Science This Week: Mammoths, Mosquitoes, and a Movie I Don’t Want to See

Mammoth Problems in South Carolina

She’s eight years old and she spends her recess time hunting for fossilized shark teeth on the playground. Her name is Olivia McConnell and she LOVES science.

Olivia McConnell  CBS News

Olivia McConnell
CBS News

When Olivia found out that her home state, South Carolina, had an official state bird, a state tree, and even a state spider but no official state fossil, she went to work.

Olivia knew that one of the first fossils ever discovered in North America was an ancient woolly mammoth, dug up from a South Carolina swamp in 1725. Olivia wrote Governor Nikki Haley and other state lawmakers and made the case for the woolly mammoth.

Here’s Olivia:

I wanted it to be the state fossil because I didn’t want that history to be lost, and our state to not get credit for it.

Olivia’s state senator thought it was a great idea and started a bill through the senate, expecting it to fly through.
Not so fast, little miss.

The bill is currently stalled in a House committee. Several state lawmakers are balking because the bill is not consistent with a literal reading of Genesis.

Here’s the original bill:

The woolly mammoth is designated as the official state fossil of South Carolina.

And here is the most recent (April 9) version of the bill that came out of committee:

The Columbian Mammoth, which was created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field, is designated as the official State Fossil of South Carolina and must be officially referred to as the ‘Columbian Mammoth’, which was created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field.

This latest iteration was voted down, so for now, South Carolina still has no state fossil. But Olivia is not deterred – she has vowed to fight on. Olivia says she will keep lobbying until she’s “23 or even 40” in the quest to have South Carolina join the majority of other states with paleo symbols. (By the way – Texas has two: a state dinosaur, Pleurocoelus and the state stone, petrified palm wood).

Coming to a Theater Near You 

On September 26, A Matter of Faith is scheduled to hit the theaters. matter of faith movie

Here’s what we know from the movie trailer: Wistful dad says one of the hardest things for a father to do is “send your little girl off to college”. College girl is loving life, especially her classes, especially her biology professor.

Concerned dad researches daughter’s professors.
Dad meets with the dean, and in a tone of voice usually reserved for revealing the true identity of a super-villain, dad says (cue ominous music):

The guy’s an evolutionist!  phantom_scooby_doo_unmask_1_1750

 

Dad goes on to say that “nothing in the whole course description says that Biblical creation is even a plausible alternative”.

This film does not have the big names of Noah or Heaven Is For Real, but it will most likely gather a following. A Matter of Faith will appeal to the demographic who liked Fireproof, God’s Not Dead, and Facing the Giants – Christians who want to see family-friendly, God-honoring movies at an actual cineplex.
Christians will be encouraged to support the film so “Hollywood will make more movies like that”. The target audience is committed believers.

For eighty-nine minutes, viewers will be submerged in the concept that science (and specifically evolution) is the enemy of faith, sweetly played out on the big screen.

Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis are promoting this film big-time. Several AIG staff have consulted or previewed the movie.
Here’s Ken Ham:

Atheists and compromising Christians are going to hate A Matter of Faith! It’s a great new movie!

Rachel Held Evans, in her faith memoir Evolving in Monkey Town (recently rereleased as Faith Unraveled) described the fear she felt as she faced the first cracks in her “worldview”, a worldview in which she had a ready (Biblical) answer for everything.

Rachel asked this question:

If all truth is God’s truth, then why are we so afraid to confront the mountains of scientific evidence in support of evolution?

Who’s Ready for Skeeternado?

It probably wouldn’t have quite the flamboyance of a sharknado or the white-knuckleness of snakes on planes, but I don’t think there has been a man-against-nature movie made about the actual “world’s deadliest animal”: the mosquito.
Mosquitoes kill 725,000 people a year.
Snakes kill 50,000 people per year and sharks a paltry ten (yet they get their own TV week).

In a cool graphic posted by Bill Gates, the world’s deadliest animals are charted by number of people killed per year. Among the four-legged animals we know best, “man’s best friend” comes in first – killing 25,000 people a year. Second place? – the hippopotamus at 500/year (still want one for Christmas?).

Mosquitoes (Spanish for “little fly”) threaten half of the world’s population with death and disease. Malaria is the worst, killing 600,000 people every year. Many non-profits and faith-based organizations provide opportunities to purchase a $10 mosquito net, a simple and effective yet often unavailable tool in the fight against malaria.

In his Gates Notes on World Malaria Day (April 25), Bill Gates focused on the deadly mosquito and what is being done to combat mosquito-borne disease. For example, in Indonesia, dengue fever is being fought by inoculating the mosquitoes, not people.

Now come on Bill, make this movie:
mosquito-week_skeeternado_2014_700px_v2

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I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

 

2010-08-30-2010-8-30-Science-Cat

Fossils and the Design of Life

cynodontI found this guy three weeks ago at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
He is definitely a reptile… …but Grandma! What BIG TEETH you have!   little red and wolf

Reptile teeth are all the same shape – spiky and great for grabbing and swallowing things whole, but not so good for chewing. Reptiles swallow their food whole.

But not this guy. His teeth are not reptilian, they’re mammalian. Mammalian teeth have different shapes and surfaces, allowing the teeth to tear, crush, and shear… in other words, chew.

Meet Cynognathus, a lovely transitional fossil. Cynognathus is a reptile that lived 230-225 million years ago. This guy and his cousins are called Cynodonts (“dog-toothed”). As a group they are informally known as the “mammal-like reptiles”.

The Fossil Record

The fossil record is unambiguous in two aspects: there is a sequential character to the appearance of life on earth, and newer species are descended from species that preceded them (p. 47).
There is a widely held perception that to believe evolution means to believe that one day a fish gave birth to an amphibian, a reptile gave birth to a mammal, or a cow gave birth to a whale. And of course, a chimpanzee gave birth to a human baby.
But that is to misunderstand the process of evolution, even basic biology. And it is certainly to misunderstand the nature of the fossil record.
Changes from one species to a different species, especially changes across classes or phyla or kingdoms, occur due to accumulated mutations over hundreds of thousands, millions, and billions of years. It is a continuum, not a jump.

So, according to the theory of evolution, what we would expect to see in the fossil record would be transitions, not sudden leaps…and that is exactly what we see.

The earliest recognizable amphibians have many fishy characteristics (gills, skulls). And in between, we find animals “in transition”. The older the rock, the more fish-like and less amphibian-like the animal. The newer the rock, the more amphibian-like and less fish-like. And on it goes…the earliest reptiles had many amphibian features. The earliest mammals were reptile-like mammals (and preceding them were the mammal-like reptiles, like my friend at the museum).

More examples? Land dwelling animals with definite whale characteristics are found in older rocks, but whales in newer and newer rocks show diminishing hind and fore limbs. Modern whales have unused pelvic bones not attached to anything and some even have skeletal rudiments of hind limbs.
We see the same transitional pattern in dinosaurs to birds – oldest fossils are bird-like dinosaurs, newer fossils are reptile-like birds.

evolution-of-horses_dynamic_lead_hero_image

“Evolution of Horses” at the American Museum of Natural History, New York

Within specific animal groupings we also see transitioning. Nearly 55 million years ago, horses were no larger than house cats. Over the next 30 million years, horses diversified and many species of horses emerged. At one point, there were hundreds of horse species. Today, only one genus of horse remains (Equus) which includes all of the modern species (horses, zebras, donkeys). Three dozen distinct horse genera have lived on earth, but all are extinct except Equus (pp. 47-50).

Similarly, there have been twenty-two distinct elephant species in the last 6 million years. Only two species live today.

Suddenly, or Slow?

Is natural history a record of the sudden emergence of our living world in a single burst of creative energy? (p. 122).

Young Earth Creationism says that is exactly what happened – everything in six days, fully formed.
Intelligent Design says that each species of horse (for example) was designed separately and despite appearances, was not related to the other horse species in history. Intelligent design says that each of the animals in the fish to amphibian transition (as well as all other transitional fossils) were designed separately and were no relation to each other.

Intelligent Design claims that evolution could not be the mechanism for the diversity of life, but Intelligent Design does not pose an alternative mechanism.

