Science and Faith at the American Scientific Affiliation 2018 Meeting

The American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) is an organization of evangelical Christians who are degreed scientists and who gather to discuss how their science and their faith interact. The 2018 annual meeting of the ASA was held last week at Gordon College, located north of Boston. A general theme of the meeting was “Bioethics and Biotechnology.” A list of links to all the talks, with audio and slides (and video for the plenaries) is here.    Videos of the plenary talks are also available here. That link might stream the plenary videos better than the general meeting link.

I will summarize here a number of presentations that I attended, which I have grouped into the categories below.

Contents

Plenary Talks

  Douglas A. Lauffenburger, “Humanizing Therapeutics Discovery”         

  Nigel M. de S. Cameron, “A Human Century?”

  Francis S. Collins, “The Joyful Complementarity of Science and Faith”

  Noreen Herzfeld, “Cybernetic Enhancement and the Problem of the Self”

  Jeffrey P. Schloss, “The Question of Purpose in the Living World: Does Evolution ‘Lead to Love’?”

Teaching Science to an Evangelical Christian Audience

More on Faith, Science, and Implications of Evolution

Three Responses to a Critique of Evolutionary Creationism

Workshop: “Reworking the Science of Adam”. Facilitated by S. Joshua Swamidass

The Image of God

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Plenary Talks

Douglas A. Lauffenburger, “Humanizing Therapeutics Discovery”

Describes approaches using new technology to speed the discovery of beneficial medicines.

Nigel M. de S. Cameron, “A Human Century?”

The confluence of massive, cheap, distributed computing power with artificial intelligence algorithms and robotics and the internet and endless data-gathering may lead to unprecedented human flourishing or to oppression by a digitally-enabled power elite. He noted that in China the government now has in place a program that monitors all the accessible political and social behaviors of people and then denies them privileges such as being able to get train or plane tickets if the government is not pleased with them.

I discussed with him afterwards what might be practical policy measures to help mitigate the effect of massive job displacement, as artificial-intelligence-enabled robots are able to perform more and more tasks. There is a prospect of ever-fewer humans stressing out while working full-time to support an ever-growing welfare class sitting on their couches collecting unemployment or other transfer payments. Nigel noted that the low headline unemployment numbers are partly an artifact of people dropping out of the workforce. He suggested that extending health benefits down to say 20 hours/week could draw more part-time people into the workforce and thus even out the workload.

 

Francis S. Collins, “The Joyful Complementarity of Science and Faith”

Francis Collins led the Human Genome Project which gave the first complete readout of human DNA around fifteen years ago. He is now director of the National Institutes of Health. In this talk he first shares his personal journey from atheism to faith in Christ, and then describes some powerful techniques to edit a person’s genes to potentially cure certain genetic-based diseases. Profound ethical questions are raised with germ-line gene editing, which can in theory be used to produce “designer babies”.

 

Noreen Herzfeld, “Cybernetic Enhancement and the Problem of the Self”

Explores the feasibility and implications of uploading your thinking processes to a computer. (I found this talk so intriguing that I describe it in more detail below).

Jeffrey P. Schloss, “The Question of Purpose in the Living World: Does Evolution ‘Lead to Love’?”

Describes various key evolutionary transitions, such as prokaryotes to eukaryotes, single cell to multicell organisms, asexual to sexual reproduction, solitary to (eu)social, and primate sociality to human sociality. Although the mechanism of evolution involves competition and survival of the fittest, the overall trend is that these evolutionary transitions lead to increased cooperative interdependence and eventually to the unique capabilities of humans for collective intentionality, moral norms, and religious faith.

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Noreen Herzfeld, “Cybernetic Enhancement and the Problem of the Self: Are We More Than Minds?”

Ray Kurzweil (The Age of Spiritual Machines) laid out a vision for achieving immortality by uploading our consciousness into computing machines:

“As we cross the divide to instantiate ourselves into our computational technology, our identity will be based on our evolving mind file. We will be software . . . Our immortality will be a matter of being sufficiently careful to make frequent backups.”

The U.S. Brain Initiative and the European Human Brain Project are working to map out the functions of the circuitry in our brains. But the brain is really, really complex, especially when we factor in the roles of neurotransmitters which actually carry the signals across synapses, so it will be some time before this sort of mapping is completed.

Francis Crick told us that, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will . . .You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” But are we more than just abstract information? Does it matter that our consciousness is embodied?

Our bodies are an important part of ourselves: They give us continuity over time, they provide the locus of our intelligence (how we learn and how we remember), and they let us feel. It is argued that human emotions are closely linked to our bodies, literally, how we feel.

There are people today who lack emotions such as empathy, remorse, anxiety and embarrassment. We call them “sociopaths”. Is that what a purely thinking being could be? (One could presumably program a virtual being to think nice thoughts, even if he/she/it didn’t “feel” like it).

Christian theology has always affirmed the value of our bodies, over against teachings such as Gnosticism and Docetism. The final state we anticipate is not to float around heaven as disembodied spirits, but to be resurrected with bodies, albeit of a different kind than our present flesh.

In the Q&A session, someone asked something like, “What would a virtual person do all day? Just sit around and think?” The speaker noted in response that she is not aware of many women who are excited about living in silico. She pointed out that self-instantiation in software is mainly proposed by men, and nerdy men at that. Also in the Q&A, she noted that there is no actual “cyberspace”. Information is always instantiated on some physical hardware. Thus, the notion of becoming independent of the physical world is illusory.

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Teaching Science to an Evangelical Christian Audience

There were a number of presentations dealing with faith and science education. I will describe four of them.

Kathryn Applegate, “BioLogos INTEGRATE: New Christian Worldview Supplement for High School Biology”

Currently, teachers at Christian schools and home schoolers must choose between secular biology textbooks, which offer no Christian worldview context, and Christian-published curricula, which often are written from young earth creation or Intelligent Design perspectives, which do not accurately convey the science. To address this dilemma, BioLogos is developing an on-line Christian worldview supplement to accompany existing standard biology textbooks such as Miller and Levine. Topics include ways of knowing (in science and theology), creation care, fossils, age of the earth, etc. Five out of a planned fifteen modules have been completed. These include videos, hands-on activities, Scripture meditations, exploration of theological/philosophical concepts, and integration exercises. Interested educators, including home schooling parents, can contact Kathryn at BioLogos to discuss participation in piloting this supplemental program.

Katherine referred to a recent TEDx talk, “The E Word” by April Maskiewicz, a biology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University.

In this talk, Prof. Maskiewicz describes how her pastor told her that she had to choose between Christianity and evolution, leading her to become an atheist. Some years later she came back to faith, and then had to wrestle through how to integrate that with her science. Katherine showed a slide with some discussion questions to follow up a viewing of this TEDx talk. (I believe this slide was presented as an example of the type of discussion material that is in the BioLogos INTEGRATE supplement).

 

Gladys Kober, Susan Benecchi, Paula Gossard, and Ashley Zauderer, “High School Curriculum: The Crossroads of Science and Faith: Astronomy Through a Christian Worldview–Outreach Phase”

A team of astronomers and educators have developed a complete 1-year curriculum for teaching a high school course in astronomy, preferably at an advanced (junior and senior) level. This curriculum consists of two parts: (1) an introduction to the science and faith dialogue and (2) astronomy as a discipline, including many interviews with professional Christian astronomers to engage and inspire students (more information at www.GlimpseofHisSplendor.com ). The textbook is long and lavishly illustrated.   Unfortunately, not many Christian high schools offer a full year course in astronomy, but this curriculum seems to me to be a great resource for home schoolers, who may have more flexibility in setting their coursework.

Patricia Fitzgerald-Bocarsly and Andrew Bocarsly, “The Science/Faith Dialogue in the Local Church: A Leap of Faith”

This wife and husband team offered a seven-week adult Sunday School in their non-denominational evangelical church in the Princeton, New Jersey area. Although this church includes a relatively high concentration of practicing scientists, congregants include people with young earth and other perspectives on creation.

One motivation for this course was to address the perception among young adults that churches are antagonistic to science. A 2011 Barnett group study of why many young Christians are leaving church turned up responses like this: “Churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%) and “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). They have been “turned off by the creation versus evolution debate (23%).

The course theme was that God reveals himself through his two books: the Bible and his creation. God is the author of both books (see Colossians 1:15-17). The curriculum comprised the following topics:

– The beauty and wonder of creation

– The history of science and faith, beginning in the middle ages

– The scientific method

– Cosmology and the age of the universe

Some proposed topics for a follow-up discussion series include creation care (including global warming), a history of Darwin and the response of his contemporaries, and models of origins (without taking a particular stance).

The starting text was a booklet published jointly by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), When God and Science Meet. That booklet can be purchased, or downloaded for free at https://www.nae.net/godandscience/ . It treats topics like the history of science and faith, the validity of scientific knowledge, worshipping God through science and discovery, and science as a Christian calling. It is clearly favorable towards evolution, but only touches on that subject briefly.

Patricia and Andrew skirted the subject of evolution and human origins, and focused on less divisive topics. In so doing, they apparently managed to get through this class with minimal outcry from young earth creationists. (One couple was upset, and asked for and received permission from the church elders to offer a two-week Sunday school class presenting the young earth viewpoint.) They received many thanks from university students and post-docs, who said how important it was to have the science/faith topic addressed, and how much it meant to them to see their professors praying in class.

Their ASA slides included the following prescient quote from James McCosh, president of Princeton University:

“I have all along had a sensitive apprehension that the undiscriminating denunciations of evolution from so many pulpits, periodicals, and seminaries might drive some of our thoughtful young man to infidelity, as they clearly saw development everywhere in nature, and were at the same time told by their advisers that they could not believe in evolution and yet be Christians” [Bedell Lectures, 1887]

McCosh insisted that the Darwinian hypothesis, rather than calling into disrepute the existence of God, served “to increase the wonder and mystery of the process of creation.”

 

Mark Strand, “Teaching Evolution to Young-Earth Trained High School Sunday School Students”

From the Abstract:

Scientifically informed positions on scripture play an important part of the intellectual and spiritual formation of Christian young people. The creationism movement, particularly Answers in Genesis (AIG), has used books, videos, and conferences to establish themselves as the most influential source of information for evangelical Christians wanting to understand origins. Therefore, young earth creationism has shaped the thinking of young people and curricular decisions of many Christian schools and home schoolers.

In 2015, funded by the Templeton Foundation, Trinity International University began The Creation Project, to catalyze a field of study around the doctrine of creation that is faithful to scripture and informed by scientific evidence. This became the inspiration for the project presented here, which was to design a 6-lesson course to introduce evolution to high school students in a Sunday School class in a Midwestern evangelical church. A 19-item survey was created and administered pre- and post-course.

The purposes of the Sunday school series were to:

– Help students understand that the doctrine of creation is essential

– Learn to do exegetical Bible study

– Be able to describe that a variety of scientific interpretations of Gen 1-3 are possible, and

– See that science is a method, not an enemy, and an opportunity for ministry

Some challenges were that the kids seemed unfamiliar with exegetical Bible study, some parents were concerned about the topic, and student views on some issues did not change (e.g., “The Bible is a source of scientific information”, “Because Genesis is true then evolution is false”, etc.).

Lessons learned included:

– Some of the students are either fearful of or disinterested in science

– Creating a safe atmosphere was important

– It took six weeks with the issues to sink in

– 17–18-year-old students need to be pushed out of their comfort zone

– Students seem ready to expand their understanding of science and scientists in a positive way

– They were afraid of revisiting absolutist views they hold on the Bible

– We need to begin where the students are at, not where a person is at after studying this issue for many years

– Humility and agnosticism: As scientists we need to be cautious when passing judgment on creation doctrines, and theologians should be similarly cautious when evaluating the scientific theory of evolution.

– There are different epistemologies in play: empirical, personal, ethical

– The series was as much an activity in pastoral care as it was an intellectual activity

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More on Faith, Science, and Implications of Evolution

James Sideras, “The Need for Generation Z Christian Apologetics”

The exact dates are not agreed upon, but it is common to call the generational cohort born about 1995-2010 “Generation Z”. These folks are now aged 8-23, and make up about 26% of the U.S. population. This is a larger cohort than the Baby Boomers (born 1947-1963) or the Millennials (Gen Y, born about 1980-1994).

Gen Zers have never known life without the internet, and are the first widely post-Christian generation.  Some implications of the Internet are: Listens with its eyes and thinks with its feelings; Independent and self-directed; Chasm between information and wisdom.

Gen-Z communicates with symbols, speed and images. Suggestions for reaching them include:

  • Engage with their objections. (Why can’t I have sex outside of marriage? Why do bad things happen?)
  • Visual storytelling.
  • Start with a hook. (You may get only eight seconds to grab their attention. It may help to define some opening statement that highlights a benefit.)
  • Be succinct. (They want bite-sized answers. It’s OK to leave them wanting more. This differs from traditional apologetics approaches which often involve long scholarly treatments of subject matter.)
  • Address emotional issues. (Many young people have grown up with helicopter parents, and so may need coaching on how to handle the stresses of the real world.)
  • Address spiritual vacuum and illiteracy. (Many in this generation don’t have even the memory of the gospel content.)

James has written a book on apologetics, where he pares each argument down to about 500 words, or three minutes of verbal presentation:   101 Good Reasons to Believe: A Comprehensive Case for Christianity .

 

Loren Haarsma, “Beyond the Free Will Defense: Natural Evil, Theodicy, and Sacrificial Love”

The problem of evil and suffering is a common theme of atheist challenges to Christianity. There are actually two distinct aspects of the problem of evil. One is intellectual, the other is emotional or experiential. No matter what we say to justify the big picture, usually no explanation is available for why some particular tragedy is permitted, and experientially, pain still hurts. This experiential aspect of suffering calls for pastoral care, and is beyond the scope of the discussion here.

