Thursday, 14 December 2006

The water of life, and death.

A plethera of interesting topics. That old medical practice of sexism, the diagnosis of hysteria, might actually be real. Galaxies might evolve through a combination of nature and nurture. Laughter heals disease, and they've finally figured out why it's contagious- it has to do with our tendency to mirror a person in a conversation. But I'm going to contemplate in a different way today, combinging two articles.

We may have found evidence of flowing water on the Martian surface. Going on right now. If it's true, it could provide a valuable base for that mythical day when we land on the planet. Maybe even grow some right find Bradbury crops there.

It also appears that Global Warming will no longer melt the polar ice cap by the year 2100, as previously predicted. It looks like it will be 2040. This is probably due to a runaway positive feeback loop where ice reflects heat and less ice reflects less heat. And less ice allows warmer currents further North. Seeing as polar bears and others are dying off at alarming rates, this will have equally magnifying effects on the Artic ecology. To the side is the North pole 6 years ago, and 33 years from now.

But every bit of ice that melts also means more water rising in other places Places like Bangladesh with 147 million people, or the Maldives, the lowest country in the world, with a maximum natural height of 2.3 meters, the lowest in the world. Most or all of both countries will disappear by century's end, meaning 100s of millions now refugees, without even the hope of a homeland to go back to. And that's just the two countries most effected- it doesn't include the vast numbers of mostly poor living on the coasts around the world who don't have America's money to build dikes around their major cities.

That's the best case scenario. More probably they're not homeless. It's that they're dead.

Two different studies. One finds water of life. The other water of death.

Jesus said, "I am the water of life. She that drinks of me, shall never thirst again." This is the same Guy who earlier had demolished "the whole world" in a flood. Same substance, same guy, different results. Water is powerful wet stuff, with an emphasis on it's power. It is neither good nor evil, but bringing results depending on the situation. God is only good, and yet his actions result in life, and countless deaths. According to Rabbinic tradition, one of the three things satan can not do is kill- this remains God's perogative. How can a good God do both? How can He use the same substance for both harm and help?

I think in all things it depends not on God, but on us. God remains the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow (with that minor tweaking of the incarnation). The water still has the same properites- 104.7 degrees between the two Hydrogens allowing for some rather too convenient Hydrogen bonding, making life possible. But we change. God is everywhere- nanini, naninina, and in all things. Then how is it possible for us to say, "God is with us right now." or "Come, Jesus, Come"?

Theodore of Mopsuestia said that the Logos dwelt in Jesus "by His good pleasure". As a Christology it fell far short, basically being more Nestorian than Nestorius. But a professor of mine, Dr. Thompson, pointed out that it was a rather nice description of God's presence with us. He is everywhere, but at times He exists by His good pleasure, when we are aligned with Him.

In the same way His actions are everywhere the same. But whether or not they bring harm or help to us is determined to what extent we are aligned with Him. Sometimes it is punishment, and therefore our moral actions that align us with our just desserts. But certainly many times tragedy hits us without punishment. And then God is still the same, seeking our good. But perhaps at times we have difficulty in seeing His good, and what He will bring us in the fullness of time.

Such is not the case of course here. In the fullness of the meaning of original sin, we have wrought this upon ourselves. Water is a gift of God, giving us original life and sustaining us, allowing us possibly to reach further into the Heavens. We have squandered that gift in our search for another liquid, fossil fuels. We spurned the gift of God and chose a poor substitute, destroying that which we were called to care for. And we now reap what we sowed. For in 33 years we will no longer have a polar ice cap, and a great deal more misery. God did not change, and neither did His gift. We chose to reject the gift, our calling, and our God. Let the chaos of the waters reign.

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

I Thought By Now...

The oldest religious practice to date has been found- worshiping pythons in Africa 70,000 years ago. Some of the genetic code has been discovered for male pregnancy in seahorses. It sucked to be a Neanderthal, health-wise. Birds are starting to go through some genetic drift as their songs fit to accommodate the deeper noise of city life. And NASA reveals their plans to put a base on the moon by 2024.

This last one briefly caught my eye. A guy on PBS was talking about this tonight- how there might be water there, on the sunny side of the moon there's lots of sun for nearly constant solar power, it's safer than space, it's a great training field for Mars...Sounds like a good idea. I hope they do it. But I thought they were going to do this in 1985.

It just seems like everything's slowed down. Don't you remember how there was supposed to all of this amazing scientific advancement by now, that we lived with day by day? Remember in the 60's, with the kitchen of the future- that was supposed to be here by the late 70's. We're still waiting. Oh, we can do most of it. But either it's not economical, or for reasons similar to the Tuckermobile and the EV1, it's blocked by the Powers That Be.

What was it that got us to the moon? Simply, fear. Sputnik was up there, smiling down on all of us, proof that the Communists were actually better than us. Then they sent a guy into space first, and then the first woman. (And to our eternal shame, it took us 20 years to duplicate this feat.) In fact, arguably, they were doing better than us across the board, until they also had to fight proxy wars with us continuously, and discovered they couldn't do all that and feed their people too. Might even be an argument that Communism is more successful than Capitalism as long as the world is at peace. But that of course is heresy.

