Thursday, May 29, 2008

Death Benefits

It sounds strange to extol the benefits of death in any context. However, as we look back at earth history, we may see an entirely different perspective. Our last post explained that bacteria have been present for the majority of Planet Earth’s existence as a solid body. Even today, thousands of species of bacteria are ever present, in our mouth, on our bodies, and in virtually every earth environment one can imagine. Estimates of bacterial biomass on earth range up to 50%. Encyclopedia Britannica states, “Bacteria are instrumental in performing numerous critical biochemical transformations of substances in nature, changing them from complex to simple compounds that can be used by plants, man, and other animals.”

Bacteria have acquired a negative reputation owing to the small minority of pathogenic varieties which cause disease. But in general, the benefits of bacteria far outdistance the harm. They have lived and died in unimaginable numbers for the past 3.8 billion years. For over two billion years they were essentially earth’s only life forms. They have performed multiple beneficial tasks, such as reducing toxic concentrations of soluble metallic elements and converting them to highly useful ore deposits which now sustain our high-tech society. Other functions include breaking down rocks into useful soils for the benefit of plant life, and supplying our atmosphere with oxygen for the onset of complex animal life much later.

Tombstone eulogies for other organisms would praise the demise of marine plankton which settled by the trillions into shallow sea sediments, later to become chemically converted into the petroleum resources on which we now depend. And what could we say in praise of the ancient land-based plant life quickly buried in airless shallow water conditions? That ancient plant life is the source of our coal deposits. The death of microbes, plants, and simple animals has been ubiquitous throughout the timeline of earth’s history. Without the death of these organisms, we would not enjoy the benefit of mineral resources in our present day. Without the ongoing life and death of multiple kinds of microbes as near as our bodies and as far away as the Polar Regions, the deep sea, and Earth’s deep crust, our life would be impossible.

Some Christians see the onset of physical death as an outcome of the fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Yes, Adam’s fall resulted in the spiritual death of man--alienation from God--but the physical death of earth’s living organisms, simple to complex, historical to contemporary, must be seen in the context of God’s provenance. Romans 5:12 tells us this spiritual death came to all men. The physical deterioration and death of multiple creatures throughout geologic history is an example of the universal Law of Decay. In God’s plan, this law has worked wonderfully to our benefit.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Earth's Sudden Life Enigma

Even the most naturalistic scientists would acknowledge the profound enigma of the origin of life on earth. We do not find evidence of the “warm little pools” Darwin envisioned, or the “primordial soups” often referred to by evolutionary biologists as a nursery needed to gradually birth simple life. Instead, overwhelming evidence forces us to conclude a very sudden onset of morphologically simple (one-celled) but bio-chemically complex life. Functionally, such life is wondrously intricate. There is nothing simple about it!

The sudden appearance of complex microbial life under extremely harsh earth conditions as early as 3.8 billion years ago has all the hallmarks of a special creation event. The likelihood of molecules quickly assembling themselves by chance into complex life forms such as sulfate-reducing bacteria and cyanobacteria is remote beyond comprehension. Paleobiologist J. William Schopf, who reported in 1993 his discovery of 3.5 billion-year-old microfossils in Western Australia, confessed he would prefer organisms such as cyanobacteria to have a history leading from “primitive ways of living” to later “advanced metabolic lifestyles.” He favors this explanation because, supposedly, that is the classic evolutionary scenario. Such gradualism, however, is not evident in the fossil record; the suddenness of cyanobacteria’s appearance does not indicate an evolutionary process. Rather, it signals a creation event.

When I viewed slides of Schopf’s fossilized cyanobacteria, I was struck with awe. These morphologically simple, yet biochemically complex cyanobacteria are still present on earth today, performing the same tasks as in eons past. In the last few decades biologists have discovered more and more wonders of cell function. Those functions are complex almost beyond belief. Any modern biology text will describe dizzying functional capabilities of single-celled organisms. Several decades ago we were able to describe these capabilities only in a general way.

As scientists consider the suddenness of life’s initial appearance and of new forms in the fossil record, one would think more biologists would wonder aloud, “What’s going on here?” This is not so. Most are locked securely in their naturalistic box. Their conclusions about origins and their explanations of life’s historical sequence show a monotonous uniformity: evolution is responsible. Creationists examine the same evidence and consider a different conclusion, one which includes direct, theistic intervention.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Perfection? or Purpose?

Many people are troubled by the pain and suffering caused by natural tragedies such as hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and earthquakes. Some even ask how God could permit such incidents to occur with their resulting loss of life. To those affected adversely by such horrific and violent events, any explanation may seem unsatisfying. But viewed against the backdrop of God’s purpose for this created realm, we may be able to perceive a broader picture.