With the intellectual problem of evil, it is asserted that there is a logical contradiction between the statements “God is all-powerful”, “God is all-good”, and “Evil exists”. However, this apparent problem is completely resolved  by adding a fourth statement: “God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil that exists, whether or not He reveals that reason to us”. It is not arbitrary to add this fourth statement, since it can be directly inferred from the first two statements (God is all-powerful and God is all-good). Atheists may complain about God not explaining His ways to their satisfaction, but that does not change the fact that the intellectual problem of evil for theism is resolved.

Technically, this is a defense, not a theodicy. It does successfully defend against the attacks of atheists. But then it stops, having accomplished its mission. A theodicy attempts to go further and explain to human satisfaction what are the reasons God could have for permitting suffering and injustice.

The early church fathers, for instance, proposed that experiencing suffering in this life, and choosing to trust God and to express his love to others, helps us to develop character that will make us more fit for living in the presence of God in the next life (the soul-making theodicy). In recent times it is commonly proposed that God places such a high value on free will, on having human beings that can choose to love or not to love, that he created a world where there is a genuine option to choose evil as well as good. These proposals probably all have some merit but we should not put too much weight on them. On this side of eternity, there will always be an element of mystery regarding the full sweep of God’s will and plan (see, e.g. Isaiah 55:8-9). We ultimately rely on God’s complex but good character as demonstrated in Jesus Christ, not in our ability to explain everything to our satisfaction now.

With all that said, I saw a presentation in the program by Loren Haarsma that looked interesting. It is along the lines of the free will theodicy but takes it further, to an emphasis on enabling self-sacrificial love [agape love, in the Greek]. The talk abstract says:

Atheists sometimes point to features of the natural world as arguments against theism (e.g., age and immensity of the universe, hiddenness of divine action, randomness, suffering caused by natural events and moral evil, evolution, the neuroscience of belief).

In response, numerous Christians have developed “free will” or “soul-making” accounts. A recent book by Christian Barrigar (Freedom All the Way Up, Friesen Press) affirms these accounts but advocates a shift of emphasis, arguing for free will as only a necessary precondition for God’s ultimate purpose of creating beings capable of understanding and living in relationships of self-sacrificial love toward each other and God.

Self-sacrificial love is especially central to God’s Trinitarian nature and revealed in Christ’s redeeming work. This “agape” account for these features of the world can be appealing to many Christians and powerfully inviting for non-Christians. It also has some implications regarding the subtlety of divine action in the natural world, and the (perhaps) inevitability of human sin, which some Christians might find theologically troubling, and are worth further discussion.

In the slides for this talk, it is noted that the features of the universe which are cited as evidence against God (e.g., age and immensity of the universe, hiddenness of divine action, randomness, suffering caused by natural events and moral evil, evolution, the neuroscience of belief) can also be explained as being enablers or corollaries of having moral agents capable of choosing self-giving love. This would be a general explanation of why these features might exist, not specific justification for why some particular person was swept away by some particular tsunami. Some examples:

Hiddenness of divine action

– “Epistemic distance”

– Satan’s charge against Job

Suffering caused by natural events

– Inevitable consequences of an over-all good system (e.g. plate tectonics, evolutionary adaptation)

– Events have predictable consequences

Randomness

– Humans use randomness for purpose

– Necessary condition for freedom

– Range and distribution of outcomes still predictable

Evolution

– Randomness and predictability

– Freedom to explore possibilities

– Evolutionary convergence to agape-capable beings

Neuroscience / evo-psych of belief in God

– Neuroscience / evo-psych of disbelief

– Naturalness of belief while maintaining the necessary “epistemic distance”

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Three Responses to a Critique of Evolutionary Creationism

“Intelligent Design” proponents (most notably, associates of the Discovery Institute in Seattle) claim to be objectively detecting “design” in the biological world. But what they primarily do in practice is publicize gaps (which were already discovered and published by real scientists) in our current understanding of specific evolutionary steps in the past, and claim those gaps as examples of “design”. No matter how much they deny it with their words, their actions demonstrate that this is a God-of-the-gaps exercise, pure and simple. Furthermore, they grossly exaggerate the magnitude of our knowledge gaps, as we have documented with the Cambrian Explosion, with human/chimpanzee/gorilla genomes, and the general fossil record.

Although they have now had some 25 years to work on it, Intelligent Design proponents do not put forth a substantive, testable counter-proposal for how today’s species came to be. We can find in the fossil record, for instance, a whole series of fossils with transitional features between fish and tetrapod amphibians, and another series between reptiles and mammals [1]. According to the Intelligent Design model, did God specially create each species ex nihilo just in time to appear in the fossil record in the order expected by evolution? Or did He supernaturally alter the genomes of a breeding pair in each lineage once every half-million years to make each transition? Or what, specifically? The Intelligent Design proponents never say, electing instead to hide behind endless, vacuous incantations of the word “design” whenever they identify a knowledge gap.

Evolutionary creationists, on the other hand, acknowledge the reality and validity of the physical evidence for how today’s species came to be. Both genetic and fossil evidence show that all of today’s biota, including humans, were formed via evolution from common ancestral life-forms [2]. There is no evidence that God supernaturally intervened with numerous miraculous tweaks over the ages. Rather, God created a universe with the properties of matter and the initial conditions which were just right to lead from single-celled microbes to human beings. God created today’s species via the process of evolution, hence the name “evolutionary creationism” for this position.

God exercises ongoing providential care over all of creation, whether or not this providence manifests as miraculous acts. For instance, most Christians would hold (following Romans 8:28, etc.) that God superintended the mutations in your parents’ genomes, and which egg and which sperm (out of thousands possible) combined to make you exactly the individual you are, even if no supernatural intervention were involved. Evolutionary creationists see God’s normal supervision of the evolution of today’s species in terms of this sort of providential activity. Note that this is not deism, and does not preclude miraculous interventions, such as the resurrection of Jesus. This view entails taking a non-literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story.

In late 2017, a group of Intelligent Design proponents published a 1000-page attack on evolutionary creationism. This book is Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique (Crossway, 2017) edited by J. P. Moreland, et al. This book gets it wrong in many ways, starting with the title. The editors know perfectly well that most of today’s serious evolutionary creationists say that “theistic evolution” is not an apt description of their position, but the editors chose that title anyway. A chapter-by-chapter review of this book by Christian apologist J. W. Hartwick may be found here.

As evident from the title, there are three main prongs to this critique: scientific, philosophical, and theological. Three presentations were made at the ASA meeting, addressing each of those three areas. Due to time limitations, these talks could only cover a few points apiece.

Denis Lamoureux, “Intelligent Design Theory: The God-of-the-Gaps Rooted in Concordism”

Denis responded to some of the theological issues raised in the Theistic Evolution book. For instance, Intelligent Design proponents have carefully tried to paint themselves as objective scientists, who happen to be open-minded towards evidence for design in the natural world. They claim that they are not driven by religious concerns. This is the basis of their case for trying to get their material included in public school curricula. Their opponents are not fooled, since (as noted above) all they do in practice is identify gaps in knowledge which they claim can only be filled by the actions of some Intelligent Agent (and the only Intelligent Agent who would have the knowledge, power, and longevity to frequently inject massive amounts of new information into the biosphere over the past half-billion years would be God or some super-race of aliens), and since the proponents of Intelligent Design are mainly evangelical Christians or other strong theists. Not surprisingly, various court cases have ruled that Intelligent Design is not a scientific activity, but a religious one.

Denis points out that with the publication of this book, the Intelligent Design proponents have shown that their critics were correct all along about the religious basis of their work. As he notes in the Abstract, “One-quarter of Theistic Evolution is a strident defense of a concordist hermeneutic that ultimately undergirds this antievolutionary God-of-the-gaps view of origins”. We already knew that the Intelligent Design movement is fundamentally a religious enterprise – – the internal (but leaked) foundational “Wedge” document of the Discovery Institute gave as one of its two Governing Goals : “To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God”. That is pretty clear, but that is something that Discovery Institute authors have tried to downplay over the years as they have tried to get Intelligent Design inserted into public schools. However, the fact that the Intelligent Design authors have (with the publication of this book) apparently stopped pretending that they are doing objective science seems to me a possible signal that they have accepted defeat for their effort to get into public education, and will instead emphasize their theological correctness, in order to appear more relevant for their conservative Christian base.

Denis cited assertions in the book that the Genesis creation stories must be understood as historical narrative, not as figurative or allegorical literature. Thus, it must be the case that Adam and Eve were the first humans, that Adam was specially created from dust, Eve was directly created from Adam’s rib, human death began as a result of Adam’s sin, etc., no matter what the physical evidence is.

Denis noted that the book consistently misrepresents the theological implications of evolutionary creation. The book claims that evolutionary creationism (or, as the book terms it, theistic evolution) “says no living creature in nature bears witness to God”. That is false, since the entire natural order, including all its (evolved) living creatures, bears witness to God. Another claim is that theistic evolution “completely nullifies the evidence for God‘s existence and therefore significantly hinders evangelism.” Wrong again. Denis notes the irony of this accusation, since it is the anti-evolution teachings of Intelligent Design and young earth creationism which have been documented (see poll results above) to lead many young people to abandon their childhood faith. Anti-evolutionism also greatly hinders evangelism among educated adults [3].

The accusation is further made that theistic evolution “significantly undermines the doctrine of the atonement” and that it “undermines the effectiveness of the Resurrection to give new life to all who are saved by Christ”. This is more baseless fear-mongering. Denis, and many other evolutionary creationists, make it clear in their writings that Jesus died to atone for their sins.

(I’ll add that a literal Adam and a literal Fall are not at all essential to the gospel. Paul develops the universality of sin and the solution of Christ’s atonement in Romans 1-3 with no mention of original sin. In all the gospel proclamations to both Jews and Gentiles recorded in the Book of Acts, there is not a single reference to Adam’s sin. The Fall is never mentioned in the sayings of Jesus. On the contrary, Jesus directed people away from religious speculations or blaming others, and towards their personal need for mercy for their own sins, regardless of what did or didn’t happen with somebody else 6000 years ago. See Adam, the Fall, and Evolution for more on this, including a treatment of the Romans 5 and I Cor. 15 passages dealing with Adam. )

Another citation from the Theistic Evolution book was, “A non-historical reading of Genesis 1-3 does not arise from factors within the text itself, that is, the word of God, but rather depends on a priori commitment to an evolutionary framework of interpretation.” That again is easily shown to be wrong. Denis pointed out that it was not a commitment to evolution that first drove him away from a literal interpretation of Genesis, but rather, it was seeing the ancient science and other ancient Near Eastern motifs within the scriptures. Dennis was still an anti-evolutionist at that time (!). He named some other well-known theologians who likewise abandoned a concordist hermeneutic because of biblical, rather than scientific reasons. I might add that various early church fathers proposed nonliteral interpretations of Genesis, long before Darwin.

To counteract all this misinformation about “theistic evolution”, Denis articulated several more accurate statements about evolutionary creationism. He holds that:

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit created the universe and life, including humans, through an ordained, sustained, and intelligently designed evolutionary process.

Also: Evolution is intelligently designed and creates intelligently designed living creatures that “declare the glory of God” (Psalm 18:1).

Note that this is not “Darwinism”. The Biologos statement of faith  has similar declarations of God’s sustaining, providential activity in upholding the universe (including evolution); this statement of faith specifically rejects “deism” and “ideologies that claim that evolution is a purposeless process”.

Intelligent Design proponents set up a false dichotomy, claiming that believers must choose between macroevolution OR divine design. But in reality, it’s both. The Theistic Evolution book claims that “any proponent of theistic evolution who affirms that God is directing the evolutionary mechanism, and who also rejects intelligent design, implicitly contradicts himself” (pp. 43-44). This statement assumes that the only way God can “direct” something is to miraculously intervene; as noted above, this contravenes the traditional Christian understanding of God’s providential supervision of the world.

Denis would like to wrest back the term “intelligent design” from the hands of the anti-evolutionists. He would more intelligently define intelligent design as:

Belief that beauty, complexity, and functionality in nature impacts everyone powerfully, pointing to an Intelligent Designer and revealing some of his attributes (beyond reasonable doubt, according to Psalm 19 and Romans 1).

 

Randy Isaac, “In Defense of Theistic Evolution”

Randy offered a response to what is probably the key scientific argument made by Intelligent Design (ID) authors in the Theistic Evolution book as they attack evolution. That is the claim that new functional information can only be generated by an intelligent mind.

ID proponent Stephen Meyer argues as follows:

– Cause A (evolution) cannot cause Effect X (creation of new information like the genetic code in DNA)

– Cause B (intelligent mind) is known to be able to generate new information

– Therefore, Cause B (intelligent mind) can be inferred to be the cause of X (new information in the genome)

But Randy contends that:

– Cause A (evolution) CAN cause new genetic information, so there is no gap

– Cause B (intelligent mind) has NOT been shown necessary to generate new information

All Randy needs to do to prove his point is to find one example of new genetic information being generated by evolutionary processes, such as mutation and natural selection. But there are billions and billions of such examples staring us in the face. Randy points out that practically EVERY reproductive event involves some modification to the functional DNA, and thus generates new information. Thus, the case against evolution collapses immediately.

(Every human being is, due to mutations and recombinations, genetically different from his or her ancestors, and so is based on a new-to-planet-Earth set of genetic information. If the ID proponents demand an increase in the overall amount of genetic code, that is easily met by the well-known phenomenon of gene duplication combined with additional mutations. See, for instance, this study by Brown, et al., documenting multiple gene duplications in yeast, resulting in the formation of at least three new, chimeric genes.  ID proponents attempt to discredit these examples by trying to define them away, but they still stand.)

Only Abstract Information Requires an Intelligent Mind

Stephen Meyer claims that “All our experience shows that [functional] information is always generated by an intelligent mind”. He provides examples such as language, phone numbers, computer code, engineering designs, etc.

Randy counters that “All our experience in biological systems shows that functional information does NOT require an intelligent mind”, for the reasons described above. All reproductive events with mutation or recombination of alleles generate new information which is functional for every organism which survives and reproduces.