Sputnik was a wake-up call. We suddenly realized the Soviets were beating us, and were doing better in us than science. This impelled us to get off our butts and start working, and learning. The Space Race was a large contributor to finally repealing the old laws going back to the Scopes Monkey Trial which mandated teaching Literal Creationism, and the beginnings of universal evolution teaching in schools throughout America. We finally realized we needed to learn science, not because it was interesting or a high pursuit, but because we could not be beaten by those who didn't know how to value materialism, capitalism, and economic growth.

But now, we just don't have that motivation. China is perhaps the biggest commercial force on the planet, or soon will be, and they've got nuclear weapons. But they only recently sent someone into space for the first time. When we aren't in a race with someone, we just don't care enough about the science.

Now, the amazing new developments are all small, in a computer, or a cell phone. Actually, they're even less noticeable- they're in the ether of the web, somewhere in between computers. We don't see the big changes. Cars are stuck without major structural changes for some 60 years now. The Big Three figured out they could change the pretty fins and colour and get enough people to keep buying new ones. Kitchen machines are not that different in basic structure from the way they were 30 years ago. Oh, there are changes, but it seems so slow. Perhaps it's that the imagination of science fiction can progress more quickly than anything real. But it also seems that we are less inspired to progress. When was the last major invention that was widespread? I don't mean a new computer program, as important and valuable as those are. But an actual three-dimensional invention, that a guy can tinker with in his back garage, fulfilling the American dream? It seems that now you need a few advanced degrees or hours in front learning Colbol to do anything significant. At least since Velcro.

Daniel Amos was one of those rare bands that did quite well in music, climbing with country music to the top of the Christian charts, but quit, realizing that they weren't being authentic for them. They changed over to New Wave, producing numerous albums after that, and never again doing well in the music charts. The sound remained steady, despite numerous name changes as well, including Daniel Amos Band and Swirling Eddies. You could count on them for good sound and biting, deep lyrics, always requiring the listener to think.

They had one song on the album "Vox Humana" called "(It's the Eighties, So Where's Our) Rocket Packs?". Prophetic as always, Daniel Amos summed up the situation well.

"I thought by now we'd walk the moon
And ride a car without no tires
And have a robot run the vacuum
And date a girl made out of wires.
No things don't change that much, do they?
We are still out of touch,
by now we should discover,
just how to love each other...
I thought by now we'd live in space,
And eat a pill instead of dinner,
And wear a gas mask on our face,
a President of female gender..."

I look forward to our base on the moon. But unless the Chinese get in on the act, or someone else like the Saudis, I don't see the U.S. being inspired enough to actually do it, even by 2024.

Thursday, 30 November 2006

I've got an agenda.

Quite a plethora of interesting studies came down the wire today. Studies included a 2000 year old computer recently discovered and that sitting up straight is bad for your back. Success is linked to genetics, although the authors of the study equate success in general with money. (Considering my heritage, this doesn't bode well for me.) And our DNA may be able to tell us the likelihood that a wife will cheat on her husband. My particularly favorite quote from the last one: In oth­er words, if the man and woman had half the genes in com­mon, the woman would have on av­er­age near­ly half a lov­er on the side. Ah, yes. Half a lover. Those were the days.

But today we'll look at the accusation that the NSTA, the National Science Teacher's Association, refused to accept free copies of An Inconvenient Truth because of oil influence. I find this article interesting because just last night, before I'd read the download, I saw Jay Leno joking with Al Gore about this very issue on the NSTA. Secondly, the NSTA has been a very valuable organization, one that I actually consulted last year when looking for guidance as a science teacher. And lastly I find the inverse of such accusations now made against me.

The basic story is the producers of An Inconvenient Truth offered 50,000 free copies to science classrooms around the nation, through the NSTA. If you haven't seen this movie, you should. It is truly one of the scariest movies I've ever seen. It isn't the most well-made, but it lays out the facts neatly and cleanly, in a format more clear than I've ever seen it, so that all can understand what's going on. After watching it many have suggested it should be shown in science classrooms. So for no charge, Gore offered the movie so students could learn about this. He is even doing something unheard of in the film industry- the movie producer is encouraging people to buy the movie and then give it away to a friend, so that as many as possible can view it, though with reduced proceeds for the movie.

The NSTA turned down the offer. They said that they were concerned about political endorsement or encouraging special interests to also request film distribution. And they also said that it would cause risk for certain supporters and make it harder for them to raise funds. One of their supporters is Exxon-Mobil.

The thing is many climatologists have endorsed the movie. There is no longer any scientific disagreement that global warming is occurring, or any real disagreement that it's cause is the Greenhouse Effect via human actions. Even the Pentagon has come out in support of this- not an institution known for it's sterling environmental record. But there is one group that has consistently come out against global warming: the oil industry, lead by Exxon-Mobil. This doesn't bode well for the purity of the NSTA.

It is disappointing to hear about this. Their political or special interest arguments are stronger, but still- there's a difference between politics and issues. Al Gore was once a candidate and politician, but he's not running for anything any more, and not at this time. Unless working to build houses for the poor is a political issue, because Jimmy Carter does it? Politics is the attempt to raise oneself or lower another, to gain influence- but it's about issues. Global Warming is an issue that politicians take a stand on, but it's a serious issue that needs addressing.

