Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

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, , ,

Four ways that the progress of experimental science conflicts with atheism

When people ask me whether the progress of science is more compatible with theism or atheism, I offer the following four basic pieces of scientific evidence that are more compatible with theism than atheism.

Here are the four pieces of evidence best explained by a Creator/Designer:

  1. the kalam argument from the origin of the universe
  2. the cosmic fine-tuning (habitability) argument
  3. the biological information in the first replicator (origin of life)
  4. the sudden origin of all of the different body plans in the fossil record (Cambrian explosion)

And I point to specific examples of recent discoveries that confirm those four arguments. Here are just a few of them:

  1. An explanation of 3 of the 6 experimental evidences for the Big Bang cosmology (From an article from Caltech)
  2. Examples of cosmic fine-tuning to allow the existence of conscious, embodied life (From the New Scientist)
  3. Evidence that functional protein sequences are beyond the reach of chance, (from Doug Axe’s JMB article)
  4. Evidence showing that Ediacaran fauna are not precursors to the Cambrian fossils, (from the journal Nature)

Atheists will typically reply to the recent scientific discoveries that overturned their speculations like this:

  1. Maybe the Big Bang cosmology will be overturned by the Big Crunch/Bounce so that the universe is eternal and has no cause
  2. Maybe there is a multiverse: an infinite number of unobservable, untestable universes which makes our finely-tuned one more probable
  3. Maybe the origin of life could be the result of chance and natural processes
  4. Maybe we will find a seamless chain of fossils that explain how the Cambrian explosion occurred slowly, over a long period time

Ever heard any of these responses?

Below I list some resources to help you to respond to the four responses of atheists to the experimental data.

1) The Big Crunch/Bounce has been disproved theoretically and experimentally.

Theoretically:

Nature 302, 505 – 506 (07 April 1983); doi:10.1038/302505a0

The impossibility of a bouncing universe

ALAN H. GUTH* & MARC SHER†

*Center for Theoretical Physics, Laboratory for Nuclear Science and Department of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

†Department of Physics, University of California, Irvine, California 92717, USA

Petrosian1 has recently discussed the possibility that the restoration of symmetry at grand unification in a closed contracting Robertson–Walker universe could slow down and halt the contraction, causing the universe to bounce. He then went on to discuss the possibility that our universe has undergone a series of such bounces. We disagree with this analysis. One of us (M.S.) has already shown2 that if a contracting universe is dominated by radiation, then a bounce is impossible. We will show here two further results: (1) entropy considerations imply that the quantity S (defined in ref. 1 and below), which must decrease by ~1075 to allow the present Universe to bounce, can in fact decrease by no more than a factor of ~2; (2) if the true vacuum state has zero energy density, then a universe which is contracting in its low temperature phase can never complete a phase transition soon enough to cause a bounce.

Experimentally:

The universe is not only expanding, but that expansion appears to be speeding up. And as if that discovery alone weren’t strange enough, it implies that most of the energy in the cosmos is contained in empty space — a concept that Albert Einstein considered but discarded as his “biggest blunder.” The new findings have been recognized as 1998’s top scientific breakthrough by Science magazine.

[…]The flood of findings about the universe’s expansion rate is the result of about 10 years of study, said Saul Perlmutter, team leader of the Supernova Cosmology Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Perlmutter and others found such a yardstick in a particular kind of exploding star known as a Type 1A supernova. Over the course of several years, the astronomers developed a model to predict how bright such a supernova would appear at any given distance. Astronomers recorded dozens of Type 1A supernovae and anxiously matched them up with redshifts to find out how much the universe’s expansion was slowing down.

To their surprise, the redshift readings indicated that the expansion rate for distant supernovae was lower than the expansion rate for closer supernovae, Perlmutter said. On the largest scale imaginable, the universe’s galaxies appear to be flying away from each other faster and faster as time goes on.

“What we have found is that there is a ‘dark force’ that permeates the universe and that has overcome the force of gravity,” said Nicholas Suntzeff of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, who is the co-founder of another group called the High-z Supernova Search Team. “This result is so strange and unexpected that it perhaps is only believable because two independent international groups have found the same effect in their data.”

There has only been one creation of the universe, and the universe will never reverse its expansion, so that it could oscillate eternally. That view is popular, perhaps in part because many people watched videos of Carl Sagan speculating about it in public school classrooms, but all it was was idle naturalistic speculation, (Sagan was a naturalist, and held out hope that science would vindicate naturalism), and has been contradicted by good experimental science. You should be familiar with the 3 evidences for the Big Bang (redshift, light element abundances (helium/hydrogen) and the cosmic microwave background radiation. There are others, (radioactive element abundances, second law of thermodynamics, stellar lifecycle), but those are the big three. Point out how the experimental evidence for the Big Bang has piled up, making the problem even worse for the eternal-universe naturalists.

2) The multiverse has not been tested experimentally, it’s pure speculation.

Speculation:

Multiverse thinking or the belief in the existence of parallel universes is more philosophy or science fiction than science. ”Cosmology must seem odd to scientists in other fields”.

George Ellis, a well-known mathematician and cosmologist, who for instance has written a book with Stephen Hawking, is sceptical of the idea that our universe is just another universe among many others.

A few weeks ago, Ellis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town, reviewed Brian Greene’s book The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos (Knopf/Allen Lane, 2011) in the journal Nature. He is not at all convinced that the multiverse hypothesis is credible: ”Greene is not presenting aspects of a known reality; he is telling of unproven theoretical possibilities.”

According to professor Ellis, there is no evidence of multiverses, they cannot be tested and they are not science.

Ellis is not the only multiverse sceptic in this universe. A few months ago, science writer John Horgan wrote a column in Scientific American, expressing his doubt in multiverses.

When you get into a debate, you must never ever let the other side get away with asserting something they have no evidence for. Call them on it – point out that they have no evidence, and then hammer them with evidence for your point. Pile up cases of fine-tuning on top of each other and continuously point out that they have no experimental evidence for their speculations. Point out that more evidence we get, the more cases of fine-tuning we find, and the tougher the problem gets for naturalists. There is no evidence for a multiverse, but there is evidence for fine-tuning. TONS OF IT.

3) Naturalistic theories for the origin of life have two problems: can’t make the amino acids in an oxydized atmosphere and can’t make protein and DNA sequences by chance in the time available.

Building blocks:

The oxidation state of Hadean magmas and implications for early Earth’s atmosphere

Dustin Trail, E. Bruce Watson & Nicholas D. Tailby

Nature 480, 79–82 (01 December 2011) doi:10.1038/nature10655

[…]These results suggest that outgassing of Earth’s interior later than ~200?Myr into the history of Solar System formation would not have resulted in a reducing atmosphere.

Functional protein sequences:

J Mol Biol. 2004 Aug 27;341(5):1295-315.

Estimating the prevalence of protein sequences adopting functional enzyme folds.

Axe DD.

The Babraham Institute, Structural Biology Unit, Babraham Research Campus, Cambridge CB2 4AT, UK. doug.axe@bbsrc.ac.uk

Proteins employ a wide variety of folds to perform their biological functions. How are these folds first acquired? An important step toward answering this is to obtain an estimate of the overall prevalence of sequences adopting functional folds.

[…]Starting with a weakly functional sequence carrying this signature, clusters of ten side-chains within the fold are replaced randomly, within the boundaries of the signature, and tested for function. The prevalence of low-level function in four such experiments indicates that roughly one in 10(64) signature-consistent sequences forms a working domain. Combined with the estimated prevalence of plausible hydropathic patterns (for any fold) and of relevant folds for particular functions, this implies the overall prevalence of sequences performing a specific function by any domain-sized fold may be as low as 1 in 10(77), adding to the body of evidence that functional folds require highly extraordinary sequences.

So atheists are in double jeopardy here. They don’t have a way to build the Scrabble letters needed for life, and they don’t have a way to form the Scrabble letters into meaningful words and sentences. Point out that the more research we do, the tougher the problem gets to solve for naturalists, and the more it looks like an effect of intelligence. Write out the calculations for them.

4) The best candidate to explain the sudden origin of the Cambrian era fossils was the Ediacaran fauna, but those are now recognized as not being precursors to the Cambrian fossils.

Science Daily reports on a paper from the peer-reviewed journal Science:

Evidence of the single-celled ancestors of animals, dating from the interval in Earth’s history just before multicellular animals appeared, has been discovered in 570 million-year-old rocks from South China by researchers from the University of Bristol, the Swedish Museum of Natural History, the Paul Scherrer Institut and the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences.

[…]This X-ray microscopy revealed that the fossils had features that multicellular embryos do not, and this led the researchers to the conclusion that the fossils were neither animals nor embryos but rather the reproductive spore bodies of single-celled ancestors of animals.

Professor Philip Donoghue said: “We were very surprised by our results — we’ve been convinced for so long that these fossils represented the embryos of the earliest animals — much of what has been written about the fossils for the last ten years is flat wrong. Our colleagues are not going to like the result.”

Professor Stefan Bengtson said: “These fossils force us to rethink our ideas of how animals learned to make large bodies out of cells.”

The trend is that there is no evolutionary explanation for the body plans that emerged in the Cambrian era. If you want to make the claim that “evolution did it”, then you have to produce the data today. Not speculations about the future. The data we have today says no to naturalism. The only way to affirm naturalistic explanations for the evidence we have is by faith. But rational people know that we need to minimize our leaps of faith, and go with the simplest and most reasonable explanation – an intelligence is the best explanation responsible for rapid generation of biological information.

Conclusion

I do think it’s important for Christians to focus more on scientific apologetics and to focus their academic careers in scientific fields. So often I look at Christian blogs, and I see way too much G. K. Chesterton, Francis Chan and other untestable, ineffective jibber-jabber. We need to bring the hard science, and stop making excuses about not being able to understand it because it’s too hard. It’s not too hard. Everyone can understand Lee Strobel’s “The Case for a Creator“. That’s more than enough for the average Christian on science apologetics. We all have to do our best to learn what works. You don’t want to be anti-science and pro-speculation like atheists are. I recommend reading Uncommon Descent and Evolution News every day for a start.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Stephen C. Meyer lectures on intelligent design and the origin of life

A MUST-SEE lecture based on Dr. Stephen C. Meyer’s book “Signature in the Cell“.

You can get an MP3 of the lecture here. (30 MB)

I highly recommend watching the lecture, and looking at the slides. The quality of the video and the content is first class. There is some Q&A (9 minutes) at the end of the lecture.

Topics:

  • intelligent design is concerned with measuring the information-creating capabilities of natural forces like mutation and selection
  • Darwinists think that random mutations and natural selection can explain the origin and diversification of living systems
  • Darwinian mechanisms are capable of explaining small-scale adaptive changes within types of organisms
  • but there is skepticism, even among naturalists, that Darwinian mechanisms can explain the origin of animal designs
  • even if you concede that Darwinism can account for all of the basic animal body plans, there is still the problem of life’s origin
  • can Darwinian mechanisms explain the origin of the first life? Is there a good naturalistic hypothesis to explain it?
  • there are at least two places in the history of life where new information is needed: origin of life, and Cambrian explosion
  • overview of the structure of DNA and protein synthesis (he has helpful pictures and he uses the snap lock blocks, too)
  • the DNA molecule is composed of a sequence of proteins, and the sequence is carefully selected to have biological function
  • meaningful sequences of things like computer code, English sentences, etc. require an adequate cause
  • it is very hard to arrive at a meaningful sequence of a non-trivial length by randomly picking symbols/letters
  • although any random sequence of letters is improbable, the vast majority of sequences are gibberish/non-compiling code
  • similarly, most random sequences of amino acids are lab-proven (Doug Axe’s work) to be non-functional gibberish
  • the research showing this was conducted at Cambridge University and published in the Journal of Molecular Biology
  • so, random mutation cannot explain the origin of the first living cell
  • however, even natural selection coupled with random mutation cannot explain the first living cell
  • there must already be replication in order for mutation and selection to work, so they can’t explain the first replicator
  • but the origin of life is the origin of the first replicator – there is no replication prior to the first replicator
  • the information in the first replicator cannot be explained by law, such as by chemical bonding affinities
  • the amino acids are attached like magnetic letters on a refrigerator
  • the magnetic force sticks the letters ON the fridge, but they don’t determine the specific sequence of the letters
  • if laws did determine the sequence of letters, then the sequences would be repetitive
  • the three materialist explanations – chance alone, chance and law, law alone – are not adequate to explain the effect
  • the best explanation is that an intelligent cause is responsible for the biological explanation in the first replicator
  • we know that intelligent causes can produce functional sequences of information, e.g. – English, Java code
  • the structure and design of DNA matches up nicely with the design patterns used by software engineers (like WK!)

There are some very good tips in this lecture so that you will be able to explain intelligent design to others in simple ways, using everyday household items and children’s toys to symbolize the amino acids, proteins, sugar phosphate backbones, etc.

Proteins are constructed from a sequence of amino acids:

A sequence of amino acids forming a protein

A sequence of amino acids forming a protein

Proteins sticking onto the double helix structure of DNA:

Some proteins sticking onto the sugar phosphate backbone

Some proteins sticking onto the sugar phosphate backbone

I highly, highly recommend this lecture. You will be delighted and you will learn something.

Here is an article that gives a general overview of how intelligent design challenges. If you want to read something more detailed about the material that he is covering in the lecture above related to the origin of life, there is a pretty good article here.

UPDATE: There is a good breakdown of some of the slides with helpful flow charts here on Uncommon Descent.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

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New book “Counting to God” discusses seven arguments against atheism from science

Evolution News has a summary of the book – they recommend it.

Excerpt:

A lot of books — many of them very good — have been written about the debate over intelligent design. But rarely does one come along that combines a compelling story of the author’s personal journey to faith with a well-written, comprehensive, easy-to-read presentation of the scientific evidence. Lee Strobel’s 2004 Case for a Creator comes to mind, but that is now ten years old and it’s never too soon for an update. As a result, I’m pleased to recommend an outstanding new book: Counting to God: A Personal Journey through Science to Belief, by Douglas Ell.

Doug Ell is an attorney in Washington, D.C., with an undergraduate degree in math and physics from MIT, and a master’s degree from the University of Maryland in theoretical math. You’ll have to read the book to learn Doug’s entire story. He was born into a religious home, but by the time he started college, he had drifted away from his upbringing, which he came to see as outdated superstition. As an undergraduate student, he embraced scientism — the view that scientific investigation is the only means of discovering real truth. Sometime later, however, Doug was introduced to the scientific theory of intelligent design, and everything began to change.

Counting to God tells Doug’s story, but it also recounts key lines of evidence that support the theory of intelligent design and challenge materialist explanations of cosmic and biological origins. Ell presents what he calls the “seven wonders” of science of the new millennium:

  • The universe had a beginning, and a first cause, some 14 billion years ago.
  • The universe is finely tuned for life.
  • The complexity of life could not arise through unguided processes.
  • DNA contains information and biological machines.
  • New species appear suddenly in the fossil record.
  • Earth is a special planet, uniquely suited to life.
  • Quantum physics points to a reality outside of space and time.

Ell surveys the evidence in each of these areas, discussing other intriguing topics along the way, including the multiverse, junk DNA, irreducible complexity, orphan genes, and near-death experiences.

I think we’ve discussed all seven of those arguments on this blog before, depending on what he means by them.

The hardcover is a lot more expensive than the Kindle edition, but I felt that this was one book I wanted to put on my desk. So I took a chance and ordered it. I hope it’s as good as this review says it is!

UPDATE: The woman I am mentoring and I have both read the book, and we both liked it a lot and agree it’s a good introduction to the scientific arguments. I bought a copy for my friend Dina, as well, so we’ll get an opinion from her soon, since she is a reading machine.

Filed under: News, , , , , , ,

Five current scientific problems with Darwinian evolution

This is from the Intelligent Design FAQ at the Discovery Institute. (H/T Justin Taylor tweet)

Here are the 5 points:

  1. Genetics: Mutations cause harm and do not build complexity.
  2. Biochemistry: Unguided and random processes cannot produce cellular complexity.
  3. Paleontology: The fossil record lacks intermediate fossils.
  4. Taxonomy: Biologists have failed to construct Darwin’s “Tree of Life.”
  5. Chemistry: The chemical origin of life remains an unsolved mystery.

Let’s look at the first one:

Mutations cause harm and do not build complexity.

Darwinian evolution relies on random mutations that are selected by a blind, unguided process of natural selection that has no goals.  Such a random and undirected process tends to harm organisms and does not improve them or build complexity.  As National Academy of Sciences biologist Lynn Margulis has said, “new mutations don’t create new species; they create offspring that are impaired.” Similarly, past president of the French Academy of Sciences, Pierre-Paul Grasse, contended that “[m]utations have a very limited ‘constructive capacity’” because “[n]o matter how numerous they may be, mutations do not produce any kind of evolution.”

It’s a nice little overview, and all the sections are short like that – it’s just an introduction to each area.

There are lot more questions answered in the FAQ. It’s a good resource.

Filed under: Polemics, , ,

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