Randy makes a key observation, that abstract functional information is the only type of functional information that requires an intelligent mind to generate and act on. The meaning of information in human-designed information systems (such as all the examples cited by Meyer) is abstract, i.e. is independent of its physical embodiment. This abstract meaning, which can only be comprehended by other conscious beings, is a hallmark of the intelligent design of these information systems. For instance, the meaning of the command “Close the door!” can be expressed as “Cierre la puerta!” in Spanish or some very different symbols in Hebrew or Chinese, or reworded in English to something like “Seal the portal!”. This shows that the meaning of “Close the door!” is a concept which does not depend on the letters “C”, “L”, “O”, etc. being present in that sequence, or on the shapes of those letters. Typically it does require an intelligent mind to formulate a statement in English like “Close the door!”, and also to understand the meaning and to act on it.

In contrast, in its native state the “meaning” of DNA information is its biochemical function, which is utterly dependent on its physical embodiment and environment. Specific sequences (triplets) of nucleotides, known as codons, physically bond to matching sites on specific transfer RNA molecules which cause specific amino acids to be placed into protein chains, all operating according to regular natural laws of biochemistry. Plain physical mutations in DNA will alter the resulting proteins. Thus, there is no evidence that DNA information requires an intelligent agent for its source or its function.

One of Randy’s slides puts it this way:

FUNCTIONAL INFORMATION IS CONNECTED TO INTELLIGENCE THROUGH ABSTRACT RELATIONSHIPS

    – Abstract reasoning is a defining hallmark of intelligence

    – Functionality in human-designed systems is determined by abstract relationships

– Intelligence is required

   – Functionality in biological systems is determined by offspring survival and success in reproduction

– No intelligence is required

Randy has posted his slides and an extended summary of his talk on his blog at ASA. He goes into more detail there on definitions of various types of information.

James Stump, “Did God Guide Evolution?”

This talk dealt with a rhetorical maneuver that Intelligent Design proponents use, which is based on the same confusion about providence that is noted above. From the abstract:

Part of the recent book Theistic Evolution is a “Philosophical Critique.” There are not a lot of new ideas here, but there is one rhetorical strategy that intelligent design (ID) proponents have increasingly used that needs a clear response drawing on philosophy.

ID proponents have taken to asking those of us who accept the science of evolution and traditional Christian theism, “Did God guide evolution?” and they expect a simple “yes” or “no” answer. This puts us on the horns of a dilemma: if we answer “yes,” they think we have conceded to an intervening God along the lines of ID; if we answer “no,” they claim our God is not substantially different than the God of deism.

I will suggest that there is an implied premise in the question that forces us into the dilemma, namely, that God’s action occurs at the same metaphysical level as the causes that science investigates. If that premise is rejected, we can affirm that God “guides” evolution in the same sense we affirm that God “creates,” without thereby being committed to finding gaps in the scientific explanations where God can insert himself.

The problem lies in how to explain clearly and cogently the different metaphysical levels at which God’s action occurs. Classically, Aquinas invoked notions of primary and secondary causation. That was helpful, but ultimately I will claim that contemporary philosophy of language gives us better resources to understand science and theology as different discourses. Each describes or “re-presents” an aspect of reality, but neither tells the whole story.

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Workshop: “Reworking the Science of Adam”. Facilitated by S. Joshua Swamidass

Most of the discussion in this workshop revolved around the assertion that, due to the phenomenon of pedigree collapse  as you go back through many generations, it is theoretically possible that all humans today are descended from one couple, who may have lived around 500,000 years ago. This man and this woman interbred with other contemporary humans and thus were not the only humans living in their day, but they were the only ones whose genes ended up being passed down to modern humans. The lineages of everyone else from 500,000 years ago happened to die out, in this scenario.

I was not familiar with the science here, but there were four scientists on the panel, and dozens of other scientists in the audience, and nobody disputed that this was at least a possibility. This claim (that it is theoretically possible that all humans today are descended from one couple from some 500,000 years ago) is consistent with (i.e. does not contradict) some other established scientific findings, such as the fact that our genome looks exactly as it should look if we are related to other primates (see e.g. Endogenous Retroviruses in Your Genome Show Common Ancestry with Primates ), and that the human total human population never dropped below a few thousand people in the past half million years.

Naturally, this proposal interests believers who desire to maintain a literal Adam and Eve. It does raise other difficulties, such as what were all the thousands of other humans (pre-Adamites or non-Adamites) doing in the days of this primordial couple. Young earth creationists will not be satisfied by this proposal, since they insist on Adam and Eve being the only true human beings alive in their day, which was only about 6000 years ago.

Some questions I have on this proposal:

In reflecting on this workshop, it is not clear to me why it would be so essential for all human beings to have all their DNA coming from just one man and just woman one woman, 500,000 years ago. The notion that original sin is passed along in our genomes makes little sense to me. Was there a particular mutation that occurred at the moment of the fall such that the genomes of all their descendants are slightly different than the genomes of the first man and the first woman? That implies that we might use genome sequencing and reconstructive algorithms to discover what those original sin mutations are. And then we could use modern genetic engineering to reverse those mutations, and thus re-create perfect, sinless human beings. Salvation for the human race could thus be accomplished through CRISPR gene editing. No need for the Son of God to die on a cross. I don’t think that this scenario is where the enthusiastic Christian proponents of pedigree collapse really want to end up.

Also, at about 50 mutations per generation, each of us has acquired around 1 million mutations in our genomes since the days of this putative common ancestor of 500,000 years ago. So even if we are all genealogically related to one man and one woman, we do not have their exact genes. So, considering they were not that different from all the other humans living in their day (since their children could mate with these non-Adamites), why would it be essential that 100% of our genetic material comes only from that one couple?

Anyway, these are some of my reactions to this subject. This topic may continue to create interest among a subset of evangelical Christians who accept an old (more than 10,000 years) earth and an old human race, but who want to retain  historical, individual (perhaps specially-created) Adam and Eve.

Cultural inheritance Of Original Sin?

Another notion was mentioned by some of the workshop participants. That is the cultural, rather than genetic inheritance of Original Sin. This proposal flows largely from the teachings of Renee Girard. A key point here is that much of what humans do is mimetic, that is, they imitate what they see other people doing. One suggestion was that the whole human population in the time of Adam and Eve was essentially unfallen, living in harmony with God and one another. Adam and Eve were the first to willfully rebel against God and start behaving badly towards one another. This unpleasant behavior pattern was then picked up by other people and so spread throughout the human population, according to this proposal.

The Image of God

In the Genesis creation story, there is a significant difference between humans and all the other creatures: humans (men and women together) were created to be “in the image of God”:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” [Gen. 1:26-28, NIV]

What is meant by “in the image and likeness of God”? Traditionally, theologians have considered the “image of God” to be some psychological characteristic or capacity located in individual men and women, such as rationality, free will, spiritual awareness, etc. Opinions have shifted back and forth regarding the significance of the physical appearance of the human body. Twentieth century theologians placed more emphasis on relational capacities. Barth and Brunner argued that it is our ability to establish and maintain complex and intricate relationships that make us like God. There is a tendency for various modern thinkers to read their favorite theological or socio-political concerns into the creation account.

At the “Science of Adam” workshop, a seminary professor stated that there is a growing consensus among Old Testament scholars as to what “in the image of God” would have meant to people in the ancient Near East cultures where Genesis originated. From ancient manuscripts we learn that a high king in Egypt and Mesopotamia could considered to be the “image” of the local god. This gave them their mandate to reign, since they were ruling on behalf of the god of that land. In Genesis, Yahweh is Lord of all the whole earth, and he sets mankind to rule the other inhabitants of the earth on His behalf. This mandate to rule is plain in the passage cited above: “…Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground”. This is a remarkable “democratization” of the divine right to rule – – instead of a few despots lording it over the masses, ALL humans, women and men alike, are considered as being in the image of God. This in turn gives every human being enormous value and dignity, and provides a solid basis for human rights.

What sort of rule are humans supposed to exercise over the earth? Although they need to do what they need to do in order to force the earth grow the food they need and to keep animals from eating their food or them, their mandate is not an absolute right to exploit nature any way they please. They are to function as representatives of God and thus to exercise dominion justly and generously like He does. They do not own the earth. Rather, they are responsible to God for how they handle His property. This would entail paying attention to all the other directives that God gives them, and operating with the consciousness of their dependence on, and obligation to, Him.

The nature of mankind’s dominion over nature is further described in the second chapter of Genesis:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. [Gen.2:15, NIV]

In this verse Adam was told to “work” or “serve” (i.e. “tend”) the garden, and to “take care” of it. The Hebrew word translated here “take care” typically means “keep, watch, preserve”. In the Sunday morning sermon at the ASA meeting, James Davis noted that this word is used for tending or shepherding a flock of sheep. This passage clarifies that humans are called to care for creation responsibly and to preserve it from undue harm. Although we ourselves benefit from intelligent management of nature, in the end we are accountable as stewards of someone else’s property.

Endnotes

[1] See, for instance, Realistic Expectations for Transitional Fossils

[2] See e.g. Endogenous Retroviruses in Your Genome Show Common Ancestry with Primates  and  http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/ .

[3] Here is a telling lament from a missionary in the former Soviet Union:

The worst aspect of YECS [Young Earth Creation Science] teaching is that it creates a nearly insurmountable barrier between the educated world and the church. .. How many have chosen to give up their faith altogether rather than to accept scientific nonsense or a major reinterpretation of Scripture? How much have we dishonored our Lord by slandering scientists and their reputation? How much have we sinned against Christian brothers holding another opinion by naming them “dangerous” and “compromisers”? …Pastors need to rethink these issues as outlined above and teach a responsible Christian viewpoint with all humility…Christian radio and TV stations need to invite qualified speakers to wrestle with these issues in a responsible way…Finally, missionaries and evangelists need to get materials expressing other viewpoints translated to oppose the virtual monopoly YECS teaching has overseas. As I write this paper, I see YECS literature becoming more and more widely distributed in the growing churches in my corner of the former Soviet Union. We are sowing the seeds of a major crisis which will make the job of world evangelism even harder than it is already.

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Prayer for Healing at Bethel Church

Preface for blog: Recently my wife and I spent a number of weeks in California. We sent various letters back to our friends, reporting on our doings. My final letter described at some length our experience at a church in northern California, focusing on what I learned about their philosophy of praying for healing. This letter is reproduced below, with a few edits and with some endnotes added to address certain questions which might be raised by a more general audience reading this here.

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Grace and I just got back from our trip to California. We spent the last four weeks in Redding, in northern California, about 3.5 hours drive north of San Francisco. Our key driver for coming to the Golden State was to get in enough quality time with the Bethel Church community here to catch the vibe of how they do life. It has been an interesting and rewarding experience.

I will try here to capture some of the impact from our visit, to share with our many friends who have wished us well in this adventure. This will be a fairly personal reflection. Some of the things that interested me, such as healing in answer to prayer, will be familiar to some who read this, and unfamiliar to others. If this is more information than holds your interest, please don’t feel obligated to read it all.

What was I looking for?

I’ll start with some of what I knew about Bethel before coming here, and what drew us to make this investment of time and money. We had heard speakers from Bethel at various conferences we have attended over the years, and also listened to podcasts and YouTube talks. There seems to be a consistent message of integrity and great positivity. We also know a number of people who have spent weeks and months out there, and all have returned with glowing reports. These reports are not only of emotional wholeness and cultural excellence, but also of notable physical healings.

Here is one example of how this seems to work. About five years ago, the pastor of our home church in Pennsylvania invited the senior pastor of Bethel, Bill Johnson, to speak. Bill shared with the audience that he believed that healing was God’s will, and he shared stories of people who reported dramatic relief after being prayed for. Then he invited anyone in the room who had some medical condition to stand up for prayer. He then asked the others of us in the room to gather around the closest standing person to us, and pray for them.

The closest person to me was a pastor who had driven down from Connecticut, along with his wife. This pastor had had a severe stroke 1-2 years earlier, localized in the back of his brain. He had recovered most of his function, but due to the damage to the cerebellum, he continued to experience constant mild vertigo. And if he tilted his head way back to look up, he got totally, miserably dizzy. While we prayed for this man, he said that he was feeling heat in his head. After we prayed, he was totally relieved of vertigo. He tested it further by lying on his back and looking straight up. No problem now for this man. About twenty other people in the room reported similar symptomatic relief. So this encounter with a Bethel representative helped to build my interest in that church.

I have occasionally witnessed other episodes of relief of serious conditions in answer to prayer over the years. For instance, some of us prayed for a woman in a church in New Jersey a couple of years ago, who had a condition which kept her bent over and tottering along with the use of a cane. While we prayed, she felt heat in her head. A day or two later, she found that her sense of balance had fully recovered, and she marched into the next church service waving her cane above her head and giving thanks to God.

How we view these sorts of healings will depend on the assumptions we bring. Skeptics may shrug off any number of reports of healings, no matter how strong the documentary evidence. Since there is a strong mind-body connection, it is often hard to sort out how much of a natural, psychosomatic element might be involved. My own approach is to affirm all restoration of wholeness, whether it comes through the ordinary skill of doctors, through the influence of good thoughts upon the body, or through God working in ways that science cannot explain. [1]

In a practical sense, I’m not sure these mechanistic questions matter that much. However their healings happened, that pastor with vertigo and that hobbling woman experienced genuine relief, which they had not obtained from conventional medical treatments.

What is not clear to me is what is a realistic expectation for the effectiveness of prayer. Some believers pray with very understated expectations: “Lord, if it be thy will, please heal Fred.” This is a comfortable approach, since it does not raise hopes that would then be dashed in the event that Fred is not healed. However, in my experience, the odds are very low of anything happening in response to such a mild prayer.

The more notable healings I have observed have generally came about in the context of praying with a high degree of conviction. There are a number of verses in the New Testament that link the effectiveness of prayer with the level of faith. But this robust approach raises a number of obvious questions:

Why are many people not healed? How much faith for healing is required on the human side of the equation, and how can such faith be increased? Is it unkind to build up too much hope in the people seeking healing? Does praying for them with no results make it harder for them to then accept their condition with dignity? Should we just accept death and disease as a part of the natural world we live in? [2]

The folks at Bethel have the reputation of navigating these difficult issues in an effective way. So a key goal I had in going there was to find out more about how this works for them in practice.

