Science This Week: Measles, Debunking the Monk, & Flying Monkeyducks

Measles (they’re baaack)

In the year 2000, measles was virtually nonexistent in the United States.
But this week, a measles advisory was issued in New York City after the twentieth case of measles was confirmed. Before the week was over, it was twenty-one cases. Orange County in California also reported its twenty-first case of measles so far this year. Last year, nearly 200 cases of measles were reported in the U.S., and we are on track to top that in 2014.
Measles is making a comeback due to the increasing number of parents who are opting out of vaccinations for their children. measles
Despite the “childhood disease” euphemism, measles is a highly contagious, often serious and potentially deadly disease. The virus can linger airborne in a room as long as two hours after an infected person has been there.

Because measles has been rare for so many years, the memory of the disease for parents and health care workers has faded (“Remembering How to Fight Measles”, The New York Times, March 27). Many clinicians have never seen a case of measles. In the recent outbreak in New York City, some of the cases were thought to have resulted from exposure in hospitals – undiagnosed patients were not isolated immediately and exposed others waiting to be seen.

Nineteen states allow “personal belief” exemptions for school-required vaccinations.

If a single parent does not immunize a child, the risk to that individual is low. But as the number of unvaccinated children grows, the risk of numerous people contracting and spreading the disease multiples, creating a health risk for a large segment of the population…When the immunization rate falls, the danger to the young and the elderly increases dramatically (“A Doctor’s Take on the Anti-Vaccine Movement”, Forbes, March 20).

Cosmos and Bruno: Debunking the Monk

I think the new Cosmos series is brilliant thus far – but the first episode drew criticism for its portrayal of Giordano Bruno as a hero of science (“How Cosmos Bungles the History of Science”, Daily Beast, March 23).

In lengthy animation, Bruno is depicted as the only man on the planet who believed that the universe was infinite. In the Cosmos cartoon, Bruno wandered through Europe, mocked, rejected and impoverished because of his staunch refusal to disavow his scientific hypotheses about the universe. Eventually, demonically-drawn church officials imprisoned him and ultimately burned him at the stake – all for standing up for science.

329px-Giordano_Bruno_Campo_dei_FioriHere’s the problem: Bruno wasn’t a scientist – far from it – even by 16th century standards. Bruno espoused Hermetism, practicing adoration of the sun as the center of all (hence his affection for Copernicus). The church inquisition listed eight charges against Bruno, including denying the divinity of Jesus, practicing magic, and believing that the earth and all animals had souls. He wasn’t the poor cast-out loner depicted in the animation – he had multiple important patrons throughout Europe.

Call Bruno a martyr for religious freedom, but not a martyr for science. Of course there were actual scientists who were persecuted by the Church (Galileo, for example), but focusing on Bruno as the archetype science-martyr doesn’t make the point. For many posters on social media and journalists in popular media, the Bruno story (unfairly) picked a fight between science and faith.

To a certain extent, misunderstanding the story of Bruno isn’t going to do a whole lot of harm – especially in a country where so many people are in denial about basic scientific facts. But that Cosmos added an unnecessary and skewed version of Bruno – especially one skewed in this particular way – is a good miniature lesson about our tendency to turn the past into propaganda for our preferred view of the present (“How Cosmos Bungles the History of Religion and Science”).

Flying Monkeyducks and the the Awesomeness of Pterosaurs

Up in sky! It’s NOT a bird! It’s NOT a dinosaur! It’s a pterosaur!

Pterosaurs were reptiles, close cousins of the dinosaurs. Pterosaurs evolved on a separate branch of the reptile family tree. There were dozens of species of pterosaurs, some as large as an F-16 fighter jet and others as small as a paper airplane. Pterosaurs were the first animals after insects to evolve powered flight—not just leaping or gliding, but actual flight by flapping their wings to generate lift and travel through the air.

The American Museum of Natural History is opening a new pterosaur exhibit April 4. If you are expecting nothing but pterodactyls, think again.

Sordes pilosus

Sordes pilosus

Sordes pilosus looked like a flying monkeyduck. Some fossils indicate that Sordes had a thick coat of fibers similar to fur.

Quetzalcoatlus northropi

Quetzalcoatlus northropi

Quetzalcoatlus northropi was probably the largest animal ever to fly – and – it’s a native Texan! Quetzalcoatus had a wingspan of at least 33 feet.

Thalassodromeus sethi had the largest crest of any known vertebrate – three times larger than the entire rest of its skull. Thalassodromeus probably looked a lot like Toucan Sam’s more flamboyant cousin. It had a wingspan of 14 feet.

Thalassodromeus sethi

Thalassodromeus sethi


Here’s a link to more info about the exhibit.



I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.

I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.

I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.


Science This Week: The Newborn Universe, Cosmos #1, & ID in the News

Baby Pictures of the Universe baby2

They thought it was pigeon poop – but what it really was earned them the Nobel Prize in Physics. In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were experimenting with a super-sensitive antenna, trying to detect radio waves bounced off a satellite. But mysterious background noise (static) was interfering. Penzias and Wilson discovered pigeons roosting in their high-power antenna – and thinking that was the source of the interference – they set about removing the birds and scrubbing away all of the poop. Yet, the background noise remained. Eventually Penzias and Wilson realized they had just observed the earliest known baby picture of the universe. The faint glow of cosmic background radiation they discovered dates back to just 380,000 years after the big bang. Before that time, the just-born universe was too hot to even allow light to travel. Cosmic background radiation is the light that began to glow when the universe cooled – 380,000 years after the big bang.

static_tv_021709If you have an old TV around, the kind with a rabbit-ear antenna – you own a time machine. Tune the TV between channels and one percent (1%) of the static you see is cosmic background radiation left over from the big bang. How cool is that?

