Monday, April 27, 2009

New Romanian Friends

I had a new life experience this weekend and a great time as well. I was given the privilege of teaching (the youth) and preaching (to the entire congregation) at a church in Portland that holds its services in Romanian.

I'm part of a team from Antioch that is going to Romania this July, and we visted the Portland church in order to get a feel for the way Romanian believers worship.

We spent Saturday with their youth, visiting (and hiking to the top of) Multnomah Falls, playing soccer and other games, eating (and I can tell you I'm going to enjoy Romanian food), and having a time of worship (at which I taught--without need for translation--on the obvious problems of postmodern epistemology, moral relativism, and religious pluralism). We divided up to spend Saturday night at the homes of various new friends, who come from all over the greater Portland metropolitan area to attend this church.

Sunday morning, we participated in the Bible studies and the morning worship service, at which our friend and Antioch intern Emi Popa (himself a Romanian and the organizer of our summer trip) delivered the sermon (on Galatians 5 and Christian liberty). We returned to the homes of our host families, where each of us was again lavished with traditional Romanian food. At the evening service, our team from Antioch sang two songs, and I spoke about the historical evidence for and the spiritual implications of the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (with Pastor Nelo translating).

We not only got a taste of Romanian culture, but we established friendships that we anticipate will flourish in the coming months and years. It was a wonderful time getting to know some of our Romanian-American brothers and sisters.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Earth Day 09

For Earth Day (yesterday), I didn't dress up like a Siberian Tiger or a Nene (Goose) to take part in a parade. I didn't pay homage to Gaia or talk nonsense about the earth itself as a living thing.

What I did was pretty much what I do most days. I monitored wildlife in order to assess the optimal placement of wind turbines for generating cleaner energy than that upon which we are currently dependent.

Oh, but wait! At this point I also need to point out that I am not worried about anthropogenic global warming (or global climate change). As a reasonably rational being, I easily see through arguments that begin "there is no debate among scientists about..." As a scientist myself, I am well aware of the very intense disagreement among climatologists about whether the climate is changing at a rate and on a scale that should cause concern, as well as about whether what humans do has any significant effect on such things. I also recognize when issues like this one have left the realm of rational discussion in order to serve very specific political purposes. It is only when the solutions proposed are clearly far worse than the perceived problems that I start to get a bit upset. But I've gotten away from what I was saying.

I feel privileged and blessed to be able to--as my way of making a living--study the Earth and its inhabitants and to have a say in the wise stewardship of these things. Yes, I'm an ecologist (one who studies living things and their relationships with other living and non-living things). I'm also an environmentalist, if by that we mean one who feels called to care about the environment, to be conservative rather than wasteful, to be intentional and deliberate about the effects of our actions on the Earth and its inhabitants.

But relative to many who are more outspoken about these issues, I have a cogent and coherent rationale for caring about the environment. I'm a Christian, who recognizes the Earth and all life as the very good creations of a loving, transcendent God. For me, to be uncaring, unthinking, or wasteful when it comes to the creation is to dishonor the Creator.

But where I really part company with many modern environmentalists is with regard to humanity. Where they see people only as environmental problems, I recognize in our species the only hope of solutions. And that's because we are unique among God's creatures in being made in His image, as rational beings capable of caring, and of devising solutions to complex problems.

So, for very good reasons, I try to do my part (and more), and live in daily gratitude for the optimal universe and Earth that Christ designed and for the diverse and marvelous life with which He allows us to share them. In that regard, I spent Earth Day much as I do every day. I've found it's a good way to live.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Gap Not My Problem

In the last post, we were discussing spontaneous generation and how naturalistic origin-of-life scenarios constitute belief in this long-discredited idea (violating what one reader perceptively called a fundamental principle of biology).

The most common response--among naturalists and evolutionists--to the argument that the complexity of the simplest living cells implies that they were designed or created is to call such an explanation a "God of the gaps" fallacy. The idea is that what we currently have is a knowledge gap, an area of current understanding within which we are presently stymied. Whereas theists want to fill that gap with God, history has shown that, given enough time, Science has always found naturalistic explanations that adequately address such knowledge gaps. In the same way, Science will one day provide a complete and satisfactory set of naturalistic pathways to bridge the presently perceived gap between non-living chemicals and living cells.

There are several logical problems with the naturalist line of reasoning here. The first is that it involves the informal logical fallacy known as the ad futurum fallacy. It appeals for support to future, hypothetical discoveries to overcome or negate all of the presently-available contrary evidence. In abductive reasoning (which constitutes a good deal of scientific thinking) one must use the available evidence to arrive at the best explanation of it. It is fallacious to assume that future knowledge will overturn the conclusion to which present evidence leads.

A more basic problem, however, is that the "God-of-the-gaps" claim--in this instance, at least--involves equivocation, a change in the meaning of the term 'gap.' When theists or intelligent design proponents point to the origin of the first life as an empirical and evidential problem for naturalistic science, the gap being addressed is a real and a physical one. There is a vast, significant, and intractable physical gap between simple, non-living molecules and even the simplest independently-living cell. The "God-of-the-gaps" charge tries to turn this real, physical gap into a merely epistemological gap--a gap in our knowledge. This is fallacious and disingenuous.

The fact is that our knowledge of these issues is ever-growing; that is, the knowledge gap (as we have built better microscopes and enhanced our ability to see these minute things) is getting smaller. But the result is that the actual physical gap (between non-life and life) is rightly recognized as much greater than ever. Darwin largely discounted cells as unimportant little blobs of jelly. Even in the days of the Miller-Urey experiment (which lent to naturalists a temporary and now-unfulfilled promise of progress) scientists knew very little of what is now known about the complexity of the simplest living cells. In short, the knowledge gap has greatly decreased, but the physical gap (the thing that really matters) has as a result come to be recognized as much larger, and thus much more of a problem for any naturalistic explanations.

The bottom line is this... with regard to the origin of the first life, design/creation is the most plausible explanation, given the abundance of evidence available. When naturalists charge that this conclusion involves a "God-of-the-gaps" reasoning, they are guilty of equivocation and of the ad futurum fallacy. They are also being hypocritical, since the appeal to the future they are here making is itself a form of "naturalism of the gaps."

So as much as naturalists and evolutionists would like to continue to deceive themselves into thinking that the great divide between non-life and life remains susceptible to future explainations that don't involve God, the 'gap' that is really at issue is not a problem for we who are theists.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Birth of Biology

This post is a reprint (mostly) of one I published back in July. I offer it again so soon because I had a chance to teach this material in a class last night.

Looking for something to do to? I suggest sitting down with a copy of Giuseppe Sermonti's Why is a Fly Not a Horse? It was originally written in Italian, and its title, Dimenticare Darwin, means "Forget Darwin." A geneticist, Sermonti writes interestingly and persuasively about the need to dump Darwinism as completely out of touch with reality and with the latest findings of science. The rest of my post today comes from reading Chapter 1, "Achilles Inspires Redi."*

For many, modern biology had its start when Francesco Redi--in 1688--disproved the notion that the origin of maggots in meat was due to spontaneous generation. He showed experimentally that maggots came to be in meat only when flies were allowed to lay their eggs in it, and generalized his conclusions to all living things--"all life comes from the egg."