From the moment God created our universe with its dimensions of space, time, matter, and energy, the universe has been subject to a Second Law of Thermodynamics overlay. It is also called the Law of Entropy, or the Law of Decay. This means there is always a natural flow from a higher energy state to a lower state. In an easy-to-understand example, a cup of hot coffee, left to itself, always cools, never warms. Some difficult or unfortunate effects result from the Second Law, but in countless ways there are also wonderful benefits for our life and home on Planet Earth.

Let’s use an example from the world of weather. Our sun, in existence for over four billion years, radiates its energy in all directions. One billionth of the sun’s heat energy reaches earth and becomes the driving force behind earth’s weather. The sun’s heat falls more directly on regions around the equator, less directly on polar regions. Equatorial regions, therefore, receive more heat. Obeying the Law of Decay, earth’s warmer areas interact with cooler ones in an effort to correct this imbalance. Earth’s rotation adds interesting complexity to the picture. Every feature of our weather is driven by these factors, ranging from cloudless spring days to beneficial rains to occasional violent hurricanes. What lesson may we take from this? Second Law-driven weather is a life-nourishing feature of our home on Planet Earth!

What may we say, then, about the infrequent but highly publicized weather disasters which take lives? In a perfect world, some would say there would be no inconvenience, no pain, no hurricanes, and no death. Perhaps that is true. God pronounced His creation very good (Gen. 1:31). He did not pronounce it perfect. When we apply God-given wisdom, such as heeding forecasts, obeying building codes, and shunning hazard-prone areas, we are able to avoid most disasters. A perfect world of man’s design would likely be a disappointment in many ways. But God’s design for our world fits His purposes. For humanity and all God’s other created life on this planet, it is a very good world.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Law of Entropy

At “God’s initial creative act,” as I used to describe The Big Bang to my astronomy students, the universe began in its state of highest order, according to Stephen Hawking. His book A Brief History of Time, written in 1988, has become a secular classic. Disorder (entropy) has been increasing ever since the initial creation event. Imagine a completed jig-saw puzzle lying at the bottom of a box, displaying a beautiful complete, ordered picture. If the box is periodically shaken, the puzzle pieces will gradually break apart and lose the image of the initial picture. Disorder will increase. Eventually the puzzle will approach a condition of total disorder. In science, this overwhelming universal tendency is known as the Law of Entropy.

An age progression picture of our universe would show, for example, heat energy diffusing and becoming less useful as the universe expands. Manifestations of decay are everywhere. Infusions of energy from another part of the universe’s closed system could temporarily create an isolated “island” of apparent increased order--when a crew builds a new home, for instance--but at the expense of order and energy in some other place. Generally, the universal trend shows things running inexorably downhill.

New Testament scriptures deal with the phenomena of decay and increased disorder in both the physical and spiritual spheres. Romans 8:21 states the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay (NIV). This surprising verse refers to the physical, material creation. Verse 20 suggests that God, as creator, “subjected” the creation to this condition deliberately. In the spiritual realm, there are several startling verses suggesting that even the redemption of mankind was in the mind of God before the beginning of time (I Cor. 2:7, II Tim. 1:19, Tit. 1:2 NIV). Redemption from what, I would ask? It appears God deliberately designed the universe with an overlay of decay and with the knowledge that man would need redemption from the fallen condition they would willfully choose.

Some scientist/theologians have suggested that the entropy of the universe provides the perfect setting for the eventual elimination of both physical decay and spiritual decay--man’s separation from God. In the coming New Creation (II Pet. 3:13, Rev. 21:1 NIV), the universal tendency toward physical decay and spiritual alienation from God will be banished.

Friday, May 9, 2008

God's Voice Thunders

Outdoor commencement exercises are moving and memorable. In the mid-1960s the school district where I taught science held its eighth grade graduation program outdoors. Students were the featured speakers, delivering themed addresses and recitations, including the invocation and benediction. Near the end of the ceremony one June evening, a young man was nearing the end of his recitation with a line beginning “This GREAT God…” Immediately a loud thunderclap pealed from overhead. Fortunately for the audience, the program was about to end.

The lightning which causes thunder commands prudent safety precautions and provokes many varied emotions. Charges of millions of volts of electricity are instantly released, generating brief temperatures of over 10,000 degrees C. The sound of thunder is caused as lightning produces a sudden wave of compressed air molecules. The thunder seems to roll for many seconds as sound arrives from more and more distant parts of the lightning bolt. Many people never overcome their fear of these phenomena. Others experience the thrill of excitement and overpowering wonder as they seek the best vantage points to watch and listen safely. Notwithstanding the unease thunderstorms produce in some people, they are a major source of beneficial rainfall in many locations. Scientists estimate that some 1800 thunderstorms are occurring on earth at any given moment. Surely it is one of nature’s most gripping events.

Scripture contains many references to thunder. The usual imagery is that thunder represents the power of God or the voice of God. That metaphor is appropriate as we contemplate the emotions it produces. The last few chapters of the Old Testament Book of Job are a treasury of meteorological metaphors and spiritual depth. These passages inspire us with scientific insights and a reverent sense of worship of the Creator.

At this my heart pounds and leaps from its place. Listen! Listen to the roar of his voice, to the rumbling that comes from his mouth. He unleashes his lightning beneath the whole heaven and sends it to the ends of the earth. After that comes the sound of his roar: he thunders with his majestic voice. When his voice resounds, he holds nothing back. God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways; he does great things beyond our understanding (Job 37:1-5 NIV).

Monday, May 5, 2008

Spring Renewal

Our recent post on bird songs highlights the transition from winter silence to springtime song. Spring also affects our local trees, now slowly springing to life and tinged with pastel green. Let’s address another change associated with the onset of spring–-visual changes in the plant world which accompany the audible ones in the animal world.

In a deep winter February moment of despair we might have imagined that the dry, gray tree branches swaying in sub-zero blasts of cold were dead. Fast-forward to early May, however, and signs of renewed life are everywhere. Our home is situated in a biome called the “temperate deciduous forest.” Most of the trees lose their leaves in autumn after their summer food-making tasks are completed. They have sent carbon and nitrogen compounds in the form of proteins to storage cells in the tree roots and inner bark.

Come spring, when nights shorten, days lengthen, and temperatures rise, the trees detect the gradual changes. It is time for the roots and inner bark to give up their stored nutrients for the leaf-building process. Water and soil minerals make their upward journey. After several weeks, thousands of leaves on each tree have achieved full size, sporting their characteristic blade shapes and other identifiers. Leaf characteristics join branching patterns, bark textures, flowering and fruit production habits, and size limits as traits which never vary from the genetic blueprint. The tree knows exactly what to do and when to do it.

Descriptions of anatomy and behavior are exceedingly plentiful in animal and plant literature. But I have been surprised by the lack of explanations for the apparent “intelligence” underlying their behavior. How does an arrangement of molecules in DNA govern the unique behavior of each species? That intelligence is surely more than the reductionist might claim when he explains these behaviors as mere manifestations of “molecules in motion.”

Springtime in temperate climate zones provides many examples of nature’s work/rest cycles. God instructed Moses to establish a work/rest sequence for the Israelites in order to provide physical and spiritual benefits. Nature’s cycle mechanisms also reflect biblical exhortations to shift from idle barrenness to the bloom of active spiritual renewal. The spring season provides an object lesson for Christ’s resurrection–-the transition from death to life. God has given His children many models of spiritual reality from the world of nature. Be alert for these lessons!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

From Silence to Song

When spring arrives in northwest Illinois, our stony winter silence is broken by joyful, sometimes raucous bird songs. At this time of year, male birds stake out their nesting and food-gathering territories and proclaim themselves to be the most worthy mating partners. Now and then a squabble between male robins or cardinals enlivens the action, but the disputes are soon settled in favor of the dominant participants.

What prescribes the special song of a robin, a cardinal, or a bluebird? Plentiful literature on bird behavior is mostly descriptive rather than explanatory. Is there an explanation for the unique identifiers such as the cardinal’s noisy proclamation, the robin’s incessant narrative, or the bluebird’s liquid warble? In most cases the song seems to be intrinsically programmed. Young birds, however, also rely on listening to the veterans to master the finer points of their recital.

Later, the birds will construct a nest to fledge their young. It will conform to definite specifications. Will it be a bowl of grass fragments held together by mud and located beneath the deck? An intricately woven structure suspended from a tree branch? Or perhaps even a mere depression on the ground? And what about characteristics of flight, also precisely programmed according to species? Some birds soar, riding thermals. Others are able to hover noiselessly or rocket through a thick forest without touching a branch. Certain birds fly purposefully in a straight line. Some birds fly with steady wing strokes, others with regular brief pauses. Flying habits range from rapid, labored wing beats to slow, graceful, fluid movements. Many birds seem to enjoy following and chasing each other, making several sharp directional changes each second.

We have not mentioned the visual appearance of the 775 bird species found in the U.S. and Canada, or the 8700 bird species found worldwide. Their physical characteristics are the source of great wonder, awe, and enjoyment. Coded DNA accounts for each and every physical trait passed from generation to generation. Scientists may even be able to pinpoint the locations of genes responsible for characteristics such as plumage coloring and beak shape. But behavioral uniqueness may be a different story. Who knows the exact cause of these unique and mysterious behaviors?

Whether our amazement is triggered by watching neighborhood birds from the back deck or by pondering a bird encyclopedia, we can’t help but perceive that the beauty and uniqueness of these familiar creatures who annually proclaim the arrival of spring must be the handiwork of a Creator.