 

First Impressions of the Church Community

Here is the entrance to one of the buildings on the main campus. Note the usual California blue sky.

Bethel Church

Some churches are very much defined by the church building itself. That is not the case at Bethel. The main meeting room is plain but artistically attractive, with rows of chairs and a stage at the front. Because the attendance keeps growing, a satellite campus has been added, again with fairly plain rooms.

What struck me the most was the diversity and vitality of the people. I will describe some of the leadership below. However, the “culture” of the church has taken such hold in so many members that effective activity bubbles up everywhere with minimal formal day to day oversight. Although we attended dozens of formal larger meetings with speakers, we also made a point to meet as many individuals as we could, to check out how things really function at the grass roots level. We took people out to lunch and dinner to spend quality time in conversation. Again and again, we found people to be overflowing with kindness and wisdom and positivity.

There are all kinds of interest groups and focused ministries. There is a strong effort to help disadvantaged people in the city of Redding. There are support groups for budding artists and musicians and business entrepreneurs. There are places and times available for getting prayer for physical and emotional healing and for spiritual insight. Besides the usual weekly groups for teens and young adults, there was a “Diamond Fellowship” for 55+ folks, which we attended a couple of times. The “Firestarters” group encourages folks to encounter God experientially and to pray boldly. There was also a group for aspiring inventors. I went to that meeting, and tried to add to the discussion from my experience in inventing and patenting.

The church sponsors and hosts a “School of Supernatural Ministry”, where more than 2000 people are enrolled. These students are mainly in their early twenties, though there is a spectrum of people of all ages that attend. The students come from all over the nation and from all over the world. Most enroll for one or two years, with some staying into a third year. Most of them go back where they came from or fan out elsewhere to serve as they feel called. However, a number of them like Redding and the Bethel community so much that they end up staying here. These students and ex-students provide a lot of young but disciplined energy to make things happen around here. A summary of the school’s core values is here .

The leader of the ministry school gave a brief overview of his vision. He said the most important foundational thing is to help students develop an identity as sons and daughters of their heavenly Father. He told us that he says basically the same message to the first-year students over and over again, worded fifty different ways, during their first few months, until they start to feel in their gut that they are not cosmic orphans, but are loved by a good Father. Once that point of a secure identity is established, then they can move on to challenging things like praying boldly for others.

There are about 10,000 people who attend some service at Bethel on a regular basis. At the start of most services, the leaders invite people visiting for the first time to raise their hands. Typically about 20-50 people are visitors, and many of these have come from other countries. For a three-day conference we attended there, about a third of the 900 attendees came from other states and another third came from outside the U.S. That shows the level of outside interest generated by this church.

The global reach of the church is enhanced by its internet presence, and the high quality music composing and heartfelt worship by the resident musicians. Several services per week are broadcast on Bethel TV. For access to all the live events, a subscription is required, but many of these are available for free as podcasts, and on the Bethel TV YouTube channel.

Bethel TV YouTube

The Bethel TV YouTube channel has over 132,000 subscribers, and the BethelTV Facebook page has 342,000 followers. The Bethel Music YouTube channel, has over 1,300,000 subscribers. Those are some pretty big headcounts, which again demonstrate the wide attraction and influence of this church in a somewhat remote area of California.

The patriarch around here is Bill Johnson. Here he is in action at the end of one meeting. Hundreds of people lined up to come to the front of the room for prayer, and he greeted and blessed each one.

His vision has set the course of this whole ship. A core conviction of his is “God is good”. That seems like an innocuous saying, but Bill pushes it to some controversial limits. [3] It is common when a man or woman isn’t healed for someone to say, “Well, I guess it just was not God’s will for him or her to be healed.” Bill contends that it is always God’s will to heal. He points to the example of Jesus, who healed everyone who came to him. Jesus never turned any one away. Bill acknowledges that his experience does not yet match this ideal (i.e. not everyone that Bill prays for is healed) but he does not want to lower his theology to the level of his experience. Rather, he aims to do whatever he can to raise his experience to match his theology; Bill holds that Jesus is perfect theology.

Bethel emphasizes this line in the Lord’s Prayer: “May your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This leads them to promote wholeness and integrity on all levels of life. Bill points out that there is no disease in heaven, so it cannot be God’s will for there to be disease on earth.

Bill’s convictions lead to high expectations for healing, which is evident in the Bethel community. This naturally leads to the question of “If it is always God’s will to heal, why is everyone not healed?” More on that later.

Bill is still on the senior leadership team, but things are now run by a wider set of men and women, many of whom he mentored. As just one example, here is Danny Silk, one of the speakers at the final conference we attended here. Thirty or so years ago, Danny was functionally illiterate, working as a butcher in a small town up in the mountains. Bill was the pastor of a small church there, and took Danny under his wing and counseled him personally, and encouraged him get an education. Danny has since developed teachings around promoting mutual honor in personal relationships and in the greater cultural conversation. He has published 4 books (Loving Our Kids on Purpose, Culture of Honor, etc.) and is in demand at major corporations to provide input on building a culture of mutual respect amid diversity.

Below is another photo I took while Danny was teaching, which shows more of the main meeting room.. One the far side of the stage can be seen two paintings on easels. Usually during the music time, while the band on the stage is playing and everyone is singing, a couple of artists from the congregation compose paintings on various themes as they feel moved, as an expression of worship.

 

 

Our Experiences Here

Too much happened in the past month to give a day-to-day summary of all the meetings we went to, all talks we heard, all the music we shared, and all the people we talked with. A number of people prayed with us and for us, and spoke encouraging words over us. We have pages and pages of notes. The bottom line is that we feel enormously enriched and blessed from our experience.

Most healthy churches attempt to offer correct doctrine (i.e. teaching from the Bible as they understand it, as opposed to just making stuff up that sounds good) and to promote personal integrity and love among their members and leaders. Bethel does all that, but consciously adds another, more experiential dimension to what they are trying to accomplish. They don’t want people to walk out of their services just saying, “That was a nice sermon and nice music.” They want people to sense they have had, at some level, a personal experience with the Lord. One of Bill Johnson’s mottos is “We owe people an encounter with God”.

Often, people sense divine presence when they are prayed for at Bethel. At the end of some of the services we attended, the leader asked any current or former ministry school students to form one or more lines across the front of the room. The rest of us were invited to file down the center aisle, and then walk past people praying for us. The folks praying would say a brief prayer or word of encouragement over each of us as we walked by, sometimes accompanied by a touch on the shoulder. I was not conscious of any particular sensation as I was walking through the prayer line, but as I walked away afterward, I was almost always conscious of feeling something unusual, almost like a pleasant buzz. On two of these occasions, this enduring sensation was so strong I felt I had to sit down for several minutes just to process it. For an analytical guy like me, it is odd to recall and to write about such a raw, undefinable experience. But that is what happened, however one chooses to interpret it.

On one of our last nights in Redding, Bill Johnson led the worship/teaching session. He invited anyone with a medical condition to stand, and prayed for their healing, and asked others in the room to also pray. His prayers were heartfelt, but there was no attempt to work up a lot of emotion in the crowd. Afterwards he asked anyone who was able to test whether they had been healed to do so. He asked those who could verify that they were at least 80% better to wave both hands above their heads so he could see them. (By “test” he meant whether pain you came in with had disappeared, or now you could move in a way you couldn’t before you had been prayed for, etc. Obviously, some other healings might have occurred which could only be verified in a doctor’s office).

I wasn’t tracking the results quantitatively, but I snapped a couple of photos (see below) at this point, so you can see a number of pairs of hands up. I have grayed out some faces for privacy. You have to squint to see the hands up at the far end of the room. I count about twelve people total holding up their hands in these two photos. I think there were around 30 people total in the room stating they had experienced healing.

A few of these people described on a microphone what happened. One man had suffered from dyslexia, such that it took him around an hour to read through half a page. After receiving prayer, his wife handed him a newspaper to test it out, and he was able to read straight through it.   A woman who had been in pain from sitting ever since she injured her hip in a car accident 24 years earlier was now able to sit comfortably. Another woman who had experienced chronic pain from a neck injury reported that the pain was now gone. We can of course sit around afterward and skeptically debate how severe their conditions really were, but it seemed clear these individuals experienced significant relief from longstanding problems. This sort of healing service is another aspect of how Bethel tries to make the personal experience of God to be accessible to members and visitors.

 

Expectations for Healing Prayer

Since I posed the questions above, I will try to bring closure here to my discussions with people on their philosophy of healing, even though that issue only took up a tiny fraction of our interactions at Bethel. The most enlightening discussions I had were with Chris Gore, who is on the church staff as the leader of their healing ministries.

Chris Gore, photo from Bethel web site https://www.bethel.com/ministries/healing-rooms/

Chris travels around the world, leading healing services where many people find relief. I bought two of his books, Walking in Supernatural Healing Power, which deals with healing in general, and his most recent book, The Perfect Gift: Seeing the Child, Not the Condition. That deals with loving and valuing special needs children as they are, even while praying for relief of their condition. Several parents share their stories of finding significant healing for their children with autism and similar conditions.

I put to him some of my questions about healing. He acknowledges that many people are not healed, and he feels the pain of that, but as a practical matter he finds it is just not helpful to speculate or dwell on that. We can focus on whatever we choose, positive or negative. Chris sees more fruit for himself and his teams when they focus on and celebrate whatever healings do occur, both under their ministry and in the wider church. That seems to build more faith and lead to more healings, in a sort of virtuous cycle. They stay optimistic with everyone they pray with, springing from their intense conviction of God’s astonishingly good character.

Chris teaches his healing teams to treat everyone with respect and sensitivity, regardless of their condition or outcomes. Whether or not they get healed, he wants everyone who is prayed for to come away feeling valued and loved.

When someone he prays for is not healed, he does not blame them (e.g. for harboring doubt or sin) or God. If anything, he takes responsibility on himself, reasoning that if he were more like Jesus, the person would have been healed. Yet he does not turn this into an exercise of introspection and self-condemnation. Rather, he resolves to press ever closer to God and become even more enamored with His goodness and majesty, so that the next time he ministers he will be more effective. He frames it this way: “If someone comes to me for healing and was not healed, then they encountered me, not Jesus.” [4]

Chris did not offer answers to the more theoretical questions, like why some people are healed and some are not. He puts that in the category of “mystery”. I should add that he lives this out in a searing personal way. One of his daughters, who is now in her early twenties, suffers from cerebral palsy, and has never been able to walk or talk, despite taking advantage of all that modern medicine has to offer. Some nights Chris and his wife have been up for hours as she is vomiting and screaming from seizures. Although he has seen thousands of people healed of many conditions, and over fifty healed of autism, his own child remains severely disabled. He was not looking for pity when he mentioned that to us, but he did cite it as an example of the choice we all face with issues in our lives: will we get offended at God if things don’t go the way we want, or will we trust in His character and ultimate plan?   Chris elaborates on this topic in the 20-55 minute section of this YouTube talk (audio only).

For Chris, pursuing healing is not a primary goal that he tries to “use” God to accomplish. Rather, loving God and being loved by God is fundamental, and healing then flows out of this relationship. The greatest expression of God’s love is that he entered our world in the form of Jesus, and experienced all the heartaches and suffering of humanity, and did whatever it took to restore relationship with us. Chris spoke of being full of Jesus, being lost in Jesus, being consumed with Jesus, and so on. Thus, if healing comes through Chris’s prayers, it is not really something Chris is doing, but rather Jesus working through Chris.

In Psalm 37 it says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart”. An analogy may illustrate this point. Suppose I were engaged to a woman and walked into her apartment unexpectedly and overheard her telling her best friend on the phone, “I love Scott and he loves me. I don’t understand everything he does, but I trust his character and believe that he will take good care of me. It doesn’t matter what life throws at us, because we are going to be there for each other no matter what.” You can bet that hearing that would make me even more resolved to do everything I could for her. But suppose her conversation went like this: “Do I love Scott? Are you kidding me? I don’t even like him. In fact, I think he’s kind of a jerk. I just don’t get why he does a lot of things he does. I just pretend to love him because he has a good job and I expect him to provide for whatever I want. And if he doesn’t, I’ll divorce him and try my luck elsewhere.”   My observation over the years is that approaching God with this second attitude is not very fruitful.

In science it is common to have practical or experimental results for which a theoretical framework has not yet been found. For instance, mankind bred improved plants and animals for thousands of years before the DNA basis of genetics was discovered.   People found that eating limes would ward off scurvy, long before we understood the metabolism of vitamin C. The empirical observations gave sufficient practical guidelines to work with, even in the absence of an overarching theoretical explanation.

It was those sorts of practical guidelines about healing prayer that I took away from our visit to Bethel. Some tough intellectual questions remained unanswered, and perhaps they are simply unanswerable from our limited human perspective. But the folks at Bethel seem to have found attitudes and practices which make them effective in bringing healing to a wide range of people.

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ENDNOTES

[1] Most of my articles on this blog deal with issues like evolution and the age of the earth. However, I have including a few posts that report on notable healings. For instance, here is my summary of an article in a medical journal of a study by a U.S. medical team in Mozambique reporting a number of people showing major improvements in hearing and vision, in response to prayer: Healing Miracles in Mozambique: Medical Journal

One of my daughters travelled to Mozambique a few years back, and told me that as far as she could tell, people really did get healed of deafness under this ministry. So this is not just some anecdote from deep in the jungle. The journal article notes that the prayer in this study was “personal proximate prayer”, which differs from distant prayer for a name on a list; the latter practice has been found in numerous double-blind academic studies to be ineffective.

Another article is: Healing of Nearly-Deaf Boy on YouTube . This links to a video which shows in real time a boy going from only 10-20% hearing to essentially full hearing ability. I can vouch for the integrity of the person praying here, Randy Clark. We spent two weeks with him on a trip to Germany, and he is sincere and good-willed.

