The Language of God: Bridging the Gap Between Science and Faith

The Language of God, Chapter 10

By B.J. Marshall

Chapter 10 introduces Collins' concept of BioLogos, but first he gives an overview of Theistic Evolution (TE) and why it works to bridge science and faith. Although we've talked about TE previously, this chapter shows Collins laying out six premisses that support TE. He then has a short discourse explaining the conclusions he thinks follow from these premisses.

Premiss 1: "The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago." This premiss is difficult to accept if you acknowledge that the universe has zero net energy and could have, as Lawrence Krauss presents, come from nothing. It's also difficult to accept this premiss if you think Hawking and Hartle might be onto something with their no-boundary universe model.

Premiss 2: "Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life." I find fine-tuning arguments to be incredibly arrogant; why must we place ourselves as the result par excellence of fine tuning? One could argue that our universe was fine-tuned for iPads. Life is incredibly rare, and iPads are more rare still, but hydrogen and helium are abundant. Shouldn't we say that it's more miraculous that we could wind up in a universe with so much hydrogen?

Premiss 3: "While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time." One might quibble over semantics, since I might have written "evolution by natural selection." This premiss is one I'm willing to accept, except that he completely ruins this premiss later.

Premiss 4: "Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required." I think I understand what he's trying to say, and I can accept that, but that's only because I was charitable enough to rephrase his premiss to be clear. This premiss as stated is unclear and ambiguous, in my opinion. By saying that no special supernatural intervention was "required," the reader might assume that a supernatural agent acted anyway, even though it wasn't "required" to act. Also, the way this premiss is worded sounds like a supernatural intervention might have been required to set off evolution in the first place. While in either case the reader would be falling into an illicit contrast fallacy, Collins' poorly worded premiss doesn't help the reader.

Premiss 5: "Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes." Here's another premiss I can accept pretty easily. I do wonder, though, how much his readers would have cringed if, drawing from his earlier chapters on DNA similarities, Collins said "sharing a common ancestor with the great apes, rats, and banana trees."

Premiss 6: "But humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history." Do I even need to comment on this one?

The conclusion is a polemic diatribe of suck that sounds like he rewrote Genesis for the 21st century:

"[a]n entirely plausible, intellectually satisfying, and logically consistent synthesis emerges: God, who is not limited in space or time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures (here's where he ruined Premiss 3), God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law."

That intelligent people like Collins can find the Goddunnit explanation as plausible, intellectually satisfying, and logically consistent disappoints me. I shouldn't say it baffles me, because I understand why people believe weird things. To me, the Goddunit hypothesis is not:

  1. Plausible: Assuming one were to looking for an inference to the best possible explanation, how does "an omni-being that is spaceless, timeless, noncorporeal yet magically and physically operates in space and time" fit that bill?
  2. Intellectually satifying: Goddunnit is a mystery. Answering a mystery with another mystery and thinking you're done is just plain stupid.
  3. Logically consistent: Argument from Ignorance much?

Now that Collins has formally laid out TE, he'll pose some critiques on why TE hasn't been more widely adopted and present his BioLogos idea.

Other posts in this series:

April 3, 2011, 5:39 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink17 comments

Treating Demon Possession with Antipsychotics

As I've written in the past, modern Christianity has never outgrown the demoniac fixation of its founders, who believed that evil spirits were constantly on the prowl and assaulting them. People like Gary Collins - an evangelical, a clinical psychologist, and the head of a 15,000-member association of Christian counselors - still believes, based not on evidence but on his "theological beliefs", that demons exist and are the cause of at least some cases of mental illness. Although this post from Boing Boing is a little old, it sheds a powerful illumination on these stories.

The case was that of a 22-year-old Hindu man, whose story came to light when he was arrested for stealing a taxi and robbing the driver. In prison interviews, he claimed that he had been cursed by a spiteful relative, allowing the ghost of an old woman to possess him. He could hear the ghost speaking to him, and sometimes it would take control of his body and force him to commit criminal and self-destructive acts against his will. He could see the ghost when it invaded him, settling upon his body like a fog and entering his nose and mouth, and while it was possessing him he was conscious of his actions but helpless to stop himself. The doctors noted:

The patient was an intelligent, well educated and insightful young man, westernised in his appearance and apparent outlook. He said he gained nothing from his behaviour, deriving no excitement from his adventures while possessed and did not need the things he stole... He recognised the effects of his behaviour on [his] family...

