Friday, February 28, 2014

The Humanity of Jesus

This past Sunday, instead of attending the fourth annual rendition of The Justice Conference, I delivered the teaching at my home church, Antioch. I spoke about the 'Humanity of Jesus,' explaining the orthodox Christian understanding of the Personhood and dual natures of Jesus, and musing about some of the reasons for His de-emphasizing (prior to His crucifixion and resurrection) His deity in favor of His humaity. I hope you find it useful.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Have a Blessed Earth Day!

On Earth Day 2013, I received a timely question from a dear friend. He asked for my thoughts on two competing ideas within Christendom (actually, Evangelicalism) today; the first is that we ought to be working to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth, whereas the second sees our role as limited to "saving drowning souls from the water." Here's my response:


The "saving drowning souls from a sinking ship" idea is a false one. It comes to us not from historic Christianity, but from 19th-century revivalism. Historically, Christians have remained uncertain as to whether the New Heavens and New Earth should be understood as entirely new creations or a redeeming of the existing ones. Either way, the exclusive attention to saving human souls for eternity future is only a very thin slice of the fully-orbed Gospel of the redemption Christ initiated at His first coming. To be sure, that the redemption that Christ came to institute includes the saving of human souls from eternal Hell and for eternal relationship with Him is a huge deal, and one in which we humans ought to take great interest. But Jesus' understanding--and that of the Apostles--was that all of creation was to share in that redemption.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not so much in Heaven (much less only in Heaven in a future existence) as from Heaven, and in the prayer He modeled for His disciples, Jesus begins with what should be the desire of all of His followers--that His kingdom would truly come to reign on Earth as it is in Heaven.

Col. 1:16-19 makes this point very clear: "For by Him (Christ) all things were created, in the heavens and on Earth... All things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together... For it was the Father's good pleasure for all the fulness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on Earth or things in heaven." The same Greek word is used for "all things" throughout this passage, and the "all things" created by Him are the very same "all things" redeemed by and for Him through the blood of His cross.

There are any number of reasons--and lines of reasoning--to suggest that Christians of all people ought to be leading the way in taking care of the planet and the creatures (including other humans) that inhabit it. Ours ought to be the loveliest landscapes, gardens, and house plants, since all that God created brings glory to Him. We ought to be the ones standing up for those of God's creatures that are being harmed, exploited, or run into extinction.

Indeed, we are the ones who have the greatest logical grounding for conservation. Where the secular conservationist ends up appealing for the value of other species either for their potential benefit for mankind or in a sort of vague "just because," Christianity finds intrinsic value in all life (and in the inanimate parts of creation) because they are created by God, He values them, they bring Him glory, and He commanded us to steward them.

It is just plain hypocritical for Christians to claim to know and love the Creator while exploiting, abusing, or remaining apathetic to, His creation. This is evident to a younger generation, who want very little to do with a form of Christianity that cares only about a future eternity, but who can wholeheartedly embrace true Christianity, which recognizes that God is passionate about all of His creation in the here and now.

While the 'image of God' in which humankind was created entails a number of things (rationality, morality, creativity...), in its immediate context (in Gen. 1:26), the image of God in us is specifically tied to our dominion of the creation. We are to steward the creation the way God would, which is faithfully, compassionately, patiently, sacrificially...

I could go on and on, but maybe that's enough for now. Happy Earth Day, in the name of the Creator and Savior, Jesus Christ!


Monday, April 15, 2013

Headin' North

Last week--and just in time, as it turns out--I captured another Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) and deployed a tracking device on it. Specifically, it received a solar-recharging platform terminal transponder (generally reffered to as a PTT), which I affixed as a backpack using Teflon ribbon straps.

Rough-legs winter in the northern United States, but breed (primarily on cliffs) in the Arctic of both North America and Eurasia. The goals of this deployment include learning more about timing and routes of migration, whether this species is faithful to the same wintering territory from one year to the next, and where the individuals that winter in Oregon breed in the Arctic.

This individual was the third this winter on which I've deployed a PTT. Like the other two, she is a female that hatched in 2012. As such, she's likely too young to breed this year, which is why she was still lingering here in the south (adults all seem to have left by now). But while the other two are still hanging out where I captured them, this bird headed north the day after tagging. She's already north of Calgary, Alberta, and I can't wait to see where she ends up.

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Near Score of Eagles

I had a couple of good days last week, days spent in a helicopter searching for nests of Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) in eastern Oregon (and a sliver of western Idaho). Such a search involves examining every rock and tree that could harbor the large stick nests that these eagles build; mostly, it means flying past and looking closely at a whole lot of rimrock and cliffs. The flights were timed to find females incubating eggs, in which situation they are very unlikely to fly, preferring instead to remain hunkered down and unmoving. (I'll fly again in late May or early June to determine the outcome at the nests found active last week.)

Along with the pilot--Paul McIlvain--I saw a good variety of wildlife. This included Mule Deer, Pronghorn, Bighorn Sheep, and Elk. The spike bulls and some of the 4- and 5-point Elk still carried their antlers, but the largest bulls had just dropped theirs. We saw a Raccoon sleeping in an abandoned hawk nest in the top of a Cottonwood tree, and we saw a huge black bear (on the Idaho side), one of the brown ones that make up about 30% of the Idaho population but which are much rarer in Oregon. We also watched a surprised Bobcat frantically seeking cover among the boulders at the base of a rimrock. (Cats are notoriously difficult to see from the air, as they generally find sufficient shelter at the first sign of an approaching helicopter.)