[2] Everyone works from a set of unprovable assumptions in constructing their worldview. This letter was written within a framework which presupposes that there is a Creator who sometimes answers prayer in immediate and visible ways.

The question of why some people are not healed, or why is there disease in the first place, is a subset of the larger question of why is there evil and suffering if God is all-good and all-powerful. I do not address this general problem of evil here. I have offered some thoughts regarding that subject in A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology.

 

[3] Because Bill Johnson and other Bethel spokesmen at times make provocative statements without qualifying all the nuances, and they talk much more about some topics than others, some conservative Christian watchdogs denounce them as heretics. But anyone who reads the “What We Believe” statement all the way through would find that Bethel’s doctrine falls well within the evangelical mainstream.

Since the book is open in my hand, I will cite a paragraph from Chris Gore’s The Perfect Gift as a further example of how the Bethel approach to healing is linked to traditional biblical teachings:

There is no greater story to tell than the one that has been written by Jesus Christ. Before the very breath of God spoke light into existence, Jesus was there. His story began before the foundation of the world was created and it has never stopped. Over 2,000 years ago, the greatest gift we could ever be given came in the flesh in the form of Emmanuel – “God with us” and His name is Jesus. His greatest sacrifice was to give up His own life so that we could inherit life with Him. We are the joy set before Him. This book is about Jesus. Without Jesus, none of the stories you are about to read would have happened. He is our Healer and He is our Perfect Gift!

[4] Theologians have long recognized that “the will of God” can have various levels of meanings. Even human “will” can be complex and hard to define. Thus, to say “It is always God’s will to heal” doesn’t cover all the bases.

It is formally true that “Jesus healed everyone who came to him”, in the sense that he never told anyone who came to him humbly asking for help, “Sorry, I just don’t want to heal you.” But it is not the case that he immediately and automatically healed every sick or disabled person around. In a couple of cases (e.g. the man with a son subject to seizures, and the Syro-Phoenician woman with a troubled daughter) he did not heal a child before having some serious, probing dialog with the pleading parent. The implication in John 5 is that Jesus only selected and healed one man out of a whole crowd of disabled people at the Pool of Bethesda. Finally, in Mark 6, it seems that Jesus’ own healing ministry could be constrained by rampant unbelief. The people in Jesus’ home town were skeptical and offended at his messianic claims, and so “He could do no miracles there, but only laid his hands a few sick people and healed them. He was amazed at their unbelief” (Mark 6:5-6). He told a number of people whom he did heal that their own faith had played a key role (“Be it done according to your faith”, “Your faith has healed you”, etc.). The universality of healing in the rest of the New Testament, outside the Gospels, is similarly nuanced (e.g. I Cor 11:29-30; II Cor 12:8-9; I Tim 5:23; II Tim 4:20; James 5:16).

Other ministries and authors who endorse prayer for healing sometimes offer lists of biblical reasons why some people are not healed. See e.g. here and here .

John Arnott, who is associated with the Toronto outpouring of the 1990’s, ministers healing in a manner similar to the Bethel folks. However, he has repeatedly mentioned in his teachings that harboring unforgiveness can block a person from realizing their physical healing. This unforgiveness can be towards someone else who harmed the person, or it can be towards oneself, say if the person blames himself or herself for getting injured. He has frequently observed a physical healing to manifest after the unforgiveness has been identified and abandoned.

I don’t recall Bill Johnson ever describing any substantive reason for lack of healing, other than underdeveloped spirituality in the person praying. However, towards the end of Walking in Supernatural Healing Power, Chris Gore does acknowledge that unforgiveness and other roadblocks in a person can hinder healing. If he senses that unforgiveness is an issue, he will ask delicate, probing questions to try to expose the problem so it can be dealt with; he will avoid making the person feel accused or condemned. That said, Chris is reluctant to use these potential flaws in the other person to justify his own powerlessness. He would prefer instead to press in yet closer to God so that he could be a more effective minister of healing the next time: “I would rather go on my face before God and get a greater revelation of who He is in me and through me, and gain greater understanding of the revelation of His goodness and the power of His love.”

Posted in healing, Miracles, Suffering | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Some High Yielding Investments

Individuals choose to save money for a variety of future expenditures, such as purchase of a car or a house, college costs, or retirement. It makes sense to allocate these savings into assets which grow in value with time or which pay interest or dividends, which can be reinvested to grow the value of the savings account.

If the money is needed soon, within a year or two, it is typically advisable to hold the money in assets which are unlikely to drop in value, such as savings accounts, certificates of deposit, or money market funds. These assets have low risk, but they typically pay relatively low interest. These short-term interest rates have been almost zero in the U.S. for the past several years, although now the Federal Reserve Bank is increasing these short-term interest rates.

For longer investing time-frames, some fluctuation in values may be tolerated. Often the assets with higher volatility can give higher returns over the long haul. Two traditional longer-term investing vehicles are stocks and bonds.

Stocks represent an ownership stake in a profit-making enterprise. The value of a stock may fluctuate greatly, depending on the fortunes of the enterprise (typically quantified as earnings per share), and market sentiment. The stock in a particular company may fall from $40/share to $1/share, if business conditions radically change or some competitor takes over the market niche. Even if a company is doing well financially, its stock may drop dramatically due to general pessimism in the market. On the other hand, some stocks can double in a year. Investing in fund that holds many stocks can smooth out some of this drama, but even a broad index can drop significantly and take years to recover. However, over the long term (decades) the total return, including reinvested dividends, of the broad S&P 500 index of large U.S. stocks has been nearly 10%. Most of that return has depended on the price of the shares rising.

A bond represents a legal obligation for the issuing entity (e.g. a corporation or government) to pay a specified amount of interest plus return of principal by the time the bond matures. Unless the company or government goes bankrupt or otherwise defaults, you know exactly what the bond will pay you. “Risk-free” U.S. Treasury bonds are yielding 2.2-3.2%, depending on years to maturity. Typically longer-term bonds pay higher interest. High-quality, investment-grade bonds from stable corporations yield 2.5-4 %.  Non-investment grade (high-yield or “junk”) bonds pay 4.5-6%, depending on maturity and on how junky they are.

I wondered whether there are investing assets which, like bonds, pay regular cash returns and don’t depend on share prices rising, but which, like stocks, yield close to 10%. Looking into it, I found the answer is, “Yes, but”. Yes, there are funds available to the ordinary investor which regularly pay out 8-10% cash. These include business development companies, option-writing funds, mortgage REITs, and leveraged closed end funds holding preferred stocks and master limited partnerships. But the payouts are not as certain as with bonds, and the share prices can move around like stock prices. With these aspects understood, these funds may find a place in an individual investor’s portfolio for diversification. I have described these funds in a recent article here.

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Evolution Before Our Eyes: Complex Mutations in Microbes Giving New Functions

OUTLINE

( 1 ) Barry Hall’s lac Bug

( 2 ) Lenski’s Long Term E. Coli Evolution Experiment

         Lenski’s E. coli Evolve Ability to Metabolize Citrate under Aerobic Conditions

( 3 ) Bacteriophage Lambda Evolves a New Protein Binding Site Using Four Mutations

( 4 ) The Significance of These Complex Mutations

         Plate Tectonics: An Example of Evidences

         Diverse Evidence for Evolution

( 5 ) The Core Issue in Rejecting Evolution

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

( 1 ) Barry Hall’s lac Bug

Lactose is a sugar that bacteria can use as a food. In order to do this, they first have to cut lactose in half, releasing two simple sugars (glucose and galactose) that the metabolism of the cell can use for energy. In E. coli, the ability to metabolize lactose depends on having (1) a gene that produces the protein (the enzyme beta-galactosidase) that cuts the lactose, (2) an appropriate regulatory region which turns on this gene when lactose is present but turns it off (to conserve metabolic energy) when lactose is absent, and (3) another protein, called a permease, which imports lactose through the otherwise-impermeable cell membrane. These three functions are normally co-located on a stretch of DNA called the lac operon.

Structure of lactose and the products of its cleavage. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lac_operon

In 1982, Professor Barry Hall at the University of Rochester initiated a set of experiments using some E. coli in which he deleted the gene for the beta-galactosidase from this lac operon. The loss of this gene knocked out the operation of the three-part system, which made it impossible for the bacteria to metabolize the sugar lactose. He then let the bacteria reproduce in a nutrient mixture which contained galactose. The bacteria would only thrive if they managed to evolve a new metabolic pathway to digest galactose. The bacteria needed to evolve both (1) a gene which would produce the enzyme beta-galactosidase, and also (2) the appropriate controlling region of DNA. The growth medium contained the chemical IPTG, which promoted the cellular production of permease from the original lac genetic region, since that function had been disabled by Hall’s gene knock-out. Having the permease present in this way allowed the experimenters to detect any new mutants which had evolved the ability to cleave galactose.

As it happened, in the course of many generations, the bacterium did exactly that. Two mutations in a distant gene converted it into an effective gene for making beta-galactosidase enzyme, and further mutation in the DNA which controls the expression of this new gene gave it the needed galactose sensitivity. Neither part was greatly effective without the other. So, this is an example of a new multi-part genetic system, with a function which was new to this hacked bacterial strain, which was produced by mutation coupled with natural selection.

In further series of mutation and natural selection experiments, Hall found a new set of bacteria which had a new enzyme which was able to switch on the production of the lac permease, in addition to having the new regulated beta-galactosidase gene.

Intelligent Design proponent Michael Behe has attempted to minimize the significance of these observations. His main objection seems to be that this evolution of a new function took place by various alterations to existing genetic material. But that is exactly how evolution normally proceeds! Evolutionary biologists do not claim that fully functional, whole new genes suddenly appear in the genome ex nihilo. That seems to be what Behe is demanding. Rather, evolution is typically a matter of step by step modifications in the DNA which is already there.

Ken Miller rebuts all of Behe’s objections, and concludes:

Does Barry Hall’s ebg system fit the definition of irreducible complexity? Absolutely. The three parts of the evolved system are:

(1) A lactose-sensitive ebg repressor protein that controls expression of the galactosidase enzyme
(2) The ebg galactosidase enzyme
(3) The enzyme reaction that induces the lac permease

Unless all three are in place, the system does not function, which is, of course, the key element of an irreducibly complex system.

( 2 ) Lenski’s Long Term E. Coli Evolution Experiment

Richard Lenski’s group at Michigan State University has been running a long-term evolution experiment on asexual E. coli bacteria since 1988. Six populations (Ara-1 through Ara-6) were started from a one strain, and six further populations (Ara+1 through Ara+6) from a nearly identical strain. Each population is kept in a flask at 37 C with 10 ml of a growth medium which contains only enough glucose to support about 5 x 10+8 cells per culture. Each day, 0.1 ml of the previous day’s culture is transferred into 9.9 ml of fresh growth medium, and the cells reproduce up to the limit of the nutrients. The result is about 6.64 generations per day, or 2400 generations per year. Samples of each population are cryo-preserved every 500 generations. These preserved cells can be revived and further studied as needed.  Fitness is periodically assayed by measuring growth rates versus an ancestral strain. A photo of the twelve population flasks is shown below.

Long Term Expt 12 Flasks

The 12 E. coli LTEE populations on June 25, 2008. Source: Wikipedia article “E. coli long-term evolution experiment”, originally from: Brian Baer and Neerja Hajela – http://myxo.css.msu.edu/ecoli/citrateflasksphotos.html

Over the first 10,000 generations, each of the twelve populations demonstrated significant increases in fitness.  The figure below shows the increases in average cell size as each population accumulates mutations to make them better adapted to their environment. Since then, fitness has continued to improve, but at ever-slower rates.

Growth in cell size of bacteria in the Lenski experiment over the first 10,000 generations of Lenski’s long-term evolution experiment. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._coli_long-term_evolution_experiment

Clearly, these bacteria are accumulating multiple, step-by-step beneficial mutations, which improve their fitness in their environment. This is evolution in action.

The plots below show the numbers of mutations retained in each population, through about 50,000 generations. Six of the populations have evolved hypermutator strains, where point mutations appear much faster than usual. These populations show in Plot (a) as having 800-2500 mutations after 50,000 generations. Plot (b) is rescaled to show more clearly the trajectories in the six non-hypermutable populations, which have accumulated 60-110 mutations apiece. Across all the cells and all generations in a given flask (population), over a billion mutations have occurred; it is likely that every possible point mutation in the bacterial genome has been sampled many times over. However, most of these mutations did not spread and become fixed in the population as a whole. See STAN3–From Micro-Evolution to Macro-Evolution: Beneficial Mutations, the Pace of Evolution, and Increasing Genome Complexity     for more details on numbers and patterns of the mutations in this experiment.

Numbers of accumulated mutations in the twelve populations of the long-term E. coli experiment. Source: Olivier Tenaillon, et al., Nature 536, 165–170 (2016)
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v536/n7615/full/nature18959.html

 

It is worth noting that “beneficial” or “fitness” is always defined relative to a particular environment, typically the environment currently occupied by the organism. A strain of E. coli in “the wild” needs to cope with a variety of temperatures, acidities, availability of different nutrients, etc. A typical microbe therefore has versatile metabolic mechanisms to respond to variations in conditions. However, the bacteria in the Lenski experiment experience the same conditions, day after day, year after year, for thousands of generations. This particular environment is characterized by a limited amount of nutrient, primarily glucose. Thus, Lenski’s bugs have evolved to be greedy specialists in consuming glucose at a constant temperature of 37 C. To maintain other functions (e.g. the ability to metabolize the sugar ribose) in this situation is a waste of metabolic energy, and so it has been advantageous for these bacteria to accumulate mutations which disable some of these functions.

Lenski’s E. coli Evolve Ability to Metabolize Citrate under Aerobic Conditions

One of the most interesting features of this experiment is that after about 33,000 generations, one of the populations (“Ara-3”) evolved the ability to make use of the large amount of citrate which happened to be present in the growth medium. The photo below shows a close-up view of experiment flasks, where the middle (Ara-3) population is clearly more turbid (cloudy) than the others, due to the enormous bacterial cell mass in that flask.