This week, an international team of physicists announced the discovery of an even earlier universal selfie – a newborn photo. It has long been a mystery as to why the universe is uniform from pole to pole and not a jagged warped mess as you might expect from an explosion like the big bang. It was hypothesized that following the initial “bang”, the universe ballooned out and swelled inconceivably fast – faster even than the speed of light – and this rapid expansion (called inflation) ironed out all the wrinkles and irregularities. If inflation had indeed occurred, we would expect to find ripples of gravitational waves in the radiation as the universe was wrenched ferociously apart. Long-term observations of the cosmic background radiation found just that. The team of researchers announced this week that the light from the cosmic background radiation is distorted, rippled, and polarized in a pattern that fits the gravitational waves left over from inflation. What this means: we now have a “picture” of the universe, just one-trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the big bang. Wow.

Cosmos, Episode 2: Some of the Things Molecules Do

The second installment of the new Cosmos series with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson ventured into the universe of molecules inside of us. This episode focused on the beauty and diversity of life resulting from eons of natural selection. Dr. Tyson noted right away that many people are very uncomfortable at the thought of sharing an ancestor with the apes. Amen to that. Moms, wanting their prodigious science-loving offspring to understand that science and faith are not in conflict, have often asked me to explain to their kids why dinosaurs and humans didn’t coexist. Mom beams with pride as offspring comprehends the evidence of an ancient earth and evolution of animals, but breaks out in a blotchy sweat when her junior scientist asks the inevitable “so did we come from monkeys?”

Dr. Tyson brought us on a journey through the “tree of life”, demonstrating that in reality humans are related to all of life, even plants. Just like DNA testing can tell us about paternity and who is related to whom, DNA can demonstrate relatedness between all living things. The closer the relative, the more DNA in common. I found it fascinating that on a section of DNA carried by both oak trees and humans – in the same spot for both – we find genes coding for the breakdown of sugar. Digesting sugar is so loan-oak-treebasic to life that the ability to do so evolved before all the myriad forms of life split off from each other. I loved this observation by Dr. Tyson:

The stuff of life is so malleable, that once it got started, the environment molded it into a staggering variety of forms.

An exceptional animated graphic tracing the evolution of the eye illustrated how living things are molded in response to their environment. (here’s a link to episode 2 – the segment on the evolution of the eye begins at 21:37) Dr. Tyson addressed the claim that evolution is “just” a theory, as if it was someone’s opinion. Evolution is a theory… like gravity is a theory. Evolution really happened – it’s in our DNA.

Note: Francis Collins is the author of one of my top-ten of all time books, The Language of God. Dr. Collins headed the ground-breaking Human Genome Project, is currently the director of the National Institutes of Health and is a vocal and committed Christian. According to Francis Collins, DNA is the “language by which God spoke life into being”. Beautiful.

Intelligent Design in the News

Advocates of Intelligent Design have long insisted that ID was a science-based explanation of the diversity of life. God is never mentioned in ID materials, only an “intelligent designer”. Despite these claims, in the high-profile 2005 Dover case a U.S. district judge ruled that ID was indeed religious in intent, replacing “God” terminology with “design”. Stephen Meyer, a respected leader in the ID movement recently reiterated the “non-religious” claim:

Contrary to media reports, Intelligent Design is not a religious-based idea, but instead an evidence-based scientific theory about life’s origins—one that challenges strictly materialistic views of evolution.

However, a conference held last weekend at Faith Bible Church in the Woodlands (north of Houston) may represent a shift in the ID model. The conference featured three stars of the ID movement: William Dembski, John West, and the author of the preceding quote, Stephen Meyer. The website for the conference presents a straightforward choice: science either undermines essential Christian doctrines or points to intelligent design.  Does this move to explicitly link leaders of the ID movement and Intelligent Design itself to Christian “essentials” represent a paradigm shift? If so, the multiple movements in several states to teach ID alongside evolution might get a bit more interesting.


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.


Intelligent Design: Creationism Redux

It was must-see TV. Live from the KERA studios in Dallas: the Texas Lieutenant Governor Primary Candidates Debate!

Oh… you missed it?

The four GOP candidates (the Democrat candidate is unopposed) squared off on important issues – term limits, guns, abortion, legalization of marijuana.

Toward the end of the debate, the four men vying for what is arguably the most powerful state office in Texas were asked to respond to these questions: lt gov debate

Does creationism belong in schools? Would you like to see creationism in textbooks?





Here are the responses from the two candidates who will face each other in the May 27 runoff:

David Dewhurst (the incumbent): I am fine with teaching creationism, intelligent design, evolution. Let students, with advice and counsel, decide for themselves which one they believe in.

Dan Patrick (the frontrunner): When it comes to creationism, not only should it be taught, it should be triumphed, it should be heralded.

Gussied-up Creationism

For many people of faith, traditional young-earth creationism demands too high an intellectual price, primarily because it demands a 6,000 to 10,000 years old universe.  “Creationism” and “creation science” have been replaced in many circles with Intelligent Design (ID). The Intelligent Design model is infused with scientific vocabulary and complex concepts and has no objection to evidence from physics or geology.

Intelligent Design proponents contend that the theory of evolution is flawed because it cannot explain the complexity of living things. According to ID, an “intelligent designer” was required to step in and specially design (create) each organism, each aspect of life. Intelligent Design is creationism, just gussied-up and more science-y. Intelligent Design is old-earth creationism.

Intelligent Design proponents advocate for equal treatment with evolution theory in public schools.

The likely lieutenant governor of Texas agrees.  

 Teach the Controversy

teach_the_controversy_by_ex_leper-d2xgnkiSo what’s the harm, really? Don’t we want our students to be critical thinkers? Weigh strengths and weaknesses? Should we “teach the controversy” regarding evolution as many education bills are worded?

In other words, should Intelligent Design (old-earth creationism), by law, be given equal status with the theory of evolution in public schools?

Under the Microscope: Does ID Hold Up?

Advocates of Intelligent Design present ID as a valid, scientific approach to the study of biology. As such, ID should pass the tests required of any new science idea.

What happens to a newly introduced science concept?



Science is self-correcting. New ideas aren’t automatically accepted in the scientific community, no matter how big a splash they make. A couple of decades ago, cold fusion was all the rage. Scientists across the world jumped on board and began trying to replicate the process in their own laboratories, but no one was successful. It soon became apparent that the concept itself was flawed and cold fusion has since been relegated to “the scrap heap of junk science” (p. 45).

And – just a few weeks ago, a Japanese team published an important breakthrough in stem cell research. Almost immediately, scientists reported irregularities in the research and difficulties in replicating the results. The exciting new findings were discredited less than 40 days after their announcement.

If bad science is published in a peer-reviewed forum, it will not stand long. Science polices itself.

What happens when ID is put “under the scope” by the scientific community?

The basic principle of Intelligent Design is “irreducible complexity”. Irreducible complexity means that living systems are so complex all of their parts must be present in order to be functional. According to ID, gradual development (evolution) could not possibly produce these systems – complex systems had to appear “all at once” or they would have been useless. The mousetrap is the go-to example of irreducible complexity: all parts must be present in the mousetrap in order to catch a mouse.

Reduce the trap by even one part, and the mousetrap is useless.

Dr. Kenneth Miller, in a true story from his childhood (pp. 53-55) deconstructed the mousetrap analogy. Using a broken mousetrap with several parts missing, a classmate built a perfectly functioning spitball catapult, capable of launching a juicy one from the gym floor to unsuspecting students in the balcony.


The “reduced trap” was not useless.

The “reduced” mousetrap caught no mousies, but it was still functional: it was an ideal spitball launcher.

The concept of irreducible complexity fails when it comes to mousetraps, but a mousetrap is not a living, biological system.

What about the biological darlings of Intelligent Design – blood clotting, the flagellum, the eye?

Blood Clotting Cascade. Intelligent Design proponents regularly cite the blood clotting mechanism of vertebrates (animals with backbones) as an example of irreducible complexity. Even the tiniest break in a blood vessel triggers a cascade (or pathway) of events, eventually resulting in a blood clot that plugs the leak. Each step in the cascade triggers and amplifies the next step. So precise is this clotting pathway that the absence of just one component in the cascade has a devastating effect (uncontrolled bleeding).

Therefore, Intelligent Design says that the blood clotting cascade was put into place, “as is” and all at once. According to ID, evolution (a gradual process) could not have produced it.

But that is not what the evidence shows.

Simpler systems work. Some vertebrates are missing parts of the clotting pathway, yet the pathways are useful and are able to successfully form a blood clot.

Scientists have known for years that dolphins and whales are missing one of the clotting factors, and their blood clots just fine. In 2003, it was discovered that the puffer fish is missing three of the factors, yet it also has a working system.

In fact, many vertebrates have clotting systems simpler than the systems of mammals, yet they clot quite nicely. Dr. Russell F. Doolittle has extensively documented that the number of components in blood clotting systems increases and decreases as you move up and down the evolutionary scale from jawless fish to advanced mammals.

If a simpler clotting system is able to work, then blood clotting is not irreducibly complex.

Going back further. If we go back to even earlier ancestors, less complex than the vertebrates (animals with backbones), what would we find?

CionaSea Squirts do not have a backbone, so they are not vertebrates like us. Sea squirts do, however, have a nerve chord. Sea squirts are descended from organisms that split off from the line of animals that eventually lead to vertebrates (including us).

In 2002, the complete genetic code of the sea squirt was determined and the results were spectacular. No genes for vertebrate clotting factors were found, but scattered throughout the genetic code for the sea squirt were genes for all but two of the protein domains that build the vertebrate clotting factors. In other words, almost all of the nuts and bolts and spare parts needed to piece together the clotting factors were there, 400 million years ago (p. 66).

It appears that clotting systems evolved from a simple mechanism that could handle the low-pressure, low flow blood systems of less complex animals. Over long periods of time, more and more elements of the cascade were recruited, evolving into the complicated systems needed by mammals with high pressure cardio-vascular systems.

Yet Intelligent Design advocates assert that the blood clotting cascade was created from scratch, “as is”.

But if that were indeed the case, then why do we find the raw materials for clotting exactly where evolution tells us they should be, in the last group of organisms to split off from the vertebrates before clotting appeared? (p. 66).

The Bacterial Flagellum. Your body is host to billions of helpful bacteria that zip around your gut driven by their own little outboard motors – the flagella. Flagella are microscopic whip-like structures powered by a complicated chemical motor. As many as thirty components must be securely in their places in order for a flagellum to operate properly.

Intelligent Design says that the components should have no function whatsoever until all thirty are in place.

Most bacteria are harmless, even helpful. But the bad guys – the bacteria that cause disease – threaten living organisms in a variety of ways. Bacteria can pump poisons directly into a host cell using a protein pump known as a TTSS (type III secretory system).

Studies of proteins in the TTSS pump revealed a remarkable fact: the proteins in the TTSS are almost identical to the proteins in the base of the flagellum. About ten of the thirty proteins in the flagellum function perfectly well as a TTSS pump.

…the TTSS is just like my spitball catapult – a small part of a larger system that works just fine for an entirely different purpose (p.59).

In fact, nearly all of the proteins in the flagellum are like proteins found elsewhere in the bacterial cell.

The flagellum isn’t a made from scratch, all-at-once structure. Rather,

It’s much more like a collection of borrowed, copied, and jerry-rigged parts that have been cobbled together from the spare-parts bin of the cell. In short, it’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from evolution (61-62).

Intelligent Design proponents also claim that evolution could not have produced the eye or the middle ear. According to ID, these too, are irreducibly complex. But – multiple lines of research have demonstrated that both the eye and the middle ear could have been generated in a step-by-step, gradual process. (If you’d like to read more about the evolution of the eye, the middle ear, the bacterial flagellum, and the blood clotting cascade, check out these BioLogos links).

