Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Different Strokes

The famous American idiom “Different Strokes for Different Folks” tells us that different people like or need different things. Let’s examine how multitudes of important scientific discoveries in the past fifty to one hundred years have impacted two entirely different groups of “folks.”

We are living in an age of scientific discovery unlike any bygone era. Discoveries are occurring at an accelerating rate. Proliferating knowledge in biological and physical sciences has enabled scientists to paint an ever more complete picture of reality as the last half of the 20th century moved into the 21st. Big Bang cosmology has been enriched with startling detail about how fine-tuned the universe really is. Earth sciences have advanced far beyond unlocking merely the fact of plate tectonics; they now reveal a world of detail about the intricate workings of our living planet. Biological sciences have far surpassed the landmark identification of DNA as the fundamental genetic material with its double helix structure. Finally, physical science has expanded man’s knowledge of molecules, atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, and Newtonian physics into the worlds of relativity, exotic particle physics, and quantum theory.

There are two ways to interpret this proliferation of knowledge. Scientists who believe naturalism explains all reality (metaphysical naturalists) view such advances in man’s knowledge as affirming the naturalistic worldview: nature is all there is and is the ultimate metaphysical reality. But those with a theistic worldview perceive the same knowledge explosion as a clear manifestation of gifts given by God, the author of all things. The two groups examine identical evidence, but reach different conclusions about its meaning.

There are many cases where the same evidence is cited to support different conclusions. Life forms on earth and the physical systems which support them either (a) arose naturalistically according to an unknown self-organizing property of matter, or (b) arose theistically from a supernatural, creative act of God. These two views of origins are on diametric opposites of the worldview spectrum. When researching answers to this “either/or” option, it behooves the Christian to “get it right.” Naturalism has many surprising, even shocking logical outcomes which should alarm Christians; if we “get it wrong,” we begin a slide down a dangerous slope. Upcoming posts will address these outcomes and dangers. We need to focus on discovering the truth about origins. In so doing, we proceed beyond the relativistic “Different Strokes for Different Folks” mentality which drives our post-modern world.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Design Makes Sense

Many evolutionists ridicule the idea that nature’s designs indicate a designer. Richard Dawkins and Francis Crick, among many others, claim appearance of design is misleading and does not really signal input of intelligence in the features of nature, especially among living things. Do not be fooled, they warn. Their warnings cover a broad range: total body plan, integrated organ systems, complex organs, tissue types, and on down to the fundamental structural unit, the cell.

It is worthwhile to distinguish between nature’s patterns and nature’s designs. For example, many meteorological phenomena show patterns--regularity of cloud shapes, predictable events in storm development, and uniqueness of snowflakes. Patterns are not necessarily indicators of design. Why? Because designs also manifest potential for function, but patterns do not. One may look at the DNA molecule and admire the regularity and complexity of its pattern. Beyond the beauty of its pattern, however, the DNA molecule is packed with functional capabilities. It replicates itself and synthesizes RNA which, in turn, directs the production of thousands of proteins, the physical building blocks of living systems. The DNA molecule is perhaps the most elegant example of design in all of biology. It is actually a language, spoken in code. It directs thousands of functions. These functions are carried out inside the cell—life’s fundamental structural unit.

And what of the cell? Dr. Fazale Rana, Reasons to Believe scholar, has just written a book entitled The Cell’s Design. Readers could admire the description of complex, integrated cell structure. But put simply, structure indicates function. There are many events taking place inside the cell wall enabled by devices analogous to man-made machines. These machines help construct products and direct events which impact the working of the entire organism in multi-cellular creatures. As I read Dr. Rana’s volume, I listed over a dozen functions taking place inside the cell. It is an injustice to list only a handful: manufacturing, operating, transporting, regulating.

Naturalistic scientists such as University of Chicago’s James Shapiro attribute phenomena such as the cells’ capabilities to the intrinsic capabilities of matter. He says cells are good at “figuring things out, processing information, analyzing complicated situations, and making good decisions about them.” He does not credit the Creator for design features which produce complex, purposeful function in living things. Instead, matter alone gets the credit. Contrast Psalm 139:14… “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” God, the Maker, has infinite capabilities as the designer. In turn, He imparts wonderful capabilities to creatures having the characteristics of design.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Nothing...Makes Sense...

