Monday, December 31, 2007

Design of Life (Book Rec)

The Design of Life is a book whose time has come, and a book for the times in which we live. Two historical factors make it so.

We live in a time when scientific knowledge is exploding. Entire new disciplines (like molecular biochemistry and genomics) have arisen in our lifetimes, and major paradigm shifts have occurred in other disciplines (cosmology, geology, physics, to name a few). The resulting knowledge has ramifications for our understanding of life on Earth, and particularly its origins.

The other historical factor of note is this… Scientific understanding has progressed only as presently-held theories have been open to critique. That is, truly objective scientists welcome evidence contrary to a particular theory, since it leads to refining or discarding, to pursuing more promising lines of research. Today, despite a wealth of new, contrary evidence from a variety of disciplines, this basic scientific principle is ignored by many biologists. At stake in biology today are both academic freedom and scientific progress.

It is into this tense but exciting situation that Dembski and Wells speak with clarity, depth, and authority. In The Design of Life they do what defenders of neo-Darwinism have shown themselves unwilling to do—they interact with the evidence. In pulling together the latest information from a variety of relevant disciplines (genetics, genomics, origin-of-life research, paleontology, anatomy, morphology, embryology, molecular biology, and biochemistry), these articulate proponents of intelligent design theory have given us a thorough and balanced understanding of the complex issues surrounding the origins and diversity of life on Earth. Their argument engages the breadth and the best of what neo-Darwinism has to offer, and meets—indeed, overwhelms—each materialist objection in turn. For anyone interested in discovering the truth about the history of life, I cannot think of a better place to start than this book.

(To read the rest of my review, go here.)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

More Coatis

,
My fondest Coati memory was undoubtedly of the nest we (my friend Miguel and I) found while climbing the trunk of a large Ficus (fig) tree. The nest was against the bole of the tree and on a large side branch, which also formed the bottom of the nest. What the Coatis had added was a cylinder of twigs and small branches to form a wall about two feet high. Inside this nest, which was largely concealed by a Philadendron (or similar) vine, were 6 cute babies.

The nest was (as I recall) about 30 feet above the ground, and was likely typical for most members of this largely tropical species. But where their distribution extends into the extreme southwest corner of Arizona (primarily in the Huachucas), nests are quite different, being not in trees but under rocks and in caves. The Coatis of Tikal were quite at home either on the ground or high in the trees.

Taxonomically, Coatis are members of the Procyonidae, the family shared by Raccoons, Kinkajous, and Ring-tails. Like Raccoons, Coatis have great manual dexterity and seem both intelligent and inquisitive. Unlike Raccoons, they are diurnal, and thus more easily observed. What really sets them apart, however, is that they (along with, say, wolves) are one of the very few species of communal carnivores in the Americas. Indeed, they could be found in fairly large groups in Tikal.

Again, our reason for climbing this particular tree was to reach a hawk nest in the very top of it. Large tropical trees like this Ficus harbor an astounding variety of plant and animal life and whole ecologies that could keep a curious researcher happy for a lifetime. That's why Tikal--with its Maya ruins and its tropical forests--is one of my favorite places on Earth.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Spectators at a Coati Fight

I have another story from Guatemala involving a Gray Fox. Several years after my last full field season in Guatemala, I was fortunate enough to go back to Tikal and to take along my oldest son, Nate. He was, I believe, 8 years old at the time, and our object was to obtain some blood samples from Swallow-tailed Kites for a genetic (taxonomy) study being conducted by a friend of mine. This true story is Nathan's fondest memory of that trip.

I was high in a tree at the time (in the large Plaza where the main Maya temples are located), and Nate was cooling his heels on the ground below. A commotion broke out nearby, and when he went over to investigate he found that two male Coatis (Nasua narica, members of the same family as the Raccoon) were engaged in a fight. Nathan sat down to watch (as any sensible 8-year-old would have done). But the amazing thing was that so, too, did one of the Gray Foxes that frequented the Plaza. The fox actually sat down on his haunches, only feet away from my son, the two of them only yards away from the Coatis wrestling in the dust of a late May day.

Here's a pic of that 8-year-old sitting on the steps of Temple 2...

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Gray Foxes of Tikal

The year that my wife Dawn was able to spend the spring and summer with me in Tikal, Guatemala (the first year after we were married), we began a very interesting study of Swallow-tailed Kites (about which more at another time). This meant sitting for long hours observing their treetop nests, and much of this sitting was done on one or another of the temples or other Maya ruins (which got us up to the level of the canopy). Dawn did the lion's share of these observations (as I was often off conducting various other researches).

During these observations, it was not unusual for Dawn to have a number of young Gray Foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) playing in close proximity to her. They had been raised in a den in the water-collecting tunnels that the Mayas had included in their buildings. Besides enjoying the company of these cute little fellers, Dawn was able to document a previously undiscovered behavior for this species.

Gray Foxes are considered monogamous and among the least social of the dog family. So it was with some surprise that we discovered that two lactating females were sharing the same den at Tikal's North Acropolis. Litter size in this species ranges from 2 to 6, but we saw as many as 11 pups together at the same time. Although Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and other canids have been seen with such shared dens, it had never before been seen in Gray Foxes. (We wrote it up and published it in the Journal of Southwestern Naturalists.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Blessed Christmas

Let me just take this opportunity to wish a very blessed Christmas to all my readers. Here in Central Oregon, we did experience a bit of snow on Christmas, but purists (our kids) would argue that it wasn't a truly white Christmas, as there wasn't a sufficient amount for either sliding on or packing for snowballs and snowmen.

Our house was again awash in wrapping paper, though we kept things within the limits of sanity. Our kids are all getting old enough to begin to realize that the best presents are those they make themselves for someone else. My youngest daughter, Willow, made me a card that contained a poem she wrote, and I will treasure this long after all of the other gifts are forgotten or no longer in use.

I'm always fascinated by the number of stores at this time of year that do the "Happy Holiday" thing, not expressing the word 'Christmas' for fear they might offend someone. Statistics show that something like 96% of Americans celebrate Christmas, with 91% of them explicitly acknowledging it as the birth of Jesus. Now, I'm not so naive as to think that all such folk actually stop to pray to Him or to give thanks for the gift of that life (and death) 2000 years ago.

Nonetheless, I take comfort in the undeniable fact (testified to, in part, by the uniquely worldwide celebration of Christmas) that that gift remains the central event of all human history, the one that most radically changed the world for good. I only hope that you, my reader, have experienced the joy that comes from personally knowing that Prince of Peace, and that--through His redeeming Resurrection power--you too are a vehicle of goodwill to all men. Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

One More Analogy

For the past several posts, I've been interacting with the absurdities of a NY Times science article from last week. It was basically about scientists--artificially constraining themselves to a naturalist view of the universe--attempting to speculate on the origin of the laws of nature and the order in the universe (order without which the scientific endeavor would be impossible).

I acknowledged that scientists working on very specific tasks can function quite well without reference to metaphysics (and without an understanding of philosophy of science or history of science). So, another way of explaining the absurdities found in the article in question is by distinguishing between those scientific questions that address the workings of things in the universe and those that address the origins of things in the universe. The great successes of modern science have been all about explaining how things work, and applying these explanations toward improvements in technology and medicine. Despite those successes, however, when scientists then proceed to speculate wildly and pontificate about the metaphysical grounding of the universe and of life (origins questions), they have entered the realm of philosophy (and theology) and are no longer deserving of whatever credibility we extend them when they are testing a new drug. Perhaps another analogy will make this clear...

I have a wonderful mechanic (I hope each of my readers does, too), one who can work on every vehicle imaginable and every system thereof. But, for the sake of analogy, let's picture an auto mechanic who spends his entire life maintaining and fixing a single automobile. He keeps it running smoothly, tinkering, lubricating, repairing when necessary. You see, he has come to understand the functioning of every single component of that car.

(In this analogy, the car is the universe and the mechanic is the scientist. But, of course, each scientist is really only expert at a very specific discipline, much as if there were several mechanics who understood only the functioning of the electrical system of the car, another group assigned to the carburation system, and another to the transmission. So really, the mechanic of my analogy represents the collection of all scientists. That is, if what my mechanic is about to claim is itself absurd, then the claims to which it points--those made by individual scientists whose understanding is at best that of the mechanic whose bailiwick is the function of the spark plugs--will be seen as all the more absurd.)

After years of keeping this vehicle running in tip-top shape, my mechanic has garnered the accolades and respect of all of his fellow-citizens, to the point that he has become the recognized expert about all things vehicular. Now, instead of confining himself to replacing gaskets and frayed wires (and rightly explaining their uses), he begins to explain to us how the car came into being. Only as he does this, he asserts that to appeal to a designer or manufacturer is both unmechanical and false. He insists that the origin of the car must be explainable without reference to things other than the material components of the car itself. Moreover, this dogmatic view also entails the correlary that the functions of the car are not purposeful or intended--rather, they just happen to occur as the natural result of eons of interactions between electrical energy, gasoline, oil, pistons, gears, and such. The automobile is (in his view) indeed a marvelous machine, but we need seek no further entities outside it to explain where it came from.

