October 24, 2007

MIT Biology Class - Reading Between the Lines (1)

I discovered last spring that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been putting its courses online at no cost in what it calls its Open Courseware program. For each class this includes things like lecture notes, problem sets, reading assignments, and in some cases, the recorded lectures themselves. Having an interest in the sciences, and most recently, the debates over evolution vs. Intelligent Design, I decided it would be worth the time spent to listen through a course to get an overview of the latest-and-greatest teaching in biology.

This class was just what I was after, since it covered a lot of ground in a good bit of depth, from cellular composition, to cellular systems, to genetics and beyond. I also found it very enjoyable listening, and I was especially fond of the sessions taught by Professor Eric Lander, Director of the Broad Institute at MIT, and a principal leader of the Human Genome Project. His sessions were enthusiastic and often included glimpses into the cutting edge of genetics and medical science.

In fact, the class was handled by 4 different lecturers, and it should be noted that they all gave the nod to evolution. There were really no proofs offered for evolution, and nothing much really came up in the course of the lectures that I would consider implicit support for the theory. However, whenever the question of why any given biological system or behavior existed, it was simply asserted that it had evolved that way.

Of course, it might be argued that the "proofs" where absent for the very reason that this was not an "evolutionary biology" class, where proofs were the order of the day; but it should be noted that for those advocates of evolution, who insist that the science of biology cannot be engaged apart from Darwin's assumption, these professors did quite well in their instruction without dependence upon his theory. Perhaps what these people really mean is that one cannot have emotional satisfaction in this science without some explanatory device to fill the void of curiosity that arises upon witnessing the wonders of cellular biology. And since design is not allowed in "proper" science, one must have Darwin to sooth the restless heart.

What was nice is that in this classroom, isolated from the public debate over the theory of evolution, where rhetoric is thick and the data is selectively underscored, these instructors were completely candid and unguarded in what they shared and in their personal reactions. Of course, as one who is convinced of the truth of Intelligent Design, my radar was tuned to pick up evidence for design and difficulties for evolution. Even though these instructors had no intention of suggesting such things, I found that if I only read between the lines I gleaned a wealth of friendly materials.

While listening through the class I took the time to make notes, hoping to blog on them at some future point. I intend to do so now. Anyone interested in biology and/or Intelligent Design (ID) theory may find this stimulating and may wish to follow along. I aim to present this as a series that will consist of my individual lecture notes (perhaps a few per post) followed by my own thoughts. Each "lecture note" will contain some teaching or comment directly gleaned from the class. It will most often be my own paraphrase of the professor's words, but it will represent objective classroom content that is as free of my own "bias" as I can make it. My own personal reflection and application will follow each note.

So, without further adieu, I present the first collection of my observations on a MIT biology class.

Lecture Note:

In the introductory lecture, the professor reminisces about how different the class is from when he first took it himself, and even how different it is from when he first began to teach it. He points out that this is fairly unique to this field, since, for example, introductory mathematics and physics are based upon pretty much the same foundation knowledge that has been in place for decades or centuries. The main difference in biology is due to the fact that the cell has been discovered to be far more complicated than once realized. And more needs to be taken into account, at the very molecular level, in order to have even a basic understanding of what the cell is about.

My thoughts:

Indeed, in Darwin's time the cell was thought to be a mere blob of protoplasm. With that conception, it is far more understandable how one might image such a thing coming to exist by chance in some primordial, warm little pond, or how it might further evolve with minimal coaxing. However, in the intervening years, discovery after discovery has further unveiled the incredible complexity of what it is that must be explained. Any theoretical gains made in providing those explanations are quickly outpaced by the relentless hail of new discoveries. At some point it would seem reasonable to question the original theory of a chance-driven origin of life, especially when many of the alleged explanations are found to hit roadblocks or have counter-examples. If I show you a mound of miscellaneous bits of metal junk, and then tell you I've stirred it for a month and then found a skateboard in it, you may believe that. How about a unicycle? Maybe. But how about a 747?

Lecture Note:

The professor notes that none of the diagrams of the cell that the class is to see are accurate depictions of the true complexity of any given part of the cell. For instance, the cell wall is often shown as a membrane, perhaps with some embedded objects. In reality, it is a complex structure — with even a skeletal framework in Eukaryotes — packed with portals, pumps, and sensors.