Around midpoint of the last century, bio-scientists increasingly began to talk about evolution unifying every dimension of life science. In 1958, evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith wrote “The main unifying idea in biology is Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection.” Theodosius Dobzhansky first introduced a similar statement in 1964 in an article in American Zoologist, and later resurrected it as the title of a 1973 article in the American Biology Teacher. He stated “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” This statement has become a self-affirming mantra of committed evolutionists. Its value as an expression of philosophical worldview surpasses its truth value. Similar sentiments are now common in biology textbooks.

It is unusual to research any field of bio-science without encountering frequent invocation of the term evolution. For instance, while investigating the metamorphosis and migration of the monarch butterfly, I encountered frequent references to the evolution of four stage insect metamorphosis. Whether one reads popular life science articles written for the layman, or the scholarly writings scientists produce for their peers, it is not unusual for many topics to be framed in evolutionary terms. It is also a practice of authors in social or behavioral science.

The 1950s and 1960s were days of heady discussion and transition from old style Darwinist evolutionary biologists who emphasized the organism, to a different set of scientists who stressed discoveries at the molecular level. There were groups of scientists who felt more comfortable in one camp or the other. What developed has become known as the “modern evolutionary synthesis,” or “Neo-Darwinism.” All disciplines in biology were eventually united under evolution’s banner. The view that evolution explains everything is promoted relentlessly.

When lawyers battle in courtrooms over guilt or innocence, they interpret almost every shred of evidence to favor their client. But establishing legal innocence does not always equate with establishing truth. So it is with the verdict on evolution. In the courtroom of the classroom and culture where evolution is tried, we must be committed to finding truth, not merely claiming victory for a philosophical belief system. Evidence for evolution is ambiguous, incomplete, and circumstantial. Sudden creation events along the timeline of earth’s history, including the special creation of man, seem entirely plausible and rational. “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” seems to be an over-reach designed to sway the jury unfairly.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Metamorphosis and Migration

Flashback to our early days of child rearing: Collect a few milkweed caterpillars, the familiar larvae of the monarch butterfly…Keep them well supplied for a week or more with fresh milkweed leaves in a jar…Place a stick in the jar…Watch the caterpillars select a location to transform into a chrysalis…Wait patiently…And, voila! An adult monarch butterfly appears…Bid the insect Bon voyage! I would not have believed this activity had made such an impact on our children. I was wrong.

This summer, our adult son collected numerous milkweed caterpillars in Iowa. He tapped the youthful enthusiasm of his student athletes in the project to care for them while he traveled. The result? Success! One later email attached a photograph entitled “New Baby.” The baby was an adult monarch preparing to leave its adopted home. It was dutifully released, likely to produce another generation of monarchs before summer ended. Perhaps it even traveled to eastern Illinois where our daughter and her children collected several tiny caterpillars and watched each eventually become a chrysalis. We now await more “new babies.”

Even my wife and I have become immersed in this youth renewal activity. Three healthy monarch caterpillars greedily devoured leaf after leaf in my office. Then they energetically scouted their jar environment in order to locate an ideal spot to produce stage three in their metamorphosis--emerald green, delicately formed, exquisitely gold-bejeweled masterpieces. Upon release after emerging, this generation of monarchs will make their long journey of several thousand miles to special locations in southern California or Mexico. They will return to those traditional wintering spots by using a guidance system known only to them and to their Maker, as though the four stage process of metamorphosis had not already rewarded us with enough wonderment.

Historically, scientists have wrestled with terms like vitalism and √©lan vital--the “something special” that living things, including monarch butterflies, possess. Researchers often address these unique abilities on a reductionist level, attempting to explain the behaviors by pinpointing an identifiable physical process. Such research should continue. But we may also ponder whether mysterious behaviors in animals, or even the unique qualities of consciousness in humans, are special gifts bestowed by the Creator, known fully only to Him.

