Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Major in Literature

Years ago, I read A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle. One of the quotes I wrote down in my reading journal was advice given to an aspiring young writer (in a dialogue she had with an older mentor). He said,
And when you go to college, major in English. The great writers are your best teachers. If you take my advice, you won't go in for those so-called creative writing courses. You'll write anyhow, and you'll never again have a chance like the four years of college to soak yourself in writers of all kinds and sorts. And a lot of people who teach creative writing tend to be manipulative, or to want to make the young writers over in their own images.

By the way, the Mexico Team has successfully built their houses and come back across the border without leaving anyone behind! They have a few days in Southern Cal. before driving back over the weekend. The Gerhardt Girls are looking forward to having their Gerhardt Guys back home again!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Natural Recycling

From Rudyard Kipling in The Jungles Books...
Last year's nuts are this year's black earth.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

John Muir

Today I want to share a couple of quotes from Stickeen by John Muir. The first is by the author, and goes out to my good friend Brandon...
Now, a cautious mountaineer seldom takes a step on unknown ground which seems at all dangerous that he cannot retrace in case he should be stopped by unseen obstacles ahead. This is the rule of mountaineers who live long...
Then this, about Muir, from the Afterword written by Malcolm Margolin...
In one place, needing his own arms as well as his legs for support, [Muir] caught Young's collar in his teeth and holding him as a 'panther with her cub' he climbed straight up a rock wall ten or twelve feet.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Today, I'm leaving with my two sons and Alpha, the high school group at Antioch Church, to spend Spring Break building a home for a family in Mexico. We'll be gone until April 1st, and are looking forward to a great time!

A relatively new blogger cannot afford to have his site languish for that long, however, or folks will stop checking it. So I've prepared a few posts for my wife, Dawn, to download while I'm disconnected from cyberspace. Most will be quotes that I've written down in my reading journal. And if you're really fortunate, Dawn may even take it upon herself to do some guest-blogging while I'm gone.

I'll be out for a bit, but don't you go anywhere. I'll catch up with you in April. Vaya con Dios.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Waste of Space?

The movie Contact was not subtle in expressing its main theme. At least four times in the movie, the question is posed, "Do you think there's any other intelligent life out there?" The unvarying response is, "If not, it sure seems like an awful waste of space." The movie, of course, was adapted from Carl Sagan's novel by the same name, and offered a clear portrayal of his worldview, including the Principle of Mediocrity. Sagan was convinced by the sheer magnitude of the universe that life--and even intelligent life--must be everywhere abundant in it. We live in a culture that easily resonates with Sagan's views, where portrayals of such life are indeed everywhere. (You might prefer the original Star Trek series, but your wife likes The Next Generation, your brother is a Battlestar Gallactica fan, and your kids prefer sci-fi video games, but we can all find common ground somewhere in the Star Wars movie series, right?) But Sagan's conclusions in this regard had little to do with empirical science, and have become outdated by the accumulating evidence.

The second king of ancient Israel, the shepherd and psalmist David, likewise wondered at the immensity of the heavens, even though he could only see about 6,000 stars (the number that can be observed with the naked human eye).
When I consider the heavens, what is man that You [O Lord] are mindful of him?
Indeed, the vastness of the universe presents a challenge to folks of all metaphysical stances today. Mormon doctrine has the faithful populating planets throughout the cosmos. In a similar vein, the last book by the late Henry Morris, a young-Earth creationist, postulated that Christians would be given dominion over other planets in the age to come. These speculations on his part were largely fueled, apparently, by his inability to otherwise explain why there are so many stars if life on Earth was a primary purpose of creation.

As it turns out, however, the number of stars (approximately 100 billion trillion) is one of those many characteristics (along with associated parameters like the mass density of the universe and the relative masses of the neutron and proton) that must be just right for life to exist anywhere at any time in the universe. Given the chemistry and physics of the universe, the vast number of stars that exist are precisely what is required for life. Moreover, when the probabilities of such fine-tuning are consider, it becomes astronomically improbable that even one life-support planet exists (apart from a Designer). The question of the origin and existence of life is a separate, equally difficult problem for the naturalist, but that can wait for another post.

In the meantime, here're a couple of other quotes from scientists studying the fine-tuning of the universe. First, British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle...
...a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology.
Likewise, theoretical physicist Tony Rothman wrote...
The medieval theologian who gazed at the night sky through the eyes of Aristotle and saw angels moving the spheres in harmony has become the modern cosmologist who gazes at the same sky through the eyes of Einstein and sees the hand of God not in angels but in the constants of nature.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Electron:Proton Ratio

How about that for a snappy title? Makes you want to call all your friends into the room to check out this blog post, doesn't it?

