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

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

An Identity Crisis and a Cosmic Jerry Springer (Reading Genesis, part 3)

They were supposed to be God’s chosen people, a light to the nations.

They were supposed to have possession of a land.

They were supposed to worship in a glorious temple.

They were supposed to have a son of David on the throne forever.

Instead, they were carted off in humiliation, their capital and temple in ruins. Instead of being a light to the nations, they were ridiculed by them. David’s dynasty was dead and buried, and never again would a son of David sit on Israel’s actual throne.

The exile to Babylon was the most traumatic event in Israel’s national history. The returned exiles, joining the rag-tag survivors who weren’t carried off, struggled with national self-identity:

“Who are we? Are we still the people of God? After all these years and after everything that’s happen to us, are we still connected to the Israelites of old – the people to whom God spoke and covenanted?”

Post-exile Israel wanted identity. They wanted restoration. If they could not go back to the glorious past, they would bring the glorious past into the miserable present.

It was in this context that the Old Testament as we know it took shape. Oral traditions, ancient records, documents and liturgies were compiled and organized into the “books” of the Old Testament. The experience of the exile framed and interpreted Israel’s ancient stories.

The Old Testament is not history in the sense that twenty-first century people understand history. It is instead:

… a document of self-definition and spiritual encouragement: “Do not forget where we have been. Do not forget who we are – the people of God.” (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam).

Ancient Stories

As far back as two hundred years before Christ, biblical interpreters realized that the first five books of the Old Testament, specifically Genesis, did not come down to us composed of whole cloth. Multiple, often contradictory versions of stories in Genesis have made Bible students dig deeply for centuries.

Trying to force a modern understanding of science into ancient documents misses lots of boats. Not only do we miss the message intended by the original authors and compilers, we also force the Bible to be something it is not – a scientifically accurate natural history of the earth.

The mid-nineteenth century was an uncomfortable time for Christians. Archaeologists unearthed documents with creation stories and flood stories from the ancient near-east, eerily similar to Genesis but predating Genesis by millennia. And in the same ten-year span, Charles Darwin added insult to injury when he demonstrated that humans share a common ancestry with all life.

But modern science wasn’t going to go away, and neither was the archaeological evidence.

The people and the nation of Israel did not spring up isolated on an island. Israel grew and developed surrounded by its near-eastern neighbors. Israel shared similarities in language, governing, family structure, agricultural practices, and understandings of how the world worked with all of the other Mesopotamian people of that time.

Why should Israel be different? Why would Israel, unlike everyone else in the world, escape the cultural influence of its neighbors?

The stories of Israel are similar to the creation stories of other Mesopotamian people because they share a common culture and a common framework for understanding the nuts and bolts of how the world began.

An Ancient Framework

enumaelishLike Genesis, the ancient Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, begins with watery chaos. The divine spirit in both Enuma Elish and Genesis exists independently of matter. In both creation stories, darkness precedes creation. In both, light is created before the sun, moon, and stars.

In Enuma Elish, the goddess Tiamat represents the chaos. The word for chaos in the Hebrew of Genesis is linguistically similar to Tiamat.

In Enuma Elish, Marduk is the king of the gods and creator of human beings, and he is also Tiamat’s great-great grandson. After lots of loud inter-god family fights, throwing chairs and plotting revenge, Marduk “tames” the chaos (Tiamat) by slicing her body in half. Marduk then uses half of her body to hold back the waters, creating the heavens and the earth. In Genesis, God creates a solid dome (the firmament) to hold the waters in place.

Enuma Elish is also like Genesis in the order of creation of dry land, the sun, moon, stars, and humans, all followed by a time of rest. Enuma Elish is written on seven tablets; the Genesis story occurs in seven days.

Israel, as a people of its time and culture, understood beginnings according to this framework, but told the story differently. Israel told the story differently because they were the people of God – the true Creator God.

To the ancient Babylonians, cosmic matter always existed. The gods arose from that matter and created the earth. Israel told the story of an eternal God who existed before matter and who brought matter into being from nothing.

There is no cosmic battle between warring gods in Genesis: God tames the chaos, but chaos is impersonal, not a god or goddess.  God alone created the world by an act of his sovereign will, not as the result of a Jerry Springer-like family feud. 

Most ancient people personified and worshiped the sun, the moon, and the stars. They personified and worshiped animals, rivers, and groves of trees. They worshiped kings and mighty men as gods.

stelaofnabonidusane90837

But not Israel. The story told by Israel declares that there is one creator God of all. The sun, the river, and the Pharaoh are not gods – they were created by God.

Genesis and Science

If we want to have a meaningful conversation between evolution and Christianity, we must hear Genesis in its ancient voice, not impose upon it questions it will not answer or burdens it will not bear (P. Enns, The Evolution of Adam).

If the Genesis creation story is literally true, all of modern science collapses – not just biology.

If we try to “read between the lines” of Genesis to find modern science (a la Intelligent Design), we are still trying to make Genesis something it is not.

Genesis cannot bear the burden of modern science because it isn’t science.

 The Big (Church) Chill

When you look at who’s going to church in America and who’s not, right now the fastest growing group are those who have been active church-goers in the past but are no longer in a church. In their just-published book Churchless (2014) the Barna Group calls this demographic the “de-churched”. Currently, one third of Americans are “de-churched”.

churchless-coverThe reasons for de-churching are varied and nuanced, but “the church is antagonistic to science” is a consistent theme. Young adult dropouts (and older ones as well) believe that the church is out of step with modern science and even anti-science. Young adults struggle to reconcile their faith with a desire to enter a science-related profession.

The de-churched are having their own sort of identity crisis:

“Who are we? In light of modern science, can we still be the people of God? 

The drop-outs aren’t looking for quippy, confident answers about believing God rather than scientists – they are “seeking an honest conversation about reality” (Churchless, 2014).

An honest conversation about Genesis would be a good start. The Genesis creation story can be truth without being factually true.

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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.

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

 

Nones on the Run and the Lonely Middle Ground

Where were you in ’82? 80s-fashion

In the last thirty-two years (or less), how have you changed? Hopefully your tunes are smaller now and you probably aren’t sporting a sweatband as an accessory.

What about your worldview? Your theology? Have you ever tracked your own thought evolution from childhood to adulthood to where you are now?

Since 1982, Gallup has tracked American beliefs about creationism and evolution. The same questions were asked every two years and the responses tracked:

Which comes closest to your viewpoint?
• God created humans pretty much in their present form sometime within the last 10,000 years (traditional young earth creationism)
• Humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms, but God guided this process (evolution and God, sometimes called “evolutionary creation”)
• Humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms, but God had no part in the process (atheistic evolution)

Currently, more than forty percent of Americans believe that humans were created in their present form no more than 10,000 years ago – and this percentage has held relatively steady over the last three decades. Respondents who regularly attend worship services and those with a high school education or less were most likely to accept young earth creationism.

The percentage of Americans who believe “God had no part” (atheistic evolution) in human origins is steadily increasing – jumping from nine percent when tracking began in 1982 to nineteen percent this year.

At the edges of the science versus faith conversation are the two extremes: one group has hunkered down and held tight (science is wrong and Genesis is literal); the other has staked out ground and is growing (no role for God in creation).

What about the middle ground – the people who see no conflict between science and faith?
Over the last three decades, the percentage of Americans who believe in evolution and God has held steady – around 38 percent. But in the last four years, the percentage has dropped, and in 2014 was at an all-time low of 31 percent.

cake-eatingConventional wisdom says that if you have the opportunity to have the best of two worlds – if there’s an opportunity to have your cake and eat it – the smart thing to do is to seize it.
Given the opportunity to believe the science learned in school and maintain faith in God as the ultimate cause and source, you’d think the middle ground would be growing, not shrinking.

In the science and faith conversation, the middle ground is no man’s land.

It’s hot lava. HotLava

It’s a mystery. It’s a mystery particularly when contemporary world-class scientists like Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller are enthusiastic defenders of both evolution and faith. It’s a mystery because most evangelical colleges support both evolution and faith (although often on the down-low, behind closed doors in biology class).

Karl Giberson (What’s Driving America’s Evolution Divide) believes that the increase in the “God has no role” percentage tracks directly with the fastest growing religion in the United States: the nones.

One third of Americans under age 30 do not identify with any religion (Nones on the Rise, Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project). Giberson sees the extremist “you can’t believe both” approach to science and faith as a primary factor in the rise of the nones in the young adult demographic:

young American Christians, by the thousands, are rejecting a religion that tells them to reject science. Many respondents to the Gallup survey apparently perceive the choice to be between evolution and God, rather than between evolution-without-God and evolution-with-God.

Scot McKnight has a slightly different interpretation of the Gallup data. McKnight points out that in all age groups, unguided evolution tracks pretty closely with the number of “nones” in each group. In the graphic below, McKnight inserted the “nones” data next to the “evolution” data:

Gallup-Poll-on-Evolution-by-age-newApparently the under-30 nones aren’t the only ones rejecting a religion that tells them to reject science.

But contrary to Giberson, McKnight sees a reason for optimism in this fact: the under 30 group is the only group that favors God-guided evolution over young earth/special creation. McKnight is hopeful for the acceptance of “evolutionary creation” in the emerging adult generation.

Why They Left

The five-year study by David Kinnaman and the Barna Group haunts me. Kinnaman studied young adults who, though raised as regular churchgoers, left church after their teens. Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church details the study.

Here’s Kinnaman:

No single reason dominated the break-up between church and young adults. Instead, a variety of reasons emerged. Overall, the research uncovered six significant themes why nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.

And on that list of six significant themes?
This:

Churches come across as antagonistic to science.

Although it is encouraging that more young adults favor “evolutionary creation” over young earth creationism, we can’t ignore the fact that overall, young adults are leaving their faith and fueling the rise of the “nones”.

Take another look at Scot McKnight’s graphic. Gallup-Poll-on-Evolution-by-age-new

Interestingly, it is 30-49 year olds who are rejecting God-guided evolution at a higher rate than younger and older groups. What’s going on there? And how is this group – probably the age demographic of the leadership in most churches – impacting the exit of the young nones?

Claiming the Middle Ground

The extreme voices in the science and faith conversation – Ken Ham, Richard Dawkins – draw honest seekers to the edges, thus the shrinking middle ground. Anything else is defined as either a compromise of faith or of intellect.

What are committed people of faith to do when they want to love God with heart, soul, strength, and mind?

Ignore science? Pretend it isn’t so?

…or, revisit the way we read Genesis.

Deep breath. We’ve done this before.

In light of modern science, Christians revisited what they thought scripture plainly taught about the movement of the earth and sun.

In light of modern science, Christians revisited what they thought scripture plainly taught about the structure of earth’s atmosphere.

In light of modern understanding of human rights and the historical context of scripture, Christians revisited what they thought scripture plainly taught about slavery and most recently, segregation.

What Would it Take?

Toward the end of the Bill Nye – Ken Ham debate, the moderator asked this simple question to each debater: what would it take for you to change your mind?
Nye: evidence.
Ham: nothing.

What is it for you? What questions are you asking? What would you like to see addressed here in this blog? Comments? Evidences?

In your opinion, what is the biggest obstacle to accepting both science and a Christian worldview?
I would like to do a few posts on reading Genesis, and I’m thinking about an “Evolution 101” series covering the basics of evolution science.

Please leave your feedback, your comments, your suggestions!

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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.

cat angular momentum

Doubting Science, Changing the Rules

5meIt was, according to one reviewer, a male nerds’ night out—wearing their best Hawaiian shirts and tees boasting superheroes, periodic tables and jokes about Pluto. I was there, too, in my “peace, love, & space” shirt – Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the beautiful Winspear Opera House in Dallas, and three hours of science nirvana.

Seated directly next to my husband and me was a ten year old boy. I know he was ten because when Dr. Tyson noted the number of kids in the audience, he jumped up and down, waved like a windmill and shouted “I’m ten! I’m ten! I’m ten!” In fact, Little Sheldon was on his feet or at the edge of his seat nonstop for three hours – shouting out answers to rhetorical questions, giving full-bodied and full-voiced agreement to Dr. Tyson’s talking points and laughing so loudly at the science humor I thought he would bust a vein. (The comments section for this Dallas Morning News review mentions this kid.  Three tiers in the Winspear and everyone heard him.)

To this boy and all the other enthusiastic kids present, Neil deGrasse Tyson is a rockstar. To the whole audience, really – the show had been sold out for months. Dr. Tyson is funny and engaging and talks like he’s your best friend (if your best friend is an astrophysicist rockstar).

But toward the end of the question and answer time, Dr. Tyson turned somber and confessed his fears about the people outside the walls of the Winspear that night:

I worry for America. We led the world, and the rest of the world would listen in.

Dr. Tyson isn’t the only leading scientist who is worried about America.
Here is the 2013 winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, Randy Schekman:

Science ignorance is pervasive in our society. These attitudes are reinforced when some of our leaders are openly antagonistic to established facts.

Doubting Science

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll (March 2014) questioned adult Americans about several science topics. Instead of quizzing science knowledge, the pollsters asked respondents to rate their confidence in various statements of scientific evidence.

Happily, most Americans believe that smoking causes cancer – only four percent are holding out. Only six percent question whether mental illness is a medical condition and only eight percent doubt there is a genetic code inside our cells.

So far, so good – but things go downhill fast from there.

  • Fifteen percent of Americans doubt the safety and effectiveness of childhood vaccines.
  • Forty percent do not believe the earth is warming due in part to man-made trapped gases.
  • Forty-two percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution.
  • Thirty-six percent don’t believe that Earth is 4.5 billion years old.

And a whopping 51 percent of adult Americans doubt that the universe began in the Big Bang.

A new Gallup poll (June 2014) corroborated the AP poll: 42 percent of Americans believe that God created humans, pretty much in their current form within the last 10,000 years.

And in that belief, Americans pretty much stand alone.

Of 34 industrialized countries (32 European countries, USA, and Japan), only Turkey ranks lower than the United States in acceptance of evolution.

What’s the Harm?

If ID/creationism is allowed to share a legitimate scientific spotlight with evolution, the very foundation of the scientific method is undone.

Is that a problem? What’s the harm in remodeling the way we “do” science?

  • Science would be no different than any other human endeavor – subject to political and social opinions.

Does evolution seem to be random and meaningless? Does Intelligent Design/creationism bestow meaning and purpose to creation and to humans particularly?
No worries – just pick the position you prefer! Teach both! Let students decide!

Evolution is just the camel’s nose in this science remodel.

In fewer numbers than evolution-deniers (but growing) are the Americans who believe that vaccines are harmful, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It doesn’t matter to anti-vaxers that science is not on their side. Anecdotal evidence and personal opinion against vaccination trumps all, even in well-educated anti-vaccine enclaves.

When personal philosophy is on equal footing with evidence (whether with evolution or in medicine), reality doesn’t really matter.

  • Supernatural explanations of natural events stifle scientific curiosity and exploration.

Giants of modern science – Galileo, Newton, Einstein – all spoke about God. They speculated as to how God ordered things in the natural world, but never did they add God to a mathematical equation. God was never cited as the reason for the results of a formula or a step in a process.

…if there is one characteristic that has distinguished Western science from every form of inquiry in human history, it is its uncompromising insistence that nature itself must be the source of answers for questions about the natural world (p. 197).

When God is pushed into the gaps of what we don’t know or don’t understand about the natural world, science stops. Why look any further?

The answer is God.  funny-test-answer-saturn-rings-single-ladiesIf special design is the answer for the complexity found in living things, why study more? There are no patterns or relationships to discover.

And the massive amounts of genetic data collected over the last two decades that indicate the interrelatedness of all life? Just an illusion, no need to develop the new medical treatments indicated by those findings.

  • No policing needed

Traditionally, a new discovery is put out to the open market of the science community. Hypotheses are formed; experiments are conducted. False conclusions are eventually found out – science self-corrects. Over time, findings about a discovery stabilize and a framework of understanding is constructed. Although refinements may be made, once a framework reaches this level, it is considered fact. This framework is called a theory – (atomic theory, gravitational theory, germ theory, and evolution theory are examples).

In the science remodel advocated by Intelligent Design/creationism proponents, science does not need policing. If an idea has value to a significant number of people, that is enough to define the idea as real science. No research or confirmation is needed.

Despite volumes of publications, there is still no peer-reviewed evidence for Intelligent Design/creationism. Intelligent Design/creationism cannot compete on the scientific playing field as-is. If Intelligent Design/creationism is given equal footing in the scientific community and in the classroom, the game must be changed.

Bad Definitions Make a Crummy Debate

Intelligent Design/creationists define evolution as atheistic. Atheists define evolution as atheistic.
Both are wrong.

Evolution is not Christian. Evolution is not un-Christian. Evolution is not conservative or liberal for that matter.

Evolution is science:

Evolution tells us that we have a history on this planet, a history we share with every living organism (p. 220).

Following the Dover Intelligent Design trial, political pundit Charles Krauthammer said this:

How ridiculous to make evolution the enemy of God. What could be more elegant, more simple, more brilliant, more economical, more creative, indeed more divine than a planet with millions of life forms, distinct and yet interactive, all ultimately derived from accumulated variations in a single double-stranded molecule, pliable and fecund enough to give us mollusks and mice, Newton and Einstein? Even if it did give us the Kansas State Board of Education, too.

Elegant, brilliant, creative, divine. As a believer in God, I find nothing in that description to fear.

 

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.

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.