Monday, August 4, 2008

All Things Hold Together

Indicators of an intelligent Creator stare at us from the microcosm to the macrocosm. Design features logically and rationally point to a designer. In the world of nature, from the very small to the very large, denial of multiple examples of design, and by extension the existence of a designer, would appear irrational. Affirmation of design has abundant rational support. I have mused about writers of scripture who seem insightful about the natural world. No, the Bible is not a science textbook. It is, rather, a textbook about God, His actions, and His purpose in this cosmos. But as a science teacher, some scripture passages cause me to reflect on what clearly seem to be scientific insights.

Colossians 1:17 contains fascinating propositions in the light of discoveries made in the past few centuries. In various translations, Colossians 1:17 is rendered, “He holds all things together” (NLT), “In Him all things hold together,” (NAS and NIV), and “He holds it all together right up to this moment” (The Message). Contextually, verse 17 clearly refers to the physical cosmos created by God. Prior verses affirm God’s pre-creation existence. In this creation, then, we may ask what is “held together?”

In the world of the atom there is a powerful application to the idea expressed in verse 17. The strong nuclear force, one of the four universal forces, is far and away the strongest. It is over one hundred times as strong as the next strongest force, electromagnetism. This force binds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of an atom. It is exceedingly strong, but acts over only distances smaller than the diameter of the nucleus itself. If this force were to cease or become weaker, some commentators have stated we would have a chaos, not a cosmos. I have told my students that atoms have no business hanging together at all, because electromagnetic forces are always trying to make them fly apart. Strong nuclear forces win the day, however. Electromagnetic force, weaker than strong nuclear force but still stronger by far than gravity (10 to the 38th power stronger), succeeds in keeping negatively charged electrons in close proximity to the protons and neutrons in the nucleus. Were that not true, we would have another chaos producer!

Who authored these forces? Who keeps the forces reined in--not too strong, not too weak? What sustains the orderliness of matter and what prevents a universal nuclear holocaust? There is no naturalistic explanation for the origin, consistency, and maintenance of the laws governing these forces. As a believer in the Bible and a careful observer of nature, it is not difficult to affirm Colossians 1:17: “He holds all things together.”

Friday, August 1, 2008

Dynamic Planet Earth

Science writers are fond of describing our planet with phrases like “Our Dynamic Earth.” Dynamic is a word used to convey force, power, and energy. Even in social contexts we refer to dynamic human personality or dynamic societal trends. In any field of science, many phenomena can aptly be described as dynamic. That word may be overworked, but it doesn’t begin to convey the enormity of power and process in connection with our Earth. In events like earthquakes and volcanoes, Earth is more like a complex machine with integrated moving parts and precisely tuned events. The possibility of design is difficult to reject.

Earthquakes and volcanoes have similar causes. Gigantic convection currents, caused by latent heat in the earth’s interior and decay of radioactive elements, slowly drag crustal plates around the surface over millions of years. These plates may slide past one another, converge (one dives beneath another), or diverge (separate from each other). As stresses build from these movements, a breaking point is reached and an earthquake occurs, like a breaking rubber band stretched too far. However, laboratory models have also shown directional reversals of these currents. These reversals are needed for super-continents to assemble and later break apart; without current reversals, tectonic movements would cease. On the extended timetables of geology, our earth would eventually become uninhabitable because valuable life-sustaining minerals could not be recycled to the earth’s surface. While no one appreciates the damage and alarm generated by earthquakes, the dynamic processes giving rise to them have made abundant life possible.

Volcanoes also have potential for destruction. The same movements which drive plate tectonics result in pressure and thermal variations in the mantle rock over long time frames. Melting of the rock sometimes follows, resulting in surface eruptions of various types and intensities. These eruptions of molten material return mineral and bio-deposits to the surface, materials necessary for sustaining life over earth’s long history. Given a choice, many people would opt for elimination of all earthquakes and volcanoes, not realizing that such elimination would sound the eventual death knell for abundant life on our planet.

Naturalists complain that belief in God and His action in our world is “irrational.” But when we examine thousands of intricate earth systems, whose successful operation depends on multiple interdependent events nearly impossible to ascribe to pure chance, we conclude that belief in the existence of a creator’s hand is entirely rational.