October 30, 2005

Dan Brown - Plagiarist or Student of History?

I hate to break up a running series of articles (on abiogenesis), but I just ran across something that I found entertaining. It seems that Dan Brown, of The Da Vinci Code fame, has had a lawsuit filed against him for copyright infringement. The authors of the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail (HBHG) have apparently suffered in the shadows of Brown's success long enough. You see, the entire premise of Brown's book — that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had a child by her, and that Mary is the true "Grail" — is based upon the "investigative" work of the authors of HBHG. Brown even gives the nod to this work by both mentioning it in his pages and by (not so) cryptically naming one of his main characters (Leigh Teabing) after its authors, Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent.

Now, HBHG offers these ideas about the life of Jesus and Mary as the "real" story. This is supposedly the authentic history that the Church has suppressed all these years. And even though Brown's book is a fictional murder mystery, he claims that the historical backdrop for the story is grounded in "fact" (which he personally claims to believe). So, if the borrowed content in question is a matter of "history," then what is the problem? Can somebody be sued for infringement if they build upon someone else's historical findings? Could the filmmakers of "Titanic" and "Braveheart" be sued by the historians? I'm no attorney but I'm thinking, not.

This seems like an interesting dilemma to me. I'm sure that Leigh and Baigent meant for us to take their theories as historical truth, however, with this lawsuit they are implying that Brown has simply infringed upon their creative (read, "fictional") ideas. So, which is it: fact or fiction? This would be an interesting case to follow on the off chance that the court thinks to press the distinction. But I think the very fact that the authors of HBHG filed charges against Brown speaks of their intuitive understanding of which domain their claims fall into.

October 25, 2005

Abiogenesis: A Problem of Origins (part 2)

(Part 2 in a 3 part series)

Making Bricks

Granted, life is complex, but what is so impossible about starting life if you've got plenty of time and materials at your disposal? After all, didn't we once have a seething prebiotic soup covering our planet? Weren't the oceans a rich primordial ooze teaming with exotic chemicals derived from a mix of an alien atmosphere, abundant lightning, and solar energy? And isn't our planet billions of years old? Time plus chance are a dynamic duo. So, what's the problem?

The problem is with all of the assumptions.

The first flaw is in the myth of the prebiotic soup. The idea of a chemical "soup" is not a product of geological evidence, it was merely assumed based on its theoretical need. In order to build a thing you first need the materials with which to build it, and since life (or any meaningful precursor to it) is such a complex thing, you need a lot of materials jostling around for chance to do its work.

Unfortunately, there is no compelling evidence that our oceans, or the atmosphere with which it might interact, had the necessary composition to produce even the building blocks of the cell. It was assumed that the early earth had a "reducing atmosphere," (hydrogen, methane, ammonia, water vapor) which would enable the creation of the essential components. Instead, the evidence indicates that it was a mix of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water vapor. There are also many strong indications that free oxygen has been present even from before the appearance of life. This would be a substantial problem in that oxygen is destructive to the molecules necessary to assemble biological life. And the greatest irony is that water — which is so necessary for life — actually interferes with the assembly of certain of these building blocks.

Regardless of the state of the earliest atmosphere, there was an extensive period of Earth's history that was unavailable for the formation of life, or at least its survival. This is due to the continual bombardment of the earth by pre-planetary materials, the scars of which can still be seen on our moon. The largest of these would have sterilized any life that might have formed, and such events did not dwindle until approximately 4 billion years ago. The interesting thing is that the earliest geological records have life arriving on the scene shortly after this time. The long period of time necessary to allow chance to work its magic has evaporated. In the words of Steven Jay Gould:
We are left with very little time between the development of suitable conditions for life on the earth’s surface and the origin of life. Life is not a complex accident that required immense time to convert the vastly improbable into the nearly certain. Instead, life, for all its intricacy, probably arose rapidly about as soon as it could.
And paleontologist Niles Eldridge goes a step farther in saying that
There is now overwhelmingly strong evidence, both statistical and paleontological, that life could not have been started on Earth by a series of random chemical reactions.... There simply was not enough time... to get life going.
But let's assume for the sake of argument that all the conditions did happen to be just as they had hoped. What is it that might be produced? Well, according to the famous Miller-Urey experiments, when energy is added to the chemical mix (hydrogen, methane, ammonia, water vapor) certain essential molecules are produced. Most notably, these include amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. And proteins are some of the most important and abundant components of the cell. This was an exciting step for origins of life research. Unfortunately, it was only a token victory.