But the greater concern is of course the oil influence. Here it appears that the NSTA is taking a political stance, in the true sense of politics- looking for influence and the money that breeds influence. To accept the DVDs would not have been political; to refuse them was.

This has hit home because I have recently been obliquely accused by some of having an agenda when teaching at my old school- specifically supporting evolution and environmentalism. Basically it's been said that I'm making science political. There has been an expressed desire by some at my old school to make sure future biology teachers don't have these biases. I find this ironic since teachers there were repeatedly encouraged to ingrain positive civic values in our students.

I had to leave the position over the issue of teaching evolution as the backbone construct of all biology- what all scientific publications agree with. But of all the moral issues out there, the one that comes closest to the heart of the biologist is naturally environmentalism. We don't get to really discuss social issues like racism or treatment of women or caring for the poor. Those are important, but they just don't easily fit into the scientific curriculum. The environment does. If it ceases to exist, I'm out of a job. I'd be hard pressed to conceive of a biology teacher who wasn't an environmentalist. It'd be like being a vet who hated animals, or a car repairman who insisted that the only way to get around was by bike.

It is personal for me, too. I wouldn't teach this in the classroom because it's religion, and my own beliefs, but my feelings on the environment aren't merely that life is wonderful and amazing, and should continue. It's not simply that I want to continue to have life. It's that I believe God commanded it, in the garden, when he called us, as the very first command, to care for it. The Psalmists repeatedly cry out at the beauty of this creation, to give honor to God. Biology is wonderful because it reveals some of the Creator.

Environmentalism is the ethic of trying to preserve the environment- the ecosystem. I want to help keep it around so we can discover new medicines. I want to make sure the food web continues so we can survive as a species. I want to enjoy studying it. I want to help preserve it because God made it. But most of all, I want to keep it around because it is worship, to study it, and see the unique ways God put it together, the myriad evolutionary interlocking paths in the ecology revealed to us. It is a way to glorify God.

But I wouldn't teach all that. I separate my personal views from the classroom, from science, and responsible ethics. A student needs to learn how biology happens. I would hope they develop an ethic to care for the planet. How they arrive at that ethic is their own concern.

As teachers we walk a find road. We don't want to unduly influence, and we certainly don't want to teach religion. And yet civic values are also taught in school- indeed, it is often the primary medium. It might be an ethic of sharing in preschool, or learning to not cheat in junior high- but it's taught. And make no mistake- those are values- ones that many culture, most cultures, agree to, but not all. How we come to those values being positive varies among individuals and cultures.

We all have an agenda. Every moment of our lives, we walk with agendas and beliefs. What is in contention at my old school, or with the NSTA, is rather the nature of the agenda: which agenda is positive, and which is negative; which should science support, and which should it deny. The issue before me and the NSTA is the agenda of the environment. Is it the natural stance when teaching about biology to support the environment, and work to preserve it, and encourage that preservation ethic in the students. A biology teacher, or association like the NSTA, is at fault when they do not pursue these ethics.

I've shared a number of practical and more ethereal reasons why this ethic is important. Global Warming in particular is going to have disastrous effects on our people, increasing extinction, raising water levels, increasing storms, killing thousands of people, and leading to hundreds of thousands of refugees (in the most conservative of estimates). I could go on, and others have. This is the single greatest environmental catastrophe we have ever faced as a species- greater than those comparatively slow-moving ice ages that came and went. And therefore it is the single greatest application of the importance of teaching an environmental ethic.

But let me leave you with one final example of why it should be taught. Shortly after coming into office, George Bush met with "an unnamed expert", and decided to withdraw from the Kyoto Accords. It is rumored that this same expert is the one he met with in 2005, one Michael Crichton, who wrote a fictional piece called State of Fear, which suggests that Global Warming is false, but that the effects are being caused by a mass conspiracy of scientists. The only problem is that Michael Crichton has then repeatedly publicly said he believes much of this. And Bush stated he was much in agreement with Crichton's views. This, from an administration that has one of the worst environmental records in history, is close friends with Big Oil, and has done nothing to try to stop Global Warming. What might the world be like if Michael Crichton, or George Bush, had learned more science, or developed more of an environmental ethic, when they were in high school?

You better believe I have an agenda.

Saturday, 25 November 2006

Race Is

Pot is bad for you, and good for you. In doses smaller than a joint, it's bad; in large doses good- but all pot degrades into smaller doses. They're working on the first quantum computers. We may be able to make hearts from one stem cell from a baby. Molecules provide an anchor for memories. Black holes spin really fast. And the article for today's musings: race seems to be based on DNA .

Geneticists have found that humans can vary as much as 12% in their genetic code, putting paid to the notion that we are 99.9% identical. That idea of mass similarity seems to have no scientific merit, as attractive as it is. About 12% of our DNA varies in the number of copies it has- and this tends to correspond with the ethnic group self-identification of individuals. Basically there are genetic differences between those of European, African, and Asian descent. And this isn't a crack-pot study- it's the third study recently to indicate massive differences by race.

