The Natural Order The Natural Order The Natural Order The Natural Order The Natural Order The Natural Order

Today’s scripture reading seems odd. It starts off as a poetic invocation of nature – of the glory of the night sky, and of the sun rising like an athlete ready to race across the sky.

Then, suddenly, we are talking about God’s laws which regulate human behaviour. They are presented as blessings – instructions that refresh, that gladden, that are sweeter than honey. This, too, sounds poetic, yet it seems like a radical jump. The Psalm writer is suggesting that the laws of nature which govern the movement of the sun and stars are on a continuum with God’s laws for human behaviour. That physics and morality are the same. They are the rules for the behaviour of all things, humans, stars, animals, and everything else. That there is a grand order, a cosmic design that governs the most distant star and the conduct of the heart.

That idea of a continuum of nature and morality sounds very odd to us. We are used to seeing nature as something outside ourselves. On a good day, we take pleasure in nature, admiring its beauty, as we do on fall days like today. We may be profoundly grateful that nature exists and provides us with beauty as well as sustenance and rest. But we also often see nature as an obstacle. It has its own agenda. It doesn’t seem like much of a friend when our car is stuck in the snow, or when a flood has washed away our street. We often wrestle with nature, frustrated by its resistance to our will.

How we act as people, whether we tell the truth to each other or lie, whether we steal from each other or give generously – none of that seems to have anything to do with the orbit of the planets or the growing cycle of corn and pumpkins. Human behaviour seems to be its own, separate department. We are an exception, a species where choice, not instinct, is in charge for each of us.

The idea that we are self-governed has influenced our scientific ideas about what it means to be human.

DNA – 1953

70 years ago, in 1953, scientists announced the discovery of the structure of DNA. At the time, it was seen as the key to finally understanding the secrets of the human body and our minds.

Whatever it was that makes us unique must be written in our DNA.

30 years ago, In the 1990s, scientists set out to map every gene in our DNA.

Human Genome 1990s

This was called the human genome project. It was hoped that our DNA could explain why we have our unique kind of intelligence, what made us unparalleled in the animal world.

With a complete map of our genes, scientists hoped to be able to explain the causes of our physical diseases as well as mental conditions like depression and anxiety. Map the genome, it was said, and we will finally understand the secrets of human life.

2003 A

20 years ago, in 2003, the project was completed, and it came with some major surprises. First, many of our genes are not unique.

98.8% of our genes can be found in chimpanzees, our closest animal relative.[1]Perhaps more surprising is that 50% of our genes can also be found in a banana.[2] 60% of our genes can be found in chickens.[3] They fellow life forms need proteins and enzymes, and so do we, and many of them are the same kind. Our psalm suggests that there is a continuity between the sun, the stars and us. So far, science has found that we have a lot in common with every form of life on Earth, from parakeets to elephants, humans to worms.  Science has confirmed that genetically, all life on Earth uses the same basic chemical building blocks.

But there was another surprise in the human genome results, something that makes us strangely special, but not in the way we might expect.


When the project started, scientists expected that we would have 100,000 genes.


Turns out, we only have around 20,000.[4] 

And that’s not much. Christmas Trees have at least twice as many genes as we do, and 7 times as much DNA.  [5] Trees can’t run from danger or walk down to a bar to find a mate. So, they need more chemicals to fight off things that would eat them and find ways to mate without moving.

So how do humans do so many wonderful things if we have so few genes? It turns out that our genes are masters of multitasking. One stretch of DNA can code for this kind of protein this day, and a totally different enzyme the next day. [6] Our DNA is less like a script, and more like a cookbook full of recipes for creating chemicals our body needs. What kind of chemicals we need to cook up isn’t predetermined. Instead, it is how we are living, what we are going through, that dictates what chemicals we’ll need to cook up on any given day.

And it is not just what is happening in our lives, but how we feel about it. Are we having a bad day at work, where every little thing feel annoying and threatening? That will activate a stress response, which calls for hormones like cortisol to be released in large numbers. That response will put the immune system on hold for a while, so if we stay stressed for days on end, we are more likely to get sick. [7]

On the other hand, if you are feeling relaxed most of the time, eating well and getting a good night’s sleep, then your body will call on different chemicals, and the immune system will do a better job fighting off viruses and infections.

The secret to human health and well being is not in our DNA, but in how we live and use that DNA. All this time we were expecting the secret of human life to be in our genes. It turns out, the secret is in how we are feeling and reacting to the world around us. The science tells us that to know us, you need to know what kind of relationships we’re in. Fight or flight? Or relax and enjoy? That’s as important to your physical and mental health as anything in your genes.

How you feel whether you feel glad to be at home in the world makes a huge difference to our mental and physical health. Feeling optimistic means believing that the universe is not a hostile place, that there is always a chance things will go better the next time if there’s trouble today.Nuns

A famous study of 180 nuns found that optimists outlived pessimists by almost ten years. [8]

People who have a positive attitude tend to get less depressed, and even recover from surgery more quickly. Optimism can be learned; it is not something in our genes. It is an attitude where we learn to be glad to be part of this world. How we feel is more important than what we are made of genetically.

In today’s psalm, we are told that the sun rejoices when it rises, and that the stars share their wordless wisdom with all of creation. On the human level, the psalmist sounds like an optimist: God’s laws gladden the heart and refresh the soul. The writer rejoices in the rules God has provided for human beings – it is better to give than to steal, to help than to kill. The writer is glad God has given these laws and is grateful for them. That attitude of feeling part of a glorious cosmic order is an opportunity to live with a light step. One that can see cousins and aunties in the natural world, rather than enemies.

The stars spread a wordless wisdom day and night. Our science is still discovering those secrets, which have sustained life on this planet for 3.7 billion years.[9] It is anyone’s guess what else we will learn in the decades ahead. But one thing is clear: having a sense of belonging, to be thankful that we are here, in this wonderful natural order, is not just wise, it is good for us. That attitude can give you a longer life, and a better, more enjoyable one. And that is a blessing worth remembering on Thanksgiving Day and every day.





[4] “How the Human Genome Project revolutionized biology.” The Economist, Apr. 8, 2023

[5] Lieven Sterck, Stephane Rombauts, Klaas Vandepoele, Pierre Rouze ́  and Yves Van de Peer

, “How many genes are there in plants(. . . and why are they there)?”Current Opinion in Plant Biology 2007, 10:199–203.

[6] Bruce H. Lipton, The Biology of Belief,” p.44ff.

[7] Lissa Rankin, Mind Over Medicine - REVISED EDITION

Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, 2020 – Chapter 5