My thoughts:

It should be understood that every structure in the cell is usually made up of numerous interrelated molecules that are precisely fitted for shape and electro-chemical properties. And behind the structures and molecular "machines" found throughout the cell, there is a host of supporting systems required to assemble, transport, power, and service them. The cell is a tightly packed container of super-molecules, which has rightly been compared to a city in its complexity and activity. The small step-wise gains that Darwin proposed would be unable to build most of the integrated systems found in the cell, much less the complex, dependent interactions between them. And since evolution does not "plan" for the future, it cannot accumulate the necessary parts in hopes of one day putting them all together to make an irreducibly complex structure (i.e., one that needs every one of its parts else it does nothing at all).

Some have proposed that simpler, similar systems could have been co-opted in the making of a more complex one, like the bacterial flagellum. But that is like saying that a skateboard could become a bicycle, which could become a motorcycle, which could become a car. While there is a certain functional progression here, there is also a whole lot of reengineering, not just small additions, that need to be done to get from one stage to the next. And remember, every intermediate stage must be operational and of some advantage to the cell, else it would not have come to survive and dominate over its peers. There are no evolutionary rental cars to be had while the motorcycle is in the shop being overhauled and reworked into a car; it must be effective and available for transportation throughout the process.

Lecture Note:

One passing reference to evolution was in a professor's review of the various features of the cell. The functionality was presented as "problems that the cell had to solve" and "solutions that it came up with." This would include things like interacting with the environment, acquiring energy sources, regulating the production of proteins, etc.

My thoughts:

This kind of language of intentionality is extremely common in the world of biology. For the most part, it is unconsciously done, and I'm sure that if I called this professor on it he would backpedal and look for some naturalistic way to express his point.

You see, according to evolutionary theory, the cell is just a sack of diverse chemicals. It does not intend anything and does not spend a moment looking for solutions to problems or improvements to itself. It thrives or perishes, reproduces or doesn't. If it had an insurmountable functional problem, it would simply cease to function. It would not lay around for days and years — certainly not generations — tinkering until it had found its solution. At every turn, at every stage of evolution, it and its peers must be viable creatures or go extinct.

If a problem arose to which the cell must adapt or die — like an environmental change in chemistry or temperature — it would not begin to spawn mutations in the hopes that one member of the colony would come up with the magic solution. No, the "solution" must already be resident in the community, or be miraculously produced in its last dying reproductive efforts. Evolution based on environmental pressure (to which appeal is often made) implies dramatic gains either in short time spans, or dramatic new features simply lying around in the cell for no purpose whatsoever until and in case chance comes to call.

Evolution evokes the idea of fortuitous mutations occurring at just the right time, or to satisfy just the right kind of need. But in reality, even when and if a cell might miraculously get a "good" mutation, it is still no guarantee that it is good in such a way as to satisfy the particular needs of a particular organism. For instance, if a cell were to suddenly acquire the ability to break down cellulose for food (like the bacteria in the stomach of a termite), that would be a good thing if cellulose were present in the environment. But if it were not, then this new ability would be no advantage at all. Indeed, it would be a hindrance, since the manufacture of the necessary enzymes would consume valuable resources that could be better used to help the organism flourish in its real environment. Our new multi-talented little cell would find itself out-competed by its less gifted peers, and would thus drown in the gene pool before it ever met up with a future piece of cellulose.

The order of the day for evolution is to adapt fast or die. There are no Boy Scouts, prepared for anything, in the Darwinian world. Having a backpack and pockets filled with goodies and tools may make you valuable to your fellow scouts, but on the rugged, shortsighted trails of Natural Selection it will only leave you in the dust of those carrying just what is needed to get over the next rise.

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October 13, 2007

Not So Much in Common After All

"In A Common Word Between Us and You, 138 Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals have unanimously come together for the first time since the days of the Prophet to declare the common ground between Christianity and Islam. . . . [T]he signatories to this message come from every denomination and school of thought in Islam. Every major Islamic country or region in the world is represented in this message, which is addressed to the leaders of all the world’s churches, and indeed to all Christians everywhere."

Thus summarizes the official website hosting this unprecedented letter from "Muslims" to "Christians." Having read a couple of articles on this, as well as the document itself, I have the following thoughts.

1) They begin by insisting that "The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians." This suggests that there is present (or at least potential) strife between the two. In spite of what the military actions against terrorists might be taken to suggest, it is not the case that the West is in a general war against the religion of Islam, much less that Christians are. For this reason, a peace offering may be seen as rather mundane, though comforting for those Christians who see too much "Islam" in terrorist camps. However, this would be a far more momentous letter if its signatories included members of Hamas, al-Qaeda, or any of the other numerous Muslim-run groups who presently believe that peace is not the answer to the differences between us.

2) I notice that the major, traditional Islamic nations are under-represented here, e.g., Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia. In fact, the list of signers largely comes from the more secular and westernized nations, and USA representatives make up a large part of the list. I have to wonder if the signers of this represent the more liberal side of Islam, and what the majority view is within those who are committed to the authority of the Qur'an.

3) This document goes beyond an appeal to mere social and political harmony, it seeks to make a case for some level of theological unity. In the opening page they appeal to Sura 3:64 (in the Qur'an) to say we should "Come to a common word between us and you." Interestingly, if we actually browse this book for ourselves we find the following texts shortly after this:

O people of the Scripture [Jews and Christians], why do you mix truth with falsehood and conceal the truth while you know? (3:71)

And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers. (3:85)

4) One of the primary tenants of our supposed unity is our "love of God." Unfortunately, God is scarcely defined, but therein lays the difference with Christianity. G-O-D is just three consecutive letters of our alphabet. It is the meaning that you pour into them that is important, and Christianity and Islam pour from the apple and orange juice pitchers. I suspect that if "God" has gone to the trouble to give us the very specific information about Himself that we find in the Bible OR Qur'an, then He's likely to get rather cranky if we assume we can worship Him according to the standards of the other contradictory book.

5) In spite of their desire to find unity in God, they do a curious thing. No less than 17 times they quote Qur'anic passages that end by stating that God has no "partner" or "associate." But what is meant by this? Do we just have unity because neither religion is polytheistic? If we are to take the Qur'an seriously, then including these passages undercuts this whole ecumenical project. Let's let the Qur'an speak for itself. Observe Sura 5:72-75:

Certainly they disbelieve who say: Allah, He is the Messiah, son of Mary. And the Messiah said: O Children of Israel, serve Allah, my Lord and your Lord. Surely whoever associates (others) with Allah, Allah has forbidden to him the Garden and his abode is the Fire. And for the wrongdoers there will be no helpers. Certainly they disbelieve who say: Allah is the third of the three. And there is no God but One God. And if they desist not from what they say, a painful chastisement will surely befall such of them as disbelieve. Will they not then turn to Allah and ask His forgiveness? And Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a messenger; messengers before him had indeed passed away. And his mother was a truthful woman. They both used to eat food. See how We make the messages clear to them! then behold, how they are turned away!

It seems they cannot help but jab (consciously or unconsciously) at the primary belief about God that stands between us: Christ as the Second Person of the Trinity.

6) With the "no partner" quotes, they even (gratuitously it seems) include one verse that ends with this text: "Each soul earneth only on its own account, nor doth any laden bear another's load." (Sura 6:164) I take this as a thinly veiled rebuke of the Christian doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and probably was meant as such by Muhammad.

7) The Bible is quoted numerous times — both Old and New Testaments — as though it is a valid source of divine authority. Verses from Matthew and Mark are particularly quoted. But these are books that speak of the crucifixion and bodily resurrection of Jesus, which they deny, and that show the Father and Son in an intimate, unique relationship, the thought of which they abhor. Indeed, the very idea that God should have a "son" is explicitly rebuked in the Qur'an. Now, just what has survived the corruption that Muhammad claimed had come to the Gospel of Jesus? Perhaps just the sections they cite? In that event, let's look at the immediately surrounding text of one particular saying of Jesus they cite in both books (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-33).

What is interesting is that immediately before the verses they cite we see Jesus echoing the Old Testament refrain, "I Am the God of Abraham Isaac, and Jacob." Why is this significant? Because Ishmael, who they believe themselves to be descendents of, who rivals Isaac in importance in the Qur'an, and is generally listed in this company, is not even mentioned here! And immediately after their cited verses we see Jesus making the case that the Messiah is to be in some way prior to, and Lord over, David. The Qur'an affirms Jesus as Messiah, but reserves Lordship for God alone and does not grant that Jesus, as a mere man, could preexist His own birth.

8) Another appeal to unity is made stating that "Muhammad brought nothing fundamentally or essentially new." This is done by reference to Suras such as the following:

Naught is said to thee (Muhammad) but what already was said to the messengers before thee. (41:43)

I am no new thing among the messengers of God. (46:9)

We revealed the Scripture with the truth, confirming whatever Scripture was before it, and a watcher over it. (5:48)

If this were true, and Muhammad were essentially underscoring the prior revelation, then we might simply put the Qur'an aside and go with the original teachings we already have. Unfortunately, that won't play for Islam, since the unique and conflicting doctrines found in the Qur'an are indispensable parts of the true religion. In practice, for them, it is the Bible that may be set aside, since it must of necessity be a corrupt and/or misunderstood book. In order to sympathize with the Christian apathy towards Muhammad's claim to stand for Judeo-Christian orthodoxy, I would ask them to contemplate their own response to the claim that Baha'i is the true expression of Islam, bringing nothing essentially new to it.

9) When justifying the unique Muslim interpretation of Jesus as Messiah they insert this parenthetical comment: "but Christians themselves anyway have never all agreed with each other on Jesus Christ's nature." So, since Christians differ over Jesus, then why not allow the Muslim view of Him into the pale of orthodoxy? The problem with this is that with all the differences that Christians may have in their theology, none of them comes even close to teaching the purely human view of Jesus that Islam maintains. Even the most challenging disputes from the first few centuries of the church never were based upon the idea that Jesus was "just a messenger" (i.e., just a man). In fact, there is almost universal agreement within Christendom on exactly this point. Rome, Orthodoxy, and Protestants alike can comfortably unite in reciting something like the ancient Nicene Creed, which states:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

Pretty specific, and poles apart from the understanding taught in the Qur'an.

10) In the final pages of the letter we read, "As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them — so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes." Perhaps before they seek to pursue the finer points of theological unity with Christians they should begin by working to stop the Christian persecution in the many countries where their religion dominates. That would be at least one thing about which we could get excited.

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October 06, 2007

Adventures in Missing the Point

I enjoy watching debates and listening to opposing parties mix it up on news programs. Unfortunately, it can be quite frustrating to watch sometimes, especially if the guy on my side of the issue doesn't think of that perfect response that would be raised "if I were him." The most aggravating thing is when my man allows himself to get bogged down in an argument raised against him (or her), but doesn't even notice that it is entirely beside the main point of the discussion or that it is based upon a flawed assumption. This is such a common thing in the world of debate and advocacy that examples abound. Perhaps discussing a few might give the reader a better sense of what I mean in addition to becoming better equipped to spot this polemical pothole in the future.

Anti-War Rhetoric

Without getting into the politics of whether or not I support the military presence in Iraq, let me just mention a common tactic I see in defense of the idea that we should pull our troops out. Images, stories, and statistics of the dead and injured are regularly employed to show us the horror of this thing. How awful; why would we do something that would cause such misery for ourselves and the civilians of another country? Worse, the occasional moral atrocities of our own people are indiscriminately publicized, as if to suggest that this is what we are all about and what such an occupation amounts to.
But this is not really an argument against this war. If casualties and regrettable abuses were a valid defeater for the idea of going to war, then we should not have joined battle against Nazi Germany, where such things happened in vastly greater numbers. Yet few are so shortsighted as to suggest that the losses were not justified in that conflict. The point is not to lament over the terrible effects of military action; the point is whether or not we should engage in this particular offensive. All outrage over the victims simply assumes that we should not and misses the real point of focus for the discussion.

Pro-Choice Tactics

"Every child should be a wanted child." "It's a private decision between me and my doctor." "It's a matter of conscience between me and my God." "Stop oppressing women." "Don't like abortion, then don't have one."

These are the kinds of statements that are often tossed out by "pro-choice" advocates. Some allow themselves to get caught up in a discussion provoked by such bumper sticker defenses, but they are really nothing so much as chaff from a fighter jet to distract from the real target. The primary point in this debate is whether or not the unborn is a valuable human person who should not be killed over matters of choice and convenience.

