Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Intelligent Mind at Work

During extended discussions concerning life origins with friends, exchanges have often revolved around evolution as a natural process. According to theory, evolution occurs as a mysterious undirected force propelling the appearance of the wondrous multiplicity of life, its astonishing processes, and its magnificence. Whereas random mutation and natural selection formerly held sway in explaining evolutionary processes, James A. Shapiro, University of Chicago microbiologist, is the forefront scientist advocating The Third Way of Evolution, a new movement opposed to Neo-Darwinism. Their website lists many scientists who are either co-founders of the project launched in 2014, or in sympathy with tenets of the innovative “third way” hypothesis. The proposals of the third way group present a serious challenge to the traditional random mutation and natural selection paradigm which has held sway among evolutionists for many years since the time of Darwin. But neither Neo-Darwinists nor proponents of the third way countenance a supernatural Intelligent Mind responsible for the existence of life or its processes.

According to believers in naturalism, only natural laws explain the physical makeup and operation of our world—a supernatural Creator had no role in designing or creating the features of our physical existence. Naturalism and materialism are sometimes conflated. Naturalistic evolution is an unguided process. According to naturalism, an intelligent mind did not guide the process of the creation of life or how life has changed. Neo-Darwinists and third way proponents both believe in unguided evolution.

Naturalism has acquired a very precise meaning. Early 20th century naturalists, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “…urged that reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing ‘supernatural’ and that the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality, including the ‘human spirit.’” The Third Way website states, “Many scientists today see the need for a deeper and more complete exploration of the evolutionary process.” Rapid evolutionary processes of The Third Way are characterized by symbiogenesis, horizontal DNA transfer, action of mobile DNA, and epigenetic modification, they state.

Creationists of every stripe and most advocates of Intelligent Design believe God performed miraculous acts beyond ordinary natural events during earth’s history of life. These supernatural acts, according to them, produced the DNA molecule with its complex coding capable of generating countless thousands of different appropriately folded proteins. Multiple cell types composing each individual organism require specific proteins. Various organs require certain cell types to produce appropriate body tissues. Final body plans require specialized arrangements of tissues and organs in order to produce the finished total body plan. Epigenetic modification is the “supervising force” insuring that the living materials are correctly assembled during gestation—the period between conception and birth.

To use a builders analogy for epigenetic modification, building foremen insure that the raw building materials are assembled in a timely fashion and integrated properly. The genetic parallel in our simplified analogy relates to the initial production and acquisition of the proper building materials. When a human baby dwells nine months in the womb, we may focus on (a) the genetic knowledge that DNA has supplied the code for the production of many thousands of “just right” protein building materials, and also (b) the epigenetic knowledge that the proteins were assembled for proper form and function. Broadly, we are speaking about developmental biology which focuses more intently on epigenetic inheritance than genetic inheritance. Both types of inheritance affect an individual’s phenotype (physical and behavioral characteristics).

Where the naturalistic verdict of science concerning origin of life leaves us unsatisfied, perhaps our subjective intuition takes over. Theistic creationists find it inconceivable that living things could have come into existence or developed their startling innovations naturalistically. For starters, creationists are incredulous that inanimate matter could have self-assembled, becoming complex molecular DNA without a working, intelligent mind directing the process. Secular naturalism’s explanations seem woefully inadequate to explain the wonders of Earth’s magnificent multiplicity of functional life—humanity being the crowning pinnacle.

Humanity is gifted with ability to identify evidence of intelligence. The products of intelligence surround us everywhere we look. There is little or no disagreement except perhaps as an ontological or philosophical challenge. Not only is humanity gifted with ability to detect external evidence of intelligence, but also the presence of our own personal intelligence. By our intrinsic intelligence, we are able to identify the work of an Intelligent Creator.

Intelligence is not a concept defined in Scripture. On the other hand, related concepts of mind, knowledge, and wisdom are often referenced in Scripture. The first use of the term intelligence occurred in the 14th century. Various definitions of intelligence involve ability to know, learn, and comprehend general truths together with ability to reason and possess superior understanding. Creativity is often an outcome of intelligence. Let us be thankful for our personal intelligence, for intelligence in others, for our ability to identify intelligence, and for the existence of the ultimate Intelligent Agent—the omnipotent Creator of All Things.   


