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Friday, September 30, 2005

Hydrogen fuel cells

Especially since the recent rise of gas prices in the U. S., we are hearing more about alternative fuel types. Fuel cells are a possibility. President Bush has made a couple of speeches about them.

Is this type of fuel ideal? Maybe. Probably not.

One fact that must be borne in mind is that fuel cells depending on Hydrogen require energy to produce. There is little or no free Hydrogen available. The reactivity of Hydrogen is the reason why it is such an excellent fuel. Because it is so reactive, it's not often found by itself. Because of the laws of thermodynamics, it takes more energy to produce free Hydrogen than you can get from it when it is used. If that's true, why should anyone pursue this type of energy? Well, just because an energy source requires more energy to make than you get out of it isn't necessary a hindrance to using it. Batteries require more energy to make than you can get out of them, but I would hate to do without them. They are convenient. Fuel cells may be, too.

Some energy sources are, in a manner of speaking, there for the taking. These include wood and other biomass, coal, petroleum, natural gas, dams, wind, solar, and nuclear fission. Although it takes some energy to get them, the energy obtained is greater than the amount used to obtain. All of them have advantages and drawbacks, and, of course, there is only so much energy that can be obtained from each. All of them, used on a wide scale, affect the environment negatively in some way, except perhaps biomass. Nuclear fusion may eventually be developed as a reliable energy source. If so, it, too, will have advantages and drawbacks.

It is possible that we may find organisms that release free Hydrogen, or can develop some. If so, this would put Hydrogen fuel cells into the category of energy for the taking, I suppose.

It is true that fuel cells shouldn't directly produce lots of nasty by-products, so that's good, but producing the energy that is used to produce the fuel cells, be it hydroelectric, fossil fuel, nuclear, or some other source, will result in environmental degradation.

* * * *

God willing, I shall eventually post on fantastic literature again. I also plan to return to the matter of Intelligent Design soon.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

If it works, it should satisfy stem cell opponents

As is well known, lots of people are strongly opposed to embryonic stem cell research, so strongly that they are not persuaded by the possibility of benefits from this research. Lots of other people think it holds great promise, and that it should be pursued, regardless of the ethical concerns of the first group. (To many from the second group, not exploring possible medical benefits is a serious ethical concern.)

How do we solve this ethical (and political) dilemma? Perhaps we can't satisfy both groups. But, perhaps we can.

In First Things, Maureen Condic writes about "Altered Nuclear Transfer-Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming (or ANT-OAR)," and gives some explanation of this proposed technique. If it works, it would work by using "epigenetic reprogramming to convert an adult cell into an embryonic stem cell." An unfertilized human egg (oocyte) would also be used, in addition to an adult cell, in the process. The cytoplasm (material outside the nucleus) of such an egg can "turn off" the programming of an adult cell. Epigenetic reprogramming has already been done, with the assistance of oocytes, in the cloning of mammals.

At no time during this procedure, as proposed, would there ever be a human embryo, or any entity that would be capable of developing into a baby. No human embryos would be harvested. What would be needed would be unfertilized eggs and adult cells.

Should this procedure work, it might be possible to do what therapeutic cloning is supposed to do, namely produce stem cells with the power of embryonic stem cells, and derived from, and with the characteristics of, a particular adult. One such characteristic is tissue type. If an embryonic stem cell derived from me were to be used, in me, to cure, say, Parkinson's disease, my immune system would not be expected to reject such cells.

Some experiments need to be done to test the feasibility of this procedure.

Condic cites a statement, published in "Ethics and Medics," a publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, making this proposal. (The same issue of the publication has an interpretation of what the Pope said concerning the Schiavo case.)

Perhaps I'm a little cynical, but I wonder if some of our politicians (and others, including well-known evangelical figures, TV stars, etc.) would really accept this procedure, if it works. I fear that there would be fears of losing influence and donations (on both sides), and refusal to bury the hatchet. I hope this works, and that the embryonic stem cell political battles end in a friendly truce. I hope one side accepts this procedure, if it works, and that the other side stops calling for the use of human embryos in stem cell research.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Sunspots 24


Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:



Face transplants have been proposed. The ethics of such transplants are considered here and here.

Scientists in the UK will be allowed to experimentally produce early embryos with mitochondrial DNA (which is separate from that in the nucleus) from a third "parent."


Transcript of Sunday, September 25, "Meet the Press," on lots of issues. One quote:
Mr. Russert: Is there the political will for Democrats and Republicans to come together and try to wean ourselves off of foreign oil?
Mr. Friedman: Well, there should be. It's obviously the centerpiece of something that could solve many problems at once. It can deal with the climate change issue. It can deal with our status in the world. It can be an inspiration to get young people to go into math, science and engineering, which we're desperate to do. I'm not saying it's the cure-all of everything . . .

Ken, at Schenck Thoughts, has been evaluating different versions of the Bible. Here's his take on the ESV. Other posts, which you will see listed in the "previous posts" sidebar of his blog, deal with several other versions. (Ken is well qualified to do this, by the way.)

Google Earth has a free version. This is a program you install that lets you see the earth, using satellite photos. Takes a fast connection. Note that pictures are not the same resolution in all areas, so you may have to adjust the altitude to see much of anything. We could clearly see autos in some locations. Also, all photos weren't all taken at the same time, so your house may be too new to be shown. Some physical features (e. g., Hayes Bluff) are identified by name.

Duh . . . I just noticed that the Firefox browser has a little red icon in the upper right corner that indicates that critical updates are available.


Paul J. Cella, III, "Technology and the Spirit of Ownership," The New Atlantis, Summer 2005. Sample:
We are told that we must make our decisions on a question like cloning human embryos on the basis of “good science,” leaving “theological” objections to the side. In this context, a critic of Leon Kass once scoffed: “Is [he] really citing the God of the Patriarchs as a guide for contemporary medical regulation?” But it is very important to recognize that, whatever one thinks of the God of the Patriarchs, someone (though he may go unnamed) must be cited as a guide for contemporary medical regulation. Perhaps it will be Jeremy Bentham and utilitarianism; perhaps Rousseau and perfectability; perhaps it will simply be the “bioethics” industry and the amoral authority of the stock analyst. The point is that it will emphatically be someone. To follow the compass of “good science” alone usually means doing what is good for the scientists. But what is good for the scientists is not always good for everyone. And a nation that stands idly by as its moral imagination is silently ushered out of the room is an emasculated nation; it is the very opposite of a free people.

Apparently [part of] the leadership of the US House of Representatives continues to believe (or want to believe) that there is no such thing as global warming, and that, as long as they are in charge, there isn't going to be. (Note added 10/4/05 -- the previous link no longer works, and I can't find the article I referred to here, as the periodical has been updated. This link, about the same events, works as of 10/4/05. I added the two words in brackets at the beginning of this paragraph on the same date.)

Laura has posted a story about high school, which is meant to encourage us to encourage others.

For the first time, a giant squid has been photographed in its natural habitat. (The photo isn't that great, but the article is fascinating)

Hebrews 11:3, which, in English, seems to say that we understand by faith how the world came to be, may not exactly mean that. Whoops . . .
Thank you, Google Alerts! (You can sign up, and have Google e-mail you whenever it finds a search item.)

This week's Christian Carnival is here.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Comments to Sept 26 post

(This color and font represents a quote from the comments to my previous post)
My last interview with a real scientist grabbed the attention of some interesting folk ... what say you?

Indeed it did, me being one such, I guess.

Thanks for the offer, but I'm not a "real scientist." I only taught at Christian institutions, and my inclination and work load resulted in me being a teacher, not a researcher, and, besides, I've now retired.

. . . in the course of your studies, did you make any discoveries that ran directly afoul of those assumptions? Many of the most important scientific discoveries in history have been made accidentally, while looking for something else. If your assumptions here were unwarranted, it stands to reason that there should have been some results you found that didn't make sense, or seemed to contradict those foundational assumptions.