How does this work, considering recent studies have indicated that we are 97% the same as chimpanzees and 99.5% the same as Neanderthals? How then can we as humans be 12% different? As I understand it, our DNA between one human and another is still much more similar than between us and another species or subspecies. We still have a much smaller genetic diversity than most species, indicating perhaps a historical bottleneck. However, up to 12% of our DNA varies- and this corresponds to traditional racial classifications. It's been long known that there are differences in certain points, such as the African-American heightened tendency towards sickle-cell anemia. But this is the first study to quantify the difference to such a great degree.

What it doesn't indicate: that one group is superior to another, or that genetics are the big deal. As the study mentions, wolves and dogs are almost completely genetically the same, but they act and look far different. Culture and gene expression both play a role in differences.

And yet, this should come as no suprise. It is standard evolutionary fare: a population breeding separately with another population will start to build up genetic differences. Indeed, this is how we are able to determine that the Austrailian Aboriginals isolated themselves from the rest of the species long ago, 30,000 years ago- the oldest isolation split we know of. The longer a group is isolated, the more different one would expect the genes to be, leading eventually to a speciation event.

Perhaps there's something here to celebrate. And to learn. We are different, yet equal. It's hard to grasp. But it's what we find in the Garden. Eve is created as a help-meet, equal to Adam. And yet she is far, far different. God calls the most different, male and female, to learn to love each other. Love is not easy, and it's not supposed to be. It's harder especially to love those that are different. It's far easier to love myself, or at the very least, my clone. I think that's a big reason why God calls us to love a woman- to learn to love the different.

And now we see how this opportunity is present in groups of people as well. Not only are they different culturally, but also biologically. Yet just like men and women, no group is inferior or should be subservient to another. We are suddenly impressed with the huge realization that "those other people" are really different. And equal to me, both spiritually and hopefully in the world of human affairs. It's no longer a matter of my group being better, or pretending that we are all the same in a giant melting pot. I now have to learn what true love is- loving the different. I now have the opportunity to struggle through that to reach true love.

Perhaps one day there will be discovered that there are certain genetic tendencies that make one group better than another in certain areas- stronger legs or some such. But probably at that point we will have reached the future state that everyone is predicting- through interbreeding we are all dark-skinned, with those recessive traits of blond hair and blue eyes nearly bred out of existence. It's through the process of loving the different that I discover my basic similarity to them.

Saturday, 18 November 2006

Who's Your Daddy?

Today's World Science revelations included Spider Monkeys having developed a natural perfume based on leaves (naturally used most often by the males); dark energy has been around for a long time and is causing the universe to expand at an increasingly fast rate; red wine is good; and new subatomic particles. I'll be focusing on the sequencing of Neanderthal DNA.

This is pretty cool stuff. Based on a Neanderthal thigh bone they have found a genetic similarity between us and them of 99.5%, although in many places they are more similar to chimpanzees than us. (By comparison humans and chimpanzees differ by 96%, and rats from mice by ten times that amount.) The DNA shows that the last time we had a common ancestor was 706,000 years ago, and that our DNA hasn't mixed for the last 330,000 years. (The last time chimps and us had a common ancestor was 6 million years ago.)

We, Homo sapiens, arrived in Europe between 40,000-50,000 years ago. Neanderthals disappeared completely between 33,000-24,000 years ago. And ever since then scientists have wondered why.

There's been two primary hypothesis. Firstly that we killed them off. This makes us somehow better adapted to the climate. We didn't necessarily have to kill them off through warfare- it could have been that we simply outcompeted them for space and food, though some studies indicate signs of violence on Neanderthal bones. Perhaps the change in climate at the time was one that Neanderthals were pre-conditioned to not be as adaptive to, but our Cro-Magnon ancestors were. If this is the case, then they are a separate species at the end, with no mixing between us, and should be called Homo neanderthalis.

The other option is that they disappeared through sex. Or rather, that they are still with us. We interbred with them to such an extent that their genes merged with us, and traces of Neanderthals still remain in modern humans. In which case they would be a subspecies, and properly called Homo sapiens neanderthalis. Of course, this wouldn't exclude the possibility of Homo sapiens sapiens (us) killing off large portions of them as well. And in either scenario, we once were of the same stock- the species concept is somewhat arbitrary, as it is always in a state of evolving flux. We can only say that if an animal can't, or doesn't, interbreed with another animal, it is of a different species. (Higher taxa are determined in a far more general manner, losing even this minimal definitiveness.)

This study indicates that the killing option was more likely. If the last time our genes were the same was 330,000 years ago, this was a long time after we diverged as modern humans, 130,000 years ago. Therefore we weren't around to interbreed with the Neanderthals at the time our DNA indicates similarities. However, other recent studies of the DNA of the very same bones indicate great similarites between the two lines, indicating continued sexual activity between the two groups.

