Monday, June 29, 2020

Active Nature Observers

Continuing the topic of nature networking, we dive into a discussion of the inspiration provided by events in our own yard. We have just passed the summer solstice, the annual date when the sun rises to the highest point in its trek across our northern hemisphere heavens. Apart from a fascinating astronomical explanation for this solar phenomenon, we automatically connect this northern hemisphere summer solstice occurrence with warmth, long days, short nights, and a healthy burst of renewal of both plant and animal life. Many uniquely fascinating, curious behaviors of our energized warm season residents become apparent. We hone our observational and research skills for maximal enjoyment.

Recently I became aware of an old expression with which I was unfamiliar—belly botany. Here is a literal and somewhat extreme definition: Close, unhurried exploration of nature, including tiny insects best observed while looking up close, even positioned on your belly, perhaps with a powerful magnifying glass. More generally, the term applies to an intense study of our environment using finely developed observational skills. The term originated with Walt Disney (1901-1966) who used the term to describe how close observation in his hometown state of Missouri as a child inspired his source of creativity and inspiration even as a young person. We repeat our previous post’s reference to the instructional qualities provided by living things and the earth itself in the 12th chapter of Job. We learn characteristics of the Creator and Author of All Things with a careful study of the world of nature.

We clarify: Belly botany is an intensive study of the natural world, using not only powers of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, but extending research activity to provide fuller discovery. Research takes many forms, such as studying the physical, chemical, and neurological basis for traits manifest by our local animal and plant life. Knowledge becomes fuller as we study startling intrinsic behavioral and functional capabilities of neighborhood animals.

Our home is located in mid-latitudes of upper Midwest US, between the tropics and 60 degrees N. latitude. We discover truth about the Creator’s intelligent design handiwork by carefully observing and contemplating living creatures. We have mentally catalogued several unusual behaviors of local wildlife in our spring 2020, editing our lengthy list to include the most interesting events.

Eastern grey squirrels, native to North America, provide entertainment as they chase each other and vault through the tall black walnut, cedar, and wild cherry trees. Some forays are obviously related to food searches. Other purposes for their acrobatic antics may relate to mating rituals. Many times our squirrels’ behavior manifests no purpose apart from self-entertainment and pure explorational joy. They innately plan creative moves and account for their own bodily motion with nary an accident in trees over 50 feet tall. They must consider not only their own motion but also the motion of branches bending with their own weight as they launch. This morning I noticed a “first” on our back deck. Our deck umbrella is 6-8 feet off the ground and located an equal distance from any horizontal structure. One squirrel made it to the top of our large umbrella with process skills still unknown to this observer. Later he temporarily seemed at a loss to find his way down. He finally solved the problem by leaping off safely. Many YouTubes document incredible problem solving feats of these animals.

Also current as I write are profuse swarms of butterflies of the species empress flora and closely related species identified according to the National Audubon Society Field Guide of North American Butterflies. Recently four different specimens alighted on my body all at once. I observed their tightly coiled proboscis which uncoiled to act as a straw. Butterflies drink nectar from flowers because butterflies do not eat; they only drink their food. In their close visit with me on my front porch the butterflies manifested “puddling”—feeding from moist ground or dry surfaces. They acquire nutrient minerals such as sodium for their physiological processes. These butterflies swarmed in groups, following each other at close range and high speed. Large swarms of birds manifest identical traits—the ability to change speed and direction en masse in a tiny microsecond of time. This ability far exceeds athletic reaction time capabilities of our most gifted human athletes.

In the past few weeks a well-known exceptional example of insect behavior has been reported in local publications. The 17-year cicada possesses ability far more remarkable than the ordinary suite of insect behavior. In 2007 we heard a chorus of 17-year cicadas producing a sonorous din in our nearby woods. Adult cicadas of that brood later produced tiny eggs which today are in the process of tunneling under the ground for 17 years (exactly 17 years) feeding on root sap as their nymphal stages slowly mature. Then, in quantities of billions, the larvae will break out of their underground lair in 2024 and ascend to upper plant branches to sing their mating call for a few days. The last few weeks we have been serenaded by a few periodic cicadas. But 2020 is four years early! Several articles claim these are 17 year cicada “stragglers,” a curious exception to the 17-year cicada’s usual behavior. Similar cicada species tunnel for exactly 13 years. Their timing is precise but their behavior is essentially unexplained as are numerous wonders in God’s created world of living things.

We introduce another personal neighborhood tale with a brief sidebar. Several years ago our family assembled in Georgia for a reunion. One night after dark our grandson informed the group about noisy frogs singing outside. Only two reunion attendees went outside to investigate—grandfather and grandson. We were treated to the unique songs of dozens of gray tree frogs just a few steps outside, visible to us only via flashlight. A few weeks ago we were visited by a single gray tree frog, a first time visitor to our home in extreme northwest Illinois, 900 miles north of Georgia. We initially took note of his presence as he sang to us in the middle of the night. Over the next two weeks the amphibian shared his mating call during the day from shrubs in front of our house; at other times he loudly called from inside our covered back deck gas grill. Once I was privileged to spot him crawling on the deck after dark. He departed soon, apparently in search of liquid water pools. We considered his visits an unusual gift from the storehouse of plentiful natural wonders.