You are correct on some important discoveries. Apparently the discovery of X-rays and antibiotics are examples of accidental discoveries. However, almost certainly some discoveries have not been made that might have been, because the scientist just discarded what seemed to be anomalous or unexplainable results. I wasn't really testing the foundational assumptions, and most biologists whose work has anything to do with evolution aren't, either. They're just dealing with the effects of natural selection and studying similarities between different organisms. Kuhn called this "normal science," just filling in blank spaces on the map of knowledge, not looking for new continents.

Kuhn's work was important, but it doesn't look like it actually panned out in real life. Relativity didn't gain acceptance only after those who embraced Newtonian physics had all died, and quantum mechanics didn't wait around for relativity's supporters to die, either.

Einstein resisted quantum mechanics until he died, even though some of his work made it possible. Yes, new theories may be accepted, but Kuhn/Planck are often correct that scientists who are strongly committed to an old theory don't easily give it up, or give it up at all. They just become irrelevant, if the new theory is really worth something. It would be interesting to know what will happen to string theory in 100 years or so.

I don't find change caused by selection and similarities to be terribly controversial ... nor do most creationists, even the young-earth variety. So how do you recommend distinguishing between the little "e" evolution you describe and the kind Richard Dawkins' likes to write about? It basically sounds like you are suggesting that the controversy is due to language -- if so, how do we fix the language so that scientists understand what the real controversy is about?

I wish I knew! So much damage has been done by using the word, evolution, which has multiple meanings, without indicating, or even thinking about, which meaning one is talking about. Too many (I hope) well-meaning Christians are saying "evolution is false!" or the equivalent. Some of them know better. Lots of them don't. Natural selection and similarity aren't false. What they should be saying, instead, is "I believe in a Creator," and let it go at that. Atheists should be honest, and say that they don't, and that disbelieving in a creator isn't any more scientific than believing in one. (Once in a while, an atheist really does this, but not often.) I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for clarity to erupt on a broad scale.

I refer to my three posts (link to last one) "I Believe in Evolution--so do you!" for more of my thoughts on linguistic clarity in discussing origins.

As to the main subject of your comments, namely the validity of Behe's ideas, I'm sure I don't know everything about them, and some of the arguments against them, but will try to deal with that subject in another post, later. I do know that there have been what seem to me to be serious challenges to his ideas. Also, it seems to me that what authorities say shouldn't affect acceptance or rejection of an idea--it should depend on its validity, or lack thereof. But, unfortunately, that's not the way it always works, certainly including in science.

Thanks again for writing.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Michael Behe: will he renounce Intelligent Design?

Bonnie posted a link to "My Conversation With A Cell Biologist About Evolution," and I appreciate it (She also posted a link to a follow-up, on the same blog, The Dawn Treader). The post, on Intelligent Design (ID), is interesting, and so are the comments. The author says he interviewed a professional scientist whose work has been published in academic journals. The blogger is not such a scientist. However, it is clear that he believes in ID, and that the scientist, does, too. Some of the commenters don't. I have comments, pertinent or not, so extensive that I decided to post them on my own blog.

Lest there be any doubt, I believe that there is an omnipotent God, and that He was directly involved in the origin of the universe, of living things, and of humans, and that at least some attributes of the way things are were designed by God. If that makes me an IDer, then I am one.

excerpt:
Blogger: "Is evolution practical in any way to your research?"

Prof: "Your average scientist just uses the word evolution. It is not part of the investing process. Here is the bottom line. Three words. Observable. Reproducible. Testable." [note -- surely investing should have been investigating.]

For what it's worth, which may not be a lot, as it's almost four decades old, I have a Ph. D. in genetics and zoology. My doctoral research, which has been justifiably forgotten by everyone except me, was on relationships between pigeon and dove species, as measured by their blood antigens. Evolutionary relationships were assumed by me, and, as far as I know, by all others involved in the work of my laboratory. We didn't try to test the theory of evolution, at least not to disprove it. It was assumed that natural selection works, and had worked, and that similar species were related to each other by common descent. We did study various similarities between species. I believe that the Prof. is right on the mark.

Forget evolution, whatever that means, (see this post, and the two previous ones it refers to) if you can, for a moment. Although Ph. D. stands for Doctor of Philosophy, I have never taken a course in philosophy, and any expertise I have in the subject has been picked up after I received the degree. That is true of most scientists, at least in the U. S., I believe. I was trained well, at a famous institution, and had acquaintance with three or four Nobel prize winners, and some others who could have been given one. At no time do I recall anyone ever considering the philosophical underpinnings of what we were doing. We never heard of reductionism, determinism, or epistemology. Plumbers probably aren't trained in economics, labor relations, ethics, metallurgy, ceramics, hydrology, and the like, but in how to use their equipment, and in what plumbing hardware is made of, and how it's supposed to work. Based on my experience, biologists are usually trained like plumbers. They learn how the hardware of the cell and the organism are supposed to work, and what they are made of, but not the foundational underpinnings of their fields, or in how their field affects society.

What am I saying? I'm trying to say that scientists don't often question the fundamental assumptions of their field. They just work assuming that they are true. That's one reason for resistance to alternatives to evolutionary theory.

The interview goes on to indicate that it might be dangerous to one's career to stand up for ID, at most universities. Probably.
Now, back to evolution. If ID is seen as an attack on the idea of evolution, most biologists will not be happy. Why? Well, one reason is that "evolution" means many things. (ID, also, is not a single coherent set of beliefs--there are serious differences among IDers.) One thing evolution may mean is genetic change under the influence of selection. No biologist that I have ever heard of doubts that such change has occurred. For example, insects have become resistant to insecticides within recent history. For another, the different races of humans have all descended from a single small group. These facts support the idea of evolution. New varieties have arisen. (They don't contradict the Bible, either. In fact, the Bible teaches the second fact.) If evolution, in a sense more fundamental than the appearance of new varieties, occurred, and many types of organisms descended from a few, then you would expect similarities between these different types of organisms, with the amount of similarity depending on how close the relationship is. Similarities, with the amount corresponding closely to the supposed degree of relationship, are found. I know of no biologist who questions this. (They may question the reason for it.) These two ideas, change caused by selection, and similarities, are accepted facts. They can be, and almost always are, related to ideas of evolution. When evolution is questioned, it is seen as an attack on fundamental and accepted facts. If a physicist was told that there is no gravity, or are no electrical charges, she would be extremely skeptical of the teller. Similarly, the first reaction of most biologists to ideas that are said to contradict evolution will be to reject them.

It is also true, of course, that there may be opposition to ID for less valid reasons, such as denying the possibility of a supreme being, or rebelling against religious parents.

What am I saying? I'm saying that there may be what seem, to an honest person, to be reasons to question the sanity of someone proposing ID, and there may also be atheism at work.

Lest there be any doubt, I appreciate the post, and the candor of the anonymous professor.

However, I have trouble with something said in response to a comment:
It would especially be helpful to see Behe himself acknowledge that his confidence in gradualism has been restored. Though I don't know Behe personally, I suspect he has enough integrity to admit when his ideas have been soundly reversed. A good scientist should know when to run up the white flag.

So the writer is not willing to give up on ID unless Michael Behe, credentialed biological scientist, (and author of Darwin's Black Box, one of the cornerstones of ID literature) is willing to recant his support for ID? That's asking an awful lot of Behe. I don't know Behe or the person who made the statement quoted immediately above, and I'm not doubting their integrity, but there is a difference between deliberate dishonesty and self-deception. Almost everyone, surely including me, sincerely believes and supports many things in spite of the evidence--our kids should be in the game, not on the bench; our political party is right, etc., when an unbiased observer would disagree. Scientists usually believe in theories they personally have invested in, even if the evidence is against them. That's just the way people work. I would be amazed if Behe wasn't like that--he's a person. A term which applies in this case, as I understand it, is Cognitive Dissonance. Although good scientists, and others, should know when to run up the white flag, we usually don't even know it, let alone do it.