The data is therefore still indeterminative at this point. However, the earlier study indicating sex between the two parties used a method that some say results in incomplete results mixed with intrusive DNA. This same analysis suggests that the difference between human and Neanderthal DNA will show to be less than that between the highly diverse African human populations. I'm personally rooting for the sex option, and I still have hope that it becomes the final conclusion. Probably a big part of this is my natural liberal bias- "Make love, not war" and all. Just a much more romantic notion to think that they disappeared that way, rather than us committing, however inadvertedly, the first and greatest mass genocide of our species. It doesn't help that the ones possibly committing this were my European ancestors.

But there are other reasons to hope for this. We know that Neanderthals had tools, cared for their injured, made art, abstract thinking, and probably buried their dead. This means something pretty far advanced. And however one determines the presence of the soul, life after death seems to be a big part of that, as it indicates the presence of a belief in the afterlife, and therefore some sort of religious belief.

Even more so, Neanderthal brain cases were larger than our own. They were also larger in body, and their brains were structured differently than ours- but there is the possibility that they were actually smarter. Solid evidence indeed that a bigger brain is not necessarily a selective advantage. I'd hate to lose out on all of that brain, culture, and heritage, wasted away, without a memory or a presence. Better to hope, however indefinite the evidence is at the moment, that there is a bit of Neanderthal in me, and you. Better to take the opportunity to glory in the compliment of intelligence, the next time somebody calls you a Neanderthal.

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

In the Beginning

New ways to remove radiation from humans; gays are more likely to suffer from addictions; what causes SIDS; and how pollution makes people stupider. This is particularly true for those born between 1960 and 1980, because of exposure to lead in gasoline. Bummer. Evidently this population has had marked increased in retardation and autism, decrease in attention span, and half as many with an IQ over 130. That's just really depressing.

But the article I'll focus on is some intriguing experiments looking at similarity between Saturn's moon Titan and the primordial atmosphere of Earth. Chemists have reproduced Titan's methane-nitrogen atmosphere with the application of UV light to create long-chain hydrocarbons, and astronomers have noticed these same chemicals in Titan's atmosphere. Similar chemicals are created with a methane-carbon dioxide base, the posited primordial Earth atmosphere.

The origin of life is problematic, for a few reasons. One, it's important to biology, but it's not really biology. There's no genes yet, there's no reproduction- it's the beginning of all that. So it's not really the biologists who are experts in this; it's more the chemists. And of course, it's hard to get data on it, and we still don't know a lot about how it all started. In truth there is no theory yet for this part- it's only different hypothesis. Lastly, it seems to have happened only once.

One hypothesis is that God created everything like Q, with a snap of His fingers. Not a scientific hypothesis, but it's there. And it could have happened. I can't think of any alternate scientific hypothesis that can reject it at this point- we just don't have enough evidence on how it happened through natural means. But I can think of a couple good theological reasons why it didn't happen that way.

The Literal Creationist and Intelligent Design hypothesis due injustice not only to science but also to religion, specifically Christianity. For they posit a weak God. As with the title of this blog, their God is too impotent to be able to do a complex creation- the creation must be made ex nihilo in the blink of an eye. It has none of the beautiful complexity of a multi-evolving community.

But even more, it does injustice to the concept of a miracle, and therefore of God. We repeatedly see God doing miracles for a purpose. They are signs, to point the way. They are not to prove the existence of God- nothing can- but rather signs to help us understand the nature of God. So I ask. Who exactly were these early supposed miracles for? The dodo? Triceratops? Sea Scorpions? No, it was far earlier than that. Not even the Archaea, those oldest and perhaps most primitive of bacteria, are around to see the beginnings of life. All we have are the rocks as silent observers. The argument that these were signs of God's existence for humans millions (or thousands) of years later is far too weak, for the signs left for us are far too inconclusive. In the case of evolution, there is too much evidence to the contrary. But for both the origin of life, and evolution, and anything else, there is not the clear overriding evidence to support a Q-snap for a creation event- which would be required if this were a sign for things to come- namely us.

As to it being a sign to help us understand God, I'd ask what does it reveal of God to say he creates in a moment, rather than through a process? That actually leads to some excellent discussion, but for another time. But such can not be an argument for Literal Creation vs. Evolution- it is rather that, once we understand the process, we can better understand who God is.

The final reason why God would not have created life in a supernatural event is that it limits God. It is the limit of the God in the Gaps, which ultimately does more injustice to God than it does to science, although it does great injustice to the latter as well. For it limits God. It puts Him in a box, saying He can only operate at certain times. It is a miracle, when we can't figure out how it might have happened. Then God steps in, and "poof", there is an elephant. Or an eye. It says God can't create through natural means- he must resort to being The Great Magician. But God uses miracles for a reason, not just for fun. If we believe what the Bible indicates.

The Literal Creationist hypothesis therefore ultimately reduces the intimate presence of God. We learn nanini, nanini na- God is everywhere. He is not all things, but He is in all things. He is a part of it. In Him we live and move and have our being. The existence of anything, by any process, is a miracle. Yet according to Intelligent Design, God created at only certain points, when it was too complex to do otherwise, and everything else evolved. So God is somehow less present in certain moments of creation. It is less of a creative event if it happens through evolution; it is less fully God.

That's not the kind of God I'm interested in. I'm interested in a God who is intimate in every moment of creation, who is intelligent enough to design a system that boggles the mind. Miracles do not happen because God must do them, and the natural processes He designed will not suffice. They happen so we can know Him.

So, I reject the premise that the formation of first life happened through a Q-like miracle. It was certainly a miracle, but one that occurred through natural means. What those natural means are...I'm not telling. We truly don't know yet. But science is philosophically naturalistic- it must use the same system for understanding the natural world. Otherwise, whenever we don't understand something, we simply stop working, and chalk it up to an act of God. Which kind of grinds things to a halt. Killed someone recently? Use the "God-made-it-appear-like-me-but-it-was-someone-else" defense. Works every time.

The formation of first life can't have occurred through a supernatural event, primarily for theological reasons. We don't yet have all of the evidence for the natural formation, but based on the beginnings of it, I'm sure it will eventually come in.

Science does very well with the repeated event. Not so well with the event that happens only once. And the formation of first life appears to be the singular event par excellant. Or is it? Was life formed once, or multiple times? I'd say the evidence is fairly clear that it formed only once. All life portrays certain similarities. We have the same base pairs on DNA (or in a few cases like HIV, RNA), leading to the same proteins. Statistically, it didn't have to happen that way. If life had formed a few times, you would expect differences in descendants. Even more telling, all natural organic molecules portray the same chirality. Molecules can go to the right or left in their polarization of light- and there's a 50:50 chance it would be one of the other- or they can be symmetrical and not go either way. All organic molecules are left chiral. If you tried to consume something, say on another planet, that was right chiral, or had no chirality, you'd get either very sick, or maybe just die. You wouldn't be able to consume it as nourishment. So it's a good thing all organic molecules on this planet have the same chirality. But since they do, and to be working organic molecules, they could have chosen right or left, this is another powerful argument for a common origin for all life. And since there seems to be no good supernatural explanation (again, in the sence of a Q-like moment) for the formation of first life, even though the formation of first life is a singular event, I would suggest it can be naturally explained.

Of course, we may discover life with the opposite chirality on this planet one day, but for now, we are left with evidence indicating too much commonality in all life. But this begs the question as to why life only arose once.

There's the question on how life first formed. But I have thought recently, there's an even better question on why it formed only once. And why don't we continue to see it arising now? Granted, that might be happening- but we have yet to see it, and if it were occurring, one would think that by now we would have observed it in a lab or in nature. If the conditions were just right for it to arise once, why not more than once? Why not more than once in the Archean Eon, the first biological time period, or more than once and still continuing today? It appears that the conditions of the early atmosphere that allowed the formation of life were anaerobic and involved particular gases and lightning. Such a grouping of events doesn't occur commonly today, with our poisonous oxygen atmosphere. But it does occur in certain places on the planet, or on other planets. If life was so unstoppable that it formed spontaneously before, why not in those places? It didn't even have much time to form- most recent evidence that it was as recently as 3.5 billion years ago there was life, allowing for only half a billion years for life to form after the Earth stopped being molten. This indicates that the formation of life is very likely- it is a probable event. And yet, still, it isn't here, again.

(Note that for the ID crowd, the claim is that life has been created numerous times, and therefore, should be observed now- but they have no good explanation as to why it has not been observed being formed ever in the history of humanity, past myths on spontaneous generation not withstanding.)

I haven't forgotten the main point of this essay. I've just been taking my time getting there. This newest research provides dramatic further answers as to why life hasn't formed again. The chemistry of the early Earth's atmosphere was so radically different that it hasn't been repeated. A methane-based atmosphere, exposed to UV light as it had no Ozone Layer to protect it, could have produced the building blocks of life. But such an atmosphere does not now exist, and hasn't for a long time.

Much more research of course remains to be done, to get from those building blocks to life. We have seen the development of amino acids spontaneously from organic molecules, and spontaneous formation of nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA) into self-replicating RNA. We've known for a long time that lipid bilayers automatically form the cell membrane. But there remains a lot of research to be done to get from there to a functioning cell. And left a mystery is why life didn't evolve more than once in that original atmosphere. Of course, perhaps it did, and the other forms were unable to compete with our ancestors.

Often it is claimed that there are gaps in the evolutionary lineage. I am impressed at how, again and again, evolution will predict an outcome, and the evidence will eventually be found- very similar to the process of Biblical archeology, which is also often gainsaid. Just as evolutionists for a century and a half were attacked for lacking the evidence for the fossil record of whales, and we now have a complete record, so the predictions of the origins of life are starting to fall into place, one molecule at a time.

Thursday, 2 November 2006

A Gloss on the Epistemology of the Spirit

For the 2nd installment of the World Science Review, I had a hard decision. There was the use of antimatter in medicine, the benefits of red wine, and elephant self-recognition in the mirror. Even more intriguing were the possibility of evidence indicating our relation to Neanderthals, the likelihood of the oceans completely dying by 2048, and cultural tendencies to see the world as related to self verses other objects. Difficult choice. But I finally decided on studies of brain chemistry in glossolalia- speaking in tongues.