First of all, it should be noted that proteins are made up of some 20 different amino acids, and not all of these were formed in these or subsequent experiments. Second, the energy needed to assemble amino acids is as likely to destroy them as form them, so the experiment itself must carefully take this into account. This means that the results of the experiment were a matter of human engineering — intelligent design. Third, in the presence of oxygen, there would be no results to speak of and, as stated earlier, there is substantial evidence that oxygen was present in the early atmosphere and oceans. Fourth, even though some desirable molecules were present, the vast majority of what was produced was an insoluble tar-polymer. So, to yield enough amino acids in our oceans to give "chance" a fighting chance would also mean the existence of an enormous amount of tar, which would in turn leave a distinct signature in the fossil record. There is no trace of such a thing, nor is there evidence of any other biotic precursor or byproduct in the geological strata prior to the sudden appearance of cellular life.

But again, let's assume for the sake of argument that all the essential amino acids can be formed by natural processes. We still have the problem of building proteins from these, and as theoretical physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies said:
Just as bricks alone don't make a house, so it takes more than a random collection of amino acids to make life. Like house bricks, the building blocks of life have to be assembled in a very specific and exceedingly elaborate way before they have the desired function.
If amino acids are like bricks from stirred mud, then proteins are like mansions from stirred bricks.

Part 3

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October 17, 2005

Abiogenesis: A Problem of Origins (part 1)

(Part 1 in a 3 part series)
If I were a creationist, I would cease attacking the theory of evolution - which is so well supported by the fossil record - and focus instead on the origin of life. This is by far the weakest strut of the chassis of modern biology. The origin of life is a science writer's dream. It abounds with exotic scientists and exotic theories, which are never entirely abandoned or accepted, but merely go in and out of fashion.
Horgan, John [Senior Writer, Scientific American], The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, New York: Broadway Books, 1996
Of all the issues that must be addressed by evolutionary theory, the problem of abiogenesis is the most fundamental and troublesome – it is the soft underbelly of evolutionary science. In fact, it is such a difficult issue that evolutionists are quick to separate it from the topic of evolution at large, where they feel they are on firmer ground. But without abiogenesis there is nothing to "evolve." It may be a separate question, but the failure to account for it is a logical defeater to the materialistic project in which evolution is so prominently featured.

So what exactly is abiogenesis? Well, for life to evolve it must first exist in some self-replicating form. And since prior to life there is only simple chemistry, there is a chasm that must be bridged. Life must somehow come from non-life: abiogenesis. Of course, this is not an issue if you are willing to accept that God has intervened in nature, but for scientists intent on finding a "natural" cause for life this has proved an intractable problem. Let me now step into the world of the naturalistic scientists to share some of their frustrations. Of course, to do so I must take on their assumption of an ancient earth, whether or not that is actually the case, but as we shall see it will be of little assistance.

The first problem that biochemists face is the vast complexity of the life that is to be explained. The earliest and oldest known life forms are very much like the single celled bacteria and algae that are still with us today. In Darwin's day, prior to refined optics and electron microscopes, such cells were perceived as mere blobs of "protoplasm." The development of, and evolutionary changes in, such a thing is far easier to imagine than what the cell actually turns out to be.

In reality, the cell is a marvel of biochemical machinery and information storage. As Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, wrote in the biology journal Cell:

We have always underestimated cells. … The entire cell can be viewed as a factory that contains an elaborate network of interlocking assembly lines, each of which is composed of a set of large protein machines. … Why do we call the large protein assemblies that underlie cell function protein machines? Precisely because, like machines invented by humans to deal efficiently with the macroscopic world, these protein assemblies contain highly coordinated moving parts.
Biochemist Michael Denton, author of Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, adds another remarkable cellular feature when he writes, "it would be a factory which would have one capacity not equaled in any of our own most advanced machines, for it would be capable of replicating its entire structure within a matter of a few hours."

Such modern revelations about the cell have exceeded the limits of credulity for most evolutionary scientists. In the words of astronomer and physicist Sir Fred Hoyle, the probability of the spontaneous generation of a single bacterium "is about the same as the probability that a tornado sweeping through a junk yard could assemble a Boeing 747 from the contents therein." Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, observed, "The origin of life appears to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to be satisfied to get it going." And our recognition of the complexity of the "simple cell" has only increased since these statements were made.

For this reason, it is not assumed that such organisms were the first in the chain of existence. It is then assumed that something less complex must have preceded the common single cell organism. Unfortunately, there is nothing simpler known or hinted at in the fossil record. As far back as we can examine there is life of this same kind, and before that there is only barren rock. It is no wonder that even secular presentations of this historical event use phrases like "a miracle occurred" to cover their loss of explanation.

Part 2
Part 3

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October 14, 2005

You Know You Live in the Internet Age When...