Did each of the millions species (both extinct and modern) that lived across millions of years appear suddenly out of nowhere?

Was a newly designed species birthed by an existing species?

dog and kitten

Over and over again, the imposition of intelligent design on the facts of natural history requires us to imagine a designer who creates successive forms that mimic evolution (Finding Darwin’s God, Kenneth R. Miller).

The Spark of Life

The natural history of the earth suggests that life unfolded in a process of change and adaptation. The first living organisms appeared about 3.5 billion years ago.

Over billions of years, life changed. Bacteria, insects, plants, animals…species lived, then became extinct. Sometimes the extinctions were dramatically catastrophic, but were then followed by great diversifications.

Life probed, explored, and colonized. Once lit, the spark of life spread everywhere on this great blue planet and has never ceased its endless process of change and adaptation (p. 123).

The reality of natural history is that living things are not one-case-at-a-time design projects.

Life doesn’t resist change but favors it, tolerates it, and channels it into useful variations. Ironically, the design of life is to change its own design (p. 124 – 127).

Americans and Scientific Confidence

Just a few weeks ago, an AP poll summarized Americans’ confidence in various scientific statements. You’ll be glad to know that only four percent of Americans doubt that smoking causes cancer. smoking
Unfortunately, as religious belief rose, confidence fell regarding scientific evidence of evolution, the big bang, and the age of the earth. (An alarming number of Americans also doubt the safety and effectiveness of vaccines – there are definite similarities in the thought processes of anti-evolution folks and anti-vaccinators, but that is a topic for another post!).

It is not surprising that the more religious Americans are, the less they trust science. The originators of the Intelligent Design model very intentionally chose the term “design” for their movement. “Design” implies purpose, order, and meaning (p. 112-113). By contrast, any other explanation (i.e. evolution) is cold, purposeless, and meaningless. Traditional Creationism and its newest incarnation, Intelligent Design, have been tireless in making evolution the enemy of faith.

The good news for those of us who believe both science and God is this:

As it turns out, there really is a design to life, but it’s not the clumsy, interventionist one in which life is an artificial injection into nature, a contradiction of its physical laws. Rather, it is a design in which life emerges from the laws of the universe around us. That conclusion is unavoidable, robust, and scientific. The elegant universe is a universe of life. And the name of the grand design of life is evolution (p.134).

An elegant universe is not the enemy of faith.

Quite the contrary.

 

This series is a chapter by chapter overview of Kenneth R. Miller’s Only a Theory, with my discussion and commentary.

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I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

2010-08-30-2010-8-30-Science-Cat

Science This Week: Your Family is Fishy & a Goodnight (for the) Moon

There’s Something Fishy About Your Ancestors

1st family portrait copyGrab a mirror or snap a selfie. About one percent of you will have a small dent close to your ear.

http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/845288-overview

What you see in the photo (or in your mirror!) is evidence of the hundreds of millions of years-old story of life on earth.

A fish paleontologist seems an unlikely choice for chairman of the anatomy department at a prestigious medical school.
Meet Dr. Neil Shubin. shubin-neilHe is host of the new PBS series Your Inner Fish and is author of a book by the same title. Dr. Shubin is witty and a talented story-teller (Your Inner Fish has been on my list of “favorite books I’ve read” for years). If you haven’t yet, watch episode one – I promise you’ll set the recorder for the rest. I love the Cosmos series, but Inner Fish is more engaging.

One Bone-Two Bones-Lots of Bones-Digits

All living things with skeletons – every reptile, every bird, every mammal, every human – every vertebrate alive today is descended from ancient fish. You might be surprised to learn how much of the human body is an inheritance from our fishy-families.
Every animal walking the planet today has the exact same grouping of bones in their limbs (think about your own arm or leg): one bone, two bones, lots of bones, digits.
We even see this arrangement in a preliminary form in the fins of fish.
In the transitional fossils between fish and the first amphibians, we see this pattern (one bone-two bones-lots of bones-digits) become more and more pronounced as we move closer to amphibians (the first true tetrapods, aka four-legged animals). The most famous of the fish-to-amphibian transitional animals, Tiktaalik, had a flat head and a neck.

Tiktaalik

Tiktaalik

Tiktaalik had distinctive fish features (scales, fins, gills), but inside its fins was an early version of one bone-two bones-lots of bones-digits. Tiktaalik even had a kind of wrist! tiktaalik2

Your Inner Fish

Our skeletons are not the only key to our fishy past. In both human and fish embryos, there are swollen structures found near the face and neck. In fish, these structures become the gills. In humans, these structures become the lower jaw, the middle ear, and the voice box. That’s why a fish paleontologist is an excellent human anatomy professor – many of the same muscles, bones, and nerves humans use to talk and hear correspond to the gill structures in fish.

Sometimes your “inner fish” comes out.

ear pit      ear tag
If you have a tiny dent near your ear (sometimes it is a small tag), you have a remnant of the gill structures you had as an embryo. Own your inner fish!

Your Inner Boy Fish

In male fish, the testicles are located high up in the body – close to the heart. Fish are cold-blooded animals, so body temperature isn’t a problem for heat-sensitive sperm.
In male human embryos, testicles start in the same location – high up, tucked deep in the body. But humans are warm-blooded, so before birth (about 24 weeks old) the testicles of human males descend to a cooler climate outside the body cavity. This descent through the muscle wall leaves an opening where intestines can potentially poke through – a hernia.

Organizing Principle of Biology

The primary organizing principle of all modern biological sciences is the theory of evolution. Your Inner Fish is an excellent introduction as to why that is so.

Catch up here if you need to: Episode 1: Your Inner Fish
And get excited about the rest of the series! -Wednesdays on PBS.

(a) Goodnight (for the) Moon

Let’s hope for clear skies Monday night/early Tuesday morning (April 14-15). For the next two years, there will be a celestial rarity – a lunar eclipse every six months – and Monday night/Tuesday morning is the first one in the line-up.

The eclipse will begin at 1:58 a.m. (EDT, just after midnight on April 15); totality will be at 3:07 a.m. (EDT).

lunar-eclipse-starfieldLunar eclipses (unlike solar eclipses) are perfectly safe to view. During a lunar eclipse, the moon passes behind the earth so that the earth blocks the sunlight from shining directly on the moon.

As the moon starts to pass into the earth’s shadow, the round disc of the earth-outline becomes visible on the moon. Ancient Greeks saw this and understood that the earth was round.

As the sunlight passes though the earth’s dusty atmosphere, the light is bent (refracted) toward the red part of the color spectrum and cast upon the moon. The more dust in the atmosphere (from volcanoes, etc.), the redder the moon. Refraction

As the lunar eclipse progresses, the moon changes from its familiar white-gray color to a deep red, then back to white-gray.

And if a blood-red moon isn’t enough, look for Spica (a bright star in the Virgo constellation) right next to the moon. Then off to the west, look for Mars shining bright and orange.

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I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

2010-08-30-2010-8-30-Science-Cat

 

 

 

 

 

The Touchy Topic of Human Evolution or You Can’t Make a Monkey Out of Me

Seventeenth century Church leaders were not really all that upset with Galileo’s science – the science that put the sun (instead of the earth) in the center of the solar system. Of course there were the literalists who were genuinely upset about the Bible verses that said the earth was fixed and unmovable, but that wasn’t the biggest deal.

Galileo didn’t hurt the Church’s science feelings as much as he hurt their theological feelings: if the earth is not the center of everything, then man is not the central focus of creation. If the earth is just one of innumerable planets in the universe, the earth is not special to God and man holds no special place in creation. Creation-hands-L

If the earth is not the center of the solar system, the gospel is lost.

Monkeys Make a Mess of Things

trunk_monkeyDayton, Tennessee, 1925. John Scopes, a high school teacher, was tried and convicted in the most famous science-versus-faith trial to date. Actually, Scopes wasn’t in hot water for teaching that plants or even animals had evolved over time.
Scopes was convicted of teaching against the “Divine creation of man” and that man “has descended from a lower order of animals” – both violations of Tennessee’s Butler Act.

