Friday, June 10, 2016

Resurrection, the Explanation

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked (at somewhat of the last minute) to preach a sermon at my home church, Antioch. As we were in the middle of a series on the book of Acts, I chose to offer an apologetic regarding the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, in which I argued that we cannot understand either the book of Acts or the history of the world apart from the acknowledgment that Jesus really did rise from the dead. Here's that sermon:

Thursday, May 5, 2016

It's a Gray Area

It's nearing that time when the family takes its annual trek to south-central Oregon for a day of monitoring nesting Great Gray Owls (Strix nebulosa). We've done this every year since about 1993, banding young when there are some, catching adults occasionally. It started out as a research project investigating the demographic relationship between this population, the one to the south (in and around Yosemite), and others in the Blue Mountains of northeast Oregon and in Idaho/Wyoming/Montana. That genetics study led (as I originally suspected) to the realization that these populations have been largely (if not completely) isolated from one another since the last ice age.

At any rate, in anticipation of this year's outing, here are two pics, the first of our son Nathan with an adult nearly as large as he was, and the second (from last year) of Nathan's daughter, Celly, with a nestling.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Our Extravagantly Loving Creator

A longtime close friend sent me an email in which he asked me to consider this blog post by Tim Challies. In it, Challies, a young-Earth (and young-universe) creationist, responds to a lengthy quote from the book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? by Denis Alexander, who is apparently a theistic evolutionist. I'm assuming that each of the four of us--me, my friend, Challies (the blogger) and Alexander (the author)--is a follower of Christ who cares about truth, and who seeks to discern truth by taking seriously the Creator's revelation to us in Scripture and His revelation to us through the creation itself. These shared commitments are really significant (especially in our day and culture), and I want to celebrate that common ground.

But it is precisely because we each care about truth (and because my friend specifically asked me to) that I'll briefly respond here to these two different claims, identifying where I take each to have strayed from the truth.

The excerpt from Alexander's book is a straightforward retelling of what Earth's history would look like if the 4.6 billion years it involved were condensed into a single day. I've read such illustrations elsewhere, and the chronology that Alexander shares is reasonably faithful to the actual records (geologic and fossil).* Humanity really does show up in the very last three seconds of such a day. The problem for Alexander is that he (like a great many other folks) accepts an evolutionary explanation for this chronology, whereas taking the evidence seriously--critically examining it--necessarily yields a rejection of Darwin's speculative theory.

The new life forms that appear at the various stages of Earth's long history do so without evolving from a previous form. Each species that has ever lived appears in the fossil record without precursors and fully formed, fully adapted (designed) for its time and place and for the complex ecology of which it was a part. Each species recorded in the fossil record remains the same throughout its tenure there, looking at the time of its extinction exactly as it did at the time of its creation. There is as much evidence for species evolving into one another in a neo-Darwinian fashion as there is for species morphing into one another in a Transformer-like manner--that is to say, none. If we take the fossil record at face value, we recognize that the same Creator who brought the universe into existence, and who designed the universe and, more specifically, the Earth, for life, also designed and created each new life form at its proper time. And the evidence from the fossil record does nothing to contradict the evidence from our experience, that living things invariably produce offspring "after their kind," as the Bible has it.

But what I was really asked to respond to was Challies' claim. After admitting the usefulness of Alexander's all-Earth-history-in-a-single-day illustration because "we have trouble understanding the vastness of billions of years," Challies gets to his main point...
What I cannot reconcile with my understanding of the biblical account of creation is that man appears only at the very, very end of it all.
He elaborates on his own angst,
In this understanding of our origins, the history of the universe is not the history of mankind.
Challies is, of course, more to be pitied here than censored. It takes both humility and honesty to begin his argument by admitting that its conclusion is based largely in his own understanding and his personal inability to reconcile the evidence. I think I can assist him there, offering some suggestions that might help him reach a truer understanding of the world God created for us and, more importantly, a better appreciation of the bigness of that Creator/Redeemer God.

But before offering those hints, let me address one other claim in Challies' post, to wit,
The biblical writers seem to want us to understand that the world was created for man and that it had no purpose apart from man.
Challies offers no support for this claim, and may feel that the popularity of this view precludes the need for establishing its validity. I could write an entire chapter addressing this misconception,** but will content myself here with offering a couple of alternate notions.