Thomas S. Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a significant work. Part of what he said is summed up in this quote:
"a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." (Kuhn's source is said to have been Max Planck.) Scientists, probably even Behe, won't give up their cherished beliefs easily.

We should be willing to accept evidence that Behe's ideas are wrong, should there be any such evidence, regardless of what Behe might do with that evidence.

(I know, this cuts both ways. Even if ID was completely convincing to an unbiased person, it would be expected to take a generation for it to be accepted generally.)

As I understand Behe, and "gradualism," Behe has no problem accepting at least some gradualism.

* * * *

Corrections made, and item reposted: I erred, and mistakenly attributed a name to a poster/commenter. This has now been fixed, I hope.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

That's It!

That's it! No more! I have just gotten my third spam comment in two weeks, this time, according to the "commenter" for a "Ukrainian Girls" site. Having no wish to serve as an advertising medium for Ukrainian, or any other type of girls, or for anything else, I am activating the Blogger feature that requires commenters to enter random letters in order to post a comment.

As I don't get many comments, this shouldn't be much of a hardship for the Blogosphere.

Prayer Request

I am well aware that there are people suffering a great deal more than the persons I am requesting prayer for. There are small children from the U. S. who have had both parents, and, in some cases, even more than two parents, considering the way families are often structured in our time, sent away on military assignments. There are many spouses who have been separated for long periods of time. There are many in the military who have been sent into grave danger.

In addition, there are people who have lost everything in a tsunami, or an earthquake, or a hurricane, and people who have never heard the gospel. All these, and many others, deserve my prayer and sympathy, and, perhaps, some of my material goods.

All that being said, one of our children has suddenly been given a new military assignment, a few hundred miles from her husband and less than year-old child, probably for a few weeks, in a place not expected to be dangerous, and I am requesting prayer for all three of them.

Thanks.

The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life, pt. 2

I continue with excerpts from Hannah Whitall Smith's The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life.

From Smith's chapter "God's Side and Man's Side:"

To state it in brief, I would just say that man's part is to trust and God's
part is to work . . .

From her "The Life Defined:"

The point to be next considered is, as to what this hidden life consists in, and how it differs from every other sort of Christian experience.

Its chief characteristics are an entire surrender to the Lord, and a perfect trust in Him, resulting in victory over sin and inward rest of soul, and it differs from the lower range of Christian experience in that it causes us to let the Lord carry our burdens and manage our affairs for us instead of trying to do it ourselves.

When I speak of burdens, I mean everything that troubles us, whether spiritual or temporal.

I mean, first of all, ourselves. The greatest burden we have to carry in life is self. The most difficult thing we have to manage is self. Our own daily living, our frames and feelings, our especial weaknesses and temptations, and our peculiar temperaments, our inward affairs of every kind, these are the things that perplex and worry us more than anything else, and that bring us oftenest into bondage and darkness. In laying off your burdens, therefore, the first one you must get rid of is yourself. You must hand yourself and all your inward experiences, your temptations, your temperament, your frames and feelings, all over into the care and keeping of your God, and leave them there. He made you, and therefore He understands you and knows how to manage you, and you must trust Him to do it. Say to Him, "Here, Lord, I abandon myself to thee. I have tried in every way I could think of to manage myself, and to make myself what I know I ought to be, but have always failed. Now I give it up to thee. Do thou take entire possession of me. Work in me all the good pleasure of thy will. Mould and fashion me into such a vessel as seemeth good to thee. I leave myself in thy hands, and I believe thou wilt, according to thy promise, make me into a vessel unto thine honor, 'sanctified, and meet for the Master's use, and prepared unto every good work.'" And here you must rest, trusting yourself thus to Him continually and absolutely.

It is generally much less difficult for us to commit the keeping of our future to the Lord than it is to commit our present. We know we are helpless as regards the future, but we feel as if the present was in our own hands, and must be carried on our own shoulders; and most of us have an unconfessed idea that it is a great deal to ask the Lord to carry ourselves, and that we cannot think of asking Him to carry our burdens too.

Who is the best cared for in every household? Is it not the little children? And does not the least of all, the helpless baby, receive the largest share? As a late writer has said, the baby "toils not, neither does he spin" and yet he is fed, and clothed, and loved, and rejoiced in more tenderly than the hardest worker of them all.


See previous post for additional excerpts, and a brief explanation of sources. God willing, I'll post more of this book in a week.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

William Edward Payne, 1920-1985

I attended the funeral of W. E. Payne a couple of days ago. He had been a member of my local church for several years, since his retirement as a minister in our denomination.

One of his sons was one of the officiating ministers. The son said a couple of profound things.

1) If Christianity works at all, it works in times like this.

2) When he was in high school, his father got voted out of a church, which surprised the father. The father found out about it, and came to tell the son. The son had his career mapped out, including continuing to attend the local high school, and for that and other reasons, immediately felt resentment. The father asked the son to forgive the people who had voted against him. The son had difficulty. Then the father asked him to do it for his, the father's sake. The son was able to, and the family left the church, and the town, as friends of these people. This, said the son, was the only time any word about a church problem was heard from his parents during their life as a pastoral family. Undoubtedly there were other problems, but the children were shielded from them.

What a Christian example!

* * * *

I had this speaker as a student, and recall something, also profound, he said while in a class of mine. It was that the Bible is without error, but that his interpretation of it wasn't. (Nor, of course, is mine!)

* * * *

Our senior pastor was another officiating minister. He said, and I saw no evidence to contradict him, as a fellow member, that while Rev. Payne was a member of our church, he never commented on how things should be done, and always did what he could to help the church, teaching a class, praying, or whatever else he could.

What a Christian example!

Friday, September 23, 2005

Basketball: Monarchs, proposals

I know -- the About paragraph at the upper right of this blog page says nothing about basketball, but sometimes I can't resist (or can't think of anything else to efficiently post).


Congratulations to the
Sacramento Monarchs, who won the WNBA championship on Tuesday night. I watched almost the entire game. The Connecticut Sun, who narrowly lost, were hampered by injuries to one of their stars, Lindsay Whalen, point guard. I saw Whalen on TV when she was with the University of Minnesota, two years ago. She was an exciting player, but passed the ball out of bounds a little too much. The commentators on this year's finals series said that she had been the best point guard in the WNBA, which is high praise, indeed, so she has evidently matured, and is more under control. The Sun, of course, have a number of other good players. One of their players, not quite as skilled, but good enough, is 7 foot, 2 inch Margo Dydek.

Yolanda Griffith was most valuable player for the championship series. She was also the oldest player on either team, being born March 1, 1970. She has a 16 year old daughter. The Monarch's page on Griffith indicates that she was among the league's best players (between 3rd best and 18th best) in 27 different statistical categories, which is remarkable. I'm too lazy to check, but suspect that no other player in the league compares with that. Obviously a solid player, all-around. Taj McWilliams-Franklin of the Sun was also born in 1970, also was excellent in the championship series, and is among the best players in the league in 23 different statistical categories. Also, obviously a solid player. McWilliams-Franklin has an 11 year old daughter. Both of these women appear to have improved, basketball-wise, at least, with age.


I have some suggestions for those in charge of my favorite game. I don't believe, for a tenth of a second, that anyone who is in charge will even see them, let alone implement them.

For basketball at all levels:
1) Make another line, beyond the 3-point line, and have 4-point shots, with four free throws if a player is fouled in the act of shooting from beyond this line. This should open up the game, make it more exciting, and make it possible to score lots of points in a hurry.

2) Assess fouls to more than one defensive player, if an offensive shooter is fouled by more than one person while in the act of shooting. Shooters are often clobbered by at least two persons, and only one gets a foul.

3) Cut back on the number of time-outs taken during the last two minutes of a game, or don't allow full time-outs during that period. As any fan knows, the last "few minutes" of a close game can take half an hour.

4) Have more female coaches of men's teams. Men have done very well as women's coaches (so have women--but both the Sun and the Monarchs had male coaches) so why shouldn't the reverse be true? Rick Pitino had a female assistant when he was at Kentucky, and John Thompson had a female academic advisor who sat on the bench at Georgetown. There should be more female coaches of men's teams.

5) Have more female TV commentators on men's basketball. (It's been done at least once, but there are some excellent female commentators--why restrict them to brief interviews at the end of the first half?)

For the NBA:
6) Assess more fouls to players with the ball who shove defenders (like Shaq does.)

7) Have an NBA coaching staff salary cap.

8) Don't draft players until they have finished college in their native country, or are old enough that they could have, if they had remained in college.

I have posted about basketball previously, at least here, here and here, on, respectively, a book about high school coach Bob Hurley; Reggie and Cheryl Miller, arguably basketball's first family; and Kwame Brown, a failure in the NBA who was drafted out of high school.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Sunspots 23

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

* * * * *

Michele argues that perhaps Professor Trelawney's predictions in the Harry Potter books were not so off-base as they might have seemed.

* * * * *

A Christian Carnival was posted late on the 14th, or early on the 15th. As it's in table form, it's easy to scan it for items of interest. The two that interested me the most were one on the ethics of using an open wi-fi network and one on science and miracles.

* * * * *

Bonnie has posted a great quote for this time of year (in the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere, anyway)

* * * * *

"Is Harry Potter Christian?", a scholarly article by Dan McVeigh, a professor of literature, is not for the faint-hearted, as it is rather long, but it is quite readable. He deals with C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, the Bible, and, of course, Harry Potter. Sample:
Until Frodo drags himself to Mount Doom - no, until poor Gollum and his Precious actually destroy the Dark Lord - there is no guarantee that Sauron will lose. Yet a fantasy that is the inside of real life is not arbitrary. It may bend or break "rules"; it cannot do without them. A Christian cannot believe that the devil can ultimately be victorious, or misunderstood by God. Satan cannot defeat Christ. But until the end of our pilgrimage, he can defeat us. This is the possibility Harry faces. The series' growing darkness disturbs some readers. But by its nature Gethsemane comes near the end, and the apostles' flight.

* * * * *

James Dobson spoke at an academic convocation at Indiana Wesleyan University. Ken Schenck, reflecting on this event, wonders what a Christian University is supposed to be about.

* * * * *

Bonnie has written most thoughtfully on "Deontology vs. Consequentialism in Christian argument." Her conclusion is that both are appropriate at times.

Also, in another blog, she has posted on "Sex and the Solitary Person," here and here. The first post received a lot of comments, by my standards, anyway. The second merits them.

* * * * *

A short essay on how God chooses people for His work. Sample:

Perhaps the most unqualified person from a human point of view is Jesus of Nazareth himself. True, he meets some of the Messianic specs, but as the author of the epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, our eternal High Priest isn't even a Levite. On a more pedestrian level, we know that Jesus' contemporaries viewed him as the illegitimate son of a backwater town in Galilee, and even accused him of being a drunkard. Maybe it's just God's sense of humor, or maybe the theological method to God's madness is that the Lord delights in raising up that which was cast down, and making old things new. In any case, God's method doesn't seem to be purely the stuff of surveys, church meetings, and weekend retreats.

* * * * *

Lisa Randall, Harvard physicist, on how the public unfortunately confuses and misunderstands words like theory, relativity, and uncertainty.

* * * * *

Embryonic mouse stem cells improved heart function in sheep that had had heart attacks.

* * * * *

Article (long) by Dallas Willard, written for the 1998 C. S. Lewis centennial, on Lewis and truth.

* * * * *

Catez has been blogging for two years!

* * * * *

This week's Christian Carnival is here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

(Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, New York: W. W. Norton, 1999) This is an important book. It won a Pulitzer Prize, and is one of the few books to have its own entry in the Wikipedia. I should have read it earlier. I am grateful to one of my sons-in-law for letting me borrow it. As a friend of mine who is a history professor recommended that I read it, it must have some credibility with historians.

The book, like most important ones, has engendered some controversy. In a sentence, Diamond's thesis is that the dominance of Eurasian peoples (including Europe, North American, China, India and Japan) in the world is due to accidents of geography and of plant and animal distribution. He denies any racial intelligence advantage or disadvantage. For what it's worth, which isn't much, I mostly agree with him. One thing Diamond doesn't allow for is Divine plan, or intervention, in history. He says very little about religion at all, and most of what he says about it is that it has provided motivation and cohesiveness for aggression against other societies.

The book is mistitled. Diamond had very little to say about steel, and much more to say about domesticated plants and animals than about guns.

On pages 406-7, Diamond summarizes his findings, pointing out what he believes to be the four most important variables which have influenced human history. The first is what wild animals and plants were available for domestication. The second is "rates of diffusion and migration" of ideas, domesticated animals and plants, germs, and people. Having a mainly East-West axis made such rates much more rapid in Eurasia than in Africa or the Americas, because the North-South axis of these continents meant that, say, domesticated animals from the Andes would have had to cross several different types of climate to reach Georgia, whereas that would not be true from, say, ancient Iraq to Spain. The third is diffusion between continents. The Americas and Australia were isolated, but Eurasia and Africa could have things and people diffuse between them. The fourth is total population size. If large enough, this enabled plague germs to develop, and ensured that innovations necessary for survival or success could arise in some part of the population. Larger population sizes also allowed more resources and people to be used in attempts at conquest.

Some quotes:
A mere dozen species account for over 80 percent of the modern world's annual tonnage of all crops. Those dozen blockbusters are the cereals wheat, corn, ice, barley, and sorghum; the pulse soybean; the roots or tubers potato, manioc, and sweet potato; the sugar sources sugarcane and sugar beet; and the fruit banana. Cereal crops alone account for more than half of the calories consumed by the world's human populations. . . . Our failure to domesticate even a single major new food plant in modern times suggests that ancient peoples really may have explored virtually all useful wild plants and domesticated all the ones worth domesticating. pp. 132-3

. . . an entire field of science, termed ethnobiology, studies people's knowledge of the wild plants and animals in their environment. . . . The studies generally show that such peoples are walking encyclopedias of natural history, with individual names (in their local language) for as many as a thousand or more plant or animal species, and with detailed knowledge of those species' biological characteristics, distribution, and potential uses. p. 143

Domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way. If you think you've already read something like that before, you're right. Just make a few changes, and you have the famous first sentence of Tolstoy's great novel Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." . . . The Anna Karenina principle explains a feature of animal domestication that had heavy consequences for human history--namely, that so many seemingly suitable big wild mammal species, such as zebras and peccaries, have never been domesticated and that the successful domesticates were almost exclusively Eurasian. p. 157

The major killers of humanity throughout our recent history--smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles, and cholera--are infectious diseases that evolved from diseases of animals, even though most of the microbes responsible for our own epidemic illnesses are paradoxically now almost confined to humans. pp. 196-7

The book is a synthesis of history, geography, and biology, and not really suitable as a text in any of these fields, because it is so broad. That shouldn't deter people interested in any of those fields from reading Diamond's book. In fact, they should be required to do so.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

More on Harry Potter and Rowling

I have now finished Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. There's a lot to chew on and digest in that thick book. A few thoughts (I'll refrain from predicting what comes next, and from giving away the plot.)

The author's achievement is impressive, if only because of its size. Whether J. K. Rowling had all this in her head from the beginning, or made much of it up as she went along, there's a lot of material in the six books published so far.

Harry, Hermione, and Ron, and their peers, are growing up. There is less juvenile rule-breaking, and more interest in courtship and love, as there should be, than in the earlier books. There's still a lot of deceit, by nearly everybody, except maybe Hagrid.

Loyalty, and the capacity to love, seem to be the principal virtues at Hogwarts, as they have been in the previous works.