The article says that those speaking in tongues have less control over language centers of the brain, and they have less activity in the area of the brain that usually shows self-control. The authors of the study state that naturally, it must mean some other undiscovered part of the brain is in control, and that they look forward to "demystifying" glossolalia. They affirm that their results are what you would expect from the claim made by those speaking in tongues to be "out of control".

I must admit a certain knee-jerk dislike of this research. Or at least the conclusions drawn from it. And that forced me to try to figure out why.

It's not the mention of demystifying. I just think that's completely wrong. The researcher speaks of it as if that would be a good thing. A life without myth is a life not worth living. And just because something is fully understood, if it ever could be, doesn't mean it has lost its sense of wonder, its power of myth, or its taste of the numinous. That can still be there, if we are willing to search for it.

I think it relates more to the natural assumption that there must be some other part of the brain that is in control, if the frontal lobe is not. And that bothers me. I want to believe that God is control when I'm speaking in tongues, not a subsidiary lobe. I don't want science to discover something else.

But of course, this is exactly the same issue that we dwell with in the evolution/creation debates. For Literal Creationists would propose a God of the Gaps, a God who works in between the areas of knowing. Wherever we don't know, there is God. And we constantly restrict God to a narrower and narrower Modernist sphere, as we learn more and more. But the Intelligent Design projection of God into irreducible complexity ultimately means that we stop all research once we declare something to be irreducibly complex- God did it, who can understand it? But I don't think that God desires us to stop our investigation into His creation at any point. To do so is to cease to investigate Him.

And that's what I'm doing in being bothered by this research. I want them to not find where this cranial blood is flowing, ever. I want it to remain a mystery, indicating the presence of God. But I must deal with the real possibility that the locus of control is one day found.

To take a different tack: science studies the repeated, physical phenomena. It must remain in epistemologically materialistic. Therefore it cannot study the miraculous. The singular event, the insertion of spirit into matter, such as the Virgin Birth, is beyond the abilities of science to investigate, to prove, or disprove.

Are tongues miraculous? Is our definition of miracle sufficient, claiming it to be a singular event? Let's take a different sort of miracle, that of healing. Happens all the time, to varying degrees- supernatural healing. Does this then make it no longer miraculous? No! Indeed, it is perhaps the epitome of the miracle. So then by what right do we now claim a miracle to be a singular event?

Because a basic part of science is uniformitarianism, such that events repeat themselves, throughout all of life, all of science. And they repeat themselves to a very large degree. Truly, the odds are just too great against an animal like the dodo re-evolving without the assistance of future genetic recombination. But natural selection proceeds in the same manner in many different organisms. DNA is the same, transcribing into RNA- and has been the same for 4 billion years.

But supernatural healing is not. This sort of healing involves a direct interaction between God, or a spirit, and the healer, and the healed. It involves each of them as body-persons, interacting with the supernatural realm. Those who would reduce supernatural healing to a systematic procedure reduce it to mere science, and rob it of it's glory. And in the process, they allow science to be able to study it. And be sure, science will find it to be less than it is claimed. For if science can study it, then it must not have been supernatural to begin with.

So now I return to tongues. A repeated event, repeated many times, in many individuals. But more than that, a supernatural event. A unique interaction between the living God, or a spirit, every time. Even more so than healing, for it is an opportunity to directly commune with the living God, as He comes to speak in you what you can not speak yourself. This is unique supernatural interaction, and therefore can not be studied by science.

How is this any different from the hypothesis of a literal creation? Why should one be a supernatural event, and the other not? Leaving aside the overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution, I'd claim they are both fully supernatural events, and therefore both can not be studied. And they are physical events, and can therefore be fully studied. It's the imposition of the supernatural that science can not study. And in the case of origins, in what way God was or was not present within the formation of the planet and it's life is simply beyond the ken of science. But to claim that the planet was created in a Q-like moment by snapping the fingers is wholly different from the claim that science can not see the spirit in tongues. It would be more the claim that, when someone is speaking in tongues, it happens in another dimension that can not be observed, and that we are imagining the person praying in tongues before us. For the evidence is there- both for an evolution and for people speaking in a strange language. And God can be fully present in both, but in a way never discernible by science.

Yes, science can determine where the blood is flowing, and that the frontal lobe is not being used, and the person does not appear to have conscious control of what they are doing. (We leave out of course those cases where the person is faking tongues, or thinks they are speaking in tongues but has honestly fooled themselves. Both definitely do occur, and I suspect far too often. It would be interesting to compare the brain scans of such individuals with those honestly speaking in tongues, if a rubric could be effectively constructed.) And honestly, science may one day discover that another lobe has all the activity. But what matters is the interpretation. Some may come and say then, "See- it was all a self-deception!" And they would be justified in their interpretation. Others may say, "See, this is how God chooses to interact with us. When He speaks to us, He does so using a different part of the brain, so that we are no longer in control." And this also would be a valid interpretation.

As for me and my house, we're going to go pray in the Spirit.

Monday, 30 October 2006

"I'm not gay!" the dog barked.

World Science has a weekly email of the latest, most intriguing scientific discoveries and experimental results. You can subscribe to them at their site and they'll send you the latest. Inspired by recent readings of natural history by the Great One, Stephen Jay Gould (peace be upon him) in The Panda's Thumb, this blog will be a weekly take on a World Science article.

