What pedants might require

When the Scripture uses anthropomorphic terms with reference to God and his actions, we must interpret accordingly and not predicate of God the limitations which belong to men. When Scripture conveys truth to us by the mode of apocalyptic vision, we cannot find the truth signified in the details of the vision literalised. If Scripture uses the language of common usage and experience or observation, we are not to accuse it of error because it does not use the language of a particular science, language which few could understand and which becomes with the passing phases of scientific advancement. The Scripture does not make itself ridiculous by conforming to what pedants might require.

John Murray, The Collected Writings: Claims of Truth v. 1, p.14

Origins debate: Evolution

Structure générale d'un acide aminé.

I find that when a debate spans more than one generation, it often becomes difficult to follow – especially for newcomers. The Origins debate (often unthinkingly called “Creation/Evolution debate”) definitely qualifies. But despite their entertainment value, misunderstandings from both sides (including yours) don’t help anyone get anywhere. And that defies the point of a debate, right, Mr/Ms Militant ________ist?

So the Microscope, being of a biological inclination, will do what it always tries to do: help us see better. Whether it suceeds is up to the viewers to decide. And I think its fair to start with an overview of evolution theory. Why? Well, no Darwin, no debate.

By the way, I won’t bother with references etc. This is meant to be (relatively) quick and painless.

So, this is how current evolution theory goes:

Life begins with abiogenesis – rudimentary biomolecules (primitive amino acids or primitive genetic material) arise from inorganic, “non-living” molecules. Cement’s been poured in the foundations. Now, strictly speaking, this is not “evolution” yet since we can’t speak of “natural selection” without genes. Big mistake, made by many. As far as evolution goes, how life began is a bit beyond its purview.

Back to the pond: Due to external/environmental factors and what can only be described as chance, these proto-biomolecules combine in different ways, giving rise to complexity. But remember: mere complexity doesn’t ensure survival (if anything, quite the opposite). Still, we’re all here, which means that something must’ve clicked. But exactly how that could have happened is still a red-hot item of debate.

So, now we have something like an amino acid – or a nucleotide. Building blocks that can combine a bit more easily under the current conditions. And they do – the rise of peptides or genetic material. More complex macromolecules are here. And some of them “survive” while the others perish – the usual. This process then repeats itself, randomly or semi-randomly, meaning that it’s probably fuelled/energised by external factors (temperature, pH, energy zaps, the presence or absence of other elements/molecules), which also act as a selective force, allowing some complexity to “survive” and “killing” off the rest.

Remember: in mainstream evolution theory, nothing is born because it’s objectively functional. It just happens to be in the right place at the right time.

Given enough time, complexity increases and is “favoured” by the selective conditions as compared to other complexity that might have arisen. As molecular complexity increases, information also increases. Entropy wants to break down everything to the simplest forms. For a macromolecule (peptide, RNA, polysaccharide – take your pick) to come about – let alone go against the grain and “survive” – it has to rely on more than mere chance. Like any system, its structure contains information, and if that information is going to increase as complexity increases (we’re obviously not just peptides anymore), it needs a way to pass on from “generation to generation” efficiently and relatively stably.

Enter the gene. Somewhere down the line, a coding system has developed (will develop?  Who knows?). Simple molecules, the nucleotides, can string three together to “represent” what has become the building block of complex organisms, an amino acid. This new method is relatively more accurate than just trying to put amino acids together to make proteins. It’s a template. A design of some sort that is not as vulnerable to chance as waiting for something as complex as a protein to just arise out of primeval goo.

The gene is the bee’s knees. Compared to anything else out there, it’s simple, efficient and ensures the relatively accurate passage of information through time. But it’s not perfect. To build even a basic cell, it needs a fairly complex molecular machinery; something to “translate” three nucleotides into an amino acid. What all this means is that the gene system is prone to alterations. It’ll make mistakes every now and then, and we call those mistakes, mutations.

Mutations are interesting. Most of them stop everything dead in its tracks. But every now and then, they cause just enough change to survive into the next generation. Give it enough time and mutations accumulate. Some accumulations make it, so don’t. But give it enough time, and you just might end up with a whole new trait. And maybe that new trait actually increases the survival chances of the particular organism over all its other friends, because they didn’t get the upgrade.