Unfortunate Choice of Words

Many believers want a faith-affirming approach to science that is also intellectually honest. At first glance, Intelligent Design seems to offer what Creationism cannot. On the contrary, when we inspect the claims of ID we simply find an old-earth version of Creationism.

It is unfortunate that the “competitors” to evolution appropriate the terms creationism, intelligent, and design. When used with capital letters, the terms are loaded with suppositions about the universe and life that contradict all of modern science.

But using small letters, they become descriptors, not dogma. It is possible to acknowledge God as creator of all, source of all intelligence, and author of all physical laws – and still speak the truth about what his creation reveals to us.

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

Previous posts in this series:

Big Tex, T-Rex, and the American Scientific Soul

Just a Theory

Design: The New Playbook

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.


The Ark Was Round?

It must have been a sight.

London,1872. Tucked away in the depths of the British Museum, curator George Smith suddenly jumps up from his work and runs around the room, hooping and hollering. GeorgeSmith

And – to the astonishment of his colleagues – proceeds to strip down to his skivvies.

What would provoke such a display?

George Smith had been translating an ancient Assyrian tablet (7th century BC) when he came upon a story about a devastating flood: forewarned by the gods, a man built a big boat and filled it with animals and his family, and later sent out a dove and raven to check for dry land. All this in a story that far predated the book of Genesis.


The uncanny similarities between the flood story in the more-ancient Epic of Gilgamesh and the Noah story were worrisome to many believers in 1872. There is an even older Mesopotamian flood story (17th century BC), a prequel to Gilgamesh, which also mirrors the Bible story.

The Round Ark

Just a few weeks ago, a 4,000 year-old newly-deciphered cuneiform tablet went on display in the British Museum. ancientarkThe flood story contained in this tablet predates other Mesopotamian stories and the Genesis story.  The boat-building and animal-gathering instructions are more technical and detailed than in subsequent flood stories.  The biggest media splash, however, was the description of the boat – giant, made of rope, and round.

The boat described is an oversized coracle, used in ancient Iraq as water taxis.coracle_india

The (fully clothed) museum translator, Irving Finkel, was delighted. Irving Finkel


Discoveries of flood stories more ancient than Genesis make many Christians uneasy for several reasons.

  • If your theology requires a literal world-wide flood, you might be uneasy.
  • If your theology requires that the Noah story be the original flood story, you might be uneasy.
  • If your biblical interpretation does not make room for culture and context, you might be uneasy.

The Science

There is a line of thinking specific to many in the young-earth camp that attributes earth’s complex geologic history to a global flood as described in Genesis. From continental drift, to the Grand Canyon, to fossil layers, to the demise of the dinosaurs – a literal, global flood has been credited as the cause. dino ark

Can we find geological evidence to support such a catastrophic event?

Salt deposits. There are many massive salt beds on earth, some thousands of feet thick. We know how salt beds form – we can observe actively growing salt beds such as those in Utah. Salt beds form when salty water evaporates. Global flood proponents argue that the massive salt beds found throughout the world are the result of waters evaporating from “The Flood”. The problem with this explanation is that the salt beds are covered with thousands of feet of sediment, also said to be left by The Flood. Water from The Flood could not have evaporated enough to produce the vast amounts of salt and still be massive enough to produce the thousands of feet of sediment on top of the salt.

Grand Canyon. Every year, Answers in Genesis guides rafting tours of the Grand Canyon. According to the trip website, the guides

…give the biblical creation perspective on the formation of Grand Canyon, which stands as a testimony of the global Flood of Noah’s day.

I teach a “how to teach science” course to elementary education majors. In our soil lesson, we fill a glass jar – half soil, half water – and shake the jar vigorously until it looks like chocolate milk. We let the mixture settle for a few hours and this is what we see: jar soil

The heavier rocks settle out first, followed by finer sand, followed by finer silt, then clay, finest of all.

In geology, this phenomenon is called fining upward. When flood waters recede, we can observe a “fining upward” sequence in the layers of soil that are laid down by the floodwaters – coarse layers at the bottom, getting finer and finer toward the top.

If a single catastrophic flood – a single surge of rushing water – was responsible for carving the Grand Canyon, we would expect to see coarse layers at the bottom of the canyon, with finer and finer layers to the top. But that is not the case.
Deposition in Grand Canyon is a series of alternating layers – fine, coarse, fine, coarse, fine, coarse, and so on. Some of the alternating layers are larger than others. Now, throw multiple layers of limestone (never found in large flood deposits) into the mix, and Flood explanations for the Grand Canyon are in serious trouble.

Fossils. If a global Flood was responsible for the layers of fossils we observe today, what should those layers look like? Waters turbulent enough to rip up and move continents would churn all unfortunate non-ark animals as well as the bodies of previously deceased animals into one big animal-soupy concoction. There would be no orderliness to the fossil record; instead, we’d have the paleontological equivalent of a scoop of rocky road ice cream.

rocky road ice creamBut that is not what fossil layers look like. In very old rocks, we find fossils of trilobites. In later rock beds we find dinosaurs. Later still, we find mammoths and other mammals…and humans. Flowering plants are found in newer rocks, but not in older rocks.

Localized Flooding

Geophysicists William Ryan and Walter Pitman have documented scientific evidence that there was an enormously catastrophic flood in the middle east about 7,500 years ago. There is evidence that as sea levels rose following an ice age, the Mediterranean Sea overflowed and deluged the Black Sea basin. Ryan and Pitman estimate that waters could have rushed through this channel with forces greater than Niagara Falls, with water levels rising six inches per day.

In addition, there are written records of catastrophic floods in Mesopotamia that date back to 2900 BC. These accounts coincide with observable flood deposits in that area.

Whether they were Neolithic farmers 7,500 years ago or Mesopotamians 5,000 years ago, the flood refugees would have thought the world was ending. From their limited perspective, the whole world was under water.

