Thursday, September 15, 2011

Past Postings

During your science blogger’s brief hiatus from regular posting on the Ankerberg website, readers are invited to review several series I have posted in the past. Clicking on each link below takes you to the first commentary in each series. Clicking on Newer Post at the bottom of each article progressively takes you through the series. I offer five suggestions:

THEISTIC EVOLUTION – Over thirty posts examined the foundations and implications of the belief in theistic evolution. TE has become a significant discussion issue and a source of disagreement among Christians:

INVISIBLE ENERGY – This more light-hearted series of ten posts studied the wonders of invisible electromagnetic (radiant) energy, and how knowledge of it and its application have revolutionized human experience within the past 1½ centuries. When I taught physical science, this topic was one of my personal favorites:

CREATIONISM VIEWS – Over twenty-five posts examined the differences in Christian creationist beliefs. There is substantial divergence of positions concerning the antiquity of the universe and geologic events and time scales. This series does not set out to “prove” an old earth and universe. Readers may fruitfully investigate that issue for themselves. Rather, the postings examine the history of the topic within the church in the last two centuries. Primarily, we examined the events of the 20th century. Understanding this background is at least as important as understanding the various scientific and theological interpretations surrounding the topic of creationism. Here is the link to the first post:

VIBRANT DANCE SYMPOSIUM – In October 2010, an array of Christian leaders in the field of science assembled for three days in Austin, TX. Their sometimes differing views of origins made for interesting and informative exchanges. One of the most important discussion topics was the interaction between faith and science in the church setting. My ten posts reported on the presentations of nine different plenary speakers at the symposium:

ISRAEL - Finally, anyone contemplating a visit to the Holy Land should read as much as possible prior to visiting. You will be better equipped to understand the history of past and current events in that country. My wife and I agreed that our visit to Israel in 2009 was, in many respects, the "trip of a lifetime." I submitted seven posts on the visit to the land where Jesus walked:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Wonder Wasps

Most children enjoy all manner of critters, including those in class insecta. They take pleasure in capturing, caressing, and controlling the creatures, at least for a brief time. Insects make up more than half of all the organisms on this earth. So it was not difficult to locate a few interesting ones in our neighborhood when our grandchildren visited the past several years--grasshoppers, walking sticks, katydids, butterflies, wasps, and ants, to name a few. Thousands of volumes have been written on the appearance and behavior of the one million insects already catalogued. For young children, however, nothing compares with informal “field studies.”

For the past several summers, great golden digger wasps have resided among the paver blocks in our driveway. Mention of the word wasps causes some people, both old and young, to shrink away or even react in unwarranted attack mode. One of Grandpa’s first tasks was to encourage a gentle, inquiring demeanor, including sitting still, being quiet, and observing thoughtfully. This strategy worked. We discovered most wasps, especially these types, known as “solitary wasps,” are not interested in attacking or stinging. After the wasp’s initial suspicion of the large animals observing her, she quickly resumed her busy excavating activity, descending her vertical tunnel only to emerge pulling out dirt and small pebbles and kicking them into a mound just outside the tunnel. The action continued until a large pile was formed.

Later we observed the wasp returning from the fields carrying anesthetized grasshoppers or katydids. After carefully laying its prey down it backed into its hole, then methodically dragged its victim down into one of the horizontal subterranean tunnels it had constructed. A single egg, deposited on each specimen it had acquired, would soon hatch into the larva stage and begin consuming the parental provision. The pupa stage remains in its sealed compartment over the winter only to hatch into an adult next summer and renew the same sequence of behaviors. In order to instill sentiments of respect for such wonderful creatures in my grandchildren, I have referred to the critters in our neighborhood with expressions such as “our” birds, “our” butterflies, or “our” wasps. In a real sense, they do belong to us.

Some may object that the predator-prey relationship manifest by such animals is a disturbing indicator of a creation gone awry. This is not the case. There is real purpose behind their existence and behavior. The digger wasp and tens of thousands of similar creatures do far more good than harm and generally should be left alone. Many function as population controllers for harmful organisms, natural recycling agents, and clean-up managers. In addition, many insects are valuable pollinators of food plants. Without them, human life would be impossible.

Evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) was incorrect on many of his proposals, but coined the concept of ecology which he defined as “the comprehensive science of the relationship of the organism to the environment.” In the last fifty years there has been a strong movement encouraging the study of ecology and how its understanding and application benefit humanity. We give God the glory for creating such a large variety of animals and plants to occupy unique ecological niches.

The great golden digger wasp is a genetically programmed animal. It is unable to “think about” adapting to a slightly different sequence of events in its quest to provision its tunnel nursery. Such a degree of adaptation is typical of higher level animals. A sense of wonder is a natural outcome of an encounter with an animal such as the digger wasp because they are naturally equipped with marvelous inherent behaviors. Other varieties of digger wasps are programmed to use slightly different strategies for removing the dirt and stones from their tunnels. Instead of pulling, other species are pushers, carriers, or scrapers. Perhaps the Creator had a sense of humor when He designed unusual physical features and programmed the animals with diverse, unique behaviors.

We usually think more in terms of the wonders of higher animals such as vertebrates—mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. The writer of the Book of Job wrote majestic descriptions of such animals because they were more obvious and accessible, even though far less common in terms of the quantity of species. Only about 58,000 catalogued species exist of all five vertebrates combined.

Millions of species interrelate in ways mostly beneficial to the inhabitants of our planet. Our Creator has “provisioned” earth’s environment with countless creatures, great and small, for specific purposes. The more we understand the interactions of those creatures, the more we understand why God pronounced His creation “good” and “very good.” The Creator took pleasure inspecting His works. In our surroundings and in descriptive literature, we also have multiple opportunities to recognize purpose and take pleasure in God’s created creatures.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Keep It Simple

When we become adults our interactions assume a level of complexity we were unable or unwilling to assume as children. We think and interact with each other on many different topics. Three examples are religion, politics, and sometimes science. As children we absorbed the religion of our parents and for the most part, we accepted it without question. Likewise, our political awareness sprang largely from observations of our parents’ governance. Our blog concerns science, so we will include the common observation that children are budding scientists. They enjoy observing, capturing, collecting, testing what happens if…, and asking, “Why….?”

As we became older our religious, political, and scientific sophistication increased. We began to be more impacted by people outside our families and churches. In science, where discoveries are the most physically accessible, we continued to enjoy observing, collecting and inquiring. The added dimension of schooling provided more formal knowledge of facts and scientific procedures for investigating and discovering. This knowledge profits our children as they progress with their education.

Is there a downside to the acquisition of scientific knowledge in the setting of the public school? Christian creationist parents may be distressed to discover the level of indoctrination present in their children’s life science courses where evolution is the ruling paradigm. Many high school biology texts, in particular, relentlessly intone the term evolution, even when it serves no purpose for explaining the theory in the context of the discussion. Perhaps the spirit of evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s (1900-1975) hyperbolic utterance “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” functions as a rallying phrase in our biology classrooms. Contrariwise, mention of design theory or a creation alternative to explain even one of biology’s “big bangs,” such as the startlingly sudden appearance of bio-chemically complex bacterial earth life, could earn a teacher a trip to the courtroom for promoting religion in the classroom.

Our children’s crucial years prior to high school and college offer opportunities for parents and churches to make the most of our young folks’ fascination with details of the world of both living and non-living things. Instruction in both physical and functional design features of living things, as well as the precision and order of our physical world is within our capability, even for those children of pre-high school age. One of the finest appeals I have heard to church leaders regarding the use of science in our churches was presented by Deborah Haarsma of Calvin College during the October 2010 Vibrant Dance Symposium in Austin, TX. Here is the link to my post reporting on her talk:

Why do we title this post “Keep it Simple?” First, the Darwinian explanation of life and its origins complicates the simple concept that God created life suddenly on this earth, and new life forms over time, according to the Genesis account. This is far from a purely fideistic belief, because the fossil record is rife with clear indicators of sudden emergences of new and innovative forms. Evolutionary explanations of the development of life, which are diverse and often possess a high degree of uncertainty, make a simple concept difficult. We agree with philosopher William of Ockham (1285-1347), perhaps most famous for stating a principle later to become known as Ockham’s Razor: “Simpler is better.” It is also known as the Law of Parsimony. One writer claims it “shaves away unnecessary assumptions.”

