Three-Parent Babies, Deep Time, and the Alien Hitchhikers Inside You

 

three-parent-baby-and-doctor

Dr. John Zhang and the first “three-parent” baby

 

The beaming doctor is New York City fertility specialist Dr. John Zhang. He is holding a newborn – swaddled in the ubiquitous teal-and-raspberry striped labor and delivery blanket. The new little boy with the blurred-out face is world famous. Not since Louise Brown (the world’s first “test tube” baby) was born in 1978 has a newborn made such headlines. In vitro fertilization doesn’t even rate a yawn today, but this little boy (who is actually now five months old) has been simultaneously heralded as hope for parents AND a scene right out of the science fiction movie Gattaca.

He’s the world’s first three-parent baby.

The baby’s mother carries a genetic mutation for Leigh syndrome, a devastating and fatal disorder. The couple lost their first two children to Leigh syndrome and suffered multiple miscarriages. Leigh syndrome is a “mitochondrial disorder”, a large group of disorders that range from asymptomatic to fatal.

Mitochondria, nicknamed “the powerhouses of the cell”, are the structures in our cells that convert the food we eat to energy. When mitochondria are defective, it is not surprising that high-energy needs systems are targeted: the central nervous system, the respiratory system, the heart, the muscles, and the eyes.

Mitochondrial disorders are only passed from mother to child – never from father to child. At this point, we fall down a fascinating science-rabbit hole that involves alien hitchhikers inside you, evolution, deep time, and a happy family with a healthy baby boy.

Mommy’s Little Mitochondria

All of the mitochondria in the cells of your body – every last one of them – came from your mother. Cells have a central control center (the nucleus) that contains your genetic code – the genes you inherited from both your mother and father. Everything else in the cell (including the mitochondria) is floating around in the liquid cytoplasm outside the nucleus.

Both eggs and sperm have nuclei; both eggs and sperm have liquid cytoplasm. BUT – at the point of fertilization, only the nucleus of the sperm enters the egg to fertilize it. What’s the result? A fertilized egg with genetic information from both egg and sperm, but liquid cytoplasm from only the mother. And because mitochondria are found in the cytoplasm, mitochondria are all from the mother.

Mitochondria: Doing it for Themselves

Mitochondria are unlike any of the other tiny structures floating around in the cytoplasm of your cells. Your body grows and repairs itself because cells divide. Mitochondria, however, divide independently of the cell in which they are located. Mitochondria do their own thing, whether or not the cell they are in is dividing. Other cell structures are formed as new cells are formed. But not our little independent mitochondria. All the mitochondria in your body are descendants of the mitochondria originally present in the cytoplasm of your mother’s egg.

And that’s not all that sets mitochondria apart from all the other cell parts. Mitochondria have their very own tiny little genomes – their very own collection of 37 genes not found in the nucleus of the cells. It is this tiny little genome that controls the critical energy-generating functions of the mitochondria. And it is in this tiny little genome where devastating mutations can occur – mutations that lead to fatal mitochondrial disorders like Leigh syndrome.

Alien Hitchhikers in your Body

I’ll get back to the story of the first three-parent baby; but first we need to take a little trek back into deep time.

The first living organisms were very simple single cells. These cells had genetic material (DNA) but very few specialized cell structures. These early organisms included bacteria and the ancestors of modern complex cells.

About two billion years ago, a free-living bacterium (who was particularly efficient at generating energy from food) was engulfed by another free-living cell (probably as a meal). But instead of being digested, the little high-energy bacterial hitchhiker set up housekeeping inside the cell.

The host cell took advantage of the energy generated by the bacterium, and the bacterium benefited from the food consumed by the host cell. In biology, this perfect roommate situation is called endosymbiosis.

Because both the host cell and the high-energy bacterium were distinct individuals, they reproduced independently. When it came time to reproduce, the high-energy bacterium pinched in half – the way all bacteria divide. Those new bacteria also divided, and before long there was a small population of bacteria happily dwelling within a free-living cell. When the host cell divided into two new cells, some of the bacterial offspring went to one new cell, the rest of the bacteria to the other new cell.

For the next two billion years, the descendants of the high-energy bacterium and the original host cell lived on as happy roommates. All multicellular organisms (including humans) and all single-celled organisms with a nucleus evolved from an ancient ancestral cell who lived in harmony with a powerful internal roommate.

The Evidence

In the 1960s, biologist Lynn Margulis noticed that mitochondria, the “powerhouse” of the cell, looked and acted just like free-living bacteria:

Mitochondria have their own double-layer cell membrane – just like bacteria.

Mitochondria have their own separate DNA. But instead of the familiar linear chromosomes, mitochondrial DNA is looped or circular – just like bacteria.

bacterial-dna

evolution.berkeley.edu

Mitochondria reproduce by pinching in half – just like bacteria. If all of the mitochondria are destroyed in a cell, the cell is unable to build new ones from scratch. Mitochondria only come from other mitochondria.

bacterial-and-mitochondrial-reproduction

evolution.berkeley.edu

We now know that endosymbiosis has occurred many times in the history of life, most famously with mitochondria and also with the photosynthesizing chloroplasts in the cells of green plants.

Mommy, Daddy, and Mitochondrial Mom

in-vitro

popsi.com

Just like any routine in-vitro fertilization, the baby boy in this case began his life in a petri dish. But before his mom’s egg was fertilized with his dad’s sperm, there was a preliminary step.

The nucleus was removed from the mother’s egg. Next, the nucleus was removed from a donor egg with healthy mitochondria. The nucleus from the mother was then placed in the donor egg. The egg was then fertilized in-vitro with sperm from the father.

The result? A healthy baby boy with DNA from his mother and father, and a tiny fraction of mitochondrial DNA from a donor egg.

Understanding the evolutionary history of the mitochondria explains why mitochondrial DNA can be defective, even if the parents’ primary genomes are free of genetic disease.