It is reasonable that ancient Babylonians would pass down stories of a catastrophic flood and that these stories would find their way into the literature of the people.

It is also reasonable that their neighbors, the Israelites, would have this story.

Where the Israelites depart from their near eastern neighbors is theology.

The Theology

To our twenty-first century minds, it’s hard to fathom not being able to predict or even explain natural events like hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods.

Ancient people told stories in an attempt to understand.

The flood stories of the near east (including Genesis) have many shared elements: building boats, collecting animals, judgment, destruction, starting over.

But that’s where the similarities end.

The gods in the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh Epics were angry and revengeful. Humans were created to be slave labor for the gods. The humans rebelled and made so much noise it kept the gods awake.

The God of Israel is just. He sends the flood because humans chose evil and rebelled against him.

The gods of the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh Epics gleefully wiped out everyone. The gods demanded that humans respect distance and boundaries.

The God of Israel saves, restores, and finally (and this is HUGE) covenants. This God, unlike the gods in those other stories, saves because he wants to relate to, live with, and LOVE people.

To argue about the shape of the boat, the extent of the waters, the uniqueness of the story, dinosaurs on the ark or drowning in the flood, or to twist geology impossibly – ALL of these miss the point:

What this stilted literalism does, in its efforts to take the story seriously, is often to miss the point of the story. This story was a major leap forward in human consciousness, a breakthrough in how people conceived of the divine, another step toward a less violent, more relational understanding of the divine.

It starts like the other flood stories started.

but then goes somewhere different.

Somewhere new.

Somewhere better. (What is the Bible? Part 2: Flood).

Design: The New Playbook

(I couldn't find the original, but you get the idea)

(I couldn’t find the original, but you get the idea)

The cartoon illustration elicited gales of laughter from the audience. The ridiculous creature was half cow/half whale. How could such a poor beast exist? The speaker was the late Duane Gish, arch-creationist debater. The place was Tampa, Florida in 1982 and Gish was in a high-profile debate with Dr. Kenneth Miller (a Christian, a cell biologist and author of Only a Theory and Finding Darwin’s God). Gish had long ridiculed the evolutionary prediction that whales had evolved from land animals. Gish pronounced the cow-whale critter an “udder failure”. But paleontologists from the University of Michigan (unknown to Gish) had discovered evidence that the transition from land to sea probably took place near India and by 1994, three intermediate fossils had been discovered. Today, we have multiple fossil examples of land-sea mammal intermediates.

In the early to mid 1980s, Kenneth Miller debated both of the prominent creationists of the time – Gish and Henry Morris. Dr. Miller recounts that Gish and Morris did not just have a problem with Darwin, they had a problem with all of modern science. The debates demonstrated that Gish and Morris were willing to discount modern physics, geology, and astronomy in order to support a literal reading of Genesis.  That willingness to jettison all of modern science, according to Dr. Miller, would become a real PR problem for the creation science movement in the United States.

A New Playbook

Out of the poor showing by creationist heroes Gish and Morris in the debates and the 1988 US Supreme Court decision that outlawed teaching creationism in public schools, the Intelligent Design movement was born. The ID movement was meant to circumvent the anti-science vibes of the creationism science proponents:

They’ve done so not by changing their ultimate goals, but by writing a brand-new playbook, one that’s lighter and infinitely more flexible. With a wink and a nod to the Bible, they’ve set that heavy book aside and stepped into the ring unencumbered by its literalist baggage. ID, they maintain, is a scientific theory, not a religious conviction, and therefore the age of the earth doesn’t matter (Only a Theory, p. 41).

A Stone and a Watch pocket watch

Before Darwin there was William Paley, an English clergyman whose 1802 work, Natural Theology, posed this familiar scenario:

If a man crossing a field comes upon a stone, the man might assume that the stone had lain there forever. But if a man came across a watch upon the ground, he would not assume the same. The watch, he reasons, must have had a maker. The complexity of the watch implies that its parts were designed and assembled for a purpose – telling time.

Paley’s watch analogy was picked up by the ID movement and expanded upon by Michael Behe, one of the leaders of the movement. Behe reasoned that complex biological systems could not have evolved because of a principle he termed irreducible complexity. This simply means that complex living systems could not have gradually come into being (as in evolution) because the intermediate forms would be missing key parts. And if a system is missing a key part, the whole thing breaks down.


Behe’s analogy was the mousetrap. In order for a mousetrap to perform its intended function, all component parts of the trap must be present and working. A mousetrap is designed to catch mice.

Take away just one part of the trap, and no mousies will be caught. field mouse

According to Behe, a mousetrap cannot be reduced – it is “irreducibly complex” -it cannot be reduced by even one part and still be functional.

ID Hall of Fame

The Blood Clotting Cascade. The cartoonist Rube Goldberg was known for his clever drawings of complicated contraptions. Goldberg would string together an array of unrelated items to perform some sort of mundane task.

rube goldbergBlood clotting in the human body is often compared to a Rube Goldberg machine. Even the tiniest breach in a blood vessel sets off a cascade of events ending in the formation of a blood clot which plugs the leak. The blood clotting pathway consists of multiple steps, each triggering and amplifying subsequent steps. So precise is this clotting pathway that the absence of just one of the components in the cascade has a devastating effect. Individuals (usually males) that lack a factor in the blood clotting cascade will often bleed uncontrollably from even a small wound or bruise – a condition known as hemophilia. Until recent medical advances, missing just one factor in the blood clotting cascade meant hemophiliac boys rarely reached adulthood.

The blood clotting cascade is a favorite of intelligent design advocates:

Consider what this means: If each and every part of the system has to be simultaneously present for blood to clot, then the system could never have been produced by gradual, step-by-step evolution. It is indeed irreducibly complex, and therefore unevolvable (p. 33).