In the last post, I began to talk about the anthropic principle, the recognition on the part of astronomers, physicists, and chemists that the universe is made with intelligent life as its goal. Today I want to help you begin to appreciate what proponents of this principle mean when they discuss "fine-tuning." The example I'll give you comes from astronomer Hugh Ross' book, The Creator and the Cosmos.

The number of electrons (in the universe) is equivalent to the number of protons to an accuracy of one part in 10 to the 37th power. If it were not so, galaxies, stars, and planets would never form (because electromagnetic forces would so overwhelm gravitational forces).

So what does one part in 10 to the 37th power look like? Ross asks us to imagine the entire North American continent covered in dimes, and that continent-wide pile of dimes reaching all the way to the moon. Now, consider a million such continent-wide, to-the-moon-high stacks of dimes, and among all those dimes a single one painted red. One part in 10 to the 37th power is like a blind-folded person successfully selecting that one red dime on the first try!

And the ratio of electrons to protons is just one of more than 93 characteristics of the universe (so far documented) that exhibit extreme fine-tuning for life. That's why the evidence for design in the universe has led so many astronomers and physicists to use theological language when discussing their results. Take astronomer George Greenspan, for example...
As we survey all the evidence, the thought insistently arises that some supernatural agency--or, rather, Agency--must be involved. Is it possible that suddenly, without intending to, we have stumbled upon scientific proof of the existence of a Supreme Being? Was it God who stepped in and so providentially crafted the cosmos for our benefit?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Copernican or Anthropic

The Polish astronomer Copernicus (1473-1543) is generally credited with establishing that the center of the solar system is the sun and not the Earth.* Subsequent astronomical research has shown that our sun is not at the center of our galaxy nor is our galaxy at the center of the universe. Add to this the modern recognition that the universe contains on the order of 100 billion trillion stars, and the result is the idea that the Earth is nothing special, location-wise, ontologically, or in its characteristics. This notion, popularized by the late astronomer Carl Sagan, is often referred to as the "Copernican Principle." This is a misnomer, of course, as Copernicus didn't share Sagan's religious views, and didn't overstate the physical evidence to support an unwarranted metaphysical claim. A better name for this idea--still popular among moderns (especially sci-fi fans who, like Sagan, consider it reasonable to think that the Cosmos is replete with planets hosting intelligent life forms)--is the "principle of mediocrity."

Today, however, anyone affirming the principle of mediocrity would be guilty--as was Sagan in his later years--of commiting the fallacy of supressed evidence. During Sagan's lifetime and since, overwhelming evidence contrary to Sagan's view has been accumulating. General relativity has by now become the most rigorously tested theory in all of physics, and its logical product--big bang cosmology--has proved fatal for Sagan's view that "The Cosmos is all there is, or ever was, or ever will be." Moreover, astronomers, chemists, and physicists are continually identifying characteristics of the universe that are extremely fine-tuned to provide for human life. The current understanding--the anthropic principle--has turned the "Copernican" Principle on its head, and we now know (for example) that our sun's place within the galaxy and our galaxy's place within the galaxy cluster are (while not central) exactly what they need to be for life on Earth to be possible. According to astrophysicist Paul Davies...
There is for me powerful evidence that there is something going on behind it all… It seems as though somebody has fine-tuned nature’s numbers to make the Universe… The impression of design is overwhelming.
Stephen Hawking likewise expressed the latest understanding,
It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.
In days to come, I'll be sharing just a few of the 93+ fine-tuned characteristics of the universe itself and the 154+ characteristics of the galaxy, solar system, and Earth that fall within extremely narrow (life-permitting) ranges. If you want to learn more about this yourself, I recommend Hugh Ross' The Creator and the Cosmos, The Privileged Planet by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, and the Reasons To Believe website (where updated lists of these characteristics can be found).

*Copernicus' immediate successors, Bruno and Galileo, played important roles in getting this understanding out. Moreover, there is some indication that even Ptolemy recognized ours as a heliocentric system. His system of concentric rings (that is to us moderns Ptolemy's legacy and which brands him as geocentric) may have been his best bet for predicting the locations of the planets given the rather undeveloped geometry of his day.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Bird Bander

I'm a bird bander. It's probably important to know about me, because it'll come up now again, here on the blog or in normal conversation.