In the United States, the FDA must approve such procedures before they can be legally carried out. Because the FDA has yet to do so, this IVF with a mitochondrial donor was done in Mexico. The United Kingdom approved IVF with mitochondrial donation in 2015, but as of yet, no babies have been born using this procedure.

ccat reading

*****

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge

*****

2010-11-17-Science Cat Chris Sweet redux

Science Cat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evolution in the Youth Group: Welcome to Switzerland

In the sixteenth century, admitting disbelief in God was virtually impossible – not even an option. If you lived in a western culture, admitting such would probably get you a date with the Inquisition. spanish-inquisition2

Fast-forward 500 years: modern westerners prefer logical, demonstrable, and evidence-based explanations of phenomena over supernatural explanations. Philosopher Charles Taylor frames it this way: the modern West has sloughed off transcendence (belief in supernatural explanations) in favor of immanence (evidence-based explanations).

This is huge.

For the first time in millennia, belief in science and unbelief in God are very real options for everyone.

Teenagers and adults who came of age in the twenty-first century are the ones most acutely aware of this option. The American church is bleeding millennials and mosaics while the nones, the dechurched, and the churchless are growing with no sign of stopping.

Evolution in the youth group

Dr. Andrew Root is a youth ministry scholar and a seminary professor. His recently published white paper is an exhaustive examination of science and faith in the youth ministries of American churches. Few stones were left unturned – he extensively interviewed (both surveys and focus groups) youth ministers in conservative, moderate, and liberal churches across all denominational lines. He interviewed the students in the youth groups. He explored science and faith resources (if any) used by youth ministers.

Kids want to know: one kid (or more) in the youth group brings it up in one way or another – at least once a month. The most common science question asked of youth ministers is about evolution.

But evolution is taboo – one-third of youth ministers never officially discuss science with their kids. The vast majority might lightly touch on the topic a couple of times a year. And, by “touching on”, I mean something like this: “isn’t nature awesome, guys?? God made it!”

Teenagers and young adults have grown up in a concrete, physical, evidence-based world: not one of the students interviewed challenged the evidence-based nature of science. Not one.

What the teenagers are asking is this: how can I, in an evidence-based world, have belief in God?

And the question youth ministers are asking is this: how can I avoid a science and faith discussion?

The kids in the interviews agreed: what the church encourages them to believe and what is believable in a secular age are very different – and the church is not helping them negotiate this tension.

Welcome to Switzerland

Youth workers responded to the challenge of a science and faith discussion in one of three ways.

  • At one end are the fighters. If science is going to throw punches at faith, well then, we’re gonna punch back. These are the youth ministers who arm teenagers with apologetics so they will have a ready answer for all the misinformation and lies fed to them by “science”. To the fighters, danger lurks in every science classroom, and especially on college campuses.

Still, doubts are welcome and even conservative youth ministers want their students to feel safe discussing science. But here’s the caveat – if science does not corroborate a literal reading of the Bible, science is always jettisoned in favor of the Bible. Science is used as an apologetics tool to buttress the “biblical” view of origins.

  • At the opposite end are the white flag wavers. These youth ministers believe the war has ended and science has won. Here’s one youth minister:

I wish there was some type of conflict, but science has won the day. There are no questions coming from my group.

The best these ministers hope for is to somehow ignite a small flicker of faith – at best, an interest in a world-view that includes a bit of faith.

  • Occupying the vast middle ground and definitely in the majority were the youth ministers who just want to be Switzerland. They look for safe places to establish a neutral zone for science and faith. They just want to keep their heads down and avoid any confrontation. Why would a youth minster purposefully shoot an “arrow” of evidence at adolescent faith, possibly puncturing and deflating the belief when protecting young faith is his/her job?

swiss menYouth ministers aren’t particularly averse to teaching about science and faith – after all, their kids want to talk. They just really don’t know how, and they feel no urgency to change that. Although half of the youth ministers completed graduate degrees, the majority had taken only minimum science requirements.

Youth ministers with little to no background in science, and certainly not particularly well-versed in the biology of evolution are left to forage, mostly on their own, for published resources on science and religion.

In addition, youth ministers are not always sure how they personally feel about evolution and other origins issues. And if they are, there is hesitancy to contradict what parents might believe. So, they stay safe. They stay in Switzerland.

 Who is helping?

science_trumps_faith_fish_sticker-rad27ded2bd8e4b98b1dcf33167acbad4_v9waf_8byvr_512

If youth ministers creep across the neutral border, to whom do they turn for support in the conversation?

Things get scary at this point: the single most commonly resourced material was Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis site. Ken Ham – six-thousand-year-old earth Ken Ham. Baby-dinosaurs-on-the-ark Ken Ham.  AiG’s numerous resources for youth ministries are exclusively apologetic. A literal Genesis creation story trumps any science evidence every time, all the time.

Similar to AiG is Sword and Spirit, an apologetics website for teens and young adults. Students are not encouraged to engage science, but rather to use science as a “tool” to convince others of a presupposed biblical creationism. Likewise, the objective of Simply Youth Ministry LIVE Curriculum is to “examine the claims of evolution and consider some of the ways it falls short of scientific fact.”

But these three sources pale in comparison to Focus on the Family’s offering. The TrueU videos are filled with testimonies by young adults who have encountered “atheistic” science teachers trying to shatter the foundations that have been carefully laid by home and church. Scariest of all is the portrayal of higher education. One young man makes the air quotes sign when referencing the “experts” at his college. Hostility and suspicion toward universities, even Christian universities, is strong in this resource. Here’s a promo for “The Toughest Test in College”.

There are two lesser-known resources that promote looking at the issues of science and faith (Test of Faith and On the Spot) as a conversation to be had, without eliminating either position.

Perhaps the strongest resource available that presents evolution as God’s means of creation is the BioLogos site. However, BioLogos is not specifically targeted to students and can be fairly technical.