The Flagellum. The blood clotting cascade may be in the ID Hall of Fame, but the flagellum is the darling of the ID movement. Flagella are microscopic whip-like structures powered by a complicated chemical motor. Your body is host to billions of helpful bacteria which zip around your gut driven by their own little outboard motors – the flagella. An array of protein components (maybe as many as thirty, p. 36) must be securely in their places in order for a flagellum to operate properly. flagella bacteria

Remove just one of the components and our cute little bacterial outboard motor sputters to a halt.

Advocates of intelligent design presume

By the logic of irreducible complexity, these components should have no function whatsoever until all thirty are put into place (p.36).

The human eye. The vast information encoded in our DNA. The mammalian ear. According to the intelligent design model, it would be impossible for these things to arise via evolution.

 A Price Too High

For many people of faith, traditional young-earth creationism demands too high an intellectual price. It’s not that they are great admirers of Darwin – they’re not. They actually have a lot more in common with Ken Ham than they would care to admit.

The price of young-earth creationism is too high because

…young-earth creationism requires a full frontal assault on virtually every field of modern science” (Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God).

Enter intelligent design. Infused with scientific vocabulary and complex concepts, ID has no objection to evidence from physics or geology.

And, important to people of faith, ID assures that an intelligent author is behind it all, putting each protein, molecule, and structure into exact position. Intelligent design offers an alternative to natural processes that are perceived to be blind, cold, and uncaring.

In upcoming posts in this series, I want to examine the idea that scaffolds the intelligent design model: irreducible complexity. Does the concept of irreducible complexity hold true? Is the human body bursting with “mousetraps” that cannot be taken apart?

Does irreducible complexity cast an ominous and final shadow of doubt over the theory of evolution?

I also want to consider philosophical issues of science and faith:

Does natural = cold and uncaring?

Can an evolutionist be a creationist?

What does the theory of evolution say about God? (Spoiler: nothing)

This series is an overview of Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory with my discussion and commentary. My goal is to examine intelligent design and look at the science behind the antievolution claims of the ID movement.


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.

Just A Theory

It was a nondescript, address label-sized sticker on the front inside cover of the biology textbook.

textbook sticker image cropped

 At the time, my kids were attending a small (conservative) Christian school. Despite the misuse of the term “theory” on the sticker, I felt the tiniest twinge of optimism that evolution would actually be “studied carefully” and “critically considered” in my kids’ biology class.

Snowball’s chance.

Drawing Battle Lines

The text of the sticker, however, was not original with our private school, or any private school. The sticker was composed by the Cobb County (Georgia) Board of Education and was the centerpiece of a federal court case in 2004. peachIn an effort to align with state science education standards and placate anti-evolutionists, the Cobb County Board created the sticker and placed it in public school science textbooks. In the end, the federal court found that the stickers were a violation of the First Amendment and ordered them removed from the public school textbooks.

Just a few years prior to this case, the Kansas Board of Education removed all references to evolution in the public school curriculum. The state board was voted out the next election cycle, but four years later an anti-evolution majority was seated. The board again re-wrote the science standards, leaving evolution in but requiring that “evidence against” evolution also be included. big text and t rex didnt ride the range together

School boards in Pennsylvania, Texas, and now Virginia – all have hosted show-downs between science standards, science teachers, and anti-evolution forces.

Kenneth Miller in Only a Theory recounted a conversation with a British scientist who was incredulous at the ongoing battles over evolution in American schools. In Britain (he opined) this would never be! Oxford or Cambridge would simply dispatch a couple of dons who would lay out their degrees and credentials before the local school officials, and then explain the standing evolution had in the modern scientific community. The locals would acquiesce to their expertise, and lay the issue to rest. dont tread on me flag

Americans, Miller explained to his Brit friend, are free thinking rebels at heart. Americans instead would have thanked the experts for their time, but would go on to do just as they pleased. Education in America is a local responsibility.

Blatantly teaching creationism, even as an alternative to evolution, is actually illegal in the United States.  In 1987, the Supreme Court of the United States found that creationism is a religious concept and therefore cannot be a part of public school curriculum.

What now?

Not long after the Supreme Court ruled that creationism could not be taught in public schools, the anti-evolution forces regrouped and emerged with a new strategy. Creationism evolved (ha!) into a new movement known as “intelligent design” (ID). pandascover1The most popular intelligent design textbook was originally written as a creationist textbook. The text had been repackaged by substituting “intelligent design” for “creationism”.

Intelligent design purposefully avoids any reference to the God of the Bible. Proponents of intelligent design contend

  • purely naturalistic process could not have produced life as we have it on earth
  • the theory of evolution cannot explain the complexity of living things
  • an “intelligent designer” (by which they mean God but won’t say it) was required to specially design life

Because overt creationism cannot be taught, the push at present is to also teach “design” alongside evolution in order to provide “balance” and expose the “weaknesses” in evolution theory.

For example, there is currently legislation before the Virginia state assembly which would require public schools to

assist teachers to find effective ways to present scientific controversies in science classes

…(help) students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories


If bills like this become the foundation of science education in Virginia schools, its students (as well as those in several other states moving in similar directions) will learn that:

  • evolution is a deeply flawed theory, unable to explain very much
  • evolution only endures because of coercion and the herd mentality of the scientific community
  • intelligent design (ID) is a better explanation, but has been marginalized because scientists are closed-minded and irrationally committed to naturalism

American students will learn these and many other things that students in Japan, Germany, France, Canada and the rest of the developed world are not learning (Karl Giberson).

A More Science-y Alternative

The intelligent design movement sees itself as the Christian-friendly alternative to the head-in-the-sand young earth creationism of Ken Ham and the Answers in Genesis crowd. Most ID proponents accept an old earth and attempt to support their position with evidence outside of a literal reading of Genesis. The Discovery Institute is the primary think tank for intelligent design.