First, I acknowledge the temptation to read the creation accounts through such an anthropocentric lens. There are at least a couple of goods reasons for this. One is that it is human nature to place ourselves at the center of things, to make ourselves the protagonists of the story. So to the extent that the Bible's accounts seem to give us a place of centrality, they feed right into our sense of our own worth. More basically, though, the Bible is the Creator's revelation specifically to humanity, and not to any of the rest of His creatures. We alone (because created in His image) have the ability to read this propositional revelation, to understand (in part) His purposes in creating us and subsequently establishing relationship with us. So it is only to be expected that our role in God's plans (rather than His purposes for the rest of creation) would take a central place in that revelation. The ultra-brief creation account of Genesis 1 gets quickly to the creation of man and woman--rather than discussing in even greater detail (than it does) the creation events of the prior 4.6 billion years of Earth's history--because the theme that occupies the majority of the rest of the Bible is God's subsequent interactions with the descendants of Adam and Eve.

But no matter how prominently mankind figures in God's purposes in creating the universe, it simply does not follow (indeed, is ludicrous to claim, as Challies does) that the creation of the universe "had no purpose apart from man."

A correct understanding is that the Bible's several creation accounts are not anthropocentric but theocentric. They are about the Creator/Redeemer, and only derivatively about mankind. We are not the heroes or the protagonists; we don't play the lead role. The Bible is about God, and the same is true of the various creation accounts it contains.

If we examine such creation accounts more closely, what we find is that the central theme is not our superiority over the rest of God's creatures but rather our shared creatureliness, and the Creator's standing as wholly other. This is apparent not only in Genesis 1, but in Psalm 104 and Psalm 148. Similarly, in the picture (in Revelation 5) of the New Creation and the fulfillment of the purposes for the present one, not just humanity, but every living thing will be gathered together in praise of the Creator:
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever." (Rev. 5:13)
But perhaps no creation passage makes my point--and refutes Challies' claim--as clearly as the early Christian creed embedded in Paul's letter to the church in Colossae. Its theme is the preeminence of Christ, "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation."
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:16-20)
Christ not only created all the living things that have inhabited the earth over the past 4.6 billion years--he died to reconcile them to Himself. To be sure, mankind is central to the need for that death--it was our fallenness (and not that of any other creature) that led to the need for that redemptive, reconciling, sacrificial death. But God clearly seems to have purpose and value for all of creation, and not just for mankind.

But even if one wishes to insist that creating humankind was God's ultimate purpose for creating this universe, it is perfectly reasonable to think that He may have used the rest of His creatures--and Earth's long history--to prepare things for humanity. This idea has the full support of both the biblical and scientific records. The creation 'week' (of Genesis 1:3-2:3) is an account of just this--how the Creator prepared the unformed, lifeless Earth described in 1:2 into a fit place for humanity. And the scientific discoveries of recent decades have verified the truth of these ancient passages, confirming both the formlessness of the early Earth and the role of other living things in changing the planet--its crust, atmosphere, and all--into the ideal place for humanity that it was by the time God eventually created our species.

It seems that Callies (like others) is predisposed to reject this conclusion to which the united dual revelation leads, and that because it doesn't fit with the timing arrived at by Lightfoot and Ussher's 17th-century interpretation of Genesis 1. 'Couldn't God have created everything already fit for human habitability, rather than taking long ages to achieve His purposes?' I don't know the answer for the true hypothetical, but, given the physics and chemistry with which He chose to endow this creation, the answer is 'no.' In this (actual) universe, God really did require the miraculous interactions of all that He made over billions of years to arrive at the perfect place for humanity.***

God reveals Himself to us first as Creator. And if we think about it, art can be (roughly) divided into two types. Passive art is largely finished when the artist completes the last brush stroke or precise incision. The resulting painting or statue is inactive. To be sure, the viewer brings something to the appreciation of the piece, but the piece itself is fixed and unchanging. The other category is active--or, better yet, interactive--art, and is exemplified by symphony or drama. In these, the artist establishes how the art is intended to play out, but he or she voluntarily allows others (the musicians or actors) to play a significant role in the unfolding of the ever-changing work of art.

God's creation is not passive art--it is interactive art. I suspect that Callies would acknowledge the fact that this universe was intended by its Creator more as a drama than as a painting. But his objection, then, really devolves into an impatience on his own part, a desire that the drama arrive at the penultimate scene much quicker than it does. And my response is that--in the drama that God actually wrote, all the prior scenes were absolutely necessary for the introduction (in the second-to-last scene) of the actors whose welfare and destiny the Author--who is also the Star--had in view throughout.

Unlike us, God is never impatient. Unlike us, the Creator doesn't need to economize. Indeed, God is outside of time--which He created--and so the 4.6 billion years of Earth history, or even the 13.6 billion years of the universe's history, are no longer for the Creator than if He had created Earth and everything in it instantaneously. But rightly understanding the long history of the Earth and universe has at least two implications for us.

First, it should give us a much deeper appreciation of the severity of the Fall. That our sinfulness brought a curse upon all of a 4.6-year-old very good creation is no small thing. That we--as the last species created--could overnight mess things up for all of creation entails a gravitas that is hard to overstate.

But that leads to the second implication--which is how incomprehensibly great is the Father's extravagant love and forgiveness. It is an indescribable wonder that He lovingly prepared the universe over 13.6 billion years, and took 4.6 billion years in carefully crafting Earth as a perfect home for us. But it is even more remarkable that, even before we spurned His love and trashed that creation into which He had put so much, He instituted an immensely costly plan for making all things right. Psalm 19 and many other Scripture passages instruct us to learn about God's love, provision, , glory, and forgiveness through the study of the creation itself. When by doing so we discover the truth about God's extravagance in creating, it brings much greater depth to the meaning of passages like Ephesians 1:3-4, which have in view not a period of 144 hours (between His forming of Earth and His creation of mankind) but at least 4.6 billion years:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world!

* The only significant mistake in Alexander's chronology has to do with the establishment of the genetic code. He has it as occurring somewhat after the first life forms. The reality is that the universal genetic code seems to be an essential characteristic of all life on Earth, and that the earliest living cells exhibited that code already fully established. It seems that only a pre-commitment to evolutionism would cause Alexander to place the establishment of the genetic code rather later than the first life forms.

** Actually, a full-length book addresses this popular misunderstanding of the Bible's creation accounts: Living With Other Creatures, by Richard Bauckham.

*** To explore these ideas further, the reader is directed to Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, by Hugh Ross, and The Privileged Planet, by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

(Lepidopteran) Signs of Spring

Here on the high desert of Oregon, the last few days have been warm and beautiful, with highs in the 70's. It's as though we left winter behind overnight. Oh, we'll still have some chances of (even significant) frosts, and we'll have to be diligent about protecting some of our sprouting plants from those. But it seems that every living thing recognizes that spring is here.

The Turkey Vultures and Osprey have been back for more than a week, after spending our winter months in South America and southern Mexico, respectively. Golden Eagles and Great Horned Owls have been incubating for weeks, and the pair of American Kestrels is staking its claim to the nest box in the juniper stump. But while those raptors--and birds in general--mostly key in on day length to guide the initiation of migration, courtship, and breeding, it is warm days like those we're now experiencing that bring about the awakening of insect life.

For me, spring really begins when the male Sara's Orangetips come out.

The first butterfly we see each year is usually a Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). One of the few species to overwinter as adults in our neck of the desert, these showy insects can appear on even a February or late January day if the temperature rises high enough. But I know that we're in for a stretch of several nice days when the orangetips are on the wing.

Sara's Orangetips (Anthocaris sara) are small members of the Pieridae family, which contains the marbles, the whites, and the sulphurs. Males, like the one pictured above, appear in pretty large numbers on such warm March or April days as we've been having. And, as Jasper and I experienced yesterday, even on those first days they have seemingly boundless energy.

We were both armed with cameras, and while the primary goal was to monitor a couple of Golden Eagle nesting territories, the secondary goal was to get a picture of one of these small butterflies. Each time one of us locked on to one of them, it would lead us on a merry chase, in and out of the sagebrush, around and back again. Their flight was strong, never above a few feet off the ground, and wandering, not heading in a single direction or leaving the area. And though they frequently teased us by briefly hovering over a patch of phlox or other flower, they rarely alit. We followed one individual for more than ten minutes, without its ever landing, before it flew beyond the canyon rim and left us. It was Jasper who finally captured the pic above, as that one landed at his feet while he was busy chasing two others.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Eagle Elder

We wrapped up the winter eagle trapping season last week with a pretty special capture. We had a good bit of success despite the fact that winter itself was extremely short, with good trapping weather (cold and/or snow) having ended by the first week of January. But whether there is weather or not Golden Eagles still have to eat, and carcasses are the mainstay in Central Oregon until marmots and ground squirrels come out of hibernation and birds and mammals start producing young.

At any rate, we caught a resident adult male, and found that he was already banded. So after taking some measurements, some pictures, and some blood (for a lead level study), we turned him loose.

As I filled out the Bird Banding Lab's band recovery form, I kept getting an error message; the band number I was entering was for a band that was deployed so long ago that it was unlikely to still be on a live bird. I don't have the full banding information yet, but the short version is that this male was banded as a nestling somewhere in our general area on June 6, 1996, almost 20 years ago!

Actually, the minimum age of this eagle (at time of our capture) was 19 years and 10 months. A check of the Bird Banding Lab's longevity records for this species shows our eagle to be the seventh oldest documented in the wild. He has a way to go yet to set the record, as a Utah Golden Eagle banded and subsequently encountered dead was a minimum of 31 years and 8 months old at death. Five of the six oldest birds were found dead, and the sixth--though released alive--was encountered only because it had run afoul of telephone or electric wires. So the eagle pictured below (with My son Nathan, his wife Nuka, and my granddaughter Celestine) is the oldest banded Golden Eagle to have been recaptured alive. Long may he yet live!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Owl and the Duck

Friday morning, my daughter Willow (whose turn it was to feed them) called me to the duck pen, where there was a male Great Horned Owl. It had apparently found its way into the pen during the night, but couldn't find its way back out. (There're only small spaces where the chicken wire 'roof' doesn't align perfectly with the 'walls,' and, anyway, an owl may be able to descend through such a space and yet be unable to climb straight up to get out the same way.) The result was one dead duck (which had already lived a full life and had quit laying eggs awhile ago) and the opportunity to band the local male owl. My granddaughter Celestine helped Willow and me with the banding.

Monday, February 29, 2016

A New Kind of Apologist

I had the opportunity to coauthor a chapter in a book that comes out next Tuesday, March 1. The book is edited by (and the brain-child of) Sean McDowell, and is titled A New Kind of Apologist.* It includes the wisdom of quite a varied group of apologists addressing a broad range of topics, all centered around the issue of what it means to successfully and winsomely defend the truth of the Christian world- and life-view in this day and culture.

Among 27 mostly short chapters are the following... one by Brian Auten on "Apologetics and New Technologies," and one by Brett Kunkle titled "A Practical Plan to Raise Up the Next Generation." My friend Mary Jo Sharp contributed the chapter "Why More Women Should Study Apologetics." Derwin Gray offers "The Multiethnic Church: God's Living Apologetic," and Christopher Brooks shares about "The Urban Apologist." Other contributors whose names you might recognize include Jay Richards, Casey Luskin, Michael Licona, Scott Smith, and Alan Shlemon. Interspersed every once in awhile are brief interviews (J.P. Moreland, Dennis Rainey, and my friend Gavin MacFarland).

As the founder of The Justice Conference, my pastor and friend Ken Wytsma was asked to write a chapter on social justice. He, in turn, invited me to collaborate with him, and the result was chapter 5, "Social Justice and a New Kind of Apologist." I highly recommend you buy the book, but through the permission of the author and publisher, I can offer the opportunity to read our chapter here.

* A New Kind of Apologist
Copyright 2016 Sean McDowell
Published by Harvest House Publishers
Eugene, Oregon 97402

Friday, February 19, 2016

Trapping Golden Eagles

We're about at the end of another winter season of trapping Golden Eagles. It was a family affair again, and the photo above is of my daughter Willow holding an adult female. The season was short, as the weather has been unseasonably warm ever since the first week of January. (Our trapping success is greatest when the birds are stressed by cold and snow.) Fortunately, we had good success in December; we deployed PTTs (platform terminal transponders, i.e., solar-recharging, satellite transmitters) on four resident adults, and caught a couple more for banding and blood lead analysis. My son Nate is producing a short film about this work--go here to learn about or to contribute to that project.

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.