My family has now been fully assimilated into the age of the internet. Why do I say that? Yesterday, when I arrived home from work, I discovered that my 8 year old son and his neighborhood friends had been playing with the sidewalk chalk. On my driveway, there was the inevitable hopscotch pattern. There were the renderings of pets and self-portraits. These I could tell by their subject and quality were drawn by the neighbor girls. But what had my son drawn? Cars? Monsters? Rockets? Cartoon heroes? No! There, scrawled down half the length of the drive, begging the world to notice, was the address of his new internet blog.

October 13, 2005

Misconceptions About Intelligent Design (part 3)

"ID theory is not falsifiable"

There is a sense in which science can never disprove a supernatural overlord, since science, by its own definition, deals only with questions of nature. But by successfully finding natural explanations for every phenomenon of nature, science could certainly confine God to the world of secondary causes. However, ID is so far from being falsified that this is merely an academic question. One is not concerned with the behavior of cornered foxes while they are freely raiding your henhouse through holes in your fence.

There is a question here as to who actually bears the burden of proof in this debate? Richard Dawkins, one of evolution's leading advocates, says that "biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." This admits that our default conclusion (perhaps even our deepest intuition) is that life is "designed." I would contend, then, that it is the evolutionists who carry the burden to prove by way of some plausible alternative explanation that it is not designed. If I see a pile of logs stacked up neatly by a fence, I am surely warranted to think that some personal cause is involved. And if someone wants to convince me that nature has done this by chance, they will have to provide me with some very detailed and compelling story. Evolutionists say that they have done so in the case of biological life; ID proponents claim that they have not, and that modern science has mounted evidence to that effect. Evolution has had its day in the sun. ID is calling for an accounting.

As it turns out, naturalistic evolution is every bit as "unfalsifiable" as it claims about ID. When presented with the fact that the very laws of physics are fine tuned for the support of complex biochemical life, they will say, "Perhaps we are just in one of the lucky universes out of a possible infinity." When faced with the great gaps in the fossil record that Darwin predicted would be filled by now, they propose a theory — Punctuated Equilibrium — that uses the gaps as the very explanation of how evolution has occurred, and suggest that we "shouldn't expect to find many intermediate fossils." When considering the issue of biological "big bang" events, like the Cambrian Explosion, they will say, "Maybe something caused a super acceleration of evolution." When addressing the ever-elusive problem of the origin of the first life form (abiogenesis), they will say, "Give us more time, we haven't given up yet."

Naturalistic evolution has become an invincible theory that mutates to fit any data, or lack thereof, yet itself is never the subject of scrutiny. As one Chinese paleontologist put it, "In China we can criticize Darwin but not the government. In America you can criticize the government but not Darwin." And when critics do point to missing mechanisms and insurmountable probabilities, in lieu of hard data they reply that it is just a "failure of imagination."

"ID theorists are biased and have an agenda"

If by "bias" one means that ID theorists have beliefs and intentions upon which they are acting, then certainly. So does anyone who engages in any pursuit. Neutrality launches no ships and fights no battles. But if ID proponents are pursuing an agenda then so are groups like The National Center for Science Education, which admits its own agenda to "defend the teaching of evolution in public schools" and to "keep evolution in the science classroom and 'scientific creationism' out."

The agenda that is specifically being referred to is a religious one. It is implied that the only reason for even proposing ID is that one is first convinced that a "designer" exists — ID is arguing from its conclusion rather than to a conclusion. This accusation is born of the observation that many ID advocates just happen to be Christian theists, as though design is an article of faith rather than a conclusion based on objective science. I will attack this charge at five points.

1. Not every theist takes issue with evolution. There are many self-proclaimed Christians, like biology professor Kenneth Miller, who seem perfectly happy to fit evolution into their worldview. Michael Behe, one of the chief advocates of ID theory, was actually propelled into this debate not as a result of his Roman Catholic beliefs, but only after he had been persuaded by the book by agnostic Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Even so, Behe holds to a very modest view of the activities of this designer, which makes biblical "creationists" squeamish.

2. Not all who take issue with evolution are theists. One such person is David Berlinski. Berlinski is a Jewish agnostic who is one of the leading advocates of ID theory. What Berlinski personally has in mind as the designer is unknown to me, but this is immaterial in the context of ID theory, which does not speak to the nature of the "designer." In fact, the atheist Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, would also have qualified as an ID theorist when he proposed that aliens may have seeded life on this planet.

3. For some, ID theory has been the cause of their theism. Dean Kenyon, one of the pioneers in origins of life theory, was set on the road to Christianity after having his scientific theories challenged by one of his students. And preeminent atheistic philosophers Antony Flew, recently converted to theism on the basis of the modern arguments offered by ID proponents.