There are some clear moral choices in these works. Probably the clearest in this book is this one:
". . . I can help you, Draco." "No, you can't," said Malfoy, his wand hand shaking very badly indeed. "Nobody can. He told me to do it or he'll kill me. I've got no choice." "He cannot kill you if you are already dead. Come over to the right side, Draco, and we can hide you more completely than you can possibly imagine. . . . Come over to the right side, Draco . . . you are not a killer. . . ." Malfoy stared at Dumbledore. "But I got this far, didn't I?" he said slowly. . . . "No, Draco," said Dumbledore quietly. "It is my mercy, and not yours, that matters now." Malfoy did not speak. His mouth was open, his wand hand still trembling. Harry thought he saw it drop by a fraction. ( pp. 591-2, J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, New York, Scholastic, 2005).

This exchange parallels the moral choice given to Saruman by Gandalf in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, including the similar result--Draco Malfoy, like Saruman, is tempted, but rejects the opportunity to be on the good side.

I have previously posted on the Potter series here, here, and here.

* * * *

Added later in the day:

There seems to be less about the animals (familiars?) that accompany the scholars at Hogwarts in this book.

Why is there so little evidence of marriage, or courting, among the Professors at Hogwarts? Hagrid was attracted to a female earlier in the series, but I don't recall any other such attractions to any of the professors.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Beauty: Some Thoughts (by others)

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." - John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn."

What is it about nature that lets this happen, that it is possible to guess from one part what the rest is going to do? That is an unscientific question: I do not know how to answer it, and therefore I am going to give an unscientific answer. I think it is because nature has a simplicity and therefore a great beauty. Richard Feynman, "Seeking New Laws," pp. 143-167, in Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law, New York: Modern Library, 1994. Quote is from p. 167.

The world, you might argue, does not need yet another subatomic particle. But even particle physics has not been about particles for a long time, physicists say. Rather it is about the relationships between particles, the symmetries that nature seems to respect, in short, about the beauty that physical laws seem to embody. Dennis Overbye, "After Triumph and Disillusionment, Wonder Re-enters the Story," New York Times, July 27, 2004

It is, indeed, an incredible fact that what the human mind, at its deepest and most profound, perceives as beautiful finds its realization in external nature. S. Chandrasekar, "Beauty and the quest for beauty in science," Physics Today, July, 1979, pp. 25-30, p. 28.

Thus, the perception of the world's beauty as a reflection of God's glory is incomplete without the awareness that underlying the beauty and wonder of earthly nature is the omnipresent, restless operation of electromagnetic phenomena. These phenomena can be seen as a reflection, an analogue, of God's indwelling. This very thought, in itself, possesses an inherent aesthetic value.

Moreover, the appreciation of the beauty that the EMI [Electromagnetic Interaction] contributes to nature is wanting without the realization that the mathematical equations that describe the EMI have a timeless beauty. The elegant symmetry of Maxwell's equations and the inspired simplicity of Dirac's equation bestow an abiding aesthetic flavor to the texture of the microscopic underworld. Dirac and Heisenberg among many other theoretical physicists have throughout their careers expressed how they have been guided by the criteria of beauty and simplicity in their work. - Lawrence W. Fagg, Electromagnetism and the Sacred: At the Frontier of Spirit and Matter (New York: Continuum, 1999) p. 120.

Beauty slips through the scientist's net. You could take a performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor and Fourier analyze the pattern of sound . . . but by those means you would never come to appreciate what it is all about. An exhaustive chemical analysis of the pigments of a Rembrandt self-portrait would miss the point of the picture. . . . It seems to me that the recognition and experience of beauty is as real and primary an experience as any we encounter. (J. C. Polkinghorne, The Particle Play, Freeman, Oxford, England, 1979, p.17)

Then the great giant raised a horn to his mouth. They could see this by the change of the black shape he made against the stars. After that - quite a bit later, because sound travels so slowly - they heard the sound of the horn: high and terrible, yet of a strange, deadly beauty. The Last Battle, 1956, by C. S. Lewis. Quoted by "The Window in the Garden Wall--a C.S. Lewis blog."

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master's, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo's side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1963, p. 199.

Isaiah 53:2 For he grew up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. (American Standard Version)

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life, pt. 1

Hannah Whitall Smith wrote The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life in 1875. The second link in the opening sentence is to the on-line version posted by Christian Classics Etheral Library. I possess the Ballantine Books/Epiphany edition, first published in 1986. For reasons unclear to me, the CCEL version and the Ballantine one are not identical. However, both of them have plenty of good reading.

The Ballantine version begins with the following paragraphs:

No thoughtful person can question the fact that, for the most part, the Christian life, as it is generally lived, is not entirely a happy life. A keen observer once said to me, “You Christians seem to have a religion that makes you miserable. You are like a man with a headache. He does not want to get rid of his head, but it hurts him to keep it. You cannot expect outsiders to seek very earnestly for anything so uncomfortable.” Then for the first time I saw, as in a flash, that the religion of Christ ought to be, and was meant to be, to its possessors, not something to make them miserable, but something to make them happy, and I began then and there to ask the Lord to show me the secret of a happy Christian life.
It is this secret, so far as I have learned it, that I shall try to tell in the following pages.
(Ballentine edition, p. 3. This web page has the first paragraph above, and other excerpts, including some of the material below. Since the book was published in the 19th century, I am assuming it to be in the public domain, and am quoting from all versions freely.)

Your victories have been few and fleeting, your defeats many and disastrous. You have not lived as you feel children of God ought to live. You have had perhaps a clear understanding of doctrinal truths, but you have not come into possession of their life and power. You have rejoiced in your knowledge of the things revealed in the Scriptures, but have not had a living realization of the things themselves consciously felt in the soul. Christ is believed in, talked about, and served, but He is not known as the soul’s actual and very life, abiding there forever, and revealing Himself there continually in His beauty. You have found Jesus as your Savior from the penalty of sin, but you have not found Him as your Savior from its power. You have carefully studied the Holy Scriptures, and have gathered much precious truth therefrom, which you have trusted would feed and nourish your spiritual life, but in spite of it all, your souls are starving and dying within you, and you cry out in secret, again and again, for that bread and water of life which you see promised in the Scriptures to all believers. In the very depths of your hearts, you know that your experience is not a Scriptural experience; that, as an old writer has said, your religion is ‘but a talk to what the early Christians enjoyed, possessed, and lived in.’ And your hearts have sunk within you, as, day after day, and year after year, your early visions of triumph have seemed to grow more and more dim, and you have been forced to settle down to the conviction that the best you can expect from your religion is a life of alternate failure and victory, one hour sinning, and the next repenting, and then beginning again, only to fail again, only to repent.

But is this all? Had the Lord Jesus only this in His mind when He laid down His precious life to deliver you from your sore and cruel bondage to sin? Did He propose to Himself only this partial deliverance? Did He intend to leave you thus struggling under a weary consciousness of defeat and discouragement? Did He fear that a continuous victory would dishonor Him, and bring reproach on His name? When all those declarations were made concerning His coming, and the work He was to accomplish, did they mean only this that you have experienced? Was there a hidden reserve in each promise that was meant to deprive it of its complete fulfillment? Did “delivering us out of the hand of our enemies” mean that they should still have dominion over us? Did “enabling us always to triumph” mean that we were only to triumph sometimes? Did being made “more than conquerors through Him that loved us” mean constant defeat and failure? Does being “saved to the uttermost” mean the meager salvation we see manifested among us now? Can we dream that the Savior, who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, could possibly see of the travail of His soul and be satisfied in such Christian lives as fill the Church to-day? The Bible tells us that “for this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil”; and can we imagine for a moment that this is beyond His power, and that He finds Himself unable to accomplish the thing He was manifested to do? (Ballantine edition, pp. 4-5)

It is a fact sometimes overlooked that, in the declarations concerning the object of the death of Christ, far more mention is made of a present salvation from sin, than of a future salvation in a heaven beyond, showing plainly God's estimate of the relative importance of these two things. (Ballantine edition, p. 7)

Although the book was written over 100 years ago, and contains some statements that sound strange to 21st century readers, most of it is pertinent in 2005. At least two versions are still in print, and I hope the excerpt above will indicate that Mrs. Smith has some important and thought-provoking things to say. God willing, I intend to post quotes from this book weekly for the next several Sundays.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

When Did I Begin: Response to Comment

Bonnie wrote a comment to a post of mine, some time ago. Here's what she said (I added the emphasis):

Wow. Very interesting, Martin, thanks for posting this.

It seems that Ford's whole argument is based on differentiation, or lack thereof.

I've never considered the fact that the precursors of both the embryo and placental material are present in the zygote to be relevant to the question of when a human life begins, nor have I considered the ontology of the twinning process to be relevant either. I still see the differentiation process as irrelevant to when life begins.

Before embryonic/placental differentiation has occurred, the cells that will become the baby are still there. Even if the differentiation that will reveal twins doesn't occur before a certain number of days has passed, the cells that will so differentiate (euphemistically referred to as "potential") are still there. They are still part of the developmental continuum. I wouldn't think that they change ontologically any more than any future differentiation changes the ontology of the developing human individual.

Unless I'm missing something?

She probably didn't miss a lot. However, I shall respond.

The real question, of course, is when life begins, or, really, when an individual human life begins. To Ford, (see previous post) a biologist, such life begins when, as he says, there is "a distinct living ontological individual with a truly human nature that retains the same ontological identity throughout successive stages of development." Since the earliest human embryos can become more than one adult, through twinning, and since the cells of the very earliest embryos are not yet part of a coherent individual, dependent on each other, or, probably, even all necessary for normal further development, the earliest human embryos don't meet his criteria.

He also points out that, in very early mouse embryos, embryos may fuse, so that what was originally as many as three embryos becomes a single individual. (We don't know if this is true with humans, and Ford, nor I, am suggesting that we try the experiment.)

Other thinkers might argue that it makes no sense to suppose that an early embryo has a soul, until it has a nervous system sufficent to "hold" one, and that a human life really begins when that occurs. (As I understand it, however, no one really knows what a soul is, or how a soul interacts with the nervous system, or even, for certain, if it does.) Historically, there were some apparently pretty orthodox believers who thought that the soul, and the beginning of human life, happened at quickening, when the fetus could be felt by the mother.

The question of when an individual human life begins is one that God knows, of course. However, humans should want to determine God's answer, using all the evidence available. As a human question, it is not strictly biological, although biology, including neurobiology and embryology, may help to answer it. It is a theological, philosophical, legal and political question. I am personally unclear about when individual human lives begin. Bonnie, and many others, have a clear position. For them, the answer is that individual human life begins at conception. She holds consistently to that position regardless of what is going on with the cells involved, and she may be right to do so. (I don't believe that everyone who holds that position has considered arguments like Ford's, and some of them may not have even considered that identical twins come from a single fertilized egg.) I don't think that there is clear scriptural evidence for this position. Therefore, I believe that it is possible to be a Christian, and disagree, for biological, and even scriptural, reasons, or at least to question begins-at-conception belief. Ford, apparently a practicing Roman Catholic who agrees with his church's position on abortion, is one such Christian. I believe that scripture, itself, leaves some room for doubt on the matter. I also believe that it is possible to oppose most or all abortions without agreeing with the begins-at-conception argument.

It is unfortunate, but true, that, in many cases, people come to the Bible looking for support for a position they have already taken. I guess I'm glad I don't know how many times I have done it myself, God forgive me. We also do the same thing with science (consider some of the claims made for embryonic, or adult, stem cells, for example). I am not accusing Bonnie of this, and I am confident that she hasn't done it, but would cite one unfortunate example. "Choose life" is the motto of many organizations that oppose abortion. That's scriptural, indeed. But it comes from Deuteronomy 30:19, which says "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed; (ASV)." That verse is about choosing to follow God fully, in all aspects of life. The passage says nothing directly about pregnancy, abortion, or any such thing. I believe that believers should be very careful not to attribute things to scripture that it doesn't say, and this strikes me as one such example. It seems to be the result of looking for support for a pre-existing position. See here for another example. (In this example, I refer to the results of a Google search a couple of years ago. Such a search today gives significantly different results.)

Christians can, and, I think, should, oppose most or all abortions. I don't believe that you can find a rock-solid case against slavery in scripture (I have found only one verse in the NT that clearly opposes it, and there are some passages that seem to allow it), but Christians years ago were 100% correct in opposing slavery, and working for its abolition. I'm glad to say that my own denomination was involved in that opposition, when it mattered. In a similar way, I don't believe that you have to be convinced that scripture teaches that individual human life begins at conception to oppose abortions.

In summary, to quote myself, quoting Ford: ". . . the Catholic Church's well-known opposition to abortion, at any stage of development, is on ethical grounds, not on the grounds that a zygote or very early embryo is philosophically equal to a baby or adult."

Ford, or I, may, of course, be wrong, either about when individual human life begins, or, in Ford's case, about whether the Catholic Church believes that a zygote is the philosophical equal of a baby.

Thanks, Bonnie, for the comment!

Friday, September 16, 2005

I believe in evolution. So do you! part 3

I didn't know there was going to be a part 3, but I think there should be. While mowing the grass, which helps me to think, it occurred to me that some further definitions of terms, concerning origins, might help somebody. At least they might help me.

The first post in this series is here, and the second is here. In them, I tried to say that people who think seriously about origins should be careful to say what they mean by "evolution," because there are multiple meanings. At least some evolution, in the sense of environmentally selected inherited changes in living things over time, has occurred. The Bible indicates that, as does scientific evidence. (As I indicated, this does not prove that, for example, living things came from non-living things by chance.) I also tried to say that the Who of origins is the most fundamental question about it. Naturalists believe that there wasn't any. Supernaturalists disagree. I believe I disagree for two reasons, which are related. First, it doesn't make much sense to believe in a God who is so deeply involved in the life of humans that He became one, and so powerful that He could be the sacrifice for everybody's sin, and be resurrected, who wouldn't have been involved, powerfully, in the beginning of things. Second, the Bible teaches God's involvement, and not just in the first part of Genesis. John 1 and Colossians 1 are important New Testament passages on this topic.

Now, some observations.

1) Everyone doesn't need to have a definite view of origins. It's OK to be ignorant, or to have honest questions, about what happened when. (I've got a few) However, it seems to me that those who do have a definite view of origins should be as clear as possible about what it is.

2) Christians may sincerely disagree on this matter. They disagree about almost everything else, so why not this?

3) Intelligent Design (ID) is a popular belief among Christians today, and it has attracted lots of attention from the media and others. Twenty or so years ago, if there had been a Google, a search for the phrase "intelligent design" would not have turned up many hits. In September 2005, there are nearly seven million Google hits returned for it.

4) Young-earth creationists (examples here and here) agree on most things about origins. Stating that you are a young-earth creationist pretty well identifies you on the subject.

[Note added Jan 3, 2008: See here for differences between ID and Young Earth Creationism.]

5) It is unfortunate that "creationist," in the minds of many, means "young-earth creationist." Many people who believe that the earth is much more than a few thousand years old can, and do, believe in a Creator.

6) Those who believe in Intelligent Design don't all agree on all points. Some who say they believe in ID believe that the earth is no more than a few thousand years old. Others have no difficulty believing that the earth is millions or billions of years old. Some who say they believe in ID are convinced that the scientific evidence shows, or can be made to show, proof of a designer. Others believe in a designer, but not that He can be scientifically demonstrated. Many IDers explicitly believe that the Judaeo-Christian God was the designer. A few say, and, I suppose, believe, simply that some important things may have been designed, without necessarily believing in a God who did it. Then, I suppose, there is a multiplicity of beliefs over exactly what was designed, and what, if anything, wasn't. We would all be better off if committed IDers would indicate their beliefs on these topics explicitly.

7) There are other views of origins beside the two mentioned above, including at least theistic evolution, gap theory, progressive creation, (which three views, held by some Christians, are not nearly as common as young-earth creationism and the various flavors of ID) and naturalism, and there is variety within these views. All views of origins have serious problemshttps://sites.google.com/site/martinlabarspages/home/theories-of-origins. If you don't believe this, just read what those who disagree with them have said about them!