As for eagles, we found 19 active nests in the area we surveyed, an excellent total for a rather moderate and unassuming area of land. Some were associated with the Snake River and the abundant variety of potential prey that inhabits the area around such a watercourse. Others were in drier country where the only obvious prey base is Chuckar and Hungarian Partridge, both of which are introduced (non-native, and thus not historically-available) game bird species. Most of the eagle nests were on rimrocks or other large cliffs, but some were on smaller exposed rock outcroppings; one was on the wall of an old quarry, and one was in a Ponderosa Pine.

It's rough work, but somebody has to do it. (See if you can find the nest and eagle in the photograph below.)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Coop Copped in Coop (Again)

This Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) was caught by my daughter Aurora yesterday in our pigeon coop. Though Aurora was at the time only ten minutes out of bed, she astutely noticed that the hawk was already banded. And therein lies a tale. This same hawk was captured in our pigeon coop on March 15, 2008. At that time, I wrote a post about her called "Coop Recap," for she was already wearing a band. She first crossed our path (she first crossed the threshhold of our pigeon coop) on March 1, 2004, when--as yet unbanded--she wore the plumage of a young bird (she had hatched in 2003).

Recognizing that she is now nearly 10 years old, Aurora wondered what the known longevity of this species was. She consulted the Birds of North America species account, and found that the oldest wild Cooper's Hawk--attested to by band recoveries--was (at the time of the writing of that account) 12 years of age. But then I went on line and accessed the Bird Banding Lab's updated longevity records. I found that a Cooper's Hawk banded in California was found (recently dead) when 20 years and 4 months old!

Of course, we're all hoping that this big female will pay us at least one more visit, some 11 years from now...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Chromosome 2: A Response

In the last post, I discussed the fact that evolutionists appeal to human Chromosome 2--and its similarity to chimp Chromosomes 2a and 2b--as the 'smoking gun' of evolution, the proof that these two species shared a common ancestor. In this post, I want to lay out a response to this claim, one that involves examining the evidence more closely (not settling for a superficial conclusion). And in this regard, the 'smoking gun' analogy could not be more apt.

Let me explain. I don't really know the early history of the use of the phrase 'smoking gun.' I assume that there was a point at which it was used in a straightforward way, to mean a 'clearcut case,' an instance where one could easily arrive at the correct conclusion simply by glimpsing an evidential snapshot. The murder was committed by the guy standing over the body and holding the smoking gun.

But by now, the phrase is more often used to make just the opposite point. I wish I had a dollar for every detective story that turns upon the fact that the person caught holding the smoking gun is not, in fact, the one guilty of the murder. Erle Stanley Gardner was especially fond of this narrative device, and so at least every other Perry Mason drama involved Perry's eschewing the superficial evidence and digging deeply enough to discover what really happened.

Of course, Sherlock Holmes' famous dictum, "I never theorize before having all the facts," also applies here. Modern evolutionary theory is a conclusion that seems to accomodate any and all facts, even those that--to a more reasoned and skeptical observer--ought to undermine it (and thus to suggest more profitable research aimed at discovering the truth about life's history).

So, just to be clear, let's lay out a typical 'smoking gun' scenario...

An off-duty policeman is walking past the front of a house when he hears a scream, followed by a single gunshot. He rushes to the front door and bursts through to find a man holding a smoking gun and kneeling over the corpse of a woman with a single gunshot wound. The man protests that he is innocent and that he suprised and fired at another man (who, he claimed, was the actual murderer), but the conscientious policeman arrests him and hauls him off to pokey.

The detective for the defense (whether Perry Mason, Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, or any other crime investigator worthy of our respect) digs a bit deeper, and finds the following:
The policeman admits that he originally thought the scream he heard was that of a man, not a woman.

The bullet in the corpse does not match the ballistics of the smoking gun in the hand of the accused, and

The bullet that does match the smoking gun is lodged in the doorframe of the back door of the house, which was open when the policeman entered the front door.
The accused is released from jail, and his now-validated testimony is used to try to apprehend the actual murderer.

So how does this relate to human Chromosome 2 and its similarity to chimp Chromosomes 2a and 2b?

The common-ancestry scenario proposed by evolutionists depends upon ignoring the extreme improbability of several of its steps. I'll mention three of the most important.

First, although broken chromosomes can fuse, this particular fusion would have had to occur at the place where it is least expected. Broken chromosomes result in sticky ends, which can fuse to other sticky ends (of other broken chromosomes). But such broken chromosomes will almost never fuse with complete, intact chromosomes, and preventing such fusion is a main function of the telomeres. Had human Chromosome 2 evolved by natural processes from two intact chromosomes (in a being ancestral to chimps and humans), it would have been either through a fusion of two telomeres (acknowledged even by evolutionists as virtually impossible) or through fusion of a telomere with a sticky end of a chromosome broken very near the telomere. While not impossible, this latter scenario is extremely unlikely.