Evolution per se didn’t get John Scopes in trouble, but bringing in the monkeys did. Add monkeys into the mix, and your theology is ruined: man is no longer special.

Twenty-first century Americans aren’t much different. A 2005 Harris poll (p. 88) surveyed Americans about evolution – asking the question in different ways. In surveys that only mentioned plant and animal evolution (leaving out humans), 49 percent accepted evolution, topping the 45 percent who did not. But – if the survey included human evolution, only 38 percent accepted it, while 54 percent rejected it. If God was referenced in the question, the numbers changed dramatically. Only 22 percent agreed that humans evolved from an earlier species if the other option was “humans were directly created by God (62 percent).

Suggesting that humans evolved makes many people (theologically) nervous.

Evolution might be just fine to explain the ancestry of ferns and bluebirds and germs, but just keep those damn monkeys out of our family tree (p. 89).

Caps-for-Sale-07

If People Came From Monkeys, Why are There Still Monkeys Today?

Ever since Darwin published his work regarding our prehuman ancestors, skeptics have demanded to see “the missing link” – the one and only, definitive half-monkey, half human creature that bridges ape to man. patty_the_sasquatch_by_rowdyrobert-d2yqftm

But to demand a single “missing link” is to misunderstand evolution. The theory of evolution does not suggest that species to species change occurs in a straight-line, one-turning-into-the-other kind of process. Instead, evolution is a slow spreading and branching process that eventually results in greater and greater species diversity. Over the years, many of these branches became dead ends. Others survived, and are the modern species we see today.

So, there is no one “missing link” for humans. There are, in fact, more than a dozen “links” – distinct species exhibiting human traits – each found in Africa from the past four or five million years.

We have, in reality, discovered so many missing links that the real question has become how to deal with this embarrassment of riches – in other words, how to connect the dots (p. 92).

Evidence Right Before Our Very Eyes: The Human Genome Project

It’s really hard to overstate the magnitude of the announcement. It has been called one of the “great feats of exploration in history”.
In 2003, the Human Genome Project, headed by Dr. Francis Collins, announced the complete mapping of the human genome – a map of all the genes of human beings.
Here’s Dr. Collins:

…this Book of Life is actually at least three books. It’s a history book: a narrative of the journey of our species through time. It’s a shop manual: an incredibly detailed blueprint for building every human cell. And it’s a transformative textbook of medicine: with insights that will give health care providers immense new powers to treat, prevent and cure disease. We are delighted by what we’ve already seen in these books. But we are also profoundly humbled by the privilege of turning the pages that describe the miracle of human life, written in the mysterious language of all the ages, the language of God.

Already, mapping the human genome has

  • fueled the discovery of more than 1,800 disease genes
  • lead to the discovery of genes for inherited diseases in a matter of days, not years as it previous took
  • enabled physicians to determine genetic disease risks and diagnose genetic disease for more than 2,000 genetic conditions

And soon, information from the Human Genome Project will

  • allow us to identify all the genetic abnormalities seen in 50 major types of cancer
  • result in the development of drugs that are much more effective and cause fewer side effects than those available today

The information from the Human Genome Project has and will continue to revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of human disease.

But the human genome tells us more: “it is a history book: a narrative of the journey of our species through time”.

And that’s where the missing link appears right before our very eyes.

History in our Genes

Drink your orange juice! Humans must have a source of vitamin C in their diets or the connective tissue in the body will break down – a disease called scurvy. British sailors limeys [640x480]brought limes aboard ship in order to stave off scurvy on long voyages – hence the nickname limeys.
Most mammals are able to make their own vitamin C from ordinary sugars – but humans can’t.
Here’s where things get interesting. Humans aren’t missing the gene that is needed to manufacture their own vitamin C. The gene is exactly where it should be, on chromosome 8, in approximately the same spot where the vitamin C-making gene is found in other mammals. But – the gene is broken and no longer works. In a sense, all humans have a “genetic disease” and we must treat it by ingesting outside sources of vitamin C.
Humans aren’t the only ones with a broken vitamin C-making gene. A certain group of primates, the ones that happen to be our closest evolutionary ancestors (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans) also have this broken gene. Other more distant primate relatives have a functioning copy of the vitamin C-making gene.
Mapping the human genome has shown us that the capacity to make vitamin C wasn’t lost in a human ancestor, but in a primate ancestor.

Plagiarism in the blood. Hemoglobin is the protein in blood that carries oxygen and makes blood red. On human chromosome 16, there are five genes that are responsible for the production of hemoglobin. Right in the middle of the five functioning genes sits one broken non-functioning gene. Humans aren’t the only ones with five functioning genes for hemoglobin production surrounding one broken gene – gorillas and chimpanzees have them, too, and the genes are identically arranged. In fact, the broken gorilla and chimpanzee genes have the exact same errors as does the broken human gene.

Like a cheating student copying another student’s work – mistakes and all -the matching errors are not coincidental. cheating-student

There’s no escaping the implication of these matching mistakes…The only sensible interpretation is that the original errors developed in a single ancestor of these three species (pp. 102-103).

The missing chromosome. Before the human genome was mapped, an abundance of fossil evidence indicated that humans share a common ancestor with the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans).
There was, however, a mysterious inconsistency at the chromosome level. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes (one pair from each parent) and the great apes have 24 pairs. At some point in the lineage leading to humans, had two chromosomes accidentally fused? The human genome map gave us a way to test this hypothesis.

Every chromosome has landmarks – specific structures that are only found at the two tip-ends of the chromosome (called telomeres) and a structure found only in the very center of the chromosome (a centromere).

Human chromosome 2 is unlike any other in the genome. Chromosome 2 has working telomeres at each tip-end, as would be expected. But Chromosome 2 has two more telomeres, fused together, right in the center of the chromosome. Chromosome 2 also has two centromeres instead of one.
What’s more, the genes on human chromosome 2 correspond almost exactly to the genes on chimpanzee chromosomes 12 and 13. The evidence for fusion is so apparent that scientists now number the chimpanzee chromosomes 2A and 2B to match the human chromosome to which they correspond (p. 107).

Chromosome2_merge

What About Design?

In Only a Theory, Kenneth Miller continually asks us to examine the evidence regarding Intelligent Design.

Is our genome … a modified copy of an earlier work, or is it an entirely new creation? …In every case for which we have data – and that now includes our complete genome and the genomes of many of our closest animal relatives – the answer is clear. We’re working with a modified copy, a genome loaded with inherited errors that has been shuffled and mutated and rearranged. We have, in short, a genome that evolved (p. 109).

The Same Science

There is historic, groundbreaking science emerging from the Human Genome Project. It is science that will heal diseases and prevent human suffering and for which believers will (and rightly so) give thanks to God.
This same science also tells us that we share common ancestry with all life. It tells us that we most closely share an ancestor with the great apes.

The science cannot be valid in one case, but invalid in the other. It is the same science.

The world renown geneticist at the helm of the historic Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, is a committed, all-in, vocal Christian. He described the genome as “the language of God” and wrote a book by that title, arguing for the compatibility of faith and science. Dr. Collins is currently the director of the National Institutes of Health, working at the cutting edge of DNA research.

Francis Collins is one of my all-time favorite examples of why we don’t have to be (theologically) nervous about human evolution.

This series is a chapter by chapter overview of Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory, with my discussion and commentary.

****************

I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

 2010-08-30-2010-8-30-Science-Cat

Evolution and Human Beings

We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo… have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world.

galileoGalileo Galilei, the great astronomer, mathematician, physicist, and telescope whiz was convicted by the Church Inquisition in 1633, threatened with torture, given penance, and sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life.

The Galileo story is a useful analogy in contemporary science-versus-faith discussions: in the face of unequivocal scientific evidence, Christians eventually changed long-held interpretations of scripture.

Actually, seventeenth century Christians were not really all that upset about the science that put the sun (instead of the earth) in the center of the solar system.

Of course there were the literalists who were genuinely upset about the Bible verses that said the earth was fixed and unmovable, but that wasn’t the biggest deal. geocentric model

Galileo didn’t hurt the Church’s science feelings as much as he hurt their theological feelings.