8) This trio of posts has been fairly dense, and I thank anyone who has read even part of them!

* * * *

Added April 25, 2008. I have also posted on why I don't believe there should be conflict between Christian beliefs and science.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

I believe in evolution. So do you! part 2

Some people call the meanings of evolution given in the first part -- namely change, natural selection, and speciation -- microevolution. Many Christians believe that all of these occurred by natural processes, although they usually believe that humans are not here solely because of natural processes. They also believe that these processes, like gravity, were designed -- built into the universe by an intelligent Creator, who had foreknowledge of the consequences. Other Christians would disagree, believing that most or all speciation was not the result of natural processes, but of miracles. However, I think all Christians who have honestly thought about it would agree that at least a little change and natural selection have occurred, and probably that at least some species might have arisen by natural selection. There doesn't seem to be any doubt that varieties have so arisen. Therefore, in at least one of these senses, all people believe in evolution.

Now, what about macroevolution? There are at least three types of this.

Another meaning of evolution is phylogeny, the origin of large groups of living things. If, for example, both birds and mammals are descended from reptiles, that would be phylogeny.

Most biologists believe that phylogeny occurred, by natural processes. If pressed, such people would probably agree that it is more difficult to imagine, say, how feathers arose from reptilian scales, than to imagine a scenario for dogs to have arisen from wolves. It is more difficult to believe that natural selection was solely responsible for phylogeny than for speciation. The amount of change needed is considerably greater, and perhaps ordinary mutations could not have produced the variety necessary. It is difficult to produce a scenario that would explain how an organism that had a skin structure intermediate between a scale and a feather would gain any advantage from having such over a relative with scales. In fact, half-feathers might well have been a disadvantage.

There is some fossil evidence for phylogeny by natural means.

Many Christians have difficulty believing that phylogeny took place by natural processes.

Some Christians who do think so say that the days of Genesis 1 were really long periods of time. Maybe so, but, if that's true, it's more complicated than that. Why? Land animals appeared during the sixth day. Birds and water animals appeared on the fifth. Most biologists believe that birds evolved from reptiles, which were land animals. Genesis 1:21 says ". . . God created the great creatures of the sea . . ." on the fifth day. This sounds like it includes whales. However, most biologists believe that whales are descendants of land-living mammals. In both cases, we have something appearing after its descendant. So, although it is possible that the days of Genesis 1 are meant to represent long periods of time, either there are problems with the scientific evidence, or the long periods of time aren't given in consecutive order, and may even have overlapped.

Yet another meaning of evolution, unfortunately, is the origin of life.

Most biologists believe that life emerged from non-living things. This could not have happened by natural selection, at least not until the first living things reproduced. Darwinian natural selection relies on differential reproduction of selected types, and you can't have that without reproduction. Therefore, if life originated without God's miraculous intervention, it wasn't by evolution in the usual sense. What those who doubt God's work in life's origin really believe in is a naturalistic, as opposed to supernaturalistic, origin of life.

Also notice that, contrary to an apparently impossible to eradicate creationist belief, the theory (in the technical sense) of evolution is most definitely NOT a theory of how life originated. The latter is a matter for biophysics and biochemistry, not evolutionary biology. Evolution (in the neo-Darwinian sense) started after the origin of life on earth, and cannot therefore possibly be invoked to explain such origin. Nor do scientists ever use the theory for that purpose! - Massimo Pigliucci, entry, "Creation, Evolution, and the Nature of Science," of Jan 16, 2005, in his (mostly) Rationally Speaking blog, emphasis in original.

Pigliucci is a harsh critic of Intelligent Design, which, to him, is a form of creationism, and of supernaturalism in general. His statement is correct, but I must observe that "creationists" aren't the only ones who believe that the theory of evolution is a theory of how life originated. Many naturalists seem to think so, too, and, unfortunately, most biology textbooks promote this idea, perhaps unintentionally. I agree with Pigliucci that the theory of evolution is not a theory of how life originated.

Even if life really did originate naturalistically, it would be hard to be able to prove this, or to determine exactly how this came about, because of the immense span of time between now and then, and the difficulty of knowing exactly what the conditions were at that time.

Most Christians have difficulty believing that life arose by natural means. I suppose that any who do would say that God created atoms with emergent properties. That is, He planned how life would arise by chance processes, because of the way He designed atoms, and the way He designed the early earth.

A final meaning of evolution, even more unfortunately, is the origin of everything. I don't see how this could have happened by natural selection, and I've never read anyone else who did.

If Genesis 1 means anything, it means that God began the universe. Genesis 1:1 doesn't say when this was, or how or why it happened. It does say Who did it. That fact must be more important than when, how, or why. However the universe arose, we would not expect there to be much, if any, scientific evidence for the means by which it appeared. It is possible to believe that everything somehow began to be something. However, it takes an act of faith, just as believing in a supernatural Creator does. (Hebrews 11:3) Most people don't seem to recognize this. Some do. As Michael Shermer, frequent critic of supernatural beliefs, put it: "In conclusion, I believe, but cannot prove...that reality exists and science is the best method for understanding it, there is no God, the universe is determined but we are free, morality evolved as an adaptive trait of humans and human communities, and that ultimately all of existence is explicable through science." This is one of many responses to Edge's World Question for 2005, which was: "What do you Believe is True Even Though You Cannot Prove it?"

Schermer, a prominent self-confessed atheist, is to be commended for his honesty. He can't prove his world-view. He just believes it. As I understand Hebrews 11:3, I'm in the same position, and so are you, although our world-views may not be the same as Schermer's. So why does Schermer believe as he does? I think Ian Barbour put it very well, and honest naturalists (he uses materialists, instead) would agree with him (I have read statements by naturalists which show this.):

…both scientific materialists and biblical literalists have failed to recognize significant distinctions between scientific and religious assertions. The scientific materialists have promoted a particular philosophical commitment as if it were a scientific conclusion, and the biblical literalists have promoted a prescientific cosmology as if it were an essential part of religious faith. Ian G. Barbour, When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2002, p. 36.

The philosophical commitment of the naturalist is that there is no God, no design, no plan, no pattern. They can believe it, but they can't prove it. I believe that there is a God, a design, a plan, and a pattern. I can't prove it, either. Hebrews 11:3 says that I can believe it, and I do.

One reason for making evolution a big deal is that it's easier to get people to pay attention to you, even support you financially, if you polarize a topic. (Just look at our political process.) Concerning evolution, it's easier to get an audience if you say something extreme, such as that all the science professors at a nearby university are atheists, or that all the conservative preachers in the county are ignorant, anti-scientific yahoos. Both things are said, sometimes because the speaker genuinely believes them, but, I am afraid, sometimes because the speaker wants to attract a following, knowing full well that there are believing scientists at many universities, and intelligent, open-minded (about scientific matters) preachers in conservative churches.

Such extremism does not help anyone, except maybe the extremists. Saying "I don't believe in evolution" is seldom, if ever, completely true. It isn't a clear statement, and may indicate ignorance or muddy thinking, or even deliberate obfuscation. It would be better to say "I believe that humans were specially created," or "I don't believe in macroevolution," or "I'm a young-earth creationist," or exactly whatever the speaker or writer does believe, or not believe. Not everyone is a naturalist -- I'm not -- but everyone believes in at least some evolution.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Sunspots 22

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

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Interview with author of Lost Women of the Bible, which is, as I understand it (I haven't read it) about how God's plan for persons with two X chromosomes is more important than some people seem to think it is.

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Katherine has moved to France, and it's not the same (not all bad, though!)

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Nessa, the Smite Faerie, posts lots of brief, but insightful book reviews, often on fantastic fiction. She (?) must read fast.