This first, unlikely step must not only have occurred, but it must (on an evolutionary view) have occurred not within one of the millions of somatic (body) cells but within the sperm or egg cell. (Eventually, of course, the evolutionary view has this rare event somehow occurring in both gametes--within a single individual--since this is the present-day condition. But evolutionists seem unconcerned by this amassing of improbabilities.) When the chromosome number of one gamete differs from that of the other, the most common results are a nonviable zygote, an embryo that lives, but with a significant deformity or disease, and a viable but infertile offspring. None of these scenarios produce the new, better-adapted species insisted upon by evolutionary theory.

Third, and assuming for the sake of argument that the first two extremely unlikely events took place, this change in the chromosome of a single individual would have had to have swept through the population (the hypothetical population of this ancestral form). Such a "selective sweep" is a favorite fiction of evolutionists, a fiction necessary to their larger project but one for which there is absolutely no evidence, and for which any argument is viciously circular. Generally, the referrent of this selective sweep claim is a single gene mutation, and applying it (in this case) to such a more significant event as a change in chromosome number ought to require (from the evolutionist) a greater level of evidential or logical support. No such support is offered, of course.

In our smoking-gun murder scenario, the problematic evidence came from the wrong scream, the wrong bullet in the body, and the right bullet in the wrong place. In our Chromosome 2 scenario, the problematic evidence includes (at a minimum) three extremely unlikely events--a fusion involving a telomere, its occurence and viability within a gamete, and its sweeping from this first individual through a significant part of a population. The common-ancestry explanation for the origin of human Chromosome 2--while superficially attractive--fails upon closer inspection. The truth about human origins lies elsewhere.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Chromosome 2: The Smoking Gun?

As I have shared in numerous posts, in my long career in biology I have found no evidential support for the theory of biological evolution. Anything but a superficial examination of the fossil record finds it completely at odds with what evolutionary theory requires. Living and extinct life forms remain in hierarchical groups separated by vast gaps missing from the record of life on Earth. What's more, the 'inconceivably vast' (Darwin's words) number of the species to which evolutionists appeal for bridging those gaps remain not only undiscovered and hypothetical but also non-sensical and absurd.

Evolutionary change is not found in the fossil record, but neither is it found in real life. Every generation of living things produces in the next generation the same species, and that's the way it is. Even those still committed today to some form of naturalistic explanation for the diversity of life--and to some form of common ancestry--are abandoning the neo-Darwinian view (natural selection wotking on genetic mutation to produce gradual change) as outdated, naive, and irrelevant to whatever the real story turns out to be.

The revolution in biochemistry has offered evidence of great similarities among all living things--in elemental make-up, in protein composition, in anatomical and morphological themes, and in genetic profiles. But again, a closer look at each of these levels yields the conclusion of unbridged hierarchies between the many different types of living things.

In the rapidly dwindling set of evidences appealed to by the person who would--in the face of so much contrary evidence--continue to argue for macroevolution and common descent, the last remaining bastion is the argument that specific similarities in the genetic make-up of humans and other primates necessitate an evolutionary explanation.

I have recently been asked by two different folks to address one such argument, one that has been called the 'smoking gun' (the proof) of human evolution. This argument involves the similarity between the chromosomes of humans and those of chimps (and bonobos) and specifically focuses on the human chromome 2. Let me lay out the evolutionist's case.

The chromosomes of humans and those of chimps are very similar. They can be matched up in a nearly one-to-one correspondence right across the board, except that where humans have 23 pairs of chromosome, chimps have 24. But wait! Human chromosome 2 has very similar counterparts in two much shorter chimp chromosomes, dubbed 2a and 2b. What's more, rather than the single centromere common to most other chromosomes, human chromosome 2 has two centromeres (one of which doesn't function as a normal centromere) and an internal telomere sequence (between the centromeres) that closely corresponds to the expected sequences from the chimp genetic material.

Volia! What need have we of further witnesses? Isn't this evidence as good as a smoking gun? Surely this fusion in the human line of two chromosomes observed in chimps proves that the two species shared a common ancestor (who exhibited the condition of today's chimp rather than that of humans).

In the next post, I'll offer a response.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Theology of Multiverse Theory

A friend recently emailed me to ask about multiverse theory. His question was whether there is anything to it at all or if it is simply an attempt to escape the clear theological implications of the 20th century recognition that the universe came into being a recent time ago and is amazingly designed to make possible life on Earth. Here's my response...

Dear D____:

The answer to your question is actually a bit complex, and getting it right involves identifying several aspects of the issue. As you are well aware, the discoveries in astrophysics and cosmology of the past several decades have provided stunning support for the claims of the Bible and of Judeo-Christianity. General relativity has become the most rigorously tested—and verified—idea in all of physics, which leads to the almost universal acceptance among scientists of so-called big bang cosmology and the space/time theorem, the recognition that the universe began, and powerful scientific support for the cosmological argument for God’s existence. Moreover, the teleological (design) argument for God’s existence has likewise found a great ally in modern science, with the development of the anthropic principle, the recognition that the universe is extremely fine-tuned for human life on Earth.

The astronomer or physicist today who would remain an atheist needs to explain away, then, in naturalistic terms, three things—the beginning of the universe, the fundamental fine-tuning of the universe (that is, the hundreds of characteristics of the universe itself that demonstrate design for life), and the environmental fine-tuning (the far greater number of identified characteristics of our more local environment—galaxy, solar system, and such).

