We’ve been getting to know RNA biochemist and RTB’s first visiting scholar, Dr. Patricia Fanning. Picking up where we left off February 18, we end the interview with an enlightening discussion on embryology and the uniqueness of humans (plus, a little taste of Patricia’s nonscientific interests).
Why is embryology such an important topic for RTB to talk about?
PF: The same molecules that regulate the development of animals in general also regulate human development. The evolution community points to this fact as proof that we are no different from other animals. But it’s apparent at even a superficial level that the molecules regulating our development aren’t completely and exactly the same as those regulating animals’ development. If they were, we would look exactly like other animals—but we don’t. In fact, each animal species has its own unique embryology.
Well, humans have unique embryology and that unique development is used in part to create characteristics in humans that resemble the characteristics that we are aware of in God. For example, our ability to communicate and to think complex thoughts is characteristic of God, and there are molecules that underlie our ability to do those things. Our version of these molecules, the human version, is different from the animal versions of those molecules.
A really good example is a gene called FOXP2. The human sequence of FOXP2 is absolutely unique to humans. If you look on the internet, you will see some websites that say Neanderthals have the same sequence as humans, but that’s actually an error, that should be corrected on those websites. We now know that humans alone have a unique FOXP2 sequence. And that FOXP2 gene is at the root of our ability not only to engage in language, as in speaking, but in all the skills associated with complex language, things like grammar and written communication. So FOXP2 covers the whole gamut of complex communication. People with defects in that gene are incapable of learning grammar rules, for example.
I’ve heard a lot about FOXP2, something about its resistance to change?
PF: Yes. It’s a gene that’s active during our development and developmental genes, as a group, are highly resistant to change. If something goes wrong and they are changed, the organism will not survive. FOXP2 in the human has only two letters different from the same gene in the chimp, but those two changes are enough to create a protein that has two different amino acids in it, and those two amino acids cause that protein to behave in enormously different ways. The FOXP2 protein made from the FOXP2 gene is a regulator of transcription; that is, it regulates how active genes are. With only those two changes in the FOXP2 gene, the protein that results from it up-regulates over 50 genes that are not up-regulated in other animals and it down-regulates over 50 that are not down-regulated in other animals. So it completely changes the course of over a hundred genes in humans. It’s an important little guy.
What message are you most passionate to communicate to people about science and faith?
PF: There is nothing to fear from science. Science just reinforces everything that the Bible teaches. The agreement between science and Scripture is enormous. There are no contradictions between them. What seem like contradictions are, in fact, really the way scientists interpret data. So if you’re going to understand claims of contradictions between science and faith, you should learn to separate the data scientists have uncovered from how they interpret that data. The data is generally fine.
Knowing more about science should help you to worship God more. My wonder and awe of God is only increased by studying science. In fact, many people have asked me, “How can scientists study all these amazing things, like the cell and like biochemistry, and not believe in a God.” And I tell them, “You’re asking the wrong person! I have no idea how a scientist can study those things and not believe in God because I can’t study those things and disbelieve in God; those things only increase my belief.”
Now for something off the science path. What are your personal interests? What hobbies do you enjoy?
PF: I really like doing creative things. I find it very rewarding. I love to decorate, sew, and dig in the dirt. I love action-adventure movies.
Do you have a favorite?
PF: The Jason Bourne trilogy. I’m also a big science fiction fan.
How about Star Trek?
PF: Oh yeah! I didn’t like the original Star Trek all that much because I didn’t like what a womanizer Captain Kirk was, but I love Star Trek: The Next Generation. In general, I just like science-fiction a whole lot. I love to read fiction. I tend to find an author I like and then read virtually everything that person’s written. Lately, I’ve been reading James Rollins. I believe he’s a veterinarian who is also a fiction writer. Because he has a science background, as well as being a fiction writer, his plots always involve some science thrown in with the mystery that’s going on. I love that mix of science and murder mysteries.
Well, Patricia has been with RTB for just a little over a month and I already know that I’m going to miss her when she returns to Austin. But, fortunately for me and for RTB apologetics, we have a whole year with Patricia on the scholar team.
Resources: Hear Patricia delve into recent scientific work on these Science News Flash episodes:
- March 4: “Synthetic Biology: Controlling Gene Expression in Yeast”
- February 18: “Junk DNA Shows Evidence for Biochemical Design Once Again”