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."