Appealing to some form of multiverse theory is the claim of choice for many scientists who seek to deny the Creator. And (as you suggest) some forms of multiverse theory are completely speculative (and even absurd), with no evidential or theoretical support, beyond the possibility of testing, and likely offered only in hopes of denying the theological implications of the available evidence from the actual universe. Into this category are those bizarre theories referred to (by Max Tegmark, a physicist at MIT) as Level III and Level IV multiverse models. There is really no need to describe or discuss these.

But the same cannot be said of Level I and Level II models. Both sets enjoy at least some theoretical support, and some form of Level I multiverse is almost certainly true. While some advocates of these models may be motivated by a desire to explain away the beginning and design of the universe, the models themselves are worth describing, so that we can discuss their actual theological implications.

It is somewhat of a misnomer to call Level I models ‘multiverse’ models. What is meant by a Level I multiverse is just a single huge universe, one much larger than the portion of it that is observable from our position in it. It is pretty well accepted among astrophysicists that there is more to the universe than what we can see. This is because all of the available evidence indicates that there was a brief period of hyper-inflation early in the universe’s history. (To put it another way, the evidence has led scientists to focus their research on a very narrow suite of big-bang models that remain viable, and these are all inflationary models.) Inflation solves three problems of more basic big bang models (the flatness problem, the horizon problem, and the monopole problem.)

It is important to point out that a Level I multiverse does not explain away the beginning of the universe—its origin is still the big bang singularity of 13.7 billion years ago. Likewise, it does not explain away the fundamental fine-tuning of the universe, as the same laws of physics would apply to all corners of such a multiverse. Moreover, the environmental fine-tuning would be explained away only if the Level I multiverse were nearly infinitely large. All of the available evidence (relating to the ‘geometry’ of the universe) argues against such an infinitely large multiverse. For all these reasons (and others), the existence of a Level I multiverse does not offer any hope for the person intent on denying God’s existence.

Level II models involve the existence of a vast number of ‘bubble’ universes, each with different laws of physics. In most such models, inflation occurs before the forming of our (or any other) universe. The theoretical support for some form of Level II multiverse comes from certain very specific variations of string theory, but there is almost no actual evidence supporting these models. Indeed, the available evidence supports inflation’s occurring within (not prior to) our universe. While the existence—against all evidence—of an infinite number of other bubble universes would help explain away the fundamental fine-tuning of our universe, it would not do away with the problem of the environmental fine-tuning.

Nor would it explain away the beginning of our universe or undermine the cosmological argument for God’s existence. This is the direct conclusion from the relatively-recent BVG theorem. (This proof was developed by Arvind Borde, Alexander Vilenkin, and Alan Guth, and takes its name from the first letter of their last names.) According to the BVG, any universe that expands on average—as does an inflationary multiverse—must have a beginning in the finite past. In other words, rather than undermining the cosmological argument, Level II multiverse models make this argument more robust.

I’m all for continued research in these areas, which will undoubtedly result in a better understanding of the creation in which we live. The scientists involved likely have a variety of motives, some of them good and some of them less so. Those seeking to find intellectual support for their denial of God are more to be pitied than censored, though, since the universe in which we all live really is the one accurately described by the Bible, the exquisitely-designed creation of an all-powerful, loving Creator.

Thanks for the question.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Creation, Church, and Community

My wife and I had the great privilege recently to enjoy a weekend retreat (in Texas’ hill country) during which we interacted with the topic of creation care in the life of the church. The theme of the weekend was “Creation, Church, and Community,” and the speakers were Eugene Peterson (well-known pastor, theologian, and translator/editor of The Message) and Peter and Miranda Harris, founders of A Rocha, a Christian conservation organization working in 19 countries. We were invited by Tom Rowley, A Rocha’s U.S. Director, who moved to Bend a bit over a year ago.

It was a real treat to be among passionate, like-minded folks, dedicated Christ-followers who rightly understand God’s love for His creation and His expectations of His people to join Him in caring for it.

Caring for creation is, of course, the first commandment of God to His people recorded in Scripture. This commandment was reiterated, and never rescinded. Jesus’ carried the theme through, repeatedly describing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth—which His incarnation initiated—as vineyards and properties left by the master to the care of his stewards.

As one who has worked life-long in the field of conservation biology, I recognize (with the Harrises and others) the need to work together with those who don’t acknowledge the Creator. At the same time, I realize that it is those of us who know and worship Him who have the greatest justification for engaging in protection of this planet and the people and other living things that inhabit it. The secular naturalists with whom I often work offer reasons for caring about conservation, but those reasons are anthropocentric, short-term, and ultimately unsatisfying.

Care for the environment is, of course, a justice issue. And that is in at least two ways. First, the creation itself—the soils, water, atmosphere, and all living creatures—has great worth, and whenever we treat it with less respect than it warrants we commit an act (and betray an attitude) of injustice. Secondly, it is the marginalized and voiceless people of the majority world—those living in poverty—who directly experience the results of environmental degradation. (Whereas we have a mediated relationship with the environment—insulated by our air conditioning, gated communities, and other comforts—the global majority have an unmediated relationship with the environment.) So poor stewardship of the Earth leads directly to harm for the people God created and whose care He has entrusted to His followers.