We cite a few other natural wonders of spring just passed. Wild turkeys enjoy dust baths, part of their preening and plumage maintenance. They also enjoy “de-dusting” on our concrete front stoop, leaving behind turkey footprints for humorous effect. A partially white crow, an example of leucism, made visits on two occasions. Two buck deer crossed our front yard with velvet still visible on their antlers. Before they forcibly remove this velvet antler coat in August or September, blood vessels within the velvet supply antlers with minerals to promote healthy bone growth and structure. When we spotted these bucks recently, their antlers were prominent but not yet close to fully grown. These examples of physiological processes are but a few of thousands of divine design phenomena in the world of living things.

Leaf-out this spring was slightly late in our deciduous forest, but ultimately more luxuriant than usual. Optical study of the wondrous growth and development of plants in spring may be satisfying for the “belly botanists” described in our post’s opening paragraphs.

Belly botanists may extend their skills to active astronomical observation. During the spring a beautiful long term appearance of Planet Venus in western skies continued. Since late 2019 it was a beautiful “evening star.” Astronomical forecasters had warned us Venus would take a rapid dive out of the evening sky in late May to a position in the glare of the apparent sun only to reappear in the morning sky and remain visible there until early 2021. As of June Venus became a “morning star.” The nearby planet is often called “Earth’s twin” because it is almost the same size as Earth. 

We would do well to learn about the God of Creation as active observers of nature—both its living and non-living realms. We do not worship the creation, however. We worship the God of Creation.

Thank you, readers, for permitting your blogger to share natural highlights from our personal neighborhood…..





           
   

   





  












  

       

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Networking with Nature

In modern parlance, networking signifies making contact and exchanging information. Usually it relates to interactions with other people, groups, or things. We refer to social networking with a nod to technology unheard of just a few years ago. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have their origins in the first decade of our current century. Modern residents have forfeited many of the benefits of personal, face-to-face interactions. They have also reduced the inspiration available from observing the natural world.

In the 21st century many residents employ the relationships provided by social media in place of the experiences provided by our rich natural environment. The recent coronavirus pandemic has necessitated reliance on social networking in the fields of employment, education, and personal contact. Social scientists and educators have expressed concern about possible overuse of electronic networking while neglecting the knowledge and inspiration supplied by our God-created natural, physical world.

Consider the words of the Old Testament biblical figure Job: 

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” (Job 12:7-10 NIV)

In what respect are the animals able to teach us? Or what may we learn from observing the characteristics of the non-living physical world? Periodically Job injects the overwhelming importance of natural wisdom God has infused within not only living things, but also in the characteristics of the earth itself. Citations of the natural world, recurring frequently in this Old Testament book of wisdom, are worth considering for more than merely reminders of earth’s esthetic beauty. We consider references to the natural world a significant reminder of the characteristics of the Creator Himself.

By observing animals, we are enabled to learn engineering skills, optimum hunting strategies, methods of food procurement or storage, implementation of defensive or protective strategies, as well as optimum use of their individual physical endowments such as running, climbing, eating, and a host of other skills. In terms of observing the non-living physical world, we might learn about multiple physical constants/laws and their orderliness, predictability, and constancy.

Networking with nature? Compared with social networking now an adjunct of our modern society, we posit that old-fashioned nature awareness is undervalued in our day. We do not disparage all forms of social networking. The advantages of FaceTime, Zoom technology, and others flourishing in the last decade, are a boon to grandparents living at a distance and to many other legitimate users. The problem surrounding these technologies relates to how many grip our societies at warp speed before we assess their long term potentials, impacts, benefits, or dangers.

In the lives of my parents and grandparents, there were still ample opportunities to network with nature. This sort of networking was easily accessible. My four grandparents were farmers living in the last few decades of the 19th century. We muse how natural networking drew them closer to the Creator—awareness of nature  described in Job 12. Current social networking was largely non-existent in their day.    Letters, post-cards, and primitive telephones were early whispers of social networking. Both types of relationships involve exchanging information to enhance knowledge. 

Physical scientists describe how the electromagnetic spectrum in concert with digital technology enable modern residents to network socially. Physical scientists teach the power of physical constants and physical laws which describe an orderly, predictable universe. Life scientists describe the wonders of animal intelligence, behavior, and function. Both groups of scientists are able to access truths of general revelation. Theological truth is given to humanity by general revelation, by which we become aware of wonders of the natural world, and by special revelation, the revealed written WORD of God by which we are instructed concerning the nature of the Creator.    












   

     


Saturday, June 6, 2020

By the Numbers

“By the numbers” is a well-known modern idiom. Its use suggests doing things in a strict, exact, formulaic way. However, there is no literal meaning of numbers in a mathematical sense when we do things “by the numbers.”

If we apply the expression more literally, we have many opportunities to study our world in terms of numbers. Describing quantities according to numbers is a necessary requirement in the field of marketing. We purchase substances according to numbers of grams, pounds, or milliliters, quantities of eggs (by the dozen), copy paper by the ream (500 sheets), or ears of sweet corn for our community picnic (we’ll take 100). In these contexts, we are interested in number precision.

