. Because none of us is omniscient, we all draw inferences from incomplete data.
It is a Victorian idea that the evolutionary story is about fossils. Today, along with the rest of biology, evolutionary work is dominated by the molecular revolution and the information that can be drawn by comparing DNA and protein sequence data, within humankind and between humankind and its nearest relative species.
Genetic evidence is strongest when it syncs with evidence from other sources, including fossils, climatic records and soil cores.
Scientists tell us that the possibility of life on Earth is due to some fine-tuning within the universe. To what extent do you regard this as an argument for the existence of a divine designer?
When I first became aware of the idea of fine-tuning, I found the link between it and the existence of God attractive. With time, I find it less satisfying. I think the science is beautiful. I like that it provokes very necessary scientific questions that are changing the sense of our place in the universe. But I find any attempt to deduce God unsatisfying.
My life is focused on a God who is so delicate in his touch that where I choose to believe I see reality, but I have never felt bludgeoned by God either through scientific insight or supernatural occurrences. I don’t think God intends us to deduce him. I think God intends to leave the door open.
A universe that has a smoking-gun designer is one that is close to an adventure story where all the clues are there if only you interpret them properly. That’s not the God that I’ve encountered.
If science cannot prove God, what evidence can you offer that he exists?
So much hangs on the word ‘know’. Science is not the only way of knowing. I know God exists. I choose to believe that God has spoken to me at a very personal level. But I have nothing that I can point to that would stand up against an antagonistic witness.
I find that when I choose to view the world through the lens of Christianity there are beautiful patterns at work that make sense to me, give me hope and give me reason for seeking right and for trying to grow in relationship with God. Part of the beauty is that this happens as an act of free will. God is not bludgeoning me. Should I wish to explain away every part of my faith, I could do so. But I think my life would be impoverished as a result.
Is being able to argue logically against your beliefs indicative of a strong or weak faith?
A strong faith. It is because of God’s sublime love that there is no bludgeon involved – that it is for me to discover God, daily, hourly, and choose to view the world through the lens of faith and see how it makes sense.
What convinces you that Jesus is the Son of God?
God has spoken to me. God has enriched my life. God has changed lives. The more I see, the more I’m convinced that God changes lives in a way that is unlike any human endeavour, such as politics, social justice or science.
God has a big picture that fixes broken people and mends the world whenever we choose to align ourselves with him. That’s why my heart says Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus died and was raised again to reconcile all of humanity with that God, whenever we open ourselves to him.
At what stage did you, a minister’s son, decide that Jesus is the Son of God?
As a teenager, I attended what I would now describe as a fundamentalist church, where there were signs and wonders. Back then, I could have pointed to a particular moment. Since then, I have committed and recommitted my life to God on numerous occasions. On reflection, I believe that it is a constant, living and never-ending moment to choose God.
What is the genetic code?
Despite what the popular press tells us, the genetic code is not just DNA. DNA is the information end – the blueprint, the plans. When you turn the plans into reality, you’re turning them into proteins.
Morse code, for example, is a series of dots and dashes. But it is not just that. The code is also about knowing what those dots and dashes mean. The four elements of DNA – ATCG – are the dots and dashes. The genetic code is the set of rules that tell you what those elements mean.
DNA ‘words’ are three letters in length from a combination of ATC and G. There are 64 three-letter words, three of which mean ‘stop’. Each of the remaining 61 words corresponds with one of the 20 amino acids. So, AAA means ‘lysine’ – an amino acid, which is the building block of proteins.
These ‘words’ appear in sequences. When amino acids are linked together they form a protein. Hair, skin, digestive enzymes – everything is a protein.
Proteins are decoded DNA instructions which wear out during a person’s lifetime. We don’t inherit our parents’ proteins, but, roughly 50-50, we inherit the same set of instructions (DNA) for making the proteins they had.
In Morse code, you can have all the dots and dashes you want, but they won’t make up War and Peace or an important military instruction unless you have the right rulebook. So, the genetic code is the rulebook for life.
What does the human genome tell us about humankind?
Before the genome was mapped, there was an expectation that all the answers were in our genes. We now know the genome holds many mysteries.
To what extent is the genetic code part of humankind’s sinfulness?
The concept of natural evil is by far the biggest issue when studying anything biological.
DNA carries humankind’s history – an unbroken chain that goes back some four billion years. Alongside every successful parenting generation, it carries the mark of natural evil. Until we understand God’s plan and how to interpret disease, destruction, suffering and death, we will never be able to give a good answer to the existence of evil.
What we can say is that our DNA history is full of dysfunctional virus copies, genes that only make sense in terms of selfish survival strategies as well as some subtle architecture that gives rise to sentience and the capability for agape – Christ-like love.
This interview was conducted by Nigel Bovey and first appeared in The War Cry. It is used here with permission
Photo by jurvetson and Nigel Bovey