The population designated Ara-3 (center) is more turbid because that population evolved to use the citrate present in the growth medium. Figure from Wikipedia article “E. coli long-term evolution experiment” ; original source: Brian Baer and Neerja Hajela – http://myxo.css.msu.edu/ecoli/citrateflasksphotos.html

Normally E. coli is unable to make use of citrate under the aerobic (presence of oxygen) conditions used in this experiment. The metabolic machinery for utilizing citrate exists in E. coli, and it can ferment citrate under anaerobic conditions in the presence of a reducing substrate, but it cannot transport citrate under oxic conditions.

In an effort to probe how this one population evolved this ability, the researchers resurrected (thawed) cells from previous generations in that population and let them evolve, to see whether these parallel lines would also develop the ability to metabolize citrate. A few of the lines restarted from generation 20,000 evolved the ability to utilize citrate, whereas none of the lines restarted from generation 15,000 could.

Apparently some key but essentially neutral mutation (which has not yet been identified) occurred between generation 15,000 and 20,000. This potentiating mutation (or complex of mutations) had no distinctive effect on citrate metabolizing, but under the conditions of this experiment it enabled some further mutation to produce a weakly effective Cit+ (citrate-metabolizing) variant by generation 31,500. This variant constituted about 0.5% of the cells in the population at generation 31,500, and rose to 15% and 19% at generations 32,000 and 32,500. At generation 33,000, the dominance of the Cit+ variant plummeted to 1.1%, presumably because the Cit- subpopulation produced a beneficial mutation which allowed it to out-compete the emerging Cit+ subpopulation. However, after a few hundred more generations the optical turbidity of the population took a step change to a higher level, indicating some further mutation at that point had increased the viability of the Cit+ subpopulation to a very high level. Thus, this set of mutations gave to the cells an important function (ability to digest citrate in the presence of air) which they did not have before. [1]

Young earth creationists and Intelligent Design proponents have tried to downplay the import of this evolutionary gain of function. Their usual rhetorical tactic is to characterize this as a minor tweak to the regulatory region of the existing citrate gene, as merely “turning on an existing switch in the genetic machinery” which did not involve evolution of any new information or added functionality. The graduate student chiefly responsible for this research, Zachary Blount, has stated that this description of the changes in the cells is simply “a lie”:

“….No, the ability to grow on citrate is not a matter of simply flipping a pre-existing regulatory switch.  Continuing the electrical metaphor, the evolved Cit+ function is instead about rewiring.  My dear little Cit+ cells gained their ability to partake of the previously forbidden citrate by a genetic duplication involving a gene, called citT, which encodes a transporter protein that is used during anaerobic growth on citrate.

“This duplication did something very special.  You see, one of the major aspects of gene regulation is that genes have associated regulatory DNA sequences, including what are called promoters that control when genes are expressed.  The citT gene is normally controlled by a promoter that tells the cell to turn it on only when there is no oxygen present.  As shown in the Figure below, the gene duplication put one copy of citT next to, and under the control of, a promoter that normally controls another gene called rnk.  The rnk gene is normally turned on when oxygen is present.  The new association between citT and the rnk promoter – what we call the rnk-citT regulatory module – turns citT on when oxygen is present, and allows Cit+ cells to use citrate under the conditions of the LTEE.  (To really feast on the citrate involved additional evolutionary changes, both before and after this rewiring, but I’ll leave that point aside for this post.)

“…True, the duplication responsible for Cit+ did rearrange components that were already there, but that rearrangement generated a new association between components that did not previously exist, and it produced a new function that also did not previously exist.  To argue that rearrangements cannot produce innovation is akin to arguing that a novelist has done nothing creative in writing her novels because she only used words that already existed.”  [emphasis in the original]

 Here is the figure to which Blount referred, showing schematically the tandem duplication in the population that evolved the new ability to grow on citrate. This duplication produced the new rnk-citT regulatory module by placing the second copy (“Tandem Copy 2”) of the citT gene adjacent to the rnk promoter region.

Tandem amplification in Cit+ genomes, showing altered spatial and regulatory relationships generated by the amplification. The figure comes from Blount, et al., Genomic analysis of a key innovation in an experimental Escherichia coli population, Nature 489, 513–518. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v489/n7417/full/nature11514.html?foxtrotcallback=true

This tandem duplication is the key mutation which enabled uptake of citrate, but by itself it only gave only weak performance. A further mutation just after generation 33,000 in a different spot in the bacteria’s genome greatly enhanced the cell’s growth in the presence of citrate. This second mutation involves the regulation of the dctA gene, enabling the reuptake of succinate or other C4-dicarboxylates that are exported in exchange for citrate import by the CitT system, thus completing a cycle that permits sustained citrate transport and utilization without an unbalanced loss of intracellular C4-dicarboxylate substrates. [2] It is the cells with this second mutation that grow so fast that they show high turbidity.

To summarize, at least three separate mutations were involved here: (1) a potentiating mutation(s) around generation 15,000-20,000 which of itself had no noticeable effect on citrate uptake; (2) a duplication of a stretch of DNA around generation 31,500, which created a new gene function by pairing a copy of the citrate uptake gene with a different promoter; and (3) another mutation around generation 33,000 which balanced out the cell’s C4-dicarboxylates in the presence of citrate uptake. This multistep, complex modification of the genome provided the cell with a new function (the ability to robustly take up citrate under aerobic conditions), with no loss in other functions. So again, this is clearly a “gain-of-function” set of mutations. Opponents of evolution try to downplay the significance of this complex mutational change, but the facts speak for themselves.

( 3 ) Bacteriophage Lambda Evolves a New Protein Binding Site Using Four Mutations

A bacteriophage is a virus that infects and replicates within bacteria cells. The Lenski lab published a study [3] in 2012 involving a bacteriophage (“ lambda phage”) which infects E. coli. The phage normally works by using its protein called “J” to bind to a protein on the surface of the E. coli called “LamB”. To test the ability of the phage to evolve the capability of binding to a different protein, the researchers cultured lambda phage with a population of E. coli which had mutated such that only a few of the bacteria had the LamB protein present. The phage population could subsist at a low level on this tiny minority of the bacteria, but would only thrive if they evolved the ability to infect the rest of the bacterial population which lacked the LamB protein on its surface.

In an initial experiment, such a phage was found to evolve in one out of six flasks. Analysis showed that the phage had developed the capability of binding to a different E. coli protein, OmpF, while retaining its original ability to bind to LamB. Despite the efforts of Intelligent Design advocates to spin it otherwise, this again is a “gain-of-function”, pure and simple.

Lenski’s team then repeated the experiment on a larger scale, using 96 more bacteria/phage communities. In 24 of these 96 communities, the phage developed the capability to thrive by binding to the OmpF protein. This protein has a similar 3-dimensional structure as the original LamB, but differs considerably in amino acid sequence.

The researchers did genome sequencing to identify the mutations responsible for the new function in the phage. Figure 3 of their paper illustrates their findings. A portion of that figure is reproduced below. The labels across the top denote the point mutations at specific nucleotide positions along the phage genome. The top 24 rows show some of mutations observed in the 24 phage strains whose expressed J protein was able to bind to the E. coli OmpF. For comparison, a few rows from the lower half of the figure are shown to illustrate the mutations at these genome positions for some of the phage populations which did not evolve that capability.

Taken from Figure 3 of Meyer, et al., Repeatability and Contingency in the Evolution of a Key Innovation in Phage Lambda. Science 27 Jan 2012: Vol. 335, Issue 6067, pp. 428-432.
Caption of original Figure: “Mutations affecting the J protein in phage isolates from 48 independent populations of the large-scale experiment. Isolates are shown in rows (with alternate labels offset for readability) and mutations in columns; gray fill indicates an isolate has the mutation. The top 24 rows show phage isolates that can target the new OmpF receptor; the bottom 24 rows show phage that remain dependent on LamB.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3306806/

All of the top 24 rows (i.e. the strains able to bind to the different OmpF protein) shared four changes: mutations from A-to-G at nucleotide position 3034, G-to-A at 3319, a mutation at either position 3320 or 3321 (affecting the same codon as the mutation at 3319), and at least one mutation between positions 2969 and 2999). We have labeled these four changes “A” to “D” as they appear from left to right in the figure above.

It is likely that these four canonical mutations, alone or in various combinations, improve the binding to the original LamB protein target in the E. coli, and that this selectively drove their initial appearance in various strains of the phage. However, all four of these mutational changes together are needed in order for the phage to robustly bind to the different OmpF protein.

In The Edge of Evolution Michael Behe had claimed that the appearance of a new protein binding site which required more than two mutations was, for all practical purposes, impossible – – beyond the “edge of evolution”. As noted by Dennis Venema, the evolution of this new protein binding capability in Lenski’s phage, requiring four distinct mutations, accomplished what Behe said was impossible.

 The Significance of These Complex Mutations

Behe published a literature review in 2010 [4] which sought to minimize the significance of these sorts of experiments on bacteria and viruses in flasks. He states that in these experiments, what is observed is the “breaking and blunting” of genetic functionality, rather than an increase in functionality. In response, Paul Braterman [5] noted that Behe had to engage in numerous rhetorical contortions to press his case, and Jerry Coyne [6] pointed out that Behe had limited his review to situations which where are the least likely to yield new functional mutations. For instance, bacteria under normal circumstances can undergo substantial beneficial genetic changes by importing sizeable chunks of DNA from other microbes. However, in many of the laboratory experiments discussed by Behe, there was only one species of bacteria in the flask, so there was no possibility of such DNA exchange.

The reality is that in all three cases discussed above, a new (new to the starting organism) functionality arose via multiple mutations, which gave a significant improvement to fitness in the environment currently occupied by the organism. Moreover, in each of these cases the gain of the new function did not come about by “breaking or blunting” other important functions. This is indeed “evolution before our eyes.” [7]

That said, these changes fall far short of producing a new organelle or a whole new species. Is this all merely “micro-evolution”, with no relevance to the changes involved in, say, the divergence of modern humans from other primates?

Plate Tectonics: An Example of Evidences

An analogy may help in putting these mutation results in perspective. As Ron Miksha    pointed out in The Mountain Mystery , prior to the 1960’s geologists had no clear idea as to how most mountain ranges were formed. Today nearly everyone accepts the notion that giant crustal plates move around and crumple into mountain ranges in zones where these plates are forced together. But the notion of “continental drift” on such a gigantic scale seemed so bizarre when it was suggested by Alfred Wagener in 1912 that it was rejected by most scientists  : “Without detailed evidence and a force sufficient to drive the movement, the theory was not generally accepted: the Earth might have a solid crust and mantle and a liquid core, but there seemed to be no way that portions of the crust could move around”.

Nowadays we can use GPS measurements to directly measure the movements of the continents. For instance, we find that Africa is moving away from South America at a rate of about an inch (2.5 cm) per year. That is about as fast as your fingernails grow. If that were the only evidence we had of continental drift, perhaps severe skepticism would be warranted. In your entire lifetime, only about 7 feet (~2 meters) of relative motion will occur. Can this slow creeping really account for the tearing apart of whole continents, and the formation of a 3000 mile wide ocean?

Well, of course it can, if this process continues on and on, for many millions of years. However, if plate tectonics is real, there should be some other, corroborating evidence. And there is.  The coastlines (or more precisely, the continental shelves) of Africa and South America, and (less obviously) of North American and Europe can be fit together like puzzle pieces. Moreover, distinctive geological formations can be found in matching locations on the coasts on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Dramatic confirmation of the spreading of the seafloor came with measurements showing symmetric magnetic striping in the oceanic crust on either side of the mid-Atlantic Ridge. This is clearly explained by basalt magma welling up all along this ridge, taking on the prevailing direction of the earth’s magnetic field as it cools and hardens, and then moving away from the ridge in either direction. The earth’s magnetic field is known to reverse its orientation at irregular intervals during geologic history, typically several hundred thousand years apart. Other evidences supporting plate tectonics include the radioactive dates of the rocks of the seafloor, the geographical patterns of fossils of various ages, and the location of belts of volcanos and earthquakes at the edges of the crustal plates.

Seafloor magnetic reversals, giving rise to seafloor magnetic striping. Source: Wikipedia article “Vine–Matthews–Morley hypothesis” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vine%E2%80%93Matthews%E2%80%93Morley_hypothesis

 

Diverse Evidence for Evolution

With evolution, there is an analogous array of diverse evidence. If mutational changes have indeed been going on and on and on for billions of years, with accompanying evolution of today’s biota from much simpler ancestors, there should be some sort of progression visible in the fossil record, and there should be signs of common ancestry in today’s genomes.

If there has been no large-scale evolution, and thus modern plants and animals have always existed, we would expect to find modern plants and animals at all levels of the fossil record, possibly commingled with other, now-extinct creatures. But that is not what we find. What we actually find is a clear progression of initial appearances of various life-forms from the lowest (oldest) rock layers to the younger layers and on to the present, which cannot be explained away as the result of the hydraulics of Noah’s Flood [8].

In the lowest rock layers we find single-celled bacteria; after many hundreds of million years, simple multi-celled organisms like sponges and jellyfish appear. Millions of years later, in yet higher rock layers, we start to find fossils of soft-bodied animals known as Ediacaran fauna. Then in the rock layers from the Cambrian period (542 to 485 million years before the present), there is a rapid progression from mainly worms and slugs to an array of fauna which represent many of phyla which have persisted to the present [9].

The actual specimens within these phyla present in the Cambrian fossils, however, are typically quite unlike any modern species – – no modern fish or reptiles or mammals or flowering plants appear in the Cambrian. Trilobites (early arthropods which are distant cousins to today’s insects and crustaceans) always appear in sedimentary layers below any rocks containing dinosaurs, never above. Fossils of modern mammals are always found in layers above those of dinosaurs, never below. Moreover, fossils of modern marine animals like clams can be found in rock layers above fossils of large, active land animals like dinosaurs, so these sequences cannot be attributed to a world-wide Flood first burying marine creatures whilst land dwellers were climbing to higher ground.