But the idea of spontaneous generation did not go away, and has had to be refuted over and over again. Louis Pasteur extended Redi's principle to include the very smallest microbes (which others of his day excluded from Redi's principle), demonstrating that adequate sterilization could prevent the origin of any life. According to Sermonti,
Biology has advanced in status with every new confutation of the spontaneous generation thesis.
Despite, however, the conclusive experimental evidence (of Redi with worms, of Lazzaro Spallanzani with protozoans, of Pasteur with bacteria), belief in spontaneous generation remains a necessary part of Darwinian (and neo-Darwinian) evolutionary theory. Sermonti again...
Darwin, though a great admirer of Pasteur, regretted that the Frenchman had denied spontaneous generation. "If it could be demonstrated," he was to write to Haeckel in 1873, "this would be very important to us."
This led, of course, to the field of origin-of-life studies, of efforts to produce living things in laboratory test tubes, of the zealous teaching of perceived successes (the Miller-Urey experiments) and relative silence about the overarching failures. To this day, however, the spontaneous generation of living things from non-living chemicals remains a necessary corollary of neo-Darwinian evolution, though all of the evidene would lead to an opposite conclusion. Sermonti:
There will be only one way to refute spontaneous generation. That is to take note of the astronomic complexity of the simplest organisms, and to show that the minimum conceivable life form calls for structures so elaborate that no fortuitous accident can bring them all together. But we had to wait until the second half of the twentieth century for the proof.

* The title of this chapter of Sermonti is interesting. What apparently inspired Redi to conduct his experiments was a passage from Homer's Iliad in which Achilles recognizes that maggots arise in a corpse only if flies are allowed access to that corpse. In other words, Homer understood what medieval and renaissance folks did not, and neo-Darwinists do not, that spontaneous generation is not an accurate understanding of the origin of living things.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Central Event

The events that many commemorate this week--the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth--are together the very essence of Christianity. The primary propositional claim of Christianity is that the eternal Son of God became fully human, lived a sinless life, died by Roman crucifixion in order to pay the penalty for the sins of all humanity, and then was bodily raised from the dead. As the apostle Paul had it (in I Corinthians 15:17, 19),
if Christ has not been raised from the dead, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins... [and] we are of all people most to be pitied.
In modern times, there are those who nonetheless claim to be Christian while denying any supernatural events recorded in Scripture, including the resurrection of Christ. They are the ones most worthy of pity, because this denial arises from an assumption that science has somehow proven naturalism, and comes at a time when all of the latest discoveries have instead served to validate the historical and scientific claims of the Bible.

But the crucifixion and resurrection are not only the center of Christianity; they are also the central event in human history. They changed the course of Western history and continue to improve life for and give hope to people around the world. Upon his death, Jesus' disciples were a disheartened and disillusioned bunch, a rag-tag group of mostly uneducated men and outcast women, themselves members of an insignificant people group conquered and dominated by the mighty Roman Empire. But when they encountered the death-conquering, risen Messiah, they became the leaders of a revolution--the reconciling of people to their Creator--that lives on today, having outlasted the Roman Empire by more than 1500 years. In the two millennia since the resurrection, Christianity has spread throughout the world, and it has been Christians who have brought literacy and medicine, founding schools and universities, orphanages and hospitals, and launching modern science.

But it's even more than that. When it comes right down to it, the death and resurrection of Jesus are together the central event in all of cosmic history--the purpose behind the creation of the universe. Christ's substitutionary death was not an afterthought, a "Plan B" necessary in response to an unforeseen rebellion on the part of the free-will creature, man. No, Scripture makes it clear that the death and resurrection of Christ were planned before the creation. One of several examples is the introduction of Paul's letter to the Ephesians, in which we are told that God
chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world... according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time (Eph. 1:3-10).
Moreover, in eternity future it will be these historical events upon which we will look back and focus our attention. For example, John's vision in Revelation show the heavenly host worshipping Jesus with the words
Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open the seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation...(Rev. 5:9)
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! (Rev. 5:12).
The most fundamental and important thing about the universe in which we live is embodied in what we call Easter... Our Creator so loves us that He planned and executed the most wonderful sacrificial way of reconciling us to Himself, and validated the sufficiency of that sacrifice by demonstrating His power over death. My hope is that each of my readers can experience and live daily in the resurrection power made available 2000 years ago.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Strained Arguments

We've been examining the popular modern view among conservative Christians that the flood of Noah's day (recorded in Genesis 6-8) covered the entire globe and accounts for all of the geological and paleontological record. We began by applying basic hermeneutic principles, determining right away that that the intent of this account was to describe God's judgment on sinful humanity--not to give a geological treatise. Likewise, we saw that the context was all humanity, not planet Earth. We compared similar passages in the Old Testament and even in Genesis itself, and learned that the all-inclusive language used in this account (which causes modern readers to leap to a global conclusion) is rightly understood as applying only to the scope of the context--in this case, the geographical area occupied by humans, the Mespotamian plain.

