Whatever Happened to Intelligent Design Theorist William Dembski?

Summary: Young earth creationists have knocked out of action one of the most effective advocates for Intelligent Design. This is symptomatic of the rift between these two anti-evolution movements which are both mainly composed of Bible-believing Christians.

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Among Christians who take the Bible seriously as revelation, there are three main schools of thought regarding human evolution and the age of the earth. Evolutionary creationists, also known as theistic evolutionists, acknowledge the physical evidence for common ancestry between humans and other primates (e.g. Endogenous Retroviruses in Your Genome Show Common Ancestry with Primates ). They understand that the Bible, including the Genesis creation narrative, was given to teach spiritual truths (II Timothy 3:15-17), not physical history.

There is abundant and clear evidence that the earth is far older than the 6000 years dictated by a literal reading of Biblical genealogies. For instance, we can drill down into glaciers in central Greenland and Antarctica, and observe over 100,000 years of alternating summer/winter ice layers, with no trace of a global Flood. “Old earth” creationists accept the reality of this evidence, but typically reject the notion that humans evolved from other primates.

Young earth (YE) creationists reject both evolution and the notion of an old earth. They propose an alternate reality, in which the earth and the universe are only 6000 years old, and most sedimentary rock layers were laid down in a year-long global Flood. This Flood geology was developed in the early twentieth century by George McCready Price in obedience to the visions of Adventist prophetess Ellen White. John Whitcomb and Henry Morris appropriated Price’s geology while covering up its cultic origin , and published it in 1961 in The Genesis Flood. Weighing in with some 500 pages of dense, footnoted text and figures, The Genesis Flood seemed to offer scientific support for a literal six-day creation.  This evidence was all bogus, but that did not matter. The book became wildly popular among fundamentalists, going through 29 printings. For the century prior to 1961, almost no Christians, fundamentalist or not, held that a young earth and a six 24-hour day creation was justified either biblically or scientifically. By 1970, however, The Genesis Flood had established YE creationism as the standard position among conservative evangelicals in America, with growing numbers of adherents in Australia and the U.K.

The 1991 publication of Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial sparked the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. ID advocates generally fall in the old earth camp. While recognizing the great antiquity of the universe, they attempt to find gaps in our current understanding of the history and mechanisms of evolution. They then use these gaps to claim that the intervention of an Intelligent Agent is necessary to explain today’s biota.

YE creationists are typically quite forthright in stating the religious foundation of their worldview. Their starting point is their particular interpretation of the Bible, and they fit all the physical evidence around that. The earth must be young and thus any evidence that it is old must be flawed. That accounts for their resolute denial of the facts (such as the annual layers in glacier ice) that are conclusive for everyone else.

ID advocates, on the other hand, are more coy about their motivations. They typically purport to be objective scientists who happen to discover evidence for design in the biological world, and who simply wish to broaden the education of schoolchildren by exposing them to “the controversy” over the adequacy of evolutionary theory.

The epicenter of the ID movement is the Discovery Institute in Seattle. A number of pedigreed PhD’s are on staff there, producing books and articles which are intended to withstand the scrutiny of the greater academic world. They are careful to not specify the identity of the Intelligent Designer who must have intervened somehow to produce new batches of plants and animals through the eons of geologic time.

However, outsiders are not fooled. Only God (or some super-intelligent, powerful and long-lived alien civilization) would be capable of making the sorts of repeated genetic interventions over millions of years needed to bridge the alleged gaps in natural evolution. Most of the founders and principals of the Discovery Institute are conservative Christians, and the leaked 1998 manifesto of the Institute, the “Wedge Document”  clearly articulated a religious goal: to “reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

Relations were initially warm between YE creationists and ID theorists. The large, established YE creationist base helped provide venues for ID speakers, and the academic credentials of the ID scholars lent credibility to the anti-evolution plank of the YE platform. The ID folks minimized mention of their views on the earth’s age, and the YE crowd did not press them on it. In recent years, however, YE creationists have taken to vehemently denouncing old earth creationists as “compromisers”.

Some ID advocates write mainly about observable aspects of the physical world, such as fossils and mutations in DNA. It is straightforward to do basic fact-checking and to show that the conclusions asserted by those ID proponents are insupportable (see e.g. here  on Stephen Meyers’ treatment of the Cambrian explosion, and here  on Jonathan Wells’ “Icons of Evolution”).

The writings of William Dembski, on the other hand, deal with more intangible concepts like information theory. Dembski became a key figure in the ID movement in the 1990’s and beyond. His breakout book was The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities (1998), which became something of a best-seller. In this and his other works, Dembski claimed to have demonstrated that the sort of increases in genetic information content required by unguided evolution were mathematically impossible. There is “no free lunch”; only the intervention of an Intelligent Agent can explain the observed “specified complexity” in the biological world.

Critics have published numerous articles denouncing Dembski’s work. They claimed to find inconsistencies and outright errors in his writings. However, due to the nature of the subject, both Dembski’s writings and those of his opponents are somewhat hard for nonspecialists to follow. Thus, his writings were often considered by anti-evolutionists to be unrefuted, and to be the final nail in the coffin of Darwinism.

Opponents of evolution were, of course, delighted to have such a smart and articulate guy confidently proclaiming the demise of Darwinism. For many years he was a golden boy of ID. Books and articles flowed from Demoski’s keyboard, and he was invited to speak in many venues. His face adorned the cover of WORLD magazine. He was a long-time fellow at the Discovery Institute. However, he is no longer is very active in the field. What happened?

He and some ID colleagues set up an ID think tank at Baylor University in 1999. That was soon quashed after an outcry by the other faculty members. In 2006, Dembski took up a faculty position at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) in Fort Worth, Texas, and continued highly visible activities promoting Intelligent Design. Dembski was clear with the seminary that he was an old-earth, not a young-earth creationist.

In 2009 he published The End of Christianity. In that book he attempted to reconcile the evidence from the fossil record that animal suffering and death occurred for millions of years before humans appeared, with the traditional theological notion that this suffering and death is collateral damage from man’s Fall. Western Christianity, following Augustine, has often held that the original peaceable, vegan animal world was plunged into carnivory as a outworking of man’s Fall and the subsequent curse on humans and their world. Dembski accepted this basic premise, and speculated that the effects of man’s sin may have (since God dwells outside of the linear time to which we are constrained) propagated backwards as well as forward in time. Thus, the carnage in the animal world during the eons before humans appeared was indirectly a result of the actions of those later humans. Towards the end of the book, as a sort of afterthought, Dembski mentioned the possibility that Noah’s Flood was actually a local flood in the Middle East, rather than a global deluge.

That, alas, proved to be his undoing. Hard-core YE creationists such as Ken Ham were incensed that Dembski would question the reality of a global Flood. They denounced him coast to coast and orchestrated letter-writing campaigns to his employer, demanding his ouster. Dembski was hauled before an inquisition at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was made clear that if he did not satisfy them on the global extent of Noah’s Flood, he would be immediately fired as a heretic.

This put Dembski in an agonizing personal dilemma. If he had been financially solvent, he would have simply resigned right away. However, he had a severely autistic son plus two other children to support, and had no other way to pay the medical bills. He therefore “finessed” it, issuing a statement with sufficient ambiguity to keep him his job, while allowing him to later clarify his actual convictions. He did seek, and find, alternative employment as quickly as possible, first at another seminary, and then (2013-2014) back at the Discovery Institute as a full-time research fellow. Here is how Dembski described this experience at Southwestern :

At the meeting with president, provost, dean, and senior professor, the president made it clear to me from the start that my job was on the line. “Job on the line” in this context does not mean finishing out the academic year and giving me a chance to find another academic job. My questioning the universality of Noah’s flood meant I was a heretic, or at least not suitable for teaching at Southern Baptist seminaries, and thus I’d need to be clearing my desk immediately—unless my theological soundness could be quickly reestablished.

With a severely autistic son, debts, and a family still upset about my experience at Baylor, I wasn’t about to bare my soul and tell this second star chamber (my first being Baylor’s External Review Committee) what I really thought. I therefore finessed it. You can read the statement I wrote for yourself, especially paragraph three, where I said just enough to keep my job, and just enough to give me room to recant, as I’m doing here.

If I had been feeling less vulnerable, if I had independent financial means, I would have said goodbye to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary right then and there. This is one of the things I find most destructive about fundamentalism, the constant threat that at any moment one can run afoul of the orthodoxy du jour, and be thrown under the bus because that’s the proper place for heretics.

This is a deeply unhealthy situation for theological education, leading to a slavish mentality among faculty, who must constantly monitor and censor themselves if they are to stay in the good graces of the fundamentalist power structures.

He remarks further:

Christian orthodoxy is one thing. A “canst thou be more conservative than I?” mentality is another. And this is what I saw emerging.

What’s behind this is a sense of beleaguerment by the wider culture and a desire for simple, neat, pat solutions. Life is messy and the Bible is not a book of systematic theology, but to the fundamentalist mentality, this is unacceptable. …Fundamentalism, as I’m using it, is not concerned with any doctrinal position, however conservative or traditional. What’s at stake is a harsh, wooden-headed attitude that not only involves knowing one is right, but refuses to listen to, learn from, or understand other Christians, to say nothing of outsiders to the faith. Fundamentalism in this sense is a brain-dead, soul-stifling attitude. I see it as a huge danger for evangelicals.

Dembski notes elsewhere that the young earth creationists

…were friendly to ID in the early 2000s, until they realized that ID was not going to serve as a stalking horse for their literalistic interpretation of Genesis. After that, the young-earth community largely turned away from ID, if not overtly, then by essentially downplaying ID in favor of anything that supported a young earth.

The Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky is a case in point. What an embarrassment and waste of money. I’ve recently addressed the fundamentalism that I hold responsible for this sorry state of affairs.

For Dembski, “…this entire incident left so bad a taste in my mouth that I resolved to leave teaching, leave the academy, and get into a business for myself, in which my income would not depend on political correctness or, for that matter, theological correctness.”

Thus, in 2014 he retired from active research and teaching in intelligent design, to focus on issues of education, human freedom, and technology. Dembski still believes that ID is correct, and will someday triumph over standard evolution. But his interests have largely “moved on”. In 2016 he resigned his formal associations with the ID community, including his Discovery Institute fellowship of 20 years. He currently supports his family by building educational software and websites.

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

A few months ago we joined in to buy a family member a remote-control (R/C) airplane that he liked. This Icon A5

Icon A5 Remote Control Plane. From https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cP10v03wQEs

Icon A5 Remote Control Plane. From

is a fairly heavy model plane, that can fly off the water. Here is a YouTube video of this guy having fun with one of these, flying it at the beach. This video includes pilot’s-view footage shot from the little camera mounted on the plane itself.

After I assembled the plane we bought and looked at the procedure to “bind” and tune the radio transmitter and receiver, and saw the complexity of the controls, I was pretty sure that if we tried to fly it we would quickly wreck it. We did locate a local R/C flying club that will offer help and extensive training when the spring flying season rolls around, but this experience got me looking for a cheap, simple, slow R/C plane that would be easy to learn to fly without the tension of possibly smashing an expensive toy.

I did find such a plane, the Parkzone Night Vapor, which has worked well, and which I will describe in an Appendix here. This experience with R/C planes got me looking at small, relatively inexpensive real flying machines, wondering if there are devices that are cheaper/safer/easier than regular airplanes for taking to the skies.   In this post I will summarize some takeaways from my web-browsing, on three classes of aircraft. People mainly just fly these for fun, like having a motorcycle to take out on the weekend, though ranchers also use them for tasks like inspecting fence-lines and monitoring livestock.

Powered Parachutes

A picture of a typical powered parachute (PPC) is shown below. A three-wheeled cart with 1 or 2 seats, an engine, and a propeller hangs below a gliding parachute canopy. Air is rammed into the front openings of the thirty or so cells which comprise the canopy to keep these cells stiffly inflated, which allows the canopy to keep its shape.

Powered parachute ultralight aircraft in sideview. Photo shot by Derek Jensen (Tysto), 2005-August-29. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powered_parachute .

Powered parachute ultralight aircraft in sideview. Photo shot by Derek Jensen (Tysto), 2005-August-29. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powered_parachute .

Powered parachutes are relatively sedate and easy to fly. They fly at a roughly constant speed of about 30 mph (27 knots). There are only two controls: the engine throttle (faster makes you go up, and slower makes you descend), and foot-operated pedals which tug on some of the support lines to make you go left or right. As you land, you push on both pedals at once to slow it down just before you touch down. That is about all there is to it. Once you are airborne, the PPC pretty much flies itself, so you can focus on enjoying the scenery below. Your hands are free to take photos. These are typically flown at low altitudes like 1000 ft (300 m).

These are flown out of large, grassy fields, not airports. It takes some minutes to lay out the parachute on the grass behind the cart before you gun the engine and start rolling, to pull the parachute along and get it inflated. Cost is about $14,000 for a new one-seater and $20,000 for a two-seater. (All prices here should be taken as approximate). They are small enough with the canopy folded to transport in a small trailer and to store in a garage.

PPCs have a small but devoted following. In the words of one enthusiast:

Why a powered parachute? …OK, OK, well, because:

  • It is probably the most fun you can have with your clothes on.
  • It is the easiest flying vehicle we know about – only two airborne controls….
  • It has an incredible safety record (despite the fact that mere humans are allowed to fly it).

Flying powered parachutes is the closest you may ever come to actualizing those childhood flying dreams. It is the closest you will ever come to soaring with the eagles. Another aircraft may never match the slow & low abilities of the powered parachute. It is an incredibly safe and fun way to sail-the-skies!

This five-minute video (screenshot below) demonstrates the ease of use and the great views.

Screen shot from “Powered Parachute” by Constance Grant, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wC9f7NmLwhg

Screen shot from “Powered Parachute” by Constance Grant, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wC9f7NmLwhg

Here is a map of the U.S. with markers and contact information for many PPC instructors and flying clubs.

Powered Parachutes vs. Powered Paragliders

The typical powered parachute (PPC) trike is fairly heavy and has a large motor, since it holds one or two people and pushes along a large, thick canopy overhead. A similar, much lighter vehicle is the 1-person powered paraglider (PPG) trike or 4-wheeled (quad) cart. This uses a thinner, elliptical, more aerodynamically efficient canopy, and is typically controlled by pulling on control lines with the hands. This canopy is harder than a powered parachute to get inflated and the keep inflated; wind gusts can temporarily collapse it, which can be unnerving and sometimes injurious.

Powered paragliding can also be done without a cart, by strapping the motor and propeller on your back and sprinting into the wind.

Trikes (Microlights)

2-person trike, AirBorne XT912 Tourer. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultralight_trike

2-person trike, AirBorne XT912 Tourer. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultralight_trike

A trike, often called a microlight in Europe, is a kind of powered hang-glider. A three-wheeled cart hangs from a pivot point on the triangular wing. The cart has one or two seats, an engine, and a pusher propeller. A steering bar is attached to the wing. The pilot controls the craft by pushing/pulling on the steering bar. For instance, if he or she pushes the bar to the left, the weight of the cart shifts to the right, tilts the wing, and the craft turns to the right. Pushing the bar forward makes the craft go up, and pulling it back toward the pilot causes the wing to tilt down. There is also an engine throttle to control the speed of the propeller.

This arrangement gives the user a degree of control similar to that of a regular fixed-wing airplane, but with much greater simplicity. No control sticks, cables, pulleys and hinged rudders or ailerons. This makes for low cost, high reliability, and easy learning.

Trikes come in one seat and two seat configurations. Different wings can be selected to give different flying characteristics. Some wings are designed for allowing swooping aerobatics. Smaller wings give higher speeds and improved handling in windy conditions. With a smaller wing, a trike can cruise cross-country at 80 mph (70 knots). People have circumnavigated the globe in trikes, hopping from airfield to airfield. Larger wings make for slower landings and even the ability to soar with the engine off, but more tendency to be blown around by gusts and turbulence.

Northwing ATF soaring trike. http://northwing.com/atf-trike.aspx

Northwing ATF soaring trike. http://northwing.com/atf-trike.aspx

The Northwing ATF soaring trike ($13,400) above is one of the lightest trikes. It has a large wing and a light motor to allow soaring on air currents with the engine off. Heavier single-seat trikes are available, with varying amounts of fairing and windshield, typically in the $15,000-$20,000 range. Two-seaters like the one pictured up above are often $40,000-60,000, though you can spend up to $100,000. North Wing, Evolution, Airborne, and Air Creation are some of the most popular manufacturers.

These machines are treated for most intents like a light airplane, taking off and landing on paved runways or smooth grass strips which are preferably at least 500 ft long. Landing speeds are around 35 mph. The wings on trikes can be folded and rolled into a fairly narrow bundle which is approximately 16 ft (5 m) long. Thus, a trike can be disassembled and transported using a trailer. Especially with the larger 2-person trikes, users often just keep them at an airstrip and drive there to fly them. These larger trikes fit in at small to medium sized airports, using radio contact with the tower as appropriate. These larger trikes tend to have fairly complete instrument panels, and function much like a small regular airplane.

Here is the first in a series of YouTube training videos by Paul Hamilton demonstrating how to fly a trike.


Gyroplanes, also called autogiros and gyrocopters, are a cross between regular fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

A helicopter has a rotor spinning overhead which provides lift. This rotor is pushed around by a shaft and engine attached to the body of the craft. That tends to make the body spin in the opposite direction of the rotor rotation. To counteract that spinning force, most helicopters have a long tail with a tail rotor, which must be controlled by the pilot. There is a complicated hub mechanism to vary the pitch of the rotor blades in various ways. The construction and piloting of helicopters are relatively complex, making them expensive to build and challenging to fly.

A gyroplane has an engine and propeller which drives it forward (similar to a fixed-wing airplane) and a rotor overhead which spins to provide lift. The rotor is not directly driven by a shaft, but is spun by the air rushing by from the craft’s forward motion through the air. That can be a little hard to visualize, so I will put the technical details of that in an Appendix. Anyway, it means that the rotor hub mechanism can be fairly simple, which means cheap and reliable. The controls are a control stick which tilts the rotor head forward/back/left/right, pedals for the rudder, and the engine throttle.

A gyroplane needs forward motion to take off, to stay airborne, and to land, so in that sense it flies much like a fixed-wing airplane. Photos of four different models of gyroplanes are shown below. They differ in appearance and some mechanical details, but the fundamental operation of all of these aircraft is the same.

Through a peculiarity in Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) certification, in most cases a new gyroplane can only be sold in the U.S. as a kit, where the owner must assemble at least 51% of it. This has been the case for decades. Thus, historically American gyroplanes have been made of easy-to-bolt-together metal tubing, with a lot of the mechanical parts left visible. This kit-build heritage is visible in the first two machines shown below, the Rotor Flight Dynamics Dominator and the Sportcopter Vortex M912. The steering/braking on the Sportcopter gyros give them superior handling on the ground, and the ability for extra short take-off rolls. Pilot protection is also outstanding. The Vortex M912 is exceptionally rugged and powerful, being tailored for ranching operations. With oversized wheels and a beefy suspension, it can land and take off in very rough fields, not just long runways and smooth turf. These models like the Dominator, Lightning, and Vortex are not fancy-looking, but have proven reliable over many years. You can find many YouTube videos featuring them.

Two-seat Dominator from Rotor Flight Dynamics. The long legs of the suspension allow for very long travel for shock absorption upon landing. http://www.rotorflightdynamicsinc.com/pictures/seace001.jpg

Two-seat Dominator from Rotor Flight Dynamics. The long legs of the suspension allow for very long travel for shock absorption upon landing. http://www.rotorflightdynamicsinc.com/pictures/seace001.jpg


The rest of the world has not labored under this kit-build rule. Thus, European companies like Airgyro and Magni have been making sleek-looking, more-enclosed machines and marketing them all over the globe. Most of these are two-seaters. The Airgyro MTO Sport below seems to be Europe’s best-selling gyroplane.

Airgyro MTO Sport. http://airgyro.com/page4/

Airgyro MTO Sport. http://airgyro.com/page4/

American companies now also offer options for a more enclosed feel for the pilot. The Dominator is offered with a more-complete cockpit enclosure. Sport Copter produces the fully-enclosed two-seat Sport Copter II shown below, and is developing a new tandem two-seater.

A single seat gyroplane such as a Dominator or Lightning can be had for around $25,000-35,000, depending on options. You can save money by having the kit parts shipped to you, and then you build it in your garage, following the directions. Comments on the internet indicate that this assembly is not very difficult, but it does take a while. Alternatively, you can travel to the dealer, pay a few thousand dollars extra for the help, and take 2 weeks to assemble it under the guidance of factory technicians. The machine can be test-flown and then shipped to you.

Most two-seaters with tandem seating run around $60,000-90,000, and the models with side-by-side seating cost over $100,000. These prices are about the same as lightweight fixed-wing planes, and around 1.5 times the prices for trikes, while servicing a similar market of recreational fliers.   So why do some folks choose gyroplanes over trikes or light fixed-wing planes?   Gyros have a number of advantages:

( 1) Very short distances are required for take-off and landing. Take-offs can be done in less than 100 ft (30 m), and landings in less than 50 ft (15 m). A really good pilot can set a gyro down with almost no roll. This widens the possibility of fields to fly in and out of, and can be a big safety asset in case of emergency landings in rough spots.

(2) Attractive flying characteristics: Gyros are immune to stalling, and can fly at very low speeds (e.g. 20 mph/ 18 knots) and also at 80-100 mph. They are very maneuverable, able to fling around the sky and to quickly reverse direction (see e.g. “Dominator Autogyro Being Flown Hard By an Expert” ). The Vortex is renowned for its capability to do extreme aerobatics like loops and barrel rolls. They can take up some of the duties of a helicopter, such as slowly circling for surveillance, at a much lower cost.

(3) They handle winds and turbulence far better than any other aircraft in their size range. The rotor has little surface for the wind to catch. This promotional video for gyros shows a jolly Brit flying in a brisk 35 mph (32 knot) wind. This short video shows another gyro landing in 30 knot gusts with no apparent effects.

Thus, in parts of northern Europe, Canada and the northern U.S., you can get out flying much more frequently with a gyro than with a powered parachute or most trikes, which are not normally flown with winds much over 10 mph. Even the overall winds are calm, thermal air currents can give a turbulent flight in a PPC or a trike during the middle portion of a sunny day.

Regulations for Ultralight and Sport Aircraft

An aircraft carrying only one person, weighing no more than 254 lb (115 kg), with a fuel capacity of 5 gallons or less, with a top speed of 55 mph, and having certain other features, is deemed an “ultralight” in the U.S. These do not require registration or a pilot’s license, and they do not need FAA-certified inspections or maintenance. They may not be flown over densely-populated areas. The philosophy here seems to be that you are free to kill yourself but not others. The lightest fixed-wing planes and single seat PPCs and trikes are classified as ultralights.

The other craft discussed here mainly fall into the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) category. These include 2-seater powered parachutes, most trikes, many models of lightweight 1- and 2-seat fixed-wing planes, and some imported gyroplanes. Some parameters for a LSA are a maximum gross (loaded) take-off weight of 1,320 lbs (600 kg, top speed of 138 mph / 120 knots, and a maximum of two seats. These craft are registered with the FAA.

There are sub-categories such as Special (S-LSA) and Experimental (E-LSA). With an S-LSA (but not an E-LSA) you can rent it out or use it for instruction, but nearly all maintenance and the required annual inspection must be done by an FAA-certified repairman. With E-LSA, you can choose any mechanic for the maintenance or do it yourself, you can make modifications, and you can do the annual inspection yourself after taking a 16-hour course. Purchasers of trikes for their own use often choose to exchange the original S-LSA certification of their machine for E-LSA, to make routine maintenance less onerous.

The base case is that only daytime flying below the clouds (Visual Flight Rules) is permitted. Night flying and even instrument flying is possible, depending on the pilot’s training level and the aircraft’s equipment.

The other key category is “Experimental Amateur-Built” (E-AB). This can be practically anything that flies, as long the “major portion” was built by built by a person or group of persons solely for education and recreation. Maintenance can be done by anyone, and annual inspections by the original builder or an FAA certified repairman. Most gyroplanes sold in the U.S. fall in this category.

For all these LSA and E-AB machines, a Sport Pilot license is required to fly. Among other things, this entails classroom instruction, written exams and at least 20 hours (12 hours for powered parachute) of flight training. The total training can cost $5,000-10,000. However, this is less onerous than for a regular Private Pilot license (about 40 hours). It can save some money and inconvenience to take some of these instructional flight hours in a generic airplane at a nearby airport, to get the overall feel for flying and for airport tower protocol, before traveling to some distant airport to receive the more expensive training on your particular class of aircraft like a trike or gyro.

Most other developed countries have similar aircraft certification categories to make it easier for people to own and fly very small aircraft.

Comparison to Regular Planes and Helicopters

These flying machines seem expensive, but they are much cheaper than new regular airplanes or helicopters. Also, they typically hold enough value that you can sell them after ten years and recoup most of your purchase price.

To buy a new 4-seat regular, fully-instrumented fixed-wing plane like a Cessna Skyhawk or Piper Warrior costs over $300,000. These planes land at about 60 knots (66 mph). I have seen 2015-2016 kit-built replicas of the old (1939-1947) Piper Cub 2-seaters selling for around $130,000.  A new Robinson R-22 2-seat helicopter is about $250,000. One can, of course, purchase older used fixed-wings and helos for much less than new models. Refurbished original c. 1940 Cubs go for around $40,000-80,000.

There are many ultralight/light sport fixed-wing airplanes available. Wikipedia lists a number of 2-seat, enclosed cockpit planes which are mainly in the $50-150,000 range. Some are feathery ultralights, others look more like traditional planes. Phantom Aeronautics has long supplied popular ultralight-type planes in kit form. These cost about $25,000 for a one-seater and $35,000 for a two-seater.

Rotor FX supplies an ultralight (max 254 lb) fully functioning single-seat helicopter for about $42,000. This Mosquito XE is bare bones (no enclosure for the pilot), and requires no license in the U.S. to fly. Adding any options or going to upgraded models adds only modest cost, but the added weight tips the craft into a new category where a full helicopter license is required. Helicopter flying takes more training than fixed-wing.

The price range for gyroplanes is slightly lower than but similar to the prices for comparable (1-seat, 2-seat) light sport fixed-wing aircraft. Trikes are cheaper, and powered parachutes are the least expensive, for two-person capacity. In terms of ease of learning and use, the powered parachute (PPC) is the easiest, followed by trikes and then gyroplanes, which seem about as demanding to learn to fly as a small fixed-wing plane.

Here is a balanced comparison of fixed-wings, PPC’s, and trikes.  Here is a comparison of many types of ultralight (single person) flying devices, including hang gliders and clusters of helium balloons. Finally, here is a detailed, tabular comparison of various lightweight aircraft (trikes, PPCs, gyros, fixed-wing) with a lot of good information but with a bias towards trikes.

My Personal Takeaway

I hope the information collected here may be of use to someone who is considering getting into flying. I had not really thought about flying before, but all of this reading has boosted my confidence in the safety of these aircraft when they are piloted correctly.

After reading the raves about powered parachutes, I now plan to take a PPC ride in the next year somewhere. I am also mulling taking a training flight in a trike or gyro. Often instructors will let you have the controls once you are well above the ground. It would be a gratifying bucket list item to do some actual flying, if only for a short time.

List of Appendices

APPENDIX A. The Maverick: A Flying Car

APPENDIX B. How a Gyroplane Works

APPENDIX C. Safety Issues

APPENDIX D. Parkzone Night Vapor Remote Control Plane


APPENDIX A. The Maverick: A Flying Car

When reading about “flying cars”, which are street-legal cars that can transform into aircraft, I ran across the Maverick . This is a street legal dune-buggy which can do 0-60 mph in a blistering 3.9 seconds…

Maverick flying car (parawing furled and stowed). http://www.mavericklsa.com/index.html

Maverick flying car (parawing furled and stowed). http://www.mavericklsa.com/index.html

…and which can also sprout a parawing to fly at 40 mph:

 Maverick flying car with parawing deployed. http://www.mavericklsa.com/index.html

Maverick flying car with parawing deployed. http://www.mavericklsa.com/index.html

The parawing is supported by a clever telescoping mast, which helps get the parawing inflated without dragging it on the ground, and gives extra stability in crosswinds. It sells for $94,000 in kit form. This is much less than the $300,000 price tag for most other flying cars , and its simplicity and standard automotive engine make for low maintenance.   Since this is essentially a powered parachute, only modest piloting skills are required.

This flying car was developed by the Indigenous People’s Technology and Education Center (I-TEC). This non-profit organization develops technology to meet the needs of indigenous peoples such as those in the Amazon basin. It was founded by Steve Saint. His father, Nate Saint, was one of five American missionaries who were killed in 1956 by the people that they made contact with in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador. Two years later, Nate’s sister and one of the five widows went to live among this tribe and share the love of God with them. At age 10, Steve started spending summers with the tribe, and was later baptized in a jungle river by the man who had years earlier speared Steve’s father by that same river.

Steve went to the U.S. for education and settled in Florida. In 1995, at the request of the elders of the Ecuadorean tribe, Steve returned with his family to live among them for a year. There he realized the need for appropriate technology and training to allow indigenous peoples to better their lives with minimal ongoing dependence on outsiders. Steve’s ITEC organization does things like re-engineer dental and eyeglass equipment to make it more portable and affordable. They developed the Maverick as a means to e.g. deliver emergency medical assistance where there are no good roads.

APPENDIX B. How a Gyroplane Works

The blades of the gyroplane rotor have an airfoil cross-section, similar to an airplane wing. This creates lift as the rotor rotates through the air. For a gyroplane to climb or keep going in level flight, there must be an engine and propeller to push the craft forward. The plane of the rotor rotation is tilted slightly backward, so that there is a net airflow up through the spinning rotor disk. The blades are pitched so that the net force of the relative airflow keeps the blades spinning. This is called autorotation.

This may be hard to visualize. This essay by Jeff Lewis uses diagrams like this to show the forces on the rotor blades:

 Sketch of forces on gyroplane rotor blade. Source: Autogyro History and Theory , by Jeff Lewis http://www.jefflewis.net/autogyros.html#workings

Sketch of forces on gyroplane rotor blade. Source: Autogyro History and Theory , by Jeff Lewis http://www.jefflewis.net/autogyros.html#workings

I find it helpful to think of how a sailboat with its sail at the correct angle can actually sail into the wind. Perhaps the simplest case to think about is if the forward-driving propeller is turned off and the gyroplane is descending with no forward driving. This type of autorotation situation is how helicopters can land safely even if their engine stops. This Wikipedia article on autorotation gives insights here.

It gets a bit more complicated if you dig deeper into the rotor aerodynamics. The middle half of the rotor blade generates the net rotational driving force, and drives the outer quarter of the blade, which is where much of the lift is generated. Centrifugal force straightens out the droopy blades. The blade holder is hinged like a see-saw at the hub, so the blade that is advancing into the oncoming air can flap up, and the retreating blade flaps down. This equalizes the lift on either side. The bottom line is, once the blades are spinning and the rotors oriented so there is net air flow up through them, they will spin and generate lift.

Juan de la Cierva of Spain invented the modern “autogiro” in the early 1920s. Improved versions were produced in the U.S. by Harold Pitcairn’s Pitcairn Autogiro Company. These early gyroplanes looked like regular airplanes with stubby wings, and with a rotor added on top. Here is a photo of two of these birds (one autogiro in the foreground, the other far behind it) flying past the partly-completed George Washington Bridge over New York’s Hudson River in 1930.

“Pitcairn PCA-2 Certification flight over George Washington bridge (under construction) November, 1930. Courtesy of Stephen Pitcairn”. Source: brochure for conference “From Autogiro to Gyroplane: The Past, Present and Future of an Aviation Industry”, Hofstra University 2003. http://www.hofstra.edu/pdf/community/culctr/culctr_ag_regprog.pdf

“Pitcairn PCA-2 Certification flight over George Washington bridge (under construction) November, 1930. Courtesy of Stephen Pitcairn”. Source: brochure for conference “From Autogiro to Gyroplane: The Past, Present and Future of an Aviation Industry”, Hofstra University 2003. http://www.hofstra.edu/pdf/community/culctr/culctr_ag_regprog.pdf

These gyroplanes were seen as cutting edge aviation technology in the 1930’s, appearing in movies and adventure stories and on the pages of popular science magazines. With their short takeoff and landing capabilities, they were used for a U.S. mail shuttle from between the Camden, New Jersey airport and the top of the post office building in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Commercial interest in gyroplanes largely died out after World War II with the advent of practical helicopters which could hover and could take off and land vertically.

The gyroplane was reborn as a recreational aircraft when Russian-American Igor Bensen came up with a minimalist, easy-to-build design, with an engine and a pusher propeller mounted behind the pilot’s seat. Starting in 1955, thousands of enthusiasts purchased plans, mounted VW engines, and took to the skies in their home-built Bensen and similar “gyrocopters”.

Bensen model B-8M in Canada Aviation Museum. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bensen_B-8

Bensen model B-8M in Canada Aviation Museum. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bensen_B-8

It was exhilarating to swoop around like a bird and perch on a seat with no cockpit or wing to block the view. This 1970’s gyrocopter training film is like a time capsule – – it features one of these old-style gyrocopters and shows the pilot reaching up and getting his rotor spinning by hand, the old-fashioned way.

Unfortunately, many of these home-grown aviators were killed in accidents. This was partly because they often tried to learn to fly by themselves, without sound instruction. The other factor is that the gyrocopter designs of those decades often had serious safety flaws that the autogyros of the 1930’s were not subject to. If the thrust centerline of the pusher propeller lies above the center of gravity, a wrong move on the pilot’s part can lead to irrecoverable forward tumbling of the machine. Also, because they lacked a substantial horizontal stabilizer fin out on the tail, they were unstable toward disturbances like wind gusts. If a pilot overcorrected with the control stick in one direction and then overcorrected in the other direction, he could again end up putting the gyro into a tumble. All this gave gyroplanes a poor reputation for safety.

As these problems became known, gyroplane configurations were changed to correct them. All modern gyro designs have horizontal stabilizers and seat the pilot high enough to closely match the thrust centerline and center of gravity. Also, since gyros are too heavy enough to qualify as ultralights, new users now must get training as they go through the flight instruction for a Sport Pilot license. This is a video of an hour-long lesson in flying gyros.

For most aircraft, taking off is extremely easy: once the plane gets enough speed to leave the ground, you can commence climbing at a fairly constant rate. With gyros, there is a minor quirk — it is often necessary after the initial lift-off to bring the nose down, level out, and fly low for a few more seconds to build speed and to get the rotor revved up, before resuming a climb. This is demonstrated in this smooth take-off and landing on a runway in Quebec.

Modern gyros have pre-rotators to get the rotor spinning at close to take-off speeds, but usually it takes a bit of a take-off roll plus this brief level flight to rev the rotor up. I have looked at a number of YouTube videos of gyros crashing upon take-off, and most of them are due to pilot error in this regard. (The comments posted on gyro and trike crash YouTube videos usually analyze exactly what went wrong). Hauling back on the stick at low rotor speeds will not generate more lift. These crashes look spectacular, with pieces of broken rotors flying in the air, but since they are from low altitudes and since the gyro landing gear and rotor mast form a sort of roll cage around the pilot, pilots do not seem to get hurt.

A good pilot in a first-class machine can get away with revving up the prerotator to the max, and leaping into the air with almost no take-off roll. That is illustrated with a turbocharged Vortex M912 in this video. That video also shows the gyro plopping down to land in a rough field with almost no landing roll. With a gyro you can haul back on the stick at the last minute, and let the stored energy in the rotor stop the forward motion and lower you to the ground.

CarterCopters is working on advanced gyroplane technology which will allow fully vertical take-offs and landings , and also higher-speed cruising flight.

APPENDIX C. Safety Issues

I have mentioned a number of safety concerns here, but these should not be exaggerated. I have seen references to various studies indicating that owning and operating one of these aircraft is no more dangerous than having a motorcycle.

In general, these aircraft do not just fall out of the sky. Problems typically stem from pilot error on take-off and landing, or from a forced landing due to engine failure in flight. Engine failures seem more common with two-cycle than with four-cycle engines. Two-strokes are lighter and cheaper, and have fewer moving parts. However, they require frequent overhauls which may be neglected, and it is essential to take time to warm them up. Some users claim that if you stick with the premier Rotax brand two-stroke and keep it maintained, it is quite reliable.

A key rule here is to never fly where you cannot glide to a decent landing spot if the engine fails. This may involve flying higher in order to have a longer glide path to a distant field in the event of engine failure. This may confine low-flying PPCs to flat agricultural areas which always have a field nearby. There are numerous YouTube videos of engine-out landings in some farmer’s field with PPCs, trikes, and gyroplanes, and they usually end well. Trikes that fly cross-country over mountains and forests often have a rocket-assisted big parachute attached to the frame – if the machine has to descend but there is no level smooth place for a regular landing at 35 mph, deploying this parachute can bring the craft straight down fairly safely.

Some other safety practices are to keep people on the ground away from the invisible disk of the spinning prop, and to wear flotation gear when flying over water. Also, do not try to fly in winds that are too much for your machine and your level of skill. That is a good way to crash a PPC or trike on take-off or landing, though because the speeds are relatively low and the occupants are somewhat protected by the seat cage, serious injury is unlikely.

As noted above, in the past gyrocopters had a poor safety record, and they do take more skill and training to fly. However, I have read several comments by seasoned pilots stating that they regarded gyroplanes as the safest of all aircraft when flown properly. This is due to their stability in the face of wind gusts, and their ability in case of engine failure to glide down (the rotor will keep rotating) and set down in a tiny space.  This three-minute video illustrates this – the gyro pilot lost power shortly after take-off, and flutters down with a cliff on one side and a road with cars on the other. Only a tiny flat spot is available among the boulders, and he manages to set the gyro down there, undamaged. No plane or trike could have done that.

APPENDIX D. Parkzone Night Vapor Remote Control Plane

As noted above, part of what got me reading about inexpensive/light/slow sport aircraft was finding a high performance inexpensive/light/slow remote control (R/C) airplane. The Parkzone Night Vapor, available for about $125 from Amazon or a local hobby shop, flies well and looks nice. I’d recommend it for good clean fun, and as a present for any guy over age 8 or so. A 40-second video of it flying is here .

Parkzone Night Vapor lightweight R/C plane. From http://www.parkzone.com/Products/Default.aspx?ProdID=PKZU1100 .

Parkzone Night Vapor lightweight R/C plane. From http://www.parkzone.com/Products/Default.aspx?ProdID=PKZU1100 .

It only weighs 16.4 g (0.6 oz), and flies along at the pace of a brisk walk. That gives beginners plenty of time to make their moves on the controls without stressing. The slow speed does mean that you can only fly it in near-calm winds, or else indoors (e.g. in a gym or large garage). The large control surfaces give lots of maneuverability. The LED lights allow for flying at dusk or night. Unlike cheaper R/C planes which appear on Amazon, this plane has high-quality parts and uses the Spektrum DSM2 radio technology which is standard in the R/C world. With the Bind-n-Fly (BNF) version, you supply the transmitter (which is what you hold in your hands and has the control sticks). The Ready-to-Fly (RTF) version includes a transmitter.

As long as you keep it over grass, you can crash it innumerable times without damage. It will take off and land nicely on pavement, but if flown on pavement or indoors, at some point you will likely break the propeller shaft. Like all the parts on this plane, the prop shaft can be replaced, but you might want to pre-order a spare pair of prop shafts and props from Amazon. I ripped the wing cover away from the wing frame whilst retrieving the plane from a tree, and was able to re-glue it with a tiny thread of epoxy applied with a toothpick.

A couple of spare batteries with the ultra-micro connection will extend the flight time. I got larger-capacity batteries (125 mAh) for longer flights. I secure them in the airplane battery holder with a thin strip of masking tape. I also got a battery charger which plugs into a USB port. Other tips on getting the most out of the Night Vapor can be found on the internet.

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A Creationist Speaker Comes to Town

By the early 1800s European geologists (many of them devout Christians) realized that the rock layers they observed had to be far older than the 6000 years allowed by a literal interpretation of Bible chronology. For instance, as discussed here , angular unconformities like that shown below could not been formed in the course of the one-year-long Flood of Noah.

Angular Unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland. Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”)

Angular Unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland. Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”)


Numerous other evidences for an old earth have been observed by scientists over the past two hundred years. These include fossil soils, and massive deposits of salt and of limestone in the midst of sedimentary rock layers, and tens of thousands of annual layers in lake bottom deposits (“varves”) and in glaciers (see Some Simple Evidences for an Old Earth). We can trace, in reasonable detail, the movements of the sections of earth’s crust over the past half-billion years. The common ancestry of living things (implying that humans descended from other primates) is established by many lines of evidence (see, e.g.   29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent ).

Nevertheless, something like 20%-40% (depending on how the questions are phrased) of Americans believe that the earth and its plants and animals were formed less than 10,000 years ago. The table below is an excerpt of the results from a 2008 Harris poll. It shows a large minority rejecting the findings of modern science in favor of a recent, supernatural creation.

How is this possible? The Harris poll identified the generally weak scientific knowledge in the American public as a key contributing factor. However, that is only part of the explanation.

Creationist Organizations Spread Their Message

The major driver for the popularity of young earth (YE) creationist beliefs is the ongoing activities of organizations such as Answers in Genesis, Institute for Creation Research, Creation Research Society, and Creation Ministries International.   These groups energetically publish books, journals, magazines and web articles to promote their message. Here is an example of a glossy quarterly put out by Answers in Genesis:

Answers magazine, Oct-Dec 2014 issue

Answers magazine, Oct-Dec 2014 issue

Like many of the YE creationist magazines aimed at the general public, this issue has a large, colorful photo of an animal on the cover. In this case it is an Allosaurus. Various articles in this magazine tell readers that the physical facts (including dinosaur fossils) are best explained by a recent creation, and that any interpretation of the Bible other than YE creationism is untenable.

Most of these organizations also send out speakers to promote their message. I have first-hand experience of how effective these presentations can be. In the 1970’s I attended lectures by John Whitcomb. Whitcomb was a co-author of The Genesis Flood (1961), the book which launched the modern YE creationist movement.     This encounter with Whitcomb converted me, for a time, to his view that the earth was created only about 6000 years ago and that most of the sedimentary rock layers were laid down in Noah’s worldwide Flood. He presented a number of evidences (e.g. failures of radiometric dating, polystrate fossils, fossils out of order, etc.) to demonstrate that the geologists were wrong to claim that the earth is many millions of years old. It was encouraging to me as a Christian to be told that the physical evidence showed the Bible was right (and the secularists were wrong) on origins. It was some years later that I learned enough about the science to realize that none of these young earth evidences are valid.

I recently noticed that young earth (YE) creationist author Jonathan Sarfati would be giving a presentation at a church within driving distance of where I was, so I decided to drop in and check it out. I have read many books and articles by young earth (YE) creationists in the past decade, but had not heard a young earth speaker in person since those lectures by Whitcomb forty years ago.

Jonathan Sarfati, YE creationist author and speaker. Source: http://creation.com/dr-jonathan-d-sarfati

Jonathan Sarfati, YE creationist author and speaker. Source: http://creation.com/dr-jonathan-d-sarfati

Dr. Sarfati is one of several speakers from Creation Ministries International who have been crisscrossing America on an “Exposing Evolution’s Fatal Flaws” tour. He was born in Australia and was educated in New Zealand, earning a PhD in physical chemistry. He has been active promoting YE creationism for many years. He has authored a number of books, including Refuting Evolution, which has reportedly sold 450,000 copies, making it the best-selling YE creationist book ever. He is also a chess master. He was chess champion of New Zealand, and achieved a draw against former world chess champion Boris Spasky in tournament play. He has played up to twelve opponents at once in exhibitions where he is blindfolded and faced away from the chess boards and is only told the opponents’ moves.  He is obviously a bright man.


First Session: The rest of the Bible demands treating Genesis as literal history, with recent six-day creation

Dr. Sarfati seems to be a highly capable YE creationist advocate, so I was interested in what he had to say. Dr. Sarfati had a well-honed presentation, with professional-quality slides. His demeanor was pleasant but serious. The presentation was divided into three sessions. The first two sessions were lectures with slides, first on Bible interpretation and then on scientific issues. The final session was an extended question and answer time. In order to convey the experience of this presentation, I will first describe what happened in the three sessions. Afterwards, I will offer my assessment on the validity of what was said.

In this first session, he went through a number of Bible passages, arguing that Christians must take the Genesis creation account to be literally true – creation of the world about 6000 years ago and special creation of animals and of humans (no human common ancestry with other primates). All animals (this would include lions, sharks, etc.) were originally vegan, only eating “green plants” (per Gen. 1:30). There was no human or animal death until after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Carnivory only appeared after the Fall. He branded Christians who don’t embrace this literal interpretation of Genesis as “compromisers”.

To support this contention, Dr. Sarfati cited a number of passages where the author or speaker seemed to allude to the Genesis creation story as if it had actually occurred as written. These passages included Mark 10:6-9, Exodus 20:8-11, I Cor. 15:21-22, Romans 8:19-22, Isaiah 11:6-9, Isaiah 65:25 , and John 3:12.


Second Session: An attempt to disprove evolutionary science

After the break, Dr. Sarfati presented scientific evidence related to evolution. He showed various slides and videos demonstrating the intricacy of the molecular “machines” which operate within the cell to perform, e.g. duplication of DNA and synthesis of proteins. To have functioning life requires many things working together. It does not seem reasonable that all this complexity could have assembled by itself randomly, so natural selection cannot explain first life.

He told us that substantial lengths of dinosaur DNA have been found in dinosaur bones, yet scientific studies show that DNA decomposes within some thousands of years. Therefore, these bones cannot be millions of years old. This was Dr. Sarfati’s most powerful scientific evidence for a young earth, and it seemed to impress his audience. (It is also untrue, as we will discuss below).

He noted that to go from simple bacteria to vertebrates like humans requires an increase in information content. He pointed out that the breeding of dogs for e.g. short vs. long fur does not involve new genetic information, but is merely the sorting of existing genes.

Dr. Sarfati then proceeded to mislead his audience as to the availability of evolutionary mechanisms to increase genetic information. He characterized mutations as just making things worse (“going downhill”), so they cannot be a source of new information: “A typo [copying error] only makes things worse”.


Final Session: Question and Answer Period

The final portion of the workshop was a Q&A session. Dr. Sarfati made it clear at the outset that he did not welcome depth dialog. He stated that any question was welcome, “as long as it is really a question”. With that rule of engagement, he could shut scientists like me down from giving the audience the full information on an issue by interrupting and saying, “OK, so what is your question?” He could then give a pat half-truth answer and move on. So it did not seem productive for me to ask a question.

The first question from the audience was: How do evolutionists explain the DNA found in dinosaurs? Dr. Sarfati replied that they don’t seem to have any explanation; they just point to “unknown mechanisms”. He then flashed a slide showing some rates of decomposition of DNA at various temperatures, explaining that scientists have measured these rates and obtained chemical kinetics for them. This gave the impression that there is a single, standard, well-established rate of DNA decomposition, which precludes the survival of any DNA after millions of years.

Dr. Sarfati had stock answers for other questions. For instance, an obvious problem for young earth creationism is all the light that we can see coming from stars and galaxies and stellar explosion events which are millions of light-years away. When someone asked him about this, he did not directly answer it. Rather, he parried the question by replying that the Big Bang has its own problem with starlight – the “horizon problem”.

Another big problem for a young earth are all the radioactive dating measurements, the vast majority of which give self-consistent dates for a given rock. These dates are often millions or billions of years old. His response to a question about this was to claim that the YE creationist RATE program had found evidence of faster radioactive decay in the past.

Dr. Sarfati claimed that the fossil record does not support Darwinian evolution but rather special creation, and claimed specifically that australopithecine fossils are more different from both humans and apes than humans and apes are from each other, and thus are not valid representatives of ape/human intermediate species. To support that claim, he cited a quote from scientist Charles Oxnard to the effect that australopithecines are “further from both chimpanzees and humans than chimpanzees and humans are from each other”.


Brief Assessment of the Presentation

Dr. Sarfati’s scriptural case and his scientific case for a young earth are both deeply flawed. To dig through all this in full detail would require an entire book. In the two lengthy Appendices below I will point out the most basic mistake in his Bible treatment, and will note most of the errors in his science.

I did not talk directly with the folks who attended this presentation, but I would guess that they came away feeling more confirmed in their young earth views. Unless the audience had some science background and took the trouble to seriously assess the back-and-forth arguments on young/old earth issues like radioactive dating and fossils, his presentation would leave them with the impression that the physical evidence shows that the earth actually is young. And if one does not grasp the scientific picture, there is little motivation to think past simplistic literalism in Bible interpretation.

As noted earlier, the physical evidence for an old earth and for macroevolution is consistent and pervasive. However, it takes some careful thought to evaluate it properly. For instance, the occurrence of thousands of viral insertions at the same spots in human and chimp genomes is extremely powerful evidence for common ancestry (see here), but it is not something that is easily conveyed in a 30-second sound bite.

Unfortunately, Christians who have imbibed the young earth viewpoint will likely not have the motivation, energy, and capacity to really sift through the physical evidence that challenges their comfortable paradigm. There is a vicious cycle involved here – – believers who fear that an old earth threatens their faith will find it nearly impossible to give real science a fair hearing, and so they stay locked into the YE view.   For me, a PhD research scientist, it was a multi-year, emotionally-fraught process to realize that neither the YE creationists nor the Intelligent Design proponents were telling the truth  (see Evolution and Faith: My Story, Part 1  ).

Dr. Sarfati and his colleagues are sincerely working to try to support the faith of Christians in the face of modern science, and in many cases they accomplish their goal. YE creationist web sites display glowing testimonials by believers who were greatly comforted to be told that the physical evidence supports their simple, traditional understanding of Genesis, and that all the messy suffering and evil in nature and present human relations can be neatly explained away as the consequences of Adam’s sin. I myself remember the warm glow of certainty and coherence I felt in my former days as a YE creationist.

However, when Christians who have been told that a young earth view is an essential part of the faith realize that that view is based squarely on falsehood, the impact on their faith can be devastating. As Christian students in secular colleges engage in depth with genuine geology or biology, thousands of them find that all the physical evidence shows that the earth is actually old, and that humans actually physically evolved from other primates. Since speakers like Dr. Sarfati have taught them that “If an old earth or evolution is true, the Bible is false”, many of these students logically conclude that, since the earth is old and evolution is true, therefore the Bible must be false. Christian geology and biology professors routinely report disillusioned YE creationist students coming to their office in tears.

Also, most scientifically educated people will be unable to give the gospel a fair hearing, if they are told that a recent, sudden creation is an essential part of Christianity. A missionary to the former Soviet Union has lamented:

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”?

The scientific literacy of the mass of Americans remains at a relatively low level, which leaves them vulnerable to the advocacy of the YE creationist organizations. These groups show no sign of slowing down, so YE creationism will likely remain influential for many years to come.

It is very difficult to get an adult to change his or her opinion on a core value, such as politics or religion. However, younger people may be more open to considering a range of views before locking into one position. It is possible for a high school or college science teacher to become more effective in confuting the young earth/anti-evolution teachings that students may be exposed to at home. As time permits, the teacher should be aware of the specific claims made by YE creationists (e.g. “radioactive dating is unreliable” or “mutations only make things worse” or “the fossil record does not show intermediate species”) and present material in class which specifically refutes these claims.

Various resources are available for this task. The National Center for Science Education has a page with many links to resources for classroom teachers. That page includes, for instance, a link  to a Berkeley article which lists and corrects many common misconceptions regarding evolution.

There are articles on this blog deal with related topics such as transitional fossils, the Cambrian explosion, junk DNA, beneficial mutations and increases in genetic information, “out-of-order” fossils, fossils of pre-humans, genetic evidence for chimp/human common ancestry, geology of the Grand Canyon, soft tissue in dinosaur fossil bones, straightforward evidences for an old earth, and proposed evidences for a young earth.

Although it hasn’t been updated much in the past decade, the most comprehensive list of YE creationist claims, with rebuttals, is at TalkOrigins.  Old Earth Ministries has a shorter list which is more focused on geological issues.

In 2010 Dr. Sarfati published another anti-evolution book, titled The Greatest Hoax on Earth? Refuting Dawkins on Evolution. This book makes many of the usual YE creationist claims. The book is critically reviewed, chapter by chapter, in a series of 2013-2014 posts at “greatesthoaxonearth.blogspot.com”. These posts contain a great deal of general information refuting young earth assertions.


APPENDIX A. Assessment of the Science Claims in the Presentation

I will remark here on most of the scientific claims made by Dr. Sarfati in his presentation. There is an intrinsic asymmetry problem with addressing the alleged evidences for a young earth — it may take the YE creationist only a few seconds to make some claim (e.g. “the Big Bang has its own problem with starlight” or “the fossil record does not support Darwinian evolution”), but it often requires many minutes to refute the claim, since a good deal of background science must be brought in. This makes it difficult to counter the glib, well-honed claims of YE advocates.

This is why it is pointless to try to engage in an oral debate with YE creationists. They can rattle off false talking points far faster than a genuine scientist can possibly correct them. My lengthy treatment here of some of the scientific points raised by Dr. Sarfati will illustrate this asymmetry – – it takes many paragraphs to explain why some of his one-liners are erroneous. 

( a ) DNA in Dinosaur Bones

The key researcher in this area is Professor Mary Schweitzer. Dr. Sarfati’s claim that substantial amounts of dinosaur DNA have been found is based on her 2013 paper in the journal Bone. Her team found that some chemical staining agents, which bind to DNA, stained certain regions in the cells in a T. Rex bone. This result is consistent with the presence of some dinosaur DNA, but it is by no means certain that this is actually dinosaurian DNA. Again and again over the past twenty years scientists have claimed to have discovered dino DNA, only to be proven wrong. The only way to be sure this is actually dino DNA is to get it sequenced (i.e. determine the sequence of the “letters” of the DNA code along the strand).

However (and this is something that Dr. Sarfati did not tell us), the amount of DNA in the dino cells was so meager that nothing could be recovered for sequencing, and so we do not know if this is actual dinosaur DNA. In fact, only about 15-20% of the dinosaur cells showed any response to staining, and for those that did respond, the staining was very faint. These stains did not require very long sequences of DNA (only 10-20 base pairs) for binding. For reference, the human genome has about 3 billion base pairs.

Schweitzer herself has made it clear that it is premature to claim that authentic dinosaur DNA has been found [March 2016 interview, http://phys.org/news/2016-03-dino-dna.html ]:

The challenge isn’t necessarily in finding DNA [in the bones], it’s in making a strong case that the DNA is dinosaurian in origin by ruling out other sources. Is it possible that we may someday recover authentic DNA from dinosaur bone? The scientific answer is “yes”…..all things are possible until disproven. Have we disproven this possibility? No. Have we recovered “authentic” dinosaur DNA? No.

Dr. Sarfati presented a slide with some numbers for the rate of decomposition of DNA at various temperatures. These numbers showed that DNA would completely decompose in a matter of thousands of years. Therefore, if any fragments of dino DNA remained in the dino bones, these bones could not possibly be tens of millions of years old. He presented these rates of DNA decomposition as “chemical kinetics”, implying these were appropriately measured, reliable rates which defined the rate of DNA loss in dino bones.

However, this is completely false. All we can say with certainty about the rate of decomposition of DNA in bones in the ground is “They vary wildly”. This is true in general for the decay of biological substances. For instance, as discussed here  all the flesh can decay from the face of a human corpse in a month under warm, humid conditions. On the other hand, a 2200-year-old corpse was discovered in a peat bog in Denmark with the face in largely perfect condition. This means that bog-man’s flesh decayed more than 25,000 times slower (one month vs 2200 years) than observed for other corpses. This illustrates the extreme differences that are possible for biological decomposition.

Tomas Lindahl [T. Lindahl, “Instability and Decay of the Primary Structure of DNA.” Nature 362(6422):709-715. 1993] reviewed the literature for DNA decomposition in water, concluding, “Fully hydrated DNA is spontaneously degraded to short fragments over a time period of several thousand years at moderate temperature.” However, even for these laboratory studies, the rate of decomposition could vary by a factor of 5-10, depending on the ionic strength (salts concentration). Also, factors such as dehydration, adsorption on bone pore surfaces, and exclusion of air make it impossible to directly apply these test-tube results to the survival of DNA in actual dinosaur fossils. So again, there is no one single authentic DNA decomposition rate.

Probably the most comprehensive study to date on the decay of DNA in fossil bones was made on leg bones of extinct giant moa birds in New Zealand [ “The half-life of DNA in bone: measuring decay kinetics in 158 dated fossils“, Morten E. Allentoft, et al.    Proc. R. Soc. B (2012) 279, 4724–4733]. The 158 leg-bones, which were between 600 and 8,000 years old, were recovered from three sites within 3 miles of each other. Here are the data:

Residual DNA in fossil moa leg bones  [ "The half-life of DNA in bone: measuring decay kinetics in 158 dated fossils", Morten E. Allentoft, et al.    Proc. R. Soc. B (2012) 279, 4724–4733].

Residual DNA in fossil moa leg bones [ “The half-life of DNA in bone: measuring decay kinetics in 158 dated fossils”, Morten E. Allentoft, et al. Proc. R. Soc. B (2012) 279, 4724–4733].

There is a downhill slope to the data, showing a general decline in residual DNA with age of the fossils. When the authors fit the straight line through the data as shown, this fit gave a half-life of 521 years for the DNA. At a temperature of, say, 5 C, the author’s model predicts that all the DNA would decompose within 900,000 years.

If this model were rigorous and if it applied to dinosaur bones, this would preclude the possibility of finding any DNA in dino bones. However, the data here are enormously scattered; an R-squared value of 0.386 indicates a very poor fit to the straight line.   One could fit a slightly curved, instead of straight, line through the data and derive much different model predictions.

I circled in red a set of results all from about 2700 years ago. The DNA amounts vary from about 0.002 to 100. That is a factor of 500,000 difference from least to most, showing the enormous variability of results just within this relatively small, homogeneous data set. The authors of this moa study admitted that it could not be directly applied to dinosaurs. The fact is that we simply do not know what the decay rates of the last little traces of DNA should be inside a particular giant T. rex thighbone, buried under its own unique conditions.

To summarize all this: Dr. Sarfati claimed that (1) substantial amounts of dinosaurian DNA have definitely been found in a T. rex thighbone, and (2) the rate of DNA decomposition is clearly known, and is so fast that no DNA could survive for millions of years. He thus misled his audience, since both of these assertions are false.

It is worth noting that if the dinosaur fossils really were buried in a worldwide flood only 4500 years ago, we should easily be able to extract loads of DNA from these fossils. It is routine to extract long sequences of DNA from fossils of humans and other fossils that date back over 100,000 years, and even the in-vitro studies of DNA decomposition show that plenty of DNA should still be available in 4500-year-old dinosaur bones. The fact that no one has recovered verified dinosaur DNA, and we have to work to try to detect the faintest traces of DNA in a dino bone, indicates that dino fossils date back way older than 4500 or even 100,000 years. Thus, the actual state of DNA in dinosaur bones is strong evidence against, not for, a young earth.


( b ) Increase of Information in Genomes

Dr. Sarfati indicated that there was no plausible way for size or the information content of a genome to increase from generation to generation via mutations. I am sure that that is what his hearers took away from his presentation.

Here is what he did not tell his hearers:

( 1 ) It is well-known that during cell reproduction, segments of DNA genes (including whole genes) can become duplicated. That is, in place of one gene there are now two genes. If a gene is duplicated, this obviously increases the size of the genome. To a first approximation, a gene can be considered a segment of DNA which codes for the synthesis of one or more specific proteins. So a given gene is (roughly) like a specific instruction in a recipe.

( 2 ) Mutation of genes to alter their function is also well-known. If one of the copies of a duplicated gene acquires an altered function, now there are two differing instructions instead of just one. By any reasonable definition, this constitutes an increase in the information in the genome.

To use an illustrative analogy: suppose the original recipe for baking a cake included the following line: “.…Add one cup flour….”. Now let that line be duplicated, to read: “….Add one cup flour.   Add one cup flour….” This alters the composition of the cake a bit.               Now let a word in the second line be changed from “flour” to “pudding”, to give: “….Add one cup flour.   Add one cup pudding….”. Now we have two different actions in place of one. Again, it is clear that the information content here has increased, as a result of duplicating and then modifying part of the instruction set.

Both gene duplication and beneficial mutations can be observed in laboratory experiments. Thus, gene duplication plus mutation is a plausible pathway for increasing the information content of the genome.   Young earth creationists, of course, don’t like this conclusion, and try to mount all kinds of objections. These objections fail, but it would be tedious to trace all the back and forth arguments here.

Dr. Sarfati claimed that mutations can only make things worse for an organism. That claim is well known to be false. Numerous studies show that, while most mutations are either neutral or harmful, a certain percentage of mutations are helpful. While only a small fraction of mutations are beneficial, these beneficial mutations are selectively passed down to the next generation, while organisms with harmful mutations are less likely to have viable offspring. The figure below depicts the fitness distribution for a set of mutations in a viral organism.


Source: “Mutations” Wikipedia article.

Source: “Mutations” Wikipedia article.

See here for many other examples of beneficial mutations.

A laboratory example which ties all this together was a study by Brown et al. [Celeste J. Brown, Kristy M. Todd, and R. Frank Rosenzweig, “Multiple Duplications of Yeast Hexose Transport Genes in Response to Selection in a Glucose-Limited Environment,” Molecular Biology and Evolution, Vol 15, 931-942 (1998)].  They let baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) evolve for 450 generations under glucose-limited conditions.

An improved strain arose, with multiple duplications of sugar transport genes. The mutated yeast species remained competitive at the original conditions. So this was an increase in the number of functioning genes, which was beneficial to the organism, showing that Dr. Sarfati’s claim that mutations “just make things worse” is incorrect. Moreover, the duplicated genes are chimeric: they combine the coding sequence of one parent gene with the promoter sequence of a different gene. Hence, the new genes are not completely identical to either of the parent genes. As discussed above, this gives some novelty and provides additional opportunity for modification of these genes. By any reasonable definition, the addition of these new, differentiated genes constitutes an increase in genomic information.

( c ) Origin of Life

I agree with Dr. Sarfati that it has not been shown how plain chemicals first assembled into the intricate molecular machinery needed to sustain the first living cells. That remains a gap in our knowledge.

However, strictly speaking, the origin of life is the subject of “abiogenesis”. “Evolution” usually refers to biological evolution, meaning the development of today’s biota from the first living cells. Once these cells were established, various mechanisms (mutation, including gene duplication, natural selection, epigenetic inheritance, etc.) can account for changes in populations over time to make new species. So the fact that there is complex machinery inside cells is irrelevant to the question of whether humans physically descended from other vertebrates.


( d ) Distant Starlight

The velocity of light in vacuum (186,000 miles or 300,000 km per second) is a fundamental physical constant. A light-year is the distance that light travels in a year. Many visible astronomical objects (stars, galaxies, nebulae, etc.) are located tens of thousands (or even millions or billions) of light-years away. If the universe is only 6000 years old, there would not be time enough for their light to reach us now. This is an obvious major problem for the young earth position.

When someone in the audience brought this question up in the Q&A, Dr. Sarfati dismissed it by replying that the Big Bang has its own problem with starlight – the “horizon problem”. That response seemed to placate his friendly and non-scientific audience. But it that really a suitable answer?

One could posit that God created all the intervening starlight along with the stars at the time of creation. Thus, the universe would look billions of years old, even though it isn’t. This “appearance of age” approach creates its own sets of problems, and most YE creationist organizations reject it.

The most popular YE approaches to the starlight problem are the “time dilation” proposals made by Russell Humphreys and others. Humphreys has followed up his initial “Starlight and Time” thesis with more recent variations (e.g. “New Vistas”) on time dilation. These proposals have been examined by the (old earth) Christian physicists associated with Reasons to Believe, and were found to be utterly unrealistic. The Reasons to Believe article concludes:

Starlight and Time/New Vistas is, from our perspective, one of the most obvious recent examples of manifestly erroneous “science” offered by the young-earth movement as a defense of the Bible. The errors are elementary and are almost entirely in the arena of comparatively simple mathematics. That these glaring errors have been widely accepted within the young-earth movement and widely propagated in the Church casts doubt on the credibility, reliability and trustworthiness of the leadership of the young-earth movement and, by association, the entire church…

The young-earth movement’s failure to recognize and repudiate the false science of Starlight and Time/New Vistas is a stumbling block to informed non-believing scientists and may become a stumbling block to many other unbelievers if the young-earth movement persists in affirming this manifestly untrue theory.

A more recent young earth proposal is the Anisotropic Synchrony Convention (ASC) of Jason Lisle. As with the time dilation proposals, the details are too intricate to discuss here. In a series of articles starting here,  astrophysicist Casper Hesp explains why this proposal fails both in theory and in practice. So (despite YE creationist claims) there is no viable physical model that can account for distant starlight within a young earth framework.

And what of the “horizon problem” that surfaces within Big Bang cosmology? It stems from the observation that all the widely separated regions of space have the same background temperature. In the simplest version of Big Bang cosmology, these regions would have not have been in sufficient contact to thermally equilibrate. The theory of “cosmic inflation” resolves this problem. In this view, shortly after the Big Bang, there was a brief epoch of very fast expansion of the universe, after which the rate of the expansion of space declined to something like the value measured today. The rate of expansion has been measured to be increasing slightly over the past several billion years.

The figure below depicts the generally-accepted view of the expansion of the universe.

Cosmic history. Credit: NASA/WMAP science team

Cosmic history. Credit: NASA/WMAP science team

Not only does cosmic inflation resolve the issues of thermal homogeneity, it also accounts for the observed flatness of the universe and for the absence of magnetic monopoles. Its predictions have been repeatedly confirmed by observations.

Thus, cosmic inflation theory is robust and broadly useful and is endorsed by the majority of physicists. A minority of physicists are less enthusiastic, but their objections to inflation are largely on aesthetic (e.g. inflation theory seeming ad hoc or requiring special initial conditions), not substantive grounds. No underlying mechanism for cosmic inflation is known, but that is not a reason to reject it; no definitive mechanism is known, either, for the current gradual acceleration of the expansion of the universe which can be clearly deduced from observations.

Therefore, it is unrealistic for Dr. Sarfati to liken the easily-resolved horizon problem of standard cosmology to the devastating distant starlight problem of young earth models.

As Casper Hesp notes:

Does Big Bang cosmology have a big problem, comparable to the distant starlight problem of young-universe models? Definitely not. It is misguided to place the horizon problem and the distant starlight problem in the same box, despite their conceptual connection. Our limited understanding of the very early universe does not make or break the Big Bang model. The horizon problem results from minor theoretical concerns. Contrastingly, distant starlight is a devastating problem because it directly contradicts the central claim of young-universe models (i.e., that the universe is less than 10,000 years old). On top of that, we have seen in this series that the universe is filled with evidence of event histories stretching across millions and billions of years.


( e ) Radioactive Dating Measurements

The age of igneous rocks can be determined from the decay of radioactive elements in the minerals of these rocks. These decay rates have been measured in many laboratories in many ways for many years, and they are essentially invariant. They establish the earth to be over four billion years old.

There are some particular circumstances where radioactive decay rates can be accelerated, but these are well-understood within the framework of physics. For instance, in a nuclear reactor or bomb, an artificially high density of uranium means that the neutrons from one splitting nucleus have a high probability of striking another nucleus and causing it to split. Also, the “s” shell electrons interact with the nucleus, so perturbing these electrons can affect the nuclear decay rate, sometimes dramatically. However, these effects are understood and predictable. See Wikipedia article “Radioactive Decay” for more on this; this article also notes that many independent observations indicate that nuclear decay rates have been constant for millions of years: “Comparison of laboratory experiments over the last century, studies of the Oklo natural nuclear reactor (which exemplified the effects of thermal neutrons on nuclear decay), and astrophysical observations of the luminosity decays of distant supernovae (which occurred far away so the light has taken a great deal of time to reach us), for example, strongly indicate that unperturbed decay rates have been constant (at least to within the limitations of small experimental errors) as a function of time.”

Since radioactive dating militates for an old earth, of course young earth creationists will not concede to its validity. They advance various objections, but these objections have been refuted over and over again by practicing scientists. For instance, see these resources:

Radiometric Dating  A Christian Perspective – – This is a classic, in-depth discussion of radioactive dating of rocks, by an evangelical scientist.

What evidence is there for the earth being billions of years old?   Brief discussion of radioactive dating of rocks, answering objections raised by YE creationists.

Radiometric Dating Does Work! – – By geologist and National Medal of Science winner Brent Dalrymple.

When the question of radioactive dating was raised in the Q&A session, Dr. Sarfati deflected it by saying that the YE creationist RATE program had found evidence of faster radioactive decay in the past, which would explain away the mainstream scientists’ radioactive dating results.

Once again, Dr. Sarfati was incorrect. The RATE scientists did not find any evidence of faster radioactive decay; they simply asserted that there MUST have been accelerated radioactive decay, in order to meet their existing young earth model. They presented no valid physical support for this. They rehashed four arguments against conventional old-earth dating, but these arguments have been thoroughly debunked by practicing scientists. See the discussion by Randy Isaacs here and here for the details.

Furthermore, the high rates of radioactive decay proposed by the RATE would have generated so much heat that the earth would have melted, and all the occupants of Noah’s ark would have been killed from radiation. So this whole “faster radioactivity rates in the past” proposal is a nonstarter.


( f ) General Fossil Record

A species typically appears suddenly in the fossil record without a clear, graduated set of intermediate forms between it and some previous species. Young earth creationists like Dr. Sarfati claim that this represents a failing of evolutionary science, but they are incorrect. This pattern is precisely what we expect from the following two facts:

(1) Very, very few of all the organisms that have died in past eons become fossilized. As we can observe today, nearly all carcasses rot or are eaten by scavengers rather than being buried intact in rock layers. Of the remains that do get fossilized, many are later eroded away, or smeared beyond recognition in metamorphic transformations deep in the earth. Also, of all the potential fossil-bearing rocks, only a small fraction of them are available near the surface for paleontologists to examine. Thus, it is unreasonable to expect that most or all of the species (including all the transitional species) that ever lived will show up in a fossil collection.

(2) Basic population genetics shows that it is difficult for new genetic mutations to become established in very large populations. Thus, it is far more likely that a new species would develop within a small, isolated population, especially if that population is under some environmental stress that would favor genetic changes. But these small, transient populations are unlikely to leave a fossil trace. If the new species becomes more fit than the old species, the new species will expand, and only then is likely to appear in the fossil record. But once a species is widespread and successful in its ecological niche, there will be diminished selection pressure for changes, so fossils of this now well-adapted, stable species may appear for millions of years showing little change.

Evolutionary lineages tend to be “branchy”. From points (1) and (2) above, the expectation from evolutionary science is that we will generally not find fossils of the species of the direct ancestral transitional organisms along the main “trunk” of the family tree. Rather, we should find some fossils of successful, stable organisms on the side “branches” of the tree.

Thus, we should not normally find the transitional forms going from one individual species to another. However, we should find, in many cases, fossils with intermediate features between, say, one family or order and the next. (“Family” and “order” are higher-level groupings than species). And that is what we do find.

For instance, here are two graphics depicting some of the fossils which span the gap between common fishes, and 5-toed amphibians. The first graphic is specifically drawn to show that these intermediate species (which are all off on their own little “branches”) are not claimed to be direct ancestors, but are simply related to the direct transitional forms which would lie along the long diagonal arrow. Nevertheless, a progression in features is evident.

Source: P. E. Ahlberg and J. A. Clack, Nature 440, 747-749 (2006)

Source: P. E. Ahlberg and J. A. Clack, Nature 440, 747-749 (2006)

Source: K.  Padian, Integra Comp Biol 2008; 48: 175-88, reproduced in A. Thanukos, Evolution: Education and Outreach 2009; 2: 84-89.

Source: K. Padian, Integra Comp Biol 2008; 48: 175-88, reproduced in A. Thanukos, Evolution: Education and Outreach 2009; 2: 84-89.


This richness of intermediate forms is evident in many portions of the vertebrate fossil record. The rock layers show a general trend of one celled life forms, then multi-celled eukaryotes, then things crawling on the ocean floor, then fishes, then amphibians, then reptiles, then early mammals, and then mammals more and more like today. This TalkOrigins article has more examples of transitional fossils, such as the reptile-mammal transition.

Likewise, for ape-human intermediate species we expect to find various fossils of side-branches on the evolutionary tree, having ape-like and then more human-like features, although not fossils of the direct transitional species. And that is what we do find when the fossils of human ancestors are examined.

There will always be some transitions where the fossil evidence remains scanty. However, the general pattern of the fossils matches expectations for evolution, and gaps in the fossil record continue to be filled in with ongoing discoveries. “So many intermediate forms have been discovered between fish and amphibians, between amphibians and reptiles, between reptiles and mammals, and along the primate lines of descent that it often is difficult to identify categorically when the transition occurs from one to another particular species.” [Science, Evolution, and Creationism by the National Academy of Sciences].  See   Realistic Expectations for Transitional Fossils for further discussion of the nature of transitional fossils.

Young earth creationists, of course, try to dispute all this. They frequently do this by reproducing some quotation from a bona-fide scientist which seems to admit that the fossil record does not support evolution. But when you look closely into the source of the quotation, you often find that it has been deceptively taken out of context, and the author did not mean what the young earth creationists are claiming.

To sum up here, Dr. Sarfati’s claim that the fossil record does not support Darwinian evolution is easily refuted by the facts.


( g ) The intermediate features of the Australopithecine “Lucy”

Australopithecine fossils display features that fall between apes and humans. As such, they provide supporting evidence for the evolution of humans from earlier primates. Let’s first look at the facts, then at Dr. Sarfati’s treatment.

Australopithecus afarensis was a hominid which lived between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago. Its brain size was about 380–430 cm3, roughly the same as modern chimpanzees. The Wikipedia article lists at least eight major fossil specimens of this species, so it is well-established. The most famous specimen is “Lucy”, a female partial skeleton found in 1974. It had a mixture of ape-like and human-like features: while features of Lucy’s arms and hands resemble those of apes, “in overall anatomy, the pelvis is far more human-like than ape-like. The iliac blades are short and wide, the sacrum is wide and positioned directly behind the hip joint, and evidence of a strong attachment for the knee extensors is clear.”

Young earth creationists sometimes try to dismiss the significance of Australopithecus afarensis fossils like Lucy by saying these were merely chimpanzees. This assertion is so straightforward to disprove that one professor developed a classroom exercise for biology teachers, which shows students the fossil evidence and lets them draw their own conclusions. In the main figure of that exercise, chimpanzee bones and teeth are shown on the left, human bones are on the right, and “Lucy” remains are shown in the middle. Anatomical traits are numbered, and numbers that represent humanlike states are underlined. Below is a portion of that figure dealing with just the lower jaw and teeth. It is obvious that some Lucy features more closely resemble chimps, and some more closely resemble humans, just as expected for a species which is intermediate between humans and other primates. Over a dozen studies have appeared which analyzed the features and come to the same conclusion.

Skeletons of chimpanzee (left), the australopithecine specimen AL 288-1 (“Lucy”) (middle), and a modern human (right), with anatomical traits numbered according to Table 1. Numbers that represent humanlike states are underlined. Source: Were Australopithecines Ape–Human Intermediates or Just Apes? A Test of Both Hypotheses Using the “Lucy” Skeleton, by Prof. Phil Senter  (Fayetteville State University, NC)http://www.nabt.org/websites/institution/File/pdfs/american_biology_teacher/2010/February%202010/FebABTonline.pdf

Skeletons of chimpanzee (left), the australopithecine specimen AL 288-1 (“Lucy”) (middle), and
a modern human (right), with anatomical traits numbered according to Table 1. Numbers that represent humanlike states are underlined.
Source: Were Australopithecines Ape–Human Intermediates or Just Apes?
A Test of Both Hypotheses Using the “Lucy” Skeleton, by Prof. Phil Senter (Fayetteville State University, NC)http://www.nabt.org/websites/institution/File/pdfs/american_biology_teacher/2010/February%202010/FebABTonline.pdf

The link to this classroom exercise is:

http://www.nabt.org/websites/institution/File/pdfs/american_biology_teacher/2010/February 2010/FebABTonline.pdf

That site shows arm and hip features as well as the jaw features shown above.

Young earth creationists resort to various tactics to try to downplay the evolutionary importance of australopithecines and other transitional fossils. They commonly cite long-outdated or out-of-context quotes from researchers in the field which seem to contradict the intermediate status of these fossils. This tactic is known as “quote-mining”, and there is a whole section of the TalkOrigins site dedicated to exposing the misuse by YE creationists of various quotes from scientists.

That quote-mining is what Dr. Sarfati did in his presentation. He cited scientist Charles Oxnard to the effect that australopithecines are “further from both chimpanzees and humans than chimpanzees and humans are from each other”. This implies that australopithecines could not be considered any sort of intermediate between apes and humans.

The information provided above shows that that is not correct. The features of Lucy fall very much in between chimps and humans. For the quote he cited, Dr. Sarfati reached back more than 40 years, to a 1975 article by Oxnard which analyzed an early, very incomplete data set (just a few bones of a different type of australopithecine, before the Lucy findings were available), and which was soon acknowledged by other paleontologists to be erroneous. So Dr. Sarfati selected a quote which is known to be incorrect, but which would seem convincing to his nonscientific audience.

Dr. Sarfati has been citing this Oxnard quote in his publications for more than 15 years, and scientists have repeatedly called him out on this. See, for instance, the comment by Brown University biology professor Christine Janis on Sarfati’s treatment of australopithecines:

Sarfati is the master of the “opposition soundbite”…he cherry picks some data from the science literature that appears to combat the claim in one way or another (usually he has set up a strawman marginally relevant to the issue to be attacked), and ends up appearing to the naïve reader as if he (Sarfati) is the one with the specialized scientific knowledge while Dawkins comes off as speaking nonsense. Nobody can deny that Sarfati is a clever man…. Oxnard never concluded from any of his work that australopithecines were unrelated to humans, as Sarfati claims insinuates.



Learning (or Not) from the Galileo Affair

It is true that the simplest, most literal reading of Genesis 1-3, and of the other passages listed above, points to a recent creation and to the special creation of humans. For an audience predisposed towards this viewpoint, Dr. Sarfati’s case for a young earth interpretation of Scripture was probably persuasive.

However, it is also true that the simple, literal meaning of many Biblical passages shows that the earth is stationary, and the sun and other celestial objects revolve around the earth. These verses include Psalm 104:5 (“He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved”), Ps. 93:1 (“Surely the world is established, so that it cannot be moved”), I Chron. 16:30 (“The world also is firmly established, It shall not be moved”), the philosophical discourse of Eccl.1:5 (“The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose”), and also the historical chronicle of Josh. 10:13:

So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the people had revenge upon their enemies.

Is this not written in the Book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.

Isa. 66:1 has God saying, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool”; but surely God’s “footstool” could not be spinning and flying through space.

In the 1500s and 1600s, the literal interpretation of these passages was seen as an essential element of Christian belief. Here is what John Calvin in his sermon on 1 Corinthians 10-11 had to say about those monstrous, malicious, devil-possessed people who claim that the earth “shifts and turns”:

We will see some who are so deranged, not only in religion but who in all things reveal their monstrous nature, that they will say that the sun does not move, and that it is the earth which shifts and turns. When we see such minds we must indeed confess that the devil possesses them, and that God sets them before us as mirrors, in order to keep us in his fear. So it is with all who argue out of pure malice, and who happily make a show of their imprudence.

This is the sort of accusation that today’s YE creationists make against those who teach that evolution is compatible with biblical Christianity.

Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine, a prosecutor of Galileo, stated in 1615: “…to affirm that the sun is really fixed in the center of the heavens and the earth revolves swiftly around the sun is a dangerous thing, not only irritating the theologians and philosophers, but injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.” Note well: “…injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.” That is what today’s YE creationists say about an old earth and evolution, i.e. that these concepts injure our faith and make the sacred scripture false.

Practically every Bible commentary since 1800 offers explanations of why these passages which depict a stationary earth need not be taken literally. Is this because our exegetical skills or our command of the Hebrew language are superior to everyone living before 1700? No, it is because by 1800 nearly everyone accepted what the scientists had been telling them about these aspects of the physical world. (Although Copernicus proposed heliocentricity in the early 1500’s, it took well into the 1700’s to overcome all the skeptics). It was not because anyone in 1800 could travel out into space and directly observe a rotating earth. Rather, folks mulled the accumulated observations and arguments of the scientists and realized that the data clearly indicated a moving earth. Once this physical picture was accepted, the theologians took a fresh look at the issue and found that, lo and behold, a literal acceptance of a stationary earth was not essential to the Christian faith after all.

Nowadays any evangelical Christian will say obviously these verses were not supposed to be taken literally. Obviously, these passages reflect the thinking and language of ancient times, and obviously were not intended to be making authoritative statements about the physical world. But it is only “obvious” AFTER one has accepted the physical evidence that the earth moves, and has recognized that it is proper to use the information we get from God’s creation to help interpret the meaning of the scriptural texts. Since YE creationists refuse to acknowledge the evidence that the earth is billions of years old, they are repeating the mistakes of the Christians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who insisted that the passages regarding the fixed earth and moving sun must be regarded as literally true.

You might think that the Copernican controversy is all behind us now, but that is not quite true. There are still fundamentalist groups, both Roman Catholic (e.g. ” GalileoWasWrong “) and Protestant, who maintain that true believers must retain the plain, literal sense of the biblical passages on the earth and the sun, and that the physical facts support a stationary earth; Christians who go along with the moving earth are denounced as compromisers.

For instance, at fixedearth.com we are told that:

The Earth is not rotating…nor is it going around the sun. Today’s cosmology fulfills an anti-Bible religious plan disguised as “science”. The whole scheme from Copernicanism to Big Bangism is a factless lie. Those lies have planted the Truth-killing virus of evolutionism in every aspect of man’s “knowledge” about the Universe, the Earth, and Himself.

The site lists “Sixty-Seven Scriptural References Which Tell Us That It Is the Sun And Not the Earth That Moves”  ,   and tells us that “GRAMMATICALLY AND SEMANTICALLY THE BIBLE DENIES COPERNICANISM (AND THUS DENIES THE “THEISTIC COPERNICAN” POSITION AS WELL…) ” .

Thus, it is inexcusable for Christians to fail to stand up for the “numerous and abundantly plain non-moving Earth scriptures”:

The excuses Christian Churches have used to avoid standing up for numerous and abundantly plain non-moving Earth scriptures–and the true science that supports those Scriptures!–are no longer valid excuses. The fact that the Pharisee’s evolutionary 15 billion year Big Bang Model has come out of the closet with its anti-Bible ‘creation scenario’ leaves no more wiggle room for Christian Churches.

This language is practically identical to how YE creationists decry “anti-Bible” mainstream geology and biology, and the “compromising” Christians who accept this modern science. All this further illustrates the folly of assuming that the Bible was intended to teach us physical science.

The Core Error of Young Earth Creationism

The core error of YE creationism is not honoring what the Bible states is the purpose of the Bible. This purpose is spelled out most clearly in II Tim. 3:15-17, and it has nothing to do with the age of the earth:

…from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

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). Peter (I Pet 1: 10-12) wrote that prophets spoke of the sufferings and glory of Christ. This is all theology and morals. There is nothing here about authoritatively teaching geology or biology.

YE creationists go beyond what the Bible says when they insist that the Genesis narrative must be taken literally. That is merely their own opinion, which they then elevate to divine status. They think they are defending the infallible Bible, when in reality they are defending their fallible interpretation of the Bible.

Because they are so enamored with their interpretative scheme, they feel logically justified in distorting or ignoring whatever physical evidence points to an old earth – they KNOW that old-earth evidence must be invalid, so they need give it no credence.

In the preface to the sixth printing of The Genesis Flood, YE creationist authors John Whitcomb and Henry Morris frankly acknowledge that this is their approach:

We take this revealed framework of history as our basic datum, and then try to see how all the pertinent data can be understood in this context.

Their “basic datum”, which they presume to be God’s revelation but which actually is just their literalistic opinion, is that the earth and all life was created in six 24-hour days about 6000 years ago. They then shoehorn all physical observations into “this context”. Any evidence that doesn’t fit their young earth model is automatically rejected, because it must be wrong.

Plenty of conservative Christians have come to different conclusions than YE creationists as to the interpretation of Genesis. A century ago, nearly all fundamentalists held that the world was millions of years old: W.B. Riley, editor of The Christian Fundamentalist and president of the Anti-Evolution League of America, stated in the 1920s that there was not “an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing” [R. Numbers, The Creationists, p. 45].

Hundreds of millions of dedicated Christians today accept the physical evidence for an old earth and for evolution, and find no conflict between those truths and the Bible. Reasons to Believe lists about 40 well-known conservative Christian leaders and writers that endorse or are at least open to an old-earth perspective. These include names like Gleason Archer, Michael Behe, Chuck Colson, Willian Lane Craig, Norman Geisler, Hank Hannegraff, Jack Hayford, C. S. Lewis, J. P. Moreland, Francis Schaeffer, C. I. Scofield, Lee Stroble, and B. B. Warfield.

Throughout the Bible, stories are told by God or His agents which are which are not literally true. Rather, these narratives are intended to convey spiritual truths. The many parables told by Jesus is just one class of such stories. So it is entirely consistent with the pattern of divine revelation for God to provide key teachings to the ancient Israelites about His sovereignty over nature and His purposeful creativity in the form of a figurative story.

In the same way that the Christians of the eighteenth century realized that the seemingly clear descriptions of a stationary earth were not really intended for teaching astronomy, today’s Christians who understand modern science realize that the inspired creation narrative was given to the Israelites for purposes other than teaching natural history. The Genesis creation account effectively accomplished what II Tim 3:15-17 says is the purpose of the Scriptures. It vividly conveyed to an ancient people a high doctrine of God’s goodness and power, and His authority to give moral direction to humankind. It was thus “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”

It is crucial to take into account the original audience. Retaining ancient physical concepts such as fixity of species (instead of trying to correct these concepts) was essential in accomplishing this divine purpose for the ancient people to whom this revelation was given.

But What About…..

All that said, how exactly do scientifically-informed believers handle the New Testament passages which seem to endorse a recent creation and a literal Adam? There is more than one hermeneutic approach among old earth and evolutionary creationists, and it is too large a topic to cover here. I have sketched out my own thoughts on Bible interpretation here, but I do not claim it is the only valid approach.   I might address the specific scriptural issues raised by Dr. Sarfati in more detail in a future post.

YE creationists try to panic evangelicals into embracing a six-day recent creation by claiming that apart from a literal Fall by one man in the Garden of Eden, there would be no point for Jesus’ mission. For instance, a publicity pamphlet for the creationist film Is Genesis History states, “No Adam, no sin; no sin, no death and corruption; no death and corruption, no point for Jesus. Jesus came to save us because Genesis is history. The entire gospel is based on it.” This same claim is made over and over again by YE creationists, and it is completely bogus.

I have dealt with the theological implications of the Fall here:  Adam, the Fall, and Evolution.  That essay also deals with the “slippery slope” argument, by noting the fundamental differences between the Genesis story and the more or less eyewitness accounts of the New Testament events. Thus, the fear-mongers are incorrect to claim that rejecting a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 leads inevitably to denying a literal Resurrection.

I won’t rehash all those arguments here. The bottom line is that a literal Adam and a literal Fall are not essential to the gospel. Paul develops the universality of sin in Romans 1-3 with no mention of original sin. He moves from, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness… although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (1:18-21) to “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23) quite apart from Adam.

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 any of the sayings of Jesus in the four Gospels.  On the contrary, Jesus directed people away from religious speculations or blaming others, and towards a consciousness of their own shortcomings and their personal need for mercy. If our Bibles lacked the passages in Romans 5 and I Cor. 15 where Paul compares and contrasts Christ and the Adam of Genesis, Christians would not be wandering around bewildered as to why Jesus came.

Some Christians are particularly puzzled at how Jesus could refer to aspects of early Genesis (e.g. “the beginning of creation” in Mark 10 and Noah’s global Flood in Matthew 24) as if they occurred, when in fact they didn’t. The resolution comes by recognizing that Jesus routinely conveyed his spiritual and moral points by figurative language and by telling stories that did not actually happen.

It is key to note that Jesus did not always make it clear whether he was speaking figuratively or not. His disciples were frequently puzzled by his utterances, (e.g. Mat 16:7, regarding the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees) and were relieved when he occasionally spoke “plainly, and using no figure of speech.” (John 16:29). Thus, if we take the witness of the gospels seriously, we should expect that Jesus is normally speaking in figurative, illustrative, analogical terms when he tells or refers to a story, not that he intends the story to taken as literally true. YE creationists do not respect the way that Jesus chose to communicate. Instead, they impose their own modern, Western thought categories onto his words.

When Jesus cleared the courts of the great Temple in Jerusalem, saying “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market”, the Jewish leaders demanded a sign to prove his authority to do this. Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). Note that their question had to do with his actions regarding the physical Temple, and they were presumably standing there looking at that specific Temple, located in time and space right there. Obviously, he must be referring to that literal Temple. That is what the Jews thought, and that is where the YE creationist hermeneutic leads. But, as usual, he was speaking in figurative terms: “But He was speaking of the temple of His body” (2:21).

Since Jesus spoke so often in figurative terms, he expected his hearers to look for the underlying message in his words, rather than to fixate on the literal, physical aspect. For example, on a boat trip Jesus told his disciples to “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matt. 16:6) The disciples made the mistake of thinking that Jesus was concerned with literal yeast and literal bread, and concluded that Jesus said this because they had no brought any bread with them for the journey. Jesus rebuked them for this literalistic mindset, saying, “How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread?” (v.11). Eventually they realized he was not really talking about literal yeast, but about the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees (v. 12).

An encounter between Jesus and a devout, learned Jew named Nicodemus is described in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be “born again”. Nicodemus made the mistake of thinking what was important was the literal, physical meaning of Jesus’s words, and it distracted him from their real import. Nicodemus objected, “How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (v.4). Jesus chided him for focusing on the literal aspect of his teaching, and not understanding that this physical picture of being “born again” was an analogy for spiritual transformation of humans on earth: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (v. 12).

In his presentation, Dr. Sarfati argued from this verse (“I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” ) that Jesus’s remarks to his Jewish hearers about creation imply that the Genesis narrative must be taken literally. That is ironic, since in this passage Jesus actually teaches against the sort of literal, physical focus practiced by YE creationists.

In the course of telling the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus makes a blanket, apparently factual statement that the mustard seed is “smaller than all the seeds on earth.” (Mk 4:31). By YE creationist logic, we should be defending that statement as literally true, no matter the physical facts. However, the point of this parable was not to make a statement about botany, but to illustrate the growth of the kingdom of God from small beginnings. Thus, I can make use of the God-given extrabiblical evidence to assess whether Jesus’s statement about seed sizes is literally true or not (it is not). And that is what I and millions of Christians do with the other statements of Jesus which seem to bear on the physical world, including Noah, the Flood, and human origins.

The fact that Jesus referred to Noah in Matthew 24 as a specific person with specific details on the Flood has no bearing on whether the Noah story is literally true. Jesus gave a specific name (Lazarus) to the poor man in the story of the rich man and Abraham’s bosom in Luke 16:19-31. In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) Jesus provides a specific location (the road from Jerusalem to Jericho). In both that story and the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) there are far more details given than in the Noah passage in Matt. 24. So we cannot use the presence of specific names, locations, and many details to claim that a certain story is literally true, whether or not we would classify it as a parable.

Jesus, as the Word and God the Son, was presumably involved in some measure with the divine initiative to give the ancient Israelites a creation story (including Noah’s Flood) which met their spiritual needs by accommodating within their physical worldview (fixity of species, relatively recent creation, etc.). Since Jesus was speaking to Jews with that same ancient worldview and who thus had a literal interpretation of Genesis, it was the wise and loving thing for him to do to continue to work within that ancient physical framework, rather than trying to correct their notions of natural history.

Jesus’s point in the passage in Matthew 24 was not to teach that Noah’s Flood actually happened. His point was to urge his hearers to “Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming” (Mat 24:42). Jesus wisely and effectively drew on a dramatic story (Noah’s Flood) which all his hearers were familiar with, as an illustration of unexpected and catastrophic judgement.

If there really were clear evidence (e.g. rock layers from a recent worldwide Flood) of supernatural intervention on a geologic scale, or clear evidence of the un-natural origin of the human species, that would constitute a widely-accessible miraculous “sign” for unbelievers. However, Jesus flatly declared (Matt. 12:39-40) that no such sign would be given. His resurrection, as reported by his followers who encountered him after he came back to life, is the only general “sign” to be given to the world. YE creationism is thus founded on premises which run counter to what Christ himself taught.

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What’s In the Bible?

Note for blog: This is something I wrote up for some friends who were interested in what is in the Bible. Just my own take on it.

The Bible text is available for free in many versions (i.e. different translations from the original Hebrew and Greek writings) at  BibleGateway.com .   Many people find the New International Version to be the most helpful.


What Is in the Bible?                                                  By Scott Buchanan


The Big Picture

The Bible is long, and was written by many authors over the course of about a thousand years. It can be confusing if you just open it at random, but it does make sense if you know what the different sections are about.

The core message of the Bible is that we humans have a deep problem, but God has provided a solution. Here is the problem: even though God is wise and good and knows what is best for us, we do not respect and follow Him as we should. It is not just a matter of doing a few bad things here and there. No, our whole approach to life is to set ourselves up as little “gods”, doing what we want to do and then thinking up reasons to justify ourselves.

This makes us unfit for close, trusting friendship with God. Because God is perfect and holy, our selfishness and pride form a genuine barrier between us and Him. But God loves us so much that He did something surprising and costly to make a way for us to come back to Him.

God’s solution was to enter the human race in the form of a man named Jesus. He lived in this world and experienced the same joys and sorrows and sufferings that we all go through. Jesus demonstrated what God is really like and showed how humans should live. Furthermore, he took upon himself the consequences of our sin through his death on the cross.

If we feel the stirring of a desire for God, He will meet us more than half-way. If we honor Him enough to….

  • Acknowledge that we fall far short of God’s perfect will for us
  • Acknowledge that we need the help He offers us through Jesus Christ
  • Commit to obey Him the best we can

….then God will graciously apply Jesus’s righteousness to us. This gives us a fresh start with God, so we can experience Him on a daily basis as our heavenly Father. He will guide us each day if we will listen to what He speaks through the Bible and in our hearts.

This message of salvation through Jesus’s death and resurrection is presented clearly and explicitly in the New Testament, which is the last quarter of the Bible. Therefore, we will start here with describing the New Testament, even though it is towards the end of the Bible. In the Old Testament, the message of salvation is also present, but it is typically hidden, like buried treasure waiting to be discovered.



The Bible is organized into 66 books. The New Testament has 27 books total, in the following groupings:

  • Historical Books—The four “gospels” which each tell the story of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), plus the book of Acts.
  • Letters by Paul–Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon
  • Letters by other disciples of Jesus–Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation

Historical Books of the New Testament

  1. Matthew— There are a lot of similar sections among the first three Gospels, but they have slightly different emphases. Matthew highlights Jesus as the Messiah who fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.
  2. Mark—Shortest Gospel, focusing more on the events of Jesus’s ministry.
  3. Luke–Presents Jesus as the Son of Man who came to seek and save the lost.
  4. John—Highlights Jesus’ divinity and his close connection to God the Father. The verse that most sums up the message of the whole Bible is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
  5. Acts–Historical account of the beginning of the Christian church: Jesus’s last message to his disciples, the Holy Spirit coming to fill believers with joy and power (Acts 2), early preaching by Peter, and the travels of Paul in his missionary journeys. Is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke, by the same author.

Letters by Paul – – Written by Paul to groups of Christians in particular cities (Rome, Corinth, etc.), or to some of his associates (e.g. Timothy, Titus). These letters by Paul and by other disciples typically combine teachings about God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) with advice on healthy behaviors among friends, family, and on the job.

  1. Romans–A systematic explanation of how people fall short of God’s standards and how we can identify with Jesus’s death and resurrection; we then participate in his righteousness and power and eternal life.
  2. 1 Corinthians—Paul reminds the Christians at Corinth of how he had first shared the gospel with them. This letter deals with quarreling and immorality, marriage, the operation of the supernatural power (“gifts”) of the Holy Spirit, and how we will eventually be resurrected from the dead.
  3. 2 Corinthians–Paul’s describes the joy he has in following Christ, even though he goes through some very tough times.
  4. Galatians—Paul teaches that the good news of Jesus is different from just following rules. God gives us the Holy Spirit to live in us and make us more like Himself.
  5. Ephesians—Believers are secure and connected with Christ. How to deal with spiritual struggles.
  6. Philippians–Paul speaks of his imprisonment and his love for the Philippians. If they focus on positive rather than negative things, they can experience inner peace.
  7. Colossians—Through Jesus Christ God created the world, and through Jesus Christ God is bringing the world back to Him.
  8. 1 Thessalonians–Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians.  Teachings on purity and on the return of Christ.
  9. 2 Thessalonians—More teachings on Christ’s Second Coming. Paul urges them to be responsible, not lazy.
  10. 1 Timothy—Letter to a young associate. Instructions on leadership in the church proper leadership and dealings with false teachers.
  11. 2 Timothy–A letter of encouragement to Timothy to be strong. God has given us the Bible (“Scriptures”) to tell us what we need to know about Him.
  12. Titus–Paul left Titus in Crete to care for the churches there. How leaders in the church should live.
  13. Philemon–a letter to the owner of a runaway slave, Onesimus.  Paul appeals to Philemon to forgive Onesimus.

Non-Pauline Epistles:

  1. Hebrews—Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection fulfilled the hopes and promises of the Old Testament; the old system of laws and animal sacrifices was just a “shadow” of the real thing. He did what he did because he so wanted us to be able to experience his love: “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross” (Heb 12:1-2). We are his “joy”.
  2. James–A practical exhortation of believers to live a life which shows they are really following Jesus.  Treat poor people with the same respect you give rich people.
  3. 1 Peter–Peter wrote this letter to encourage Christians who are going through hard times.  As we share in Christ’s sufferings, we will also share in his glory.
  4. 2 Peter–Deals with the person on an inward level, warnings against false teachers, and mentions the Day of the Lord.
  5. 1 John–John describes true fellowship of the believers with other believers and with God. God as light and love.  Encourages a holy Christian walk before the Lord.  Much mention of Christian love.
  6. 2 John–Praise for walking in Christ and a reminder to walk in God’s love.
  7. 3 John—Letter to a man named Gaius, thanking him for his kindness to God’s people.
  8. Jude–Exposing false teachers and uses Old Testament allusions to demonstrate the judgment upon them. Contends for the faith.
  9. Revelation–A highly symbolic vision of the future rebellion, judgment, and fulfillment of all things. It is not always clear what the symbols stand for, but this is plain: No matter how dark things may seem now, in the end God wins. He will judge evil and reward His people. It concludes with a big, never-ending party.


OLD TESTAMENT:   The Law, Historical Books, Wisdom/Poetry, and the Prophets

“The Law” – – First Five Books

Genesis – – Creation and the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob)

The creation story (Gen. 1-3) gives essentials that humans need to know about God and nature and humans, such as:

God is all-powerful, the physical world was created by Him, He has good, fruitful purposes for humans and wants them to have a trusting relationship with Him. However, humans tend to reject God and his wisdom and go their own way and get messed up; so God has a long-term plan to bring humans back to Himself. This plan was ultimately for God to come to earth in the form of a man, but this plan is only hinted at in Genesis. For instance, in Gen. 3:15 God promises that someday a man born of woman would crush the head of the serpent (representing Satan), even though the snake would wound his heel. This was fulfilled when Jesus, who was born of a woman, triumphed over Satan by coming to earth and letting himself get nailed to a cross with spikes through his wrists and his heels.

This creation story was given in a symbolic form which ancient people with their primitive views of science could relate to, like Jesus would later tell stories (parables) which were not literally, physically true but which illustrated deep spiritual truths. Therefore, it does not matter whether God created humans from dust in an instant, or whether He used evolution over millions of years to transform the elements of the earth into our human bodies.

Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the beginnings of nation of Israel. God calls Abraham (around 1700 B.C) out of paganism to follow the one true God. God has Abraham leave the land he grew up in (Mesopotamia, in what is now called Iraq) and migrate to the land of Israel. God makes promises to Abraham which foreshadow what He would do through Jesus many years later. Abraham has a son Isaac, who has a son Jacob. Jacob is renamed “Israel”, and his 12 sons founded the 12 tribes of Israel (e.g. Judah, Benjamin, Levi, etc.). One of Jacob’s youngest sons, Joseph, is hated by his older brothers and is sold as a slave, taken to Egypt, and eventually becomes an advisor to the Pharaoh. Later, because of a famine, Jacob’s whole family migrates to Egypt after being reconciled with Joseph.

Exodus – – After several hundred years, the people of Israel in Egypt have become numerous, and the Egyptians enslave them. After drama (threats, plagues, military pursuit, miraculous parting of the Sea), Israelites leave Egypt (the “Exodus”) and head for their old homeland. God gives Moses certain laws for the people to follow, including the Ten Commandments. The Exodus occurred around 1300-1400 B.C.

A foreshadowing of Christ shedding his blood to save us is depicted in the blood of the Passover lamb protecting Israelite households, and in animal sacrifices to (symbolically) atone for sins of people. Atonement means to do something obtain forgiveness from someone you have offended.

Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy – – The Israelites disobey God, and so wander around in the desert for forty years, until the generation of adults who had grown up in Egyptian slavery were replaced by a new generation. More laws are given, to specify a detailed way of life. Some of these laws were ritualistic (like animal sacrifices and details of worship and periodic feasts), and other laws specified how people were supposed to treat each other (basically be honest and merciful). The totality of these regulations is called “The Law of Moses” or simply “The Law”.   The most key rules were the Ten Commandments, which are listed in Exodus 20:3-17. The first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) are also sometimes referred to as “The Law”. A brief summary of the Moses/Exodus/Law story is given in a speech by Stephen in Acts 7:2-47.


Historical Books of the Old Testament

Joshua, Judges, Ruth

1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles

Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

These books describe the history of the people of Israel from the time of entry into the land of Israel (displacing the Canaanites) around 1300-1400 B.C., through the time of the Judges (e.g. stories of Gideon and of Sampson), the rise of kings (Saul, David, and Solomon, around 1000 B.C.), and many more kings around 1000-600 B.C. As a boy, David killed the giant Goliath. Later David became king and wrote many of the Psalms. His son Solomon was famous for his wisdom. He built the Temple for God in Jerusalem, and may have written much of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

The tribes of Israel separated into the northern kingdom (called “Israel”), and a southern kingdom (“Judah”) about 900 B.C. Assyria eventually conquered Israel, and took most of the Israelite people away, never to return. The people in part of what used to be Israel were later called “Samaritans”. The Babylonians later conquered Judah, marching the people away as captives to Babylon around 600 B.C. However, many of the people of Judah were able to return and to rebuild Jerusalem starting about 500 B.C. (see Ezra and Nehemiah) after the Persians defeated the Babylonians.


Job – – Deals with the mystery of suffering. Horrible things happen to Job, and he struggles to understand why. He never gets an explicit explanation for his calamities, but at the end he has an encounter with God which brings personal resolution.

Psalms – – Raw, realistic emotional and spiritual outpourings to God, in poetic form. Expresses the full range of human experience, from abandonment and despair to ecstasy and vindication. Bill Johnson wrote, “If I am troubled by something, I go to the Psalms. Every emotion is well represented in that book. And I read until I find my voice in a psalm. Once I hear my heart’s cry, I know I have found the place for me to stop and feed.”

Some psalms (e.g. Ps. 16, 22, 110) foreshadow the Messiah who would be mocked and have his hands and feet pierced, but who would be raised from the dead and exalted.

Proverbs – – Many wise, useful sayings. Try opening up to this book and putting your finger down at random on a couple of verses and see how they relate to your experience.

Ecclesiastes – – Philosophical observations on life.

Song of Solomon – – A love song between a king and his beloved. May also symbolize aspects of the love between God and his people.


Major Prophets

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel

God speaks directly to and through the prophets. Much of what they write gives God’s perspective on events that are happening at their time. For instance, some of the prophets warn about the upcoming Babylonian captivity and then how to behave after it happens. They call leaders to live justly and righteously, not cheating poor and vulnerable people. God wants heartfelt devotion, not shallow ritual.

The prophets also foretell some events in the more distant future, including Jesus’s death and resurrection, and the final end of the world. For instance, the whole 53rd chapter of Isaiah is a detailed description of how a righteous Servant of God would be pierced and put to death to bear the sins of the people. Jesus was, of course, wounded and pierced for our sins. Here are just a few verses, but you should read the whole chapter:

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,

yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way;

and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.        (Isaiah 53:3-6)


Minor Prophets

Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi

These are twelve shorter books of prophets which end the Old Testament. As with the major prophets, they contain calls to justice, warnings of God’s judgements, and promises of redemption. These mainly speak to events of the prophet’s own day, but there are also promises of a future Messiah who will provide a more final answer to the problems of mankind (see e.g. Micah 5:2, Zech. 9:9-10). Jesus fulfilled these predictions.


Concluding thoughts on how to read the Bible: The text above gives some conceptual and historical context for the various books of the Bible. All that is important if you are using a passage as a basis for making a significant decision in your life, or for sorting out your doctrinal views. However, people often find that God also speaks to them spontaneously through reading some verse, independently of what that passage may have meant to its ancient readers. While I respect rigorous scholarship, I also recommend keeping a child-like expectation of a fresh encounter with God whenever you open up His word.

“Read until it speaks to you”


Acknowledgment: Some of this material was taken or modified from:

“New Testament Books”, by Matt Slick https://carm.org/new-testament-books

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Get Out and See the Andromeda Galaxy

The Andromeda galaxy is a spiral galaxy approximately 2.5 million light-years (2.4×1019 km) from Earth. It contains some trillion stars, which is about 3 times more than our Milky Way galaxy.

Although it appears more than six times as wide as the full Moon when photographed through a larger telescope, only the brighter central region is visible to the naked eye or when viewed using binoculars or a small telescope.

Here is what this galaxy looks like through a large telescope:

All the regular stars we see are within our local Milky Way galaxy. Most of these visible stars are several hundred or several thousand light years away.

Now consider going outside to see the Andromeda galaxy in person, per directions below. First, prepare yourself that what you will actually be able to see is a small, faint glowing patch, like a tiny cloud of white mist.

Even though that appears unspectacular, I still am impressed every time I see the Andromeda galaxy that the light entering my eyes started on its way 2.5 million years ago. The first of the four major Pleistocene ice ages was starting about then. The main human ancestor that we know from that time was Homo habilus. His brain was about half the size of ours, and he was just figuring out how to chip stones into sharp tools.

Viewing the Andromeda galaxy

Here is a star chart, with two ways to hop to Andromeda galaxy from nearby constellations. The first method, using the constellation Cassiopeia (see yellow “(1)” and yellow arrows) is probably the easiest. Cassiopeia is shaped like a “W”, and is nearly overhead around 8:00 in Nov-Dec. The four corners of the big square of Pegasus (the stars Alpheratz, Scheat, Markab, and Algenib on the star map) are visible to the naked eye, as is Mirach and Almach. But I cannot see the other little stars labeled “…And” on this map.

The Andromeda galaxy itself is almost directly overhead in the early evening each year in November-December. Some people are able to spot it with their unaided eyes, though I cannot. It should work fine with binoculars, if you patiently scan around the correct area, and only expect to see a tiny fuzzy patch, not a giant spiral. You need a fairly clear night, without a bright moon, and away from bright lights. A suburban back yard can work. Now is a good time to try this, since the moon is in its dark phase for the next week.

You might want to lie down on your back or in a recliner for looking straight up. Younger children may not be able to handle and use binoculars well enough. Using a telescope takes more set-up than binoculars, but then the galaxy is locked in view. Low magnification power works better. I have introduced a number of neighborhood children to Andromeda this way, after showing them the glorious spiral image above, so they know what that fuzzy thing in the telescope really is.

Bonus viewing this month: Venus is visible, looking like a brilliant white star, after sunset near where the sun went down.

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Why are some Christians Young Earth Creationists?

I was alerted by Primates Progress  to the article linked below. It is written by a British Christian and geologist who notes, “When I first heard about [Young Earth] Creationism when I read a review of The Genesis Flood while working as an exploration geologist in the Namib desert, I simply burst out laughing and wondered how anyone could even suggest it.” However, he came to realize that YE creationism offers, for some Christians, an apparently scientific backing for a supposedly-biblical worldview, which “provides an all-embracing outlook on life and integrates every aspect of their lives.”

In this article, the author first defines the basic content of today’s YE creationism, which is at odds with the physical evidence. Illustrative graphics are included, such as the Noah cartoon shown below, and an information-rich “Creationist Bingo” card. He then lists various deeply–felt reasons for why people believe in YE creationism. The most important factor is a belief that the Atonement requires an absence of death before the Fall.

At the end of his article the author references the recent book, The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth, which refutes YEC assertions about the order of fossils in the rock layers, dinosaurs co-existing with humans, etc.

Comment on Adam, death, and the Fall, since this is such a hot-button topic: I have dealt with this issue here , including key passages in Romans 5 and I Cor. 15.  It is worth noting that Paul develops the universality of sin in Romans 1-3 with no mention of original sin. He moves from, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness… although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (1:18-21) to “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23) quite apart from Adam. 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 explicitly mentioned in the sayings of Jesus. On the contrary, Jesus directed people away from religious speculations or blaming others, and towards a consciousness of their own shortcomings and their personal need for mercy.  Thus, a Fall from a death-free original creation cannot be an essential part of the Christian gospel.

Some common YE creationist evidences for a young earth, e.g. folded rock layers, are debunked in Evidences for a Young Earth. The order of fossils in the rock layers is discussed in   Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism , which describes how the modern YE creationist movement began around 1961 with the publication of The Genesis Flood. Prior to that, very few twentieth-century  Christians, even among American fundamentalists, held to a recent (6000 years ago) creation.

And here is the start of the article, and a link to the rest of it:

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

It baffles many people whether Christian or not why some Christians are Young Earth Creationist, with a belief in a 10,000 year old earth and rejection of evolution. It cannot be denied that Young Earth Creationism has caused bad relationships among Christians, influenced education and results in much mockery from some. A major reason for the friction is that YEC’s claim explicitly or implicitly that the majority of Christians who accept modern science with the vast age of the earth and evolution are at best naughty or heretical Christians.

With YEC making inroads into churches (including the Church of England) and trying to call the shots over education in all parts of the world, it is best to know what they believe and why they do as they go against all scientific teaching and what most churches actually believe.


As YEC attracted so much more heat than light, it is best to start with a general summary of YEC beliefs, though YEC is not monolithic.

  • The earth and universe are no more than 10,000 years old and this is supported by the best modern science.
  • Most of the fossiliferous strata from the Cambrian (550m.y.) to the Pleistocene (10,000yrs) were laid down in the Noachian Deluge. (There is some variation on this.) Below is flippant mocking of this

Noah bury corpses for Reblog

  • Dinosaurs lived alongside humans. The first [picture below] is an exhibit at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum and the other two from…

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Brain, Mind, Faith: 2016 American Scientific Affiliation Meeting

The 2016 annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) was held last week at Azusa Pacific University, near Pasadena, California. The program and abstracts of the talks are available on line.

A general theme of the meeting was “Brain, Mind, Faith.” Here I will describe in some detail a plenary talk by a Stanford neuroscientist, and also mention briefer takeaways from some other presentations related to the brain/mind area. At the end, I’ll provide links to videos of ASA 2016 talks on other, non-psychological topics.

Plenary Talk by William Newsome:  Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith

Bill Newsome is a professor of neurobiology at Stanford and director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences, and co-chaired the U.S. Brain Initiative proposal. His research is aimed at understanding the neuronal processes that mediate visual perception and visually guided behavior. The abstract reads:

The “central dogma” of neuroscience is that all our behavior and mental life—including our sense of a conscious, continuing self—is inextricably linked to the biology of the brain. Neuroscience “explanations,” therefore, tend to account for mental phenomena such as thought, emotion and belief in terms of the basic elements of cellular communication within the brain—action potentials, synapses and neuromodulation. Such mechanistic accounts, which appear increasingly powerful, have been cited as evidence that “folk psychological” explanations of behavior—including beliefs, values, and faith—will be replaced ultimately by deeper and more accurate neuroscientific explanations.

In contrast, I argue that the deepest and most accurate accounts of behavior necessarily involve multiple levels of explanation. Within neuroscience itself, the best explanations are inherently multilevel, appealing simultaneously to behavioral, circuit-level, cellular, and genetic insights. Outside the domain of neuroscience proper, human behavior depends additionally on multiple levels of social and cultural organization and insight. Each level of explanation complements and corrects, but does not replace, the others. More than ever in our world, beliefs, values and faith matter.

The video of the presentation can be downloaded. Start from the ASA home page  and click through Annual Meeting – – – Annual Meeting 2016 – – – ASA 2016 Recordings. Scroll down through the list of presentations to get to the “Newsome, Bill” entry. His actual talk starts about 33 minutes into that video, following various organizational announcements. The slides for this talk can also be downloaded.

The first part of Prof. Newsome’s presentation is a tour of some of the recent advances in neuroscience. The human brain contains about 100 billion neurons, with 100 trillion synapses connecting them. Our understanding of this circuitry is growing rapidly, but we have much to learn as to how cognition, emotion, memory, and action are generated by these circuits and networks.

A traditional technique for mapping the circuitry in, say, a mouse brain is to take thousands of very thin, physical slices, and examine them under a microscope, describe what is seen on each slice, then try to relate the trends from slice to slice. This is very laborious. The task of circuit mapping has been accelerated by at least an order of magnitude by the “CLARITY” technique from the Deisseroth lab at Stanford, published in Nature, 2013. In this approach the neurons are fixed in place with a gelling technique, then the opaque lipids in the brain are dissolved away. This leaves just the neurons visually exposed in all their interconnected glory. Different stains can be applied to highlight different classes of neurons. Prof. Newsome showed a brief but impressive video clip (which is displayed in the video link for this presentation), optically scanning in and through a whole mouse brain, zooming in and out on the bundles of neurons. Here is a screen shot of a zoomed-in view of a brain section:

Screen shot of “CLARITY” visualization video of neural connections in mouse brain. From William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. From http://network.asa3.org/

Screen shot of “CLARITY” visualization video of neural connections in mouse brain. From William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. From http://network.asa3.org/

Another intriguing video clip he showed was the neuronal activity in a zebrafish brain (Ahrens, et al., 2013). The fish had been genetically manipulated to modify the neurons, such that they each emitted a brief fluorescent flash from calcium when they fired. We could see flashes here and there, and occasional big waves of activity moving through the brain and down the spinal cord. A static image of that brain fluorescence in a relatively quiescent state is shown below. The faint blue outline is the fish’s head. The brain shows as gray. The spinal cord goes off to the right.

Slide 15 from William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. http://www.asa3.org/slides/ASA2016Newsome.pdf

Slide 15 from William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. http://www.asa3.org/slides/ASA2016Newsome.pdf

Another new technique is “optogenetics”. This was also developed, in part, in the Deisseroth lab at Stanford. Here, light-sensitive molecules are introduced to specific types of brain tissues. An optical fiber can then be inserted into a spot in the animal’s brain, allowing stimulation of these sets of neurons. This can be done with a more or less freely-moving animal, so we can observe the effects of neuronal stimulation on behavior. An optically-rigged mouse is shown in the slide below.

Slide 16, showing mouse with optic fiber for stimulation of specific neurons. From William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. http://www.asa3.org/slides/ASA2016Newsome.pdf

Mouse with optic fiber for stimulation of specific neurons. From William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. http://www.asa3.org/slides/ASA2016Newsome.pdf

Prof. Newsome showed a video clip of an experiment in the Anderson lab at Caltech (from Cell, 2015) in which a male mouse was rigged to optically stimulate certain cells in the medial amygdala. These cells are hypothesized to be involved in aggressive behavior. This mouse was behaving in a friendly fashion towards another mouse in his cage. When the light stimulation was switched on, he suddenly started attacking the other mouse. When the light was switched off, he immediately went back to being friendly.

Prof. Newsome noted that when he showed this video to a group of non-neurologists at Stanford, one of them remarked that this was “the most disturbing thing I have ever seen in my life”, since it showed so dramatically the raw neural substrate of behavior.

Deep brain implants of electrodes to stimulate specific human brain areas have been reported to give some improvement or relief for a variety of maladies, such as Parkinson’s, chronic pain, and severe depression.

Slide 19 from William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. http://www.asa3.org/slides/ASA2016Newsome.pdf

Slide 19 from William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. http://www.asa3.org/slides/ASA2016Newsome.pdf

In some brain surgeries, the patients are kept awake so that the doctors can judge from their responses exactly where the surgical probing or tissue removal is taking place. The slide below derives from a study of these phenomena. The purple region towards the front is the premotor cortex, and the yellow and orange areas towards the back are parietal motor regions. When patients were electrically stimulated in the purple region, their limb would twitch or move, but the patients would deny having moved their limb. If the patients were shown that their limb was moving, they would say something like “I am not doing that – you guys are making that happen.” Conversely, when the orange or yellow regions were stimulated, the patient would report “I feel the urge to move my hand”, or even “I did move my hand”, even though they had not in fact moved their hand. Somewhere between these two regions of the brain may lie the secret of voluntary motion, and Prof. Newsome is optimistic that these functions will be mapped in the not too distant future.

Slide 20 from William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. http://www.asa3.org/slides/ASA2016Newsome.pdf

Slide 20 from William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. http://www.asa3.org/slides/ASA2016Newsome.pdf

This all leads to consideration of the “central dogma” of neuroscience, which can be stated as: “All of our behavior and all of our mental life—including our sense of a conscious, continuing self— is inextricably linked to the biology of the brain”. This dogma is the working assumption of essentially all practicing neuroscientists, but it naturally raises a number of concerns, such as the freedom of the will. The second part of the presentation focused on these issues.

Prof. Newsome discussed several different treatments of freedom and the brain. A common view among his colleagues might be termed “bottom-up determinism”. This is the notion that all behavior emanates from the grinding of neuronal gears deep in the brain, and our conscious explanations of our behavior are merely rationalizations. Some thinkers, such as John Polkinghorne, propose that quantum processes in the brain, with their inherent indeterminacy, create space for freedom of thought. (In the Q&A session, however, Prof. Newsome noted that neurologically relevant molecules are too big for such quantum effects to be significant).   Another view, common among laymen, is that freedom of choice means that my choice is uncaused, i.e. it cannot not be dependent on a biological process. He rejects all of these approaches, for reasons that he fleshes out later in the talk.

The view he favors is “self-determination” or “autonomy”. By that he means, “My behavior is caused, at least in part, by my beliefs, values, memories, goals and aspirations. Conscious, rational thought plays a causal role in my behavior.” He conceded that most of his behavior is likely due to influences of which he is not aware. However, he does not think that is the whole story. A key issue is, what counts as a “cause”?

The discussion then delved into philosophical definitions of causation and of reductionism. There is a tendency to view “lower” or more “fundamental” explanatory levels as being truer and more real and more causal. Chemists view biology as just applied chemistry, physicists see chemistry as merely applied physics, etc. However, the higher-level conceptualizations are just as valid, and are meaningful in ways that are not captured by the lower-level explanations. The most fundamental level of description of, say, his presentation that evening, might be to define a quantum wave function for all the atoms comprising him and the room full of people. But someone examining that wave function would know nothing of meetings or people or presentations.

To think of human behavior completely in terms of neuronal circuits, to the exclusion of conscious impressions, beliefs, and values, is an impoverished and incomplete approach. It does not work in real life, and does not describe what neuroscientists actually do. Bottom-up causes are important, but explanatory relevance runs both upward and downward.

Neuroscientists find it useful to work at multiple levels of explanation, and to relate those levels as appropriate. They often work in terms of “systems”, where the parts of a system are organized together to exhibit the phenomenon under investigation. From Carl Craver (2007): “Systems explanations involve showing how something works rather than showing that its behavior can be derived from more fundamental laws.”

One example of bi-directional causality comes from the study of long-term spatial memory, e.g. how a mouse remembers its way around a maze. Such memories seem associated with the hippocampus region of the brain. Changing the maze, and thus the mouse’s experience of the maze, leads to physical changes in the neurons of the hippocampus (top-down causality), while physically damaging the hippocampus affects the spatial memory (bottom-up).

Another example of bi-directionality is cognitive behavioral therapy. This involves changing a patient’s beliefs and patterns of interactions. This top-down approach has been found to be about as effective in treating depression as prescribing pills which modify neurotransmitters and receptors (bottom-up). The best approach is for doctors to combine these two treatment modalities. Thus, beliefs, aspirations, values and other high-level mental states do matter.

Some of the most important questions in life depend on beliefs and values, and are not susceptible to scientific proofs. For instance, someone in declining health may face the question: is it better to live or to die?

Another common question is: Should I marry this particular person? You can rationally think about this from various angles, but in the end you have to make a faith-based decision and take the plunge or not.

Prof. Newsome closed by noting that the religious quest bears similarities to the marriage example. There are various sources of evidence that one can draw on, including one’s direct experiences and the testimonies of other seekers through the ages, but the evidence is not compelling in a scientific sense:

Faith, accompanied by commitment is essential. Risks are high. Simply put, this is the human condition. It is life, and our most consequential decisions in life have little or nothing to do with science.

For everyone, the real question is: Is there an ultimate source of meaning and value in the universe? If so, what is it?

Simon Peter addressed Jesus with these words, “And we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:69) While Peter had some initial grounds to respect and follow Jesus, the cognitive order here indicates that fuller understanding only came after faith. In a similar vein, C. S. Lewis wrote of how his faith perspective made better sense out of his observations of life:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen – not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else. (The Weight of Glory, 1942).


Plenary Talk by Justin Barrett:  Contemporary Trends in the Science of Religion: Adaptationist and Byproduct Theories and Their Implications

An experimental psychologist, Justin Barrett taught for five years at Oxford, and is now with Fuller Theological Seminary. He has authored several books on the psychology of religion. The psychology of religion was the broad topic of his presentation, which can be downloaded from the ASA site as described above, i.e. start from the ASA home page and click through Annual Meeting – – – Annual Meeting 2016 – – – ASA 2016 Recordings.

He discussed, for instance, how children and adults come to believe (both rightly and wrongly) that “agents” are active or are lurking nearby. Having a mental “agency detection system” can be an asset for alerting oneself to, for instance, a crouching tiger or a hidden enemy. This same type of thinking can lead to belief in unseen spirits. Thus, some psychologists view religion as a byproduct of such agency detection systems. Another view of religion is that it serves an evolutionarily useful adaptive function, such as signaling commitment to a group and commitment to not cheating on social contracts.

Some have viewed these proposals (that the human mind has a natural disposition to believe in God or gods) as somehow discrediting religion. Prof. Barrett devoted the second half of his talk discussing why this is not the case. First, as pointed out long ago by William James, all of our states of mind have some sort of basis in the physical processes of our brains. This is as true for atheism as it is for theism. Second, as noted by Plantinga, it is quite possible that God allowed an innate propensity for religious belief to develop in human beings in order to facilitate such theistic believing. Finally, the belief-forming faculties at work in forming religious beliefs are fundamentally the same as the belief-forming faculties involved in forming non-religious beliefs. A wholesale attack on such faculties leaves no ground for trusting the accuracy of any belief on any subject.

Takeaways from Other Talks on Brain/Mind/Faith

I will summarize a few other presentations on this topic from my notes. There were other talks on brain/mind subjects which I did not attend, and of course these presentations did not purport to resolve all the philosophical questions of consciousness and responsible agency.

Theological Implications of the Gut-Brain Axis, by Clayton D. Carlson

There are about ten times as many non-human cells living on and inside of us (mainly in the large intestine or gut) as there are cells in our body. The mass of these microbiota is about three pounds, or about as much as your brain. Studies have shown that the nature of human microbiota can exert significant effects on digestive, cardiovascular, and even psychological health. Thus, we should view ourselves not as just having an individual body, but as a community of organisms.

A study in mice showed that germ-free mice, raised to have no bacteria in their guts, exhibited abnormal social behavior (avoidance, excessive self-grooming), which normalized after microbiota were introduced to them. (I recall hearing elsewhere about various other studies in humans that seemed to show some dramatic improvements for depression and for autism upon altering the client’s gut microflora, but I do not find these in my notes here).

There are several plausible pathways by which gut microbiota can impact psychological health. The vagus nerve transmits sensations from the gut to the brain. Presumably sensations, even subtle ones, of intestinal distress or bliss can impact one’s mental state. Also, the microbiota release a variety of chemicals which are taken up by the bloodstream and make their way to the brain. Some of these can affect the levels of the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin, and so has implications for helping with depression. Short-chain fatty acids are also made by the microbiota, and can affect the blood-brain barrier membrane.

While caesarian section births, infant formula, and antibiotics can be very beneficial, it should be recognized that they can disrupt normal transmission and flourishing of gut microbiota. The speaker opined that most over-the-counter “probiotic” capsules contained a rather limited set of bacteria. VSL-3 probiotic apparently has a broader, more effective mix of bacteria [1].

Diet can affect the microbiota. One study showed that when elderly patients were put on a low-meat diet, their brain volume increased and mental functioning improved (I could not tell from my notes if these brain changes were definitively linked to changes in gut flora). When queried as to his personal practice, the speaker said that he eats a banana every day, to provide extra amounts of inulin. This is a type of sugar that supports the growth of a certain type of desirable bacteria in the gut.


Nondeterminism and Plasticity: The Role of Bidirectional Brain-Behavior Relationships in Sanctification, by Nahanni Freeman

The first two paragraphs of the Abstract for this talk read:

Theoretical models of sanctification imply behavioral, affective, cognitive, and relational flexibility, and appear inconsistent with deterministic views of mind-body relationships.

New evidences from epigenetics, psychoneuroimmunology, and studies of placebo effects, as well as traditional findings regarding neuroendocrine, dendritic, and neurotransmitter modifications in response to psychological variables, highlight the malleability of the central nervous system in response to both internal and external environmental change agents.

A number of examples were given of how various experiences or practices resulted in measurable changes in brain cells. These could be positive or negative experiences. A study with deprivation of maternal contact led to permanent changes in the hippocampus of lab rats. In human subjects, meditation increased gray matter in the brain, and an 8-week course in lovingkindness meditation resulted in increased antibody production in the immune system.

Studies ( e.g. Sorenson et al, 2011; Koenig, 2008) showed that religiosity was associated with positive health factors such as reduced heart rate, reduced strokes, better immune system outcomes, and 7-14 year longer lifespans. Religious beliefs and practices may provide an enhanced sense of unity and coherence, which can reduce anxiety and mitigate chronic stress responses.

Positive health effects, including psychological health, can be observed from the administration of placebos. This again demonstrates the plasticity of the brain in response to experience and suggestion. Placebos are more effective with symptoms which a patient is consciously aware of, such as pain, rather than with more purely physical issues like blood sugar.

The Abstract suggests that these observations of top-down or bidirectional effects may “weaken neural identity theory and material monism, yielding intriguing compromises between mind-body interactionism and emergentism.”  More complete notes and references for this talk are available from the speaker at nfreeman@ccu.edu.


Mirror Neurons, Empathy, Intersubjectivity and the Second-Person Perspective with Implications for the Problem of Consciousness, by Mihretu P. Guta

Studies show that “mirror neurons” in human and other primate brains fire when an individual performs an action like reaching for an object in a goal-oriented manner, and likewise fire when he or she sees someone else performing that same action. Some neuroscientists have taken this to mean that mirror neurons are the seat of “action understanding” or of empathy or of inferring the intentions of others. But other scientists have thrown cold water on these grandiose claims, on a number of grounds.

In any event, neurons are not consciousness. The speaker cautioned against falling into the “mereological fallacy”, of confusing the properties of the parts (the neurons or the brain) with the properties of the whole (e.g. the conscious human being). [2]


Computational Neuroscience and Neuroplasticity: Implications for Christian Belief, by Daniel Dorman

Computational neuroscience covers a wide range of specific subjects, ranging from modeling the biochemistry of signaling between specific cells to simulating high-level cognitive processes such as decision-making. The speaker described several recent advances in neural modeling.

The “Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network (Spaun)” model by researchers at Waterloo was published in 2012. An accessible description, with videos, is given here.

Spaun comprises about 2.5 million virtual neurons, organized similar to brain neurons, and is attached to a camera for visual input and a robotic arm for behavioral output. This is a top-down, functional approach to brain modeling.

The Blue Brain Project is more of a bottom-up approach. It seeks to model, in a biologically realistic fashion, the specific neural structure of part of a rat brain. This project by Swiss researchers using supercomputers has been in play since 2005, with the size and complexity of the model growing with time.

Some futurists have claimed that, since mental activity is just a big set of calculations, one could conduct the same set of calculations in a digital computer and obtain the same effect; thus we could create fully-conscious computers or have our conscious life continue after physical death by transferring our thought processes to a supercomputer.

The speaker cautioned that these schemes overlook the fact that human mental functioning is physically embodied, in a brain which is part of a body. It is not at all clear that having a giant digital or analog model of 100 million neurons firing would actually create consciousness. Interestingly, the Christian view of our ultimate destiny is not be a ghostly spirit, but to have our intelligence to be re-embodied in a resurrection body.

Other Presentations Available On-Line

As previously noted, the currently-available talks from this 2016 meeting can be accessed for downloading by starting from the ASA home page and clicking through Annual Meeting – – – Annual Meeting 2016 – – – ASA 2016 Recordings. To give an idea of the diversity of presentations, I’ll paste below a screen shot of the first two dozen or so presentations listed. This list may change as more items are added. The symbols show whether video and/or audio and/or slides are available. [3]

List some talks ASA2016

There are many fine presentations here, but I will just call out the three plenaries which I have not already discussed. Roger C. Wiens of Los Alamos, in Exploring Mars with Curiosity: A Scientific and Spiritual Journey, described the science and the technical and political drama behind the successful implementation of a remote chemical measuring device which was part of the “Curiosity” Mars rover which landed on the surface of Mars in 2012. Roger also shared some personal crises that arose along the way and how he resolved them. There are great slides showing parts of the rover and aspects of the hair-raising landing. The ChemCam instrument developed by Roger’s team, which shoots a laser beam at rocks to discern their chemical content, shows as the circular opening in the box atop the mast which sticks up above the Curiosity rover in this self-portrait on Mars.

Self-Portrait of Curiosity Mars rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

Self-Portrait of Curiosity Mars rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems


Ted Davis, a historian of science at Messiah College, described the people, the decisions, and the larger societal forces in play during the formative years of the American Scientific Affiliation, in The Creation and Evolution of the ASA in Historical Context. The founders of the ASA aimed at forming an organization of evangelical scientists who would bring the best science to bear on matters relating to Christian faith, in order to advise ministers and other Christian workers. In general, the ASA does not take official stands on controversial issues, preferring instead to be a forum where Christians can present different views and respectfully discuss these issues. I could see this policy in play in this 2016 meeting – while (I believe) the leadership of ASA generally accepts human evolution from other primates, two talks at the meeting were by representatives of the Reasons to Believe   organization, which accepts an old earth but rejects human evolution.

In Imag(in)ing a Brighter Future for Healthcare, Audrey Bowden shared her personal journey which eventually landed her at Stanford as an assistant professor of electrical engineering. She also described some of the work she does in developing techniques to obtain high-resolution visual images of what lies several millimeters below the surface of the skin or the external surface of organs within the body. Sophisticated sensors and computations take information from the back-scattering of light from subcutaneous layers and process it to form an image of what lies beneath the surface. This technique holds promise for better diagnosis of skin and other cancers, along with applications in ophthalmology, dentistry, and art preservation. She is bold and articulate about her faith. While she works hard and prays for wisdom in her scientific work to improve human health and extend lifespan, she notes that Christians have an even brighter personal future for healthcare, which is to be ultimately in the presence of God with no more tears, pain, or sorrow.


[1] Some anecdotal reports I saw on VSL-3, e.g. comments on Amazon, indicate perceived relief for conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. They also note that it needs refrigeration to maintain potency (so it must be shipped with cold packs), and dosage should start small.

[2] Mereology is the study of parts and the wholes they form. In neurology “the mereological fallacy consists in attributing to the parts of an animal the psychological predicates that correspond to the living acting human or animal as a whole. Therefore, attributing psychological predicates to the brain [e.g. “The brain perceives…”] involves falling into the mereological fallacy.” (Baldara Rosas, 2014)

Another discussion of the mereological fallacy is found in this book review .

[3] See here for my write-up of last year’s ASA conference. One talk summarized there which dealt deeply with mind/brain issues Jennifer Gruenke’s   “Christian Faith, Biological Reductionism, and Consciousness”.

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