But most incredible of all, the young man's story was corroborated by his cellmates and even the prison chaplain:

We were disturbed by a telephone call from the prison chaplain who described seeing the ghost possess the patient in prison, seeing a descending cloud and an impression of a face alarmingly like a description of the dead woman given to us by the patient, of which the chaplain denied prior knowledge. Similar reports came from frightened cellmates.

So far, this story sounds just like the accounts of demonic possession in apologetic literature: the seeming rationality of the patient in the face of his condition, the lack of evidence for a disconnect with reality, even external evidence that seems to indicate the truth of his story to outside observers. If that was where this story ended, we'd probably be hearing about it on Christian apologetic websites, and it would be quoted in the next Lee Strobel or Josh McDowell book. But the paper ends with this laconic comment:

Treatment commenced using trifluoperazine and clopenthixol... The patient underwent remission during neuroleptic treatment, despite previous evidence of genuine possession.

As a commenter on the BB thread noted, a psychotic person is "the world's best method actor". The impairment of their brain's ability for rational thought gives them an unshakable confidence in the truth of their delusions that could never be achieved by relying on mere evidence. If it was part of this patient's delusions that he was being possessed by a ghost that was forcing him to act against his will, it's not surprising that he "played the part" so well as to convince the more suggestible people around him.

The Christian apologist's "lord/liar/lunatic" trilemma assumes that when a person is suffering from mental illness, this fact should be obvious to everyone around them. In reality, such people can be seemingly calm, rational and in all other respects capable of leading a normal life, except in areas that touch upon their delusional fixation. And if this is true of our society, how much more true must it have been in more superstitious past societies, which readily accepted mental illness as a sign of divine favor or demonic attack?

The human brain is a marvelous belief-forming engine, and when guided by reason and informed by the proper functioning of the senses, it's adept at grasping the true nature of reality. But when it malfunctions, it can produce an endless variety of strange delusions, fantasies and hallucinations, all of which seem utterly real and convincing to the people experiencing them. By following the dictates of reason, we can help many of them. But when the mentally ill are immersed in a culture that accepts such delusions as real, their suffering is needlessly prolonged. How many people have been denied needed medical treatment because their culture leads others to believe their disturbed state must be supernatural?

March 30, 2011, 5:56 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink19 comments

The Language of God: Intelligent Design

The Language of God, Chapter 9

By B.J. Marshall

The subtitle to this chapter is "When Science Needs Divine Help," which immediately sets up a couple of problems. First, is Collins asserting that Intelligent Design (ID) is science? Second, where does divine help fit in with the application of the scientific method? In response to the first, Collins concludes that ID is not science. He doesn't really address the second problem. That second problem brings to mind a quote by J.B.S. Haldane:

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

Focusing on that first problem, we want to see whether ID is a valid scientific endeavor. According to Collins, the ID movement rests upon three propositions:

  1. Evolution promotes an atheistic worldview and therefore must be resisted by believers in God (p.183)
  2. Evolution is fundamentally flawed, since it cannot account for the intricate complexity of nature (p.184)
  3. If evolution cannot explain irreducible complexity, then there must have been an intelligent designer involved somehow, who stepped in to provide the necssary components during the course of evolution (p.186)

Collins doesn't really address the first claim at all. He states right up front that Phillip Johnson, the founder of the ID movement, was more interested in defending the faith than by a "scientific desire to understand life (he makes no claim to be a scientist)" (p.183). Referencing the "wedge document," which "was originally intended as an internal memorandum but found its way onto the Internet" (p.183), Collins concludes that ID is not science. It fails to make predictions, is an unfalsifiable position (Collins says one couldn't verify it "outside of the development of a time machine" (p.187), and makes no claims providing a mechanism by which the postulated supernatural interventions would give rise to complexity. (Here's another example of where double-standards apparently elude Collins. His own position, that every naturalistic explanation just shows you how God works, seems to be an unfalsifiable position; even if we were to somehow explain the Moral Law, that would just show you how God works.)

The proposition Collins seems to be refuting here is "ID is science." He doesn't address the proposition as stated of whether evolution promotes an atheistic worldview. I found this very interesting, given that this would have been a perfect time for Collins to once again drive home his thesis of theistic evolution. He tore down Johnson's claim without ever reminding readers of the alternate case that is the main thesis of this book. Fail.

Collins does a much better job addressing the second proposition. He addresses the problems of irreducible complexity with examples such as the evolution of eyes, the bacterial flagellum, and the human blood-clotting cascade. He also talks about the suboptimal design in eyes, which seems problematic. Ultimately, he concludes that claims to irreducible complexity are just arguments from ignorance.