In the world of nature we encounter many incredible, stupendously large numbers. For example, in relation to the number of atoms in a single body cell, we are dealing with 100 trillion. That number matches an estimate for the number of cells in the human body—100 trillion. Scientists’ approximations of the number of molecules in a typical snowflake vary with the calculating skills of individual estimators. Several have put the number at 180 billion. Others offer much larger numbers. 

There are many other mind boggling numbers related to tiny entities in our environment. Bacteria are gigantic compared with atoms and molecules, but are still beneath our ability to see without a light microscope. Our body is inhabited by 1000 or more bacterial species. The total number of bacteria in and on the human body roughly approximates the total number of bodily human cells. That number fluctuates, depending on new research findings. Recently the number of human body cells has been lowered to 37.2 trillion. Viruses are considerably tinier than bacteria. They exist in and on the human body and are up to 10 times more numerous than bacteria. Bacterial and viral communities are collectively called the microbiome, also including fungi and protozoa. Truly, we live in a microbe world.

What about the microbiome? Even if we are not interested in statistics, we cannot help but be impressed “by the numbers.” Upon searching for definitions and commentaries on the microbiome, we uncovered this Wikipedia definition: “The microorganisms in a particular environment (including the body or a part of the body). The Wikipedia entry continues, “We depend on a vast army of microbes to stay alive: a microbiome that protects us against germs, breaks down food to release energy, and produce vitamins.” The Earth’s microbiome is but a tiny segment of the totality of God’s work in creation. We may be forgiven for wondering why so many viruses and bacteria even exist, especially in view of the deleterious effects of several hundred well known harmful pathogenic agents.  

The creative ability of God in the production of our physical cosmos is far beyond our ability to comprehend. The intricate designs of life forms is controlled and enabled by the features of the genetic material, DNA, with its esthetic beauty. DNA codes for millions of diverse life forms. Our grasp of “the numbers” involved in describing or cataloguing the billions of physical entities comprising our created cosmos is merely the beginning of scientific understanding. Knowing how the “numbers” contribute to a beneficial ‘working order’ for the good of humanity is a challenge even for the most advanced science specialists.

Another example may illustrate the benefit of huge numbers. Some theological skeptics have proposed that the Creator was wasteful in producing up to two trillion galaxies in our universe, each containing billions of stars, especially if humans inhabiting the Solar System are unique in our vast universe. On its face, this argument may seem valid. We close with an example involving incredible numbers—the trillions of galaxies, stars, and planets in our cosmos…..

In the past few decades cosmologists have discovered previously unknown truths about how our universe functions with its trillions of galaxies, stars, and planets. About a century ago Big Bang cosmology became prominent. Astrophysicist Albert Einstein felt that the gravitational attraction of universal matter might eventually result in a “Big Crunch” where the universe would collapse on itself—a decelerating universe. Several decades ago a surprising discovery was made. Astronomers announced that the universe was, instead, expanding due to the presence of a mysterious dark energy. Below we quote from our 12-21-11 post:


“It now appears the precision required for life sustaining expansion is even greater than in the former decelerating universe. The term precision acquires new meaning in this context. The precision required is exponentially greater than for any physical system that man has ever devised. Had the expansion rate been slightly greater no planets, stars or galaxies could have formed at the right times and places. The universe would contain only diffuse gas and dust. This scenario would have resulted in too little mass density. On the other hand had the expansion rate been slightly less only life destroying giant stars and black holes would have formed because too much mass was present. Someone may ask, How much extra mass is too much or too little?” The answer: Less than the mass of a single dime in the entire universe.”

We do not pretend that the above example proves any specific point about “the numbers” of atoms, molecules, bacteria, or viruses in our current world. At a minimum it conveys the amazing truth that even one dime’s worth of mass is significant in the proper functioning of our entire physical system. This includes the mass of uncounted trillions of stars and galaxies.

Our created universe operates under the sustaining power of God. He is the Creator (Genesis 1:1) and He is the sustainer (Colossians 1:17). Every entity exists at His command and for His purpose.          





         

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Incredible Virus World

Viruses have dominated our attention since early 2020. Virus microbes have been an ever-present accompaniment of human experience before we knew that viruses existed as a physical entity and before they were perceived through any sort of visual device. Scientists became aware of viruses as a mysterious unexplained cause of infections within the last two centuries. In our lifetimes, when we were ill we blamed “a virus.” That was often true but it did not explain very much. Since the early 1930s, we were able to see viruses through an electron microscope.

We cite coronaviruses as an example. Coronaviruses have been known as the cause of common colds and various other respiratory ailments in humans. A more serious novel coronavirus has suddenly appeared on our scene with serious health threats to senior citizens. The COVID-19 virus is not nearly as harmful to younger people.