We might, of course, continue to take our own car to such a mechanic when we need a new fuel pump installed. But we would all recognize that when it comes to the question of where the car came from, this guy is not only outside his area of expertise but downright loopy! And that's tightly analogous to the situation of modern scientists who--while disclaiming the need for understanding any philosophy of science--make absurd claims about the materialistic origins of such things as the laws of nature and the order in the universe.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Elephant Analogy

The article to which I drew your attention a couple of posts ago was about scientists' inability to explain where the order in the universe, the "laws of nature" come from. Reading it brought to mind the "elephant analogy" of biochemist Michael Behe (in his book Darwin's Black Box)...
Imagine a room in which a body lies crushed, flat as a pancake. A dozen detectives crawl around, examining the floor with magnifying glasses for any clue to the identity of the prepetrator. In the middle of the room, next to the body, stands a large, gray elephant. The detectives carefully avoid bumping into the pachyderm's legs as they crawl, and never even glance at it. Over time the detectives get frustrated with their lack of progress but resolutely press on, looking even more closely at the floor. You see, textbooks say detectives must "get their man," so they never consider elephants.
In seeking adequate grounding for the laws of nature, naturalists refuse to consider a transcendent Creator. Any good philosopher could tell them that the God of the Bible has always provided a uniquely satisfying grounding for those laws. And any good historian of science could explain that it was their belief in that God of Judeo-Christianity that caused its founders to begin that endeavor we know as modern science.

So, as I read the NY Times article, I couldn't help but recognize in the many scientists cited in it the pitiful (and pitiable) detectives of Behe's analogy.*



*Behe used the analogy with regard to design in molecular systems, but it applies just as well to those seeking to find grounding for the order of the universe who refuse to consider a personal, rational God.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Philosophy of Science

Yesterday's post included the following quote...
Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.
This saying is attributed to Richard Feynman (a scientist) and was apparently reasserted recently by Steven Weinberg (another scientist). If these men were simply identifying a problem with the way modern science has digressed, if they were in fact lamenting this situation, well, that would be all well and good. But instead, both scientists seemed to be approving of the fact that 'scientists have no need of understanding the philosophy of science.' Regular readers of this blog will recognize the problem with this statement--it's...

That's right! Self-refuting!

It's very similar to my saying... "This game has absolutely no rules. Now here's one..."

What these scientists are saying is,
We scientists don't bother with having a philosophy of science. And (oh, by the way), that happens to be mine--my personal philosophy of science.
Absurd. Silly. A (fatal) mistake in critical thinking. And yet not only are these two Nobel laureates guilty of this mistake, but the journalist quoting them also seems ignorant of the problem here.

Fortunately, the readers of this blog are more astute than that. That's what I like so much about sharing these posts with you.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Whence the Laws of Nature

Go here to read an article in the science section of the New York Times titled "Laws of Nature, Source Unknown." It's about the reaction--among scientists and others--to a recent claim by cosmologist Paul Davies to the effect that science relies on faith in an orderly universe. Davies' point was that scientists depend upon the existence of order and of laws in the universe but have no explanation for where that order and those laws came from, or why they exist.

Many angry respondents insisted upon the veracity of those laws, declaring that their existence enjoys overwhelming empirical support. In so doing, they missed Davies' point. He hadn't meant to deny those laws, but to comment on the current lack of grounding for them:
Dr. Davies complains that the traditional view of transcendent laws is just 17th-century monotheism without God. "Then God got killed off and the laws just free-floated in a conceptual vacuum but retained their theological properties," he said in [an] e-mail message.
I've posted about this before, of course, but this article begs response. It goes on to mention a number of rather absurd speculations being made from every corner of the materialist world in efforts to provide the grounding of those laws (to address the problem that Davies accurately exposes).

For me, the most interesting quote came late in the article:
"Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds," goes the saying attributed to Richard Feynman, the late Caltech Nobelist, and repeated by Dr. Weinberg.
The reporter (who, incidentally, seems unduly impressed by the title "Dr." and uses it throughout the article) shares this quote to suggest that all of these speculations are just that, and so don't qualify as science. But this idea--that philosophy of science is useless to scientists--betrays the silliness not only of the various speculators quoted but also of the journalist's own understanding.

To be sure, if all Feynman meant was that 'the average white-coated lab tech with a very specific task can accomplish that assigment without reference to the presuppositions of science,' well that's hard to argue with. Indeed, that's exactly what we see today--anybody can "do science" without having any reasonable justification for it. But once we start seeking answers to big questions--like "What's the origin of the order in the universe?'--then an understanding of both the philosophy and the history of science would serve to cut through all the nonsense like that in the NY Times article.

More about this tomorrow, as this provides such an easy target for more reasonable thinking.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Illegitimate Use of Terms

I finished the last post with this thought:
If, in attempting to support a particular position, you frequently find yourself using terms that logically belong only to the opposite position, it's time to rethink your paradigm.
I meant it particularly with regard to scientific materialists (evolutionists) who have to remind themselves daily that the design that confronts them everywhere they turn is only apparent--and who (as demonstrated by the journalist of the human backbone article) have to watch their words lest they betray the poverty of their view.

Another class of folks who run into the same problem, though, are the moral relativists. For those who believe that there is no absolute morality--no standard of good or bad--it is illegitimate to use terms like "should" or "ought." And yet nobody can have any meaningful interactions with other people for very long without using these and other terms that express moral values or judgments.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Design in Human Backbones

Kudos to my friend Pete Chadwell for bringing to my attention this article from the Fox News web site. (I've inluded some of the comments Pete interjected)...
WASHINGTON — With all that growing weight up front, how is it that pregnant women don't lose their balance and topple over?

Scientists think they've found the answer: There are slight differences between women and men in one lower-back vertebra and a joint in the hip, which allow women to adjust their center of gravity.

This elegant evolutionary engineering is seen only in female humans and our immediate ancestors who walked on two feet, but not in chimps and apes, according to a study published in Thursday's journal Nature.
(Pete: Evolutionary "engineering"? ENGINEERING?)
"That's a big load that's pulling you forward," said Liza Shapiro, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas and the only one of the study's three authors who has actually been pregnant. "You experience discomfort. Maybe it would be a lot worse if the design changes were not there."
(Pete: Design changes? What does that mean? Since when can Darwinists help themselves to the word "design"? I thought that "design" was "unscientific!")
Harvard anthropology researcher Katherine Whitcomb found two physical differences in male and female backs that until now had gone unnoticed: One lower lumbar vertebra is wedged-shaped in women and more square in men, and a key hip joint is 14 percent larger in women than men when body size is taken into account.

The researchers did engineering tests that show how those slight changes allow women to carry the additional and growing load without toppling over — and typically without disabling back pain.
(Pete: Sounds like "reverse engineering" to me. And guess what… you can only "reverse engineer" something that was engineered in the first place.)
"When you think about it, women make it look so very damn easy," Whitcomb said. "They are experiencing a pretty impressive challenge. Evolution has tinkered ... to the point where they can deal with the challenge."
(Pete: So then there WAS a point in time where pregnant females did NOT 'deal with the challenge'? Does that mean that at one time they DID 'topple over'? How did Natural Selection preserve those generations whose pregnant females would topple over? Didn't that cause injury? Wouldn't they be more vulnerable to predators in that state? Wasn't it more difficult to survive without that ability?)
"It's absolutely beautiful," she said. "A little bit of tinkering can have a profound effect."
(Pete: Of course it's beautiful. But can a blind, purposeless process like evolution actually "tinker"? Doesn't "tinkering" imply intelligence?)
Walking on two feet separates humans from most other mammals. And while anthropologists still debate the evolutionary benefit of walking on two feet, there are notable costs, such as pain for pregnant females. Animals on all fours can better handle the extra belly weight.

The back changes appear to have evolved to overcome the cost of walking on two feet, said Harvard anthropology professor Daniel Lieberman.
(Pete: Either that or the human frame was designed that way from the get-go, with males and females having slight variations in structure to accommodate the different roles. Which do you think is more reasonable?)

I'm with Pete. And I suppose the even broader lesson here is this... If, in attempting to support a particular position, you frequently find yourself using terms that logically belong only to the opposite position, it's time to rethink your paradigm.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Intellectual Feasts

I'm looking forward to a couple of local events this week...

Tomorrow, I'll be joining about 60 others at a luncheon for the Bend (OR) Apologetics Guild meeting, where we'll hear Brandon Groza lecture on "The Bible and Ancient Mythology."

