Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Natural Deterioration

One of our foremost cultural icons is our virtual fixation on youthful health, strength, and attractiveness. Mature citizens are proud if their appearance remains youthful. Those who maintain physical appearance more typical of young people, along with physical abilities of people in their prime of life, are singled out for praise as role models. Physical endurance and performance levels associated with youth are emulated and praised. While it is desirable to “put our best foot forward” in maintaining our physical appearance and health levels associated with normal physical activity, our tendency sometimes borders on heroic efforts to thwart deterioration due to normal aging. Lest we be misunderstood, we offer commendation to those who achieve physical and mental health benefits from maintaining proper care and conditioning of their bodies.

Physical conditioning becomes progressively more difficult as we become older. Even professional athletes yield to the ravages of physical deterioration shortly after their physical prime is achieved. Injuries occur and recur more frequently and healing processes are slowed. Statistically, athletic achievement generally diminishes. The most talented, aging superstars in any sport have achieved mind-boggling long-term lucrative contracts based on their prowess during years of their physical prime. How depressing to observe their skills wane and, worse, to have some vaunted athletes resort to illegal drugs to enhance their performance.

Scripture occasionally uses object lessons from the world of athletics. In particular, the Apostle Paul uses fighting and running imagery to illustrate victories in the world of spiritual warfare Paul waged. He was satisfied to have fought the good fight and finished the race, for which he anticipated the “crown of righteousness” to be awarded by the Lord (II Tim. 4:7-8). The apostle uses training metaphors again even more powerfully in I Cor. 9:24-27. The competing runner goes into a strict training regimen, even though his crown of reward in this life will not last. The spiritual reward, however, endures forever. In the spiritual sphere Paul “does not fight like a man beating the air,” a reference to poor training in the world of athletics.

Even mental activity demands constant disciplined effort to strengthen and enhance our powers of reasoning. Mental activity demands discipline to be able to think clearly, just as physical training discipline in baseball, football, or basketball is needed by the athlete. Wisdom is often enhanced as one’s years advance. Nevertheless, discipline is necessary to diminish the effects of advancing age on the mind. It is well known that cognitive function diminishes with advancing age. The Latin root word for senility is “old.” Senescence and senility derive from the same Latin root word. Senescence may connote acquisition of wisdom; senility connotes something less desirable.

Senescence is an underused term for a normal and expected human phenomenon. Currently there are a handful of super-centenarians—people who have achieved a lifetime of 100 years. People who achieve 110 years achieve even more notoriety. Almost all of them are women. In June, 2013, the oldest man who ever lived died in Japan at 116. In 1997, the oldest woman who ever lived died in France at age 122. Senescence harvests the lives of 90% of the people in the industrialized world. Many secondary causes are included in this figure--cancer, heart problems, or other incidents of organ failure. Ultimately, the cause in the industrialized world catalogs as senescence--the progressive deterioration of physiological function.

Solomon (the Teacher), penned Ecclesiastes. The final chapter was a commentary on aging--senescence. The chapter is a moving “Allegory of Old Age.” The Liberty Bible Commentary presents Ecclesiastes Chapter 12 as “A poignant picture of senility that is partly metaphorical and partly literal.”

Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation of Ecclesiastes 12 mixes Eugene’s Peterson’s humor with reality:

In your old age, your body no longer serves you so well.
Muscles slacken, grip weakens, joints stiffen.
The shades are pulled down on the world.
You can’t come and go at will. Things grind to a halt.
The hum of the household fades away.
You are wakened now by bird-song.
Hikes to the mountains are a thing of the past.
Even a stroll down the road has its terrors.
Your hair turns apple-blossom white,
Adorning a fragile and impotent matchstick body.
Yes, you’re well on your way to eternal rest,
While your friends make plans for your funeral.

Life, lovely while it lasts, is soon over.
Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.
The body is put back in the same ground it came from.
The spirit returns to God, who first breathed it.