One of the ways to drive the point home is to substitute a toddler in place of the fetus. For example, we could revise and expand some of the statements as follows. "Every child should be a wanted child, so I should be free to dispose of my unwanted toddlers." Or, "Don't like killing toddlers, then don't kill yours." Or how about, "It's a private matter between me, my doctor, and my God. If we're okay with killing my toddler, then who are you to get involved?"

If this kind of thinking evokes horror in the mind of the "choice" advocate, then it is clear that he or she does not believe that the unborn is a human person. If the fetus is, then none of these kinds of slogans are justification for murder. But if the fetus is not a valuable human person, then no justification is necessary. The point of focus in this issue, then, is the nature of the unborn.

Gay Advocacy

The topic of same-sex marriage came up on a radio show the other day, and by way of support for it the host shared this observation: "I never even thought about it till my two friends got married. And then I thought, 'Wow, they seem so happy together. I should stay out of the way there.'"

The problem is that there are plenty of things that make people happy of which even most liberal thinkers disapprove. If you haven't already thought of some yourself, here are a few examples I could offer: smoking, alcohol abuse, drug use, dog fighting, pedophilia, rape, and (for our green friends) driving a gas guzzling SUV. The mere fact that someone might like to do these things does not in itself justify them. Support for the behavior must stand upon other grounds.

This roundabout defense is one in a series that includes appeals to consent, human rights, and genetics. But if a behavior turns out to be unacceptable, then no amount of consent is relevant, there are no rights to it, and even genetic predisposition does not apply. Simply replace same-sex relations with pedophilia to see the failure of each of these ploys. It doesn't matter how much happiness, consent, and biological predisposition is involved, it still won't fly (at least not at the time of this writing). There is something deeper at issue that is the point of concern with things like pedophilia and same-sex marriage that washes out the mere subjective defenses.

Christian Skepticism

This summer I had a conversation with a family friend who fancies himself a well-informed atheist. His objections were all of a kind, which included complaints about the crusades, questioning Constantine's motives, and psychoanalyzing believers. While these are all interesting topics that can be exhaustively explored they really miss the important point of whether or not the God of the Bible is real. Constantine could be a scoundrel, Christians could behave miserably in war, and people could be spiritually needy, yet the biblical authors could still have recorded actual events.

And somewhat related, I recently listened to a radio show caller ask the host how to handle a friend of his who refused to recognize his definition of the word "faith." It seems the Christian wanted to define it as trust in what you have good reason to believe, while his skeptical friend wanted to define it as belief in what you have no evidence for. Unfortunately, their bickering over definitions only reflected the really important point of difference between them. The problem is that the skeptic does not believe that there really is any good evidence for Christianity, and so faith must necessarily be blind. Even if this fellow could accept the Christian understanding of faith, for the sake of argument, the conversation would only be stuck on the "good reason to believe" part of the definition.

Intelligent Design Debate

I'm currently listening through an audio book on Intelligent Design (ID), which features various scholars on both sides of the debate. As one of the introductory questions, the host asked each evolution supporter what he thought about Intelligent Design. The answers were remarkable in their consistency, and included such comments as the following: Evolution is well established and silly to argue with. ID is just creationism with a pseudo-scientific façade. ID is not science. ID rejects natural explanations. ID is a religious movement.

But whether or not these charges are accurate is not really the point. So what if it were true that every ID advocate is a fundamentalist Christian? So what if ID ran afoul of the current definition of "science?" The really important question is, Are certain things in the biological world the product of Intelligent Design?

What I did not hear was any kind of substantive response to this bottom-line point, only fussing with semantics, motivations, and implications. No one responded by saying that complex protein systems do not actually resemble existing machinery of human design. No one responded that we actually know the chemical pathways to any molecular machinery. No one responded that mutational statistics have been applied to the problem of gene evolution and found to be within reasonable probabilities.

Conclusion

The point is the point. Learn to identify the crux of the matter and the hinge upon which any given issue turns. Be vigilant for the presuppositions and worldview assumptions underlying someone's arguments. And don't be diverted by non-productive and non-essential side issues. There are a million peripheral concerns to debate, but if the distractions are winnowed you may just be surprised at the fundamental simplicity of many issues. It may not get you any closer to agreement, but you'll at least be riding the point without swirling aimlessly in the wake of the debate.

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Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN