Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Conservative Nature of Natural Selection

In the class on the History and Philosophy of Atheism I'm taking this semester at Kilns College, I had the opportunity last night to guest-lecture on naturalism and evolution. I mentioned that we now know--150 years after Darwin--that the mechanism of natural selection that he endowed with incredible creative potential instead acts only in conservative and degenerative ways. Time, however, prevented me from sharing one of my favorite illustrations of this, the "green toothpick" illustration. So I'll share it here.

I took an undergraduate biology class from Dr. M.D. "Mad Dog" Johnson, in which he tried to demonstrate natural selection in action. We went outside to a lush, uncut, well-fertilized portion of the campus lawn, where we scattered a known number of toothpicks of different colors--red, yellow, blue, and green. We, the students, then acted as predators--the agents of natural selection--foraging through that patch of lawn capturing as many toothpicks as we could find. As I recall, we found all of the yellow and red toothpicks, most of the blue ones, and almost none of the green, so well-camouflaged were they among the long blades of grass. The lesson was that natural selection works just so on populations of living things.

There are at least a couple of serious problems with this experiment as an illustration of natural selection at work. If--as is claimed--natural selection acting on genetic variation is the mechanism by which evolutionary advance is made, what we demonstrated would seem to be just the opposite. Our toothpick population began with a much higher genetic diversity than it had by the end. The population, which now consists almost entirely of green toothpicks, would seem to be much less able to adapt to a changing environment than when it contained the greater diversity of phenotypes. It has ever since seemed to me that we demonstrated that natural selection has a far greater capacity to tend toward extinction than to adaptation and advance.

Another problem with this illustration is just as important. Let us be unreasonably generous and grant that the resulting population of toothpicks is somehow better prepared to adapt to some future environmental change. That is, let us say--for the sake of argument--that what we witnessed was an instance of microevolution. Microevolution refers to the idea that species (and populations and such) are not static, but change over time in both their phenotype and genotype (their form and the genetic basis for that form, respectively).

That microevolution occurs is a well-accepted, non-controversial idea. But granting that the population of green toothpicks is a good example of something having undergone microevolution provides no support for the claim of neo-Darwinism, which is that this same mechanism--natural selection acting upon genetic variation (mutation)--can account for macroevolution. In other words, the diversity of all life is explainable by this sort of natural selection acting over vast time scales. In the specific case of the toothpick illustration, we are to believe that if we waited long enough (as the toothpicks bred generation after generation), continued natural selection (predation on those toothpicks most easily spotted) would eventually cause those toothpicks to give rise to species of dental floss, of toothbrushes, and even, eventually, of electric toothbrushes, all without the input of any sort of intelligence or designer.

The fossil record shows that there have existed--over the course of Earth's history--different life forms. But macroevolutionary theory, as an explanation for how that record came to be, has yet to be substantiated by any evidence. Rare cases of microevolution have been documented, and then we are asked to make the unreasonable and unsupported extrapolation that such minor changes can be invoked to explain all of the advancing complexity witnessed in the fossil record. For me, Professor Johnson's toothpick demonstration has always served as a reminder of the absurdity of the grander claims of evolutionists.

(A version of this post originally appeared on 26 Feb 2007.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Spring's Near

The annual return of spring is a gradual development marked by innumerable minor events, changes in the behavior of wildlife, and (perhaps more obvious) alterations in the vegetation (greening of the grass, the appearance of the first crocus). Being more of a zoologist than botanist, I'm more attuned to the faunal than the floral changes, and yet invariably I wrestle with identifying which changes to imbue with the greatest significance.

This year, for example, I have long been aware of increasing territoriality and 'breediness' among some of the raptors that I spend time watching. Golden Eagles, Prairie Falcons, and Northern Harriers began back in January the undulating flight displays that serve to both establish their claim on a breeding locale and advertise their readiness to begin the courtship process. But though those January days were clear and blue and beginnning to lengthen, it still most definitely felt like there was a good bit of winter still to be endured.

Not long ago, the grassland birds (especially up in the Columbia Plateau) began to dramatically alter their behavior. The Horned Larks, which had been covorting for long months in large flocks, have begun pairing up, and they will, accordingly, be one of the first songbirds to nest (and some of them will successfully produce 3 broods this year). In Western Meadowlarks, the behavioral change is even more significant. They have also flocked up for the winter, but throughout that season remained almost unobserved, staying on the ground, silent, flying seldom, and not even bothering to post a sentinel. In recent weeks, they've suddenly 'popped up,' with males especially (though you can't tell the gender by looking at them) now spending most of their day perched high and singing lustily.

The medium-sized ground squirrels (Washington, Belding's, Merriam's, and such) have--within the past week or ten days--ended their long period of estivation-followed-by-hibernation that began last July as the shrub-steppe and grassland habitats they occupied dried up and quit producing the grasses and forbs on which they feed. Their reemergence causes movements of hawks and even eagles, and the annual population levels of these squirrels has a significant effect on the productivity of some raptors, notably Ferruginous Hawks and Prairie Falcons.

There are many spring milestones yet to occur--the arrival of the first Osprey (from wintering grounds in southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America), the first Turkey Vulture, and the first Western Kingbird (to name a few). But yesterday I experienced another notable spring first, one that reminds me of the inevitable progression of the seasons. I saw my first nesting Great-horned Owl of the year, a female in Morrow County sitting on eggs on a stick-nest (originally built by Red-tailed Hawks). As a member of one of the first bird species to nest each year, this female will undoubtedly sit tight through many days of winter-like weather still to come, but by the time her young are beginning to flex their flight muscles, spring will be back in all its cacophanous, riotous glory.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Apologetics Conference Here

The second annual Bend (Oregon) area Apologetics Conference is less than a week away. Go here to check out a Vimeo promotional of the event. The theme of the conference is The Reliability of the New Testament, and we have two of the leading New Testament scholars coming to give plenary talks.

I'll be speaking during two of the breakout seesions, once on "Biblical Miracles in a Modern Scientific Age" and once on "A New Testament Textual Criticism Primer." I hope to see you there.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Lucretius and Naturalism

Did I mention that I'm in a class on the History and Philosophy of Atheism (at Kilns College)? Well, I am, and today I want to post about the first reading. Our text for the course is The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. These essential readings are selected and introduced by New Atheist Christopher Hitchens, and promise to provide good fodder for any Christian apologist-blogger. In today's post, I'll identify two sets of problems, one in the reading (by Lucretius) and one in Hitchens' introduction to it.

Lucretius was an ancient Greek naturalist; he lived in the early 1st century BC and (following Leucippus) promoted atomism, the view that in our day would be called naturalism. He rejected the pantheism of the Greek and Roman worlds of his day, pointing out that what those pagans credited to the acts of the gods could be better explained as the result of natural laws.

I find Hitchens' inclusion of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura intriguing for at least three reasons.

First, the entire project of the ancient atomists depended upon our universe being infinite as regards both space and time, a claim that Lucretius is at pains to make (though not to support). This idea was likewise foundational to Darwin's 19th-century theory and remains (logically) foundational to modern atheism. Unfortunately--for Hitchens and his ilk (Richard Dawkins admits that his opponents have accused him of being stuck in 19th-century science and further admits that he doesn't know what they're talking about)--20th century science has convincingly refuted this foundational assumption. For most scientists, philosophers of science, and historians of science, the greatest discovery of the last 100 years was the recognition that all of the matter, energy, space, and time of the universe had a beginning a finite time ago. The universe began--it is finite with regard to both space and time. Lucretius and Epicurus were wrong on this basic score, as were Kant and Darwin. I am left wondering whether Hitchens and Dawkins fail to realize the implications (for metaphysical naturalism) or are simply in denial of the evidence.

Second, Lucretius also makes clear that living things reproduce after their kind, that there is a continuity of reproduction. This idea--known to the ancient Greeks--passed out of knowledge in the Western world, and throughout the Middle Ages, educated people believed (what Homer, writing in the 8th century BC, knew to be false) that life was spontaneously generated (as maggots from rotten meat). Some would argue that modern biology began when Francesco Redi disproved spontaneous generation (at least with regard to worms in meat). Geneticist Giuseppi Sermonti, discussing the later refutation of spontaneous generation by Pasteur (with regard to bacteria), writes
Biology has advanced in status with every new refutation of the spontaneous generation thesis.
And yet, modern disciples of Darwin (like Hitchens and Dawkins) continue--contrary to all the evidence and reason--to steadfastly maintain the spontaneous generation of life from non-life.

The third problem has to do with the history of science, and seems to betray a further weakness in Hitchens' understanding. I take it that Hitchens approves of Lucretius' essay as an ancient articulation of the superiority of a reasoned appeal to natural law over a superstitious appeal to acts of the gods. But while Lucretius was right in this particular, this stands as an argument against polytheism and pantheism, but not against Christian monotheism. That is, if Hitchens' book is meant to be an argument for atheism as over against Christianity, then De Rerum Natura misses the point. More importantly, however, it was Christians--not atheists--who agreed with Lucretius, saw the world as following natural laws, and thus established (in the 16th and 17th centuries) modern science.

As glaring as are these problems in De Rerum Natura itself, there's an arguably bigger problem with Hitchens' introduction to it. Having established that Lucretius' atomism was a superior, more reasoned understanding of the world (than the religious superstitions of that day), he writes,
Atomism was viciously persecuted as heresy throughout the early Christian era, and only one printed manuscript of De Rerum Naturum survived the flames.
What is one to make of such a statement? Is it revisionist history foisted on us by someone for whom the ends (turning readers into unbelievers) justifies the means (making up history)? To be sure, atomism didn't carry the day, and the Greeks and Romans continued to worship their pantheons of gods. But there was no persecution of the ancient Greek naturalists. (Lucretius may have committed suicide, but if so it appears to be a direct consequence of his disbelief in an afterlife, and not because of any contemporary reaction against his views.) There is no evidence that atomist books were burned; the reason such books did not survive is because they were written on papyrus or animal skins, and the same fate faced every ancient writing regardless of its metaphysical claims.

But more importantly, why does Hitchens refer to the 'early Christian era' if not to wrongfully impugn Christians? Throughout the early Christian era, Christians were too busy being persecuted themselves to persecute others. They were themselves being burned at the stake and not burning obscure books about natural philosophy. Even when--much later in church history--Christians did turn their attention to the subjects of orthodoxy and heresy, the issues that captured their attention for several centuries had to do with the nature of the trinity and the deity/humanity of Christ, not what a minor sector of dead Greek poets had written.

Coming as it does in the introduction to the very first selection in his book, this statement by Hitchens raises a bright red flag. At best, it highlights either gross ignorance about or willing gullibility regarding the issues about which he writes. At worst, it stamps him at the outset as disingenuous or downright deceiving and his book as a skewed polemic rather than an honest search for truth.

Friday, February 5, 2010


This is the 3rd (and final) part of the answer to a question I received about extra-terrestrials. In the first part, I discussed how the latest evidence from astronomy and physics have demonstrated the extreme unlikelihood (on naturalistic terms) of even one planet in the universe supporting intelligent life. In the second part, I asserted that the laws of physics prohibit the travel of any hypothetical extra-terrestrial beings across the distances involved in reaching us from anywhere else in the universe. It remains in this post to address the issue of how to explain the UFO sightings and the tales of encounters with and even abductions by beings from outer space.

The majority of all alien encounters can be explained as tricks of lighting, as illusions, or as identifiable physical phenomena. But not all reports fit any of these categories, and researchers conclude that there remains a category of UFO sightings that are unexplainable by appealing to physical law. This category--dubbed rUFOs for 'residual UFOs'--is, of course, the most interesting type.

This being the case, a good deal of research has been centered on rUFOs, and such research is made easy by the very wealth of available information and evidence. If you're at all interested in the findings of such research, I can do no better than recommend a comprehensive treatment of the issue (which remains, nonetheless, an easy read), Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men. But here, in a nutshell, is what can be known about rUFOs.

rUFOs are capable of producing physical effects but are not themselves physical. The physical effects produced by them include physical trauma (to soil, plants, animals, humans, and machines). Physical symptoms most commonly reported by humans who claim to have seen rUfOs include nausea, headache, blindness, paralysis, numbness, and recurring nightmares. Other observers have experienced serious injury or even death.

But while causing these and other physical effects, rUFOs are not themselves physical. They defy well-known laws of physics, they leave behind no physical artifacts (even when they have crashed to earth), they disintegrate and reintegrate, and make physically impossible turns and stops. Importantly, they are not seen most often by people who spend most of the night hours outside or watching the skies, and they appear most often to single individuals or very small groups, at 3:00 am (more often than earlier or later), and in rural rather than populated settings.

In short, rUFOs are real, but they are not physical. And to the modern scientific naturalist, this is nonsensical. But (as I have been at great pains to express in numerous other posts) scientific naturalism does not itself make adequate sense of the real world in which we live, and so we may reasonably continue this discussion.

Many scientists who have studied this phenomenon have come to the same conclusion, that rUFOs are demonic in nature. This conclusion is supported by a number of facts, including the following... They appear to a select few, and make repeat visits to the same individuals; they appear to be alive; they cause disturbing emotions and bodily and psychological harm; and they deceive their human contacts. Interestingly, throughout history, rUFOs have stayed just ahead of human technology in their appearance and claims, though these claims are clearly false to scientists of that day or of the next generation. Most importantly, those involved in encountering rUFOs invariably have a link in their lives to occult phenomena (participating in seances, astrology, ouija boards, channeling, and such).

The connection between rUFOs and occultism is especially clear with regard to encounters of the fourth and fifth kinds--abductions and contacts. Abduction is generally a negative experience ("ya think?"), with abductees suffering long-term emotional and psychological trauma, and often seeking professional therapy.

Contactees are those who claim to serve as human mouthpieces for alien 'masters' whom they perceive as wise and benificent. The most extreme and charismatic of these contactees become the founders of UFO cults, new religions that mix occult practices and UFOlogy. Some of the most famous of these are the Raelians and Heaven's Gate, the latter of which committed mass suicide in 1997 in order to catch a ride with the alien spaceship they believed was traveling with the Hale-Bopp comet.

With regard to contactees and their cults, researcher John Saliba writes,
Many UFO groups have borrowed heavily from both spiritualism and Theosophy. They have incorporated in their ideology the concepts of cosmic wisdom and cosmic masters who exist on other planets. Their leaders often channel, or communicate with, these masters through some psychic means (such as telepathy) or by entering into a trance-like state.*
So there you have it. If extra-terrestrials existed, they would face insurmountable barriers--based in the laws of physics--to making contact with us. But modern astronomy and physics have demonstrated that Earth is uniquely designed for supporting intelligent life, and that it is astronomically unlikely that any other intelligent life exists in the entire universe. And those UFO sightings that cannot be explained by appealing to identifiable physical phenomena invariably involve people with a link to occult practices in their lives.

rUFOs are neither more nor less than demonic manifestations to those who have willingly opened their lives to such influences.

* Saliba, J.A. "Religious Dimensions of UFO Phenomena" in Gods have Landed. Cited in Ross, H, K. Samples, and M. Clark, Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men.