Then Thursday night, I'll be at the Eastside Starbucks with an intrepid group of history buffs discussing Thomas Cahill's Mysteries of the Middle Ages. I look forward to a rousing session, as there is much to like and yet much to argue with about Cahill's take on this interesting period.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Fall of Mankind

I'm doing a research paper on the biblical doctrine of the fall of mankind (of Adam). In the process, I've been reminded that this understanding of humanity--that we are fallen--is unique to Judeo-Christianity (or very nearly so). And yet, it seems that it should be obvious that any worldview that doesn't acknowledge moral evil and provide a reasonable account for it is inadequate. As philosopher William Hasker comments,
Surely one of the acid tests for a world view is whether it is able to provide a consistent, coherent, and acceptable account of the nature of humanity.
And if the past century has taught us anything--with its world wars and its repeated genocides--it is that there is something of depravity in human nature. (Or, if you don't want to consider the past century, simply read a newspaper or watch the evening news.) The biblical worldview does address this aspect of human nature, and the understanding that man is fallen is a central teaching of Christianity. As C.S. Lewis has it,
Christianity simply does not make sense until you have faced the [sin issue]. Christianity tells people to repent and promises them forgiveness. It therefore has nothing (as far as I know) to say to people who do not know they have done anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness. It is after you have realised that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind the law… and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk.
So, much of the Christian worldview's explanatory power resides in its accurate description of man's fundamental problem. The great news, of course, is that Christianity doesn't leave us there, but also describes the miraculous redemption of mankind planned by God and fulfilled in His eternal Son!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Pearl Harbor Day

On this day, the 66th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, I can do no better than to link my readers to a transcript of Chuck Colson's daily radio broadcast, Breakpoint. This broadcast, titled "Forgiving our Enemies," deals with the wonderful testimony of Jacob DeShazer, a POW in Japan. What you won't learn by reading the transcript is that DeShazer was a Central Oregonian, having grown up in and around Madras.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

More Evo-Devo

In the last post, I explained that the evidence suggests that genetic programs do not control embryological development. That is, the relatively new field of evo-devo, whose raison d'etre was to salvage neo-Darwinism by identifying a genetic basis for major changes occurring early in development, has instead uncovered a good deal of evidence leading to an opposite conclusion.

Of course, neo-Darwinists are plenty adept at ignoring contrary evidence, and the idea that genetic programs control development--since it is a necessary corollary of neo-Darwinism--will not die easily. Nonetheless, here are the sorts of evidences that argue against genetic control of development (this list courtesy of Dembski and Wells from their latest book, The Design of Life)...
Placing foreign DNA into an egg does not change the species of the egg or embryo.

DNA mutations can interfere with development, but they never alter its endpoint.

Different cell types arise in the same animal even though all of them contain the same DNA.

Similar developmental genes are found in animals as different as worms, flies, and mammals.

Eggs contain several structures (such as microtubule arrays and membrane patterns) that are known to influence development independently of the DNA.
Good stuff! Unless, of course, you're more interested in defending neo-Darwinism than in discovering the truth about biological origins.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Problems for Evo-Devo

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the new book by William Dembski and Jonathan Wells, The Design of Life. Its subtitle is Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems, and it is the clearest, most comprehensive book to date dealing with the evidences that make neo-Darwinian theory inadequate for explaining what we now know about living things.

What I want to share today comes from chapter 2, "Genetics and Macroevolution," and has to do with the relatively new field (in biology) known as "evo-devo."

For a long time now, neo-Darwinism has postulated that microevolutionary changes (small changes that occur within a species, like bacterial resistance to antibiotics and variation in the beak size of finches) somehow help to explain macroevolution (the origin of entirely new body plans, of new families and orders). In other words, macroevolution is (for them) a logical extrapolation of microevolution, and both must rely on the same mechanisms--natural selection acting on random gene mutations. The problem is that no evidence exists to suggest that macroevolution really can be accounted for by the steady accumulation of microevolutionary changes, and there is a great deal of evidence contrary to this traditional view.

Enter evolutionary developmental biology, evo-devo. Evo-devo merges the disciplines of evolutionary biology and developmental biology, the latter being the study of the development of an organism from embryo to adult. The idea is that perhaps it's not just any genes that account for changes among species but those particular genes that control development. If one of these genes is changed (early in the embryo), perhaps the change in the adult would be significant. According to Dembski and Wells,
The promise of evo-devo is that genetically-induced changes early in development, though small and easily attainable in themselves, might nonetheless lead to macroevolutionary changes. In this way evo-devo seeks to do an end-run around the more traditional neo-Darwinian approach... Evo-devo, by contrast, promises rapid evolutionary change at a small cost, namely, the cost of mutating a few key genes that control early development.
Thus, the existence of evo-devo as a field of research represents a tacit admission on the part of biologists that the traditional evolutionary explanation is inadequate. Unfortunately (for the materialist), so is evo-devo:
Yet, despite this initial promise, evo-devo is now in a state of crisis.... William Jeffrey, an evolutionary developmental biologist at the University of Maryland, concedes that evo-devo's attempt to understand how developmental genes induce macroevolutionary change is "at a dead end."
This section is well worth your read if you're at all interested, but here's the skinny... the mounting evidence from this field indicates that genetic programs do not control development (though they do play a role in development). And this presents a big problem for neo-Darwinism.
...if development is controlled by something other than genes, then evolution must be due to something other than genetic mutations and changes in gene frequencies. Consequently, if the notion that genetic programs control development is false, then so is neo-Darwinism. Neo-Darwinism logically entails the control of development by genetic programs.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Wind on the High Desert

At Antioch, we're in a sermon series called Elements. Pastor Ken opened the series last week with "Earth." Today, Brandon Groza challenged us with "Wind." He shared that throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew word ruach is translated both "wind" and "spirit," and that this "movement of God" (wind/Spirit) has been at work in the world since the beginning. In OT human history, this movement rested on particular people for particular seasons. This Spirit was at work in and through Jesus during His ministry, death and resurrection, and then (in the events at Pentecost recorded in Acts 2) was given permanently to all those who became followers of Christ.

Of course, the Spirit of God is still active 2000 years after the events recorded in the New Testament, and Brandon's challenge was to ask whether we are putting up our sails and allowing God's ruach to move us according to His will, or whether we are piling up barriers to shield ourselves from Him.

To ensure that we keep this challenge fresh in our minds, God has provided our area with a continuous strong barrage of gale-force winds that began last evening and shows no signs of abating. Let's hope He doesn't give us a literal illustration to enforce next week's element, "Fire."

Friday, November 30, 2007

Black-and-White Owls


During my peregrinations in Tikal National Park (Guatemala), I was fortunate enough to spend a good deal of time studying a beautiful and little-known species, the Black-and-White Owl (Strix nigrolineata). In fact, my colleagues (Craig Flatten and Normandy Bonilla) and I were the first to document a nest of this species. Each nest (we eventually found four) was an epiphyte (that is, either a bromeliad or orchid) high in a tree, and all nest trees were in or near bajas (the seasonally flooded lowland forests). On those epiphytes, only a single egg was laid, and to my knowledge this remains the only owl species documented to have such a low reproductive effort.

A number of other interesting natural history facts came out of that study. These owls eat lots of insects, especially the large scarab beetles abundant in those forests. But the mammalian component of their diet is almost exclusively bats, and we believe that their large home range size (relative to other owls of their size, and as we determined through radio-telemetry) was required in order to encompass a sufficient number of the fruit trees most attractive to a variety of bats. Another anecdotal observation was that the one pair we observed in three consecutive seasons exhibited astonishing regularity in their nesting--they laid their single egg on the same date (or within a day either way) each of those years.

In the photo above, you can observe the size difference between the male and female. As in most owls, it's the female that is larger. Since in most other families of birds it is the male that is larger (if any size difference exists), the situation in owls (and other birds of prey) is termed "reversed sexual size dimorphism." In this tropical species--and the other one that we studied (and which I'll post about some other time)--this size difference is greater than almost any species from temperate or boreal zones to the north. This finding, in turn, is contrary to the predictions of many of the theories attempting to explain the adaptive advantage of reversed sexual size dimorphism in owls.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Skin Cell News

Much in the news this past week is the research breakthrough--by teams in both Japan and America--in which human skin cells have been reprogrammed to behave as embryonic stem cells. (Embryonic stem cells are thought to hold great medical promise for curing and preventing diseases and birth defects.) The news was welcomed by most, because using embryonic stem cells is ethically controversial (and thus has faced political barriers).

This breakthrough is good news, and there's reason to be glad of it. But perhaps I should add a bit of perspective to what the popular media has offered on this subject.

First, as far as the actual technology and day-to-day research is concerned, last week's announcement doesn't change much. The privately-funded labs conducting research in this area have all along been much less excited about embryonic stem cells than have the media and politicians. Embryonic stem cells have not--for some time now--been as promising a choice as the public has been led to believe. (And, incidentally, the broader technology still remains long on promise and hype and relatively short on success. I believe that progress will eventually lead to some successes, but a great deal of work remains before that is realized, and--although only time will tell--the number and type of conditions that will be treatable by the resulting "therapies" is likely to be far less than what hype suggests.)