But if God loves His whole creation, and expects His people to care for it, why has the church—particularly in America—abdicated its role of good stewardship? (Of the many countries in which A Rocha has attempted to establish Christian creation care centers or projects, it is in the U.S. that this biblical message has faced the most obstacles.) Harris shared that each nation’s church has its own barriers to effective conservation, and identified some of those specific to America and its churches. These include our characteristic materialism and consumerism (which is exacerbated by the mixed blessing of abundant natural resources and space), a business-model approach to church life, a growing skepticism toward science, and the politicization of environmental issues. I would add as factors a dubious eschatology and an equally erroneous modern understanding of the doctrines of creation and fall. More deeply, perhaps, there is (as a distinctive of American evangelicalism) a spiritualization of the gospel—a narrow focus on the saving of souls for the next life that disregards Jesus’ holistic message of the redemption of the entire creation through His in-breaking kingdom.

There is great hope though—embodied by folks like those that came together in Texas—that the church is returning to a right understanding of God’s call upon us to care for His creation. I’m excited about the work that A Rocha and others are initiating and by the increasing frequency of discussions within the church of this neglected issue. I am especially heartened by the passion of a younger generation of Christ-followers who seem to innately recognize that to claim to love God while at the same time disrespecting His creation is hypocrisy of the highest order.

Peter Harris will be a pre-conference speaker at the Justice Conference in Philadelphia in February. I also recommend his books, Under the Bright Wings (which recounts the early years of A Rocha in Portugal) and Kingfisher’s Fire, which carries the story of A Rocha to more recent times.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Faith and Apologetics

Last Sunday, I delivered the sermon at my home church of Antioch (in Bend, Oregon). It was the fourth of a five-week series on Faith. I chose to talk about how Christians have historically understood faith and how the concept has been mischaracterized (within the church as well as by unbelievers) in our day. Have a listen!

Rick Gerhardt :: Faith & Apologetics from Antioch Church on Vimeo

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Zonotrichia Trifecta

Even though there hasn't been a single fall weather front move through yet, there has been a real upsurge in avian activity in our yard. The Townsend's Solitaires have been staking out their winter territories for a couple of weeks now, and we've had Red-breasted Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees looking like settling in. This week brought the first Juncos, a male Spotted Towhee and an unseen Varied Thrush. White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) are here in numbers, but raising a mist net yesterday led to the discovery of one young each of the rarer congeners, Golden-crowned Sparrow (Z. atricapilla) and White-throated Sparrow (Z. albicollis). Golden-crowneds often pass through, staying for a week in the fall and another in the spring; it's only once every few years, however, that we hear or see a White-throated.*

Here's a photo of the young White-crowned Sparrow, the third member of our Zonotrichia trifecta...

*Well, actually, we hear one twice every day, as its song, "Poor old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody," is the ten-o'clock tone on the bird clock in our living room.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Denial Among Astrophysicists

There was an op-ed article in the NY Times yesterday titled "Alone in the Void." It was by Adam Frank, a well-credentialed professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester. In it, he articulated his (apparently recent) realization that we humans have no hope of ever getting outside our solar system (to escape our own planet or to seed any number of others). What Frank is coming to terms with is the (rather obvious) fact that the technologies that make crossing vast distances of space--in the plethora of television and movie series like Star Trek and Star Wars--are fiction and that the limitations to such travel are not technological or intellectual (and thus susceptible to overcoming) but established by the laws of physics (and thus intractable).

Then today in the local newspaper (The Bend Bulletin), expert solar observer and amateur astronomer Bill Logan writes an article entitled "Why we haven't heard back from Andromeda (or anywhere else)." He, too interacts with the straightforward, intractable physical limitations--this time with communications in mind--imposed by the vast distances between stars and galaxies. Logan's article also mentions such problems as the ephemeral nature of human language and the tendency of intelligent civilizations to self-destruct:
Languages rarely last more than 4,000 years on Earth, so will we understand their [the Andromedans'] message if they answer? Likewise, if we heard an intelligent signal from Andromeda, could we send a message back? Would the civilization in Andromeda still be there?
I should applaud each of these experts for their willingness to temper the fictional conclusions shared by many moderns about life elsewhere in the universe and our future ability to interact with such life. But my overarching reaction is continued amazement at the collective inability or unwillingness (even of astronomers and physicists) to acknowledge the simpler, straightforward explanation that has for decades now garnered all of the empirical support.

Attempting to travel to other parts of space is a futile enterprise, and listening for signals from extraterrestrial intelligent life is a waste of time, for the same, well-supported reason: Earth is likely the only place in the universe capable of supporting intelligent life.

One is likely to get little argument about the claim that the single most significant scientific discovery of the last hundred years is general relativity and the realization that all of the matter, energy, space, and time of the universe had a beginning a finite time ago. But for many, the next most significant advance of that century is the anthropic principle, the discovery that the universe itself (its laws and physical constants) and our more local environment (galaxy system, galaxy, solar system, sun, Earth, moon, other planets, etc.) exhibit hundreds of characteristics that fall within very narrow ranges with the apparent goal of providing for human life on Earth. Even the vastness of the universe--the existence of 100 million trillion stars--is, as it turns out, necessary for the existence of life on Earth (rather than the 'waste of space' postulated by the characters in Carl Sagan's Contact).