Skylights

Young adults are immersed in a culture and a world view that values evidence-based thinking over transcendent thinking. And it is not going away. Despite the efforts of Ken Ham and his Big Ark Theme Park, young adults feel the tension between what they think the church is telling them and what the evidence says.

But – wait for it – here is the primary conclusion of this extensive research study. You might want to read this twice:

What we’re suggesting may seem an oxymoron at first, but our research bears it out: injecting the subject of science into youth ministry actually catalyzes students to think about transcendence and God.

Deny the evidence-based, cast doubt on the transcendent.

Accept the evidence-based and open up the conversation for faith. Ironic, isn’t it?

What might that look like in a conversation with teenagers or young adults? Maybe this: “The universe is very large and very old (evidence-based). Does this mean that the universe must be impersonal and that we are totally alone?” We’ve now made room for discussion of the transcendent (supernatural) in the context of scientific evidence.

Dr. Root calls it “begging for skylights”. Young adults live in houses framed with boards and beams of the concrete, physical, material, and scientific world. This study found that they are also begging for skylights within their houses – they want a conversation about the transcendent.

skylight-home1

Here’s a link to the entire white paper: Youth Ministry & Science (Root, Wood, & Jones, 2015)

 

 

 

ccat reading

*****

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge

*****

science cat writes a paper

“How I Changed My Mind About Evolution”

Is there a topic more threatening to evangelicals than evolution?

Many evangelicals are convinced that evolution theory threatens to undermine – even dismantle – core beliefs about the Bible and Christian theology. Evangelical churches tend to fall somewhere on a continuum between an unspoken but default anti-evolution stance on one end and a Ken Ham-style all-out war on the other.

A Gallup Poll (2014) found that 69% of Americans who attend church weekly believe that humans were created in their present form within the last 10,000 years. Weekly church attenders are mostly evangelicals.

book review how i changed my mind evolution

How I Changed My Mind About Evolution is a collection of twenty-five short faith memoirs – first-hand accounts from practicing evangelicals. All but one in the group are theologians (academics and/or pastors) or scientists (academics, researchers, editors). Their backgrounds are varied – cradle Christians to atheists/agnostics. All but one came to faith in an evangelical tradition. Most initially embraced the literal Genesis interpretation of their faith mentors or faith tradition.

Several writers described a personal “road to Damascus” experience on their way to acceptance of evolution theory – their study of origins began as a search for ammunition in a culture war against evolution (a war which is, as N. T. Wright points out, primarily fought in America).

The group includes a history-making, world-renown research scientist (Francis Collins), a best-selling author (Scot McKnight), and many other names you might recognize.

Incremental Journeys

The journey to accepting evolution theory was often incremental and usually included a time of closeted acceptance of evolution. A first step for several writers was exposure to books and conversations outside their own faith “tribes”. The exposure was sometimes initially threatening, but eventually embraced:

I began to sense that science was bigger than what I had been taught . . . (p. 24)

How could I have never heard about these things? (p. 182)

Interestingly, tools of the trade used by several of the writers in their vocations were repurposed in their journey to acceptance of evolution theory. For example, in his fundamentalist seminary education, Scot McKnight was trained to read the Bible for himself, to sort out the evidence, and to base his beliefs on the evidence alone. McKnight calls this the “hermeneutical equivalent of the scientific method” (p. 31), and he eventually applied this “hermeneutic” to the scientific evidence of origins.

Likewise, an analytic philosopher applied a tool of philosophy – there are things that are true independent of what we think about the matter – and concluded that all truth is God’s truth.

The backgrounds and stories vary, but common themes wind their way through the memoirs.

So what changed their minds?

“What else did the church lie to me about?”

Raised in a church and Christian school where a young earth was truth and evolution was a lie, she was devastated after she encountered a thoughtful and reasoned explanation of evolution in a university science course. Her parents (members of one writer’s church) were thankful that she was willing to have a conversation, given that the church’s perceived rejection of science is a primary reason eighteen to thirty-year-olds abandon their faith.

The most pervasive theme in this collection of faith memoirs was a realization of personal intellectual dishonesty. The historical and scientific gymnastics required in order to make empirical evidence “fit” a young earth, a literal Genesis, or the claims of the intelligent design movement eventually became harder than accepting the scientific evidence.

dinosaur-human-2

As an undergraduate, pastor and developmental psychologist Daniel M. Harrell felt the tension. He chose astronomy as his one required science course, hoping to avoid the “indictments of fossils and DNA”. But stars don’t lie about their age, and Harrell soon went scrambling for a “trick” to combat the cognitive dissonance he felt. His campus minister provided the solution: all evidences of evolution and an old earth are simply “appearances” – the earth only “appears” to be old, for instance. This solution worked through college, seminary, and a Ph.D. program, but eventually the tricks collapsed and the cognitive dissonance returned with force.

Harrell concluded that not only did the “appearances trick” collapse under the evidence, but it also failed theologically.

… it seemed to portray God as an intentional deceiver. This would never do. (p. 126)

Several writers recalled belief (encouraged by their faith communities) in a vast, world-wide scientific conspiracy. Scientists and atheists (aren’t they really the same?) were in cahoots to deceive the world:

  • A transitional fossil has never been found.
  • Rock dating techniques aren’t accurate or reliable.
  • There is evidence supporting creationism, but scientists suppress it.

One writer recalled a poster mocking human evolution hanging in her Christian school’s science classroom. She recalled how she and her twelve-year-old classmates were smug in the knowledge that they knew something that all the scientists in the world didn’t.