Friday, July 26, 2013

Advancing Senescence

Discussion of the characteristics of life is usually linked to qualities of developing, growing, or flourishing. Not often is the topic of life’s decline mentioned in the same discussion. For this conversation, we will conflate the two concepts. If an organism is said to be living, it manifests the major characteristics of living things. Optimally functioning living things manifest all the characteristics of life as outlined in our previous blog post:

In living things there are interesting contrasts between flourishing and decline. One difference may be described by the onset of “senescence” in living things ordinarily expected to flourish. At some point living things begin to experience a progressive deterioration of their physiological function. This highlighted clinical definition may seem too scholarly. For humans, several real life examples of senescence may be interesting, even humorous. In men optimal physical function may occur in their mid-20s. Years ago sources claimed age 26 to be the summit of a man’s physical strength and the zenith of his athletic production. His home run production on the church softball team may peak. At age 45, home run production, batting prowess, and reaction times are clearly on the wane.

Also in the realm of humor, media graphics touting restoration of youthful appearance, replete with before and after photographs, indicate how heroically many people strive to ward off the physical effects of aging. Social gatherings of retirees feature weighty verbal comparisons of each other’s ailments and health concerns, sometimes presented jokingly as a virtual badge of honor. Who has had cataract surgeries, hearing aids, plastic surgery, or hair restoration? On a more sobering note, advertising for pharmacological products and legitimate prescriptions from our personal physician are offered to counter a deficiency in “normal” or optimum physiological body functioning. The term “senescence” is underused, possibly because the term “senile” has a more negative connotation and comes from the same root word--old. No one admits to being senescent. It sounds too much like senility!

Some scientists claim senescence begins early in life, a natural outcome of normal deteriorative processes inherent in living things. Senescence begins, in some sense, at the moment of birth. Typically, most physiological processes reach optimal levels after two or three decades of life. After the optimums, physiological function begins a slow deterioration, even in a healthy person. Living octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians supposedly resist the onset of senescence. When such people are asked, “What is the secret of your long life?” their answers may contain a modicum of reality, but most answers are meant to be entertaining. My nonagenarian father used to proclaim, “It’s tough getting old,” even though his Christian outlook was a blessing to others and to himself. In reality his statement was a commentary on the effects of senescence.

Scripture commentary sometimes addresses the natural drift toward senescence in all living things. Ecclesiastes 12 comes to mind as it relates to the human experience of aging. The Apostle Paul’s reference to a thorn in his flesh may have been an outcome of bodily deterioration by aging but the apostle does not elaborate on the nature of his handicap. In a future post we discuss the reality of senescence in terms of the plan of the Creator for humanity and all created animals and plants in the world of living things.  


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What is Life?

Biology reference books list seven major characteristics of life. These sources draw sharp distinctions between living and non-living matter. These distinctions relate to the differences between interactions of matter, energy, and forces in the world of life and the world of non-life. What is the difference, we ask?

As children, the distinctions between living and non-living things may have occurred to us slowly. We learned some objects move, make noise, have effects on other objects, or seem to have a mind of their own. Understanding the distinction between living and non-living things, however, may demand a sophistication young children may not possess. One first grade science curriculum publisher claimed they distinguish between living and non-living things with students. Identification of some characteristics of living things may be possible, especially if such learning activity leads to an early respectful wonder for living creatures as fundamentally different from the world of the non-living.

Science curriculum goals offer rich opportunity for personal discovery through observation, a major goal of the scientific method. Discovery of the more formal characteristics of living things, however, demands a level of instruction beyond the idealized “hands on” or “we learn by doing” activities we design for young children, desirable as those may be. Most secondary school biology texts outline the characteristics of life. Essentially, these sources agree on several characteristics, all of which are manifest in any living thing. Individually, even young science students could learn some of these characteristics of life by hands on activities. But a full discussion of the characteristics of life seems more like prematurely peeking ahead at the last chapter of an adventure book to see what happened to the main characters. Understanding and mastery of the topic “What is life?” is what life science is all about.