And, as much as the Discovery Institute would like to be the middle ground between Nye and Ham, their aggressively anti-evolutionary agenda and constant negativity towards science make them allies of Ham, not Nye. As a result, bewildered young people will continue to wander out of the church wondering if they really have to choose between science and their faith. (Karl Giberson, How Creationism Hurts Christian Colleges – And Their Students)

This series is an overview of Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory, with discussion and my commentary. My goal is to examine intelligent design and look at the science behind the anti-evolution claims of the ID movement.


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.

The Ham/Nye Debate

The twitterverse was ON FIRE.

Snippy-snarky comments about Ken Ham or Bill Nye, links to related articles, quotes from the speakers …. I stand amazed in the presence of all those who can listen to a live event, be funny and do research simultaneously.

If you were on the Nye-side, you hashtagged creationdebate. If you were a Ham-fan, you were #ham on nye. It was sciency-theology-former debater-girl nirvana.

And in the middle of it all, this tweet:

Bored of this…can’t we just say God did it and get about feeding the poor?

Well… buzz kill.

 Why should we care?

  • Millennials (brought up in Christian homes) are leaving their faith in droves, and antagonism toward science is a primary reason.
  • Most evangelicals reject scientific evidence about the age of the universe and the development of life on earth.

Ken Ham, with the home-field advantage of his Creation Science Museum, ken ham and dino

bill-nye    challenged Bill Nye (the Science Guy) to debate this proposal:

“Is creationism a viable model of origins in today’s scientific world?”

 I did not have high hopes for this debate – Nye can be snarky and Ham can be smug. Fortunately, both reined it in. (Ham did deliver his signature line “where you there?” or its counterpart “you weren’t there” innumerable times, but without dipping it too deeply in smirk).

Nye, a science advocate, has been outspoken lately about teaching creationism to children. It is theists, specifically evangelicals, who are drawing the battle lines in state houses and with textbook companies. In order to stop those battles (which Nye wants), the hearts and minds of evangelicals must be won. Bill Nye is Not That Guy.

Ham spoke first and immediately his game plan for the debate was apparent. In slide after slide and point after point – through opening remarks, rebuttal, and Q&A time – belief in young earth creationism was equated with

  • belief in the Bible
  • trust in God
  • the plan of salvation
  • God’s image
  • morality (euthanasia, abortion, marriage)
  • the testimony of Jesus

Ham also equated belief in evolution and an old earth with atheism. In a Freudian slip, Ham used the word “secularist” instead of “evolutionist” during one of his rebuttals.  As an aside, Ham stated that Jesus is the way to salvation not young earth creationism, but overwhelmingly his arguments stated otherwise. (Ham has written previously in his blog that a specific Christian evolutionist theologian was categorically “not evangelical” and doubted that he was a Christian in any sense.

Regardless, in the debate Ham unequivocally defined Christianity by a belief in young earth creationism.

From the center of his 6,000 year-old-universe, Ham drew a line in the sand: Choose science or choose God.

And across the internet, like the residents of Whoville yelling and whooping with big banging noises trying to make themselves heard to the outside world, millions of Christians were shouting “It doesn’t have to be that way!”

whoville noise (2)

“We’re here! We’re here! We’re here!”


Following the debate, Karl Giberson tweeted

Ken Ham’s bizarre approach to creation makes it hard to have a serious conversation about why sensible people still think God is the creator

Yes it does, Dr. Giberson, yes it does.

My favorite quote of the night came during the Q&A time in a question posed to Nye: “Is there room for God in science?” Nye said this:

The head of the National Institutes of Health is a devout Christian, there are billions of people in the world who are devoutly religious, they (science and faith) have to be compatible because those same people embrace science. The exception is you, Mr. Ham.

Props to Nye (an agnostic) for acknowledging premier top-of-their-game  scientists who are also devout Christians.

Props also to Nye for his dogged adherence to the debate topic. Throughout the (almost) three hours Nye prefaced his evidence and his arguments with the debate proposal: is creationism a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era? Nye consistently reminded Ham and the audience that the value of a scientific model is its ability to predict and repeatedly asked Ham what the creationist model is able to predict.

The weakest point in Nye’s debate was his argument against a worldwide flood premised on the inability of an ancient shipwright to build a flood-waters worthy vessel of the magnitude described in Genesis. Again, Nye is not a believer, much less a theologian. There is strong evidence against a world-wide flood and “flood geology” (which Nye presented), but his discourse on ancient shipbuilding confounded his points.

Here are my highlights:

Ham had a three hour window of opportunity to lay out a science-evidenced-based rational for a young earth creationism model (as indicated by the debate topic). Instead, Ham spent the vast majority of his time in his initial presentation, his rebuttals, and the Q&A making the case that evolution and an ancient earth cannot be reconciled with belief in the Bible and the authority of God.

As a result, a lot of time was spent in philosophical discussion, with Ham saying you can’t believe in God and evolution and Nye saying well I know lots of people who do.nuh-uh-vs-yes-huh

Here are the primary points Ham made regarding creationism as a model:

  • Observational science versus historical science (a dichotomy coined by Ham).  The only valid scientific evidence is what we can see – right now. Since “you weren’t there” (Ham’s mantra), no conclusions can be made regarding any geological or biological event in the past. We cannot assume that natural processes we observe today have always been in place.
  • Because “you weren’t there” at the beginning, we must use the Bible timeline for earth history (6,000 years as defined by Ham, based on genealogies).
  • The universe is expanding “to show that God is big”.
  • 7,000 “kinds” of animals left the ark approximately 4,000 years ago. All living species are descended from those 7,000 “kinds”.
  • The world-wide flood caused continental drift

Nye’s primary points as to why creationism is not a viable model: species

  • We have visibly observable ice cores and tree rings demonstrating age far greater than 6,000 years. We have reliable and repeatable rock dating methods that demonstrate ancient age.
  • Considering the billions of animal species alive today, eleven entirely new animal species would have to emerge every single day if Ham’s timeline was accurate.
  • Valid science theories can predict. Evolution theory predicted where certain fossils would be found long before they were actually discovered.
  • There is no evidence to suggest that natural laws have changed.
  • Science is predictable and self-correcting. A single piece of evidence to support creationism as a viable model (for example, atomic clocks resetting) would, in Nye’s words, “change the world”.

I read through my favorited tweets from the debate. If you don’t want to watch the entire thing, I think these three sum it up quite nicely:

@peteenns: Ham comes clean: if Gen 1 is not literally true, the Gospel falls apart. Enter theologian please to help Ham with this. #nyevsham
@BrianZahnd: If it had been Francis Collins talking by himself for two hours I would have watched. #NyeHamDebate
@Arumi_kai: I kept waiting for Neil Degrasse Tyson to burst through the wall like the Kool-Aid guy and set up a third podium. #creationdebate

kool aid

Watch the Ham/Nye debate

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.

Big Tex, T-Rex, and the American Scientific Soul

big tex and trex mark in austinMaybe it was in the spirit of “Keep Austin Weird”: Big Tex and a T-Rex on a sunny day last September, marching together across the University of Texas campus.

Their destination (as well as the crowd of supporters following behind) was the State Board of Education’s hearing on the adoption of biology textbooks for Texas public schools.close up of big tex and trex

For decades, Texas has ruled textbook adoptions nationwide. Due to its size and large number of school districts, textbook publishers overwhelmingly sought to please Texas schools. icepocalypse aint texasWith the advent of customizable digital textbooks, this influence may soon decrease. But for now, the (partisan-elected) Texas School Board rules the day.

This past fall, the State Board held hearings to select the biology texts to be in use for the next ten years. Top publishers submitted fourteen books for review. The books were first given to a 28-member review committee selected by the state’s education commissioner.

So reviewers review and make recommendations to the board – makes sense, right?

Here’s the problem: six of the reviewers were known to reject the very basis of modern biology – evolution.

By November, the reviewers had submitted their reports and the State Board of Education voted to accept all fourteen submitted biology textbooks – with one caveat. The board’s approval of Miller and Levine’s Biology (published by Pearson Education and one of the nation’s most highly regarded texts), was contingent on an expert panel evaluating supposed “errors” found by one of the reviewers.

The “errors” in the book were about evolution and were raised by reviewer Ide P. Trotter who, incidentally, is named a “Darwin Skeptic” on the Creation Science Hall of Fame website.

Dr. Ron Wetherington, professor of evolutionary anthropology at Southern Methodist University responded with a point by point rebuttal of the “errors”, soon followed by a 13-page official rebuttal by the Pearson authors, Kenneth R. Miller and Joseph S. Levine. The three member panel subsequently appointed by the State Board to review the claimed “errors” rejected all of them and the Miller and Levine book was adopted without reservation.miller levine text cover

Dr. Kenneth Miller (one of the authors of the disputed biology text) was an expert witness in a similar but more extensive case in Dover, Pennsylvania during the fall of 2005. The issue in the Dover case was an attack on evolution to be sure, but primarily it was an effort to include the concept of “intelligent design” in public school science curriculum.

For the opponents of evolution in the Dover case, evolution was more than just a mistaken scientific idea – evolution was dangerous, destructive, and a threat to the soul of society and culture (Kenneth Miller, preface to Only a Theory).

Using the Dover case as his backdrop, Dr. Miller examines the fight against evolution and the support of intelligent design concepts in his book Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (Viking, 2008). In the preface, Dr. Miller states

There is indeed a soul at risk in America’s “evolution wars”, but it is not the cultural one that (William F.) Buckley sought to save. Rather, it is America’s scientific soul, its deep and long-standing embrace of discovery, exploration, and innovation, that is truly at risk.

The battle grounds are state capitals and courtrooms, but the battle lines are being drawn by Christians.

According to a December 2013 Pew poll, sixty percent of U.S. adults believe that humans have evolved over time.

But break the numbers down by religious groups, and a different trend emerges. Most white evangelical Protestants (64%) and half of black Protestants (50%) believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

This trend is unsettling:

The trajectory is not encouraging, especially as it runs in parallel with a steady increase in the evidence for evolution—evidence now piled so high that not even one evolutionary biologist at any of America’s research universities rejects the theory. Evolution is as widely accepted in biology departments as gravity is in physics departments. (Karl Giberson).

Giberson goes on to ask this important question:

So how is it that 64 percent of “white evangelical Protestants”, an unusually powerful and wealthy demographic, remains so strongly opposed to evolution?

My question is broader: why are evangelicals as a whole opposed to evolution? Why is denying evolution a written or unwritten tenant of most evangelical churches’ statements of faith?

Why should we care?

fraction 3 out of 5Because three out of every five young Christians are disconnecting from church after age 15.

The Barna Group has extensively studied the “millennials” demographic, and they are leaving – in droves. Six reasons for leaving emerged from the Barna research, including “churches come across as antagonistic to science”.

Karl Giberson recounts how science professors at evangelical colleges work, often with little to no support from their university or denomination, to instill in students that faith and science are not incompatible. These professors hope that these young evangelicals will go forth as leaders in their faith communities and persuade their fellow evangelicals that “evolution is not a lie from hell”.

But instead scientifically informed young evangelicals became so alienated from their home churches that they walked away, taking their enlightenment with them.

Introducing a New Series!

This post launches my new blog series. Each posting will be a discussion of Kenneth R. Miller’s Only a Theory, with my comments and analysis. By the way – Kenneth Miller is a Christian. His book Finding Darwin’s God is an excellent examination of evolution and its compatibility with faith and belief in God. I love both of these books, and because Dr. Miller was so recently in the midst of the Texas textbook adoption case, I think you’ll enjoy this series.

I hope you’ll follow along. Please pass the posts along to others!

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).


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.


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 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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.