Vincent Racaniello is known as “Earth’s virology professor,” teaching in the Department of Microbiology at Columbia University. He is a talented, well-known educator and researcher in the field of virology. This year he initiated Virology 2020 lectures at Columbia which are freely available on YouTube. Each lecture runs more than one hour and is powerfully instructive. It would be desirable for all politicians and government authorities to be instructed in the world of viruses. Professor Racaniello states in his first lecture that he loves viruses and has a passion for them. His overpowering respect for viruses is understandable as we become better informed. 

Racaniello claims if we want to understand life, human health, and human disease, we need to know more about viruses. Here are several quotes from his initial 2020 lecture: “We live and prosper in a literal cloud of viruses. Viruses infect every living thing on the planet. Nothing escapes a virus infection. We regularly eat and breathe in billions of virus particles on a daily basis and viral genomes are part of our genomes as well. They are truly pervasive. They are everywhere.”

“Having a virus” has often been synonymous with feeling ill. With the prevalence of thousands of different viruses present all around us, we may wonder why we do not more often feel ill. Ecologically, viruses play many more beneficial than harmful roles. If we ingest them, most pass harmlessly through us. Many are “dead end” viruses. MERS and SARS coronaviruses are examples. The COVID-19 pandemic is unusual in its  virulence and level of contagion. We pray that COVID-19 would be similarly a “dead end” virus and that a medical treatment would be quickly discovered.

Recent discoveries involve virus “spillover” events, relatively rare events in which viruses are transmitted from animals to humans. Even more rare is the subsequent viral transmission from human to human. The recent novel coronavirus pandemic is such an example. In our modern world where human population has exploded to over 7.5 billion in a relatively short time frame, many modern phenomena such as overcrowding, unique problems in food processing, and burgeoning worldwide travel, coping with viruses has become more difficult.

Instead of wondering why God permits the existence of microbial diseases in our time or speculating whether our Creator is specifically messaging the human race, humanity should focus on the the role man has played in enabling widespread disease spread through foolish management of our environment. Man, created in God’s image, has possessed the ability to implement prudent environmental and ecological principles from the beginning (Genesis 1:28). God has sent this message to humanity since he was created. The messaging has been continuous.

A separate question is why there exists a relationship between viral and bacterial microbes on this planet, or why they even exist at all. Most simply, it is a part of the created order since life appeared on Earth. Generally, we acknowledge that the planetary operating system works exceedingly well if managed according to Godly principles. Man sometimes disrupts the ideal working system.

Only 1.5% of the human genome codes for proteins, the physical building material of life. Until recently evolutionary scientists pronounced most of the remaining DNA to be “junk.” Why would God permit useless DNA to be present in the genome? they asked. Their explanation was the “junk” was merely an evolutionary leftover. In the last several decades we have discovered majestic usefulness for most of the so-called “junk” DNA. The Creator knew what He was doing! Likewise, the relationship between viruses and bacteria has a purpose. Most viruses and most bacteria serve a useful purpose. For this, we are thankful. 

          

     



       

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Case for Microbe Parasites

Lately anyone who makes a positive case for viruses may be looked upon with suspicion. In the case of one specific coronavirus, COVID-19, that view is understandable. The novel disease is devastating and unpredictable. All viruses are considered ‘obligate’ parasites, growing only in association with their hosts, completely dependent on invading the living cells of their hosts.

We recall two virus-related events with more positive effects than the recent COVID-19 phenomenon. When I first entered the teaching profession, a veteran public-spirited teacher in my building initiated several campaigns. One of her memorable projects was a crusade against the invasive gypsy moth scourge. These pests had been accidentally introduced to New England from Europe in 1868. Eventually they became rampant all over the Eastern US. Government agencies still attempt to control the widespread gypsy moth infestation in the US. A virus known as NPV was one natural control agent introduced into defoliated forests. This virus controls harmful insect infestations. My colleague studied the gypsy moth life cycle and contributed her knowledge and energy to a ‘natural’ virus control campaign in our Northern New Jersey neighborhood in the 1960s.

Observing the action championed by my teaching colleague was a personally impactful introduction to the intricacies of ecology. What does ‘native’ mean with respect to our iconic eastern oak species, the preferred nutrition of the gypsy moth? And how did the ‘invasive’ gypsy moth insect species become suddenly destructive in America, but not nearly so destructive in their original European habitat?  

Another memory in personal family lore is the hike my daughter and I shared on the Mount Tammany Trail in the heart of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in the summer of 1989. One of the periodic gypsy moth outbreaks occurred then. The moth infestation was distressing, even on the scenic trail up Mt. Tammany. But the view from the top looking down on the famous Delaware Water Gap was unforgettable. Memories of my colleague several decades before and the hazards of exotic and invasive species are still poignant.

One control for gypsy moths, specifically, is a naturally occurring virus called NPV (nucleopolyhedrovirus). NPV virus substances can be industrially produced as a bio-pesticide to help control insect scourges. There are other natural controls acting against nuisance organisms including bacterial and fungal remedies.

Parasitic viruses to control other harmful organisms? Yes, many viruses are beneficial. Harmful planetary life forms would be uncontrollable without an abundance of different viruses. For example, without viruses called bacteriophages, many harmful bacteria would multiply and occupy every conceivable niche on Earth. We challenge readers to research the benefits of viruses. The same may be said for bacteria, most of which are benign or helpful. We live in a fascinating world of legions of microbes. 