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Farewell to Mutation and Natural Selection

The paradigm of evolution is still relentlessly promoted in our culture. Its link to mutation and natural selection, however, is weakening. Quoting a term popularized by science philosopher Thomas Kuhn’s (1922-1996) words, major structures of scientific belief sometimes experience “paradigm shifts.” Evolution’s previous support structure, mutation and natural selection, is undergoing an uneasy paradigm shift. Mutation and natural selection as drivers of evolution have fallen on difficult times. Other causes and effects of evolution such as genetic drift, gene flow, and epigenetics are rising to prominence.

In our post of 1/11/18 we dealt with Perry Marshall’s proposal that cells themselves are agents of intelligence—that cells are “smart.” Marshall has proposed these ideas widely since the middle of the last decade. He posits that mutation and natural selection until recently had provided the support framework for the paradigm of evolution, but is now superseded by a more viable evolutionary support structure he describes as a “third way,” beyond both Neo-darwinism and Stephen C. Meyer’s detailed Intelligent Design theory. Marshall describes the “third way” in his Evolution 2.0, the title of his 2015 book.

Marshall cites several startling experiments he touts as rapid evolution. For example, from his Evolution 2.0 volume: “Research at the University of Colorado reports a fascinating discovery about protozoa…..Starving male and female protozoans mate (pooling their poverty, apparently) and then completely restructure the genome to make a new nucleus, cutting DNA into 100,000 pieces, then splicing and rearranging the code. In other words, a protozoan reprograms its own DNA through a repeating, programmed response to stress—through thousands of simultaneous edits.” These changes occur in a matter of hours.

The protozoa are then adapted to their new environment. As we studied Marshall’s writings on this subject and watched his YouTube exchanges, we were not clear whether he believes a new species was created and whether his innovative “third way” could qualify as full-fledged “evolution” in the classic sense.

We point out that these changes took place in prokaryotes, simple one-celled animals, not in complex, higher order multi-celled animals. Marshall implies that the phenomenon may be related to the reason we should take all of our prescribed antibiotics when we have infections because germs rapidly evolve.

Some epigenetic changes related to variability in the environment have been shown to become hard-wired into a species’ genetics temporarily or even permanently. The well-known phrase, “It’s in the DNA,” while true in terms of protein building blocks producing our physical form, does not tell the whole story of epigenetic inheritance. It is an exciting area of novel research.  

Stephen C. Meyer promotes intelligent design as his paradigm. This means the intelligent designer is the author of the functional genetic code. DNA is a code for producing proteins comprising the physical building blocks of life. This includes mysterious protein folding processes. Many envision the genetic DNA code as the product of an intelligent mind. Meyer implies that an intelligent mind is the creator of life itself. Moreover, startling historical events such as the the Cambrian Explosion of diverse Earth life are the product of sudden and rapid infusions of new information along the timeline of Earth history according to Meyer. The origin of “first life” is an intractable problem in the field of secular science because those scientists are searching for a natural explanation, not a supernatural explanation. Perry Marshall cautiously concedes that the first appearance of life on our planet may be in a different league than his described “third way” of evolution. 

Marshall assigns intelligence to cells rather than an Intelligent Designer who provides new information and acts periodically to produce sudden new appearances of novel species. He terms this process “cellular genetic evolution.” Essentially, Marshall believes the ability to develop new informational codes was programmed into cells from the beginning. The intelligent designer is the cell itself. Marshall offers a multi-million dollar prize to anyone who explains how to identify a naturally occurring code: How do we get from chemicals to code? And how do we get a code without designing one?

These questions have different answers along the spectrum of beliefs in (a) naturalistic evolution, (b) theistic evolution (evolutionary creationism), (c) intelligent design, (d) young earth creationism, and (e) old earth creationism. There are numerous variations of these beliefs. We pose the idea that those who espouse one of these beliefs (or any variant of these beliefs) must show respectful deference to those who may disagree. At the same time, all must commit to a search for truth.

One phenomenon related to these discussions relates to the interface of science and theology. Sometimes Christians become ambivalent when stating their respect for science versus their reverence for theological verities. Science separates itself from investigating or commenting upon supernatural causes, but this separation did not always apply when the scientific revolution first emerged. Creationism and Intelligent Design theory are not compatible with evolutionary theory.