The following acknowledgements of the design of the universe for life are now quite dated, which makes me wonder all the more that so many folks opining today seem blissfully unaware of this discovery.
There is for me powerful evidence that there is something going on behind it all... It seems as though somebody has fine-tuned nature's numbers to make the universe... The impression of design is overwhelming. (Astrophysicist Paul Davies, 1988)

One would have to conclude either that the features of the universe invoked in support of the Anthropic Principle are only coincidences or that the universe was indeed tailor-made for life. I will leave it to the theologians to ascertain the identity of the tailor. (Cosmologist Bernard Carr, 1979)

It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us. (Stephen Hawking, 1988)

As we survey all the evidence, the thought insistently arises that some supernatural agency--or rather, Agency--must be involved. Is it possible that suddenly, without intending to, we have stumbled upon scientific proof of the existence of a Supreme Being? Was it God who stepped in and so providentially crafted the cosmos for our benefit? (Astronomer George Greenstein, 1988)

Astronomy leads to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say "supernatural") plan. (Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arno Penzias, 1992)
Now, while these men danced around the theological implications of these discoveries (and some, like Hawking, dedicated the rest of their careers to seeking explanations that would avoid those implications), what they each acknowledged unambiguously is that the evidence suggests that the universe itself and the Earth in particular exhibit characteristics for life support that are unimaginably improbable.

Today, attempts to get around the theological implications of the anthropic principle focus on postulating an infinite number of other universes (each with different physical laws and constants), with the inhabitants of our universe having won the cosmic (actually, trans-cosmic) lottery. But even these explanations do not address the environmental anthropic parameters--the characteristics of our galaxy, solar system, etc. that make life on Earth possible.

While I understand the a-theological motivation to explain away the implications of the anthropic principle, what I can't understand is how so many physicists and astronomers can carry on as though the anthropic discovery had never been made.

Monday, July 9, 2012

What to make of the Higgs Boson

[I've had more than one person ask me what they should make of the news (from last week) about the discovery of the Higgs boson. Here's my response to one of them.]

Hi J_____:

Well, yes, this is pretty exciting stuff. Ever since physicists realized that there were particles smaller--and more fundamental--than protons, neutrons, and electrons, the race has been on to identify the different kinds of these particles. The discovery of them is largely theoretical (they cannot be directly seen), but predictions are made that can be tested in huge particle accelerators (like the Large Hadron Collider, which figures prominently in the recent discoveries).

Successful predictions and classification of a number of these fundamental particles has led to a working model (usually referred to as the standard particle theory), and this model predicts (indeed, seems to depend upon) the existence of a superparticle called the Higgs boson (boson being a class of such particles and Peter Higgs being a leading theoretical physicist who first predicted this particle's existence). It is 'super' because it plays a central role in determining the mass and other characteristics of many of the other particles. The Higgs boson is predicted to be free of either electrical or color charge, and its mass has previously been narrowed down to a relatively small range. It is within this range that the recent particle-bombardment tests have been occurring.

I believe that a news release with a research update was all along scheduled for July 4 (irrespective of what the update would be). As that date neared, rumors flew that the announcement would be that evidence for the HB had been found. (Remember, up until now, its existence was only theoretical.) Evidence would have been very positive, but physicists were doubtful that discovery would be claimed (discovery requiring a greater level of conformity to predictions). However, both sets of researchers obtained the necessary level of conformity to predictions, and the announcement was, in fact, of the tentative discovery of the HB.

All this means is that the standard particle model has gained a much greater level of support. Had the HB eluded physicists (had predictive tests not yielded positive results), then eventually a different model would have been required. Yesterday's news means that physicists have probably been on the right track all along.

Theologically/metaphysically, this discovery doesn't really have much bearing. The Higgs boson--like all of the other fundamental particles, like all matter, energy, time, and space--is a created part of this universe, and functions according to physical laws put in place by the Creator. One nickname for the HB--the 'God particle'--is potentially misleading (giving naturalists/atheists the misunderstanding that discovery of this particle might somehow explain away the need for God). The HB is indeed of central importance (according to the standard model) to the workings of the other fundamental particles, and thus--like God--lies behind everything else. Additionally--again, like God--the HB is difficult to detect; it had (rightfully) attained a sort of 'holy grail' status, its discovery being the virtual proof of the accuracy of the model. But where God is necessary and uncreated, the HB is definitely contingent and created; indeed its contingency is part of its elusiveness.

So again, pretty heady stuff, but without much implication for the larger conclusions of the past 100 years of astronomy/physics... that the universe is the creation of a good, personal, necessary, self-existent, transcendent, superintelligent, superpowerful Creator. With the discovery of the Higgs boson and the further validation of standard particle theory, the cosmological and teleological arguments for God's existence are as strong as ever.

Hope you're well.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Justice and the Environment

So here's the Vimeo of the presentation I gave on "Justice and the Environment" at the Justice Conference in Portland, Oregon this last February. I had a very interesting and attractive powerpoint presentation showing on the screen behind me, but the cameraman chose to keep the camera on me. Apologies for that.

Rick Gerhardt: “Justice and the Environment – A Worldview Perspective.” from The Justice Conference on Vimeo.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Ancient Cuttlefish Ink

Follow this link to a summary of exciting recent research in which the ink of a 160-million-year-old fossil cephalapod was found to be intact. Here's the important bit:
The finding -- in an extremely rare case of being able to study organic material that is hundreds of millions of years old -- suggests that the ink-screen escape mechanism of cephalopods -- cuttlefish, squid and octopuses -- has not evolved since the Jurassic period, and that melanin could be preserved intact in the fossils of a range of organisms.
Of course, my take on this discovery is slightly different than that of most of the folks involved in it. I share their excitement at the truly astonishing half of this--it is wonderful that this pigment could be so well-preserved from so long ago as to be susceptible to analysis. This analysis has already led to valuable insights, and the success in this particular case offers hope that other compounds may be preserved and open to testing from organisms that have long ceased to walk the Earth (er, swim the planet's seas).

The other aspect of this is the recognition that this inky compound is identical to that of modern cuttlefish, that, as the study's coauthor John Simon has it,
It's close enough that I would argue that the pigmentation in this class of animals has not evolved in 160 million years. The whole machinery apparently has been locked in time and passed down through succeeding generations of cuttlefish. It's a very optimized system for this animal and has been optimized for a long time.
This seems to be an unexpected result to the evolutionists involved, but it is, frankly, completely in line with all other relevant evidence and thus no surprise to those who have not been misled to embrace evolutionism.

Truly, this system (not only the inky compound but the entire set of related anatomy, physiology, and behavior) is--and always has been--optimized. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that having such a system is--and always has been--a part of what it means to belong to this group of organisms. To put it in empirical terms, there is no evidence that there ever existed squids with partial ink-screen systems; nor is there any evidence that any cephalod species ever lost its ink-screen system. The really interesting question is this: why would any rational person expect to find any evolution in such a system (as the researchers quoted clearly did)? And the answer is that they have been indoctrinated with a world-view--evolutionism--that has no basis in evidence or reason.

Today's squid--just like the squid of Jurassic times--arose fully-formed, fully-adapted for its time on Earth and its role in the ecology of which it is--or was--a part. The default understanding (throughout human history, and certainly throughout Western history for which we have the record) of such adaptation is a teleological one, one of design. It is only within the last 160 years that it has become popular to deny design and purpose as the explanation for such optimization and adaptation. And the price for such denial is great: it involves both the need to ignore the actual evidence of the fossil record in favor of a mischaracterization thereof, and it involves ignoring the top-down approach to studying organisms that makes anatomy, physiology, taxonomy (and virtually every other discipline) reasonable.

Simply put, the only reason these researchers could be surprised that an optimized system is found both in ancient cephalapods and modern ones is because they have been taught to view science in a design- and purpose-less way (that is, through a neo-Darwinian lens) that flies in the face both of evidence and reason.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Houston RTB

I spent this past weekend in Houston, Texas. I was there as the guest of Larry Karasevich, president of the Houston chapter of Reasons To Believe. I took in an Astros game Friday eve (they beat the reigning world champion St. Louis Cards 5-4). On Saturday morning, I spoke to about 35 folks at the monthly meeting of RTB, taking them through all of the arguments and evidence offered in favor of macroevolution, showing them the fallacies of the arguments and abundance of contrary evidence. It was an ambitious task, but a sharp group (I'll share the audio here when I receive it). Saturday evening, I spoke about apologetics issues and tactics at a dinner meeting of some of the chapter leadership (and spouses) at The Black Labrador (an English pub, chosen to avoid the crowds at other Cinco de Mayo venues). Sunday morning, I preached--at the Fellowship of Champions--on the Resurrection and the role of evidence and reason in the Christian faith. After the service, I did a Q & A for a good number of folks who stayed. A whirlwind trip, but well worth my while.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Multiple Adams and Eves?

[I've posted below the response I gave to an email question about the claim--made by theistic evolutionists at the BioLogos site--that the human species did not begin as a single pair but as a population.]

Dear R______:

Your question was whether science had proved as impossible the claim--made by Christians, Jews, and Muslims--that mankind descended from two original humans, Adam and Eve. In particular, you implied that three methods of assessing genetic diversity (as related in a BioLogos post) prove that humans alive today exhibit too much genetic diversity to trace to a single couple.

First of all, let me point out that there is no question of 'proof' here, in either direction. Science doesn't work that way, though the BioLogos folks may not understand such issues. (I, too, am a biologist, and never during my scientific training did I receive any instruction in the philosophy of science, even a basic understanding of what science is, what it can and cannot do. I believe that my experience is the norm today, and so Venema and Falk can be excused for a naive understanding on this issue.)

On large issues in the historical sciences (such as this one), there will generally be a wealth of evidence available and a variety of methods for assessing this evidence. In addition, there will be a wealth of relevant evidence as yet undiscovered. On such questions, science uses abductive reasoning, arguing to the best explanation of all the relevant available evidence. Where that task is difficult--often because the available evidence leads to contradictory conclusions--the good scientist seeks more, better, and clearer evidence and/or methods. And in such cases (even more than usual), the good scientist remains humble, seeking truth rather than trying to prove a theory he holds a priori. When a scientist takes a strong position despite such contradictory evidence, that dogmatism is usually an indication that he lacks the objectivity that accompanies scientific discovery. This sort of dogmatism is apparent in Venema and Falk's article.

At present, there are two lines of evidence that rather clearly point to this... that all humans alive today can be traced to a single female ancestor (through their mitochondrial DNA) and that all males alive today can be traced to a single male ancestor (through the DNA in their y-chromosomes).

Venema and Falk highlight three methods (of analyzing the genetic diversity of living humans) that temper the conclusion of the two studies above.

What are we to make of this? Each of these sets of evidence and the methods used involve assumptions. And each of these assumptions is itself open to scrutiny, testable (to some degree), and (unfortunately) often held with a degree of unexamined faith by its proponents.

I could stop there, leaving it as an entirely open question as to whether the Bible is believable or reliable on this issue. But more needs to be argued on the side of an historical Adam and Eve.*

For one thing, it seems pretty clear that the assumptions associated with the BioLogos claims are less certain and less well-supported than those associated with the y-chromosome and mDNA evidence. As just one example, a study of the genetics of a population of mouflon sheep refutes some of the assumptions of Venema and Falk's methods (method 1 in particular, but all three generally). In this study, a single pair of sheep was introduced to Haute Island (in 1957), and the descendent population grew to 700 and has subsequently fluctuated between 250 and 700. Mathematical models use to predict the present population's heterozygosity (based on the known heterozygosity of the original pair) underestimated it by a factor of four. Had the models been used as in Venema and Falk's argument--to estimate the number of founding individuals by measuring the diversity of the present population--they would have grossly overestimated. That is, this test case shows that genetic diversity increases (at least in sheep, and over a mere 50 years) in ways currently not understood by the relevant experts. Venema and Falk may simply be unaware of such problems with the methods they espouse; nonetheless, their dogmatism is unwarranted.

Secondly, given the vehemence and certainty with which evolutionists claim the truth of their macro-theory, it is rather odd that when such tests finally became available, the evidence led to a conclusion so similar to the Bible's proclamation. Although theists might argue about the details (one pair or a few thousand), there is no one left still arguing for the competing view of human origins, the multi-regional hypothesis (which claimed that Asian, Caucasian, and African peoples descended from different hominid species in different parts of the world). What is agreed upon by nearly all today is that the genetic evidence shows that all humans alive today are descended from a very small population (which may have even been a single pair) living in or near eastern Africa some 40-60,000 years ago. The scientific evidence leaves Genesis 1 and 2 as viable portrayals of the true situation. And where apparently contradictory evidence exists, the assumptions associated with it turn out to be problematic.

There is no scientific evidence that can prove the Bible to be true and reliable about the descendence of humanity from a single pair. Nor is there any scientific evidence that disproves it. As a scientist, though, I have found overwhelming evidence for the truth and reliability of the Bible with many of its other claims, and that evidence has come both from science and history. More importantly, however, I know from personal experience the truth of its central claim, that the holy Creator of the universe so loved His creatures that He sent His eternal Son to make a way for me, a far-from-holy creature, to have a relationship wit Him. In your continued search for truth, I hope you will seek and find this most important truth.

* The humans to which the y-chromosome and mDNA evidence points would not be Adam and Eve but (more likely) Noah and Eve. Biblically, the bottleneck for males was more recent, since all the males on the ark were related to Noah, whereas the four females on the ark were from different families. Interestingly, this aligns with the genetic data as well. The date for mDNA 'Eve' is earlier than the date for y-chromosome 'Adam' (Noah).

Friday, April 6, 2012

Radio Spot

I had the chance today to do a radio spot on the resurrection of Jesus, its place in church history and in human history. I shared the 'minimal facts' argument (of Gary Habermas) for the historicity of Christ's bodily rising from the dead, and discussed the variance (through history) of the degree to which the church engaged in such an annual commemoration. I was able to squeeze in some theology, some history, and even some philosophy.

This interview (which will serve as the mandatory public service announcement for these stations) is due to be aired Sunday morning on five radio stations in Bend (Oregon). On the four FM stations (95.1, 104.1, 105.7, and 96.9), it will be heard from 7:30 to 8:00, and on the AM station (1340) it will air from 9:00 to 9:30.

Check it out (as you're getting ready to go to church to celebrate this most significant event in cosmic history and to worship its Author).

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Creation Care Summit

I'm excited about an upcoming gathering in Portland that will bring together Christians committed to following their Lord in His mandates to be good stewards of His creation. It's called the Creation Care Summit, and will take place on Saturday, April 21 at the Tigard (Oregon) campus of George Fox Evangelical Seminary. Here's a blurb from the Summit's webpage...
Wilderness International, Inc. and George Fox Evangelical Seminary are partnering to provide a forum for evangelical Christians interested in environmental stewardship to explore our Biblical call to care for Creation. Come join us for a time of learning, sharing, and encouragement. Hear from local authors, experts and practitioners on the current issues related to the care of God’s creation from a Christian worldview. Network to build partnerships. Visit the resource table area to gain additional information. Find out how you can get involved in existing Creation Care efforts or be inspired to initiate your own!
You can go here to learn more and to register. I'll be there; I hope you'll join us!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Crux of Cosmic History

I spoke at my home church, Antioch (of Bend, Oregon) this past Sunday. It's a brief sermon (about 25 minutes) on the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth not only in human history but in all of cosmic history. Have a watch/listen!

Rick Gerhardt :: The Crux of Cosmic History from Antioch Church on Vimeo.