I am authorized by the Bird Banding Laboratory--in Laurel, Maryland, and currently within the US Geological Survey--to affix uniquely-numbered aluminum bands to the tarsi (the part of the leg above the foot) of most North American species of birds. Banding enables researchers to re-identify individuals themselves and--with the help of other biologists and the general public--to find even those birds that have flown halfway around the globe from where they were originally captured.

A Master Permit for banding birds has become increasingly difficult to come by in recent years (though there are many of us out there). The criteria for obtaining a permit include 1) a need, that is, a particular research project or question that would require or be augmented by the kind of information that banding provides, 2) demonstrated capability at identifying, ageing, and sexing the species of birds one might capture, and 3) organizational skills (to deal effectively with the potentially vast amount of data that needs to be reported). To obtain a permit today requires having favorable references from three individuals who already hold Master Permits. Additional permits are required for banding special birds, such as endangered and threatened species.

The sort of information obtained through banding (which is called "ringing" in Great Britain) includes site fidelity, migration patterns, turnover rates, dispersal distances, and longevity. From time-to-time, I'll probably share some interesting stories (from my own and other avian research) that has to do with this integral part of bird research.

Should you ever find a banded bird (pigeons don't count--that's a different band system used by racers of homing pigeons), record the number and contact the Bird Banding Lab.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Balaam's Ass

The question came up about Balaam's Ass. You know, the one that in Numbers 22 speaks to its master, bringing to his attention the fact that a sword-toting angel was barring the path. I think what was meant by the question was this...
What's up with a talking donkey? What are we to make of stories like this one in the Old Testament that ask us to believe that an ass actually spoke?
It's a perfectly reasonable question, and I'd like to offer a reasonable answer. Though focusing on this particular miracle-story, perhaps we can learn something of how to approach the Bible's miraculous claims generally. After all, the greatest miracle--Incarnation and Resurrection--is the very heart of the Christian faith. So what we do with Balaam's Ass has far-reaching implications.

We need to recognize that many moderns attempt to divest the Bible of anything smacking of the supernatural. That is, it is fashionable to take a naturalistic approach to understanding the Scriptures. I find this unreasonable on at least two counts.

The first is that I am just finishing a seven-week series (at Antioch) on "Analyzing Naturalism." In it, we have seen from a variety of angles that naturalism is a much poorer worldview than Christian theism. Though I cannot summarize it all here, let me just note that the latest scientific understanding from such diverse fields as astronomy, physics, biochemistry, and genomics has presented overwhelming problems for naturalism while comporting perfectly with the Biblical understanding. Naturalism does not provide the rational foundation for conducting science, has no explanation for the order in the universe, and provides no reasonable basis for trusting our reasoning capacities or our senses. Naturalism cannot adequately account for the laws of logic or of mathematics, the existence of the universe, the design of the universe, the origin of life, the Cambrian Explosion, the origin of information (in the genetic code), the existence of irreducibly complex molecular machines, or the existence of consciousness.

Secondly, I wonder why those who take a naturalistic approach to Scripture would even bother. The Bible claims to be the Word of God, and this is what has always made it a runaway bestseller. If naturalism is true--if there is no God--than why would anyone read such a book? Those who approach the Bible naturalistically have failed to ask the most interesting question of all--is there a God? Or (perhaps I should say) they have answered it in their own minds a prior (before examining the evidence), and that in the negative. The reasonable position would be to be open to discovering the truth on this issue, rather than to rule out one of the possible answers beforehand.

You see, if there is a God--and by this I mean the exact sort of God of which the Bible speaks, one who both created the universe and acts in human history--then none of the miracle claims contained in His revelation to us can be rightly deemed unreasonable.

But for the sake of argument, let me be more open here. Let's neither assume that there is (or is not) a God nor that the Bible is His revelation to us. What is the most reasonable explanation for why this particular story is imbedded in this larger book?

One option is that the author (I'll call him Moses) intended it as fiction. But this doesn't cut it. The larger narrative reads like history, not like The Chronicles of Narnia (where talking animals were the norm). More importantly, wherever the accuracy of this (larger) historical narrative can be tested, it has been verified.

A second option (perhaps the most popular among naturalists) is that the author did not possess the discernment to recognize the silliness of the idea of a talking donkey. It is likely, they say, that this story simply shows that the people of Moses' day were not as sophisticated as we are, and therefore were not taken aback by the insertion of this outlandish tale. While Moses' overall credibility did not suffer during his (and subsequent) generations, surely this particular gaff (that is, including such a story) is proof against our believing any of it.

But again, this explanation doesn't deal honestly with the available evidence. We have absolutely no reason to believe that Moses or his contemporaries were any less startled than we at the thought of a donkey talking. This is the only record in the Pentateuch (or, indeed, in the entire Bible) of an animal speaking. To suggest that the author or his readers accepted this any more uncritically than we would is unsubstantiated inference. To be sure, Moses (on his own account) was privy to other instances of this same Creator-God intervening in human history, and so was predisposed to accept a supernatural explanation for this particularly odd event. But that only leads us to a third--and most reasonable--explanation.

It could just be--as the whole Bible claims, and as a great deal of reason and scientific evidence can be shown to support--that there is a God who is both transcendent to and immanent in this universe. If this is admitted as plausible, then the most straightforward explanation for why Moses included the story of a talking ass in an otherwise historical narrative is that--in this one instance in all of human history--God chose to reveal Himself through the medium of the voice of an otherwise dumb animal.

When Balaam's Ass talked, it got the attention of Balaam, and reminded him that there is a God to whom he was accountable. It also got the attention of Moses, who was every bit as aware as we are that donkeys don't normally speak, and who nonetheless faithfully recorded the event. It got the attention of Moses' contemporaries, of readers throughout the ages, and of readers today. But even today, it is only reasonable to reject this story if the larger claim--that there is a Creator God who acts in human history--is demonstrably false. But that is not the case.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Turkey Vultures

I saw three Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) today, another anxiously-awaited sign of Spring. I actually saw a single one a couple of weeks ago, but with this species I never count the single but the first group of two or more.

The vultures that stayed here last summer left for southern parts during the first week of October. There was some interesting research that came out of Venezuela (which I can't lay my hands on, or I'd give due credit to its author), where the northern migrants spend November through February with locals (year-round residents). Turns out it's the migrants ("our" birds) that assume the dominance at the carrion feasts (the locals assuming a subordinate role for that four-month period). So, as much as I rejoice at the return of these spring-and-summer winged recycling machines, there are probably vultures in South America who are just as glad to be rid of them!

Friday, March 9, 2007


I heard again this week a common (but easily-refuted) charge against the Christian view of the Bible's inerrancy. The charge goes something like this...
Since fallible humans were involved in the process of writing the Bible, it must therefore contain error.
This charge has at least two fatal logical problems. First, it involves a non-sequitur. That is, the conclusion doesn't follow from the premise. The premise itself is okay; forty or more humans were involved in the process of writing the Bible, and they were (on the Christian belief) fallible men just like the rest of us. But this only means that what they produced may have contained error, not--as the charge claims--that it must have contained error. The charge is fallacious in this regard.

Parenthetically, it is just at this point that the Christian doctrine of inerrancy is applied. We believe that in the specific case of the writing of the canon of Scripture, God miraculously intervened to ensure that what these human authors wrote was His error-free Word. He did not dictate Scripture, but used the human authors' own styles, images, life experiences, and such to faithfully write his Word.*

The second problem with the charge made above is that it is self-refuting. If the involvement of fallible humans necessitates in every case that the proclamation contains error, then the charge itself--made, as it is, by a fallible human--is erroneus. The charge is quite simply both fallacious (it involves a non-sequitur) and self-referentially absurd.

* That errors of copying and translation have occurred is readily acknowledged (and easily demonstrated). The doctrine of inspiration (of the Scriptures) does not hold that God inspired the copying and translation, but only the original writing (the autographs).

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Pacific Chorus Frogs

We've had a series of warmer days, and so last night we heard the first-of-this-year evening serenade of Pacific Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris regilla). We have a very small artificial creek and pond, and every year the kids are able to watch (and listen to) the courtship, mating, egg-laying, hatching, and transformation from tadpole to frog in this common western species. (Heck, it's not just the kids--I, too, watch this unfolding drama each year with the fascination of a child!) The first serenade is just another welcome reminder of the changing season and a promise of the new life that comes each Spring.