We discussed the history of the global flood view, and learned that it is only a very recent idea, one not held by Christians throughout the millennia. We also saw some of its motivation, as a well-meaning but misguided attempt to refute naturalistic evolution.

We also took a little bit of time to show that a global intepretation of the flood is contradicted by all of the evidence from the natural world--from what theologians call general revelation, the creation itself. Indeed, we found--and find--that even a cursory scrutiny of this view yields overwhelming exegetical, theological, and scientific evidence refuting it. Its defenders generally resort to a position of fideism (faith defined as contrary to reason and evidence) and biblicism ("the Bible is the only reliable source of knowledge"). Both of these positions are, of course, contrary to the historical and orthodox understanding of Christian faith.

All that remains in this last post in the series is to bring to light some of the logical absurdities to which ardent proponents of the global flood view are forced. I'll limit myself to just a couple of such absurdities.

There is evidence for some half billion different species of animals having lived on Earth. Though the majority of these are aquatic species (and therefore not taken on board the ark), there remains nonetheless a significant problem with regard to housing and feeding pairs of every terrestrial species (if the flood were global and recent). Answering such skepticism yields the following sorts of arguments (taken from an article by John Woodmorappe on the Answers in Genesis website)...
It is still necessary to take account of the floor spaces required by large animals, such as elephants and rhinos. But even these, collectively, do not require a large area because it is most likely that these animals were young, but not newborn. Even the largest dinosaurs were relatively small when only a few years old.
Huh? But there's more...
Dinosaurs could have eaten basically the same foods as the other animals. The large sauropods could have eaten compressed hay, other dried plant material, seeds and grains, and the like. Carnivorous dinosaurs--if there were meat-eaters before the Flood--could have eaten dried meat, reconstituted dried meat, or slaughtered animals. Giant tortoises would have been ideal to use as food in this regard. They were large and needed little food to be maintained themselves. There are also exotic sources of meat, such as fish that wrap themselves in dry cocoons.
Exotic. That's exactly what such argumentation is. And that's just the problem. If there's one thing to be said for the global flood view (at least superficially), it's that it arises from a straightforward reading of the (English translation of) the Genesis text. But the ideas necessarily used to prop this view up are anything but a straightforward reading of Scripture. The author of this same article goes on to elaborate on complex systems of waste management and water storage that find no mention in Scripture, even though what is found in the Genesis account is quite detailed with regard to the ark's specifications.

But perhaps the most bizarre position to which global flood defenders are forced is this one--the view that the animal 'kinds' taken on board the ark were representative pairs of whole families of animals and that after the flood these pairs yielded (through a sort of hyper-evolution, though proponents would never call it that) the species we see today. On this view, a single pair of canids aboard the ark led to the post-flood "generation" of domestic dogs, jackals, wolves, dingoes, coyotes, red foxes, gray foxes, kit foxes, well, you get the idea. Thus (according to Todd Wood, also on the Answers in Genesis website),
Lions, coyotes, and dromedary camels were probably not on the Ark but were born to parents within the cat, dog, and camel kinds.
It's ironic; the young-earth view, of which a global flood is a necessary corollary, became dogma with the specific intent of refuting evolutionary theory. And yet, defense of the former leads to belief in an efficiency of evolution that far surpasses anything imagined by the staunchest proponent of Darwin.*

Recent discoveries from across the spectrum of scientific disciplines have led to the virtual demise of all credibility for Darwinism (though its disciples still hold the microphone and are unwilling to acknowledge this). Unfortunately, the most popular approach among conservative Christians for refuting this failed theory--positing a young earth and a global flood--is fraught with obvious exegetical, theological, scientific, and logical problems. It's high time we Christians recognize that truth, evidence, and reason are on our side, and that we need not make Scripture say things it never has. It's time for young-earth creationism and flood geology to die a quiet death; they only present (for many thinking people in our day) artificial barriers to considering the true claims of Christianity.

* The real reason that there were not kangaroos, penguins, and cougars on the ark is that none of these animals was or is found in Mesopotamia, the region occupied by humanity prior to the flood. The explanation for the sufficiency of the ark's capacity is that the number of species occupying Mesopotamia (of the rather specific types of animals described by the Hebrew words in the flood account) is actually quite finite.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

First Date

I'll return in the next post to our mini-series on Noah's flood. Today, however, I thought I'd reprint a post (originally published on Valentine's Day a couple of years ago) that relates the uncensored, romantic story of our first date, Dawn's and mine. (I was reminded of that event just a couple days ago as together we worked to separate a batch of redworms from the compost they had been producing for us.)

We met at Boise State University, where we were both in a graduate degree program in Raptor Biology. It was my first semester, and I was taking Aquatic Entomology from Dr. Charles Baker (ultimately my favorite class of my entire academic career). I had missed a Saturday field trip (for a friend's wedding back in Oregon), and so hadn't been able to round out my collection of aquatic insects with an example of a syrphid fly larva. Fortunately for me, my good friend, Eric Atkinson, was willing (the next Saturday) to take me back to find this elusive grub. (Well, okay, "elusive" may not be the right word. They're certainly not quick, and perhaps not very rare. What I mean to say is that you've got to want to find them, and you have to know where to look--something Dr. Baker knew as well as anyone.)

At any rate, Eric and his fiancee, Melanie (still our good friends, now married and the parents of three of the neatest girls you'd ever want to meet), and Dawn and I left early for a morning of bird-watching and insect collecting at Fort Boise in Canyon County, Idaho.

Time has made some of the memories of that fateful day a bit cloudy. I do remember being impressed by the fact that Dawn was ready at the appointed time (6 a.m. or whatever it was, and this remains characteristic of her). I also recall that it was a foggy day, and so (reconstructing the event from what I know now) her long, beautiful hair would have had that curly, unruly look that humid mornings give it. I also remember that we saw some interesting birds, including the first Black-crowned Night-Heron I'd seen in awhile. But back to the story...

Like many of the true flies (the insect order Diptera), members of the family Syrphidae spend their larval stage as grubs in semiaquatic conditions, burrowing in the wet sediment at the botton of ponds and lakes. But whereas the grubs of other families (like crane flies, and deer and horse flies) must continually migrate through the sediments to the surface to breathe, some syrphid flies (like our quarry that day) possess an adaptation that alleviates this need. They have a slender respiratory siphon that extends up to two or three times the length of their body. They can thus stay submerged in the saturated muck and reach this siphon up to the surface in order to breathe. So, the larval form of this interesting creature is commonly known as a Rat-tailed Maggot, and it was the hope of acquiring examples of these that bound our hearts together on that first of many forays into the natural world that Dawn and I have shared.

Other lovers may keep a memento of their first date, a card exchanged, the pressed remains of a flower given, the label from a bottle of wine shared. For us, the tangible memento of our first date consists of four Rat-tailed Maggots preserved in a vial of 99% isopropyl alcohol and a label bearing the location and the date, the 7th of October, 1988.

Note: Should you wish to find Rat-tailed Maggots yourself, the procedure involves dredging up some of the saturated muck from the bottom of the pond, spreading it about an inch deep in a large tray, and then patting the muck with your open palm. The Rat-tailed Maggots will be the squishy-but-crunchy things. (As I recall, my bride-to-be's hands displayed just that certain sensitivity that made her adept at distinguishing fly larvae from the general muck.)