Eventually, the overwhelming evidence for evolution and an old earth overcame the science-denying mental gymnastics:

Conspiracy theories about scientists piecing together ordinary bits of bone to make dinosaurs or relying on faulty radio-carbon dating techniques to argue that the earth was hundreds of millions of years old became increasingly absurd once I got to know science and scientists firsthand. (p. 140)

tugwar

One writer, raised by her atheist father to approach the cosmos with unbridled awe and wonder, came to science before she came to faith:

the young-earth argument didn’t seem to align with the ever-expansiveness I had experienced with God . . . As I read the arguments that the earth must be only several thousand years old . . . I felt less in awe of our Creator, not a greater sense of glorious mystery . . . (p. 156)

Rethinking Theology

A prevalent theme in the memoirs is a “rethinking” of traditional evangelical theology. Primarily, what do we do with with Adam? Does Christian theology require a literal, historical, and unique Adam?

And what about the image of God? How does common descent of all living beings impact the theology of being “made in the image of God”?

How is God “originator” and “creator” in a naturalistic process?

Some writers elaborated their thoughts on these questions; others confessed to an ongoing wrestling match with theology despite their acceptance of evolution theory. One writer eloquently encouraged patience in the “hard work of learning” (p. 88).

Here’s how another writer put it:

. . . if all truth is God’s truth, then in principle our understanding of Scripture and truth are compatible, even if the precise manner in which they are compatible may not always be clear to us . . .  (p. 81)

Probably the greatest resource used by the writers in rethinking traditional interpretations of Genesis was the historical and archeological evidence from ancient near-eastern cultures – the cultural ancestors and cultural neighbors of ancient Israel.

Creation stories and flood stories that far predate the Genesis stories demanded attention. Setting ancient Israel within its cultural, historical, and literary contexts removed obstacles to acceptance of evolution theory for many writers.

enumaelish_2570103975

Broken Relationships

Sadly, an all-too-common event in the memoirs was a broken relationship of some sort.

Many memoirs described an intellectual no-man’s land. Their faith was suspect by their Christian friends; their intelligence was suspect by their science colleagues.

A wealthy donor threatened to pull support from a seminary if a professor who was critical of the intelligent design movement was given tenure.

A successful, tenured professor was forced out because he refused to publicly support a new anti-evolution university faith statement.

Even Francis Collins was not immune. He definitely felt the love in the room when he spoke to a national group of Christian physicians.

Here’s a world-class science rock star! And – he’s a very public and committed Christian! Yay!

But then:

. . . I mentioned how overwhelming the scientific evidence for evolution is, and suggested that in my view evolution might be God’s elegant plan for creating humankind. The warmth left the room. So did some of the attendees, literally walking out, shaking their heads in dismay. (p. 71)

Changing Your Mind

How I Changed My Mind About Evolution hits the best of both worlds – it is readable and user-friendly, but doesn’t skimp on the science or theology. It’s a book I read with lots of “me, toos!”.

I, too, felt a conflict between what I was learning in public school and in college and what was held as the de facto origins position of my faith “tribe”.

Author and speaker John Clayton, an atheist convert to Christianity, was the first to give me “permission” to think outside my evolution box. As a geologist, Clayton rejected the idea of a young earth. I do not accept Clayton’s intelligent design explanations, but I am thankful he pushed my thinking.

On to the big guns: after Kenneth Miller (Finding Darwin’s God, Only a Theory), Francis Collins (The Language of God), and Darrel Falk (Coming to Peace with Science), there was no turning back.

For an in-depth look at the origin and flood stories of the ancient near east, Old Testament scholar Peter Enns (The Evolution of Adam, Inspiration and Incarnation) is my go-to.

For a very user-friendly introduction to the science and theology of origins, read Reconciling the Bible and Science: A Primer on the Two Books of God (Mitchell and Blackard).

ccat reading

*****

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge

*****

who invited the herbivore

Your Grandmother Fish, Genesis Retold, and a Scared School Board Lady

Mary Lou Bruner is scared of a lot of things, but she is particularly fearful of evolution.

Mrs. Bruner is a 2016 candidate for the Texas State Board of Education – the people who pick our kids’ textbooks.

Mary Lou Bruner

Mary Lou Bruner

She has a strong resume and is definitely a viable candidate.  And we certainly know her opinions on All Things Education – she has been particularly prolific on social media over the years. (Mrs. Bruner recently scrubbed her Facebook, but not before a multitude of screenshots were picked up by several websites, in Texas and beyond.)

In a 2013 letter to the Texas State Board of Education, Mrs. Bruner warned of the direness to follow if the board allowed the teaching of evolution to Texas schoolchildren.

Evolution is “propaganda supporting the religion of Atheism”.

Evolution is “demoralizing our nation”.

Evolution causes us to reconsider “the purpose of public education”.  Mrs. Bruner also believes that teaching evolution is behind the rash of school shootings.

(Mrs. Bruner is not afraid of dinosaurs, but she does believe that there were baby dinos on Noah’s ark).

baby dino and noah

Your Grandmother Fish

Evolution is not a scary story from which to shield our kids – or anyone, for that matter. Evolution is, however, often difficult to understand. Misconceptions abound and usually drive reluctance and fearfulness.

Grandmother Fish: A Child’s First Book of Evolution is a new hardcover picture book, originally a Kickstarter project. Macmillan has just announced that they have picked up Grandmother Fish and will publish the second edition in September 2016. It is delightfully illustrated and the science is solid.

 

grandmother fish

Grandmother Fish is written for children – preschoolers actually – but my hunch is that adults were the primary target. Far from scary, Grandmother Fish is the story of us – it is a beautiful, sweeping picture of our place on the great tree of life.

Grandmother Fish had many grandchildren – they could wiggle and chomp. We had other grandmothers, too: Grandmother Reptile could crawl and breathe air. Grandmother Mammal could cuddle and squeak. Grandmother Ape could grab and hoot. We breathe air, move, and use our hands because in our human family tree were relatives from whom we inherited those traits.

Genesis Retold

Granted, our school board candidate is extreme in her fear of evolution – but she is not alone in her belief that evolution excludes faith and belief in God.