Most biology texts list seven characteristics of life. For students this listing is tantamount to an overview of the main points of their course. Any one of these characteristic points could be considered a major unit of study. Living things (1) are organized into cells, (2) manifest metabolism--processes of energy use for construction or breakdown, (3) respond to stimuli, (4) have homeostasis--the ability to maintain their internal stability, (5) grow and develop, (6) reproduce, and (7) change and adapt.

The complex but integrated anatomies and physiologies of humans, animals, and plants reflect the intelligence, forethought, and craftsmanship of the Creator. Integrated anatomy refers to the integration of body structures and the many separate body systems making the living body a unit. Physiology is a study of function in living systems--mechanical, physical, bio-chemical, and bio-electrical function.

Genesis 2:7 speaks of God imparting the breath of life to man when he was created. We infer that prior sequential creations of animals were also characterized by receiving the breath of life. Most commentators agree that the breath of life is a gift of God. The Creator imparts life. Even young children understand some important differences between life and non-life. At this stage of cognizance, we posit that children may begin to associate life with a special gift bestowed by God to the creation and further, with their awareness of the reality of God, the great Giver of Life.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Walnut Sabbatical

Our unusual title is suggested by the treasured black walnut tree in our northwest Illinois front yard. Over the years this tree has provided our family multiple levels of enjoyment. Apart from its provision of tasty treats when we take the time to break the tough shells we’ve saved, our beautifully shaped tree has granted additional joy to our grandchildren. They collected their penny-a-nut bounty last year when its production far outpaced their grandfather’s collecting energy level. Our walnut bounty offer expired during autumn 2012 along with its mathematical lessons.

The tree has provided rest stops for our treasured avian friends, observation frames for us, and late season work for energetic neighborhood squirrels. They don’t seem to mind their autumnal collecting and transplanting assignments. Walnut seedlings sprout abundantly around our house when late spring arrives. Among other agricultural lessons, squirrel-buried walnuts illustrate a tutorial from Christ’s lesson on seed planting in John 12:24.

More fascinating is the pattern of production from this tree in the decade we’ve lived here. Some literature claims black walnuts produce more plentiful crops two years of every five. For several years my informal observations seemed roughly to confirm this formula. Then came the summer of 2012. The driest mid-west spring and summer in decades came replete with excessive heat. Our deep-rooted tree did not seem to mind. This medium-sized tree produced an astonishing 8000 high quality nuts. Spurred by curiosity my investigations revealed that in 2005 the tree had produced 4000 satisfying my nut-cracking addiction for several years thereafter.

The 2005/2012 surfeit of production conforms to the findings of several sources claiming, as did one lengthy web article, “Black walnut trees produce nuts in six, seven, and eight year cycles. It’s impossible to know which cycle the trees are in, but it can be observed that about 7-8 years following a peak year a given tree will have relatively poor nut production, well below its normal average.” For our front yard specimen, this is an understatement. Not one walnut has been produced this year even though we have had normal temperatures and above average rainfall. A smaller tree on our property seems to produce walnuts every year, as if the plant has a mind of its own. According to my recollections, average production from our tree amounted to only a few hundred nuts during our other nine years of residence.

Our tree’s natural “intelligence” reflects an ancient tradition. For thousands of years the world’s agriculturalists have applied the lessons of this intelligence. Land lying fallow or unused every seven years is a practice with origins in Sabbath laws given to the Israelites by the Lord in Exodus 23:11. There were benefits from giving the land rest from its normal cycles including improvements in long-term productivity. Regardless of the mathematical unpredictability of the pattern, some plants benefit from intermittent rest cycles in order to maximize production in non-rest years.

So it is with us. Jesus urged his disciples to “Come apart and rest a little while.” (Mark 6:31) Jesus and the disciples were being thronged to the point of not even having time to eat. The principle of rest from the regular cycle of labor is analogous to a “personal fallow,” often with considerable benefit to those who avail themselves of the rest periods. Academic and ministerial personnel often increase their professional effectiveness by making use of programmed “down” time. Not always is constant intense work a formula for increased productivity. C. H. Spurgeon, 19th century preacher stated, “In the long run, we do more by sometimes doing less.”