Second, consider Stephen C. Meyer’s statement in his chapter “DNA, Darwin, and the Appearance of Design” from Signature in the Cell: “Even so, there is something curious about the scientific denial of our ordinary intuition about living things. For almost a hundred and fifty years, since its putative explanation by Darwinian theory, this impression of design persists as incorrigibly as ever.” Children, especially, who notice details, and ask, “Why?” or, “How did it get that way?” with sometimes wearying frequency, are satisfied with an answer such as “God created the butterfly that way and gave it those abilities.” A study of the natural world which even many atheistic scientists acknowledge having clear features of design, evokes in young an old an intuitive recognition of the work of God.

Recognition of order and design, productions of an intelligent agent, is rational to a far greater degree than a belief in random, chance events said to produce the incredible features of our cosmos and its life forms. The processes and discoveries of science have revealed this order and design. Before any of the recent discoveries involving the synthesis and structuring of proteins in body cells directed by RNA, the psalmist David exulted, as if presciently, “For you formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are your works, and my soul knows it very well.” (Psalm 139:13-14 NASB) This intuition by Psalmist David enabled him to “keep it simple.”

Monday, September 5, 2011

On Board With Science

Were someone to deny the benefits of science in our modern world, he would be accused of being a crackpot. It is no exaggeration to say that science, particularly since the Scientific Revolution of the last four centuries, has changed our civilization. The previously untapped potential of science has burst upon the human race, and the benefits for mankind multiply with each passing decade. No one in the 16th century could have envisioned what was in store; no one in the 21st can accurately foresee what is yet to come.

The focus of this discussion will be the natural sciences—categorized generally as astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth science, meteorology, physics, and oceanography. These are also known as the hard sciences, not in terms of their difficulty, but in terms of our ability to discover knowledge in those fields empirically. We are able to quantify data through observation and experiment, using accepted scientific method.

Natural sciences are the basis for applied science. We credit applied science for the technology which powers our transportation, enables us to communicate instantly, provides medical knowledge to insure our health, affords multiple work-saving devices, supplies media entertainment, and makes quality foods of our choice available throughout all seasons. Cell phone technology was an unknown luxury a few decades ago, spurned by many with questions like, “Why do we need that?” Now we cannot imagine being out of immediate and potentially constant contact with our loved ones wherever they are. Access to instant weather radar enables us to become short term weather prognosticators. Years ago our automobiles were sometimes considered worn out at 70,000 miles. These days most well-maintained cars run like new with twice that mileage.

We need not be urged to “get on board with science” with respect to everyday applications of the hard sciences enumerated above. The implications and applications for our mundane experience are welcomed and generally non-controversial. In the area of philosophy of science, however, some controversy arises. Many members of our churches do not think very much about the philosophy of science. Philosophy of science is generally defined as concern with the assumptions, foundations, methods, and implications of science. It is in the area of implications of science and its reported findings that many people in our church pews experience problems “getting on board with science.”

Different branches of science include philosophical studies in their own respective disciplines. Among other topics, philosophers of biology spotlight evolution and its implications. Science philosophers in other branches of hard sciences may concentrate, for example, on the implications of our ever expanding technological innovations and the wide ranging effects of those rapid advances on society at large or on particular segments of society. Given that the field of biological science has especially strong appeal for those imbued with a naturalistic outlook, we would predict that philosophers in biological science would promote their findings in a manner to reflect an evolutionary view of life’s development, including humanity.

Accepting this philosophical implication has a major impact on the Christian worldview. On two fronts, conflicts exist. Evolutionary scientists have lively disagreements as they interpret their data, a predicted outcome of how normal science operates in all disciplines. More important, evolutionary scientists interpret their data within a framework of naturalism. They imply that the complex processes of life’s development--molecules to man--proceeded with God watching passively, if indeed, He exists at all.

On board with science? The phrase has an appealing ring. What young person in our day, immersed in the sea of advances brought by science, would not want to be on board with science? Proceed with caution. Interpretations of the biological data are variable, but the philosophers’ implications that ambiguous data all support naturalistic evolution do not vary. Science as a broad discipline was actively secularized by those antagonistic to religious viewpoints following the Civil War. Bioscience was part of the secularization.

As a science educator, I am enthusiastic about science and its remarkable potential. When we encourage people of any age to get on board with science, however, we must be sure we know which compartment of the vessel we are boarding.