Second, the push to use embryonic stem cells will not go away. And that is because this has never been a primarily scientific issue (see the preceding paragraph). Rather, all along this has been an attempt (on the part of abortion advocates and their allies) to further marginalize the Christian view of the unborn baby (and, by extension, the view that there is a moral standard of any kind). That is, pitting the rights of "a mere lump of fetal tissue" (which, on the theistic view, is a complete human person created by God) against those of a disabled adult (who, unlike the baby in the womb, could make a persuasive argument on his own behalf) was a great ploy for further weaning the general public from its traditional belief in objective morality. Such activists are keeping quiet about this recent research announcement, but you can bet they won't let it squelch this ploy that they've long found so useful.

By the way, there have always been a few scientists who joined those activists in pushing for unlimited use of embryonic stem cells. Their motivation was slightly different. Though some may have shared a disgust for biblical morality, the campaign had a secondary goal of promoting scientism--the view that science is the only arbiter of truth and that philosophy, theology, and even ethics no longer have a place in our modern, scientific world. According to scientism, we would all be better off if we allowed science to make all the calls.

Lastly, I want to point out that the recent announcement provides another case of validation and vindication for a theistic approach to science (over against the materialist approach that still dominates). That is, scientists who are theists (like my friends at Reasons To Believe) have predicted for years that if such technology really held any promise then it would be through a methodology that was not at odds with the moral law revealed by the Creator. Breakthroughs like last week's are a continuing fulfillment of that prediction, and a further reason to go back to the theistic approach to science that gave science its birth in the first place.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Kenotic Theology

I'm finishing up a research paper for a class I'm taking in Essential Christian Doctrine. The paper focuses on "kenotic theology," an idea that enjoyed a brief popularity in the mid- to late-1800's. It basically claims that Jesus set aside some of His deity, divine nature, or attributes when He took on human nature. The main text used in promoting this theory was Philippians 2:5-7...
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, being made in the likeness of men (Phil. 2:5-7, New American Standard Bible).
It's the "emptied Himself" that was used as a springboard for kenotic theology, along with a couple of other verses that emphasize the condescension and humiliation involved in the incarnation. To support the idea that Jesus lacked divine attributes, proponents used Mark 13:32, in which Jesus says...
But of the day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
This verse seems to indicate that there is knowledge available to the all-knowing Father that is not available to the incarnate Son. Hence, the latter must not be--while on earth--omniscient.

Of course, the gospel accounts are full of counterexamples, instances in which Jesus' omniscience and sovereignty (over wind and waves, demons, diseases, and birth defects) are on full display. Kenotic theology involved a denial of the historical understanding--hammered out by the early church in its councils at Nicea and Chalcedon--of Christ's nature and personhood. But in practical terms, this short-lived attempt to elevate Jesus' humanity was rejected because it did such a poor job of accounting for the breadth of Scripture's teaching.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Apologetics Includes...

...a 4-fold defense of the Christian faith. This according to one of my mentors, Kenneth Samples. Ken was at one time the "Bible Answer Man," is now one of Reasons To Believe's scholar team, an adjunct faculty member at BIOLA (and elsewhere, for all I know), and a gifted philosopher, theologian, and teacher. This 4-fold defense of the faith includes...
1) Presenting and clarifying the truth-claims of historical Christianity

2) Presenting positive evidence for the faith

3) Answering questions and objections

4) Critiquing alternative, non-Christian belief systems
Four characteristics of good apologetics are to be
1) clear

2) concise

3) cogent

4) compelling
And finally, four areas of preparation for the would-be apologist are
1) Biblical theology

2) Worldview thinking

3) Logic and argumentation

4) Rhetorical skill
Ken's most recent book deals with worldview thinking, and is the best treatment of the subject I've come across. There are still a handful of copies of A World of Difference at the Antioch book table (for those of you in the Central Oregon area).

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tsunami Facts

My understanding of Scripture's message, then, is that God is still and always has been completely sovereign over the workings of the universe, including tsunamis. As Psalm 97:1 has it,
The LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad.
Tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanoes are essential to life on earth, and that in ways that scientists have only begun to understand. Thus, like fire and gravity, they are necessary and yet very dangerous aspects of the physics with which God endowed the creation.

Our planet experiences one million earthquakes each year. A large one occurs on average every two weeks under one of the seas. And a tsunami of the magnitude of the one in Southeast Asia in December of 2004 comes along about once a century. But we live in a very tranquil period in earth's history; the frequency and magnitude of earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes (not to mention meteorite impacts) has generally been much greater than that which humans have experienced.

Moreover, there are at least three aspects of tsunamis designed to minimize or prevent loss of life. First, about 20 minutes prior to a tsunami, the seas invariably recede in a very characteristic manner, giving people warning to get inland or to higher ground. Second, the mangrove forests native to most tropical coastlines are known to dissipate up to 90% of the force of such a wave. (This buffering effect was observed again this past fall with in connection with the hurricane that hit the coast of Nicaragua and Honduras.) We know that the coastlines affected by the 2004 tsunami have lost 30% of the mangroves that existed there only two decades ago. In that wave, villages situated right at sea level--but behind such a mangrove forest--suffered only minor damage. Third, it appears that coral reefs have a similar role in dissipating the force of tsunamis.

There is, of course, a moral component to the tragic loss of life associated with killer tsunamis like the one in Asia. Knowing as we do about the characteristic warning signs, it would be effective and feasible to post informative signs on beaches throughout danger zones, but neither governments nor anyone else has yet undertaken such a humanitarian project. And wasteful destruction of mangrove forests and of coral reefs (poor stewardship of the resources--and in this case the buffers--that God has provided) represents an immoral act with deadly consequences.

Now, I know that I haven't satisfactorily and fully explained the reasons that so many people lost their lives in December of 2004 on the coastlines of Asia. My goal has been a more modest one. That is to assert that tsunamis--like other things we refer to as "natural evils"--play a necessary role in making earth a habitable place and that the Bible declares that God is still sovereign over all such things. My claim is that the erroneous idea that "natural evils" themselves can be attributed to the Fall of Adam has no place in a rational Christian defense of the problem of evil and suffering.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

God's Sovereignty

I suggested yesterday that the view (among Christians) that God is no longer in control of the forces of nature (since the Fall of Adam) flies in the face of the scriptural evidence. A corollary of this view is the idea that the world itself--and the forces of nature--changed at the Fall. This is implied by the article I quoted when it said,
our world isn't the perfect one God created
and
The paradise the Creator originally intended became a world where the forces of nature kill and injure innocent people.
This, too, is unbiblical. The Bible presents a unified history of God's creation of this universe and its inhabitants and His subsequent activity in human history. Central to that entire story is the remarkable incarnation of the second Person of the Godhead and His sacrificial death and resurrection that redeemed fallen mankind. Nowhere does Scripture indicate or imply that God was taken offguard when the free moral agents He had created fell into sin and rebellion. The world today is not part of a cosmic "plan B." Instead, the Fall and the redemptive central act of history were both part of God's purposes in creation.

The view I'm espousing here, which I take to do much better justice to the whole of Scripture, has been called by NASA scientist Mark Whorton the "perfect purpose paradigm." In his excellent and readable book Peril in Paradise, Whorton contrasts this with the "perfect paradise paradigm," which I take to be that of the author of this magazine article.

There are, as I have said, a wealth of exegetical (interpretive) problems with the perfect paradise view. But what really bothers me is its theological problems--including its undermining of the Scriptures' continuous declaration of God's sovereignty over all things.

Monday, November 19, 2007

God Controls the Weather

In the last post, I quoted a Christian magazine article about the deadly tsunami in Southeast Asia of December 26, 2004...
Sadly, natural disasters are a part of our world. The reason is our world isn't the perfect one God created. Once Adam and Eve sinned, our planet became subject to disease, death, and disaster. The paradise the Creator originally intended became a world where the forces of nature kill and injure innocent people.
I then claimed that there are a number of things wrong with this view.

One problem is the implication that God does not control the weather, that killer earthquakes, tsunamis, and such are somehow outside of those aspects of the universe over which God is sovereign. I would submit that this is an untenable position for anyone who takes seriously the idea that Scripture is God's inspired word.

On page after page of the Old Testament, we find the declaration that it is Yahweh alone who created and sustains the world. It is He who brings rain and drought, storms, earthquakes, lightnings, and fire. What sets Yahweh apart from all other beings--throughout the Old Testament period generally, and during the second temple period (the time during which Jesus lived)--was His identification as the One who created all things and sustains all things.

Moreover, the message shared by the apostles writing the New Testament was that this Jesus of Nazareth was to be identified as God as well because He, too, demonstrated control over such things (a representative sample of "all things" that included storms, diseases, birth defects, demons, and death). Besides demonstrating control over such things, Jesus Himself claimed (and was proclaimed, as by Paul and the author of Hebrews) to be the Creator of all things. It was this identification of Jesus as Creator and Sustainer of all things that caused the Jews of the 1st century to expand their sharp monotheism to accomodate the tri-personal understanding of the Godhead that we discern in the New Testament gospels and epistles.

So to hold a view in which God is no longer in complete control of the weather is not merely to misinterpret Scripture. Such a view undermines the very heart of the Bible's thesis regarding the unique identity of God. In attempting to understand the existence of killer tsunamis and such, therefore, we Christians must do better than to float the unscriptural idea that these things are outside of God's control.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Whence the Tsunami?

Okay, I've been meaning to get back to the problem of evil. Let me jump right in to what I find one of the most interesting aspects--"natural evil." Natural evil is generally distinguished from moral evil, the suffering that results from the actions of free-will beings. Moral evil is easily explained within the biblical worldview, which says that mankind is fallen and reprobate. Other worldviews (like secular humanism and evolution) do not provide satisfactory explanations for the atrocities commited by Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and Pol Pot.

But what about the suffering and loss of life associated with earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, and tsunamis?

Well, first of all, let me point out that it is illegitimate for the atheist to raise this issue because--on his view--good and evil are not coherent categories. That is, unless there is an ultimate, transcendent standard against which to measure things, things simply are, and adjectives like bad and evil are mere personal opinions and not substantive value assessments.

But what I'm more interested in addressing is a false explanation (for the problem of natural evil) that often arises among well-meaning Christians. And that is to blame such things (as earthquakes and volcanoes) on the Fall. Here's an example from a Christian magazine article (referring to the deadly tsunami in Southeast Asia of December 26, 2004)...
Sadly, natural disasters are a part of our world. The reason is our world isn't the perfect one God created. Once Adam and Eve sinned, our planet became subject to disease, death, and disaster. The paradise the Creator originally intended became a world where the forces of nature kill and injure innocent people.
There are a number of things wrong with this belief, and I'll identify some of them in the next post.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tikal

The shot above comes from one of my favorite spots on Earth, Tikal National Park in northern Guatemala. My peregrinations have taken me there on four seperate occasions, three of which were for 5 or 6 months at a time. The park was established to protect and make accessible the archaeological sites associated with this center of Maya civilization. But besides these marvelous examples of Maya architecture (pictured here are Temple 2 in the foreground, Temple 3 on the right, and Temple 4 in the distance to left) the park encompasses 576 square kilometers of tropical deciduous forests, home to jaguars, tapirs, army ants, parrots, and toucans.

The park is also home to some 35 species of breeding birds of prey, which is what brought me there. I had the privilege--as part of my Masters of Science program at Boise State University--of being involved in The Peregrine Fund's "Maya Project." This was a conservation research effort focusing on raptors as key indicator species, in which we studied the nesting habits, food preferences, home range and habitat requirements--in short, all aspects of the natural history--of little-known hawks, eagles, falcons, and owls of the New World tropics.

It was an exciting time, and one that remains an important part of who I am. Introducing this topic to my blog will enable me to share some of the interesting things that were learned, as well as to insert a pretty picture now and again. So, watch for periodic posts on the raptors (and other creatures) of Tikal.

The Design of Life

I can't tell you how excited I am about the upcoming release (next Monday, the 19th) of the newest book by Bill Dembski and Jonathan Wells. It's called The Design of Life, and is the most clear, comprehensive, and persuasive book to date defining and supporting intelligent design theory. About it, Michael Behe (author of Darwin's Black Box and The Edge of Evolution) has said,
When future historians list the books that toppled Darwin's theory, The Design of Life will be at the top.
I've had the opportunity to preview it, and am thrilled with every bit of it. Watch for a larger review of it here in the near future.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Wolf-to-Whale Evolution

For scientists, finding agreement among several lines of evidence brings confidence that an explanation may have some validity. On the other hand, when different lines of evidence lead to opposite conclusions, this suggests that one’s hypothesis needs to be refined or rejected. A classic example of the latter situation comes, ironically, from what has been put forth as one of the strongest evidences for evolution--the wolf to whale hypothesis.

The evolutionary idea is that whales evolved from a terrestrial, wolf-like creature (a mesonychid). For some time, proponents of this idea advanced a series of fossil creatures that, they suggested, showed a series of steps between this mesonychid on one end and a whale on the other. Unfortunately, as scientists examine the morphology of whales, they realize that whales are morphologically more similar to pigs than to wolves. This is problematic in itself, but the situation is worse (for the evolutionist). Molecular information (DNA analysis) is also now available for assessing the wolf to whale story. It turns out that whales have a closer molecular affinity to hippos than to wolves.

Were* the wolf to whale hypothesis a valid explanation (for the origin of whales), one would expect to find agreement among the fossil evidence, the morphological evidence, and the molecular evidence. Instead, each line of evidence leads to a different conclusion, which argues against the validity of this particular story (best evidence though it may be for evolution).



* (“Were” is here used as the past subjunctive form of “to be” and should not be confused with the archaic word for “man” that, when combined with “wolf,” describes a mythological creature capable of transforming from a man to a wolf and back. This author will, however, allow the reader to draw his own conclusions about whether an inadvertent juxtaposition of these two concepts--werewolves and the wolf-to-whale hypothesis--is, after all, appropriate.)

Friday, November 9, 2007

Whale and Horse Evolution

(For those of you not interested in reading another post about the obvious unreasonableness of neo-Darwinism, I apologize. I'm pressed for time and need to get something posted, and so, well, it's just so easy to point out flaws in the Darwinian story.)

At least nine factors can be identified that affect the likelihood of a species’ either evolving or going extinct in the face of natural selection pressures. That is, assuming that evolution does work--that natural selection working on gene mutations can produce significant speciation--we can discuss natural history traits that are expected to constrain or allow such evolution. We can first carry out such discussion on a theoretical level; afterward, we can apply known mutation rates to the discussion and thereby estimate values for some of these parameters required for successful evolution (as opposed to extinction).

Nine factors necessary if, for a given species, evolution will be more likely than extinction are: large population size, short generation time, large reproductive output (many progeny per adult), low biocomplexity, small body size, generalized food supply, large available habitat, high ecological diversity, and little cultural advancement (or sociality). To look at these the other way, we would say that a species is likely to go extinct if any of these are true of it: small population size, long generation time, few progeny, high biocomplexity, large body size, specialized food supply, small amount of suitable habitat, low ecological diversity, and high cultural advancement.

In evolutionary textbooks, the two vertebrate groups that are lauded as the best evidence for Darwinian evolution are the whales and the horses. This is because we see in the fossil record that numerous different species of each of these types of animals have existed. Unfortunately (for the Darwinist), whales and horses are among the very worst candidates for evolving. For each group, every one of the nine ecological factors favors extinction rather than mutational advance. The life history traits of horses and whales make them among the least adaptable organisms one could name.

That whales and horses are--in spite of their inability to adapt or evolve--prominent and varied in the recent fossil record demonstrates that God likes whales and horses. When earlier forms of each were no longer able to exist in Earth’s changing conditions, God created new forms of each, with the result that, since their original creation, whales and horses seem to have been a nearly constant part of the biodiversity of Earth. Although the creation accounts of the Bible do not specifically mention numerous created life forms (insects and dinosaurs, e.g.), special mention is made of these two groups, and the Genesis 1 account refers to the creation of sea mammals (including whales) and long-legged, trainable creatures (including horses). God’s view of horses and whales is summarized in His statement following their creation--He pronounced what He had made “good.” Both whales and horses also have a special ability to interact with humans, and this interaction is likely another reason that the Creator continued to replace whales and horses as earlier species died out.

Using available data on the rates of genetic mutations, scientists have been able to estimate what the theoretical cut-off point is for some of these factors. These would include a generation time of 3 months and a population size of 1 quadrillion individuals. Application of such estimates to animals in general indicates that a very few species (of ants and termites, e.g.) may qualify as candidates for adaptive evolution. Whales and horses, obviously, do not come close.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

True Horizon

I want to highlight the blog of a friend of mine, Bob Perry. It's called True Horizon, and provides an aviator's perspective on, well, a variety of topics. I've linked it on the side of Peregrinations, but have here linked a particular post called Balanced Flight. It deals with John Piper's book Desiring God, which most of my church, Antioch, read at the beginning of the year.

Bob was an aviator in the Marines, and is now a Captain for a large commercial airline. He lives near where I grew up (Cincinnati, Ohio), and has an M.A. in Christian apologetics from BIOLA (the degree I hope to finish next May). Bob is also a fellow volunteer apologist for the evangelistic ministry organization Reasons To Believe. This means that he recognizes (as I do) how the latest understanding from all scientific disciplines provides overwhelming support for the Biblical worldview.

So check out Bob's blog--I'm a regular reader.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Paradigm shift

A short while back, I read James Lawrence Powell's Night Comes to the Cretaceous. It's a very interesting history of the proposal (by Luis Alvarez and his son Walter in 1980) of the theory that it was a meteor impact that caused both the iridium layer that forms the geological boundary between the Cretaceous and the Tertiary, and the extinction of the third age of dinosaurs.

Vehemently opposed by the geologists of that day, this theory is now (only 25 years later) universally accepted by scientists. The impact crater itself has been identified (it's known as Chicxulub, and is on the Yucatan Peninsula and adjacent Caribbean waters). Now, astronomers believe they have identified the particular family of asteroids (in the belt between Mars & Jupiter) from which that impact body broke loose.

To me, the most fascinating part of this book was its history of a major paradigm shift within science. And I think there are lessons for the paradigm shifts occurring today.

For example, almost without exception, those who opposed the Alvarez theory never did capitulate to the evidence for it; they died rejecting what everyone today accepts. I suspect the same will be true of those who today defend neo-Darwinism in the face of overwhelming and multiplying evidence.

To put it another way, only when a new generation of scientists has grown up aware of naturalism's evidential problems will more accurate understandings be accepted.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Science and Naturalism

Several weeks ago, I delivered a talk at a luncheon of the Bend (OR) Apologetics Guild. It was titled "Science and Naturalism." Both the powerpoint presentation and the audio of that talk are now available on line (albeit in two different places). For the audio, go here, and to see the powerpoint, go here.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Jury Duty Irony

So, a couple of weeks ago, I received an invitation from the US District Court in Portland. There was--as many of you are familiar with--a "Juror Qualification Questionnaire" for me to complete and submit. I did this, except that I missed one particular question; that is, out of 15 questions, I simply failed to fill in either the "Yes" or the "No" oval for question number 4. So, in today's mail, I received my nearly-complete questionnaire returned to me with a note saying
Answer Q #4
Before I tell you what Q #4 is, let me add that there is a large space available on the back for "Remarks," and I had used this space for some of my most articulate and persuasive prose (in an effort to be excused from missing work and making the journey to Portland for jury duty). Looking over my answer, I can see that my grammar, spelling, syntax, and penmanship were impeccable, and the content of my answer coherent and lucid. Nonetheless, your tax dollars (well, cents, actually) were used to mail my questionnaire back to me (and a postage-paid return envelope was included) to ensure that I could personally pencil in the correct answer to question number 4...
Do you read, write, speak, and understand the English language?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Theistic Evolutionists

It is not just young earth creationists (as referenced in my last post) whose difficulty with the problem of evil leads to (what I take to be) a faulty understanding of reality. For some of the most outspoken theistic evolutionists, their reason for affirming macroevolution has less to do with any evidence for it and more to do with theological implications of denying it.

Both Kenneth Miller and Francis Ayala appeal to the evolutionary process as a way of exonerating God from responsibility for the "evil" and perceived "bad design" in nature. Just as for the young earth creationist, the things from which these folks want to distance God include predatory animals, parasites (like malaria), and other potentially harmful aspects of nature. For Miller and Ayala, an appeal to Intelligent Design directly implicates God in the creation of such things, whereas if God only set into motion the process of evolution, this somehow lets Him off the hook.

I won't take the time right now to address the many problems with this view; rather, this post merely serves to get it on the table. In forcefully, vehemently arguing for evolution (despite its many evidential problems) and against intelligent design theory (or most forms of creationism) these men seriously believe that they are defending God's honor against the charge of bad design or cruelty.

And so, no matter where we turn, we find people coming to inaccurate conclusions for the very same reason--an inability to arrive at an adequate solution to the 'problem of evil.'

Monday, October 29, 2007

Whence Venom?

The issue of scorpion venom (discussed in my last post) allows me to segue back (in a roundabout way) to the problem of evil discussion we began a few weeks ago. Most people see scorpions (and rattlesnakes) as bad things, as part of the "evil" in this world. Indeed, so deeply is this felt that some Christians attempt to exonerate God (excuse Him from the charge of creating such "evil" things) by suggesting that they are the result of the Fall (or the 'Curse'). A concrete example comes to mind...

In a Sunday school class, the teacher asked my young son and his classmates to each come up with a list of 26 Things God Created, one thing beginning with each letter of the alphabet. Being a snake enthusiast, when my son got to V he wrote down "venom." Seeing this, the teacher asked him if he could come up with a different one, because she didn't think God created that.

Now, this well-meaning lady was not arguing for macroevolution (theistic or naturalistic). Rather, she had somehow come to believe that God had originally created the earth as a perfect paradise, completely free of any so-called "natural evils," including rattlesnakes or scorpions or (presumably) earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, forest fires, predatory animals, or anything else that might cause pain or loss of life. On her view, all of these things originated at the Fall of Adam and/or through a subsequent "curse" on God's part.

Sadly, this understanding is not rare among conservative Christians in our day and age. Sure, it flies in the face of all that we learn from the creation itself (general revelation), and has no historical grounding within the church (it really arose only in the 20th century). But more importantly, it involves a very wooden and superficial reading of the pertinent Bible passages and ignoring others that clearly refute it.

If God didn't create rattlesnakes and scorpions in the first place, where did they come from? The range of options is few. They either evolved, or were created by Satan, or resulted from a spell God cast at the time of "the curse." And I suspect that it is this latter option to which folks like my son's teacher ascribe. But the Bible seems pretty clear that God ceased creating once He had made the first man and woman, and that "the curse" was, more than anything, a banishment of Adam and Eve from the specially-prepared Garden and a straightforward explanation on God's part of the consequences of Adam's having chosen to sin.

The best treatment of this whole subject that I've ever come across is a relatively recent book by a friend of mine, NASA scientist Mark Whorton. It's called Peril in Paradise, and in it he contrasts the Perfect Paradise Paradigm (the Sunday school teacher's view) with the Perfect Purpose Paradigm (which I take to be a much more accurate understanding of the Biblical texts). I highly recommend it.

But we'll talk more about "natural evil" in posts to come.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Israeli Yellow Scorpion

Here's another example ("Of what?" you ask. Please see the previous post.)...

Gliomas are tumors of the central nervous system that arise from glial cells. Most occur in the brain of humans, though they can also be found in the spinal cord or optic nerve. High grade gliomas usually become extensive quickly, are difficult to treat, and are often fatal.

A promising experimental treatment for gliomas comes from the venom of the Israeli Yellow Scorpion (Leiurus quinquestriatus). American researchers have isolated chlorotoxin (a peptide), which apparently binds with high affinity to the chloride ion channels in the cancerous glial cells in the brain.

Let's pray that this compound does provide the pharmaceutical breakthrough for which these scientists hope, and that many persons suffering from this dangerous condition can be treated effectively in the future with this derivative from scorpion venom. But in the meantime, let's ask again, how would an evolutionist ever expect that such a benefit to humans would be found in such an organism?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Horseshoe Crab Test

A couple of weeks ago, I was blogging about the fact that understanding evolutionary theory has no practical implications for doing biological or any other scientific research. I quoted Phillip Skell, including...
...neither medical schools nor pharmaceutical firms maintain divisions of evolutionary science.
I thought I'd mention (from time to time) some of the ways in which chemicals derived from other organisms seem to serve a purpose (there's that word again, the one that has no place in the vocabulary of a naturalistic evolutionist) for human beings. At a minimum, I will be providing evidential support for Skell's claim above. Perhaps such evidence will also serve as a design argument (on yet another level), as I can't imagine a Darwinian "just-so story" for some of what I have in mind.

For starters, consider the Horseshoe Crab. A clotting agent derived uniquely from the blood of these strange-looking arthropods is used to test every intravenous drug administered to people. It's a test for purity from harmful bacteria, and no IV drug reaches your hospital pharmacy without first having passd the Horseshoe Crab test.

On a Christian worldview, this makes perfect sense. We are told that God created other life in part for our benefit, and so we search the living world for cures for human diseases. And such searching continues to reap benefits. But what I don't understand is how an evolutionary naturalist would ever expect this, or how he could justify beginning such a search. On his view, natural selection acts without purpose or design, and certainly doesn't evolve some life forms for the benefit of humans that don't even inhabit the same ecosystem. Moreover, the alleged common ancestor of humans and arthropods would have to have been very early in the history of life, and many of the intermediate life forms almost certainly lacked either the clotting compound of the "crab" or the intravenous drug use of the human.

This is, of course, just the first of dozens--perhaps hundreds--of examples that could be delineated. Besides just brute fact or lucky happenstance, can anyone suggest how a naturalist could explain these sorts of beneficial relationships?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

October 23rd

I've become a regular reader of Denyse O'Leary, Toronto-based author and blogger. She's a regular contributor (the most regular contributor) to the intelligent design blog of Bill Dembski and friends, Uncommon Descent. She also hosts two blogs of her own, The Post-Darwinist and The Mindful Hack. The latter provides a non-materialist look at mind/brain issues, much as does the excellent book O'Leary recently coauthored with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, The Spiritual Brain.

I got a big kick out of Denyse's post at Uncommon Descent today. It seems a reporter from the Toronto Star called to ask her how Christians were planning to celebrate today (October 23rd). She didn't know what he was getting at, so he explained that he figured she, as a fundamentalist Christian, could tell him how Christians planned to commemorate the date that Anglican bishop James Ussher and Cambridge University Vice-Chancellor John Lightfoot long ago concluded was the date on which creation occurred.

O'Leary patiently explained (among other things) that she is a Catholic (and thus not a fundamentalist) and an Old-Earth Creationist (not a Young-Earth Creationist). Further, she explained that she knows of no Young-Earth Creationist who believes Lightfoot and Ussher to have been right in their calculations.

