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Feedback archiveFeedback 2015

Why did God make humans and chimps so similar?

Published: 12 December 2015 (GMT+10)

Evolutionists commonly argue that the supposed 98% genetic similarity between chimps and humans is evidence that they share a common ancestor. Creationists have put forward a number of responses to this, but there is an implicit assumption in both the evolutionary argument and typical creationist responses—that the higher the genetic similarity between two species, the more likely it is that they had a common ancestor. Is this necessarily the case? Might high genetic similarity, under certain circumstances, actually be evidence for design? Donald H. from the United States writes:

Thanks for looking at my email. I am a Christian but lately I have dealt with major doubts in my faith due to science. I am not a scientist by any means however some things deeply confuse me. I understand we came from something, and I believe it was God, however I get headaches trying to understand that God was always there, that he had no beginning. However, I understand something would have needed to create the matter to create the earth. More confusing to me is the similarities we have in primates. I realize we have similarities to all animals (eyes, bones, organs, etc.) but why would God make us so similar to primates. To me it’s quite confusing that humans have 32 teeth just like chimps and primates, even though Giraffes have same amount of teeth. Why do we, primates, and koalas have fingerprints? Why do we have similar physiological and DNA similarities to primates. Why would God do that? Because evolutionists do have confusing points of why. Thanks again!!

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Regarding human-chimp genetic similarity, there are a few points we can make. First, are humans and chimps as genetically similar as we have been led to believe? (Genomic monkey business—estimates of nearly identical human–chimp DNA similarity re-evaluated using omitted data). This claim also overlooks the much higher differences between human and chimp Y-chromosomes. Second, even if they are as high as evolutionists have argued, evolutionists still don’t have enough time to fix all the mutations separating chimps and humans into the respective populations since they supposedly split around 6–8 million years ago (Haldane’s dilemma has not been solved). But none of these responses explain why God would make humans and chimps so similar; they just argue that evolution is not a good explanation of the similarity.

If endless novelty is the measure of a good designer, it becomes practically impossible to tell the difference between one very ‘creative’ designer and many designers.

The difficulty in trying to answer your question is that in it we are plumbing the depths of God’s mind—not exactly the easiest thing to do, unless of course He has revealed it in Scripture! The best anyone could offer is just a reasonable train of thought that might reflect some of God’s reasons for the similarity. But there are a few trains of thought that I have found helpful.

First, there are some hidden assumptions in the question. One is that the smaller the degree of genetic difference between chimps and humans, the more likely it reflects common ancestry. We see this in verifiable genealogies; the closer two people are related genealogically, the more genetic similarities they will generally have. But in this case the genealogy is typically established on non-genetic grounds. The argument can work in reverse, but only where we know there is or has been interfertility between the subjects of comparison. Of course, we don’t know that for humans and chimps, so apart from any solid mechanistic narrative demonstrating that chimps and humans have a common ancestor, there is plenty of room to doubt it.

The question also assumes that novelty is a crucial factor in any notion of design (see ‘Not to Be Used Again’). We are not merely talking novelty in end product (i.e. phenotype), but novelty in the recipes and mode of construction. This sees endless novelty as synonymous with the production virtue of ‘creativity’. But this doesn’t really work. If endless novelty is the measure of a good designer, it becomes practically impossible to tell the difference between one very ‘creative’ designer and many designers.

Second, extreme similarity in this instance may actually be evidence of design mastery. God as a single designer did not have to be completely novel in his creation of humans. In fact, the ancients viewed change and novelty with suspicion rather than favour. And this outlook is not without engineering merit either. So let’s say that God modified a chimp template and used the modified template to create Adam (this doesn’t mean God had to modify a real chimp body into a human; just that He modified the chimp blueprint in His mind to produce a human blueprint, and then proceeded to make Adam from the dust). For the sake of argument, let’s also grant that humans and chimps are 99% similar (although this still means ~30 million differences), and the entirety of the phenotypic and genetic difference between chimps and humans is made up in the presence or absence of an innate ability for syntactic language. This would mean reworking 1% of the chimp genome in the right way would produce this syntactic language ability.

Now, think of a car that can go from 0–100 km/h in 3 seconds, and is able to travel at 300 km/h without any strain—it’s a very high performance car! Now let’s say the designer builds an identical car, but modifies 1% of its design, and those changes result in the second car being able to drive without a driver. That is a qualitative leap in complexity; it suddenly acquires autonomous mobility. Such a designer would seem practically miraculous! Clearly such a designer would have complete mastery of the design of each car to be able to do that. However, that is somewhat comparable to producing a creature with syntactic language capabilities from the template of one that has none by changing 1% of its genetics. After all, human culture and technology would be impossible without our linguistic ability. It represents a qualitative leap in cognitive complexity—it opens us up to the world of concepts, and so enables completely new ways of looking at the world.

A 99% genetic similarity between chimps and humans is not a knock down argument for evolution; it can also be seen as a powerful argument for a master designer.

The irony is that this shows that our starting premise was kind to the evolutionist! The less genetic difference there is between chimps and humans, or the less reworking it takes to produce innate language, or the more phenotypic difference this 1% makes, the more amazing the mastery of genomic design is evinced. In other words, the closer the genetic similarities between chimps and humans are, the more mastery is evinced in the ‘restructuring’ of the chimp ‘template’ to produce the profound phenotypic differences we see. Therefore, a 99% genetic similarity between chimps and humans is not a knock down argument for evolution; it can also be seen as a powerful argument for a master designer.

So why model humans on great apes, rather than another sort of animal? Think of the tasks God assigned us—ruling over creation, and tending an orchard (see Was the Garden of Eden a ‘sanctuary’ from a hostile outside world?). First, it would make sense to bear some fundamental structural similarities to the creatures we are supposed to rule over, since we have an ingrained sense of needing to care for that which is in some way like ourselves. (We see a distortion of this in evils such as racism, but when applied properly to the biosphere as a whole, animals more specifically, and humans in particular, it makes a lot more sense.) Moreover, among all lifeforms, animals uniquely share with us some of the characteristics needed to perform the tasks God gave us, such as autonomous mobility and self-awareness. Furthermore, the tasks we were allotted make hands the best functional specialization for our forelimbs to have, as opposed to fins, wings, legs, or flippers. Size also matters; how is an insect or a rat supposed to impose itself as the ruler of creation on a dog, let alone an elephant or dinosaur? Also, how could small creatures master fire? The great apes are a reasonable ‘compromise’ size that have both self-awareness and the right ‘machinery’ in their forelimbs. And since we expect genotype to generally follow phenotype, it makes sense that we are more genetically similar to great apes than any other creatures. So why have great apes around? They act as a special reminder of our continuity with the created world like nothing else can. But again, remember this is just some food for thought; it’s not a definitive answer, and nobody can offer such.

iStockphoto giraffe

Why might we share fingerprints with apes and koalas? The forelimbs of all three types of creatures are used for grasping, and fingertips aid us in being able to grasp things. Nevertheless, this is not a pattern explainable by common ancestry; evolutionists have to believe that koalas and primates converged on the same functional solution independently. However, fingerprints could conceivably arise independently in the history of life even in the biblical framework, since creatures are designed to adapt to new circumstances, and fingertips are not fundamental biological structure, but are more a case of ‘fine tuning’ for specific function. So the presence or absence of fingertips might be more akin to the differences one finds in specific petal arrangements in orchids than the differences in e.g. cognitive abilities between humans and primates.

Why do we share 32 teeth with giraffes? Apart from the structural continuity that evinces God as the sole designer of life, I don’t know. I don’t think we can know. But let me counter the question: why should God not do so? Just because a question is confusing doesn’t mean it should cause us to doubt our Christian faith. How does the fact that we have the same amount of teeth as giraffes prove that Jesus is not risen from the dead? How does it prove that Jesus is not God incarnate? How does it prove that Jesus didn’t regard the Scriptures as infallible? And how does it prove that Jesus didn’t affirm a young world? You need to put the question in context; it’s a pseudo-theological (not scientific! It’s a “why God …” question) curiosity that has no bearing whatsoever on the truth of Christianity or biblical creation. Don’t be fooled into letting pointless curiosities ruin your faith; Christianity rests on too solid a grounding to be destroyed by giraffe teeth!

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Readers’ comments
Steven T., United States, 14 December 2015

...evolutionists still don’t have enough time to fix all the mutations separating chimps and humans into the respective populations since they supposedly split around 6–8 million years ago....

Yet horses and zebras are more different from each other, as regards either nucleotide sequences or chromosome number, than are humans and chimps, and you -- regarding all equines as the same "kind," hold that they diverged less than 5000 years ago. At least some six-day creationists hold that house cats and lions are the same "kind," and again, they are more disparate, in gene sequences, than humans and chimps are.