Without atmospheric viruses and bacterial fragments, no raindrops or snowflakes would have a nucleus around which to form. Viral and bacterial fragments are carbonaceous and ultimately become recycled material for bottom dwelling sea life. Over eons this material is returned to the atmosphere in the form of needed nutrients to maintain the life sustaining carbon cycle. Readers may want to review our post on the carbon cycle:


Viruses and bacteria both contribute in various ways to a robust and healthy planetary home for humanity. These contributions are both historic and current. Historically, ancient bacteria are the origin of many of today’s plethora of mineral resources. Viruses and bacteria have sometimes acquired a negative reputation. In God’s created order, we must search deeply to discover multidimensional truth. Each exists for a purpose in our created world—God’s purpose.     

With a nod to the purpose for bacteria, readers may wish to review another past post:


Dr. Hugh Ross, president of Reasons to Believe has written voluminously on the wonders of God’s created world. We close with two passages from his blog post of 3-30-20, Viruses and God’s Good Designs:”

“Life forms on Earth larger and more complex than microbes would be impossible without an abundance of viruses. Without viruses, bacteria would multiply, and, within a relatively short time period, occupy every nook and cranny on Earth’ surface. The planet would become a giant, bacterial slime ball. Those sextillions of bacteria would consume all the resources essential for life and die.

“Viruses keep Earth’s bacterial population in check. They break up and kill bacteria at the just-right rates and in the just-right locations so as to maintain a population and diversity of bacteria that is optimal for both the bacteria and for all the other life forms. It is important to note that all multicellular life depends on bacteria being present at the optimal population level and optimal diversity. We wouldn’t be here without viruses!”



Friday, May 8, 2020

Post-COVID-19

Health officials are confident the COVID-19 pandemic will soon be controlled. Given the modern array of effective weapons and practices for the control of infectious agents, the likelihood exists that the coronavirus threat will diminish as have other serious viral outbreaks of the recent and distant past. It is unlikely that the worldwide death toll from this plague will come even close to the human toll of other notable pandemics in the last 2000 years. However, in terms of the ravaged worldwide economy, it is doubtful any past pandemic comes remotely close. Our dense urban population centers, interconnected economies, technologically advanced civilizations, and opportunities for rapid worldwide travel makes us more vulnerable to pandemics, notwithstanding startling medical advances of the past one or two centuries.  

The unpredictable coronavirus continually instructs medical scientists about the degree of contagion of this novel pathogen. We are discovering whether or not it is capable of reinfecting the same victim, the possibility it may return in waves before an effective vaccine is developed, and how the impact of asymptomatic infections causes unanticipated problems in medical responses. Because the virus mutates into various strains as it infects its victims, our medical responses may be “learn as you go’ rather than solidly predictable. Our society prefers instant answers. Government authorities are vulnerable to an impatient public as they respond. 

COVID-19 has already mutated into several dozen strains. Currently, optimistic medical scientists speculate that some mutations may produce less harmful symptoms, but there is always a chance that the newer mutations could result in more serious outcomes. Past coronavirus diseases such as SARS quickly diminished in their virulence. We pray that the current mutations would also have less harmful results.

Immunization technology has been a divine gift for the past 200 years, especially in the last century. The prime hope for current containment is development of a vaccine. World residents must not become overly confident in a single preventative measure. Quarantine and distancing measures have become effective in the recent pandemic. In many areas the world must become more vigilant. 

In crowded urban population centers, future municipal and architectural planning could encourage healthier air circulation, improved plumbing, and more spacious transportation systems. Practices related to food supply animal markets and meat supply preparation sources should be approached with the welfare of both animals and human consumers to avoid continued animal to human crossovers—called “spillover” events. In the US alone domestic and foreign airlines transported an unprecedented one billion passengers in 2019. Such measures must become reality, not merely an ideal. We are experiencing the consequences of a sevenfold human population explosion in the last two centuries. Many dangers have developed in our population-exploded society which have exacerbated the possibility of pandemics resulting from an infection. The human population explosion has been matched by explosions of medical and health knowledge, advances in human nutrition, and multifaceted innovations in technological innovations. 

Since the time of Christ there have been horrific recurring pandemics. World populations have fluctuated as these events have impacted humanity. In the past 2000 years, diseases have harvested the lives of up to 500 million people. The incredible 1918-19 Spanish flu tragedy was responsible for 10% of that number. More recently HIV-AIDS was responsible for 25-35 million deaths since 1981. Our search of human history reveals plagues and pandemics have harvested between one and 200 million souls occurring on an average of once per century in the past two millennia. Causes ranged from bacterial Plague (Black Death) to viral diseases such as smallpox and influenza. For perspective on these tragedies, world population at the time of Christ was only 170 to 330 million.

Many Christian commentators have wondered, as did Focus on the Family’s Jim Daly in his Daily Citizen Morning Headlines, “Why doesn’t God end the coronavirus plague?” Many have offered rational responses from a scriptural perspective. We stress that theologians have posed the same question concerning the numerous horrific pandemics of the last 2000 years. Ultimately, God’s ways are not man’s ways. Jim Daly continued, “Let’s continue praying for those who grieve and those who are in the thick of this ongoing battle to defeat COVID-19. I believe God is up to something well beyond our sight or understanding.” 

We ponder the ultimate impact of COVID-19. At this writing, 267,233 souls have perished from the virus. We thank God that medical professionals have been gifted with knowledge and skill in our day to limit the worldwide death toll.






  



  

      

Monday, April 27, 2020

Bondage to Decay

Before dealing with an unusual passage from the Book of Romans describing the characteristics of decay present on our home planet, we first focus on more numerous passages where scripture authors exult in the inspiring beauties and wonders of the natural world. Many Bible passages highlight the wonderfully satisfying features of Earth’s physical environment. Included is the entirety of the very good physical creation as described by the Creator (Gen. 1:31), the beauty of the skies and heavens (Psalm 19), the fascinating qualities of unique animals (Job 39), and the inspirational query of the stargazer: “Who created all these?” (Isaiah 40:26). We admire the beauty of the lilies whose glory exceeds that of Solomon (Matthew 6:29), and worship the God whose creative skill extends even to the holding together of visible as well as invisible things (Colossians 1:15-17).       

One of the most frequently discussed passages in Scripture is Romans 8:18-25. It deals with the characteristics of the created world. The passage presents powerful descriptions of our planet. It suggests in just a few verses that the creation presently experiences physical discomfort, using these images: (1) it was subjected to frustration, (2) it will be be liberated from its bondage to decay, and (3) it has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time (verses 20-22).

Earth conditions described in Romans 8 contrast sharply with the uplifting scripture passages cited in the first paragraph. Romans 8 describes characteristics of our universe since the initial creation of the universe billions of years ago. At the time of the initial creation of all energy, matter, space, and time, the universe was exceedingly hot. In the ensuing billions of years the universe slowly cooled. Gaseous nebulae eventually consolidated into stars and planets. These sequential processes are characteristics of the Law of Entropy, also known as the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Expressed simply, this statement says the universe inexorably runs down to a lower energy state. Thousands of researchers have produced voluminous explanations of how the process has played out since the creation event and how it plays out in our day. 

Since Planet Earth became a solid body the Law of Entropy also results in periodic destruction caused by geologic upheavals of earthquakes and volcanoes, severe meteorological events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods, heat waves, and cold waves as well as rare asteroid and comet strikes which occurred in the history of our planet. 

The 2nd Law sometimes entails tragedy and discomfort as it grips our world. Entropy involves the directional flow of heat energy. This energy flow also has many useful outcomes in the life of humanity. We highly recommend a previous post (12-15-11) in which we dealt in some detail with many 2nd Law outcomes in God’s created world:


Romans Chapter 5 is often cited as evidence that physical death of all creatures on Earth originated with The Fall—Adam and Eve’s original sin. We disagree with that analysis on the basis that Romans 5 primarily deals with the sin-caused spiritual death of the human race rather than the physical death of all creatures. The context of the Romans 8 passage is the “glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.” This future glory sharply contrasts with the frustration of living today in the often unpleasant physical and moral conditions of our present world. No doubt the Apostle Paul was mindful of the future joy Christians will experience in the New Creation. In the present, Paul enjoyed the beauty and coherence of Earth’s physical environment as described in Scripture references in our opening paragraph.

God, the Creator of heaven and Earth, could have created a home for man where sin had no power to corrupt humans in a moral sense. Man would have been perpetually innocent and sinless. Humanity was gifted, however, with free choice. God created a 2nd Law of Thermodynamics world where humans could choose to obey or disobey their Creator. Sadly, man disobeyed. Before time began, prior to the creation of modern humanity and the creation of the universe, God omnisciently knew mankind would need redemption: see I Corinthians 2:7, II Timothy 1:9, Titus 1:2, and Ephesians 1:9.

The operating system of our universe originated in the mind of God according to His divine will. It is the perfect venue for the operation of the Creator’s redemptive plan.  







     












   

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Causes and Effects of Mutated Viruses

In 1892 viruses were discovered to be infectious agents. The concept of such agents supported Louis Pasteur’s “germ theory” in the 19th century. No scientist had observed any virus until 1931, because before that time, no instrument was capable of observing an object so small. Our knowledge of viruses in the last century has multiplied greatly. When a novel phenomenon like COVID-19 appears on the world stage causing enormous damage to our health and economy, we realize there is much more to learn. Citizens rely on the judgment and action of the trained scientists and politicians we have elected. We are at their mercy if they make serious mistakes. Our prayers for those in authority should be redoubled.  

Throughout the current viral pandemic many have wondered about its multiple causes and effects which have metaphorically brought the nations of the world to their knees. Coronaviruses, a family of viruses, were known as far back as 1960. Generally they did not cause very severe illnesses. In the 21st century, several well known coronaviruses have appeared, including SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012. They caused serious illnesses but were not especially contagious. Neither was widespread. SARS (8098 cases; 774 deaths) has apparently disappeared while MERS (2494 cases; 858 deaths) appears infrequently. But now our world population has been struck with a serious disease caused by a mutated virus. What is the nature of mutation?

All of Earth’s living things coexist with multiple other creatures, including trillions of bacteria and viruses. Under optimal circumstances, living things thrive. We have reported that the presence of trillions of bacteria and viruses make our planet “significantly…a microbe world.” Living microbes such as bacteria and quasi-living virus microbes sometimes disrupt the normal functioning of other living things. They attempt to thrive in their own right. In the process, harmful microbes make life miserable for other living things.

Bio-scientists believe the COVID-19 pandemic resulted from a mutation in a virus. Even though viruses are not strictly living, they possess genetic information which affects function of living things they inhabit. An optimally designed living thing has its own genetic blueprint—DNAanalogous to a blueprint for a home building project. DNA, the wondrously complex design blueprint for all living things, ordinarily guides the construction of a perfect physical structure with proper functionality and esthetic appeal. To use the analogy of a home building project, the owner trusts there are no architectural errors, such as a copying error, in the building blueprint. In mutations, there is a “copying error” in DNA.

Mutations are errors in the DNA master blueprint—the coded genetic sequence of an organism. This sequence of proteins, abbreviated A/T and G/C must occur in a precise order so that the living system is assembled according to a unique creative plan. To apply our home building analogy, the blueprint must not contain errors. If errors exist in the blueprint read by the builders, the physical structure will be imperfectly constructed and/or functionally deficient. Likewise, the genetic blueprint, DNA, may acquire errors by natural radiation, chemical factors, or other inherent natural means.

We shift to the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic and the role of virus mutation. The definition of the coronavirus mutation as a “copy error” needs refinement. The novel virus was produced by the recombination and reassortment of genes from at least two parent viruses which infected host cells at the same time. Two different viruses swap genetic material to form a ‘novel’ virus with characteristics different from the parent virus. In the case of the novel COVID-19 virus, the new characteristics include ease of contagion and severity of symptoms.

Diverse viruses inhabit exotic animals. In Asia, some of these animals are bats, civet cats, raccoon dogs, and pangolins. These exotic animals are consumed as food, sometimes as delicacies. They are slaughtered and sold in markets, often in filthy conditions. It is not difficult to believe that animal viruses in such circumstances could invade human bodies. As this post was written, significant evidence has revealed that an animal research bio-lab may be the source of the COVID-19 virus. The novel, never before seen COVID-19 virus has upset the lives of many of the world’s billions of residents.

The novel virus has existed on our planet for less than one year. There are many harmful human practices and activities. Human contacts and relationships with certain animals must proceed with caution and wisdom. A Wikipedia article on strict Hebrew dietary laws states, “Some suggest that these are only tests of obedience, while others have suggested philosophical, practical, or hygienic reasons.” Hebrew dietary laws were instructionally complex. Our modern society should value wisdom with respect to handling of animals and insuring the safety of our food supply. This issue has many ramifications. In view of modern knowledge gained in the field of virology, we beseech God to help us in our current crisis and deliver us from future crises.

The Creator’s instructions to man in the earliest days (Genesis 1:28) were more general than explicit: Be fruitful… Increase in number… Fill the earth… Subdue it… Rule over (all living creatures). It is clear that humans should appropriate intrinsic wisdom as we utilize animal life for companionship, personal enjoyment, work, food, clothing, and a variety of other purposes. We must even be mindful of animals’ interactions with microbes—now perhaps, more than ever before.              


    
    



       

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Viruses in Family History

Childhood memories have been resurrected during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Personal experiences with viral diseases were a significant part of childhood events in the lives of most older citizens today. For example, most seniors recall experiences with measles and mumps—common viral diseases of our childhood. Terminology used by our parents help us recall some of the illnesses plaguing children and adults in the first half of the 20th century. When we contracted the viral diseases measles or mumps as young people, senior citizens may also have heard our parents talking about a disease called “the grippe.” That viral disease is now known as flu, short for influenza.

Before relating several century-old family recollections concerning the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20, we share a more recent unusual family incident from 1982 related to the mumps virus. The Knoxville TN 1982 World’s Fair was the second to last US World’s Fair. Our family was a part of the 11 million visitors attending the event that summer. The fair attractions were entertaining for our young family. We returned home without incident, but there was trouble and discomfort on the horizon. The mother of the family, my wife, became very ill at home about two weeks after we departed the fairgrounds. She experienced severe headaches, body aches, and fever. One night I thought I would lose her. At first the family doctor thought the swelling on one side of her neck was a dental issue. But when acute discomfort followed, the doctor later re-diagnosed her illness as an “atypical case of mumps.” By not having mumps as a child she had not developed natural immunity. Her husband theorized and the doctor agreed that an unvaccinated international visitor at the fair had arrived in Knoxville with an active mumps virus and had used drinking fountains. The story is now part of our family lore.         

Measles, mumps, and rubella (German measles) were largely banished by vaccination technology in mid-20th century. The MMR vaccine blend was released in 1971. Combined with previously developed DPT (pertussis, diphtheria, and tetanus) vaccines against bacterial infections, we are living in days of medical ‘marvels’ some may call medical ‘miracles.’ 

Currently the family of coronaviruses garners most of the attention owing to the recent appearance of the novel COVID-19 pandemic. Other more well known influenza virus families also cause important human illnesses. They are called influenza A, B, and C viruses. Influenza D is primarily an animal disease. We have many H1N1 viruses, subtypes of influenza A viruses. Dozens of different combinations of H protein and N protein viruses exist. Future mutations of these viruses are sure to develop. Virology is a complex and extremely difficult body of knowledge. In our day when the present and future characteristics of novel virus mutations are not yet known, the populace is understandably impatient when a new strain such as COVID-19 is harvesting the health and/or lives of so many citizens. Sadly, politicians on both sides of the aisle capitalize on the inability of members of the opposite party to correctly predict and act in a timely fashion to benefit citizens who acquire serious illnesses. Never was a unified and cooperative response needed more than now. COVID-19 will not wait for our citizens to resolve political disagreements.

Dr. Deborah Birx currently serves as high profile “Coronavirus Response Coordinator” for the current administration. Before she received her medical degree at Pennsylvania State University, Dr. Birx received her BS in chemistry from the evangelical Houghton College in western New York State. She later became a colonel in the US army and has served in many official government roles, including HIV/AIDS immunology. 

Birx relates a personal family story highlighting the necessity of avoiding the spread of infections with close personal contacts. The horrific Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 took the lives of at least 50 million people across the planet—the worst pandemic in modern human history. In 1918 Birx’s grandmother passed the deadly virus to her mother (Birx’s great-grandmother) by innocently bringing the infection home from school. The great-grandmother died shortly after giving birth to another child. But for many years the grandmother lived with guilt for the illness for which she may have been innocently responsible.

In 1918 a few viruses had been discovered but never seen. They were much too small to be observed even with most powerful microscopes of the day. The infections were caused by so-called “infectious soluble agents.” This information was incorrect and useless. In the 1930s electron microscopes gave scientists their first visual experience with viruses. Vaccines had been ineffective because scientists still thought bacteria were the cause. Even control methods such as isolation, quarantine, effective personal hygiene, disinfectant use, and limitations on public gatherings were not applied or enforced with our contemporary vigor. Poor health practices of that day    were more deadly than the virus itself. 675,000 Americans died. Many of these were in military service in the closing months of World War I.

My maternal grandfather was born in Switzerland in 1860, eleven months before the US Civil War commenced. He emigrated alone to the US from Switzerland at age 16. His future wife’s entire family had emigrated from Switzerland in 1866. They were married in 1886. They were devout, God-fearing Christian farmers in Oklahoma and later moved to Kansas. The couple became parents of 15 children in the 20 years between 1887 and 1907. My mother was the youngest, born in 1907 in what was then Oklahoma Territory. There were nine boys and six girls.

With the foregoing family history, we now transition to its significance in terms of viruses in international history. We offer a “shoutout” to my mother who preserved literally hundreds of postcards, letters, and family records, many from late in the 1910-20 decade when the H1N1 Spanish flu virus took the lives of 50 million world residents.

Five or six young men from the Meister family were of military service age in 1917-1919. The Spanish flu pandemic swept across the world in 1918-19. In these pre-radio and pre-TV days my mother frequently busied herself writing letters to her older siblings, several of whom had been conscripted for military service. Telephones were almost unknown on the Oklahoma and Kansas prairies. In my possession are several letters referring to the flu virus illness which struck members of the Meister family over a century ago, even though no one in that era knew of the existence of a flu virus. One cousin recently informed me that his mother, born in 1897, nearly died of the Spanish flu. In letters and cards there were many references to serious illnesses suffered in 1918-19 by at least eight members of this large family. We quote several of many:

From my 11-year old mother to her older brother on 11/29/1918: “We are not having no school now because the “flu” is so bad and more cases. We never had the “flu” yet. We had school all last week and two days this week and the “flu” got so bad that they had to close the school and churches again.”  

In another letter to the same brother on 1/26/1919 my mother wrote: “We are all well but Lillian and it looks like she is getting over it now. She had the flue but Father got the Doctor and she is getting over it alright now.” (These letters were written to her brother at Fort Leavenworth, KS, a military camp for conscientious objectors.) 

Another brother served actively in the France theater of War during the closing days of World War I. He wrote to his family in the US: “I had that hen flu too. Believe me I thought I would kick the bucket for a few days.” (This complete letter is a treasured four-page personal account of the “awful war.”)

In the current pandemic is God “telling us something?” God tells us many truths in His inspired Word, the Holy Scriptures. There are many instructions for dealing with trials and adversity (James 1:2-4). Is this “The End?” In our human frame, we do not know; only God knows (Matthew 24:36). There are countless difficult temporal circumstances we are challenged to solve. In the end, these conditions serve to strengthen us. As we study the impact of the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, we may conclude that its challenges far exceeded the current COVID-19 world pandemic. It occurred in conjunction with a horrible World War. We are encouraged that humanity has risen above many more difficult challenges than the current one. We rest in the strength and wisdom of our Creator, and we are thankful.