Collins also fails to properly address the third claim (so he's batting 0.33). All he says in response to this claim is that ID proponents haven't specified who this designer might have been "but the Christian perspective of most [not all?!] the leaders of this movement implicitly suggests that this missing force would come from God himself" (p.186). I shouldn't be surprised, but Collins did not address how this third proposition fits together into a framework that makes no sense given the first two. Proposition 1 states that evolution promotes an atheistic worldview, so ID would want to be done with the concept entirely, right? Then they backpedal a bit and say, "Well, maybe evolution works, but - look at Proposition 2 - it's fundamentally flawed!" Then they backpedal even more and say "OK, evolution's flawed but - look at Proposition 3 - our god, I mean, ahem, an intelligent designer could step in and fix that flawed, atheistic system." But, then the system wouldn't be atheistic anymore, since some god is mucking around with evolution.

So one can see how ID is getting really close to the edge of where Collins wants to take theistic evolution, but ID just can't seem to cross that line. And the next chapter will bring us there. Collins concludes this chapter on Intelligent Design with an exhortation. He starts by citing William Dembski, who said in "The Design Revolution":

If it could be shown that biological systems that are wonderfully complex, elegant, and integrated - such as the bacterial flagellum - could have been formed by a gradual Darwinian process (and thus that their specified complexity is an illusion), then Intelligent Design would be refuted on the general grounds that one does not invoke intelligent causes when undirected natural causes will do. In that case, Occam's razor would finish off Intelligent Design quite nicely (p.194 of The Language of God).

Of course, one cannot expect Dembski to just let ID die, but that's as separate an issue as the fact that Collins has pushed God so far back that Occam's razor can't even touch it. Collins instead focuses on the question of what happens to a believer's faith when one can no longer give God a resting place in ID. Take away ID, and where does that leave God?

Enter what Collins calls BioLogos.

Other posts in this series:

March 27, 2011, 10:40 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink8 comments

The Language of God: YEC is Dumb

The Language of God, Chapter 8

By B.J. Marshall

I can summarize this chapter by quoting Collins himself: "Thus, by any reasonable standard, Young Earth Creationism [YEC] has reached a point of intellectual bankruptcy" (p.177). He spends the bulk of this chapter providing reasons why YEC is horribly flawed, and then he concludes with a "plea to reason" that is anything but.

Sadly, I don't think Collins does enough (anything, really) to debunk YEC other than saying it's wrong. All he says is that, for YEC to be correct, we'd have to throw out all we've learned about chemistry, cosmology, geology, and biology. Assuming that his readership comprises theists who hold some Creationist views - and Collins calls himself a Creationist (p.171) given that God is behind it all - I would have thought that Collins would have worked harder to bring any YECs around. Here are two examples, which really wouldn't have required much ink to explain:

Aside from asserting that YEC is incompatible with science, Collins makes two other arguments. His first is that there's no reason to take the Bible literally. After all, does anyone take it literally when the Bible states that the right arm of God lifts up the nation of Israel (p.175)? (Of course, Collins then fails to provide some objective measure of how one should know which verses are literal and which ones aren't.) His second is that, by alleging things that are contradictory to all scientific findings, YEC seems to fall back on a Trickster God.

Collins says that YEC does more to damage the faith, by demanding the believers assent to fundamentally flawed claims about the natural world. He states that children, brought up in YEC families and churches, will inevitably see the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and leave the faith. If only that were true!

Finally, his conclusion with the subheading "A Plea for Reason":

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted (p.178)

He continues by saying these battles between science and faith cannot be won by attaching one's position to a flawed foundation. He quotes Benjamin Warfield to emphasize his point: "None should be more quick to discern truth in every field, more hospitable to receive it, more loyal to follow it, whithersoever it leads" (p.179).

The cognitive dissonance is almost too much. Collins encourages others to avoid attaching positions to a flawed foundation, yet at the same time he says one is right to accept the untestable and unverifiable "truths" of the Bible and that one is right to hold that God must be the answer to pressing questions of human existence because science can't explain them (yet).

Other posts in this series:

March 20, 2011, 6:09 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink17 comments

Swimming in a Sea of Pseudoscience

This past weekend, I was out at brunch when I saw a rack of free magazines in the restaurant's foyer. I picked out one of them, which as it turned out was a promotional brochure and schedule for something called the New Life Expo to be held in New York City this coming weekend.

I read on, and the further into it I got, the more appalled I was. If you thought that humanity was entering a new and enlightened age, this magazine will force you to reconsider. If you took your impressions of the human race from these pages, you'd have to conclude that we're barely keeping our heads above water in a sea of irrationality, one that freely blends religious mysticism and pseudoscientific gibberish alike. Every kind of nonsense that human beings have ever invented is bursting from these pages - and I don't doubt that this expo will attract legions of the duped, the gullible, and the woolly-headed to feed from the trough.