Taxonomical note: For the sticklers out there, I am aware of a recent proposal to divide this western soecies into at least three separate species (based on new genetic work). Under this proposal, our northwestern frogs would be Pseudacris pacifica (not regilla). I here use the old nomenclature both because I'm not sure whether anyone has officially acted on this proposal (I'm only very loosely connected to the world of herpetological research) and because--when it comes to such debates (and here I avow it unashamedly)--I tend to be in the camp of the "lumpers" and not that of the "splitters." (The frogs that were chorusing last night don't seem to care one way or the other.)

Monday, March 5, 2007

Small Blessings

I'm a bit slammed at the moment by tasks and deadlines, so I'll offer up a quote without my own embellishment or comment. From Thomas à Kempis (who died in 1471)...
Be thankful for the smallest blessing, and you will receive greater. Value the least gifts no less than the greatest, and simple graces as especial favors. If you remember the dignity of the Giver, no gift will seem small or mean, for nothing can be valuless that is given by the most high God.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

More about Marmots

Two weeks ago today, I saw the first Yellow-bellied Marmot of the year, which I shared in a blog post a few days later. I mentioned their habit of estivating (going undergrown and entering torpor during the heat of summer) and then continuing straight into hibernation for the winter.

Anyone near agricultural areas will realize, however, that not all marmots estivate, that some remain active into the Fall and don't go underground to stay until it's time to hibernate. This difference in behavior is a response to irrigation. It's not so much the heat that causes normal populations to estivate--it's the lack of moisture. And so where farmers have the ability to keep the water flowing throughout the summer months, their crops will be an attraction to "rockchucks," especially younger ones (which typically stay out longer than adults anyway). In Central Oregon, these opportunists can be especially hard on alfalfa, as are the colonies of smaller rodents, Merriam's Ground Squirrels (Spermophilus canus) and Belding's Ground Squirrels (S. beldingi).

But whereas these large rodents can be a significant nuisance to farmers, they likewise play a significant role in the ecology of the region. I have firsthand knowledge of this from years spent climbing into the cliff nests of local Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos).

Throughout much of the intermountain West, Golden Eagles are first and foremost predators of jackrabbits. But here in Central Oregon, we don't have the healthy populations of Black-tailed Jackrabbits (Lepus californicus) that used to be here. As a result, biologists from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife wanted to know just what our Golden Eagles were eating. I was hired by them a few years back to climb or rappel into the nests of eagles to collect prey remains and regurgitated indigestibles to ascertain just that.

The result of those nest searches was a long list of species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish eaten by nestling Golden Eagles. The eagles in this area bring a wide variety of prey to feed their young, including most any animal large enough to be captured. (The size of an eagle's foot and talons precludes their capturing small perching birds and smaller mammals like chipmunks and mice.) But though the diversity of prey taken was the most important finding of that research, a secondary conclusion is pertinent to our present blog topic. In lieu of jackrabbits, Yellow-bellied Marmots appear to be the single most important prey--in terms of biomass--of Golden Eagles in our area during the breeding season.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Law of Nature

C.S. Lewis, the great 2oth century author, philanthropist, professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature (at Cambridge), and Christian apologist, believed--as have most Western thinkers up to our day--that morality is absolute, objective, and universal. The following quote from Mere Christianity, in which he refers to that universal morality as the "Law of Nature," is just a part of his common sense argument against moral relativism--the rather modern view that morality is subjective (whether personal or cultural)...
I hope you will not misunderstand what I am going to say. I am not preaching, and Heaven knows I do not pretend to be better than anyone else. I am only trying to call attention to a fact; the fact that this year, or this month, or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practise ourselves the kind of behaviour we expect from other people. There may be all sorts of excuses for us. That time you were so unfair to the children was when you were very tired. That slightly shady business about the money--the one you have almost forgotten--came when you were very hard-up. And what you promised to do for old So-and-so and have never done--well, you never would have promised if you had known how frightfully busy you were going to be. And as for your behaviour to your wife (or husband) or sister (or brother), if I knew how irritating they could be, I would not wonder at it--and who the dickens am I, anyway? I am just the same. That is to say, I do not succeed in keeping the Law of Nature very well, and the moment anyone tells me I am not keeping it, there starts up in my mind a string of excuses as long as your arm. The question at the moment is not whether there are good excuses. The point is that they are one more proof of how deeply, whether we like it or not, we believe in the Law of Nature. If we do not believe in decent behaviour, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently? The truth is, we believe in decency so much--we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so--that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility. For you notice that it is only for our bad behaviour that we find all these explanations. It is only our bad temper that we put down to being tired or worried or hungry; we put our good temper down to ourselves.