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
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


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?