Appropriate lessons can be drawn from the world of nature, not only to help us praise and worship the Creator, but also to help us cope with everyday challenges. Plant life has adaptations from which we may learn significant lessons. Our black walnut tree has supplied more nut treats during 2012 than I will use for several years to come even though we will harvest no walnuts in 2013.



Monday, July 15, 2013

Worship Stimulants

Our theistic belief system is supported by two God-provided revelations--the revelation of the world of nature (general revelation) and the revelation of scripture (special revelation). In our God discovery, these two revelations are not either/or but rather, both/and. Our blog has taken the stance that general revelation supports and clarifies the special revelation of Holy Scripture. To interpret scripture errantly is to diminish the revelation of God and God’s actions in the natural world. The two revelations harmonize and supplement each other. One is not more important than the other, nor does one revelation trump the findings of the other. Our science/faith blog stresses the importance of general revelation, but not because it is superior.

As we observe the wonder of our surroundings, we focus on its beauty at different levels. Perhaps we ponder the aesthetic beauty of the great outdoors. The wonders of the beach, the mountains, and the sky grip our senses. At deeper levels we observe the interactions of matter, forces, and energy and how their interactions impinge upon us. Life scientists help us focus on the wonders of living inhabitants within our physical creation. They describe living things according to their physical and behavioral characteristics. The behavior of matter and living things lends itself to empirical studies--careful observation, description, and analysis, the starting points of our worship experience.

At whatever level we appreciate the wonders of the natural world we are moved to worship the God who created these wonders. The constant interactions of energy and matter provide our weather phenomena, for instance. Some weather is exhilaratingly perfect and pleasant. Other times our weather provides bountiful and beneficial precipitation to water crops and restore ground water levels. A rainy day is inconvenient but usually regarded as a blessing. On occasion damaging winds or floods descend to generate concern about the vagaries of our weather system. Physical creation’s intricacy and complexity is catalogued in Job 34-38.

The behavior of living creatures is linked to their interactions with humans. Our past description of soulish animal behavior is a topic for our serious reflection. Beyond the trusting relationship binding many animals to humans, there are thousands of other animal behaviors we could highlight. Our animal neighbors provide us with entertaining antics. We marvel at their adaptive behaviors. Job 39-42 contains descriptions of the intricacy and complexity of Earth’s soulish creatures. The provision of millions of species of less soulish creatures and the marvelous variety of plant life to sustain earth creatures with food and other products afford man opportunity for multiple outlets of thankful worship.

Our physical planet provides the setting for the roles of millions of species of living players. Our rotating and revolving satellite possesses the dual combination of fine-tuned physical characteristics accompanied by the presence of living things. No other known body in our cosmos is so endowed. The probability of this dual combination occurring on one tiny satellite is a topic for profound wonder. The double-edged presence of a finely-tuned physical system and a superabundance of life speaks of God’s tender care for creation.

The Creator of this double-faceted cosmic system supplies the summit of His living creatures, man, with unique ability for conscious worship. Humanity’s “Image of God” essence guarantees our outlet for praise and worship of the Creator. Understanding the theological truths of our relationship with the Creator and spiritual redemption offered by Him thereby acquires additional richness of meaning.

The NIV expresses the jubilation of those who recognize the worship song of creation. Psalm 96:11-13 exults: “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the earth in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.”

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Descriptive and Explanatory

Science educators devote a majority of their teaching to one, or at most two of three major knowledge disciplines--physical science, earth science, or life science. These specialties sometimes overlap. For example, oceanography comprises knowledge of physical science principles with respect to the ocean as well as life science connections for oceanographers specializing in marine biology. Most often, natural science educators focus on topics related to either physical science or life science. Physical science is more concerned about the topics such as energy and forces. Life science educators, while not unaware of focus topics of physical scientists, are more concerned with the unique qualities of living systems. Living systems have the unique ability to reproduce themselves and initiate volitional behaviors. Viewed this way, life scientists see themselves in a separate category of science discovery. “Something special” sets living things apart from non-living entities in the physical world.