Th Bible is not a scientific textbook. Many scripture passages, however, observe the natural world through both theological and scientific lenses. Isaiah 45:18 comments on the creation of living things inhabiting our planet: “He who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited—he says: I am the Lord, and there is no other.” Psalm 139:13-15, an unequalled pro-life passage, exults: “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. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (NIV)





Thursday, January 18, 2018

Identity of Intelligence

In our last post we dealt with the positions of two famous commentators concerning the origin of living things—Stephen C. Meyer and Perry Marshall. For Christians, believing the God of Creation acted in an intelligent manner to design the physical universe, and more particularly, the living humanity which inhabits our planet seems like a “given.”

Stephen C. Meyer directs the Discovery Institute, a well known organization promoting the paradigm of Intelligent Design, a concept which has been in mainstream discussion for several decades. The general idea that God created the universe and and its physical processes has been present in Christianity, Judaism, and other major religions for several thousand years. In order to remind readers of the tenets of the ID paradigm, we quote one of the defining statements of the Discovery Institute: “Intelligent Design refers to a scientific research program, as well as a community of scientists, philosophers, and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. The theory of Intelligent Design holds that certain features of the universe are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection…”

Intelligent Design, according to the Discovery Institute, is opposed to the position of most secular scientists in our day who claim that science investigates only natural cause and effect in our cosmic environment. Intelligent Design leaders present ID as a “scientific research program.” Most of the scientific community has denied that ID is scientific and takes pains to paint ID with the brush of pseudoscience. This claim is energetically made, along with the claim that all scientists investigating the natural world must use the investigating strategy of MN—methodological naturalism—wherein intelligent causes either do not exist or may not even be considered as an explanatory possibility. Scientists respond to objections of theists by claiming that MN is used only as a heuristic tool. That is to say, MN is only used only for the purpose of learning something in our investigation process.

If life originated and historically changed due to an intelligent cause we inquire, “What is the identity of that intelligence?” Is the intelligent Judeo-Christian God the source and originator of life and its changes on our planet? Is there, perhaps, an extraterrestrial source explained by the theory of panspermia? Or is intelligence an intrinsic universal characteristic of our universe which extends to Planet Earth? Ideologically, there are substantial differences in these views. Those who believe in Intelligent Design to explain life on Earth are accused of promoting a religious rather than a scientific position. Most ID proponents would agree that ID is both scientific and has clearly religious implications. ID proponents have attempted to demonstrate that the theory is supported by many scientific principles such as the principles of cause and effect. The science community elects to enter the origins discussion at the level of natural effect, loudly claiming that assigning cause to a supernatural Creator is a religious concept. They propose various other natural causes instead.

The Intelligent Design movement avoids explicitly naming God as the Intelligent Designer, possibly to avoid the accusation it is merely creationism in disguise and to preserve the credibility of ID as a valid scientific theory. Stephen C. Meyer, in his most recent major tome, Darwin’s Doubt, (2013) shares his deeper personal thoughts: “The ability to detect design makes belief in an intelligent designer (or a creator, or God) not only tenet of faith, but something to which the evidence of nature now bears witness. In short, it brings science and faith into real harmony.” In Meyer’s earlier classic, Signature in the Cell, (2009), he states, “I personally think that the evidence of design in biology, considered in the context of other evidence, strengthens the case for theism and, thus, my personal belief in God. Subjectively, as a Christian theist, I find this implication of intelligent design ‘intellectually satisfying.’” These sentiments are secondary, however, to Meyer’s primary campaign to present the ID concept as science.

The hesitance of some evolutionary creationists and some old earth creationists to link themselves to the paradigm of Intelligent Design is somewhat difficult to explain. Personally, I know many fine Christians who avoid the label for various reasons. Meanwhile, the scientific proposals of Meyer in the two classic works mentioned above, totaling nearly 1000 pages, are red meat for those with both a theistic worldview and a scientific mind. We heartily recommend these books.

Stephen C. Meyer is primarily concerned with the reality of intelligent design in living things as manifest in the majesty of genetics. In contrast, Perry Marshall makes the case for cells themselves as intelligent entities owing to the wonders of epigenetics.  In a future post we investigate whether these contrasts conflict with a theistic world view.

If you are interested in our previous, detailed discussion of ID, you may want to check out this link:




Thursday, January 11, 2018

Intelligent Design or Intelligent Cells?