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Article in The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, on using the Web to teach a comparative religions class, which gets into some deep territory. Sample:
[18] There is much debate about what it means to “enter cyberspace.” Do we enter a space of “no relation” to embodiment in ways that leave the body behind completely? Or does digital technology simply make evident what psychoanalysis has argued all along: that the body is constituted not purely organically but also psychically (through imaginary, or arbitrary, relations)? My contention in this essay is that both these interpretations, in their rush to “tidy up” the messiness of the emerging scenes of digital communication, miss something crucial: the complex sorts of subject constitution that can arise when language is practiced through, and as, multiple media.

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For you Firefox users, a weather forecast extension.

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IceRocket, a blog search tool that does more than, say, Google. Among other features, posts in the return list are sorted by post date, and the number of links from other blogs is shown. In the page of returns, There are Focus, Exclude and Subscribe links for each return. I think the first one narrows the responses to one blog. The second, I think, gives returns not including the blog in question. The third lets you subscribe to the blog returned. It's not perfect. For one thing, it didn't return this blog in the one search I did, even though an attempt to register my blog with IceRocket got the response that it was already registered. For another, while testing it, the server timed out once. Shows promise, but may need some work.

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Scholar's Blog, by Michele, describes itself as a "Blog for an English independent scholar of fantasy fiction." The posts fit that description, except that they are readable by non-scholars.

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It's been a while since I looked up a book on Amazon. There have been some helpful changes. At least for some books, there are now listings of Statistically Improbable Phrases (SIPs), that is, phrases found in this book that are found significantly more often than in "normal" books. This gives clues to what the book is actually about, and, since the SIPs are also hyperlinks to other books with the same SIPs, helps you to find similar ones. Capitalized Phrases works similarly. The site also gives the number of books that the book in question cites, which is an indicator of how scholarly it is, and a list of these books. Don't forget the "Look Inside the Book" feature, too (not available for all works) which has been around for a while.

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My apologies to Bloglines. They are now searching within the text of my blog, (In my next-to-last post, I said that they weren't) and, presumably, those of many others that they hadn't been for some months. Thanks!

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American Eagle (I have no financial interest in this clothing chain, so far as I know, and have never bought anything from them) had some fake books in its store displays for the back-to-school season. One of these was entitled Classics of Twenty-first Century Literature. Thanks for a good laugh!

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"Harry Potter and the Half-Stumped Critics" claims that, although postmodernists and conservative Christians (some, not all, of each, I suppose) have embraced the Harry Potter books, they don't exactly support either type of view.

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Wired says that a good new browser is coming soon.

I am aware, at least somewhat, of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath (of many kinds), that the U. S. Senate Judiciary Committee is examining Judge Roberts, and that there are various other important events, some of which we probably haven't heard of, transpiring now. Other sources are covering these matters. I guess I won't.

As of posting time, I have no information on this week's Christian Carnival.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

I believe in evolution. So do you!, part 1

I believe in evolution. So do you!
I hope that got your attention. Please read on.
A statement like the first sentence in the title should force the reader to ask a question: "What do you mean by evolution?" (The same question should have been asked, if that first sentence had said: "I don't believe in evolution.") All too often, the question isn't asked, and confusion results. This topic has generated a lot of discussion, and will generate more after I am long gone. Some of the discussion is because of genuine disagreements. But, unfortunately, some of it is because people aren't careful to define their terms.

One meaning of the word, evolution, is change. If that's the meaning, everybody believes in it. Transportation, for example, has evolved from walking and being pulled, or carried, by beasts of burden to bicycles, scooters, trains, automobiles and airplanes. No doubt there will be further evolution, in this sense.
The Bible indicates that all humans descended from a single couple, Adam and Eve, or from a single family, that of Noah and his sons and their wives. Humans are not nearly as homogeneous as they were in the time of Adam and Eve, or of Noah and his wife. That means that humans have evolved into various racial groups.

Another meaning is natural selection. Charles Darwin proposed the notion of natural selection. He noted that there was considerable variety in the offspring of a single pair, and that there weremore offspring born (or hatched, or sprouted) than survived. He also noted that offspring resemble their parents. Those facts led him to propose that there is a struggle for existence, that the most fit survive, and that they leave more offspring in the next generation than those who aren't so fit. I have never read anyone who understood it who doubted Darwin's facts, or his conclusion. Natural selection is a fact. It is probably at least partly responsible for the variety of humankind. It is almost certainly responsible for the frequencies of the sickle-cell anemia gene in various populations. It is responsible for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and insecticide-resistant insects.
Artificial selection is when humans decide what individual domestic animal or plant is going to reproduce, because they want to get a certain type of offspring. Selection by humans works, and works well. An enormous variety of selective experiments have been done, sometimes by scientists, sometimes by farmers, or people raising animals or growing plants. You can select just about any species for just about anything. The mechanism of artificial selection isthe same as that proposed by Darwin for natural selection.
Darwin himself didn't seem to realize it, but the most important result of natural selection isn't change, it's stability. Organisms don't change very much over time, not because their offspring are all alike, but because departures from the norm are selected against.
So if everybody believes in selection, what's the big deal? Well, one reason is that there are other things people sometimes mean when they use the word,evolution.

Yet another meaning is speciation. The short title of Darwin's book was The Origin of Species. Speciation is those processes which lead to the appearance of new species. Here's where we hit a couple of the big deals. One big deal is the use, in the King James Bible, of the phrase, "after his kind." Some people think that that rules out speciation, the creation of new species. The fact is that, whatever "kind" meant, it is a concept of God, and we aren't sure what it meant. Species, and other categories of taxonomy, are human constructs, and don't necessarily correspond with "kind." (For all we know, cat kind included lions, leopards, and domestic cat-like animals.) Since these are human constructs, they are changeable. Darwin believed, and most biologists also do, that the mechanisms of natural selection, as described above, are responsible for the development of new species.
Can a Christian believe that new species arise by natural selection? Clearly, some do, and some don't. If the world is only about 6,000 years old, there hasn't been enough time for much speciation. If God created the variety of living things by miracles, then they didn't get here by natural selection operating on previous forms. There are Christians who believe that the world is about 6,000 years old, and some who believe that it is much older. Even if it is very old, of course, that doesn't prove that the species we have arose by natural selection, but it would make that possible. There are Christians who believe that God created basically all the species we have now, during a short period of time. There are Christians who don't. All flavors of belief about these matters can be found, although most people don't realize this.
My own view is that at least some speciation has occurred since the beginning. Even the most literal interpretations of Genesis don't rule all speciation out, in my opinion. However, they rule out the possibility that most species arose in this way. Therefore, many Christians do not believe in evolution, if by evolution is meant speciation.
The second big deal relates to humans. Did we arise from some previous species by natural selection? The Bible seems to indicate that humans were created by a miraculous process. The Bible indicates that humans are different, and the God treats them differently, from other organisms. God gave us dominion over the rest of them (Genesis 1:26, 28) and God came as a human,Jesus Christ.
(Lest there be any doubt, no reputable scientist believes that humans evolved from chimpanzees. Many scientists believe that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor.)
Some Christians believe that the first part of Genesis is not meant to be taken literally. They can accept that God may have used some process to produce humans out of non-humans, and that our bodies, at least, evolved from some pre-human stock. Many Christians do not accept this, and, therefore, do not believe in evolution, if by evolution is meant the origin of humans from non-humans by partly or entirely natural processes.
The scientific evidence for speciation, including that of humans, is, in a word, similarity. All animals have cells, and are alike in other ways. All mammals, including humans, are similar in several ways. Chimpanzees and humans look enough alike that chimps are sometimes dressed in human clothing. The two species share 96% or more of their DNA. I believe that the Bible teaches that evidence from nature, including the findings of science, must be taken into account. (Psalm 19, Romans 1:20, Acts 14:17) If we knew how to correctly interpret the Bible, and how to correctly interpret scientific findings, there would be no conflicts. We don't know how to correctly do either, and sometimes there are conflicts.
To be continued, God willing. (See here for the second part, here for the third.) If you really have too much time on your hands, click on the origins label at the end of this post!
Thanks for reading.