When the writers of Genesis told the story of creation, God was central: originator, sustainer, and lover. Yet, the “mechanics” of it all were completely within the only origins framework they knew – ancient near-eastern explanations of How It All Started. Old Testament writers were millennia away from the framework of modern science. It is no surprise then, that although God is central in the biblical story, the “mechanics” framework is the same as other ancient near-eastern cultures (I’ve written about Genesis and the near-eastern creation stories here and here).

What if – for today – we did it again? What if we told the story of God as originator, sustainer, and lover, but we told the story within the framework of modern science?

Leonard Vander Zee has done just that. New this month at BioLogos: “The Big Story”. big story

Using sweeping poetic language similar to the creation poetry of Psalms, Job, and Genesis, Vander Zee recounts the story of creation using the scientific knowledge the ancients did not have.

It is stunning – you can watch the video clip (it isn’t long, just under twelve minutes) and you can also read the transcript, but watch Vander Zee – the spoken poetry is beautiful.

Brains grew, capabilities advanced, until finally, a creature appeared with something entirely new: Human Consciousness. And God’s breath, the Holy Spirit, breathed into these conscious creatures, and they knew God, the creator of all. They stood tall and free, eyes shining with excitement and wonder before their Creator (“The Big Story).

ccat reading

*****

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge

*****

noah ark llamas

 

Evolution’s Toolkit and the Dinosaur on your Thanksgiving Table

If something chases you…run!

jurassic-world-rex-leak-1

Jurassic World opens this weekend and I’ll be there! (go for the fun; critique the science.)

Dinosaur-mania is nothing new. People have long been fascinated with the mysterious bones buried beneath them. When a particularly strong earthquake hit first-century Rome, a series of colossal skeletons was exposed. The locals assumed it was a graveyard for ancient giants, but they dutifully sent the emperor Tiberius one enormous tooth. Tiberius ordered his mathematicians to recreate a to-scale model of the giant, calculated from the “tooth” (probably a mastodon).

The Chinese thought they had found dragon bones; American Indians told tales of the “Thunderbird” (probably skeletons of pterodactyls). The Victorians loved fossils and collected them and identified them in earnest. They collected and reconstructed fossilized skeletons of dinosaurs as well as the dinosaur cousins: the long-neck sea-dwelling plesiosaurs, the shark-like ichthyosaurs, and the flying pterosaurs.

Plesiosaur fossil found by Mary Anning in 1821

Plesiosaur fossil found by Mary Anning in 1821

Dinosaurs in your Backyard

There are three main groups of dinosaurs: the horned and frilled plant-eaters (like Triceratops), the giant long-necked, long-tailed plant-eating sauropods (like Brontosaurus), and the raptor-clawed, razor-toothed meat-eaters called theropods (T. Rex is the most famous in this group).

Almost all (if not all) theropods were feathered – yes! even T. Rex most likely sported at least a fuzzy covering. Feathers helped keep the theropod dinosaurs warm and possibly helped them attract the ladies – theropods didn’t use their feathers for flying.

a shaggy-feathered theropod

Until they did.

The hummingbirds in your backyard, the grackles covering the parking lot, the ducks in the park pond, and the turkey on your Thanksgiving table are all descended from small meat-eating theropod dinosaurs. In most current biology writings, birds are referred to as “avian dinosaurs”.

T. Rex is more closely related to your Thanksgiving turkey than it is to Triceratops.

Wishbones and Dinosaur Moms

In humans and other vertebrates, the clavicles or “collar bones” connect the sternum to the scapula. In birds, however, the two bones are fused together in a “y” shape. The fused bones are called the furcula, better known as the “wishbone” in birds.

The only living animals with a wishbone are the birds.
The only extinct animals with a wishbone were the theropod dinosaurs.

And that’s not all. We have found a wealth of fossilized theropod dinosaur nests – complete with eggs and fossilized dinosaur babies. Some of the fossilized nests have fossilized dinosaur moms, brooding over eggs, arranged nicely in a circle…just like birds.

Fossilized Oviraptor brooding her nest

Fossilized Oviraptor brooding her nest

 

Even the inside of dinosaur bones looks like the inside of bird bones. Both bird bones and dinosaur bones have air pockets. Both also have bone growth rings (like the growth rings of trees), indicating that dinosaurs, like their bird descendants and unlike their reptile cousins, were warm-blooded.

Mesozoic Rock Star

Nineteenth century paleontologists suspected that birds evolved from dinosaurs based on the multiple bird-like dinosaurs that had been found, many with fuzzy-feathery coats.

In 1860, an unmistakable, perfectly preserved flight feather was found in Germany, in Mesozoic rock – far predating any known fossils of modern birds. In the next two decades, more were found, but this time, the feathers were attached to their owners: animals with a wishbone, wings, and feathers but also with teeth, fingers, and a long tail.

One of the rock-stars of the fossil world had been found: Archaeopteryx.

Archaeopteryx looked like a small raptor dinosaur, but with the unmistakable feathers, wings, and bone structure of a bird. In the last few decades, other primitive bird species have been found in China and Madagascar – retaining their dinosaur looks but with distinctive bird features.

Archaeopteryx1140553061

Archaeopteryx

 

No one knows for sure why all of the non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago but the avian dinosaurs (birds) survived. (Gary Lawson, the undisputed king of dinosaur humor, chalked it up to smoking).

real reason dinos extinct

The avian dinosaurs survived, expanded, and evolved traits seen in modern birds: short tail, no teeth, fused fingers.

Dino-Chickens, Anyone?

And just when you thought Jurassic World’s recreation of dinosaurs from mosquitoes trapped in amber was great movie fiction, this: dino-chickens.

Biologists at the University of Chicago recently created chicken embryos with dinosaur-like faces by tinkering with the proteins that build chicken beaks.

Whoa.

In reptiles, there are two bones in the face that form the snout. In birds, the two bones fuse, grow longer, and form a beak. The proteins that form a snout in an embryo reptile are the same proteins that form a beak in an embryo bird. In reptiles, the proteins are active only in two small places on the face. In birds, however, the proteins are active in a wide band across the face.

The biologists blocked the activity of the proteins in dozens of developing chicken embryos. In some of the chicks, the bones only partially fused. In others, the bones were significantly shorter and separate. The biologists did not created full-out snouts in the chicks, but pretty close to it.

Evolution’s Toolkit

The dinosaur-to-bird transition wasn’t straight-forward, all neat and pretty. That’s not how evolution works. Contrary to the famous monkey-to-man evolution poster, evolutionary change does not happen in noticeable leaps from animal to animal. Change occurs in tiny steps that over time, add up.

Evolution is a tinkerer. Every new trait, every new characteristic that eventually results in a new species was fashioned from what was already there. Nature doesn’t start from scratch. Nature modifies old genes for new purposes or reuses old genes in a new way. Evolution doesn’t need new tools – it makes do with what is already in the toolkit.

In the case of birds, a dinosaur didn’t just wake up one morning with a beak instead of a snout. A dinosaur hatchling didn’t break out of its egg with a fully-formed beak. The dino-chicken research demonstrates that something as minor as a small change in protein expression can interrupt snout formation.

Nature’s thriftiness is evident throughout the entire tree of life. In a fascinating trip through the branches of the tree of life, Neil Shubin (author of Your Inner Fish, book and popular PBS series) explains how evolution has re-fashioned and re-purposed structures already in existence: “tinkering with mammal-ness to get whales, tinkering with fishy-ness to get tetrapods”.

Sometimes evolution’s re-purposing has little to do with original function. For example, a light-bending protein called crystallin makes up the lenses of complex eyes. But crystallin existed well before the first complex eyes evolved. Sea squirts, primitive ancestors of vertebrates, also have cystallin. In sea squirts (who have no heads, much less eyes), crystallin forms a gravity-sensing organ.

sea squirt

sea squirt

But Aren’t Some Things Too Complex to Have Evolved?

Creationists (including Intelligent Design advocates) claim that certain aspects of life are so complex they could not have possibly evolved. The eye, the blood clotting system, the bacterial flagellum – these and more are considered “irreducibly complex” – all parts must be in place or the structure is useless.

But that is not how evolution works. Crystallin did not have to be created specially for complex eyes. The protein was already in the ancient toolkit, doing another job. Precursor parts and pieces of the blood clotting system and flagellum have also been identified. Nature doesn’t start from scratch.

A Planet Bursting with Evolutionary Possibilities

Dr. Kenneth Miller is a cell and molecular biologist and the co-author of one of the most widely used biology textbooks in the country – the text at the center of the Texas State School Board’s evolution controversy. He is an outspoken critic of creationism and intelligent design. He has been an expert witness for science in multiple high-profile court cases involving the teaching of evolution.

And he is a committed Christian.

Dr. Miller was awarded the 2014 Laetare medal by Notre Dame University in recognition of his witness to excellence in science and religious belief.

Here’s Dr. Miller:

Like many other scientists who hold the Catholic faith, I see the Creator’s plan and purpose fulfilled in our universe. I see a planet bursting with evolutionary possibilities, a continuing creation in which the Divine Providence is manifest in every living thing. I see a science that tells us that there is indeed a design to life, and the name of that design is evolution.

Kenneth Miller

Kenneth Miller

 

Dinosaurs aren’t extinct – they’re flocking all over town. There may even be some waiting for you in the parking lot when you leave Jurassic World.

Watch them and marvel at a planet bursting with creation.

 

ccat reading

***************
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
*************

Science Cat

Science Cat

Bigfoot, the Big Bang, and the Measles Outbreak

The Happiest Place on Earth has become the Spottiest Place on Earth.

Early last December, one person with measles visited a Disneyland park in California. Maybe they sneezed. That’s probably all it took. Measles is so contagious that if someone has it, 90% (!) of the people close to that person will get infected if they are not immune.

It was a perfect storm: measles exposure in a very public place in a hot-bed of anti-vaccination-ism.
There were 644 new cases of measles in 2014 – the largest number in the U.S. in nearly one-quarter of a century – and dozens of those cases were linked back to the December Disneyland exposure.

disney tshirt measles

The science is conclusive – measles is a highly contagious, very serious disease that can cause severe complications and death. Before 1963 (when vaccination began), 400-500 people in the US died every year from the measles and another 4,000 developed encephalitis.

Also conclusive – the reappearance of previously-defeated diseases like measles and whooping cough is linked to increasing numbers of parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids.

There Must Be a Misunderstanding…

“We just aren’t sending the right message to parents!” – or so thought the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In a study published last year, almost 2000 parents were given specific information from the Centers for Disease Control regarding the measles vaccine, the MMR. The parents were divided into groups:

  • Group 1 received information explaining that the measles vaccine (MMR) does not cause autism.
  • Group 2 received information about the dangers of measles that can be prevented by the MMR vaccine.
  • Group 3 saw photos of children with measles that could have been prevented by the MMR vaccine.
  • Group 4 read a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died from measles.

So what do you think? Which approach was most effective in convincing parents to vaccinate their children?

None. Not one of the approaches worked.

Although information that debunked the autism/vaccine myth successfully reduced misconceptions about an autism link, parents who were already unlikely to vaccinate doubled down and expressed even stronger feelings against vaccinations.

In the group of parents who saw images of sick children, belief in the autism link rose. The narrative about the infant who almost died from measles increased the number of parent-reported stories about vaccine side-effects.

Similar results were found with the flu vaccine. People who were fearful that the flu shot could actually cause the flu were given solid evidence debunking this myth. And after the evidence – the flu fearful were even less likely to get a flu shot.

When Knowledge is Not Enough

In 2008 the Texas State School Board was embroiled in controversy over public school science curriculum. Front and center of the controversy, of course, was evolution. Southern Methodist University anthropologist, Dr. Ron Wetherington, served as an expert reviewer during the process.

At the time, the Texas State School Board was packed with staunch creationists, including the staunchest of all, president Don McLeroy.

Dr. Wetherington and his colleagues believed that education was the key to correcting misinformation. Denial of the evidence supporting evolution is largely due to ignorance, they reasoned. But Dr. Wetherington and his colleagues found that the facts of evolution were irrelevant in the debate. The Revisionaries, an award-winning film that documents the standards and textbook battles between the scientists and the Texas State School Board, features Dr. Wetherington.

Revisioonaries_poster_smallwave.indd

Most states include evolution in their science curriculum and approximately 70 percent of students entering college say they were taught about evolution. Yet, more than one-third of young Americans (18-29 years) do not believe in human evolution or are not sure. Even fewer Americans accept human evolution in the 30 years and older demographics.

Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts.
(Daniel Patrick Moynihan)

Apparently this truism does not apply to science. Throwing facts at the problem is not helping.

The Science of Big Foot and Haunted Houses

Sometimes reasonable people doubt science, but doubting science has consequences. Vaccines save lives and anti-vaxers are decreasing the herd immunity that keeps the weakest among us safe. Fluoridation conspiracy theorists argue against a safe, cheap, and effective practice that promotes dental health across socioeconomic lines.

Evolution is real and is a fact and is the very foundation of modern biology and medicine. Rejecting evolution on religious grounds is driving people away from their faith and their churches in droves.

Americans, champions of public schooling and education for all, often flounder in their understanding of scientific knowledge.

Fifty-one percent of Americans are confident in the safety of vaccines, but roughly the same percentage of Americans believe in haunted houses.

The number of Americans who believe that the universe began with a big bang is equal to the number who believe in Bigfoot.

ohio-bigfoot-conference-2012

It’s one thing to know a bunch of science facts, it’s another thing to know what to do with them. More important than the ability to spout lists of science facts is science thinking.

Science is not a body of facts. Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not. (Marcia McNutt, editor of Science)

Science is facts, but not just the facts – it’s also how we decide what is true and consistent with natural laws and what isn’t. Science thinking is equally important: What is evidence? What is a theory? How do scientists work?

Tight With Our Peeps

Our beliefs about science  are largely motivated by our emotions. In that regard, we never left high school – we want to stay tight with our peers. apa_saved_by_bell_jt_130125_wmain

So, if my brain understands the evidence for evolution but my faith community denies it, most often my need to “fit in” will triumph. I will “doubt” or “deny” evolution because to allow myself to believe otherwise comes at an emotional cost.

I don’t really care about hurting science’s feelings, so there is not an emotional downside in ignoring science. crying scientist

That’s the reason anti-vaxers are often found in hot pockets of uniform communities and not spread randomly across all demographics.

That’s the reason why political party affiliation usually predicts a person’s opinion on the validity of climate change data.

Scientists themselves are not immune to self-imposed bias. We all favor evidence that confirms what we already believe.
But science evidence isn’t considered legit until it has been put up on the hot seat before the scientific community. If evidence cannot be confirmed AND replicated by multiple other scientists, it fails.

 In science it’s not a sin to change your mind when the evidence demands it. For some people, the tribe is more important than the truth; for the best scientists, the truth is more important than the tribe.

Science tells us the truth, not what we’d like the truth to be.

ccat reading

***************
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
*************

stop copying me

What Darwin Got Wrong and Why Creationism Isn’t Science

It has been a year since the showdown between Bill Nye “the Science Guy” and Ken Ham “the Six-Thousand Year-Old Earth Guy”. Bill Nye caught a lot of flak from scientists for debating Ham because a “debate” implies two equally credible options. Even the BioLogos Foundation (dedicated to an evolutionary understanding of creation) discouraged the Ham/Nye debate because debates imply that you must choose between evolution and faith. ham-vs-nye-debate
Public debates are favorites of creationists – the limited time format and simplified concepts needed for a non-scientific audience usually favor the creationist debater. Debaters often employ the “Gish Gallop” (named for a famous creationist), a debating strategy in which an opponent is deluged with small arguments that can’t possibly be answered in the allotted time. If all arguments are not refuted, the creationist debater declares victory.

Debating Canada

When the Institute for Creation Research scheduled their November 2014 anti-evolution “Origin Summit” on the campus of Michigan State University, their first move was to organize a debate. Unfortunately for the group, the science faculty banded together and refused to participate in a debate with the creationist group.

Not only did the science faculty refuse to debate, they refused to comment publicly or on the record until after the event was over. The faculty of MSU steadfastly refused to elevate the status of creationism to science.
A few Michigan State students did, however, set up an outreach booth as a good-will gesture to the summit attendees. Even so, the student volunteers chose not to engage in debate.

The outreach booth organizer explained:

We don’t debate evolution because it’s not debatable. It’s like debating the existence of Canada.

Darwin Editorial_cartoon_depicting_Charles_Darwin_as_an_ape_(1871)

Certainly no scientist has been more maligned or been the subject of more unflattering caricatures than the author of evolution theory, Charles Darwin. But Charles Darwin wasn’t the only or even the first of his day to suggest that living things evolved from a common ancestor. Other scientists had suggested it, including Darwin’s own grandfather.

Darwin developed the theory of evolution in the late 1830’s, but he never published a paper– he planned to present it in one all-inclusive book. Meanwhile, another naturalist (as biologists were called at the time), Alfred Russel Wallace, had arrived at a very similar theory of evolution. Both Darwin and Wallace presented papers in 1858, but the papers were ignored. It was Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species published the following year that caused a scientific and cultural earthquake.

Darwin’s big idea eventually revolutionized science and became the foundation for all of modern biology. Darwin said that evolution occurred because of natural selection: living organisms vary, and some of these variations will better suit individuals to the environment. Individuals that are better suited for the environment will live longer and produce more offspring, thus passing down the traits to future generations. Beneficial traits are retained, useless or harmful traits disappear. Over time, a new species will emerge.

Darwin Was Wrong

Darwin himself realized that there was a gaping hole in his theory: offspring obviously had a mix of their parents’ traits, but how were traits passed from parents to offspring?

Little cell seeds – that was Darwin’s answer. According to Darwin, each cell in the body sheds little cell seeds (Darwin called them “gemmules”). Little cell seeds from both parents blend together to form the offspring. Some gemmules are stronger, so they dominate over the others.

Big problem: if traits are blended in offspring, it would not be very long before beneficial traits are diluted out of future generations.

Darwin’s explanation of how traits are passed from parent to offspring was, in a word, wrong.
Lacking an answer to the problem of heredity, enthusiasm for Darwin’s theory waned.

Super Monk to the Rescue!

While Darwin was busy in the 1850s developing his theory and writing his book, an Augustinian monk was painstakingly carrying out detailed botanical experiments in Brno Abbey (now part of the Czech Republic). Gregor_Mendel_ovalThe Abbey had a long history of scientific inquiry – specifically in the areas of agriculture and plant science. Gregor Mendel studied the inheritance of traits in pea plants – wrinkled or round seeds, yellow or green pods, and other easily identifiable traits.

(Raise your hand if you remember working out Punnett squares in school – you may thank Brother Mendel for that.)

600px-Punnett_Square.svgAfter eight years, thousands of crosses, and meticulous statistical study, Mendel determined that traits are not blended in offspring but are inherited whole.
Mendel published his work in 1866, but no one paid attention.
Almost twenty years after his death, Mendel’s work was rediscovered, breathing new life into Darwin’s theory. Before long we discovered that DNA is the chemical that holds the information for traits in all living things… then off we went, full-steam ahead into the 20th and 21st centuries and the age of genetics.

We now understand that traits, inherited from parents, are combined in unique ways at conception. Unless you are an identical twin, you differ genetically from your siblings. In addition, mutations (copying mistakes in DNA) occur frequently, and these can change a trait. When humans or any living organisms are born with traits that better suit them to their environment, their chances for surviving and having lots of offspring increase.

Embarrassing Progress

Darwin’s “gemmules” idea was utterly wrong, but his theory of evolution by natural selection has stood the tests of time and countless scientific inquiries. Matt Simon, writing in Wired magazine said this:

Being wildly wrong is perfectly healthy in science, because when someone comes along to prove that you’re wrong, that’s progress. Somewhat embarrassing progress for the person being corrected, sure, but progress nonetheless.

What Makes Something “Science”?

Science theories explain. A science theory isn’t speculation or even an “educated” guess. A science theory is an explanation that fits the evidence. For an idea to gain the status of “theory” in science, it must be confirmed consistently by observation and experimentation. As new evidence is discovered, a theory may be adjusted or tweaked, but the underlying principles remain unchanged.

Gravity is a theory. The earth orbiting the sun is a theory. There’s also germ theory and molecular theory. And, of course, evolution theory. As precise as these are, they are still incomplete. We are still tweaking as evidence unfolds.

Darwin theorized that all living things evolved from simpler forms  because of natural selection. What Darwin did not know was all the ways natural selection occurs. We are learning more and more about the “how” of natural selection and how species separate from each other, but the theory – the fact – of evolution remains true.

Science theories have predictive power. A good theory allows scientists to make predictions that will turn out to be roughly correct. When Darwin died, the fossil record was not nearly what it is today. And there certainly was no genetic evidence, much less mapping of genomes.

Yet – fossils of both plants and animals were found just where we expect they’d be found – just where Darwin’s theory predicts they will be found. For example, fish are found in older rock than are amphibians, and Tiktaalik (the famous fish to amphibian transitional fossil) was found in between. meetTik1

The explosion of genetic data over the last two decades doesn’t just show apparent relationships between living things, it shows actual relationships. DNA evidence is the smoking gun – concrete evidence of the interrelatedness of all living organisms.

Is Creationism Science?

In courtrooms across the United States, as well as in state boards of education and textbook hearings, advocates have fought for creationism (and its science-y sibling, intelligent design) as an “alternative” theory to evolution in science classrooms.

Both young earth creationism and intelligent design claim that all life was designed and created specially, uniquely, and separately. If this is true, then all predictive power is lost. If every organism is self-contained, there are no patterns to discover. There are no relationships to discover. Any direction we look for new information is just a shot in the dark.

Kenneth Miller is a biologist, author of a best-selling biology textbook, and a Christian. As an expert witness in the landmark Dover court case, Miller argued that creationism and intelligent design have no place in the science classroom. If non-natural causes are considered legitimate science explanations, Miller reasons, then all science ground rules change.

Why bother to conduct an exhaustive molecular search through primate virus genomes to find the source of HIV if it was sent from God as a divine warning? Why study the physics of light if the rainbow is a phenomenon given to us by a “whimsical” designer (according to William Dembski, a leader in the Intelligent Design movement)?

sciencefun.wordpress.com

sciencefun.wordpress.com

 

Science is predictable and explainable because it deals with natural causes.
Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design can’t predict. They can’t explain. They aren’t science.

What Does the Theory of Evolution Say About God?

Nothing.

The theory of evolution says nothing about God. The theory of evolution says nothing about how life began, or how matter came into being. The theory of evolution explains how life developed once it got going.

Darwin could not have imagined the vast and diverse evidence we have now that supports his theory.

Francis Collins said it succinctly:

Trying to do biology without evolution would be like trying to do physics without mathematics.

ccat reading

***************
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
*************

string theory