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God designed us like this

Lesch-Nyhan syndrome causes compulsive self-mutilation. Children eat their lips or fingers, and stab their faces with sharp objects. They feel the pain, but they cannot stop themselves. Why would a loving, all-powerful creator allow anyone to be born with such an awful disease?

God's finger puppetImage by Colin Purrington via Flickr

Lesch-Nyhan is just one of the tens of thousands of genetic disorders discovered so far. At least a tenth of people have some kind of debilitating genetic disease, and most of us will become sick at some point during our lifetime as a result of mutations that cause diseases such as cancer.

The reason? Our genome is an unmitigated mess. The replication and repair mechanisms are inadequate, making mutations commonplace. The genome is infested with parasitic DNA that often wreaks havoc. The convoluted control mechanisms are prone to error. The huge amount of junk, not just between genes but within them, wastes resources. And some crucial bits of DNA are kept in the power factories - mitochondria - where they are exposed to mutagenic byproducts. "It is downright ludicrous!" declares John Avise, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of California, Irvine.
The human genome, Avise concludes, offers no shred of comfort for those seeking evidence of a loving, all-powerful creator who had a direct hand in designing us, as not just creationists but many believers who accept evolution think was the case. If some entity did meddle with life on Earth, it either did not know what it was doing or did not care, or both.

There is a need for a popular book explaining what a botch job our blueprint is, as creationist-fuelled misconceptions abound. For instance, there has been a rash of claims recently about how junk DNA isn't really junk after all. In fact, only a very tiny proportion of the 98 per cent of our DNA that doesn't code for proteins has been shown to have some kind of function, and biologists expected this all along.

Unfortunately, Inside the Human Genome is not the book we need to set the record straight. For starters, Avise's lecturing style and fondness for jargon make it heavy going. It is not going to fly off the shelves in Kansas.

Then we come to his attempt to reconcile evolution and theistic religions, which made my jaw drop. "Evolution by natural selection emancipates religion," Avise writes. "No longer need we agonize about why a Creator God is the world's leading abortionist and mass murderer. No longer need we query a Creator God's motives for debilitating countless innocents with horrific genetic conditions. From this refreshing perspective, evolution can and should be viewed as a form of philosophical salvation of theology and religion."

I'd call it emasculation, not emancipation. If there is a deity but it played no role in human evolution, why would it intervene in human affairs at all? What's the point in praying to a being that either can't help or simply doesn't care?

As the subtitle of this book makes clear, Avise's target is the form of creationism marketed as "intelligent design". Right at the start, he claims that "evolutionism" does not necessarily lead to atheism.

This book, however, will not win the hearts of the few indoctrinated creationists who actually read it. And it seems to me that religious believers who accept evolution are the ones who will find Avise's central argument most troubling. Opinion polls suggest most believers who accept evolution think their God intervened in human evolution. If you believe this, you face the dilemma that Avise highlights: why did this deity make such a god-awful mess of it, causing so much needless suffering?

If, on the other hand, you absolve this God of blame by assuming it did not dirty its appendages with evolution, you face equally troubling questions about its nature and its relations with humans. For instance, such a deity could hardly be described as the "Creator".

Avise does not acknowledge this problem. Indeed, he seems oblivious. He approvingly quotes The Clergy Letter Project, an open letter claiming Christianity and evolution are compatible, yet the letter specifically refers to the "Creator".

He also quotes Francis Collins - former head of the human genome project, current director of the US National Institutes of Health and evangelical Christian - on the compatibility issue. Yet Collins believes "God" knowingly chose to create life through the horrendously cruel process of evolution, meaning that deity can be blamed for all our genetic flaws. Collins has also veered into pseudoscience in his attempts to reconcile evolution with the idea of a deity that intervenes in human affairs.

Notably, Avise never comes clean about what he believes. It is not clear whether his don't-blame-God-for-our-genome's-mess approach is a desperate attempt to salvage something from the wreckage left when his own beliefs collided with reality, or an attempt by a non-believer to pander to the religious.

Either way, neither believers nor atheists are likely to find his approach satisfactory. Take Avise's conclusion: "The evolutionary-genetics sciences can thus help religion to escape from the profound conundrums of Intelligent Design and thereby return to its rightful realm - not as the secular interpreter of the biological minutiae of our physical existence but rather as a respectable philosopher counselor on grander matters including ethics and morality."

Really? The morality of theistic religions is inextricably intertwined with the notion of an all-powerful deity that created us. After summarising the compelling evidence from our genomes that no such entity exists, it is downright ludicrous to then turn around and suggest religious believers have some privileged insight into the morality of issues such as IVF, childcare, abortion and homosexuality.

To me, Avise misses the crucial point: Why do we still allow children to be born with hideous diseases that could be prevented? Why do we rightly glorify efforts to cure diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's, but still regard tackling the root cause - our dismal, degenerating DNA - as taboo?

Our ethics have been so hideously distorted by superstitious nonsense that we cannot see the clear moral imperative: we need to start sorting out the mess of a genome evolution has left us as soon as we can.