This last week had some very interesting reports. How the dinosaurs actually died, the oldest known organic molecules discovered, and why vampires are simply mathematically impossible. Hard to decide on one. But I picked "A Wild, and Gay, Kingdom". Turns out, contrary to what has often been thought, being gay is not unnatural, at least as far as animals go. There's actually a very high incidence of single gender sexual interaction in different animals. I know. Why pick an uncontroversial topic for a first post?

As I mentioned on the World Science Commentary, I have a number of problems with this exhibition, or rather, how it was presented. Boekman, heading the exhibition organizers, states that homosexuality occurs in many animals, especially herd animals, and in a number of them, it is actually a more common coupling than heterosexuality. Therefore in certain species most individuals are gay. However, just because an animal engages in a homosexual act, doesn't make him or her gay, anymore than it does with humans. That's the problem the gay community often has interpreting the Kinsey Report. They claim that, based on it's results, 10% of humans are gay. However, that's not what the report says. Not only was it a study of Americans only, but it stated that 10% engaged in homosexual acts at some point in their lives; less than 2% were committed to exclusively gay relationships. This is closer to what we actually find in other studies. And likewise, just because in some other species most of the individuals engage in homosexual acts, doesn't make them gay. Indeed, the exhibition supports this finding, in that exclusively gay organisms are a far smaller percentage than those that have the occasional gay fling, or even the regular gay interaction. The latter makes them bi, not gay.

Secondly, as part of his justification for the argument of the widespread presence, Boekman even mentions invertebrates and worms, with the implication that this makes it normative for humans. But I'm sorry, invertebrates are just too different to make that leap. Especially worms! I mean, come on- they're hermaphrodites!

This brings me to the argument from nature. Yes, one argument that's been used against homosexuality is that it's "not natural", because it doesn't normally occur among humans. And it's true, this exhibition blows that argument out of the water. But just because something occurs in nature, or doesn't, doesn't make it morally normative for humans. A similar mistake was made when misguided fools tried to apply evolutionary principles to human groups to claim that whites were superior. Biology shouldn't dictate morality. When it does, we usually go the wrong direction, fatally so. Biology is great for answering the What. Not the Why.

Second, God made each animal unique. It should follow it's own rules. Not to imply that non-humans can operate under a morality. It's not like they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil. But let's be honest, there's nothing wrong with a hermaphrodite sleeping with a hermaphrodite, or a protandrous fish changing gender- that's how they were designed. But there's a problem with us trying to be hermaphrodites, or changing gender- we're not designed that way.

Now, I'm not using design like that Intelligent Design hypothesis. But God's made us to be the way we are- whatever that means. We worship Him best by being what we are. You can do it spiritually, or emotionally/physically. When we try to change what we are (say, to become a hermaphrodite), we do damage to our psyche. Unless we should reproduce like the Dinophilus Annelid's sibling mating, which produces 4 offspring in each egg, 3 female and 1 male? The male then has sex with it's sisters, dies within the egg, and the three sisters hatch to recapitulate the entire cycle. If homosexuality is wrong or right, it has nothing to do with nature, or what other animals do. It has to do with what God has called us to, what will bring us the most Joy, allowing us to fully worship Him. And that's a question that can be answered in religion, or philosophy, but not biology.

Third, the argument from natural selection: Boekman discusses how common homosexuality is, suggesting that it has naturally developed a number of times in many animals. No argument there. But the mere reporting of the fact is not enough. Where's the mechanism? I want to know what the advantage to homosexuality is. Why are organisms which do this selected for, even in the minority? One could argue that it helps in establishing bonding or dominance rituals- and indeed, this has long been argued by biologists. Yet Boekman poo-poos this explanation, stating that biologists have an inherent bias against homosexuality and refuse to see it as a sexual act. If it is a sexual act, then why does it continue to evolve? What selects for it? Is it a mere spandrel? (That's quite the spandrel.) Inherently, homosexuality is selected against. Biology is all about sex. An organism can't continue it's offspring, and fulfill it's evolutionary duty, without it. Biologically, without reproduction, it has failed. An organism committed to homosexuality only can not continue it's genes, and therefore can not continue the genetic coding towards homosexuality. Therefore there must be a non-sexual selection for homosexuality, if it continues. Dominance and friendship seem to be better explanations within evolutionary theory.

Lastly, my biggest issue with the study is likewise in regard to sex. It would seem the organizers are very unaware of the meaning of sex. Perhaps because this exhibition is on the bridge of two different disciplines. I would imagine (not knowing for sure) that in anthropology, sex refers to two individuals enjoying each other in reference to their reproductive organs, often with orgasm. However, in biology sex refers to the mixture of gametes. Unless Boeckman has a rather novel proposal for how this might occur between two sperm or two eggs, gay interactions between animals are not sex, by biological definitions. There is no way they can be. Hence previous researches are quite correct to not refer to this as sex.

It's beginning to appear that the exhibition organizers have a bias and an agenda.
This is the discussion of the World Science updates as they become available.
Your thoughts are most welcome here.