Science this Week: Paleo Summer and the Original Big Tex

In the 1960s, if you were lucky enough to get the snack-sized Fritos in your lunchbox (as opposed to the more frugal handful from a regular-sized bag in a baggie), you were no doubt a collector of the free prizes tucked inside the Fritos six-pack box. Pencil-top erasers (the unfortunate Frito Bandito) were big, as well as various collector series. My husband’s favorite was the pterodactyl from the dinosaur series.

frito dinosUh-oh. Snack-food science fail.

A Pterodactyl Is Not a Dinosaur

This summer I visited my favorite pterosaur at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Lumped in with the dinosaurs and mistakenly identified as forerunners of birds and bats, pterosaurs struggle for a little paleo respect. Pterosaurs lived with dinosaurs and went extinct about the same time, but they were not dinosaurs.
Pterosaurs were winged reptiles and were the first flying vertebrates. The commonly used term “pterodactyl” is actually just one kind of pterosaur.

No flying animal has approached the size of the pterosaurs. Birds and bats took to the skies in the 66 million years since the pterosaurs went extinct but none have even come close to the largest of the pterosaurs.

Pterosaurs started small during the Triassic Period (230-200 million years ago). During the Jurassic and the Cretaceous (200 to 65 million years ago), enormous pterosaurs evolved.

The Original Big Tex

The largest found so far is Quetzalcoatlus northropi, with a wingspan of 10 meters (35 feet). Quetzalcoatlus is my favorite.
Quetzalcoatlus is a Texan, a native of Big Bend National Park. The largest animal ever to fly is from Texas. Of course he is.

Howdy, Folks!
Howdy, Folks!

The Houston Museum of Natural Science has amazing Quetzalcoatlus casts on display in their Hall of Paleontology. The Houston Museum is unique in that its paleo skeletons are not displayed in boring, lunch-line rows. Rather, the fossils and casts are in action: predators and prey – pursuing, eating, menacing.

This leads me to yet another reason to love Quetzalcoatlus: the display in the Houston Museum.

Usually, museums hang pterosaurs from the ceiling.

Houston displays a nesting pair on the ground.

Here’s why that’s cool:
Pterosaurs’ wings are made of skin stretched over the arm, hand, and fingers of the fore-limbs. The fourth finger (like our ring finger) was especially long. In Quetzalcoatlus, it was extremely long.

Although Quetzalcoatlus flew, they were too large for tree-dwelling. They nested on the ground.

How would you sit down if your ring finger was almost as long as your body? Think about it, then look at this photo of my recent visit with Quetzalcoatlus :

janet with quetzalcoatlus
The seated display of Quetzalcoatlus allows you to understand visually that her wings are fingers (with an extremely long ring finger) as she sits near her nest.

The Quetzalcoatlus in the background is standing on all fours (remember, he is a reptile). What would you look like, standing on all fours with a ring finger almost as long as your body? Look at the photo and see how he stands and what he does with that long fourth finger.
Fossilized footprints of pterosaurs indicate that they walked on all fours. The Houston display reinforces this in a way that a traditional hanging display cannot.

New This Summer! Pterosaurs in 3D!

Pterosaurs had very thin bones, making them lightweight and maximizing their strength-to-weight ratio. Thin bones means they do not fossilize very well. As a result, we have few good pterosaur skeletons and rarely have more than one example per species.

Until now.
Announced this summer (but found in 2005) was a spectacular find in northwestern China. The forty complete adult pterosaurs, multiple bones of others, and a clutch of five beautifully preserved eggs were found near an area of a large freshwater lake.
The newly identified species has been named Hamipterus tianshanensis. Hamipterus had a crest, pointy teeth, and a wingspan of more than 3.5 meters (11+ feet).

Until this find, we only had four pterosaur eggs – and they had all been flattened during fossilization. But the five found in China are the first eggs preserved in 3D. The eggs were pliable with a thin eggshell outside and a thick membrane inside – similar to the eggs of a modern snake.

This magnificent find also indicates that pterosaurs lived in large colonies, often near shorelines where they could eat fish and lay eggs in moist sand. Large pterosaurs would have had a hard time flying in wooded or mountainous terrain and are most often found in places that would have been open and near water.

There’s An App For That

Are you ready to go on a pterosaur hunt? There’s an app for that!

A new website links a huge pterosaur database with Google Earth. PteroTerra lets you see where in the world your favorite pterosaurs were found. Clink on a link and you’ll see a map, wingspan, and when it lived. Look at the big world map and you’ll see the distribution of pterosaur fossils around the world. Paleontologists can use this tool to map trends in pterosaur evolution.
Bookmark it on your smart phone, tablet, or computer now!

Here’s one more. Want something to do while waiting in life’s lines? Download the new Pterosaurs iPad App created by The American Museum of Natural History (free!). While you’re at it, download Pterosaurs: The Card Game (also from AMNH; also free for iPad).

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Hipster ScienceCat

Hipster ScienceCat

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.

Creationism’s Playbook and the Closing of America’s Scientific Mind

I wrote my first letter to a politician this week. dan
I wrote Dan Patrick, the leading candidate and likely winner in the run for Texas lieutenant governor. I told him that I want Texas to lead in science, medicine, and technology. (In Texas, the lieutenant governor is a legislative leader capable of powerful influence on policy, including public education law).

Here’s Mr. Patrick on science education in Texas public schools:

When it comes to creationism, not only should it be taught, it should be triumphed, it should be heralded.

Mr. Patrick: how can Texas lead if our science classes discard the very basis of modern biology as well as modern physics and geology?

I’m still waiting for a reply.

Science is one of the few things in life unaffected by politics ( p. 167) – there is no such thing as a Democrat Krebs cycle or a Republican explanation of DNA replication.

Even when there are ethical or moral or political issues regarding how science should be applied, the underlying science is unchanged: those who want to ban stem cell research do not claim that stem cells do not exist; those opposed to nuclear weapons still accept atomic theory.

Social sciences, however, are a different story.

In his best-seller The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Allan Bloom scathingly critiqued American higher education. America’s most highly regarded virtue (according to Bloom) is openness.

Academia, specifically in the social sciences, has declared that all customs, all cultures, all philosophies, and all ideas are worthy of consideration. Evidence is not important; reason is not important. The greatest danger in social sciences is not error, but intolerance. If I make a judgment on the basis of evidence, I am not “open” to other ideas and interpretations. According to Bloom, the American mind is closed because it is (ironically) too open.

Here’s Bloom:

The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all (The Closing of the American Mind, p.26).

When Bloom published in 1986, he exempted the natural sciences from this trend. Bloom found natural scientists to be ruggedly devoted to empirical evidence, to their use of nature as the ultimate standard of proof:

It (natural science) is really self-sufficient, or almost so…. Natural science does not boast, it is not snobbish. It is genuine.

And I love this declaration:

Natural science simply does not care.

Natural science is the honey badger of academia.

honey badger don't care.

honey badger don’t care.

 

Enter: “The Wedge”

In 1998, the Discovery Institute (a creationist think tank), guided by University of California – Berkley law professor Phillip Johnson, outlined a strategy designed to overhaul the way science is “done”. To Johnson and the Discovery Institute, modern science was anti-religion. This strategy, essentially the “playbook” for Intelligent Design/ creationism, was called “The Wedge” by its creators. As the name implies, the intent of the strategy was to drive a wedge between science and its natural (materialistic) roots:

Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions (The Wedge).

The Wedge proposed a three-phase plan of action: (1) scientific research and writing, (2) publicity, and (3) cultural confrontation.

Phase 1 has not been successful. No research supporting the Intelligent Design model of creationism has ever been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Michael Behe, although one of the most prolific writers and proponents of Intelligent Design, testified to the lack of research at the historic trial in Dover, Pennsylvania:

There are no peer-reviewed articles by anyone advocating for intelligent design supported by pertinent experiments or calculations which provide detailed rigorous accounts of how intelligent design of any biological system occurred (Only a Theory, pp. 178-179).

Behe also testified that the darlings of Intelligent Design – the blood clotting cascade, the immune system, and the concept of “irreducible complexity” – had no peer-reviewed support.

And unless you count the Discovery Institute’s own research in its own journal, there is still no peer-reviewed evidence for Intelligent Design’s brand of creationism.

Anything Goes

The Wedge’s phases 2 and 3 (publicity and cultural confrontation), however, have been quite successful.
Multiple court cases in many states framed the teaching of evolution in public schools as a “culture-war” issue. A magazine cover time cover and a popular movie  expelledreinforced the believers-against-the-godless-evolutionists mantra.

 

 

 

 

The message was clear and found its way into education bills across the country: Teach the controversy. Present both sides. Don’t you want our children to be critical thinkers? It’s “only” a theory.

Ironically, Intelligent Design advocates adopted the strategy of left-leaning academics. With Intelligent Design/creationism, natural sciences are subject to the “open to everything” approach that Bloom said had closed the American mind. When scientific evidence no longer matters and when all comers get equal time, the American scientific mind has been closed.

Natural Explanations

Traditionally, scientists try to find natural explanations for natural events. In the world of Intelligent Design/creationism, non-naturalistic explanations get equal consideration.

Let’s follow this line of thinking beyond the topic of evolution….if you break out in a nasty rash, do you want your doctor to divide her diagnostic efforts between looking for a medical cause AND looking for a neighbor who might have cursed you with bad skin? If your house is sinking, do you call an engineer or a ghost-buster? ghostbustersmenAlthough most anti-evolutionists believe that God blesses the earth with rain, they have no problem with teaching the water cycle in public schools. Only in the case of evolution do we find people lobbying for the inclusion of non-natural explanations in science class.

That’s Why Science Works

Here is Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson in a recent interview, talking about the nature of science:

Once science has been established, once a scientific truth emerges from a consensus of experiments and observations, it is the way of the world. What I’m saying is, when different experiments give you the same result, it is no longer subject to your opinion. That’s the good thing about science: It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.

In my letter to Dan Patrick, I told him that I share his committed Christian faith and his high regard for scripture. I told him that there are a lot of us out here who see no conflict between science and faith. I offered to meet and discuss.

So far no invite.

 

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.

electron cat

Did the World Know We Were Coming?

higgs boson image (2)Call me Sheldon, but Particle Fever is one of the coolest films I’ve seen in a while.
Particle Fever tells the human story behind the recent discovery of the Higgs boson (aka “the God particle”).

My understanding of particle physics is about on the level of the intended audience of Chad Orzel’s book How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, but briefly:

The Higgs boson had been predicted for decades, but never found. For years, theoretical physicists based theories on it and experimental physicists designed machines and experiments to look for it.

Anticipation in the movie builds: If the Higgs boson is found and it has a small numerical value on the scale of The Way Physicists Measure Stuff, this would indicate that matter is organized according to a model called “supersymmetry”. And if the supersymmetry model is true, then physicists know where the Higgs boson fits into the model and can go from there to discover all the other parts and pieces of the model. Yay for science! Things are waiting to be discovered!

BUT if the numerical value for the Higgs boson is large, this would indicate no symmetry in matter – a chaotic, unknowable model with unknowable laws called the “multiverse” model.
Although intrigued by the concept of a multiverse, the young physicists in the film were pulling for supersymmetry. The complete randomness and unknowable-ness of a multiverse was depressing. If the multiverse is true, there would be no reason to continue research and experimentation, no reason to carry on their work, just no reason.

We don’t like random. It depresses us. Evolution-deniers have long defined evolution as a “random” or an “accidental” process. If that’s true, then we are not special, we are just sophisticated animals that accidentally obtained consciousness. We are depressed and deflated, with no hope for the future.

Rick Santorum, former Pennsylvania senator and presidential hopeful said this in a nationally broadcast interview:

It [evolution] has huge consequences for society. I mean, it’s where we come from. Does man have purpose? Is there a purpose for our lives? Or are we just simply, you know, the result of chance? If we are the result of chance, if we’re simply a mistake of nature, then that puts a different moral demand on us – in fact, it doesn’t put a moral demand on us….

Unpredictable VS Random

The process of evolution is unpredictable, but it is not random.

You cannot predict who will win the next Texas Mega-Gazillionaire Lottery. But the winner will not be me – I’ve never bought a ticket. The lottery is unpredictable but it is not random.

cat-in-trendy-strollerThe genes passed down from parents to offspring are unpredictable, but human parents will not produce a kitten or a starfish.
Human genetics are unpredictable, but are not random.

In the case of evolution, changes that occur in living things are not predictable, but neither are they random. Changes in living things are driven in a direction that benefits the evolution of the organism.

Contingency

If we rewound the clock of evolution and set it out to run again, would we end up with the exact same natural history of life on earth? Is the process of evolution a contingent process – change one event and the whole picture changes? smbc-dinosave_large_copyfix_grandeFor example, if the asteroid missed the earth on that fateful day and the dinosaurs survived, would mammals have proliferated and advanced as they did, eventually resulting in humans?

The answer is yes and no.

What if your life was rewound back to the moment when your parents’ chromosomes were being shuffled about just before the fertilization occurred that resulted in you?

You would not be the exact person you are today. But – the same genetic constraints that were in place the first time around would still be in place in the rewind. You would still be your parents’ child.

Our universe and our planet are constrained by natural laws of physics and chemistry:

How strong are the constraints imposed by those conditions? To what degree do they guide and determine the course of evolution? (Only a Theory, p. 147).

In simpler words, did the world know that we (in one form or another) were coming?

Convergence

Visualize a watery space where animals might live – an ocean or a lake. Slow moving animals, whether large or small, can be almost any shape. But large, fast-moving animals living in the water tend to have a streamlined shape.

Think about a dolphin (mammal), a tuna (fish), and an ichthyosaur (extinct marine reptile) – all three very different animals. But all three are amazingly similar in shape:

Dolphin

dolphin

tuna

tuna

ichthyosaur

ichthyosaur

This concept is called convergence: organisms that evolve in a particular space will adapt to that space. Organisms evolve features that allow them to live and thrive in a particular environment. As a result, very different and unrelated organisms may look quite similar.

…evolution essentially “explores” any given adaptive space. It pokes and probes the multidimensional landscape of adaptation, and when two or more organisms arrive in a particular niche on that landscape, they are subject to the same physical constraints. (Only a Theory, p. 148)

koala in glassesKoalas, Kangaroos, Eyes, and Convergence

Do You Come From the Land Down Under? When the Australian landmass separated from the rest of the world (about 100 million years ago), it was home to both marsupial mammals (mammals that give birth to very underdeveloped young and carry them in pouches) and placental mammals (mammals that give birth to more developed young). In the newly isolated Australia, only the marsupials survived. In the rest of the world, however, the placentals were champions.

Outside Australia, placental mammals evolved and adapted to a variety of niches. Hunter/predator mammals evolved, as did burrowing mammals and tree-dwelling mammals. The same types of niches found throughout the world were also found in Australia, but only marsupials were around to fill them. In Australia, evolution also produced hunter/predators (the tiger quoll), burrowers (marsupial moles), and tree-dwellers (marsupial flying squirrels).

In Australia, evolution filled the very same spaces with marsupials that it had filled elsewhere with placental mammals.

Eyes Everywhere. Separated by a span of 400 million years, several groups of organisms faced the challenge of vision. Vertebrates, worms, and cephalopod mollusks (squids, octopi, nautilus) all evolved a camera-like eye. These three eyes did not evolve in the same way or from the same structures and are not the same biochemically.
BUT – all three types of eyes are constrained by the same physics of light and geometric principles of optics.

Were We Inevitable?

Again and again, life explores and fills adaptive spaces. Whether separated by oceans or millions of years, the same physical constraints of chemistry and physics are at work, solving problems in similar ways.

Is it reasonable, then, to believe that due to these constraints, the process of evolution would eventually and inevitably lead to us?

…it’s perfectly reasonable to maintain that evolution as we know and understand it was almost certain to produce a species like ours under conditions that prevail on Planet Earth (Only a Theory, p.153).

Life is possible only because of the precise and balanced fundamental constants of our universe. Exact outcomes of the evolutionary process might be unpredictable, but they are not random.

Accident of Nature or Willed by God?

To opponents of evolution, unpredictable is equated with random, and randomness is called God-less.

If God is the cause of causes, people of faith can accept evolution and still believe the universe was willed by God and our presence in it is God’s plan and purpose. The natural processes that brought about life on earth are no more God-less than the natural processes that maintain and propagate life.

God’s Image-bearers

This ad ran on the Answers in Genesis website following a rash of school shootings in 2006: Gun and God

The script reads:

As a society, we reap the consequences of the unquestioned acceptance of the belief in evolution every day. It diminishes your worth and reduces human beings from being made “in the image of God” to being mere players in the game of survival of the fittest.

Evolution makes some people nervous because of the whole connection-to-animals thing. Here’s the thought: how can we be “made in God’s image” if we are just animals?

Peter Enns is the Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University and former senior fellow of biblical studies for The BioLogos Foundation. In his book The Evolution of Adam, Dr. Enns explored what the Bible says and does not say about human origins.

In Genesis, the phrase “image of God” does not refer to a characteristic that separates us from all other animals. The “image of God” does not refer to biology or a soul or a spiritual quality that makes us special.

Instead, the term “image of God” describes humans as God’s representatives in ruling creation. The original readers of Genesis would have understood this – ancient Near-Eastern kings declared themselves to be the gods’ image on earth. Kings liked to set up statues of themselves across the kingdom to remind their subjects that they were in charge and appointed by the gods.

In Genesis,  “image of God” means that humans have been tasked with representing God in the world.

That is a daunting task, and it certainly makes us special.

 

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.

CatsDinosaurs

 

 

 

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