Saturday, December 31, 2016

Salt as Feltilizer

A famous parable offered by Jesus Christ during his ministry relates to the chemical value of salt as a preservative, a seasoning, and most effectively as a fertilizer. The imagery of salt in its agricultural context provides an exceptional object lesson related to our desire to expand the effectiveness of our personal witness. The application of salt in its role of making food more palatable and in its preservative qualities is also important. In Mark 9:49-50 at Capernaum and in Matthew 5:13 in the Beatitudes, references to salt applied to seasoning and flavoring. But in the Luke 14:34-35 parable, Jesus referred to the value of salt in an agricultural sense as a feltilizer. Perhaps this connection is most important in terms of extending a productive Gospel message.

Scripture contains multiple citations of agricultural practices ranging from soil preparation, planting, and plant growth, to ingathering of the harvest. Object lessons from agriculturalists of Bible times are plentiful. Many are still relevant to the success of modern agriculture. The October 2016 issue of Christianity Today contained an article by Anthony B. Bradley. His article “You are the Manure of the Earth” drew my attention because of its earthy imagery from the barnyard. Having been privileged to grow up within shouting distance of my grandfather’s 150-acre farm in New York State during the middle years of the 20th century, I was able to identify with many gripping images of farm life, some of which were unsavory including the large pile of animal refuse behind the dairy barn when spring arrived.

Chemically, salt, a generic name for a large number of different chemical compounds, including the well-known sodium chloride, has many different functions in the home, on the farm, and in industry. Most people focus on the taste enhancement or preservation properties of salt. Magnesium, potassium, and calcium chlorides have different chemical properties and many of their benefits are longer lasting than sodium. Some chemical changes result in a loss of “saltiness” or “savor” because its desirable properties are altered as the chemical disintegrates.

We return to the “Manure of the Earth” imagery. In Luke 14:34-35 Jesus stated that “unsalty” salt is neither fit for the soil (as fertilizer) nor fit for the manure pile. In the context of the manure pile, we should understand that good salt properly spread on the manure pile preserves the fertilizing properties of manure. Otherwise, the manure would rot or ferment and become useless as fertilizer. Therefore, “unsalty” salt is useless either as fertilizer itself or to enhance the fertilizing properties of the manure because a rotted, fermented, and useless material would result. Anthony B. Bradley concludes this portion of his discussion: “This centuries-tested agricultural understanding of salt fits these passages and the ancient world much better than interpreting the salt as table salt—even if all this talk of fertilizer and manure makes us a bit squeamish.” By no means does this conversation minimize the importance of salt as a a taste-enhancer or preservative.

The December 2016 Christianity Today magazine contained a reply to the “You Are the Manure of the Earth” article. Scientist Steve Sobolik noted that a science background gives insight into understanding scripture. He writes “A ridiculous myth has developed in recent years that science and faith are mutually exclusive; I believe this sentiment is absolutely false, and I think there are hundreds of years of history to prove that. Therefore, I try to use scientific analogies and subjects whenever I can when I talk about my faith with someone, in an effort to tear down that wall.” 

Scripture is vibrantly in harmony with the principle that knowledge of the physical and chemical world we inhabit bears witness to spiritual faith principles and affirms the wisdom of God who created all things.



Friday, December 23, 2016

Gifts to Men

Scripture passages found in Psalm 68:18 and Ephesians 4:8, God gave gifts to men, were intended to highlight spiritual gifts such as prophesying, evangelism, pastoring, or teaching. The Bible, after all, is primarily a textbook of spiritual gifts given to man: righteous living, pleasing God, and the ultimate gift of redemption from sin through Jesus Christ. The concept of God’s gifts to men has applications exceeding these well known spiritual gifts addressed in scripture. 

Many other gifts to men are referenced in the context of the Old and New Testament. The food provided by God for the original couple in the Garden of Eden was a gift addressed in several places in the brief Genesis 1-3 account. Seed-bearing plants and every tree with seed in it “will be yours for food.” Every green plant was also a nutritional gift provided for the beasts of the earth. The Genesis chapters refer to plant products that were “good for food.” Animal nutrition depended on plants. Plant life was ultimately at the base of the food chain. Animals are located above plants at various “trophic levels” relating to energy transfers along the food chain. If animal life is consumed we may say we are indirectly consuming plants provided by the Creator as food. (There was one God-commanded restriction relating to plant food which served to test and prove the couple’s obedience to the Creator. Scripture tells us they miserably failed the obedience test.)

Not until Genesis 9:1-3 did scripture explicitly mention meat as consumable after Noah’s flood. In one sense this may have been a sort of science lesson on trophic levels of the well-known food chains we study in biology classes. “Everything that lives or moves will be food for you” (Gen. 9:3). It is likely that humans had consumed meat before this time. We doubt these verses imply vegetarianism was in effect either by divine command or by personal preference. New Testament Christians were permitted to eat either vegetables or meat, according to their own conscience or taste and nutritional preferences.

We might propose that plant and animal life was “waiting” in some sense for the beginnings of the agricultural revolution about 10,000 BC. Even though a modicum of agriculture had begun in the several millennia prior to the agricultural revolution, the full-fledged revolution began at approximately 10,000 BC. It is fascinating to analyze human nutrition in the thousands of years prior to the revolution. Undomesticated plants and animals were less appealing as food if we compare our foods with theirs. The fruit of plants was more difficult to find and possessed limited variety. Meat of wild animals was leaner and gamier, but our ancient forbears were probably happy with their food supply. Prehistoric taste testers did not have basis for comparison with our modern domesticated foods. Some writers even pose the possibility that prior to the agricultural revolution human food was healthier compared with our modern fare.

Historians have identified eight “founder crops” originating in the Fertile Crescent early in the agricultural revolution, including barley, Einkorn wheat, Emmer wheat, and the legumes lentils, peas, and chickpeas. Later many hundreds of other plants were domesticated in both the Old and New Worlds. These included rice, potatoes, beans, squash, and maize (corn). In the thousands of years following the establishment of the eight founder crops, familiar plants including dates, grapes, bananas, olives, garlic, soybeans and dozens of other familiar food staples were subjected to domestication.

Well documented are the approximate dates of the development of animal domesticates. Canine species predate other animals. They arrived well before 14,000 BC. Sheep, cats, and goats were on the human scene before 8000 BC; pigs, cattle, and chickens before 6000 BC; horses and camels before 3000 BC; turkeys, geese, and ducks arrived before the time of Christ.

Let us review highlights of domestication. For animals it means development of morphological and behavioral changes resulting in a mutually beneficial relationship between animals and humans. Humans developed animals more reliable and compatible with humans. For plants they replaced many undesirable native characteristics. The domesticated plant often cannot survive without help from man in terms of propagation and harvesting. Many contemporary animals and plants now manifest the fascinating domestication syndrome (DS), a group of characteristics altering the organisms to produce desirable traits.

Domestication is the result of repeated application of artificial selection in animal and plant propagation over many generations. These simple human initiatives have effected surprising changes beneficial to humanity. Our last several posts have discussed the DS. Startling morphological and behavioral changes result from modifications of a minimal number of genes.   

The suite of characteristics inherent in the DS manifest in hundreds of domesticated animals and plants is a marvel of life on earth. Scientists strive to understand and explain these phenomena in a naturalistic context. They pride themselves on their description of plentiful molecular, morphological, and behavioral adaptations manifest in domesticated organisms. For their insightful descriptions they deserve praise, but often elaborate description stands in for adequate explanation.

We cite one example of geneticists' complex description of an embryonic event standing in for a true explanation. Biologists have proposed that mild neural crest cell (NCC) deficits during embryonic development are responsible for the domestication syndrome. Neural crest cells are a band of specialized cells lying along the outer surface of each section of the neural tube in early stages of embryonic development. Many comments about the NCC role in the domestication syndrome resemble this statement: “Most of the modified traits, both morphological and physiological, can be readily explained as direct consequences of such deficiencies.” But are the hidden processes of domestication really explained? or merely described as causative?

We propose that domestication phenomena are divine gifts to men. We cannot explain the totality of our physical world and its complex manifestations merely as the outcome of naturalistic processes. Many naturalistic scientists stumble at the inability of creationist scientists to explain many phenomena according to the principles of naturalism: “No supernatural Creator is necessary!” they affirm. 

Belief in God is strengthened virtually everywhere we look. The more we study the workings of the world around us, the more we understand the world has been authored by a supernatural Creator. The ability of humans to apply scientific principles of discovery and innovation to enhance the experience of human life is also a gift to men. Animal and plant domestication are examples. God endowed humanity with the ability to discover and apply its principles—its causes and its effects—at the appropriate moment in humanity’s history. Ultimately there are some explanations of processes leading from causes to effects which exist only in the mind of God.          


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Plant Adaptation

When George H. W. Bush was president of the United States, he was involved in a interesting and humorous “dust-up” with nutritionists and parents alike. The humor of the incident may have carried over from discussion of the informal utterances of our nation’s chief executive all the way to resolution of “See, I told you so!” family squabbles around the dinner table. Famously, President Bush declared a strong dislike for broccoli, a vegetable which has become a staple of admiration from nutritionists and many food enthusiasts who love its qualities 2500 years after it first appeared on our planet.

Before using broccoli as an example to highlight the wonders of plant domestication and adaptation, I cannot resist recounting a humorous story from my childhood. My father was well versed in the science of agriculture as agent of a farm seed company in the 1940s. His expertise extended to our family garden planted each spring on our one acre lot. One year the broccoli was particularly productive, but family finances were not. My parents opted to freeze large quantities of broccoli even after the central New York State autumn had provided several frosts and the broccoli had begun its flowering stage. Over the winter my older brother, offered a frozen vegetable he did not like from the get-go, ended up despising it even more. His younger brother, writer of this blog, has overcome his childhood memory and now appreciates this domesticated vegetable delight. 

“Broccoli is a human innovation, a man-made food…..selected and cultivated by man throughout history. Known for its green hue and resemblance to a tiny tree, broccoli has been the bane of kids’ existence…..Broccoli is the result of selective breeding of wild cabbage plants starting around the 6th century BC.” (ponderweasel website) 

Brassica oleracea is a species of plants represented by a number of well-known vegetables. Some of the most well known are broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and kale, but many others exist, mostly consumed as food; a few others are valued as ornamentals. Not well known is the fact that all of the many cultivars of Brassica oleracea originated by the process of selection of plant traits more suited to the human rather than the wild environment. Surprisingly, all representatives of Brassica oleracea such as the popular vegetables mentioned above belong to the same species. After the initial selection processes repeated through many generations, horticulturalists focused on improving the plants they had selected. Cultivars result from selection skills. Beyond selection, improvement in the plants is accomplished by development of cultigens additionally altered in some way by clever and creative man made genetic initiatives.

God initially created many different species of plants and animals. Since the agricultural revolution many alterations at the species level have been accomplished by taking advantage of the potential of the artificial (man-made) selection process. The Creator intelligently designed life with its incredible DNA molecule and its genetic blueprint for the physical structure and functionality of living things, and the intricate regulatory processes inherent in life from the simplest living things to the complex human creature made in the image of God, and the millions of species between these extremes of life.

It is apparent that the potential for domestication of plants and animals is not tantamount to developing a new species. This disturbs evolutionists who search for examples to count naturalistic evolution as wholesale production of novel species. Broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and kale remain the same species—Brassica oleracea. Existence of these vegetables, and many other domesticated plants of diverse species, depends on man’s discovery of the process of selection, a rather unremarkable idea that early agriculturalists utilized: “Let’s select the largest, healthiest, most attractive, most harvestable, tastiest vegetables for next year’s crop and repeat the process year by year,” they reasoned. Little did they know their crops responded to the selection process by accomplishing modest genetic modifications. The action of just one gene at a specific position on the chromosome (a genetic locus), or several genes at several positions on the chromosome (genetic loci) could alter the phenotype (physical trait or traits) of certain plants. The gradual alteration of genes producing broccoli from the historic wild cabbage plant is a simple cause and effect phenomenon. The process, however, interspersed between the cause and effect steps, is not well understood except in the mind of our Creator.

Potential for modifications in plants and animals to benefit humanity is an outstanding example of intelligent design gifted by God to man to accomplish wondrous things in the area of genetics. We make the distinction between modifying living things and creating completely new living things. Does man have the ability to create life? even simple life? Currently some scientists, even theologians, recognize this possibility given the remarkable advances in knowledge of genetics and technology. Is this question fraught with unpleasant ethical overtones? Perhaps it is. 

If even the simplest life were ever produced and could be biologically defined as life, it would be an outstanding example of application of principles of intelligent design, already applied by God to produce a universe of incredible divine design characteristics and millions of unique and beautiful species.          



Friday, December 9, 2016

The Domestication Syndrome

Humanity’s transition to agriculture in the last 10,000 years could not have occurred without the domestication phenomenon. Domestication of animals and plants was associated with the transformative revolution in agriculture which led to significant human population gains. Background for this discussion is our recent post of 11/26/16:

Fundamental changes in animal and plant life were accomplished by a process of deliberate human selection over time. Therefore, scientists know both the cause and effect of domestication, but this leaves many important questions unanswered. It has been reported that 148 animal species were candidates for domestication but only 14 have actually been successfully domesticated. Some animals, for example, zebras, tigers, and rhinoceros do not make good candidates for domestication, but modern cattle, chickens, and horses and a few other species are the result of an ancient domestication process.

Indians of the New World domesticated over 300 food plants hundreds or thousands of years before explorers from the Old World discovered New World lands. Old World residents soon learned New World secrets of plant domestication. Today four billion people consume primarily a plant-based diet while two billion rely mostly on meat-based nutrition. Statistics tell us the extent and importance of domestication: Human biomass (mass of all humans on earth) is roughly half the biomass of domesticated livestock. The biomass of wild mammals is now less than 10% of domesticated livestock. Twelve species of domesticated plants provide an 80% share of Earth’s crops. The phenomenon of domestication fueling the world’s agricultural revolution is vitally important as we consider the welfare of the world’s teeming billions.

Many modern studies have affirmed the genetic basis of domestication. Looking at the chromosomes of living organisms in our cells’ nuclei, we see that genes are superimposed upon the chromosome structure, and that alleles are superimposed on genes. Different alleles from two parents provide diversity of traits. As humans observed the products of reproduction, they selected the traits they found most desirable for future generations. The original domesticators of prehistory were completely unaware of the biological wonders taking place at the level of unseen atoms and molecules in the living animals and plants surrounding them. The causes and effects were apparent to the domesticators, but even in our day geneticists still do not know how molecular entities at the level of cells actually produce their novel finished product—new tissues, new morphology, and new behaviors.

We illustrate with a mundane example from a diverse field. The sequence of events resulting in the construction and occupancy of a new residential dwelling may be described reasonably well by the layman who knows little about home construction. The prospective new owner must conceptualize, plan, communicate with a builder, design, and finance his new project, to outline a few steps in the event sequence. A skilled contractor must purchase material, assemble the concrete, wood, and steel and follow the building blueprint in an organized manner at the appropriate location. Then, and only then, is the structure ready for production. The new owners are free to observe and understand what is happening at the level of production. Our family observed the production process for building three different new homes in the past 45 years. Not having been a skilled master of building construction, I was able, however, to observe the production process and describe the building and installation process reasonably well after visits to the active construction site. Skilled workers used bodily and electrical energy applied to drills, hammers, saws, and a variety of other tools to assemble our home.

Returning to the cause and effect chain of domestication by which our planet’s animals and plants have been altered to promote human population growth ever since the agricultural revolution, we introduce the term domestication syndrome (DS) to the discussion. Domestication syndrome is a “group of traits” observed to occur together in domesticated animals and plants. At the risk of oversimplification, we mention a few examples of the “group of traits.” In animals, domestication results in tameness, docility, coat color changes, smaller jaws, floppy ears, tooth size reduction, cranio-facial morphology, and changes in body chemistry. In plants, domesticates produce seeds on plants easier to harvest, cultivate and sow. These plants provide uniform seed germination and ripening. In terms of other physical traits, domesticated plants have improved taste, fruit size, color, and shape.

We provide several examples to prove the point concerning the domestication syndrome. Modern dog breeds provide the best example. All dog breeds are technically the same species and can interbreed. The uniqueness of dozens of individual canine breeds is an extreme example of selection resulting in the domestication syndrome described above, a suite of characteristics common in some degree to all domesticated animals. Dog breeders exercise wisdom concerning the prevalence of low genetic diversity in dog breeds. Phenotypic traits of dogs are governed by a very small number of genes. Sometimes unfortunate defects result from over-manipulating the limited genome of dogs. In contrast, human genetic traits are exceedingly diverse and result in hundreds of characteristics that create wonderful diversity in humanity.

With respect to plant life, we illustrate by envisioning a beautiful, ready to harvest field of corn from the US Midwest during October. At the beginning of the human agricultural revolution no plant crop resembled modern domesticated corn even remotely. The Creator intelligently designed living things to provide the potential for modern harvests in both the animal and plant world. Modern agriculturalists must recognize the perils of domestication along with its benefits. This topic is the subject of much study by biologists.

Finally, we return to the causes and effects of the molecular processes inherent in the production of a domesticated animal or plant. Causes? Scientists have determined that the selection process is the cause of domestication. Effects? Likewise, scientists have discovered the effect of selection: the domestication syndrome described above. Our questions relate to just how thousands of molecules scurry about to assemble new proteins and produce new organs in the bodies of the domesticated animals or plants, or to accomplish changes in their behavior. How are these changes accomplished?

Many hypothesized evolutionary processes, including the processes of domestication, are explained with naturalistic statements that, “Causes explain processes.” I propose that citing causes does not explain the processes involved in domestication. Our Creator designed intelligent strategies for accomplishing domestication of animals and plants. The processes by which domestication is accomplished are spectacular, but not always explainable merely by citing a cause.                                


Monday, December 5, 2016


In post-retirement reverie I have imagined what my profession might be if given a second chance at a career decision. I have never regretted becoming a public school science teacher. Nevertheless, in retirement my opportunity to research diverse topics of science has yielded many opportunities to expand personal knowledge beyond the curricular requirements.

The subject of human origins has occupied my personal attention extensively. In the classroom my assignments related to physical science and earth science. Topics of human origins and organic evolution were not ordinarily part of my teaching responsibility. Retirement provided opportunity to study and discuss diverse views on human origins. Generally we are describing the discipline of paleoanthropology. Within each origins belief system, there are subtle and not so subtle differences. We have discussed major positions on human origins in our science/faith blog since 2007.

Human origins beliefs center on four major positions. (1) Young Earth Creationism: All things were divinely created six to ten thousand years ago including the physical universe with all its living things (2) Old Earth Creationism: The physical universe originated and life was created by God in divine supernatural acts since the beginning 13.7 billion years ago (3) Organic evolution: Since the beginning of the physical universe all life traces its origin to a common ancestor developing from previously existing life forms over time by naturalistic events (4) Theistic Evolution: At the beginning God endowed physical matter with the ability to transform itself into novel life. (In describing the four positions we have excluded variations of these belief systems and avoided discussions of origins processes.)

Adherents of positions (1) and (2) believe in the existence and action of an omnipotent Creator. Adherents of position (3) do not believe God is involved in the process of evolution and may not believe in God as a supernatural entity. (4) Adherents of position (4) are theists with varying degrees of belief in how God acts or does not act. (All positions except Young Earth Creationism accept a universe age of 13.7 billion years beginning with the Big Bang.)

During the course of our review of human existence we have realized that some readers may have been surprised by our assertions that anatomically and intellectually modern humans have inhabited our planet for upwards of 100,000 years or more. It also may be surprising that the creation of modern humanity, the flood of Noah, and the Tower of Babel account occurred in the distant past. Nonetheless we characterize these events as relatively recent, just a moment ago compared with the enormous time frames of the geological time scale. Evidence for time scales we cite is unassailable based on reliable scientific evidence. 

It is surprising that certain advances of modern human societies occurred so late on the historical time scale. That humans were hunter-gatherers until 10,000 to 12,000 years ago may be unexpected or that thousands of fully human hunter-gatherers still exist in primitive, isolated locations in modern times. We may find it incredible that farming and domestication had not taken hold as a concomitant of human experience until relatively recently. Even after humanity’s embrace of agriculture, however, we wonder why intelligent humans did not develop writing skills to benefit their daily activities, to preserve more accurate and detailed records of their society, or to preserve their historical legacy for hundreds of generations to follow. Our kindergarteners and first graders learn writing and reading skills very early in their lives. Why was wheel technology not conceptualized in the intellectual and practical experience of modern humans before 3500 BC?

We have written about the startling massive, complex human-built structure of Gobeckli Tepe in ancient Turkey. Its challenging construction was begun in 11,600 BC, thousands of years before wheels and writing skills were imagined by their society of hunter-gatherers. It is obvious that a fully human population existed at the time and had existed for tens of thousands of years with impressive survival skills. Why, we may ask, were certain agricultural, technological, and linguistic skills painfully slow and sporadic in developing?

Let us leap forward in time several millennia to the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. Until then almost all the best minds of the civilized world could not determine the difference between real and apparent motion in the heavens. The result was the errant belief that Earth was located at the center of the universe with all heavenly bodies circling around us. This basic truth of physical reality was a difficult standard to achieve until the 16th century, thanks to Copernicus. On a different level of knowledge, why did basic hygiene practices, germ theory, and effective treatment of disease escape humanity for most of its tenure on the planet? The US Civil War claimed about 650,000 lives, a majority of them from disease and horrible practices of hygiene.

Our recent discussions relating to pre-historic humanity raise questions about the fully human characteristics of early man in the past 50,000 or 100,000 years. Secular paleoanthropologists acknowledge humans as distinct from some less than human members of the hominid family. Neanderthals and the recently discovered Denisovans are hominids falling short of full human characteristics. These creatures co-existed for a time with modern humans but went extinct several tens of thousands of years ago. They come up short on the scale of full anatomical and intellectual humanity created in the image of God but they are also products of God’s creation.

Returning to the subject of personal reverie expressed in our opening paragraphs, we have discovered that the issue of creation and the history of human origins deals with many unanswered questions and unresolved problems. There are no written records extending beyond five or six thousand years. The written genealogies in the book of Genesis are incomplete compared with modern genealogies. The exceedingly brief accounts of creation events and early humanity, reliable and trustworthy as far as they go, are supplemented by past, present, and future discoveries provided by scientists and archaeologists. Paleoanthropology holds fascination for its potential for truth discovery in human origins.

We wonder why anatomically and intellectually advanced humans did not achieve feats or make discoveries long ago that we now accept as a matter of course. Why did agriculture arrive so late? Could not a committee of the most intelligent ancient residents have figured out human writing skills or the simple technology of the wheel? Why could smart people not have figured out germ theory or healthy hygiene hundreds or thousands of years ago and saved many lives? The Green Revolution of the  1960s arguably saved a billion lives. Why was its arrival on the human scene delayed?

One may pose similar questions to the Apostle Paul, writer of the Book of Galatians. His expressions “But when the time had fully come” or “When the fullness of time had come” (Gal. 4:4) refer to the mystery of the timing of the arrival of Christ, Redeemer of man. Ultimately, the timing of that marvelous event was in the hands of the Father. Modern theological scholars search for answers. Likewise, paleoanthropologists search for answers concerning timing of landmark discoveries and inventions to benefit humanity’s physical existence. Perhaps theologians could offer additional insights. We look for many sources of knowledge to investigate unknowns and discover answers to our questions.