One of the recurring themes among presenters at the expo is 2012. They're all tremendously excited by the imminent arrival of this year, and they're certain, with the infallible certainty of all good apocalyptic prophets, that something momentous is going to happen. The amusing thing is that they don't agree about what it is. Among the possibilities touted are life-threatening catastrophes and pole shifts, the battle of Armageddon, the emergence of an Antichrist-led global tyranny, life-altering waves of light, the creation of glorified bodies by the Archangel Metatron, a great cosmic awakening, and more:

Some of the presenters at this event, I'm sure, are simple con artists who are cynically exploiting the gullible by learning the right buzzwords to stir into their word salad ("ascended", "enlightened", "indigo", "vibration", "natural", "angelic", "harmony", "dimension", "shamanic" and "consciousness" are perennial favorites). But it's the sincere ones that concern me more. At least some of these people are probably mentally ill, but they're not getting the help they need because they're surrounded by fellow-believers, creating an environment where psychiatric delusions are normalized and rewarded rather than recognized as symptoms. Here are two likely examples:

Like the demon-obsessed evangelicals who treat mental illness as an event of religious significance rather than a medical condition, New Agers are discouraging the genuinely sick from seeking help and treatment. Their endless doctrinal flexibility and limitless tolerance for the absurd are part of the reason for this. But I can't believe that no one among the organizers of this event noticed the symptoms or drew the obvious conclusion. It's more likely that they just see this as an additional source of income, whatever the consequences.

And money, of course, is a huge motive of the expo's organizers and presenters; they're not even shy about it. Ironically, some ads rail against the profit-driven corporatocracy and the greed of the mega-wealthy while hawking their own products and charging hundreds or thousands of dollars a pop for seminars and private consultations. Others promise that they can teach conference-goers the infallible way to acquire fabulous wealth for themselves, using the law of attraction, astrology, or whatever other fashionable nonsense is in vogue. Still others run the classic snake-oil salesman's game of enriching themselves by selling false hope to the desperate, promising good health with no effort or magical cures for incurable diseases. The cures on offer run the gamut: psychic powers, prayer, ionized water, "far infrared light" (a new one to me), fad diets, "detoxification", and classic scams like the Rife machine. One unintentionally hilarious ad apparently touts a raw-food diet as a means of healing gunshot wounds.

Most of the ads also display the credential inflation so common among pseudoscientists. Since most of their "specialties" require no knowledge and no certification, why not claim as many as you can? If one kind of bait doesn't hook a potential client, maybe another one will! In that vein, here's one who claims to be an MD as well as "an ordained rabbi in the Baal Shem Tov lineage, clan chief of the Lakota Spirit Dance, a Native American Sundancer, and a lineage holder in the Nityananda liberation tradition, and acknowledged as liberated by his two recognized enlightened spiritual teachers. He is an in-depth teacher in Advaita Vedanta, japa yoga, bhakti yoga, nada yoga, and karma yoga." (Busy fellow! - and he must be absolutely up to his eyeballs in student-loan debt.)

Like the Learning Annex, the organizers of the New Life Expo believe that appealing to the lowest common denominator is a can't-miss money-making strategy, and they're not wrong about that. For the most part, human beings are eager to be swindled, and lack the critical thinking skills needed to tell the difference between science and bullshit. I'd like to say that, unlike the theocratic believers organizing to take over the state, their brand of woo is harmless - but to people who let psychics make all their important life decisions, who rely on colonic cleanses rather than chemotherapy, or who encourage and enable psychotics and schizophrenics, it's not harmless at all.

March 18, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink20 comments

Fighting Creationist Pollution of Science Classes

This past weekend was Darwin Day, an international celebration of science and reason in the name of the one person who did more than possibly anyone else to clarify humanity's position in the natural universe. Alas, the great man's legacy is still threatened by religious ignorance:

Researchers found that only 28 percent of biology teachers consistently follow the recommendations of the National Research Council to describe straightforwardly the evidence for evolution and explain the ways in which it is a unifying theme in all of biology. At the other extreme, 13 percent explicitly advocate creationism, and spend at least an hour of class time presenting it in a positive light.

That leaves what the authors call "the cautious 60 percent," who avoid controversy by endorsing neither evolution nor its unscientific alternatives. In various ways, they compromise.

A survey published in the latest issue of the journal Science found these dispiriting, though hardly surprising, results. The teaching of evolution still faces religious resistance throughout the country. Some biology teachers are a part of it, and work actively to spread ignorance - like the odious John Freshwater, an Ohio high school teacher who repeatedly defied the school's orders not to teach creationism in class, and who was finally terminated last month after a long and drawn-out legal battle - but most of them just keep their heads down, teaching about evolution as little as possible and trying not to draw attention to themselves. Of course, this is just what the creationists want. People who don't know the real facts about evolution are more likely to believe creationist lies, and the cycle of ignorance is perpetuated.

Although defenders of science education have repeatedly triumphed in court, creationists are working at the local level to undercut these victories. Thanks to sympathetic school boards and spineless teachers, they're often succeeding. If we want to turn back their assaults and create a scientifically literate population, it's essential for us to fight at the grass-roots level as well as in the courts. As it stands, we're winning the battles but losing the war.

And the people who can do the most are the ones on the front lines of this conflict. If you're an atheist student and you're not being taught about evolution in school, stand up and say something! Tell the school administration that you object to having your education watered down, that teaching creationism or otherwise bowing to religious objections puts them in a perilous legal position, that you don't want your college applications or your future job prospects harmed because you come from a school with a reputation as a creationist-run laughingstock. Sure, it's entirely possible to learn these things yourself - some students have even won scholarships on the basis of experience debating creationists on the internet. But it still harms your academic resume to come from a school that's known as a cesspool of ignorance. There are smart, freethinking students who've turned the tables on religious intrusions in their schools. We need more of them!

The same applies if you're a parent: join the PTA, go to school board meetings, keep an eye on what's being taught! Creationists, and religious conservatives in general, have the advantage that they're very good at organizing and politically mobilizing - a predictable if unfortunate consequence of a religious ideology that values obedience to dogma and the decrees of leaders. We'll probably never be able to match their lockstep conformity, nor would I want to. But with the law on our side, a small group of dedicated and watchful individuals can have a huge impact.

February 16, 2011, 6:43 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink9 comments

Movie Review: Into Eternity
Into Eternity poster

This weekend, my wife and I saw Into Eternity, a gripping documentary by the Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen. It's well worth a wider audience, so here's a review of it that I hope will provoke some interest.

Every nuclear power plant in the world produces several tons of high-level radioactive waste each year. In total, there exists in the world about 250,000 tons of radioactive waste, which is potentially deadly and will be for tens of thousands of years. Most countries that rely on nuclear power have no clear plan for disposing of it permanently (such as the U.S., where the proposed Yucca Mountain repository was canceled), and are resorting to temporary storage in water pools until a long-term solution is decided on.

One of the few exceptions is Finland, which is building a repository called Onkalo - Finnish for "hiding place" - drilled thousands of feet deep into the granite bedrock on an island 300 kilometers northwest of Helsinki. When Onkalo is finished, probably around 2020, it will be large enough to store all the radioactive waste Finland will generate in the next hundred years, after which it will be closed and sealed permanently.

But even though Onkalo will be open for about a hundred years, the wastes that it will contain will be dangerous for the next 100,000 years, and must be kept safe for that entire enormous span of time. That's the almost unimaginable challenge that its builders face, and that's the underlying idea that motivates this documentary and suffuses it with an eerily mythic, almost apocalyptic feel.

100,000 years is a span of time difficult for the human mind to grasp. The oldest pyramids of Egypt are less than 5,000 years old; the most ancient human settlements in the world, like Jericho and Çatalhöyük, are about 10,000 years old. Even the cave paintings of Lascaux are only about 17,000 years old. Onkalo will have to outlast all of these, and Madsen very effectively conveys the awful grandeur of that idea, the sense of standing at the lip of a vast abyss of time. In between interviews with the engineers, lawmakers, and scientific advisors of the project, he juxtaposes scenes of ghostly white, snow-shrouded Finnish woods with the vast, cavernous tunnels of Onkalo far below, where gloved and masked workers use heavy industrial equipment to drill ever deeper into the earth. Madsen's narration is addressed to a hypothetical far-future audience, explaining to them why we built this place and wondering what they may think of us.

The engineering challenges in building Onkalo are formidable. For one, it's essential that the repository be entirely passive, able to safeguard its contents without needing human beings to guard or maintain it. The engineers building Onkalo designed it to be immune to fires, floods, earthquakes - even to withstand the glaciation of the next ice age.

But natural disasters, over these long time scales, are a predictable quantity. The biggest threat to Onkalo by far is human intrusion. We can't predict the twists and turns of contingency; we can't be certain how long our society will endure, what may cause it to fall, or what might rise in its place. If Onkalo is ever rediscovered, some day in the far future, the people who find it may not have anything in common with us: not culture, not language, not even our scientific understanding of the world. How can we make them comprehend the danger, how can we persuade them to leave this place alone? How can we possibly communicate across the gulf of a thousand centuries?

This is where nuclear waste storage becomes less an engineering issue and more a philosophical problem. Into Eternity discusses some of the ideas that have been proposed: stone monuments engraved with warnings in every U.N. language, or more imaginative proposals that convey ideas on a level deeper than words, like huge, forbidding black monoliths or a jagged "landscape of thorns" protruding from the earth. One interview subject suggests reproductions of Edvard Munch's "The Scream". Still others suggest that any marker at all will only invite curiosity, and the best thing we can do for our descendants is to seal up Onkalo and leave it entirely unmarked and forgotten, hoping they never stumble across it.

Although this isn't explicitly an environmental documentary, the subject looms unavoidably in the background. Paradoxically, the building of Onkalo shows both the worst and the best of humanity: how insanely selfish and short-sighted it is to light our homes and offices today with a poison that will endanger our descendants for hundreds of generations; and how inspiring it is that we're able to think this far into the future and be willing to consider such extreme measures to safeguard them. But the most terrifying idea of all is that Onkalo, as huge as it is, will only store the nuclear waste of one country. Ultimately, the world will need dozens or hundreds of places like this. How many hidden dangers, how many buried traps, are we going to have to leave for those who live after us?

February 6, 2011, 2:28 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink23 comments

The Language of God: Deeper DNA Comparisons

The Language of God, Chapter 5

By B.J. Marshall

In the last post, we saw Collins give a foothold to Creationists who want to deny macroevolution. Even granted that he should have never allowed this foothold in the first place, he makes a valiant effort to tear the false micro-v-macro wall down by comparing our genome to those of other animals. It is here that Collins asserts that "[t]he study of genomes leads inexorably to the conclusion that we humans share a common ancestor with other living things" (p.134). Aside from the genetic similarities discussed in the previous post, Collins presents three additional lines of evidence that help lead us to his inexorable conclusion: the order of DNA sequences, ancient repetitive elements (AREs), and pseudogenes.

I think Collins doesn't spend much time on the first line of evidence, the order of DNA sequences, because it's pretty easy to follow. The argument is something like this: If you find human genes A, B, and C in that order, you are also likely to find A, B, and C (same order) in other animals. The spacing might differ, but it's there. (AREs fill in most of the gaps between these protein-coding genes, so that'll come into play shortly.) His example to demonstrate this is a comparison between a human and a mouse genome. Particularly, virtually all the genes on human chromosome 17 are found on mouse chromosome 11. Collins here takes a stab at a potential objection. While one might argue that the order of genes is critical in order to function properly - therefore hinting at a Designer - there is no evidence supporting the claim that this would have to occur over such large chromosomal differences.

Now we get to these AREs, called "jumping genes" or transposons, that fill most of the "junk DNA" portion of genomes. They comprise about 45% of our genome and, when one aligns these AREs in human and mouse genomes, they occur in the same order. So, not only do the protein-coding portions line up, but so do these AREs. Collins points out that the process of transposition often damages the jumping gene, and that's what makes them "junk." And these don't bode well for the Creationist; "[u]nless one is willing to take the position that God has placed these decapitated AREs in these precise positions to confuse and mislead us, the conclusion of a common ancestor for humans and mice is virtually inescapable" (p.136-7).

Bringing AREs closer to humans, Collins moves to comparing us with chimpanzees. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes; chimps have 24. The difference appears to be where two proto-chimp chromosomes fused together to create human chromosome 2. (I say proto-chimp as means of refering to the common ancestor that led to chimps and humans. It's my attempt to avoid that horrendous claim "we evolved from monkeys.") What's more, Collins argues, is that scientists found this fusion exactly where they predicted it would be! The fusion would be "very difficult to understand ... without postulating a common ancestor" (p.138).

Finally, Collins comes to pseudogenes, which are genes that have almost the same properties of a functional DNA instruction packet but have some glitches that muddle things up. Three examples include capsase-12; MYH16, the gene for a jaw muscle protein; and FOXP2, involved in the development of language. Capsase-12 is inactive in humans but active in chimps. This gene works just fine in nearly all mammals except us. So, Collins asks, why would God have gone to the trouble of inserting such a nonfunctional gene in this precise location?" (p.139). MYH16 plays a significant role in the development and strength of jaw muscles in other primates. Collins states that inactivating this gene freed our skulls from having to anchor larger jaws and enabled us to expand our skulls outward to accommodate larger brains. Finally, FOXP2 enables language. Collins talks about uncovering this gene on chromosome 7 via a single family in England where members for three generations had severe difficulty in speaking. They found that a simple one-letter misspelling was occuring. This gene has been remarkably stable in nearly all mammals, and two significant changes have occurred in the coding region of this gene to finally (as in, as recently as 100,000 years ago) imbue humans with the capacity for language.

At this point, Collins mentions, "godless materialists might be cheering. If humans evolved strictly by mutation and natural selection, who needs God to explain us? To this, I reply: I do" (p.140). Stay tuned for Collins' explanation of why he thinks that; the next post will get to the heart of Theistic Evolution.

Other posts in this series:

January 23, 2011, 1:33 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink4 comments

The Language of God: Micro vs. Macro

The Language of God, Chapter 5

By B.J. Marshall

Before tackling the gritty details using DNA evidence to support human evolution, Collins addresses Darwin, mutations, and the "rather arbitrary" distinction between microevolution ("incremental changes within a species") and macroevolution ("major changes in species") (p.131-2). In my discussions with Creationists, the micro- v. macro-evolution thing always comes up. So I was pretty excited to see how Collins would cover this topic.

He does a fairly decent job mentioning how we've seen lots of changes within species, such as finch beaks changing shape over time. He also discusses saltwater v. freshwater sticklebacks and rapid variation in viruses. He even brings stickleback evolution into a DNA setting by stating that the specific gene - EDA - has repeatedly and independently appeared in freshwater, resulting in sticklebacks losing their plates. Oh, but it gets better, because humans also have an EDA gene, and "spontaneous mutations in that gene result in defects in hair, teeth, sweat glands, and bone" (p.132). So, Collins adds as he tries to connect sticklebacks to humans, it's not tough to see how the differences between sticklebacks could be extended; "larger changes that result in new species are a result of a succession of smaller incremental steps" (p.132). And that's fine for highlighting "microevolution," which is something Creationists can believe anyway. And it's even good for alluding to macroevolution given his "succession of smaller incremental steps." But he only ever leaves it at the hypothetical.

He does his readers a disservice when he claims "we haven't seen new species arise" without expanding on what speciation is (p. 132). Additionally, he leaves the door open to Creationists by saying macroevolution only consists of "major changes" in species. Speciation is kind of a vague line but is usually delimited by two species' ability to interbreed; they usually can't or, if they do, their male offspring are sterile. And the fact is that we have observed speciation in a number of instances. One example is in polyploidy organisms that contain a multiple or combination of complete genomes; these usually result in new organisms that, due to the number of chromosomes, can't reproduce with their originating species. It's called allopolyploidy if genome duplication happens through crossing two different species. Another way speciation can occur is through sexual isolation, such as in ring species such as the Ensatina eschscholtzi salamander.

But, regardless of whether we've observed speciation, Collins gives Creationists a foothold by leaving it up to interpretting what constitutes "major changes" in species. For example, perhaps the inability to breed isn't too bad, because all those salamanders still look very salamandery. It's not like you get a crocodile and a duck together!

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January 16, 2011, 4:30 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink8 comments

The Language of God: Size Doesn't Matter

The Language of God, Chapter 5

By B.J. Marshall

In this section, Collins describes how "the study of genomes leads inexorably to the conclusion that we humans share a common ancestor with other living things" (p.133-4). There are a lot of ideas in this chapter to unpack, so I'd like to start by reviewing Collins' material on DNA at a high level: size and broad similarity. It would be my hope that, even if Creationists only heard some of the material in this chapter, they would quickly see the flaws in Intelligent Design.

First, to lay some groundwork: There is a common misconception made particularly among Creationists that atheism necessarily follows from believing in evolution. This argument is as logically flawed as saying that atheism necessarily follows from believing in gravity, eschewing the entirely-poorly publicized view of Intelligent Falling. Granted, I think evolution poses difficult challenges to theism, but evolution is not theism's death knell. Atheism is a lack of a belief in god(s); the strongest form of atheism takes it one step further to declare "there are no gods." That's basically it. One could hypothetically be an atheist and still believe in the Tooth Fairy, The Loch Ness Monster, or the efficacious treatment of homeopathy. Or, more to the point of evolution, an atheist could believe in Intelligent Design so long as the designing was done intelligently by some space-faring aliens. So long as you don't believe in a god, you're an atheist; this is despite all the other nonsense you might believe. Of course, Collins wants you to see that, too. He's trying to harmonize science and religion, so it would do him no good whatsoever to make all these compelling assertions about the validity of evolution if he thought you were going to jump ship and become an atheist.

Now, that being said, Collins called the genome "the book written in the DNA language by which God spoke life into being" (p.123). Although we still don't know how abiogenesis occurred, Collins appears to be incorrect in waxing poetic about DNA's crucial role. It appears that RNA, acting as simple enzymes, might have paved the way for life to begin. But even beyond waxing poetic, Collins treats DNA as something sacred, as "uncovering this most remarkable of all texts was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship" (p.3). And, although Collins has admonished his readers to steer clear of god-of-the-gaps arguments, he states that "DNA... seems an utterly improbable molecule to have 'just happened'" (p.91). Indeed, Collins confesses that he is "in awe of this molecule" (p.102) and regards the "digital [sic] elegance of DNA" as "deeply satisfying" (p.107). (Since DNA is based on four letters, it's really a Quaternary system.) It's probably that deep sense of awe that one can only get through belief in god.

Regarding the size of the genome, Collins makes the observation that a surprisingly small portion of it actually codes for proteins. There are only about 20,000-25,000 protein-coding genes in the human genome. Collins states that the total amount of DNA used by those genes to code for protein is about 1.5-2.0% of the total genome. Collins notes that some observers have been insulted at this. Surely as monarchs of the animal kingdom, we should be special! Well, these observers contend, perhaps "our complexity arises not from the number of separate instruction packets, but from the way they are utilized. Perhaps our component parts have learned how to multitask" (p.125). He disappointingly never expounds on whether genes can multitask, so we're left wondering. Answer: at least some can.

To quell the righteous indignation of some, Collins offers an analogy by way of the language used to write books. He goes on to say the average educated English speaker has a vocabulary of about 20,000 words. (Actually, that is a very low estimate, as Stephen Pinker in "The Language Instinct" points out that the average high school graduate knows about 45,000 words; it might even be 60,000 if you count proper names.) Collins says these words can be used in simple ways (owner's manual) or really complex ways (James Joyce's Ulysses). Unfortunately, I think the analogy fails in a way that subverts Collins' intent. If you want to bring the faithful around to seeing how evolution (unplanned, no ultimate goal, no creator) works, then it doesn't do well to relate it to a construct (language) whose entire function hinges on the intent of, and usage by, intelligent actors. I think I would have offered the reader an analogy of chemistry: you got some protons, neutrons, and electrons to form a few basic building blocks. From different combinations of these, you get the periodic table. For the theoretical physicists in you all, you could even punt to the different vibrations of strings a la Superstring Theories.

Regarding the similarities, Collins mentions that humans are all about 99.9% the same DNA-wise. This certainly makes me feel better, since my hometown was jokingly known for its residents meeting their future spouses at family reunions. He points out that this fits well with the fossil record, which places us in East Africa about 100,000-150,000 years ago to a common set of founders about 10,000 in number. Now, before you get all antsy, making your way to AnswersInGenesis (I can't bring myself to link to it) to refute the fossil record, I want to tell you we will disregard for now this line of evidence; we're really interested in seeing how Collins can back up his claim that DNA alone is sufficient to demonstrate evolution.

Back to just DNA. Here's a nifty table!

Animal Protein Coding Genes Random Segments between Genes
Chimpanzee 100% 98%
Dog 99% 52%
Mouse 99% 40%
Chicken 75% 4%
Fruit Fly 60% ~0%
Roundworm 35% ~0%

The significance of that table is this: If you asked a computer to construct a tree of life based solely on similarities of DNA sequences of multiple organisms, you'd get (courtesy of this site):

Tree of Life, made only through DNA evidence

The DNA similarities also show that genetic mutations that do not have deleterious effects on survival will accumulate over time - the stuff quite arrogantly dubbed "junk DNA." Indeed, mutations in coding regions of genes are observed far less frequently, since the deleterious effects of these are more pronounced.

If these genomes, Collins asks, were created by some intelligent designer, why would these particular features appear? Collins poses more challenges to Creationists, and we'll address them in the next posts.

Other posts in this series:

December 31, 2010, 5:13 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink23 comments

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A dimly lit domed room, where a great telescope points through a slot in the ceiling to the sky. In the misty glow of the telescope's lens, galaxies wheel and spin, one or another brightening every few minutes with the pulse of light from a supernova. On the far side of the room floats a hologram of the DNA double helix, its structure flickering as nucleotide bases change every few seconds.

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