  • If the earth is not the center of everything, then man is no longer the central focus of creation.
  • If the earth is just one of innumerable planets in the universe, the earth is not special to God, and therefore man holds no special place in creation.
  •  Adam has no meaning! Noah has no meaning! All of the Christian story is lost!

(Karl Giberson discusses the theological implications of Galileo’s evidence on 17th century belief here).

The Great Sticking Point – the Evolution of Humans

Many Christians, faced with the scientific evidence and unwilling to believe in a vast conspiracy of deceitful scientists, are often willing to accept a very ancient earth and even the evolution of plants and animals.

But humans. That’s a problem.

The arguments against humans as part of the great evolutionary story of life on earth sound very much like the theological arguments of the seventeenth century:

  • If humans are just another branch in the evolutionary tree, we aren’t special to God.
  • What about Adam?
  • If we don’t have a real Adam, there can be no “fall of man”… and without the fall, there’s no need for Jesus.
  • All is lost!

How Can We Reconcile Human Significance and Evolution?

Because evolution is driven to a large degree by random mutations, are human beings just a blind, meaningless accident? In the biological history of the earth, there have been creatures that were vaguely similar to us, some were very similar to us, and some were not even remotely like us (p. 198).

consequences-of-evolution-388

Consider these three ways of looking at human significance in the context of evolution…

A God outside of time: to a Being unbounded by time and existing outside of time, is anything truly random? We have no idea how God and his purposes relate to time. An event that seems absolutely random (such as carbon production inside a distant star billions of years ago) becomes essential to building life on earth.

A God acting in time: if God sustains life through natural laws and processes, could not God create life using natural laws and processes? Genetic mutations are by their very nature unpredictable because they are initiated at the quantum level of the atom. At the quantum level, things are unpredictable, actually unknowable. It is conceivable that God could work undetected within natural laws, within the natural unpredictability of the quantum level and influence the evolution of life.

A God who allows freedom: all of creation, both animate and inanimate, has free will. A third way of understanding is that God has integrated freedom into the evolutionary process. God may have chosen not to specifically direct the winding pathways of evolution (Language of Science and Faith, p. 200), but to let the process unfold.

Please note that scientific evidence supports this very important fact: evolution did not require any outside tinkering or intervention.

Francis Collins sums it up beautifully:

If God chose to create you and me as natural and spiritual beings, and decided to use the mechanism of evolution to accomplish that goal, I think that’s incredibly elegant. And because God is outside of space and time, He knew what the outcome was going to be right at the beginning.

Were Humans an Accident?

The late paleontologist Stephen J. Gould believed that human evolution was completely a happenstance occurrence. For instance, Gould argued that consciousness would have never evolved if a meteor had not wiped out the dinosaurs, allowing for the rise of mammals.

Interestingly, Simon Conway Morris, a Cambridge academic and highly respected evolution scientist (and a Christian) highlighted by Gould in his work, opposes Gould’s “happenstance” view.

Conway Morris supports the idea of convergence in evolutionary history. Convergence means that there are a limited number of ways to solve a biological problem. The best example of convergence is the eye.

Humans and octopuses do not share a close common ancestor, yet the eyes of humans and octopuses are nearly identical. On two very separate evolutionary paths, the process of evolution solved a problem (the need for vision) in the same way. Throughout evolutionary history, the eye has developed independently at least seven times (Language of Science and Faith, p. 203).

octopus wearing glasses

According to Conway Morris, the playing field of natural history is tilted toward big brains, remarkable eyes, consciousness, language, and complex thought. Conway Morris’ research supports that these traits would inevitably emerge from the evolutionary process:

Contrary to popular belief, evolution does not belittle us. As I argue, something like ourselves is an evolutionary inevitability, and our existence also reaffirms our one-ness with the rest of Creation (p. 204).

So what do we do with Genesis?

Genesis is an ancient story, passed down, and finally written down in its current form during the time of post-exile Israel. The purpose of Genesis is not to give a biological description of how humans came to be. The purpose of Genesis is to say Who did the creating – God – and that humans are part of God’s plan and purpose.

How does the story of Adam and Eve fit into a billions-of-years-old earth and humans originating in Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago? It might surprise you to know that over the years, there have been many interpretations of the Adam and Eve story among Christians – some literal, some theological.

adam-and-eve

A literalist reading of the creation story says that Adam and Eve were specially created and that all humans are descendants of this first couple. There are many problems with a literalist reading of the creation story. Narrative problems include the two conflicting creation stories in Genesis, Cain’s wife and where she came from, and the origin of the people who were out to kill Cain, and the origin of the people populating the city built by Cain. Scientific evidence makes a literal reading even more problematic: recent DNA studies demonstrate that modern humans came from a population of thousands, not just two. In addition, both DNA and fossil evidence demonstrates the interrelatedness of humans and all other animals.

One non-literal interpretation of Genesis is the “everyman” interpretation. This view holds that the Adam and Eve story is really the story of us all. The “fall” wasn’t just about Adam and Eve, it was about all humans’ eventual rejection of God and succumbing to our flawed and sinful natures. A non-literal interpretation posed by Old Testament scholar Peter Enns suggests that Adam is the beginning of Israel, not humanity. Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam explores this idea in depth.

Some Christians (including C.S. Lewis) integrate science with a historical view – humans evolved as the science evidence indicates, and at some point God entered in to a special relationship with humans and made them his image-bearers. It is of course all speculative, but this view fits with either an Adam-and-Eve-are-real-people scenario or an Adam-and-Eve-are symbolic-of humanity scenario.

Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him (The Language of God, Francis Collins).

Christianity survived the fall of a geo-centric solar system, and Christianity can survive human evolution.

And now….

This:

This is probably my favorite video clip of all time. How can you beat a musical combo of the preeminent modern New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright, world-renown geneticist Francis Collins, and the Beatles?

Please watch….

It’s a funny, beautiful, and truthful ending to this discussion:

N.T. Wright sings “Genesis”

This series is a chapter by chapter discussion of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, with my commentary and my observations.

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I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

What is the Fine-Tuning of the Universe?

Apparently the universe knew we were coming.

sherlock_holmes

Freeman Dyson, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, said this about the physical laws of the universe:

The more I examine the universe, and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the Universe in some sense must have known we were coming (The Language of Science and Faith, p. 195).

The physical laws of the universe appear to be designed precisely to support life. In addition, the beginning of it all – the Big Bang – appears to have transpired precisely in a way that would result in life.

Nobody debates this fact – the universe is finely tuned to support the appearance and the development of life.

What is the “fine tuning” of the universe?

There are a myriad of constants in our universe. These constants are numerical values that always hold true – for example, the speed of light.    speed limit of light

There are also forces in nature: the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, the electromagnetic force, and the most familiar of all, gravitational force.

If any one these myriad factors – the constants or the forces – differed even slightly from their actual values, life in the universe would be impossible.

Fine Tuning – Three Examples

carbon  The most important building block of life is the element carbon. Carbon, present in all living things and absolutely essential to life, is a highly improbably element.

But before we talk about carbon – the building block of life – we need to first talk about stars.

Most of the heavy elements in the universe were formed in stars through a process called fusion. Fusion happens when two or more atomic nuclei collide at a very high speed to create a new, heavier element. When fusion occurs, energy is released. Fusion is what fuels the stars and makes them shine:

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star 
I know exactly what you are 

 Opaque ball of hot dense gas 
Million times our planet’s mass 
Looking small because you’re far 
I know exactly what you are 

Fusing atoms in your core 
Hydrogen, helium, carbon and more 
With such power you shine far 
Twinkle twinkle little star 

Stars are primarily composed of the lightest element, hydrogen.

In intensely hot stars, two hydrogen atoms fuse to form helium. Two helium atoms fuse to form lithium, two lithium atoms fuse to form beryllium, and so on as we march across the periodic table.

  periodic table  .

Some fusions are much more improbable – carbon is one example. In order for carbon to form, three helium atoms have to collide and fuse. And if that wasn’t hard enough, energy levels in the colliding atoms must match up in order to form carbon. If three helium atoms happened to collide under normal circumstances, the energy levels would not match up. The helium atoms wouldn’t stick together and the atoms would fly apart before they could actually form an atom of carbon. In the production of carbon, the strong nuclear forces and the electromagnetic forces collaborate in a delicate-just-so dance, working together in a collaborative way that allows an improbable window of opportunity for the helium atoms to stick together and form an atom of carbon.

The slightest change to either the strong or electromagnetic forces alters the relevant energy levels, resulting in greatly reduced production of carbon. And carbon, of course is essential to life, so reducing its production dramatically reduces the probability that the universe will turn out to be habitable (p. 182).

Fred Hoyle, one of the twentieth century’s most renowned scientists, called this phenomenon the carbon resonance.

A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and there are no blind forces worth speaking of in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question. (Language of Science and Faith, p.182).

hoyle    (Here’s an interesting side note to the Hoyle quote – Hoyle was an agnostic and in no way wanted to invoke God as an explanation.)

Gravity is the force that attracts you to the surface of the earth (and vice-versa). Gravity is the force that keeps the moon in its path and keeps planets in orbit. Gravity is the force that attracts everything in the universe to each other.

Immediately after the big bang, all matter was randomly distributed – no stars or planets – just individual atoms swirling about in the darkness of space.

Enter gravity.

As matter expanded, gravity began to tug on matter, clumping it into bits, then bigger bits, and bigger. Eventually, matter clumped together as stars and galaxies.

If the force of gravity had been just infinitesimally greater, gravity would have pulled everything back together again, crashing in on itself.   If the force of gravity had been just infinitesimally smaller, matter would have been scattered throughout the universe so loosely that stars would have never formed. Without stable stars like our sun, there can be no habitable planets capable of supporting life.

Paperclip-300x200  Just how exact must the force of gravity be in order to have the universe we have? A paper clip weighs one gram. If gravity was changed so that you weighed one-billionth of a gram less or one-billionth of a gram more than you do now, our universe would have no stars, galaxies, or planets.

None.

No planets, no life.

Goldilocks and the Big Bang. Just after the bang of the big bang, things proceeded in a way that would pave the way for life. For example, if the rate of expansion had been greater, matter would have been so diffuse (spread out) that gravity would not have been strong enough to gather matter together into stars and galaxies. If the rate of expansion had been any slower, gravity would have pulled everything back into a black hole. The expansion rate was “just right” – just like Goldilock’s porridge – not too fast, not too slow.

goldilocksCan We Explain Fine-Tuning Without God?

Because humans exist, the laws of nature are obviously conducive to life. Otherwise, no one would be around to notice.

Right?

This is typically the rationale given by those in the “no God” camp. But is it a satisfying explanation?

Here’s an analogy given by philosopher John Leslie (Language of Science and Faith, p. 187): Suppose you are to be executed by firing squad. There you stand, blindfolded, and all of the guns fire. Every shooter misses, and you survive.

What do you think about your situation?

Do you think: Well of course all of the shots missed. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here to notice that I am still alive.

Or do you suspect that something’s up? Something went on behind the scenes? A plot to save you, maybe? Why might such an unlikely event occur?

Our universe appears to have something that went on “behind the scenes”. Intellectual curiosity should lead us to at least consider explanations as to why so many unlikely events converged at the instant of the big bang.

Inflation is another God-free explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of the universe, but this theory simply pushes the fine tuning back a step, it doesn’t eliminate it.

Finally, there is the multiverse explanation. This explanation says that there are an infinite number of universes with infinite combinations of conditions and this is the one we happen to live in. There is not wide-spread support for this idea. Interestingly, Stephen Hawking has said that the multiverse idea is really the only way around the apparent fine tuning of the universe.

Proof of God?

Obviously we can’t prove God, but the fine-tuning of the universe definitely points to a Designer/Creator.  Giberson and Collins (p.190) enthusiastically endorse the idea that the universe is intelligently designed (not to be confused with the “Intelligent Design theory” that opposes evolution). The numerous forces, conditions, and constants that must be “just so” provide a compelling argument that a Creator brought matter into existence, governed by finely-tuned natural laws, resulting in a universe where life could develop and thrive.

Modern scientific understanding of physical laws and constants were not what the psalmist had in mind when he wrote:

Creation is maintained by your rulings, since all things are your servants (119:89-91 JB),

nor was Paul speaking as a physicist when he described the Creator-Christ as the one who holds all creation together (Colossians 1:17).

Science can define, observe, describe and articulate natural laws; this does not diminish God as the author and sustainer of those laws.

This series is a chapter by chapter discussion of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, with my commentary and my observations.

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I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

Why is Darwin’s Theory So Controversial?

Why is Darwin’s Theory So Controversial?

Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love recently published a new novel – The Signature of All Things. The book is fictional, but the historical setting is not. The book follows a nineteelizabeth-gilbert_72140_600x450enth century female botanist, Alma Whittaker.  Through her own observation, collection, and study, Alma, like many natural scientists of her day, came to understand that life on earth had changed drastically – evolved – over time.

Here’s the catch – the fictional Alma (and her non-fictional counterparts upon whom she was modeled) – lived and worked before Darwin.

Evolution Before Darwin

Prior to Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, the idea of the development and evolution of living things over time was widely discussed – and accepted – by scientists and natural philosophers. What Darwin did was to articulate the process (natural section) by which these changes occurred.

The vast amounts of time needed for evolution was not initially a sticking point for Christians. The idea of a very old earth was widely accepted before Darwin, even among conservative Christians. Advances in geologic science and a rapidly growing roster of fossils pointed to an ancient earth – and nobody was really upset about it. For most Christians, an old earth did not contradict the Genesis creation story.

An old earth was usually reconciled with a literal reading of Genesis in one of two ways: the day-age theory or the gap theory. Day-age theory said that the “days” of Genesis were not 24-hour days, but instead were epochs of geological time. Gap theory said that there was a great gap of time between God’s creation of the heavens and the earth and the creation week found in Genesis. In light of scientific data, many nineteenth-century Christians adjusted their reading of Genesis without widespread upset.

Reaction to Darwin – Then and Now

Initially, Christian opposition to evolution was focused in two areas.

The non-directed (random) nature of the evolutionary process was seen as purposeless and without meaning. Actually, the thought of animals and plants evolving was far less offensive to most Christians than the thought of a “meaningless” process.

The second point of opposition lay in the biblical scholarship battles of the day. Because religious modernists (the “liberals”) tended to be captivated by new science discoveries, they also tended to accept evolution. The very fact that liberals tended to accept evolution was reason enough for many Christians to deny it. Even so, by the end of the nineteenth century the evolution of species (except humans) was accepted by many Christians, including several conservative theologians.

Practically no one was arguing for a very young earth except the Seventh-Day Adventists, whose founder claimed a vision revealed to her that Noah’s flood was responsible for fossils.

Darwin, Evolution, and Twentieth Century Christians

George MacCready Price, a self-taught geologist and a Seventh-Day Adventist, expanded the flood explanation in a series of genesis flood coverbooks in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1961, the flood/fossil idea was updated and was published in what would become the centerpiece book of the young-earth-creation-science movement: The Genesis Flood. Because of Sputnik (1959) and the subsequent push for improved science education in American schools, evolution as a topic began to appear in earnest in science text books.

headline sputnik

In response, The Genesis Flood school of thought caught fire and took off.

It soon became a matter of Christian orthodoxy to deny evolution and an old earth.

Groups like Answers in Genesis and The Institute for Creation Research have advocated “teaching the alternative” or  “teaching the controversy” (young earth/special creation/fossils from the flood VS evolution) in schools.

teach_the_controversy_by_ex_leper-d2xgnki

What Are the Challenges to Evolution?

Some questions about evolution were problems at one point, but have now been fully resolved. Not long after Darwin, physicists argued that the earth was only about 100 million years old, not nearly enough time for evolution to have produced the current variation in living things. It was assumed at that time that the earth began in a molten state and had been cooling ever since. Analysis of the rate of cooling from the heat remaining in the ground (volcanoes, geysers) revealed that the earth could not possibly be billions of years old (Language of Science and Faith, p. 162). Not long afterwards, radiation was discovered. Radiation has been releasing heat into the earth since the earth began, countering the cooling process. Radioactive elements are also a very reliable natural clock – because we know the amount of time needed for one element to decay into another, we can determine the age of rocks.