Nor do I. But it is amazing how a few, well-funded and very vocal Christians can lead unbelievers to think that the Bible teaches that the universe is only thousands of years old.

There were, of course, a number of wrong assumptions associated with Ussher's and Lightfoot's calculations. (It was actually Lightfoot who said that Adam was created on October 23rd, 4004 BC, and even proposed a precise hour for that event!). One misassumption still shared by many English-speaking Christians is the demonstrably false view that the Old Testament genealogies were complete or were meant to serve the same purpose served by our modern attempts at establishing genealogies.

Comparison of the genealogies leads inevitably to the conclusion that biblical genealogies are not (and were not intended to be) complete. In Genesis 11, for example, there are ten names in the line from Seth to Abram (inclusively); in Luke 3, there are eleven names in the same genealogy, with Cainan inserted between Arphaxad and Shelad. The genealogy recorded in Matt. 1:8 has Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jehoram, and Uzziah, whereas 1 Chr. 3:10-12 inserts Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah between Jehoram and Uzziah. Hebrew scholars recognize that such genealogies were never intended to record complete family lines (as our modern genealogies would aspire to). The words translated “father” and “son” have much broader meaning in the Hebrew, and can mean “ancestor” and “descendant” as well as “father” and “son.” In some cases, the meaning is even broader--in Daniel 5:2, Nebuchadnezzar is referred to as the “father” of Belshazzar, though Belshazzar’s immediate father was Nabonidus, and he wasn’t even a biological descendant of Nebuchadnezzar (but, rather, simply a descendant to his throne).

The gaps in the Hebrew genealogies indicate that it is foolish to attempt to reconstruct a date for even the creation of Adam (let alone the universe itself). And while there remains much debate about how many generations are omitted, the scientific evidence (from genetics, archaeology, and such) still indicates that the first humans were created only tens of thousands of years ago (not millions, as required by evolutionary theory).

Still looking for something to celebrate this October 23rd? How about this... Celebrate the fact that as Christians who believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture we need not defend the view that the creation occurred only 6,000 years ago. The Bible--rightly understood--comes nowhere near teaching such a view, much less one that proclaims a date of October 23rd.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Can We Know What the Gospels Said?

As Bart Ehrman has pointed out (and as is recognized by every serious Christian and acknowedged by every study Bible), we do not have the originals of any New Testament book. And there is very good reason for this.

They were written originally on papyrus. If you don't know what that is, think about a very flimsy sort of reed, many of which were laid crosswise to one another and then beaten until they meshed. Now, the resulting sheet or scroll--on which a letter of Paul or a gospel account by Luke was written--was passed around from town to town among the early followers of Jesus (and also, thankfully, copied many times). Such papyri (and also the alternative "stationery"--dried animal skins) were not made to last for twenty centuries.

But we don't have the originals of any ancient documents.* And so the question--with regard to the reliability of documents from this period is not "Do we have the originals?" Rather, the pertinent questions are "How many copies do we have?" and "How short is the time that passed between the writing of the originals and the copies that survive?"

If we look at other ancient documents from about the same time period, the average number of surviving copies is about 20, and the average time interval (between the original and the earliest extant copy) is 1000 years. For Thucydides' History and Tacitus' Annals, for example, we have 8 and 20 copies, respectively, the earliest for each being 1,000 years after the autograph. And historians deem these to be reliable transmissions of what the originals said.

The attestation for the New Testament overwhelmingly surpasses all other ancient writings. We have over 5,000 Greek manuscripts containing part or all of the NT, plus more than 8,000 early Latin translations and thousands of others in Syriac and Coptic. A fragment of John 8 is dated at AD 117-138, within a few decades of the original. We have significant portions of other gospels from AD 200 and 250, and a copy of the entire NT that dates to AD 340!

On the two criteria used to assess the reliability of ancient documents, the New Testament in general and the gospel accounts of Jesus' life in particular enjoy an embarrassment of rich support. We can be extremely confident that we know what the originals said, even though none of the originals themselves have survived.


* A little reflection will lead you to realize that the vast majority of what you accept as true and reliable comes to you not through any original writing. Rare exceptions would be the hand-written love letters sent to you by your spouse or the post cards mailed from Mom and Dad. But the newspapers, magazines, internet articles, and virtually everything you trust to tell you the truth are not the autographs or original writings about the events in question.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Misquoting Jesus

As I prepare to teach a class on New Testament textual criticism, it seems appropriate to interact with Bart Ehrman, whose book Misquoting Jesus is just another in a list of very popular books attempting to refute Christianity. Like Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Ehrman's main problem is that he doesn't think well, that his "arguments" are not persuasive because they involve logical fallacies and lack adequate support.

With regard to the reliability of the New Testament, Ehrman adopts a hermeneutic of suspicion (or skepticism) for a very silly--and self-centered--reason. In effect, his whole approach is based on the reasoning he describes here...
I came to realize that it would have been no more difficult for God to preserve the words of scripture than it would have been for him to inspire them in the first place... And if he didn't perform that miracle [of preserving the words], there seemed to be no reason to think that he performed the earlier miracle of inspiring those words.
It doesn't take a gifted logician to see that this is not a valid, cogent argument, but merely an arrogant opinion. He is saying, in effect, "If I were God, I would have done it this way. Since it was not done the way I think it should have been, it cannot have involved God." This, of course, is just another case of the root of all sin, the pride by which we would put ourselves in the place of Almighty God. Unfortunately, many of Ehrman's readers will be either unequipped to see through this sort of sloppy thinking or willing to come to the same conclusion (and thus deny the claim of God upon their lives).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Chimp-Human DNA Comparisons

I mentioned this issue briefly back in June, but it seems to keep coming up. For many folks, the discovery that the human and chimp genomes are something like 96% similar is somehow proof that common ancestry and macroevolutionary theory are true. A couple of things need to be said in response to this misunderstanding.

First, this degree of similarity refers only to specific coding portions of the respective DNA; the research didn't include all of the coding DNA, much less the much greater amount of DNA that is not involved (directly) in serving as the template for gene products (proteins and such). And, indeed, since this research was first published, there have been numerous discoveries involving the functions and roles of the non-coding portions (what had been known as "junk" DNA), which were not included in this study.

More importantly, however, is this... Darwin's theory was never about the similarity of living things. Rather, it was an attempt to explain (away) the differences. All biologists at the time of Darwin recognized the chimpanzee as the living organism most similar to humans. So the ability of modern genomic research to quantify the degree of that similarity cannot in any way be seen as support for evolutionary theory. Rather, while such a finding gives us an even greater appreciation of the physical similarity between humans and chimps, it only illuminates the failure of Darwin's physicalist attempt to explain the differences. While our physiologies and anatomies are (as has always been recognized, both by theists and materialists) extremely similar, humans are different--not in degree, but in kind--from chimps, especially in their reasoning capacities and their penchant for spiritual expression. (I won't bother here to clutter the argument with the further claim, based on excellent empirical evidence, that human souls survive the death of the body, something that has not been documented for other primates.)

The finding that chimps and humans share a 90-something percent similarity in their physical templates is not a surprise to Christian theists. But it does highlight the fact that Darwinian evolution (because it is a merely physicalist explanation) fails to explain what it was formualted to explain--the outstanding differences between these similar organisms. In the world of abductive reasoning--arguing to the best explanation of the facts--Christian theism fares much better here (as everywhere else) than naturalistic evolution. Humans are unique creatures because they alone are made in the image of God, as rational, spiritual persons. Evolution offers no account for the significant differences between humans and chimps.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Tainted Transmission

Our study Bibles indicate places where "some early manuscripts omit _______ (Son of God, e.g.)," and Bart Ehrman and others claim that early scribes so altered the gospels that we have no idea what Jesus really said and did. What are we to make of this?

This coming Sunday, our Adult Education class at Antioch will begin a four-week series discussing inspiration and inerrancy, scribal errors and the whole field of New Testament textual criticism. We'll answer the charge of "tainted transmission" of the Scriptures and--in the process--learn how to make the most of the marginal notes in our study Bibles that mention textual variants.

If you're in Central Oregon on the weekend, come to the 8:00 service at the Regal Cinemas in the Old Mill (theater #5), and then join us at 9:30 in theater #1. It should be an interesting and informative series.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Philip Skell's Opinion

In my last post, I shared a quote from A.S. Wilkins about how superfluous evolutionary theory is to the conducting of science. Wilkins was quoted by Philip Skell, a member of the National Academy of Science, in an opinion piece he wrote in the August 29, 2005 edition of The Scientist. Skell had polled 70 scientists about whether they would have approached their research any differently if they had thought that Darwinian theory was wrong. All said "No." Skell's conclusion?
From my conversations with leading researchers it had become clear that modern experimental biology gains its strength from the availablity of new instruments and methodologies, not from an immersion in historical biology [evolutionary theory].
Skell received (as you might imagine) a number of letters from fellow scientists critical of his claim. This induced him to write a response to these letters:
My essay about Darwinism and modern experimental biology has stirred up a lively discussion, but the responses still provide no evidence that evolutionary theory is the cornerstone of experimental biology. Comparative physiology and comparative genomics have certainly been fruitful, but comparative biology originated before Darwin and owes nothing to his theory. Before the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, comparative biology focused mainly on morphology because physiology and biochemistry were in their infancy and genomics lay in the future; but the extension of a comparative approach to these subdisciplines depended on the development of new methodologies and instruments, not on evolutionary theory and immersion in historical biology.

One letter mentions directed molecular evolution as a technique to discover antibodies, enzymes, and drugs. Like comparative biology, this has certainly been fruitful, but it is not an application of Darwinian evolution--it is the modern molecular equivalent of classical breeding. Long before Darwin, breeders used artificial selection to develop improved strains of crops and livestock. Darwin extrapolated this in an attempt to explain the origin of new species, but he did not invent the process of artificial selection itself.

It is noteworthy that not one of these critics has detailed an example where Darwin's Grand Paradigm Theory guided researchers to their goals. In fact, most innovations are not guided by grand paradigms but by far more modest, testable hypotheses. Recognizing this, neither medical schools nor pharmaceutical firms maintain divisions of evolutionary science. The fabulous advances in experimental biology over the past century have had a core dependence on the development of new methodologies and instruments, not on intensive immersion in historical biology and Darwin's theory, which attempted to historicize the meager documentation.

Evolution is not an observable characteristic of living organisms. What modern experimental biologists study are the mechanisms by which living organisms maintain their stability, without evolving. Organisms oscillate about a median state; and if they deviate significantly from that state, they die. It has been research on these mechanisms of stability, not research guided by Darwin's theory, which has produced the major fruits of modern biology and medicine. And so I ask again: Why do we invoke Darwin?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A.S. Wilkins

Here on the blog and in some of my presentations, I have been known to claim that biological macroevolution is unimportant and irrelevant with regard to understanding and conducting research in biology (let alone other fields of science). I only recently* came across a like sentiment from A.S. Wilkins, the editor of the journal BioEssays (2000). He wrote...
While the great majority of biologists would agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky's dictum that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution," most can conduct their work quite happily without particular reference to evolutionary ideas. Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one.


*This quote was cited in an opinion piece by Philip Skell (about which I'll share more in a future blog), which in turn I found cited in Thomas Woodward's latest book, Darwin Strikes Back.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Ergo

My friend Ben Larson has his blog, Ergo, up and running again. It's somewhat presumptuous of me to try to characterize it, but he's a thoughtful, bright, creative, talented, and articulate Christian young man who is willing to share with his readers glimpses into his life and thoughts. I hope you'll check it out and--like me--become a regular reader.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Evolution of Picky Eating

Today's gratuitous reference to evolution comes from an article from the New York Times titled "Picky eating? It's genetic, study finds."

The entire article is a sore disappointment--it is lengthy but very superficial. It begins by mentioning new research (out of University College, London) that queried the eating habits of 5,390 pairs of twins between the ages of 8 and 11. The conclusion with regard to picky eating in kids is that
78 percent is genetic and the other 22 percent environmental.
We are not given enough information to evaluate this research, and the lead researcher demonstrates a bias going in...
I came from a position of not wanting to blame parents.
Of course, I suspect we're supposed to accept her conclusion in part because she also makes certain to invoke evolution...
If we just went running out of the cave as little cave babies and stuck anything in our mouths, that would have been potentially dangerous.
As usual, the conclusion of this research (if accurate) has nothing to do with evolution, and certainly not (the controversial) macro-evolution. We are talking about humans, after all, and everyone accepts the idea that minor changes have occurred within the human population. Then there is no evidence (at least supplied by this article--and the research appeared to be a questionnaire rather than a biochemical study) of a genetic disparity among human populations in this regard. Moreover, we are expected to believe that--a mere tens of thousands of years ago (since the first Homo sapiens sapiens seem to have appeared very recently)--such a gene-based trait (for finicky eating) provided its carriers with a sufficient advantage such that natural selection favored such early humans over their non-picky cohorts. Were we not hypnotized by the evolution myth, would any clear-thinking modern really believe this nonsense?

If the conclusion of this research (that heredity plays a larger role than environment in this human characteristic) is valid, it suggests one thing...that there is adaptive advantage to being somewhat finicky at a young age. This realization doesn't provide support for any particular metaphysical belief (naturalistic evolution, intelligent design, creation). In other words, it would be much more factual to simply say that finicky eating is adaptive--such a statement would be non-controversial and (more importantly) more accurate than the baseless evolutionary claim made by the lead researcher.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A World of Difference

I'm really excited by the recently released book A World of Difference by Kenneth Richard Samples. It's the best book on worldviews that I've come across. I had the fortune to look at the manuscript just after it went to press. Moreover, I've been using the material in this book for several years, having received it in a course I took under Professor Samples. I'm thrilled that this important material has now been made widely accessible through this book (subtitled Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test).

In 16 easy-to-read chapters, philosopher, theologian, and apologist Samples presents a thorough discussion of the subject of worldviews. The first section (4 chapters) covers the concept of worldview, the fact that everyone has one (whether he has examined it or not), and the task of developing an accurate worldview. Chapters 5 through 11 explore the Christian worldview, detailing what the Bible and Christian orthodoxy have to say about truth, knowledge, history, revelation, God, creation, humanity, and morality.

Chapters 12 through 16 are my favorites, as Samples proceeds to walk us through an evaluation of each of the primary competing worldviews of our day. These are naturalism, postmodernism, pantheistic monism, Islam, and, finally, Christianity.

Here's a quote from chapter 1...
Unfortunately, many people consider philosophical reflection in general--and worldview consideration in particular--a waste of time. Ironically, however, even this position of apathy reveals a philosophical viewpoint (in that the sentiment "philosophy is a waste of time" is itself a philosophical position). Philosophy is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid. A generally unexamined or scarcely examined approach to life may explain why so many people hold underdeveloped, disjointed, and poorly understood worldviews.
For anyone wishing to examine their worldview, I can recommend no better place to start than A World of Difference. But wait! Don't go to the Amazon link immediately. If you're in the Central Oregon area, I'll have several copies available at a discount price this Sunday morning at Antioch's Ministry Fair. Drop by the Acts 17 (Apologetics Ministry) table before or after the 9:30 service (for this week only in theatre #9) and pick up your copy.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Purpose of the Appendix

For several years now it has been becoming increasingly clear that the human appendix is not a mere vestige, a useless organ that no longer serves a function. According to an article from the AP, Duke University Medical School surgeons and immunologists now think they know exactly what its function is. They theorize that the appendix cultivates and safeguards colonies of bacteria--the good kind that are necessary components of our digestive systems. For those times--as during a bout of dysentary or cholera--when the bacterial population of one's system is purged or dies, the appendix is ready to resupply the digestive tract with these needed microflora.

Although this explanation for the function of the appendix is still somewhat speculative (and referred to as a 'theory'), it is already gaining acceptance among others, as the article affirmed. But I was especially intrigued by what one of those other scientists had to say. Here's a part of the article...
Five scientists not connected with the research said that the Duke theory makes sense and raises interesting questions. The idea "seems by far the most likely" explanation for the function of the appendix, said Brandeis University biochemistry professor Douglas Theobald. "It makes evolutionary sense."
Have you noticed that every new scientific discovery is baptized with an appeal to evolution? Do the researchers worry that their theory will not be accepted unless they say the E-word in reporting it? Or do the interviewed 'other scientists' get a raise or points toward tenure every time they gratuitously appeal to evolution in an interview?

As a theist who understands that all living things--and humans especially--are designed by an intelligent Creator, I fully expected the eventual discovery that the appendix has a purpose. Indeed, I was never tempted to accept--as did so many evolutionists for so long--the notion that the appendix was a useless vestige of some purposeless evolutionary process. But now that the design prediction is being verified, this verification of a purpose--excuse me, I mean function (the word "purpose" has no place in a biologist's vocabulary, and I'm afraid I've slipped more than once in this post)--is said to "make evolutionary sense!"

Of course, no support is given for this vacuous statement, and that's because the finding of function for the appendix was not expected by evolutionists, provides no support for evolution, and--if considered objectively--fits in perfectly with the opposing view, that living things are designed.

I hope my readers are sensitized to notice these evolutionary creeds in articles about science--and to recognize them for what they are--gratuitous, content-free statements of faith by the believer in naturalistic evolution.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Ruse Versus Nelson

Last night at BIOLA, a different sort of debate took place. It was biologist Paul Nelson against atheist philosopher Michael Ruse. But rather than defend their own position (intelligent design or naturalistic evolution), the two were supposed to identify what new evidence from the other side would cause them to rethink their current belief.

I didn't have a chance to attend, and have not yet obtained access to an audio (or video) copy of the "un-debate." I have, however, read a couple of reviews. And the pertinent point for readers of this blog is that--like many atheists--Ruse's main objection to the existence of God has to do with the presence of evil, suffering, and "bad design" in the world. So we'll get right back to our lengthy discussion of this issue...

...right after I point out a couple more glaring problems in Dawkins' chapter 4.