Introduce a discussion of creationism, evolution, or Intelligent Design (ID) at a mixed gathering of friends and we have the makings of a lively discussion. Blend these topics with deeper theology and we have the makings of an even livelier discussion. Many people have firm, established views and may not be happy with the divergence of opinion. It is not only variance of opinion that generates heat during such discussions, but also dissent on the interpretation of evidence. The subjects are often related to one’s religion, worldview, philosophy, or even politics.

In early 2017 Stephen Meyer of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture joined Perry Marshall, online marketing strategist and Christian evolutionary creationist on the moderated “Unbelievable” program produced at Premier Christian Radio in the UK. This medium is an outstanding radio outlet for informative and entertaining Christian programming. Both of these individuals have achieved notoriety for their Christian views. I have heard each of them deliver at least one lecture in person. Meyer is a leader in the Intelligent Design movement. Over a decade ago Marshall may have promoted the theory of Intelligent Design also, but he has modified his beliefs somewhat. Currently he holds the belief that living things, especially cells, possess the framework for expanding the ID hypothesis. He maintains that living cells are agents of intelligence. In other words, he proposes that cells are “smart.”

Neo-Darwinists have used traditional Mendelian genetic inheritance, molecular biology, and population genetics to explain evolutionary changes. Random mutation and natural selection formed the backbone of Neo-Darwinism, also called the Modern Synthesis. This theory is accepted as the textbook scientific paradigm of evolution. But the Modern Synthesis is in deep trouble. Marshall opines that in 3-20 years Neo-Darwinism will no longer be “a theory beyond doubt” as it has been relentlessly described in biology textbooks and public acclaim for scores of years.

In its place Marshall describes a “Third Way,” a view of evolution not driven by random mutation and natural selection, but rather by epigenetics, a term used only in the last few decades. This popular modern term describes the inherent adaptability of living things not due to changes in DNA. Such changes take place at the level of the cell. DNA codes for the production of many thousands of different proteins—the building blocks of the body. Beyond protein production, epigenetics governs even more fascinating gene activity and expression. 

We make use of an analogy we’ve used previously. Imagine a piece of real estate upon which municipal approval has been granted for a specific building project. Now picture all the building materials initially delivered and stored under tarps on the site property. The building constituents would not be useful until a detailed plan for their use is expressed and implemented by the construction crew. The builders’ activities are analogous to the epigenetic activity in embryonic development: the materials are governed by specific construction procedures, expressed by the expertise of the master builders.

Perry Marshall cites a conversation he had: “A few weeks ago a renowned infertility doctor from New York City was expressing to me his utter astonishment at the sophistication of the first few minutes of embryo development in the womb. ‘We know nothing!’ he exclaimed.” The doctor’s “ignorance” indicated his wonder at incredible epigenetic processes of body construction during the crucial early hours of embryonic development.

In January and February 2014 our blog dealt extensively with the wonders of epigenetics in the pre-natal production of a human baby at the cellular level. How could Marshall say that cells are “agents of intelligence?” And how could he say that cells are “smart?” We link one of those posts below and suggest you link to eight or ten “older” or “newer” posts to access the complete series:

In a future post we plan to discuss the differences between the views of Perry Marshall and Stephen Meyer. Their views on evolution and intelligent design are related to theological realities in fascinating ways.



Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Design or Pattern?

Many regions of our country experienced severe cold weather in late December 2017. Current forecasts indicate we will endure at least another week of below zero conditions, in some cases, substantially below zero. Some are already poking fun at the global warming climate change contingent without acknowledging that there is a distinction between weather and climate. The current cold snap afforded us an opportunity to rediscover the diversity and beauty of snowflakes collected on a dark, cold surface under ideal conditions. Careful collection and examination of snowflakes with a magnifying glass is an experience not to be missed, especially for our children. 

Winter weather generates snow, a beautiful but sometimes hazardous product of Earth’s mid- and high-latitude regions. Snowflakes are one of nature’s most beautiful manifestations. It is true that no two hexagonally arrayed snowflakes are exactly alike. Snowflakes are six-sided or six-pointed with unique embellishments. As snow falls some cohere into larger particles or crumble in wind-driven conditions.    

Several memories from my teaching experience highlight snowflakes and, more generally, impactful snow events related to teaching near the east coast in northern New Jersey, including the famous winter nor’easters. One of my colleagues, director of environmental education, once sponsored an activity with his students—collecting delicate snowflakes on a cold microscope slide and preserving their form with an application of hairspray. Once during my meteorology unit our neighborhood was favored with an unusual fall of huge snowflakes. I instructed students, “Hurry, get your coats and meet me outside at the nearest exit door.” Catching giant snowflakes in our mouths turned out to be a memorable impromptu activity. One student reminded me of her appreciation for that event several times in the next few months.

Differences among trillions of snowflakes is testament to the multiple subtle atmospheric variations in temperature and humidity. At temperatures below freezing water vapor molecules join with a nucleus of a tiny dust or mineral particle. Snowflakes form when water vapor molecules transition directly to a solid without becoming liquid. A solid snow crystal forms as additional water molecules are added. The variety of crystal forms is virtually unlimited because of extensive variation in atmospheric conditions. With as many as ten quintillion water molecules forming a snowflake, we imagine that the manner in which these molecules arrange themselves explains their unimaginable variety.

The concept of intelligent design has been raised in connection with snowflakes and hundreds of other beautiful phenomena in our natural world. Are snowflakes examples of design? Or are they patterns? The two terms are sometimes used synonymously, but the distinctions are important. Patterns may be esthetically beautiful with their  beautiful repeating ornate features, but they are not the product of an idea. Designs are preceded by an idea. In turn, the idea is expressed as a language in which the language symbols mean something other than themselves. The best example is the design of living things. If we believe life originates as the product of an intelligent mind, we acknowledge that the idea originated in the mind of God. The idea resulted in the DNA genetic code—three billion digits—a purposeful, literal language directing the production of living things.

Whereas designs have a goal in mind, patterns do not. Snowflake patterns result from a self organizing process. The order in a snowflake is fascinatingly beautiful, but “no blueprint or genetic code guides their construction.” Instead, they form spontaneously from the simple action of water vapor condensing directly into solid ice in infinitely different ways. With respect to snowflakes the result is esthetically pleasing.

Kenneth G. Libbrecht, chairman of the physics department at Cal Tech writes in an article entitled “Snowflake Science.” Libbrecht states, “The snowflakes hexagonal patterning derives from the structure of the ice-crystal lattice. The lattice structure in turn derives from the geometry of water molecules and how they connect…So where is the creative genius capable of designing snow crystals in an endless variety of beautiful patterns? It lives in the ever-changing wind.”

The geometry of a water molecule may be described as follows: two hydrogen atoms bond with one oxygen atom at an angle of 105º. Therefore, the familiar H20 water molecule is polar because it is non-linear—it has a positive charge at the hydrogen end and a negative charge at the oxygen end of each water molecule. Such polar molecules bond with each other because positive and negative charges attract. The result is hexagonal structure in water at some temperatures. Water warming from 0ºC to 4ºC (32ºF to 39ºF) or water cooling a similar amount experiences reversals of the “rules” for expansion and contraction we have come to expect when liquids are warmed or cooled. This curious behavior of liquid water is due to slight changes in density related to the formation or breakdown of hexagonal structures of molecules in liquid water owing to its polar qualities. In snowflakes, the spectacular, visually appealing hexagonal structure is also related to the polar qualities of water molecules.

Snowflakes are formed in self-assembled, repeating patterns. Many phenomena in the natural world may be deemed patterns. They form spontaneously, but a complete explanation is difficult to fathom. Other examples are cloud vortexes, peacock feathers, ammonite shells, and sunflower seed patterns, to name a few. In contrast, we may draw an analogy to human production of music or literature which originate with an idea and are expressed by a symbolic language of musical notes or letters on a page. Compare the digital language of DNA—the genetic code of life. The design of living things is suffused with intelligent ideas and expressed in complex language.

The Creator of All Things is the intelligent Designer of all matter and energy. He also created our dimensions of time and space In the Beginning. Had God not created all things, there would be no such things as atoms and molecules with their charges and polarities. Atoms and molecules (and their constituents) resulted from the creation of matter at the beginning. The Book of Hebrews tells us that through God’s Son the universe was made (Hebrews 1:2). The universe was made—designed—by God and the Son, two members of the Trinity. Subsequently, (Hebrews 1:2) the Son sustains all things by his powerful word. “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3 NIV). 

The Creator of All Things produced (designed) the universe. In addition, the Son is constantly sustaining all things, including many patterns in the natural world. We bow in reverence before the Creator as the author of both designs and patterns!