Of course, all this depends on the conditions out there. Where and when you’re alive. It’s all relative. Black colour won’t help you hide if you live in a white, snowy tundra. Better colour perception is not as good as improved hearing if you’re nocturnal. And so forth.

And that’s evolution in a nutshell (a coconut shell, actually): Mutations, chance, and survival conditions – a process we call natural selection. All you really need is a genepool, resources and time.

You get the idea – and really, you didn’t need me to tell you. It’s not like there’s a scarcity of information on evolution out there. But as I have often expressed my own doubts about the mainstream Origins dogma in this blog, I thought I’d demonstrate that I actually understand it first – and hopefully help others digest it.

After all, if you don’t evolve, you’ll get eaten.

To be continued...

Review: “Why Us? How science rediscovered the mystery of ourselves” by James Le Fanu

Books like this are not written every day; actually, they’re hardly ever written. In Why us? How science rediscovered the mystery of ourselves, medical doctor James Le Fanu sets out to demonstrate how two indisputably phenomenal achievements of science – the mapping of the human genome and the deeper understanding of the human brain’s workings – are impossible to reconcile with the worldview of absolute materialism adamantly held and preached ad nauseam by scientists today. And it goes without saying that his criticism immediately targets Darwin’s theory of evolution and common descent, though it extends well beyond that.

Le Fanu’s central thesis is that the model of common descent via random mutation and natural selection cannot even begin to explain a) the surprising similarity between genomes of completely different species and b) the non-material nature of the human mind (as opposed to the brain), which does however exert very material effects (you reading this review is a good example).

Chapters overview

Science triumphant, almost

An overview of the history of scientific achievement, culminating in the recent mapping of the human genome and the findings of the Decade of the Brain. However, both have failed to reveal how life can be organised by mere genetic “chemicals” or how the human mind can function by mere “electrical firing” in the brain.

The ramifications of the seemingly disappointing outcomes of the New Genetics and the Decade of the Brain are clearly prodigious, suggesting that we are on the brink of some tectonic shift in our understanding of ourselves.

The Ascent of Man: A riddle in two parts

The art, social life and intellectual achievements of the earliest civilisation of Homo sapiens, dated around 30,000 BC, challenge the notion of human evolution.

…how and why twenty or more distinct species of hominid should, over a period of several million years, have undergone that wholescale anatomical transformation required for standing upright, and then followed it up with acquiring that prodigiously sized brain whose potential to comprehend the workings of the universe appears so disproportionate to the needs of a hunter gatherer.

The limits of science 1: The quixotic universe

Isaac Newton’s landmark discovery of the law of gravity gave us a Grand Unifying Theory of the universe, but left us with the question of how mass exerts its gravitational force over mind-boggling distances without any physical medium (e.g. planets in space). It is an example of the limitations of science and an absolutely materialistic worldview.

Thus, ironically, this most scientific of theories, grounded in the observation of the movements of the planets expressed in mathematical form, subverts the scientific or materialist view which holds that everything must ultimately be explicable in terms of its material properties alone.

The (evolutionary) ‘Reason for Everything’: Certainty

The history of Charles Darwin’s “On the origins of species” and the way it was received as the Grand Unifying Theory of life, despite contemporary and later scientific criticism. The mostly non-Darwinian fossil record and the mysterious Cambrian explosion have presented with the problem of “transitional species” (aka “missing links”), i.e. the conspicuous absence of the multitude of intermediate organisms demanded by gradualistic evolution.

…there are dangers in supposing the wonder and diversity of the natural world to be so much more rapidly explicable than it really is… Darwin’s evolutionary theory readily short-circuited serious intellectual enquiry as it could, in an instant, produce a reasons for (literally), everything.

The (evolutionary) ‘Reason for Everything’: Doubt

The experiments of Gregor Mendel introduced the concept of the gene. Although his own notion of genetic “fixity” seemed to contradict Darwin’s theory, the discovery of gene mutations provided a biological way by which speciation could occur via natural selection – except that random mutations are rare and almost invariably disadvantageous. Mathematical models attempted to solve this dilemma by shifting the locus of evolution from the individual to the species as a whole, but failed to actually provide a consistent answer. Furthermore, the fossil record failed to answer the problem of “perfection” of organs and organisms as well as the conundrum of limb homology.

Thus, as of the early 1980s, science no longer had an adequate materialist explanation for the history of life. The surprise perhaps is how readily refutable Darwin’s theory turns out to be, as if it must contain some hidden flaw that invalidates its scientific credentials – as indeed it does.

The limits of science 2: The impenetrable helix

The discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA led to a progressive understanding of the genetic code, culminating in the mapping of the entire human genome in 2001. In light of this, genetic information could no longer be thought of as a chain, but rather as an intricately complex network between genes. This further minimised the impact of a single random mutation in driving evolutionary diversity. Further, vastly different species share hosts of identical genes, often in relatively similar numbers. Finally, identical control (“master”) genes produce entirely different variations of an organ (such as the Pax 6 gene for the eye), further compounding the problem. The gap from genetic material to genetic information cannot be bridged by strictly materialistic means.

The Double Helix fails the further test of scientific knowability because, like Newton’s gravitational force, it imposes the order of ‘form’ on life without there being any evidence of some scientifically measurable objective means by which it might do so.

The Fall of Man: A tragedy in two acts

In The descent of Man (1871), Darwin explained away the human mind by evolutionary means. The ripple effect of his theory had virtually unavoidable consequences on the way humans viewed themselves, setting the stage for racism, eugenics and other reprehensible forms of “genetic oppression”. Further, this “sociobiology” brought about the new discipline of evolutionary psychology that sought to “naturalise” human virtues like altruism.

We need, in short, a fuller, more rounded view that acknowledges the core reality of the human experience which sets us apart – the sense of the autonomous, independent ‘self’ not as some shadowy, elusive entity, but something real and tangible that explains the force of character and the personality that is within each of us.

The limits of science 2: The unfathomable brain

The human mind is obviously non-material, and yet it exerts material effects. The history of brain research has given us many tremendous insights into how our brains interact with the outside world. However, the purely scientific approach has left us with five seemingly insurmountable mysteries: subjective awareness; free will; the richness and accessibility of memory; human reason and imagination; and the Self.

Might neuroscientists discover how the electrical activity of the neuronal circuits of the brain gives rise to the non-material mind, and confirm as ‘mere illusion’ our perception of ourselves as free autonomous beings? The answer… must be ‘no’.

The Silence

An evaluation of the role of science in understanding the dual nature of reality (material and non-material). Some history of philosophy, looking at the way materialistic thinking overtook religious worldviews during the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science. However, the scientific inaccessibility of the genetic code and the human mind demand an alternative approach in defining the world and decisively challenges the claim of science as the absolute means of knowledge.

We can no longer be certain, as we might have been till recently… ‘that is all there is to it’, because we cannot, by definition, comprehend the nature of that potent non-material realm with its power to conjure the wonders of life from the bare material bones of scientific knowledge.

Restoring Man to his pedestal

Looking to the future, we realise that we have reached a tipping point for science. We realise that the long-held theory of evolution fails spectacularly to fit the evidence, and a worldview of materialistic reductionism is no longer sustainable. Instead, the author calls for a new paradigm of science; one that can accommodate notions of extraneous (or even intelligent) design in nature and the non-material dimension of the human mind. In particular, the exceptionality of the latter must drive us to an understanding of man that goes against Darwin’s Descent. Just as Marx and Freud failed to provide a “Theory of Everything” for history and human behaviour respectively, so does Darwin ultimately fail to provide an overarching explanation of life.

It now seems deeply irrational for materialist science to deny the exceptionality of the human mind and to insist that the sense of self and free will are no more than illusions generated by the workings of the brain. It is certainly irrational to assert the truth of the evolutionary doctrine (‘the mystery of our existence is a mystery no longer because Darwin solved it’) in the face of all the scientific evidence that would contradict it.

Evaluation

There isn’t really much left to say after the above. As a scientist, I think this is a powerful book and an inspiring call for science to do what it does best: self-correct – in this case, before it’s too late.

The fact that Le Fanu does not have an obvious religious context behind him (at least as far as I can see) means that, for once, a strong critique of Darwin might actually be taken seriously by the scientific community. Having said that, we cannot overlook that he does utilise many arguments (fossil record, comparative anatomy and irreducible complexity, to name a few) that have been previously posited by openly religious writers who, in turn, have been largely ignored or dismissed as ‘the crazies’. What that says about the scientific world, we leave the reader to decide.

The strength of Le Fanu’s arguments lies especially in the fact that they are up-to-date. His research is solid, both from a literary and scientific point of view. The writing flows and never becomes bogged down with the technical language that often plagues this genre (‘public communication of science’). His ability to clarify and simplify complex concepts is enviable, and certainly makes the book accessible to a wide audience (I particularly enjoyed his two-page description of gene coding).

Of course, the very nature of the book calls for a non-scientific evaluation. For people of religious conviction this will leave a few gaps. Despite his call for a non-materialist approach to knowledge, Le Fanu is careful not to lend ammunition to those who would accuse him of being a ‘creationist’, whatever that means anymore. He certainly gives scientific credence to the Design hypothesis, but with qualifications:

There is, of course, nothing in the new paradigm that can be interpreted as direct evidence for a Creator, or that would resolve the insuperable difficulty for many of conceiving of his existence and purpose. But while it is hard to imagine him hard at work designing several thousand species of beetle, there is vastly greater evidence for ‘design’ – for those who would wish to interpret it as such – than the supposition that the vast panoply of nature should be the incidental consequence of those numerous genetic mutations that the genome projects have so unequivocally failed to identify.

Overall, this is an important book in more than one ways. Its purpose is to raise awareness on the shortcomings of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, which has further stagnated in light of recent scientific discovery. But where the book really succeeds is in opening a bold way in which religion and science can find a realistic common ground. For those of a religious persuasion and especially Christians, who have been particularly shunned and berated by scientific materialism, this can only be good news.

Why Us? calls for scientists to free themselves from the bonds of Darwinism or risk corrupting the very essence of science itself. In my opinion, the book does this persuasively, though it is certain that the more vocal members of the evolutionary camp will proceed (and already have) with the usual accusations of “bad science” and “quote-mining”, followed by nit-picking that misses the big picture.

Of course, this will do nothing more than prove Le Fanu’s point: Adhering to (macro)evolution is no longer rational, but demands virtually religious faith. Ironically, the evidence leads us further and further away from Darwin; the problem is that science is desperately clinging on instead of looking for a new direction. But what that direction may be lies beyond its current materialistic borders.

How to approach the “Creation/Evolution” debate

In the past few weeks, I’ve dived headlong into the ongoing Creation/Evolution debate (note: even though I find that particular terminology misleading, I will use it here to keep us all on the same page). It’s inevitable, especially when you are a Christian and a scientist locked in the same body and mind.

Now, from the outset, I have to warn that I am not about to roll off an amazing list of amazing arguments that will forthwith eradicate the theory of evolution from the face of Young or Old Earth. I have no such delusions, particularly because I still consider myself a student of the debate, and I haven’t yet heard every angle. Not to mention that the last thing this debate needs is another PhD making authoritative propositions that he or she hasn’t thought through carefully – and this I say to BOTH sides of the table.

Also, please don’t make any rash assumptions about where I stand on this huge debate. Stay your hand before you cast me into your particular fire and damn me either as an apostate or a fanatic.

So, if I’m not going to rattle off a bunch of arguments about dinosaurs walking next to men and Lucy being a monkey, what am I going to contribute to the debate?

Well, how about some ground rules? Seriously. I’m not pretending to be a referee here, but as I’m researching the topic I find that if the following three rules were applied consistently those involved in the Creation/Evolution debate, much time, energy and misunderstanding could be spared – and things would move a bit faster and a bit smoother.

OK, enough vague generalisations – vague because so far I’m addressing EVERYONE who comes near this debate. But the following instructions are aimed in particular to those who are arguing from (and for) a Christian standpoint:

1. Participate

In other words, don’t dismiss the debate and hope it will just go away. It won’t. Since 1859, when Darwin first published his Origin of Species, the idea that we got here by way of genetic mutation, adaptation, natural selection and a bit of luck has caught on like wildfire, and has understandingly spilled over into the philosophical realm. Worldviews and regimes have stood on it. Gigantic policies with far-reaching implications for all mankind are influenced by it. It is at the root and core of today’s aggressive western secularisation. Schools teach it. Legal courts validate it. Eminent scientists build their careers by work on it. It supersedes the Humanities, the social sciences, philosophy, morality, codes of ethics and ways of life because it affects the presuppositions of each one of them. It’s not some sinister conspiracy promoted by evil men in white coats; it is a foundational and integral part of the modern scientific edifice. And in one form or another, it constantly confronts us as Christians in our evangelistic and apologetic mandate, whether we are ready for it or not.

2. Research

So, we’ve seen that we will have to get involved at some level. But how? Isn’t it best to leave it to Christians who are formally trained scientists and trained theologians?

Well, yes and no. It is true that the Creation/Evolution debate requires a good understanding of the scientific process, and reading a few Wikipedia pages just won’t cut it (having said that, scientists constantly turn to Wikipedia for reference). But on the other hand, Science is no longer the province of an elite group – we live in an exciting time of unprecedented openness and publicising of the scientific domain (if I said “stem cells” ten years ago would I have made the front pages?). For example, here’s an excerpt from a Nature editorial this week: “…there is no shortage of scientific information on the web. Witness the way that research funding agencies use the web to inform the public about everything from planetary missions to public health. In principle, anyone with an Internet connection now has access to more, and better, scientific coverage than ever before.”

And even though that often comes at a cost (LHC doomsayers anyone?), it also means that there is an organised effort to help the uninitiated comprehend as much as possible from the realm of scientific discovery. What does that mean? Quite simply, you don’t need a PhD in the life sciences to get a firm enough grasp of what’s currently going on in the world of evolutionary biology, because scientists will fall head over heels to explain it to you – and rightly so. There are resources out there – books, websites, videos, seminars, webinars – that can educate most people to an above-average level. And if it’s relatively easy to get valid resources, then there is no excuse for some of the abysmal argumentation that more often than not characterises the Christian camp to the mocking glee of the “other side”; it seems that some decades-old arguments are perpetually regurgitated despite having been challenged or even refuted. Or even worse, they reveal and/or lead to mortifyingly embarrassing misunderstandings of evolutionary theory (I really won’t mention that video again).

But having said all that, I feel compelled to propose that the frontline apologetic should be the burden of Christians who are formally trained in the sciences and those who are trained in biblical theology and apologetics. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga points out: “The scientists among us don’t ordinarily have a sufficient grasp of the relevant philosophy and theology; the philosophers and theologians don’t know enough science; consequently, hardly anyone is qualified to speak here with real authority. This must be one of those areas where fools rush in and angels fear to tread.”

3. Reject/Refine/Re-establish

It’s the way science is done: We observe something. Based on that observation, we make a hypothesis. We then test the hypothesis by testing its falsifiability. If the data from our test (aka “experiment”) falsify our hypothesis, we go back to it and either refine it or reject it completely. If the data don’t falsify our hypothesis, we re-establish it. Simple?

I still remember the first time I became aware that there was a debate going on. I wasn’t even a Christian yet, when at my church’s bookstore I picked up a little booklet that opened with something along the lines of: “When you wake up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror, do you say ‘I am made in the image of the most High God’ or do you just see an ape?” And shockingly, that line of argumentation still thrives today among certain people who pretend to represent an apologetic against evolution (I really won’t mention who, don’t bother asking).

But do a simple search on the Web and you will find hundreds of arguments challenging the theory of evolution. Then go over to a website like talkorigins.org and you will find some reasonable, well-researched and conscientious rebuttals to virtually every single one of them. And that seems to be the end of it. Where is the response of Christian scientists? Where is the refinement of the first argument or hypothesis? Why can’t we close ranks too and form a cohesive apologetic that keeps up with the times? The Creation/Evolution debate might really be a battle of a priori naturalism vs a priori biblical theism, but in the down and dirty it feeds and runs on the interpretation of scientific data – and that didn’t stop in the 19th century. If we want to get to a point where we can truly and validly reconcile science with the Bible on the issue of origins (which cannot be impossible), we won’t do it by arguing about errors that Darwin made– science has moved on since his time and so must we.

So, in closing, we want to be honest as Christians and honest as scientists. We don’t want to violate the authority of Scripture and we also don’t want to divorce our God from the realm of reason, especially when the Bible itself teaches that natural observation and reason bears witness of Him:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. – Rom. 1:19-23

Thoughts on Nature’s essay: "We cannot live by scepticism alone"

In this week’s issue of Nature, Professor Harry Collins, Director of the of Centre for the Study of Knowledge Expertise Science at Cardiff University publishes an essay entitled: “We cannot live by scepticism alone”.

In a refreshing way, Prof Collins gives a background to the way that social sciences have perceived the scientific world: First by regarding Science as the ultimate form of knowledge, and secondly with skepticism. He then moves on to propose a new model of understanding the impact of Science on today’s societies – a model which he calls “elective modernism”, as opposed to the current trend of POST-modernism that influences much of Western thinking today.

He writes: We must choose, or ‘elect’, to put the values that underpin scientific thinking back in the centre of our world; we must replace post-modernism with ‘elective modernism’. To support this, social scientists must work out what is right about science, not just what is wrong — we cannot live by scepticism alone. Natural scientists, too, have a part to play: they must reflect on and recognize the limits of their practice and their understanding. Together, we must choose to live in a society that recognizes the value of experience and expertise.

The primary drive of this proposal seems to be a growing misunderstanding of the limitations of Science, especially by scientists who virtually deny that those limitations actually exist because of their a priori postulation that the natural world is all that there is.

Writing about the Big War between scientists and social constructivists in the 1990′s, Collins writes: The conclusions of most of us were moderate: science could not deliver the absolute certainties of religion or morality, and scientists were not priests but rather skilful artisans, reaching towards universal truths but inevitably falling short. Far from being anti-science, we were trying to safeguard science against the danger of claiming more than it could deliver. If science presents itself as revealed truth it will inevitably disappoint, inviting a dangerous reaction; even the most talented craftsmen have their off-days, whereas a god must never fail. (my emphasis).

Prof Collins’ point is to encourage scientists to take and promote the fact the science is, by definition, limited. He wants scientists to be realistic and “teach fallibility” to a society that increasingly bestows upon them the role of moral leadership because it is also increasingly discarding and relativising its own ethical and moral standards.

Another quote: “If we are to choose the values that underpin scientific thinking to underpin society, scientists must think of themselves as moral leaders. But they must teach fallibility, not absolute truth. Whenever a scientist, acting in the name of science, cheats, cynically manipulates, claims to speak with the voice of capitalism, the voice of a god, or even the voice of a doctrinaire atheist, it diminishes not only science but the whole of our society.”

But, sadly, that’s as far as Prof Collins will go: Science is uncertain, but it might be all we have. We can’t be skeptical about it every time it doesn’t flow with Popper’s falsifiability standard (e.g.Joseph Weber’s gravitational waves in the 1960′s) but in the same time, we can’t grant it powers of divine and absolute revelation. Still, we must encourage it to take the reins of modern society – but always under the shield of open debate.

Towards the end, Prof Collins praises scientific discovery over “religion’s revealed truths” and claims that it is better grounding for the structural basis of society – so long as Science does not propagate delusions of certainty.

Reading this essay, I think it’s obvious that Prof Collins is not religious in any way. I would also dare to disagree with his proposition of a purely scientific society on the grounds that a) given his admitted uncertainty of science, it would ultimately produce a narrow and jelly-like foundation that, in the possibility of overturn would leave only destructive anarchy behind it with nothing to fall back on; b) it would illogically and unnecessarily close off the exploration of non-scientific dimensions, and c) it would turn scientific expertise from a noble goal into an unprecedented and unchallenged global political power-play with far-reaching repercussions.

Having said that, I do applaud Prof Collins for bringing the issue of scientific uncertainty into such sharp relief. And those of us who are Christians should take note, especially in an increasingly secularised world that wants the Christian worldview out of the public forum ASAP on the grounds that it has no validity in light of contemporary scientific progress. Strange, considering that it was that Christian worldview in the first place that, at least in the West, gave birth and sustenance to the scientific process.