Long-resolved challenges to evolution like this are now only problems for those who are not current with scientific literature or who do not respect the literature.

Some questions about evolution are not really problems at all, but are premised on misunderstandings of science. A common argument against evolution is that evolutionary theory breaks the second law of thermodynamics. The second law states that everything becomes disordered over time. We see examples in everyday life – cars don’t get newer, they rust and corrode. Fruit doesn’t get fresher, it decays. Evolution seems to say just the opposite – simple, primitive cells evolved into the brilliant complexities of modern organisms.

Here’s the important part – the part that is misunderstood: the second law says that disorder increases in an isolated system. Almost every system in nature has input from the outside. Input from outside a system can produce order.

Here’s a familiar example: green plants and the process of photosynthesis. With energy input from the sun, green plants turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars. As long as the green plant has energy input from the sun, sugars will be constructed – order is increased.

Go to any elementary school science fair and I promise that right next to the kid who investigated “playing rock music vs. classical music to potted plants” you’ll find a junior scientist “investigating” what happens when you grow plants under a box in the dark. Take away the outside input, and the plant starts to decay – it becomes “disordered”. science-fair-projects-for-kids-growing-plants

Interesting to note that as the sun produces the energy that is used by plants to become more ordered, the sun itself is becoming more disordered.

As evolution unfolds on earth the sun becomes increasingly disordered and the total order of the solar system and the universe is still decreasing (Language of Science and Faith, p. 167).

Biological systems (living things) are not isolated systems, so the second law does not apply to them.

Some questions about evolution are unanswered…so far. Probably the most concerning unanswered question is about the origin of life itself. Evolution theory explains the development of life on earth. Evolution theory says nothing about the origin of life – that is a separate question. Scientists have a pretty good idea about when life appeared on earth (about four billion years ago) but no agreement on the how.

But – just because we don’t have a science explanation for how life emerged today does not mean that we won’t have one tomorrow. It is tempting to put God in our gap of knowledge: since we don’t know how life began on earth, it must have been a special miraculous intervention by God. Then what happens if tomorrow’s headlines announce that scientists have discovered how life began? Is all lost for believers in God?

Hardly.

If (or when) the origins of life are found, we will not have disproved God; we will have discovered the mechanism by which God brought life about on earth.

…God’s original and elegant plan for the universe may well have included the potential for life to arise without necessarily requiring later “supernatural” engineering to jumpstart the process. In this view, God’s sustaining creative presence undergirds all of life’s history from the beginning to the present (Language of Science and Faith, p.175).

Side note: Last week, Dr. Giberson, one of the co-authors of The Language of Science and Faith, debated a young earth creationist in an event sponsored by the Center for Creation Studies.

It’s lengthy, but very interesting. Here’s the linkgiberson debate

Dr. Giberson is a very patient man!

This series is a chapter by chapter discussion of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, with my commentary and my observations.

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I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

Science and the Existence of God

Do you believe in God?

Have you ever been put in the spotlight and asked just that question?

640px-Lisa_on_the_witness_stand

You are on the spot now – What say you?

With biting humor, Bill Maher looked at modern belief in God in his 2008 documentary, Religulous. It is cleverly made, but quite often uncomfortable to watch. Why would any educated, intelligent person in the twenty-first century believe in God any more than they would believe in Santa Claus, Zeus, or a Flying Spaghetti Monster?

Can a Reasonable, Rational, Science-believing Person Believe in God?

 Common Arguments for the Existence of God

  • First cause argument: why is there something rather than nothing? Everything in existence was “caused” by something or someone. God is the “first cause” of everything and he started the chain of all other causes. This argument actually predates Christianity – it was proposed by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C.
  • Design argument: the universe displays intricate and complex design. Just as a complex machine or a fantastic example of architecture points to the existence of its designer, the universe also points to a designer (God).
  • If you can imagine it, then it is so: if it is possible for God to exist, then he exists. (I know- doesn’t make a lot of sense. This isn’t a very popular argument).
  • Love is real: and so is morality, beauty, and loyalty. The non-physical aspects of life cannot be completely explained in a purely materialistic way. There is a reality (God) that is not material or physical.
  • Logic argument: some things are always true and this truth does not depend on human minds. This argument says that things like logic, science, and ethics do not make sense in the absence of God.

The sometimes uncomfortable truth is this: we cannot absolutely prove God’s existence. None of these arguments settles the case once and for all. Some of the arguments are flawed.

All the same, reasons for belief in God can be meaningfully discussed and taken as evidence that he exists.

The Problem of Evil

How can a good, loving, and all-powerful God allow evil and suffering in the world?

 Of all the challenges to faith, few are greater and have caused more believers to abandon their faith than the problem of evil (The Language of Science and Faith, p. 127).

Actually, the problem of evil is a conundrum for both believers and nonbelievers.

For nonbelievers, the problem is truth. If truth is not absolute, then there is no absolute morality. “Right and wrong” are simply artifacts of culture and human social development. In the absence of an absolute morality, no one can complain about the unfairness of any kind of suffering or injustice….it just is what it is.

For believers, the problem is inconsistency. Believers must reconcile the apparent conflict between a loving, all powerful God in charge of a world filled with Holocausts, human trafficking, terrorists, disease, and natural disasters.

The Problem of Human Evil

Humans are free-willed beings. From a Christian perspective, free will is a gift from God that gives meaning to life. We were not created as programmed robots that act in a predetermined way. We can choose to accept the love of God – or not. Free will also means that humans are a primary source of evil in the world. Humans are free to choose murder, theft, torture, trafficking, and lies.

Only an actual choice – real freedom – can give us a genuine relationship with God. But with real freedom, evil is always an option.

The Problem of Evil in Nature
plague

Yersinia pestis

Disasters  in the natural world cause untold suffering. Polio cripples and malaria kills. People die in tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods.

And on a daily basis, vipers have poison, bees sting, mosquitoes bite, and cats torture their prey before they kill it. Predator and prey in the animal kingdom, where death and suffering are ironically the way of life.

Some Christians do back-bends with their theology in order to reconcile the violence of nature with a good Creator God and the perfection of Eden. A popular explanation is that no animals were carnivores prior to the sins of Adam and Eve in the garden.

We have to suppose that every animal on the planet had its way of life dramatically transformed by the curse. Sharp teeth and poison glands – and the genetic code to produce them – had to pop into existence, since animals were now going to start killing each other for the first time (Language of Science and Faith, p. 131).

vegitarian lion

Quite simply, there is just no evidence in the fossil record of carnivore-style teeth suddenly appearing – and teeth fossilize very well. Additionally, natural laws such as gravity, force, and tectonic plate movement must be suspended in order to support the supposition of a perfect, nonviolent world: no animal deaths from falls, no squishing an insect with a carelessly placed hoof, no earthquakes or volcanoes.

Overwhelmingly, it is clear that death, suffering, and natural disasters were commonplace billions of years before humans appeared.

 The Problem of Evil and Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design (ID) is an explanation of origins that is touted as an alternative to evolution. The Intelligent Design argument says that the exquisite and complex features of creation point to a Designer (understood to be God) who individually designed each component of the natural world. Intelligent Design highlights helpful components of nature such as the human eye, the human blood clotting mechanism, and interesting things like the “cute” little motorboat-like flagellum of bacteria (p. 132).

Intelligent Design proponents, however, do not talk about the more sinister “designs” in nature: the incredibly well-designed and successful AIDS virus or the really efficient bacteria that killed millions with plague. And then there is the especially charming species of wasp that lays its eggs in a caterpillar. When they hatch, the baby wasps nourish themselves by eating the internal organs of their hosts in the order that ensures their hosts live as long as possible (Language of Science and Faith, p.130).

Some have suggested that Satan is responsible for the creation of the distasteful things in nature, but this is elevating Satan to the level of creator (p. 133).

I can’t go there.

How Might Evolution Help Faith?

By faith we believe that all creative power comes from God, but this power can be wielded by nature to form, build, shape, and create. Tides, rivers, wind, even gravity are constantly forming and reforming the earth.

In the most minute sphere of the physical world – the subatomic level – things really get interesting. Identical electrons will “choose” to behave in different ways. This behavior is random and is not predictable.

…many processes in nature exhibit a genuine unpredictability that looks, for all the world, like freedom (p. 134).

Analogous to the freedom given by God to humans is the freedom given by God to all creation. God does not micromanage human behavior, and the result is that we humans abuse our freedom and bad things happen. Bad choices are the result of autonomy. Likewise, God does not micromanage nature. In its autonomy, nature will produce some bad designs (from a human perspective).

Humans and nature have been granted freedom by their Creator – neither are programmed robotic creations.

So why doesn’t God intervene? No one can explain why God doesn’t stop great evils like the Holocaust. No one can resolve the problem of when and why God chooses to intervene in human history or in nature.

It does help, however, to realize that genuine freedom – the very real freedom that allows us to love God – has to allow evil.

If God constantly intervened and blocked the consequences of the moral choices of humans every time they lead to evil, moral responsibility would disappear (p.140). We would be free to lash out, harm, and even murder those who anger us, confident that God would swoop in and undo the results of our wrath.

If God constantly intervened and blocked the consequences of natural laws, our world would be unpredictable and science wouldn’t work.

Moral Laws and God

Just as some use evil to argue against the existence of God, the unfairness of evil can be interpreted as support for God’s existence. Whenever we complain about the unfairness of a situation like cheating, bigotry, or third world debt, we are appealing to some sort of higher standard – the way things “should be”. If we are nothing more than an assemblage of chemicals, why should it matter?  One molecule owes nothing to other molecules. Our moral sense of right and wrong transcends our material selves.

It has been suggested that our moral selves evolved as our big brains evolved. It is true that caring and helpfulness and other positive traits are beneficial and could have evolved to aid human survival. It is entirely possible that God could have used natural processes to produce moral standards in humans, but there is currently no compelling theory for this (Language of Science and Faith, p. 143).

The prevalence and universality of moral standards is completely consistent with the existence of God. 

If we accept the reality of such moral laws, then we must ask about their origins. God is a reasonable conclusion to such exploration (Language of Science and Faith, p. 144).

Evolution Helps Faith – Really

The subject of evolution makes a lot of Christians really nervous. Many smart, thoughtful believers consciously avoid even investigating evolution for fear that science is corrosive to faith.

In addressing the age-old question of “how can a good God exist when there is so much evil in the world”, science is a positive. Evil, both human and natural, are the results of the freedom in creation. God is not the cause of evil.

Our universe appears to have a beginning. It appears to be fine-tuned for life. Our universe appears to have a place for love and purpose. To deny the existence of God is to say that the universe is not really as it appears – it’s all an illusion.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” Psalm 14:1

This series is a chapter by chapter discussion of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, with my commentary and my observations.

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I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

Can Scientific and Scriptural Truth be Reconciled?

Can Scientific and Scriptural Truth be Reconciled?

Fury broke out in East Kilbride, Scotland last week when it was discovered that a local evangelical church (a Church of Christ congregation) had given elementary school children religious books as part of a chaplaincy program. Pilfering a Facebook photo of one of the church’s young ministers painted up as the pirate Jack Sparrow, a local tabloid newspaper published (screamed really) the story of an outraged community calling the church an extremist U.S. cult bent on brainwashing local children. Scottish_paper

The offending books? Exposing the Myth of Evolution and How Do You Know God is Real?

The story about the church was quite exploitative (as UK tabloids tend to be) and painted the group as a scary American cult that dresses up like Johnny Depp and leads little kids astray with nefarious intentions. Church members in Scotland and in the U.S. have responded with righteous indignation and understandable defensiveness.

Peel back the extremism, however, and there are several important observations about this whole brouhaha. Together, the two books given out by the church have a not-so-subtle message: “God is real” and “evolution is not”.

In other words, if you believe in God, you don’t believe in evolution. If you believe in evolution, you don’t believe in God.

In his defense of the books, the minister of the East Kilbride church said, “We believe the teachings of the Bible, which tell us evolution is a myth.” Again, a definitive statement about truth: either the Bible is right and scientists are wrong, or scientists are right and the Bible is wrong.

Is There Such Thing as Truth?

Postmodernist thought says that truth is an illusion – there are no permanent or ubiquitous truths. A postmodernist might say that what we think are eternal truths are really just assumptions people make about their own local situations and time.

Virtually all scientists reject the claim that there is no such thing as truth (The Language of Science and Faith, p. 105).  Scientists believe certain fundamental truths about the physical universe are always true, even for distant galaxies (E=mc2, for example). This has a very important ramification: if humans can definitively discern truth in the physical world, then truth exists; and if truth exists, it is reasonable to pursue truth in other areas such as theology and ethics.

Does Science Conflict with Scripture?

For a believer, any answer to this question that tosses out the Bible is not acceptable. What to do, then, when given the either/or truth dichotomy of science or the Bible? It is important to remember that the Bible is not a scientific text and was never meant to be one. Every one of the Bible writers lived long before science existed. The writers of the Bible were authentic members of their own time and were not modern scientific thinkers. When the Bible is read using the context of the writers’ understanding of the natural world we don’t learn about modern science, but we do learn about God. The kinds of answers we find in the Bible are usually non-scientific because the Bible is not trying to teach science. The Bible gives us the answers to the Who and why of creation; science answers the how and when.

How Can We Trust Science? Isn’t Science Always Changing?

Defenders of young earth creationism and others who deny evolution and/or an old earth often cite the changing nature of science as their rationale for rejection. After all, if scientists can’t get their story straight, why should we trust the story? That’s why it’s called the theory of evolution, right? It’s “just a theory” and not fact.

Actually, once significant and central scientific ideas are established, these ideas are often tweaked and refined, but they are not changed. When Copernicus originally demonstrated that the sun was the center of the solar system, he thought the orbits of the planets were perfect circles. Years later the shape of orbits was determined to elliptical – a tweak in the idea, but hardly a death-blow. In the same way, geologists who age the earth have refined their dates, but the evidence continually points toward a very ancient date – around 4.5 billion years.

…science, while always advancing, is actually not so much changing as it is improving (Language of Science and Faith, p.113).

Science ideas that are firmly established and are refined but not changed are called theories. This does not mean they are guesses likely to be discarded. Gravity is a theory, as is germ theory and atomic theory. And yes, evolution is a theory.

God and Evolution

It is common to say that God sends the rain, the seasons, day and night – and we thank God for those gifts. A Christian can believe in the water cycle, the orbit of the earth around the sun, and the rotation of the earth on its axis without compromising his/her faith. God does not step outside of natural laws to give us rain, seasons, day, or night. Parents thank God for the “gift” of a child with the complete understanding that this gift is a nine-month embryonic development process.

Nature is not sustained by miracles (actions outside natural laws), but by observable and predictable natural processes.

Theistic evolution (called BioLogos by Francis Collins) is the belief that with the exception of the establishment of natural laws, God’s creative work went forward through the laws of nature.

…once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity, and humans are a part of that process. Moreover, once evolution got underway, no special supernatural intervention was required (p.115).

The BioLogos position is consistent with what God has revealed to us in the natural world and what has been discovered by science.

God and the Grand Explanation

About 25% of the Americans who claim no religion say they believe in a “higher power”, but not in a personal God. This is very much like deism – a belief that God created the universe and then abandoned it.

BioLogos is not deism. BioLogos affirms “a God who is at all times involved, yet still allows a degree of freedom to the creation” (Language of Science and Faith, p. 117).

Note: If you’re a Big Bang Theory fan, you can take Sheldon’s seat on the sofa because you’re about to feel very physics-smart.

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Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727), called the greatest scientist of his era, disproved a previous notion that angels pushed the planets around in their orbits when he gave the world his laws of motion. Newton’s laws proved to be constant, reliable, and inflexible. On one hand, such laws might point to a rational and consistent Creator. But on the other hand, constant and unchangeable natural laws might support the idea of a world that has no need of any kind of ongoing care or intervention by its Creator.

Enter quantum physics.

At the level of the very very small – inside the atom at the electron level – things aren’t quite so cut-and-dried. Electrons, to a surprising degree, “do their own thing”, not following prescribed paths or predetermined behaviors. While bigger things (like planets) predictably follow laws of motion and gravity, things at the subatomic level (like electrons, quarks, neutrinos, and the recently famous Higgs boson) do not. Physicists call this “quantum uncertainty”.

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This uncertainty does not mean that the universe might just suddenly fly off the handle – the moon isn’t going to reverse its course and objects aren’t going to start falling up. The big laws of nature are standardized, predictable, and reliable.

But within the crannies of this orderly world, tiny bits of freedom lurk (Language of Science and Faith, p. 119).

Put simply – the quantum level of physics allows for flexibility. Because the actions of particles at the quantum level are random, it is possible that God could influence his creation in subtle ways, undetected by scientific observation. It is therefore completely consistent with science for our Creator to intervene and influence his creation without breaking any natural laws.

Nature is reliable enough to reflect God’s faithfulness, yet flexible enough to permit God’s involvement, just as it is open to our involvement and the involvement of all creatures (Language of Science and Faith, p. 120)

In his book Coming to Peace With Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology, Darrel Falk describes his early struggles as a young man who wanted to be a scientist, yet was conflicted because of his Christian faith. Initially, Dr. Falk purposely avoided biology so he would not have to face the conflict of his fundamentalist faith upbringing with evolutionary science. In Coming to Peace, Falk maintains that God’s command to bring all creation into existence doesn’t mean God created everything separately and uniquely. Here’s Falk:

God’s Spirit guides the progression of life. His presence is never far from creation, just as it is never far from the events of my life. Nonetheless God respects my freedom and (I suspect) values freedom in the rest of creation as well (pp. 102 – 103).

 

This series is a chapter by chapter discussion of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, with my commentary and observations.

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I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

How Do We Relate Science and Religion?

How Do We Relate Science and Religion?

Much of the conflict between science and faith is a trumped-up contention, fed by a media (and to be fair, consumers of media) that is in love with conflict. The players have defined and consistent roles: science is smart, progressive and informed; religion is defensive, backwards and wary.

One response is to “keep the peace” by declaring science and faith to be independent, separate, and non- overlapping. Stephen Jay Gould, a famous evolutionary biologist, best articulated this view and labeled it non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). Although the term “magisteria” sounds fancy and very royal, it does not imply majesty.

Queen-Elizabeth-II-queen-elizabeth-ii-33449729-405-304 Instead, it is derived from a Latin word that means “teacher”.  A magisteria is a domain of teaching authority. Applying the concept of NOMA, science and faith can’t possibly be in conflict because they deal with completely different topics: science has authority in its domain; faith has authority in its domain. Science is only concerned with facts and theory, the “how and when” of the natural world. Faith is only concerned with moral meaning and values, the “who and why” of the story. NOMA therefore is sort of a “live and let live” approach – put the gloves away, no need to fight, science and faith are apples and oranges.

Warfare metaphors have been a part of the science/faith discussion from the nineteenth century till now (Language of Science and Faith, p. 84). The NOMA approach has certainly moderated the dramatics that are common in perceived science and faith conflicts.

NOMA, however, has its limitations. You might think NOMA would be a happy compromise for atheists, but that is not so. Richard Dawkins has called NOMA “rubbish” primarily because he believes that religion has nothing authoritative to say in any situation. To a Dawkins-style atheist, faith is not respectable and is therefore not worthy of recognition as a domain of teaching authority.

Even to a God-believer, NOMA has its limitations. NOMA draws over-simplified lines between factual knowledge and values. Giberson and Collins (Language of Science and Faith, p. 85) illustrate this limitation: If “child abuse is wrong” is said as a statement of fact, then it cannot be a religious statement. According to NOMA, religion doesn’t have authority in fact; religion only has authority in values. However, “rightness” or “wrongness” is not the authority of science. The NOMA model cannot address this type of statement.

Another area in which NOMA is limited is how religion responds to advances in science. At one point in history, the best a Christian could do for the sick was to pray and provide comfort as best he or she could. Medical advances and drugs now offer an opportunity to treat and even cure diseases, and many Christians support and participate in medical missions in order to extend these advantages to the poor.

Things get complicated for Christians, however, in other areas of medical advances. For example, reproduction control that can stem the rate of maternal death, inhibit the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and limit the problems of overpopulation is not universally acceptable to Christians. Scientific advances raise many other moral and ethical questions that must be addressed by people of faith.

I certainly believe that the idea of NOMA has value. It is a great way to frame a conversation, either with a God-believer or with a non-believer. “Science tells us the how and when of the universe; faith tells us the Who and why” is my go-to jumping off point in this kind of conversation. Understand, though, that a model of absolutely separate faith and science breaks down (1) if someone believes that religion has no value or (2) in some areas of ethical and moral decision-making.

Can Science Inform Religion in Helpful Ways?

science_vs_religion_scoreboard_bumper_sticker-r38e570329f704ce68e8e2cce9b841f6f_v9wht_8byvr_512Before the Scopes trial, Galileo’s trial before the Church Inquisition was the most famous science vs. religion courtroom showdown. Unlike the players in the Scopes trial, Galileo did not see this as a forum for science to “win” and the Church to “lose”. Galileo was not interested in defeating religion – he remained a faithful Catholic till the end of his life. Galileo represented a group of Catholic astronomers who wanted to reform their church.

Galileo did not suggest that his discoveries contradicted the Bible, but that science had offered a refinement to a proper understanding (Language of Science and Faith, p. 89).

Learning that the sun – without a doubt – was the center of the solar system and that the earth did indeed move resulted in a revised understanding of the scriptures that say that the earth does not move. The earth-not-moving psalms (Psalms 93:1, Psalms 96:10, Psalms 104:5) still speak truth, but we now understand this truth is told in a poetic, symbolic way.

Genesis is the grappling-ground for contemporary believers:

We suggest that Darwin’s theory of evolution, now that it has been confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt by science, offers the same sort of help in understanding the Genesis creation story as Galileo’s work helped his generation to better understand the psalmist’s references to the mobility of the earth (p. 89).

N.T. Wright observed that every generation must “chew through” the Bible afresh. As successive generations gain new knowledge, as cultures change, as societal pressure points change, as language changes – believers must continually work through scripture and revise understanding as needed.

New Understanding of Scripture

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Is it really just that simple?

Several years ago, Mike Cope wrote a blog series about how to read the Bible. Mike outlined several simple yet deep “rules” to use when reading scripture. My two favorites are “the Bible wasn’t written to me” and “the Bible has to be interpreted”.

The Bible didn’t roll off the press in one grand printing – it was written by many authors in different languages, cultures, and time periods. We need to know what we’re reading if we want understanding. Ernest Lucas, a biochemist and theologian, summarized five questions to ask when approaching the Bible (Language of Science and Faith, pp. 91- 100). These five questions have been used since the time of the early church fathers:

What kind of language is being used? Is the passage written in a figurative, symbolic, historical, scientific or straightforward manner?

What kind of literature is it? Is the passage a historical narrative? An epic? Poetry? Law? Each of these genres has interpretive principles to help understanding.

Who is the audience? What is the cultural context of the original hearers? What were their traditions? What was important to the original hearers?

What is the purpose of the text? Was it written to teach a lesson? Was it written to correct misconceptions? Genesis, for example, appears to scholars to be a polemic – written to challenge a commonly held view or belief. In contrast to the dominant polytheistic cultures of the ancient near east that worshiped the sun, moon, and other aspects of creation as gods, Genesis presents the case for one God, outside of creation and creator of all.

What relevant extratexual knowledge exists? This is particularly useful when translating from ancient languages into modern.

Using what we know from science (or any other discipline for that matter) to readjust our understanding of scripture is not disrespectful of scripture. We are privileged to have insights others did not have, and future believers may again need to readjust.

This series is a chapter by chapter discussion of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, with commentary and my observations.

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I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.