Shaun Doyle responds: First, that assumes that the sorts of genetic changes we find between different horses and cats is of the same nature as what we find between chimps and humans. Have any horse species started using syntactic language to communicate? Perhaps a dab of musical appreciation based on their ability to manipulate their own hairs in specific ways? Any ability to engage in moral reasoning? Of course not! The differences between different cats or horses are sideways or backwards changes; not the sort of ‘novel system building’ changes required to bridge the gap between chimps and humans (since the ancestor of chimps and humans would just be classed as another great ape to our eyes). And we know that most living equids and felids are interfertile, whereas humans are not interfertile with great apes. Thus, creationists have solid warrant for thinking that the morphological and behavioural differences one finds between different cats and horses are likely to be explicable in terms of historical biological change. See Can mutations create new information? for more information.

Second, Haldane’s dilemma concerns itself with the fixation of beneficial mutations; a problematic concept in the context of neo-Darwinian population genetics (see Cost theory and the cost of substitution—a clarification, Beneficial mutations: real or imaginary?—part 1, Beneficial mutations: real or imaginary?—part 2, and Genetic Entropy).

Third, my argument here only grants the 1% difference for the sake of argument; I never said that I actually agree with it. So, what comparison are you referring to? Where is it published? The difference between human and chimp genomes is now over an order of magnitude higher than this (Genomic monkey business—estimates of nearly identical human–chimp DNA similarity re-evaluated using omitted data). On the other hand, percentage differences between different Equus species appear to be around 2%: www.quaggaproject.org/quagga-dna-results.htm. This difference would which makes sense if different Equuus species are are still interfertile, whereas humans and chimps are not.

One [assumption] is that the smaller the degree of genetic difference between chimps and humans, the more likely it reflects common ancestry.

I don't know whether this is Donald's assumption or not, but surely evolutionists don't hold that humans are more certainly related to chimps than to chickens, only that we are more closely related. And the point is not just "similarities;" it is the pattern of unnecessary similarities and unnecessary differences.

SD: But evolutionists clearly cannot just assume universal common ancestry when dialoguing with creationists, otherwise they are just begging the question. And the issue I'm talking about here is the relative clarity in any specific case for common ancestry. This can be seen in an uncontroversial example for our debate—that I am more similar genetically to my father than I am to an old Iraqi high school buddy would be expected as a reflection of the fact that I am directly related to my father, but not to my Iraqi high school friend. There is of course more to the evolutionary case for common ancestry than this (as I have addressed elsewhere), but I never said the case for common ancestry was summed up in this assumption. But I changed "likely" to "clearly" to hopefully clarify the point.

Why, if humans and chimps have identical cytochrome-c, would we differ in one nucleotide in the actual gene for the enzyme?

SD: You didn't pay attention to either the opening or closing paragraphs of my response. Besides, historical explanations are clearly available to the biblical creationist for this particular example. We can assume that humans and chimps started off with identical cytochrome-c genes, and that one substitution mutation got fixed in one or the other population at a point subsequent to creation, as in e.g. the huge bottlenecking event of the Flood.

Even if endogenous retroviruses are functional, why does that function require that they so closely resemble viral genes?

SD: There is much to be learnt about ERVs. The case is building that the viruses are derived from functional mobile elements in multicellular eukaryotic genomes and not the other way around. The mobile elements are involved in intercellular communication; that’s why they are mobile, and when they go rogue, hey presto, a virus.

One can posit an efficient Creator Who reuses designs wherever expedient, or a meticulous Creator Who makes every design unique, but the particular pattern we see matches neither expectation, but rather what we would expect of common descent with incremental, opportunistic modification.

SD: We don't posit any specific type of creator (whether 'efficient', 'meticulous', 'artistic', or whatever) to explain specific patterns of similarity. Rather, we posit a creator as the only causally adequate explanation for the origin of organisms, i.e. complex entities that are highly successful at autonomously sustaining, maintaining, and replicating themselves. Moreover, genetic entropy indicates that life does not spontaneously self-complexify in a 'microbes-to-man' way, but rather is subject to inexorable degeneration that will inevitably lead to extinction. This implies that biological mechanisms are also insufficient to explain all the diversity we see in life, entailing that some patterns of similarity among organisms must be the direct result of intelligent agency. Patterns of similarity are thus an ancillary consideration in the creation/evolution debate, and can't be used to obviate either the successful teleology of organisms or genetic entropy as evidence for creation and against evolution. Evolution doesn't fail as a nominal explanation of patterns of similarity; it fails as a causally adequate explanation for the origin of life and its diversity.
Daniel P., United States, 13 December 2015

How similar is 'so similar'? Imagine an alternate Earth that never had any primates except humans. Then the next-most similar animals to humans would be used for the same evolutionist argument. The fossil record of such an alternate world would be interpreted by the evolutionists of that alternate world the same way that evolutionists in the real world interpret the fossil record of the real Earth.

In fact, if the only non-microscopic animal life other than humans that ever lived were giraffes...

LOL

David B., United States, 13 December 2015

God is PERFECT in love and law...... Science slowly reveals His laws ..BUT...No one can reveal His love except Jesus Christ His only begotten Son. He did not make the genome of apes and Homo sapiens so similar to confuse us but to instead eventually allow us to come to KNOW Him. Apes were here before man.. They may have evolved via Darwinian Natural Selection which is revealed in many of the organisms of lower taxonomic levels although I personally suspect that is not the case. How has God revealed Himself? Spirtually in Jesus and in reality through His "gift" of Science. The simple answer to why the ape and human genome is so similar is that God fashioned man in His Image via Recombinant DNA (rDNA) of Simian stock and maybe even tweeked it over time via CRISPR. (individual gene modification) and I even suspect that most of the animal and plant phyla were created this way as well. One thing is for certain.....Man did NOT evolve from apes because..... based on the lethal nature of DNA mutation...the only source of new natural genetic information...there was no where near enough time for natural selection to accomplish the phenotypic changes. rDNA is "Intelligent Design" and bypasses years of natural selection and the lethal nature of DNA germ cell mutation AND it is the ONLY explanation that is 100% compatible with Creation in the Book of Genesis. Magic or the supernatural are man made concepts and they are the explanations that allow satan to perpetrate his lies and illusions.I submit the proof of this is that most of Christianity spends more time and resources of trying to prove Science wrong instead of preaching the Gospel that Jesus Christ died on the Roman Cross 2000 years ago to RESTORE all humans to God's eternal family.

Shaun Doyle responds

What you call "Intelligent Design" is just 'supernatural' action by another name because of the incorporeal nature of the one doing the 'DNA editing' (See Defining arguments away: the distorted language of secularism for more details). Moreover, the scenario you posit is progressive creation, which is not consistent with the historical reality of Genesis 1, which presents whole classes of creatures created specially over a period of days. See Refuting Compromise for more details.

Dean R., Australia, 12 December 2015

Visually & particularly with the face we share similarities but also differences.

Genetically that supposed 2% that differentiates is enourmoues in real terms. The illustration which reveals we also share 50% in common with a banana tree points to sharing across a large body of work.

God reveals design principles & concepts in His intelligent creation. Trees & plants are also similar to one another on so many levels but also very different.

The variation in people is huge yet we all share a common humanity with Adam. Our primary original created in the image of God, not apes.

E is similar to 3 & 5 is similar to S but they have totally different values & systems

Dan M., United States, 12 December 2015

When I was in college, I bought an old Audi sedan. I was surprised to open hood and find many of the parts stamped "VW." Either my Audi and a VW evolved from a common ancestor or they came from a common design engineer. The answer is pretty obvious.

David A., New Zealand, 12 December 2015

Suppose God did not create great apes. We then might ask the same question about the next closest animal; "Why did God create us so similar to monkeys?".

What if He did not create monkeys? Then we might ask "Why are we so similar to bears?" And so on.

So this is the kind of question that could always be asked, unless we were created so different to the animals that we could then not fulfill the dominion mandate or even live on Earth.

Sebastian F., Chile, 12 December 2015

Hello :) I have a little doubt.. We can determine through a DNA test to confirm parental subjects (to confirm whether certain person is our son/dad or not) so.. how can we differentiate it from chimp-human DNA similarities when it comes to claims that it's because we share common ancestry? Thanks in advance and keep up the good work :)

Shaun Doyle responds

We can differentiate by observational hybridization evidence. If we know by such means that two subjects for genetic comparison are interfertile, then we can be reasonably secure in inferring common ancestry from genetics. However, where there is no such hybridization evidence, as is the case between humans and apes (even despite some people trying to produce ape-man hybrids: Stalin’s ape-man Superwarriors), inferences from genetics to common ancestry are much less secure. (This is not to say that it can't be done, but the certainty of such inferences is clearly diminished in the absence of hybridization evidence.)

Moreover, inferring common ancestry straight from patterns of genetic similarity in the context of the origins debate is at best too quick, and at worst deliberately overlooking evidence to the contrary. There are some frameworks of explanation that reject common ancestry between apes and humans. Moreover, our understanding of how genomes work is still in its infancy, and there are some special types of phenotypic difference between apes and humans.

Hans G., Australia, 12 December 2015

I am sarcastic: could it be by using the evolution nonsense, that in this modern time a devolution takes place. A branch of human pointing to ape like developments, behaviour, loss of brain capacity, loss of speech, no planning ahead ability and being just living tissue? Are we seeing the entropy of humanity?

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