Phenomena of interest to physical and earth scientists are describable and reasonably easy to explain in terms of interactions of energy and forces. Given that numerous physical constants of our cosmos are set in place unchangeably, it is no challenge for scientists to describe and explain the behavior of matter in terms of interactions of known forces and energy. (Debate exists among theists and non-theists about the author of dozens of physical constants and the resulting incredible fine-tuning. Did God author the physical constants? Did obvious fine-tuning of our universe result?) Given that we are immersed in a world of changeless physical constants, it is easy both to describe and explain behavior in the realm of physical science.

To highlight the differences between physical and life sciences we recount four past summer posts. In 2008 we submitted the first of four consecutive summer posts on our remarkable family experiences with monarch butterflies:
Historically, scientists have debated terms like vitalism and √©lan vital. These terms refer to “something special” possessed by living things, though not in the sense of a theistic miracle. Currently these terms are no longer part of scientific vocabulary. Rather, scientists seem content merely to describe the behavior and characteristics of living creatures. Examples include the incredible coded informational content of DNA and the now well-known phenomenon of the cells’ ability to “read” the codes of DNA and RNA to manufacture the body’s thousands of proteins and fold them into correct functional shapes. Secular scientists in our day do not attempt to explain either the past or ongoing role of the divine Originator of the genetic code. Neither do they explain precisely how protein manufacture, folding, and distribution actually occur except to say, “It happens.” Perhaps there are no naturalistic answers. Modern biologists have enormous ability to discover and describe; less ability to explain. Methodological naturalism rules out any speculation concerning the Designer’s past and current active role.

Let us muse concerning our observation of designing and building projects when we were children. Many of today’s senior citizens observed their fathers or grandfathers repairing a motor or executing a carpentry project, especially if they were raised on a farm. Let us apply this mundane example to illustrate the difference between description and explanation. We could describe a working motor in terms of its delivery of steady power to the drive train, but we may be less able to explain how the motor was assembled by an intelligent agent. What wrenches were used to tighten the connections, what other tools were used, and in what sequence were they used? Our father’s hand-wrought lawn furniture may be described and admired. In the sphere of explanation, however, how and when were the saws, hammers, screws, and planes used to fashion the final product? Exactly what did the artisan do?

The exultation of Psalm 139, “We are fearfully and wonderfully made,” comes to mind frequently when the subjects of human genetic inheritance and assembly are discussed. Bio-science authors have produced a captivating account of the process of RNA coding using only four “digits” of nucleotides. Groups of codons, triplets of three nucleotides in any order, are abbreviated A, U, C, and G and provide meticulously detailed information concerning the manufacture of appropriate proteins. The foregoing genetic “minicourse” does not begin to address how amino acid chains consisting of thousands of molecules are folded into limitless three-dimensional shapes and how proteins so formed are assigned to different parts of the body to build a coherent body structure. We illustrate our fascination with the plentitude of description and paucity of explanation in our fine bioscience textbooks by citing an example: Biology texts presumptuously claim, “Proteins spontaneously fold,” and, “Proteins are self-assembling.”

We urge our readers to consider how satisfying grandfather’s discussion of his completed lawn furniture would be if he merely told his grandson, “My lawn furniture self-assembled!” or, “It formed spontaneously!” Thoughtful grandchildren would want more information on the driving forces and functions of the intelligent mind directing the construction process. “What?” questions are much easier to answer than “How?” questions.

Secular biology textbooks are not spiritual devotional manuals. However, before the deliberate movement toward secularization of science in the late 19th century, scientists were generally unafraid to speculate on intelligent design in nature before molecular biology as a discipline arose less than a century ago. Its birth, beginning about 1930, followed the movement toward secularization of science from 1870 to 1930. Molecular biology primarily originated with identification of DNA structure and the cracking of the genetic code in the 1950s and 1960s. What is significant about these time frames? Ironically, the discoveries of molecular biologists in the last eighty years have opened the door widely to identification of a God of incredible omnipotence and creativity. The DNA code is clearly the product of an intelligent mind beyond our ability to conceive, not to mention our inability to duplicate divine creativity at sub-microscopic dimensions of the cell.

For the first half of the 19th century pronouncements concerning design in the world of life were primarily rooted in scientists’ devotion and worship, basically unchallenged by secularism. Now, in the face of scientists’ nearly limitless ability to discover and to describe genetic code discoveries and other formerly hidden wonders of the cell, we are choked by the religion of naturalistic science. Most scientists, according to the “rules of the game” long established by the secularists, do not countenance promotion of supernaturalism in their domain. Our blog posts have decried this reality and will continue to do so.

Scientists of faith and laypersons whose faith is supported by recognition of apparent supernatural reality in the world of nature must work to blend description and explanation to help call attention to the Creator. Secular public schools still need skilled teachers able to describe our world with scientific accuracy. Outside of secular science classrooms, where mere description seems weak and inadequate, skilled teachers must be prepared to explain the role of God as a supernatural, omnipotent Creator whose actions extend far beyond the mere natural.

The goal of our blog is not only to describe, but also to explain. In our theistic explanation we think creationally and supernaturalistically. We do not think evolutionarily or naturalistically.   

Sunday, July 7, 2013

DNA and Psalm 139

One of the most moving passages in Scripture speaks of God’s omniscience with respect to the unborn and his knowledge of temporal events even before they actually occur. Psalm 139:16 proclaims, “Your eyes saw my unformed body…” God sees us just before our birth and even before the pre-born child acquires its identifiable form in the early days of pregnancy.

No matter how readers of Psalm 139 interpret its meaning, we propose the omniscient Creator is the author of the meticulously detailed DNA code since all codes are the product of a mind. Its coded information is responsible for the production of every physical bodily trait of each human being alive. God-consciousness, the Imago Dei, was also endowed to the first humans, passed on to the present generation, and bestowed to all future generations of humanity.

At the moment of conception one egg from the mother and one sperm cell from the father each contributes 23 chromosomes, 46 in total, with DNA tightly coiled around structures of protein. In the fertilized egg there are 3.2 billion base pairs of coded information providing the genetic framework for the new human. The code is really a quaternary code consisting of just four elements. When shuffled and duplicated the four code elements designate the formation of virtually limitless combinations of many tens of thousands of proteins. It is not surprising that every human being (except identical twins) is unique. Protein building blocks vary from one person to another.

How does a simple four-element code result in the construction of certain specific proteins when a new human being develops in the womb?  Biology books do not answer this question. In our 21st century knowledge, our finest biology texts explain what happens. We do not, however, know how this happens. The detailed construction process occurring prior to birth, as a child matures toward adulthood, and even damage repair as the body passes its prime, is a secret known to God. We observe it and experience awe at the magnificence of the process.

There is some danger in becoming too complex in our explanation. We risk losing the simple worshipful exultation of the psalmist. We may appreciate the impact of the simple statement, “Your eyes saw my unformed body…” without becoming overly arcane. Psalm 139 simply cries out for our ability to worship the God of Creation as we contemplate one of the most astonishing examples of miraculous creation--the development of a new and unique human being from a single cell contributed by each parent.

The uniting of egg and sperm forms the simple zygote, the earliest stage of embryonic development. At this moment the embryo possesses full personhood.  100% of its personhood potential has been established. Any attempt to thwart the development of the embryo at this stage or later is an act of destroying a life gifted by God. The horror of our society’s legal embrace of abortion is a surpassing tragedy.

The personal worship inspired by Psalm 139 in its entirety is recaptured each time we read it. Verses 12-16 expand on the phrase we have quoted. On a personal level, these truths were reinforced as my wife and I recently viewed 3-D ultrasound images of our fourth grandchild and second grandson. Verses 13-15 leaped out: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place…” (NIV)