4. So what? What does the observation that many ID advocates are theists have to do with the truth of ID theory itself? As C.S. Lewis once said, you must first establish that a man is mistaken before it is meaningful to ask why he is mistaken. If this were a relevant argument, then my fifth point would be a successful parry by definition.

5. Many of the chief advocates of evolutionary theory are non-theists. We can equally observe that evolutionists are often atheists, especially so their outspoken champions, like Richard Dawkins and the late Steven Jay Gould. Atheists need a "creation myth" too. For them, evolution must be true of necessity; for to reject it means the defeat of their materialism and an open door to some transcendent force or being. This is why most ID proponents are theists, since atheism cannot, in principle, allow for the possibility of a transcendent designer. However, theism could allow God to do anything by means of primary or secondary causes. Theism turns out to hold the more open-minded position.

"Science stays out of religion so ID should stay out of science"

The late Stephen Jay Gould coined the phrase "nonoverlapping magisteria" to describe a proposed philosophical divide between religion and the sciences. Science would tell us how the heavens go and theologians would tell us how to go to heaven. Unfortunately, this partition turns out to be a prison wall with religion on the inside. Evolutionists freely apply their science to make sweeping metaphysical conclusion, and from Gould's own pen came statements like these:

"Before Darwin, we thought that a benevolent God had created us."
"Biology took away our status as paragons created in the image of God."
"No intervening spirit watches lovingly over the affairs of nature."
And with the emasculation, if not death, of God go all the moral prescriptions with which He might have invested the creation. Observe the following representative quotes from academics who feel no reservations about treading upon the "magisterial" domain of religion and ethics:
"As evolutionists, we see that no 'ethical' justification of the traditional kind is possible. Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends. Hence the basis of ethics does not lie in God's will....In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding. Like Macbeth's dagger, it serves a powerful purpose without existing in substance." — Michael Ruse & Edward O. Wilson

"[Rape] is a natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage." — Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer

Evolution teaches that "we are animals" so that "sex across the species barrier ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings." — Peter Singer
And they do not stop there. In answer to the idea that life exhibits the hallmark of design, they engage in wild speculation over the methods, motives, and mental competence of the designer. Examples of "sub-optimal" systems are employed to impugn the wisdom of this alleged designer, like the panda's "ad hoc" thumb, inverted photoreceptors in the eye, and parasitic organisms.

Many of these counter-examples can be resolved with further knowledge of functional purpose, but if they wish to enter the world of transcendent causes and insist upon slandering the designer, then we should be free to send in the theologians for a response. Answers to such charges must necessarily consider factors such as the state of man's condition, the purpose of the creation and our sojourn here, and our ultimate destiny. Without the benefit of such theological groundwork, we are handicapped in our reply. But if evolution does not tolerate scientific dissent, then it will surely not suffer the theologians to violate her sacred soil.

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October 07, 2005

Misconceptions About Intelligent Design (part 2)

"ID is not science because supernatural explanations are outside the scope of science"

First of all, it should be noted that this is a philosophical claim, not a scientific one. Defining the scope of science is the domain of the philosophers of science; science itself cannot be employed to define itself any more than persons can conceive themselves.

Studying the operation of the natural world and its causal connections is certainly a valid pursuit. In fact, it is perfectly in line with a Christian worldview, which believes that the world is made by a God of order and purpose. But studying natural processes and claiming that they are omnipotent are two different things. Being aggressive in the pursuit of natural causes and saying that "nature is all there is, was, or ever will be" available as an explanation are two different philosophical positions.

Naturalistic scientists are determined to set the boundaries of "science" to disallow outside causes. Nothing outside the "box" is game for consideration. This means that the idea of a transcendent designer is ruled a foul before it can even come up to bat. For this reason, many of the debates over ID end up being less about the evidences and more about the rules of science. This makes questions of origins rather problematic. With these naturalistic rules in place, if there were a designer how could we ever know it in principle? And even if the "designer" were a part of the natural world (an alien for instance), then we shall never arrive at that conclusion.

"If ID is science, then why doesn't it publish in peer reviewed scientific journals?"

As mentioned above, modern science has stacked the deck against certain kinds of answers. When the qualification for being "scientific" is that your explanations are naturalistic, it is kind of difficult in principle to meet the requirement for publication if your conclusion gives quarter to the supernatural. Soundness of argument and quality of evidence are secondary to the larger issue of maintaining naturalistic orthodoxy. One editor discovered this the hard way when he was careless enough to allow an ID theorist's paper to slip into his publication because it was camouflaged as compelling science. Those interested in reviewing the inquisition that ensued may begin their journey here.

In spite of such opposition, ID has made some fairly impressive forays into the academic world, and has gotten far more scientific attention and "review" than biblical creationism has had the fortune to receive. This is largely because, even from the outset, ID books and papers have drawn their conclusions and supported their case from approved publications. And those who are raising the concerns over the adequacies of Darwinian theory are not just fundamentalist High School science teachers, but dissenting voices in the academic community. Even if ID did not face these strong philosophical barriers, it is still the case that science has its sacred cows and its axioms die a hard death.

"Accepting ID would mean the end of scientific investigation"

The gist of this complaint is that if we are free to appeal to God in the face of mystery, then we shall not push the scientific envelope; we'll just say "goddunnit" and leave it at that. But history proves otherwise. It must be remembered that materialistic science is a relative newcomer on the historic western scene, where most of the great scientists, on whose shoulders we stand, have been Christians who took the idea of a creator/designer for granted. In fact, it was their commitment to this God of law, order, and purpose that drove them to imagine that there was something worthy to be explored at all. As Kepler stated, they wanted to "think God's thoughts after Him."

In fact, there are grounds for accusing materialistic science of being the cause of much backward and dismissive thinking. Consider the following, and how an assumption of design would have influenced the thinking in each case.

There was a time when nearly 100 human organs were considered nonfunctional "vestigial" leftovers of evolution. Purposes have been discovered for these, one by one, on further investigation (I believe the appendix was the last to be crossed off the list).

When genetic researchers discovered a large volume of DNA that did not seem to code for proteins, the ignorance over its actual purpose was translated by naturalistic scientists into the assumption that it must be "Junk DNA," which is merely a product of failed or outdated evolutionary development. You would be right to guess that further investigation has yielded new insights as to the utility of this DNA.

In times past, when it was observed that mold forms on cheese and maggots on meat, the idea of "spontaneous generation" arose among those of high credulity and low regard for a creator.

As the evidence began to mount for a cosmological "big bang" event, many of the objectors were non-theists who took exception on less than scientific grounds. Consider this quote by Sir Arthur Eddington: "Philosophically the notion of a beginning of the present order is repugnant to me . . . I should like to find a genuine loophole. I simply do not believe the present order of things started off with a bang."

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Misconceptions About Intelligent Design (part 1)

(Part 1 in a 3 part series)

I've just read this interesting cursory discussion on the question of teaching Intelligent Design (ID) in public schools, and it brings to my mind several common misconceptions about this topic. Now, ID theory may or may not be good "science," but I think if we are going to debate it we should at least accurately understand it in its context. Here are my responses to some of the most frequent charges leveled against it.

"ID is just thinly veiled creationism"

It may be true that many ID supporters are Christian (though some are not even theists), but this theory is philosophically independent from the question of who the "designer" may happen to be. In theory, it may be Gaia (a sentient planet), the God of Mormonism, a space alien, or the Christian God. That remains an independent question, just as evolutionists would very much like to separate the issue of common descent from the issue of abiogenesis (where the first life-form came from).

While ID is certainly consistent with Christianity, it is not identical to it. Its arguments should be taken on their own merits. To reject an argument simply because you don't like who or where it came from is called the "genetic fallacy." Those who attack the champions of ID and not the tenants of the theory itself only bring suspicion upon themselves that they lack a legitimate defense.

"ID advocates want to teach biblical creationism in school"

While I cannot speak for all who would seek to introduce ID into their curriculum, I can say that, officially, the desires of ID proponents are rather modest. At most, they want to "teach the controversy." That is, they want to permit the teaching of evolution, but allow the teachers to explore not only the supporting evidence but also the gaps in that evidence. To quote the Discovery Institute, the flagship organization for the ID movement:
Should public schools require the teaching of intelligent design?

No. Instead of mandating intelligent design, Discovery Institute recommends that states and school districts focus on teaching students more about evolutionary theory, including telling them about some of the theory's problems that have been discussed in peer-reviewed science journals. In other words, evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can't be questioned. We believe this is a common-sense approach that will benefit students, teachers, and parents.
The ID discussion intends to stay within the boundaries of the question of origins as it seeks to be answered by naturalistic science, e.g., if evolution is a feasible mechanism. Going beyond this to offer some form of behind the scenes insight as to how and why the "designer" designed is agreed to be beyond to scope of public education. For this reason, the question remains open as to whether this "designer" was the God of the Bible or the Flying Spaghetti Monster (although science and historical investigation may, in fact, offer further insights into the possible nature of this designer).

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Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN