Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

New study: Crows capable of analytical reasoning

Male normal gray cockatiel preens his wife's crest

Aww! Male cockatiel preens his wife’s crest

Melissa Cain Travis who blogs at Hard Core Christianity sent me news of this wonderful, wonderful study of crow intelligence. I love birds SO MUCH, so I have to blog any story that helps my readers to see why they should love birds, too.

First, read the story from Scientific American.

A recent research collaboration has discovered that crows exhibit strong behavioral signs of analogical reasoning — the ability to solve puzzles like “bird is to air as fish is towhat?” Analogical reasoning is considered to be the pinnacle of cognition and it only develops in humans between the ages of three and four.

[The research team] first trained hooded crows on several tasks in which they had to match items that were the same as one another. The crows were presented with a tray containing three cups. The middle cup was covered by a card picturing a color, a shape, or a number of items. The other two side cups were also covered by cards — one the same as and one different from the middle card. The cup under the matching card contained food, but the cup under the nonmatching card was empty. Crows quickly learned to choose the matching card and to do so more quickly from one task to the next.

Then, the critical test was given. Each card now pictured a pair of items. The middle card would display pairs AA or CD, and the two side cards would display pair BB and pair EF. The relation between one pair of items must be appreciated and then applied to a new pair of items to generate the correct answer: the BB card in the case of AA or the EF card in the case of CD. For instance, if the middle card displayed a circle and a cross, then the correct choice would be the side card containing a square and a triangle rather than the side card containing two squares.

Not only could the crows correctly perform this task, but they did so spontaneously, from the very first presentations, without ever being trained to do so.

Now watch this 2-minute video and see if you can find the answers faster than the crow. I was slower than the crow at the beginning, then faster at the end.

Well, are you impressed? I was impressed!!!!!

Now I have an absolutely silly thought to share with you.

I was thinking about these birds and science posts that I put up and the thought occurred to me about what Christians did to demonstrate the existence of God in debates before we knew about the origin of the universe, the cosmic fine-tuning, galactic habitability, stellar habitability, origin of life, biological information, Cambrian explosion, molecular machines, and blah blah blah de blah.

So what would the William Lane Craig of those days do for his five arguments? Well, the fourth argument would still be the resurrection, and the fifth point would still be religious experience. But the first three would be… BIRDS! Argument one would be some parrot who had learned to talk and do tricks. Argument two would be some parrot who was particularly good at flying and hunting. And argument three would be some particularly beautiful bird. And that’s how you would prove the existence of a Creator and Designer before we had telescopes and microscopes to do it with. Pretty sure.

Anyway, that’s my (silly) idea. Birds are so wonderful, I just say silly things about them!

Filed under: News, , , , , , , ,

The many meanings of the word “evolution”

This is from an essay by Stephen C. Meyer and Mike Keas. (H/T Justin Taylor)

Meyer and Keas caution people about answering questions about evolution until the term is clearly defined.

Here are their 6 meanings of the word:

  1. Evolution as Change Over Time
  2. Evolution as Gene Frequency Change
  3. Evolution as Limited Common Descent
  4. Evolution as a Mechanism that Produces Limited Change or Descent with Modification
  5. Evolution as Universal Common Descent
  6. Evolution as the “Blind Watchmaker” Thesis

Here is one that everyone accepts:

2. Evolution as Gene Frequency Change

Population geneticists study changes in the frequencies of alleles in gene pools. This very specific sense of evolution, though not without theoretical significance, is closely tied to a large collection of precise observations. The melanism studies of peppered moths, though currently contested, are among the most celebrated examples of such studies in microevolution. For the geneticist, gene frequency change is “evolution in action.”

And one that is controversial:

6. Evolution as the “Blind Watchmaker” Thesis

The “blind watchmaker” thesis, to appropriate Richard Dawkins’s clever term, stands for the Darwinian idea that all new living forms arose as the product of unguided, purposeless, material mechanisms, chiefly natural selection acting on random variation or mutation. Evolution in this sense implies that the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection acting on random variations (and other equally naturalistic processes) completely suffices to explain the origin of novel biological forms and the appearance of design in complex organisms. Although Darwinists and neo-Darwinists admit that living organisms appear designed for a purpose, they insist that such “design” is only apparent, not real, precisely because they also affirm the complete sufficiency of unintelligent natural mechanisms (that can mimic the activity of a designing intelligence) of morphogenesis. In Darwinism, the variation/selection mechanism functions as a kind of “designer substitute.” As Dawkins summarizes the blind watchmaker thesis: “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye.”

For discussion purposes, I accept 1-4, which I think are consistent with the evidence. I deny 5 and 6 because they are inconsistent with the evidence.

It’s a good article to read to prepare yourself to discuss this with someone who is antagonistic to design. They may offer evidence for one definition of evolution that everyone accepts, then take it to be proof of a much more controversial definition of evolution. You have to get the definition clear first.

One last piece of advice. If you ever get asked this “do you believe in evolution” question – say, by a secular leftist anxious to label you as a moron – then you might consider going on the offensive, using this list of alternate science-related questions that actually affect public policy from David Harsanyi. Put your questioner on the defensive.

Filed under: Polemics, , ,

New study: bird origins poses a convergence challenge to common ancestry

Male normal gray cockatiel preens his wife's crest

Male cockatiel preens his wife’s crest

We have to start this post with the definition of convergence in biology.

In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

It is the opposite of divergent evolution, where related species evolve different traits.

On a molecular level, this can happen due to random mutation unrelated to adaptive changes; see long branch attraction. In cultural evolution, convergent evolution is the development of similar cultural adaptations to similar environmental conditions by different peoples with different ancestral cultures. An example of convergent evolution is the similar nature of the flight/wings of insects, birds, pterosaurs, and bats.

All four serve the same function and are similar in structure, but each evolved independently.

And now, this new article on convergence in birds and humans, from Evolution News.

They write:

Everyone is familiar with the striking ability of certain birds (such as parrots) to vocalize speech, much as humans do. Well, according to the new papers published in Science that I wrote about earlier, confirming that birds arose explosively, those vocalization abilities are the result of “convergent evolution” at both the morphological and genetic levels.

Nature News reports, “The authors also conclude that vocal learning may have evolved independently in the ancestors of parrots, hummingbirds and songbirds.” But this is about more than just birds. According to a Science Daily article about the technical papers, the genetic “convergent evolution” extends to birds and humans:

“We’ve known for many years that the singing behavior of birds is similar to speech in humans — not identical, but similar — and that the brain circuitry is similar, too,” said Jarvis, an associate professor of neurobiology at the Duke University Medical School and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “But we didn’t know whether or not those features were the same because the genes were also the same.”Now scientists do know, and the answer is yes — birds and humans use essentially the same genes to speak.

After a massive international effort to sequence and compare the entire genomes of 48 species of birds representing every major order of the bird family tree, Jarvis and his colleagues found that vocal learning evolved twice or maybe three times among songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds.

Even more striking is that the set of genes involved in each of those song innovations is remarkably similar to the genes involved in human speaking ability.

If you’re already thinking “This isn’t ‘convergent evolution,’ it’s common design,” you haven’t seen the best part yet. Science Daily goes on:

One of the Dec. 12 papers in Science found there is a consistent set of just over 50 genes that show higher or lower activity in the brains of vocal learning birds and humans. These changes were not found in the brains of birds that do not have vocal learning and of non-human primates that do not speak, according to this Duke team, which was led by Jarvis; Andreas Pfenning, a graduate of the PhD program in computational biology and bioinformatics (CBB); and Alexander Hartemink, professor of computer science, statistical science and biology.”This means that vocal learning birds and humans are more similar to each other for these genes in song and speech brain areas than other birds and primates are to them,” Jarvis said.

These genes are involved in forming new connections between neurons of the motor cortex and neurons that control the muscles that produce sound.

The Science paper puts it this way:

More than 50 genes contributed to their convergent specialization and were enriched in motor control and neural connectivity functions. These patterns were not found in vocal nonlearners, but songbird RA was similar to layer 5 of primate motor cortex for another set of genes, supporting previous hypotheses about the similarity of these cell types between bird and mammal brains.(Pfenning et al., “Convergent transcriptional specializations in the brains of humans and song-learning birds,” Science, Vol. 346: 1256846-1 – 1256846-13 (December 12, 2014). )

So certain birds and humans use the same genes for vocalization — but those genetic abilities are absent in non-human primates and birds without vocal learning? If not derived from a common ancestor, as they clearly were not, how did the genes get there? This kind of extreme convergent genetic evolution points strongly to intelligent design.

The rest of the article talks about the conclusions of the study authors – they think it’s a huge problem – and it is.

I hope you’re all beginning to see why I love birds so much. I just adore them. In fact, I am excited about them right now, and will probably appear silly by gushing about how great they are. Fortunately, my editorette is not hear to stop me!

Birds are not just a living disproof of naturalistic evolution. They are also loveable and adorable. (Especially parrots, of course) If you guys are considering a pet, go out and get yourself a cockatiel, if it’s your first bird, or a green-cheek conure, if you’ve had birds before. Just remember that they live 20-25 years, so you have to be ready to face responsibilities, expectations and obligations if you make a commitment like that. And you know what? That is totally awesome, to have someone to care about. It’s good stewardship to care for animals. And if you can’t commit to a parrot of your own over the long haul, then put out an additional bird feeder this winter, and vote against wind power. Wind power kills birds, and I hate it.

Also, that bird in the Evolution News post is an Indian ringneck parrot. And they are awesome!!!!

More posts on convergence

Filed under: News, , , , , , , ,

New study: enzymes cannot easily evolve to perform other functions

Can atheism explain the origin of life?

Can atheism explain the origin of life?

This is from Evolution News.


I am pleased to announce the publication of a new paper from Biologic Institute, a research organization devoted to investigating the limits of unguided evolution and advancing the development of a new paradigm for biology based on intelligent design. This paper, “Enzyme Families — Shared Evolutionary History or Shared Design? A Study of the GABA-Aminotransferase Family,” is the closing chapter of our long-term study of bacterial enzymes to determine if they can be coopted to new functions. The answer to this question is important for the evolution debate. If enzymes can’t be recruited to genuinely new functions by unguided means, no matter how similar they are, the evolutionary story is false.

Published in the journal BIO-Complexity, the work was done by Marci Reeves, Doug Axe, and myself [Ann Gauger].

In a previous paper we described the difficulty of coopting the enzyme Kbl to perform the function of BioF. The two enzymes are very similar in structure (see below) but have different reaction chemistries and different functions in the cell. We wanted to know if a mutated Kbl could replace missing BioF function. After changing nearly every amino acid in Kbl’s active site (where its chemistry is carried out) to look like BioF, Kbl never was able to make the switch to BioF’s function.

In this paper we expanded the story to include nine of the most closely related enzymes to BioF, including one that is supposed to be able to carry out both BioF’s and Kbl’s chemistry. Using random mutagenesis we tested every single-base mutation in those nine genes. None of them was within one mutation of cooption. We went on to test for cooption the two most likely enzymes by generating two-base combinations of mutations. After testing 70 percent of all possible two-base mutations for each enzyme, or about 40 million cells each, that also failed.

What does this mean? In an evolutionary scenario, to get an enzyme to switch functions the first step is to make a spare copy that can be mutated without destroying a function the cell needs. Second, the cell has to overproduce the mutating enzyme, because any newly emerging enzyme will be very bad at the job at first. To compensate there will need to be lots of enzyme around. Third, there is the problem of finding the right combination of mutations by random search.

Taken together, since we found no enzyme that was within one mutation of cooption, the total number of mutations needed is at least four: one for duplication, one for over-production, and two or more single base changes. The waiting time required to achieve four mutations is 1015 years. That’s longer than the age of the universe. The real waiting time is likely to be much greater, since the two most likely candidate enzymes failed to be coopted by double mutations.

Read the rest of the post, they deal with criticisms to the paper.

Here is one Darwinist’s view of this enzyme proble, which they mention in a follow-up post.

Look: (links removed)

Monday we published a paper in the journal BIO-Complexity demonstrating that enzymes can’t evolve genuinely new functions by unguided means. We argue that design by a very sophisticated intelligent agent is the best explanation for their origin. I want to take some time to lay out our argument against Darwinian evolution and for intelligent design. It’s important, because it reveals the logical fallacy in most evolutionary thinking.

Just to give an example of the thinking of ID critics, here is a passage from one of the references in our paper (Kherhonsky et al. (2006) Enzyme promiscuity: Evolutionary and mechanistic aspects.Current Opinion in Chemical Biology 10:498-508):

An oft-forgotten essence of Darwinian processes is that they occur gradually, while maintaining organism fitness throughout. Consequently, a reasonable assumption is that, ever since the emergence of the primordial living forms, very little novelty has evolved at the molecular level. Rather, existing genes were modified, or tinkered with’, to generate new protein structures and functions that are related to those of their ancestors. Unlike ‘out of the blue’ scenarios advocated by the ‘intelligent design’ school, ‘tinkering’ scenarios depend on the availability of evolutionary starting points. The hypothesis that the broad specificity, or promiscuous functions, of existing enzymes provide these starting points was first formalized by Jensen in a review that has inspired many. Jensen proposed that, in contrast to modern enzymes, primitive enzymes possessed very broad specificities. This catalytic versatility enabled fewer enzymes to perform the multitude of functions that was necessary to maintain ancestral organisms. Duplication of genes and divergence led to specialized genes and increased metabolic efficiency. Since Jensen, the structures of >30,000 proteins, and the sequences of hundreds of thousands, have taught us that these processes led to the creation of enzyme families and superfamilies. The vestiges of these divergence processes are the scaffold and active site architecture shared by all family members [6].

To summarize, the key points of that evolutionary argument are:

  1. Evolution is true. That is, enzymes have evolved new functions by a process of random mutation and natural selection.
  2. Modern enzymes can’t evolve genuinely new functions by random mutation and natural selection but can only tinker with existing functions.
  3. Therefore, ancient enzymes must have been different, capable of carrying out a broad range of enzyme activities.
  4. Those enzymes underwent duplication and diverged from one another, becoming specialized.
  5. How do we know this happened? Because we now see a broad array of specialized enzymes. Evolution is the explanation.

This begs the question of whether evolution is true. It is a circular argument unsubstantiated by the evidence and unfalsifiable. No one can know what ancient enzymes actually looked like, and whether they really had such broad catalytic specificities.

That’s insufferable badness.

It’s not enough for Darwinists to take the age of the universe and then assert that anything can happen in that time. The time from the cooling of the Earth to the appearance of first life is on the order of millions of years. There just isn’t time to generate these organic components by chance.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , ,

J. P. Moreland explains the meaning of happiness in the Christian worldview

From happiness expert and Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland.


According to ancient thought, happiness is a life well lived, a life that manifests wisdom, kindness and goodness. For the ancients, the happy life — the life we should dream about — is a life of virtue and character. Not only did Plato, Aristotle, the Church Fathers and medieval theologians embrace this definition, but Moses, Solomon and (most importantly) Jesus did, too. Sadly their understanding is widely displaced by the contemporary understanding of happiness defined as pleasure and satisfaction, a subjective emotional state associated with fleeting, egocentric feelings.

Consider the differences:

Contemporary Understanding Classical Understanding
Happiness is: Happiness is:
1. Pleasure and satisfaction 1. Virtue and character
2. An intense feeling 2. A settled tone
3. Dependent on external circumstances 3. Depends on internal state; springs from within
4. Transitory and fleeting 4. Fixed and stable
5. Addictive and enslaving 5. Empowering and liberating
6. Irrelevant to one’s identity, doesn’t color the rest of life and creates false/empty self 6. Integrated with one’s identity, colors rest of life and creates true/fulfilled self
7. Achieved by self-absorbed narcissism; success produces a celebrity 7. Achieved by self-denying apprenticeship to Jesus; success produces a hero

How can we be certain Jesus is inviting us to a classical understanding of happiness in Matthew 16:24-26? He isn’t talking about going to heaven rather than hell, nor is He telling his followers how to avoid premature death. Where Matthew writes, “what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul” (emphasis added), Luke clarifies Jesus’ teaching by replacing “his soul” with the word “himself” (Luke 9:25). The issue is finding one’s self vs. losing one’s self. More specifically, to find one’s self is to find out how life ought to look like and learn to live that way; it’s to become like Jesus, with character that manifests the fruit of the Spirit and the radical nature of Kingdom living; it’s to find out God’s purposes for one’s life and to fulfill those purposes in a Christ-honoring way.

I like that “success produces a hero”. Who doesn’t want to be a hero? I certainly do.

In one of his lectures, Dr. Moreland says, and I quote: “Happiness is the freedom to do what we ought to do”. That’s right. When a person is free to comply with God’s design for human flourishing, then he/she is happy. My biggest source of unhappiness is the feeling that I cannot be who I want to be as a Christian. It’s getting even worse when I think about how the government is now using force to prevent me from spending what I earn the way I want, and saying what I want about the issues of the day, regardless of who is offended. I am becoming increasingly thankful for the time I spend with other dedicated Christians. That’s when I can be myself and not worry about what anyone is going to think of me. This is no small source of happiness.

Filed under: Commentary, , , , , , , ,

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