In the vertebrate lineage, worm-like swimmers with a primitive notochord (no spine, no jaws yet) first appear in the Cambrian, followed in higher (younger) rock layers by jawed fish (fossils first seen 400-450 million years ago) , then tetrapod amphibians, then the first reptiles around 300 Mya, dinosaurs in yet higher rock layers, and finally modern mammals make their appearance. (The earlier types of animals often persist in the presence of the newer arrivals – – sponges, jellyfish, fish, amphibians, and reptiles persist in the fossil record and into the present, but the specific species of fossilized fish, amphibians and reptiles change over geological time.)

It is known that the fossil record is not complete, and the basic arithmetic of population genetics shows that transitional species will mainly occur in small, isolated populations which are unlikely to leave a fossil trace. Nevertheless, a steady stream of discoveries since Darwin’s time has filled in many of the major transitions in the animal family. For instance, a number of fossils with part fish/part amphibian characteristics, and with part reptile/part mammal characteristics, are found at about the times expected for these transitions. (See Realistic Expectations for Transitional Fossils ). Donald Prothero  states [10], “We now have abundant evidence for how all the major groups of animals are related, much of it in the form of excellent transitional fossils”, and he supplies examples which include dinosaurs and modern mammals.

With the sequencing of genomes in the past twenty years, a whole new realm of evidence supporting evolution has become available. For instance, the patterns of “endogenous retroviruses” (ERVs) in the human and chimpanzee genomes are clear evidence that humans and chimps descended from a common ancestor.   There are many other lines of genetic evidence for evolution, which are summarized by Douglas Theobald in “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution” .

The physical changes that appear from species to species to the next species in the fossil record are largely the result of ongoing mutational changes. Opponents of evolution claim that there is a some limit to mutational changes, that would prevent evolutionary changes going beyond some threshold (such as one “kind” developing into a different “kind”), but they have no actual evidence of such a limit [10]. Theobald explains:

If the general observation of geneticists was that of genomic stasis and recalcitrance to significant genetic change, it would be weighty evidence against the probability of macroevolution. For instance, it is possible that whenever we introduce mutations into an organism’s genome, the DNA could back-mutate to its former state. However, the opposite is the case—the genome is incredibly plastic, and genetic change is heritable and essentially irreversible…. Extremely extensive genetic change has been observed, both in the lab and in the wild. We have seen genomes irreversibly and heritably altered by numerous phenomena, including gene flow, random genetic drift, natural selection, and mutation. Observed mutations have occurred by mobile introns, gene duplications, recombination, transpositions, retroviral insertions (horizontal gene transfer), base substitutions, base deletions, base insertions, and chromosomal rearrangements. Chromosomal rearrangements include genome duplication (e.g. polyploidy), unequal crossing over, inversions, translocations, fissions, fusions, chromosome duplications and chromosome deletions.

It is thus reasonable to infer that the same sorts of mutations observable today have been going on and on and on for geological history, and that these accumulated rearrangements of DNA over millions and millions and millions of years have led to large changes in physical features, including new organs, etc. [12]  Indeed, the rates of genetic mutation and physical changes inferred from the fossil record match reasonably well with currently observed mutational rates and physical changes.

However, the evidence from the fossil record indicates that evolutionary changes typically proceed very, very slowly. For instance, it took something like 50 million years to evolve today’s large horses from different and much smaller ancestors. It is estimated that there are seven successive genera in the branchy lineage from Hyracotherium or Eohippus (size of a small fox, teeth for nibbling tips of branches, 3-4 toes per foot) to the present-day Equus horse (one toe per foot, large teeth for grinding up grass) [13]. This gives an average phyletic taxonomic rate of 0.13 genus per million years, or 7.5 million years per genus. Triassic and earlier ammonites evolved at a rate of 0.05 genus per million years. The last common ancestor of hominids and chimpanzees is considered to have lived around 6 million years ago. These transitions did not involve significant whole new organs, yet they still spread over millions of years.

The reptile to mammal transition was a more significant transition, including many changes to the jaws and the reproductive system and elsewhere, although these were both still tetrapods. In the fossil record, this transition is spread over some 100 million years. This all indicates that it is unrealistic for us to expect to see a major change in bodily function evolve in a hundred years or even a hundred thousand years.

We simply don’t have enough information to track each of the thousands of mutations that would be involved in the transformation of one species in the fossil record to another. We have many fossils of hard body parts, but have recovered little DNA from fossils older than a few million year. For instance, we have no clearly sequenceable DNA from any dinosaur fossils. We can tabulate all the differences between the human and the chimp genomes, but we don’t know the genome of our common ancestor some six million years back; and even if we did, it would not be possible to reconstruct the exact sequence of mutations that led from that common ancestor to the two current species.

There are some cases, however, where there is enough information to reconstruct the mutations to a particular gene which gave rise to some significant new function. Long et al. [14] describe the mechanisms of gene duplication and exon shuffling, and note 22 genes in various species whose history has been reconstructed in some level of detail, using mutational steps of the types which are routinely observed today. For instance, the Antarctic notothenoid fishes have an unusual “antifreeze” glycoprotein (AFGP) which inhibits the formation of ice crystals in their bodies in the sub-freezing (-1.9 C) Antarctic waters. The AFGP is a polymer of a Thr-Ala-Ala glycopeptide monomer. It appears that in an ancestral copy of a trypsinogen protease gene the Thr-Ala-Ala region was expanded through multiple internal duplications. The exons coding for the protease sequences were lost, to yield the present form of the AFGP gene. Thus, a gene with an entirely different function was evolved, by means of mutations which are observable today (duplications, deletions, etc.). See details here.

Young earth creationists commonly complain about what has not yet been discovered – – for instance, we don’t possess fossils of every transitional form, and we do not know all the step by step mutations that produced the genomes of today’s organisms. But if we look at the evidence that HAS been found, instead of complaining or speculating about what has not yet been found, that evidence is overwhelmingly supportive of common descent driven by evolution.

The slow accumulation of mutations and the modest production of new functions that are observable in controlled laboratory experiments over the course of a few years or a few decades is analogous to the slow creep of the continents. In both cases, slow processes operating over many millions of years can produce enormous changes.

For both plate tectonics and macroevolution, there is abundant circumstantial evidence to complement the modest changes that we are able to observe in our day. To dismiss the evidence for evolution because we cannot observe a whole new organ develop within the span of historical human observation is as senseless as rejecting plate tectonics because we cannot personally see a whole continent torn apart to form a new ocean before our eyes.

( 5 ) The Core Issue in Rejecting Evolution

Having spent this much time addressing the physical evidence, I’ll briefly mention a factor which is actually more important for many people. The folks (in North America, at least) who reject evolution come largely from a conservative religious background. They have been told that evolution contradicts the Bible, and that “Darwinism” leads to a debased view of humans. Thus, they are predisposed to believe the proponents of Intelligent Design and of young earth creationism who publish a steady stream of articles that allegedly disprove evolution. (See  A Creationist Speaker Comes to Town for my experience with a young earth creationist coming to give a workshop in my area ).

In order to become open to really hearing the evidence in favor of genuine science, these people need to realize that evolution is not a threat to their core values. The sneering and jeering of atheist biologists like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and P.Z. Myers towards people of faith is counterproductive in this regard. Rather, it should be made known that many devout Christians, from Billy Graham to the Pope , find that “evolutionary creation” is fully compatible with their faith. Christian geneticist Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, former head of the Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God, established the Biologos Foundation which works to share this message. This entails applying a non-literal interpretation to some creation passages in the Bible, just as the church eventually let go of a literal interpretation of the verses which speak of a stationary earth.

The core problem is that young earth creationists misrepresent what the Bible is really about. In II Timothy 3:15-17 Paul states the purpose and function of the Scriptures: they make us “wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus”, and are “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness”, so that we are “equipped for every good work.” This is all theology and morals. There is nothing here about authoritatively teaching geology or biology.

Likewise, Jesus said that the function of the Old Testament was to testify about him and his saving work (John 5:40; Luke 24:44), and Peter (I Pet 1: 10-12) wrote that prophets spoke of the sufferings and glory of Christ. This is “special revelation” of divine purposes which could not be inferred from the “general revelation” of nature. This is a biblical view of the Bible’s intent, which differs from some evangelical statements about inerrancy which mistakenly over-extend the Bible’s sphere of authority into general science or history.

If there really were clear evidence (e.g. rock layers from a recent worldwide Flood) of miraculous intervention on a geologic scale, or clear evidence of the un-natural origin of the human species, that would constitute a widely-accessible supernatural “sign” for unbelievers. However, Jesus flatly declared that no such sign would be given. Young earth creationism is thus founded on premises which run counter to what Christ himself taught (see Jesus on Seeing God in Nature: No Signs, No Justice, No Fear ). For a more general treatment of Bible passages dealing with creation issues, see Evolution and Faith: My Story, Part 2.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

ENDNOTES

[1] The story of this flask gets even more interesting after the evolution of the robust Cit+ strain. That strain mushroomed in numbers each generation as it fed on the abundant citrate in the growth medium. In the process of metabolizing the citrate, this strain released the dicarboxylic acids succinate, fumarate, and malate into the medium. A strain of Cit- cells then evolved to make use of those dicarboxylic acids produced by the Cit+ bacteria. These two strains co-existed in the overall flask population. “Thus, the evolution of citrate consumption led to a flask-based ecosystem that went from a single limiting resource, glucose, to one with five resources either shared or partitioned between two coexisting clades.” – – from “Evolution and coexistence in response to a key innovation in a long-term evolution experiment with Escherichia coli”, by Caroline B. Turner, Zachary D. Blount, Daniel H. Mitchell, Richard E. Lenski , http://www.biorxiv.org/content/early/2015/06/17/020958 .   (The timeline in the Wikipedia article indicates that this Cit- strain later disappeared from this Ara-3 population).

[2] For details on this second mutation see:    Quandt, et al, Recursive genomewide recombination and sequencing reveals a key refinement step in the evolution of a metabolic innovation in Escherichia coli, PNAS February 11, 2014, vol. 111 no. 6, 2217-2222     http://www.pnas.org/content/111/6/2217.abstract

[3] Justin R. Meyer, Devin T. Dobias, Joshua S. Weitz, Jeffrey E. Barrick, Ryan T. Quick, Richard E. Lenski, Repeatability and Contingency in the Evolution of a Key Innovation in Phage Lambda. Science 27 Jan 2012: Vol. 335, Issue 6067, pp. 428-432. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3306806/

[4] Behe M.J., Quarterly Review of Biology 85(4), 2010, 419-415.

[5] Paul Braterman https://pandasthumb.org/archives/2010/12/behes-review-in.html pointed out the rhetorical maneuvers employed by Behe in his 2010 review:

Behe constructs an elaborate apparatus for classifying mutations as “gain”, “modification”, or “loss” of what he calls a Functional Coded Element (FCT). The definition is skewed to make “gain” as difficult to prove as possible. The process needs to be understood at the molecular level, rather than simply in terms of phenotype expression. This enables him to dismiss as of unproven relevance the Lenski group’s famous demonstration of E.Coli acquiring the ability to metabolise citrate under anaerobic conditions. Moreover, advantageous removal of inhibition is treated as “loss”, but advantageous disruption of a function by IS duplication and insertion is classified as “modification”, rather than “gain”. Using these restrictive and asymmetric criteria, Behe classifies most sufficiently well-understood mutations in laboratory-bred bacteria as loss or modification, although he does recognise a few gains…..

But there are numerous well-known counterexamples, many of them discussed in this review.

The next stage is rhetorical dismissal of such counterexamples. Here the strategies include limiting the search (ignoring the massive creative role of gene duplication and polyploidy in eukaryotes, and of horizontal transfer followed by selection in bacteria themselves), narrowing the criteria (new functions don’t count unless they can be demonstrated to arise from additions, rather than any other kinds of alterations, to the molecular machinery), and inventing additional constraints (creation of a new category, the FCT, classifying the process as a loss if either material or function is lost at any stage in the change being discussed, dismissing changes in function as mere transformations, rather than novelties). This stage switches the emphasis from what is possible in principle, to the demand that each case be demonstrated in practice, and fully analysed in detail, at the molecular level.

Finally, any counterexamples still surviving this moving of the goalposts and restricting and tilting of the playing field are dismissed as untypical, and therefore unimportant.

[6]   Jerry Coyne [ https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/12/12/behes-new-paper/ ] noted that Behe limited his survey to precisely the sorts of experiments which are heavily biased towards NOT observing a dramatic increase in functional complexity:

Behe has provided a useful survey of mutations that cause adaptation in short-term lab experiments on microbes (note that at least one of these—Rich Lenski’s study— extends over several decades). But his conclusions may be misleading when you extend them to bacterial or viral evolution in nature, and are certainly misleading if you extend them to eukaryotes (organisms with complex cells), for several reasons:

  1. In virtually none of the experiments summarized by Behe was there the possibility of adapting the way that many bacteria and viruses actually adapt in nature: by the uptake of DNA from other microbes. Lenski’s studies of E. coli, for instance, and Bull’s work on phage evolution, deliberately preclude the presence of other species that could serve as vectors of DNA, and thus of new FCTs (Functional Coded elemenTs).   This is not an idle objection, since we know that adaptation in natural populations of microbes often arises by incorporating new FCTs from other species. Pathogenicity and antibiotic resistance in bacteria, for example, arise in this way…
  2. In relatively short-term lab experiments there has simply not been enough time to observe the accumulation of complex FCTs, which take time to build or acquire from a rare horizontal transmission event. Finding adaptation via point mutations or loss of function is much more likely…
  3. Finally, Behe does not mention—and I think he should have—the extensive and very strong evidence for adaptation via gain-of-FCT mutations in eukaryotes. While that group may occasionally acquire genes or genetic elements by horizontal transfer, we know that they acquire new genes by the mechanism of gene duplication and divergence: new genes arise by duplication of old ones, and then the functions of these once-identical genes diverge as they acquire new mutations.   Or, new genes can arise by unequal crossing-over between different genes, so that new genes arise by mixing bits of old ones.

[Emphases added]

[7] Some readers may wonder why the “nylon-eating bacteria” was not included in these list of complex mutations which give rise to new functions. It was found in 1975 that this bacterium in a pond in Japan had developed the novel ability to digest the waste products from nylon manufacture. In 1984 Susumu Ohno proposed that a key gene for this ability had arisen as a result of a “frameshift” mutation. Most types of mutations keep most of the protein products of a gene intact, while making a change in some portion of it. Thus, the expressed protein after the mutation is largely similar to the protein before the mutation. A frameshift mutation, on the other hand, can alter a gene such that an entirely new sequence of amino acids is produced, with little similarity to the original protein. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frameshift_mutation

For some years, this “nylon bug” was cited as an example of how a more or less random recoding of an entire gene product could produce a completely new and beneficial enzyme. However, papers published by Seiji Negoro since 2006 indicate that in fact no frameshift mutation was involved in the evolution of the 6-aminohexanoic acid hydrolase. Rather, it seems that the new enzyme came about by changes to two amino acids from a pre-existing gene. This is still a nice example of a new function arising from multiple mutations, but it is not as dramatic as a total remake stemming from a frameshift. See   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nylon-eating_bacteria  .

[8] Some direct rebuttals of the notion that the order of fossils in the rocks can be explained by a global Flood are given here:  https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Fossil_sorting_by_the_global_flood

and here:  http://debunkingcreationism.blogspot.com/2012/11/real-geology-vs-flood-geology-via.html

Index fossils provide further evidence that life-forms have evolved over millions of years. Fossils which have a wide (sometimes global) geographic distribution but a relatively short time of appearance in the rocks are called “index fossils”, since they are useful in determining the relative ages of the rocks in which they occur:

These index fossils were all sea creatures, so it is not that the Pecten gibbus scallops all got buried in higher rock layers because they ran faster to higher ground as the Flood-waters rose whilst all the sluggish Paradoxides trilobites were left behind. At all levels there are fossils of animals that are big and small, skinny and fat, so this sequence is not a result of hydrodynamic sorting during one big Flood. Rather, the order of their world-wide appearance in the rock layers reflects their temporal appearance, then disappearance, across the times of deposition in the sedimentary rocks in which they are found.  There are sound reasons to believe that that these deposition times extended over millions of years.   The reality of this world-wide “faunal succession” in the sedimentary rock layers was recognized by geologists well before Darwin proposed a mechanism for how new species could arise.

[9] Contrary to the claims of anti-evolutionists, this “Cambrian explosion” of new life-forms is readily explicable within conventional evolutionary science. See Cambrian Contention: Disputing “Darwin’s Doubt”

[10]  Donald Prothero, What Missing Link? NewScientist, 1 March 2008, 35-41 http://www.donaldprothero.com/files/92313517.pdf

[11] Michael Behe argued for such a limit to evolution in The Edge of Evolution, but his arguments fail, as shown by the examples here. This is further discussed in STAN 4: Assessing Limits to Evolution and to Natural Selection:   Reviews of Michael Behe’s “Edge of Evolution” and John Sanford’s “Genetic Entropy”

[12] Michael Behe claimed that some biological systems are “irreducibly complex”, such that all the parts must be in place for the system to work – and hence these systems cannot be built up from step by step mutations. However, some of the examples described here directly disprove this thesis, and it has been addressed multiple times by the scientific community. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irreducible_complexity

[13] Motoo Kimura, The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution, (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1983 Press) p. 63. Equus itself is excluded from the count of genera because its span is incomplete.

[14] Manyuan Long, Esther Betrán, Kevin Thornton & Wen Wang, “The origin of new genes: glimpses from the young and old,” Nature Reviews Genetics 4, 865-875 (November 2003)  http://faculty.washington.edu/wjs18/Newgenes.pdf

Posted in Fossils, Genome, Macro-Evolution, Mutations, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Historicity of Jesus: Class Notes

Some time ago I was asked to teach a short, informal class on “The Historicity of Jesus”. Was Jesus a real person who did and taught the things we read about in the New Testament, or did wishful believers just make all that stuff up many years after the deaths of the people who actually knew him?

I made up a handout to serve as notes for that class.  Four classes of documents are examined: Paul’s letters, the Gospels, the writings of other early Christians, and the works of non-Christian historians. I have edited that handout, and added some lengthy footnotes (endnotes) and an Appendix to deal with ancillary topics. It ended up being too long to work well as a regular blog post, so I posted it along with longer essays up at the top of this blog page. It is visible there, or you can just click to it from here: ” Historicity of Jesus

The contents are:

( 1 ) The World of Jesus and His Followers

( 2 ) Authenticity of the New Testament Text

( 2.1 ) Many ancient physical copies of New Testament have been found

(2.2) Quotes from New Testament books appear in other early Christian writings

( 3 ) Paul’s Writings: The Earliest Documents About Jesus

( 3.1) Galatians 1-2 : Paul visits other apostles just a few years after the Resurrection

( 3.2) I Corinthians 15 : Paul receives teaching about Jesus’ death and resurrection from other apostles

(3.3) Paul’s Portrait of Jesus

(3.4) The Significance of Paul’s testimony

( 4 ) The Testimony of the Gospels

( 5 ) Luke the Meticulous Historian

( 6 ) John the Accurate Geographer  

( 7 ) Differences Among the Gospels

( 8 ) Significance of Textual Variants

( 9 ) Settling of the New Testament Canon

( 10 ) Mention of Jesus Christ in Extrabiblical Literature

Josephus, Pliny, and Tacitus

Endnotes

APPENDIX: Historical Accuracy in the Gospel of Luke

 

 

Posted in Bible Interpretation, Biblical History | Tagged | 1 Comment

Total Solar Eclipse Visible Across the U.S. on August 21

The Moon’s orbit around the Earth is inclined by about 5 degrees from the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, so only occasionally does the Moon come between the Earth and the Sun so as to cause a solar eclipse. The diameter of the Moon as viewed from the Earth is about the same as the apparent diameter of the Sun, so the Moon can just barely cover the whole disk of the Sun. Because the Moon’s orbit around the Earth is elliptical, most of the time when there is a solar eclipse, is only partial. It is only when the Moon is closest to the Earth that the Moon can completely block out the Sun and cause complete darkness for a few minutes of totality

As the diagram below indicates, the zone of total eclipse, where the Sun is completely blocked, is very small. Only about one in a thousand people ever witness a total eclipse.

You could become one of those fortunate total eclipse viewers, if you can get to a narrow swathe across the U.S. on August 21, 2017. Around noon that day, the path of totality will run from coast to coast. A map is shown below. The next total eclipses after this will be 2019 and 2020 in Chile and Argentina, 2021 in Antarctica, 2024 in Mexico/central U.S./ eastern Canada, 2026 through Iceland and Spain, and 2027 across North Africa. The next solar eclipse with totality passing over much of Europe occurs in 2081.

 

All of the contiguous 48 states, as well as parts of Canada and Mexico will be exposed to a partial eclipse on August 21. Faint orange lines on the map show the limits of 90%, 75%, and 50% solar occlusion. The path of totality is only about 70 miles (117 km) wide. Below is a zoomed-in section of this map.

This site has links to this interactive map by NASA and another map from Google, and also tables of eclipse times for cities in some states. New York City, Philadelphia, Houston and San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Toronto will max out at about 70%-75% occlusion of the sun. That will be interesting to observe through eclipse glasses if the sky is not cloudy, but may otherwise be fairly unimpressive.

Totality is supposed to be a whole different experience. “Daylight is replaced by a mysterious dusk, and bright planets and stars become visible. Plants and animals act as though it were nightfall as flowers close up and birds return to roost. There’s a chill in the air because the temperature drops a dozen degrees or more. The brilliant Sun is replaced by a black orb surrounded by a ghostly halo. The colors of sunset ring the horizon…”. [1] “…When the shrinking visible part of the photosphere becomes very small, Baily’s beads will occur. These are caused by the sunlight still being able to reach the Earth through lunar valleys. Totality then begins with the diamond ring effect, the last bright flash of sunlight”. [2]

Here is a 1999 photo of the Sun being almost entirely blocked by the Moon. Solar prominences (in red) can be seen along the edge, as well as the extensive fainter filaments of the corona.

For this 2017 eclipse, totality will last about 2.5 minutes, but only near the center of the path of totality. Thus, it may be worth a little extra travel to move toward the central 40 mile wide strip. One should anticipate that many other people will be crowding into the same patch, especially if it is near a major highway, and therefore plan for traffic jams coming and going. It would also make sense to check the weather forecast a day or two before, and aim for locales expected to be less cloudy.

The safe and convenient way to look at the sun during the eclipse is with specially designed glasses.

 

These can be purchased for about a dollar apiece in some stores and on-line at Amazon or speciality sites   . Experts warn against looking at the sun through home-made filters.

A good science project for classroom or family is to make some sort of pinhole projector, which will project an image of the Sun’s disk and which will show it being occluded. This can be as simple as a piece of cardboard with pinhole held high above a sheet of white paper on the ground, or a more elaborate box affair. Here is how to make a largish box projector into which you put your head:

 

This  links to a short video showing how to build a small pinhole projector into a shoebox. I helped my daughter’s elementary school class make these many years ago for a partial solar eclipse. They turned out well, although the size of the projected image with this short box is pretty small. It is also possible to project a larger, clearer image of the sun using binoculars and a tripod.

 

[1] “Get Eclipsed” pamphlet, by Pat and Fred Espenak

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_eclipse#Viewing

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Listing of Articles on Science, Faith and Other

Here is a listing of some of the more popular articles on this blog, grouped by topic:

Geology/Fossils

Grand Canyon Geology

Realistic Expectations for Transitional Fossils

“Unconformities” Showed Geologists By 1800 That The Earth Was Very Old

Soft Tissue in Dinosaur Fossils: Evidence for a Young Earth?

 The Cambrian Explosion (Reviews of “Darwin’s Doubt”)

 Assessment of Evidences for a Young Earth

        Some Simple Evidences for an Old Earth

.       “Big Daddy” Chick Tract: The Most Widely-Distributed Anti-Evolution Publication     (Shows intermediate fossils between apes and modern humans)

 Genetics

Endogenous Retroviruses in Your Genome Show Common Ancestry with Primates

Gorilla, Orangutan, Chimp and Human Genomes: Population Genetics and Intelligent Design

 Junk DNA, the ENCODE Project, and Intelligent Design: Facts, Hype, and Spin

       From Micro-Evolution to Macro-Evolution: Beneficial Mutations, the Pace of Evolution, and Increasing Genome Complexity   (“STAN 3”)

Assessing Limits to Evolution and to Natural Selection:   Reviews of Michael Behe’s “Edge of Evolution” and John Sanford’s “Genetic Entropy” (“STAN 4”)

        Link to “Science Meets Religion” site by David H. Bailey; tackles many evolution/ID issues, including genetics/information issues like irreducible complexity and generating novel genetic features

.      Evolution Before Our Eyes: Complex Mutations in Microbes Giving New Functions

Theology/Bible Interpretation

Adam, the Fall, and Evolution

A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology

Jesus on Seeing God in Nature: No Signs, No Justice, No Fear

Early Church Fathers: Excerpts From Christian Writings, 100-200 A.D. (including observations on the natural world)

Was the “Expanse” Overhead in Genesis 1 a Solid Dome?

Evolution and Faith: My Story, Part 2   (summarizes ways to interpret Genesis in the light of evolution)

 An Answer to the Intellectual Problem of Evil

        “The World’s Last Night”: C. S. Lewis on the Second Coming

.      Billy Graham on Evolution

.      The Historicity of Jesus   (Assesses historical documentation of his life and teachings)

.      Job Finds a God Who Walks on the Wild Side

History and Cultural Context of Creationism

Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism (traces the origin of Young Earth “Flood geology” back to nineteenth-century Adventist cult prophetess Ellen White)

University of Washington Biology Professor Brags About Bullying Religious Students

Whatever Happened to Intelligent Design Theorist William Dembski?

A Creationist Speaker Comes to Town (I attend and assess a talk by Jonathan Sarfati)

       The Great Debate of 2014: Creationist Ken Ham versus Bill Nye the Science Guy

.      Was Darwin An Atheist?

Remarkable Healings

Engineer’s Wife Healed of Multiple Sclerosis

Healing of Nearly-Deaf Boy on YouTube

Healing Miracles in Mozambique: Medical Journal

       Prayer for Healing at Bethel Church in Redding, California

Applied Technology/Economics

Folding and Electric Scooters and Bikes for Commuting the Last Mile

Comparison of Composting Toilets: Towards a Global Commode

       Fun Things to Ride: Stepper Bikes, Carving Scooters, Electric Unicycles, etc.

Fun Things to Fly: Powered Parachutes, Trikes, and Gyroplanes

Simple, Featherweight Alcohol Stoves for Camping

Overview of the U. S. Monetary System (What is money and how it is created; interactions of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and commercial banks; government and trade deficits)

High-Yield Investments

 

Work of the American Scientific Affiliation or Its Members

Some Highlights of American Scientific Affiliation 2015 Meeting

Brain, Mind, Faith: 2016 American Scientific Affiliation Meeting

A New Resource for Creationism: “The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth”

      How Science Can Inspire and Inform Worship: NASA’s Jennifer Wiseman

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Layout of blog:

Recent posts are listed along the right-hand side of the blog window, newest at the top. Longer essays are listed across the top of the window.

I post a new article (very roughly) about once a month, mainly on faith/science but also on other random topics. There is a “Follow” button at bottom right, if you want to get email notification of a new article.

Comments Policy:   There is a quick registration for leaving comments (just asks for a username and e-mail address). Comments are expected to relate to the post topic and to reflect the commenter’s own thoughts or questions (no links to other sites or videos). Abusive tirades will be disallowed.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments