Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Misjudging Nature

August 19, 2017

This article caught my eye a few days ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  It deals with a video of a bird apparently feeding some fish, and specifically tries to provide reasons why in the world a bird would waste its time doing something like this.  After all, the bird ought to be concerned just about itself, providing food for itself and its mate and its young, if it has any.

The assumption of course is that animals are only concerned about activities that provide them the necessities of life.  Unlike humans, the assumption often seems to be that animals are incapable of enjoyment, of pleasure as we think about it, or of compassion or other attributes reserved uniquely for humans.  However, if you assume humans are a result of natural selection (which I don’t), doesn’t it make sense that we would see some of our own attributes in other species?

I prefer the Biblical lens for animals and creation – God created all of these creatures, and presumably created them with the capacity for a lot more emotion and personality than we tend to give them credit for.  Pet owners can affirm that animals are capable of emotion – at least anecdotally.  Scientists are just now starting to talk more and more about how smart animals are, even deceptive.  If animals are capable of these sorts of things (again, which any pet owner could have told you without all the money spent on research), perhaps animals are capable of compassion, or enjoyment.  Perhaps a bird can just enjoy feeding fish, and there isn’t an evolutionary explanation for this behavior, atypical or otherwise.

I’m routinely asked if I think animals will be in heaven.  I say no, but I clarify.  Heaven seems to be the waiting place for those who die in Christ.  They are waiting for the Second Coming, for the final judgment, and for the reconciliation of a new creation.  I don’t think we’re spending eternity in heaven, but rather are destined for renewed and perfect creation.  And there, I firmly believe that there will be animals.  And there, I think we’ll finally realize how amazing they are, and how much both we and they lost in the Fall into sin.


Semantics Matter

August 16, 2017

Words mean things.   They’re important.  So I applaud it when someone points out the real meaning of words.   In this case, a popular actress calling a nation out for murder rather than lauding it for some sort of medical progress.

Patricia Heaton made an important Tweet in response to media news claiming that Iceland is eliminating Downs Syndrome.  She pointed out the difference between eliminating something and killing everyone who suffers from it.

Well said, in 140-characters!

Facts & Feelings

August 8, 2017

On the continuing saga of the fired Google exec who dared challenge prevailing opinions about gender and workplace policy and culture (which I mentioned already here and here), here is input from four apparently well-qualified academics.  Their conclusion is that the author of the memo lined up pretty well with actual research into the differences between men and women.

Unfortunately, that research and his conclusions from it are not very popular these days.

He’s already out of a job, so being right is of questionable consolation in this day and age when truth is determined too often by who screams the loudest and uses the most pejorative language.  His situation perfectly proves the very point he was trying to make.   Google couldn’t have proved and endorsed his critique any better than by firing him.

We struggle as a culture to come up with a framework for male/female interactions (as well as gender, sexuality, etc.).  Whatever is proposed inevitably ends up being offensive to someone and therefore is untenable.  But whether something is offensive or not is separate from whether it is true.  In the drive for equality, feminism and now pop culture at large has settled on the idea that in order to be equal, men and women have to be the same.  Physically, emotionally, intellectually – you name it.  Practically interchangeable.

The only problem with this is that it’s not true.  We know it anecdotally in our relationships, and those informal observations are backed up by an impressive amount of research.  Worse still, it is patently offensive to both men and women to insist that they are virtually identical except for some hormonal and physiological differences – both of which modern medicine and psychiatry are happy to tweak with until you think you’re happy.

I find it interesting that it is common to describe human beings as animals, emphasizing our similarity at a genetic level to the animal kingdom, we are far less interested in seeking comparisons on social issues.  It isn’t helpful to note, for instance, that in many animal species there are very clear roles for each gender, and that those roles differ, but both are important and necessary.  Perhaps such comparisons aren’t often drawn because it is an inconvenient truth, a truth we like to think we have moved beyond.

We are convinced that now that we understand (or think we understand) genetics and DNA and natural selection we have somehow surpassed these things and are in the position of redefining reality and truth to suit our purposes.  We are convinced that our alleged knowledge has made us masters of the things we think we know.  However if DNA and genetics and natural selection are the things we think they are, it seems rather unlikely to me that we have somehow gotten the drop on hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection.  As though we have reached a place where our genes no longer dictate to us, but rather we are free to dictate to our genes through genetic modification.

For now, and for all of time leading up to this moment, men and women have been different, and this has been the source – unfortunately – of inequality.  I have no idea how things will be going forward, now that we are editing and tinkering with DNA and our own genetic code, making changes that can be propagated to future generations.  C.S. Lewis warned about this stage of things in his very prescient book The Abolition of Man.  Unsatisfied with merely being able to rewrite history, we are now permanently rewriting our future as a species.  While some are optimistic about this, I am not.  Our rewriting of history has so often been disastrous that I can’t imagine our success in rewriting the future.

Perhaps it will be a future where the Google engineer is wrong and his detractors are right.  But that’s not the case here and now, and it would seem wise and desirable by all sides to recognize this and take this into account rather than simply pretending it isn’t true.


Gut Feeling

August 1, 2017

Interesting article about researchers trying to explain the prevalence of altruistic behaviors in human beings, despite this seeming to be a deterrent to genetic proliferation.

The assumption is that living creatures exist and propagate with the purpose of passing on their genetic material to future generations – survival of the fittest genes, not simply individuals.  It’s an assumption based on evolutionary theory and natural selection.  But in such a model, altruistic, sacrificial behavior would seem to be counter-productive.  Those who sacrifice on behalf of others may not be able to pass on their genetic material as successfully as others who are selfish or less altruistic, conserving more resources for themselves and better ensuring propagation.

While this article wants to tout success in demonstrating that altruism could actually contribute to more genetic material getting passed on, to do so avoids all of the complicated questions such a hypothesis raises.  How is it that a microbe can encourage altruistic behavior (even on a widely-defined basis, as the researchers admit)?  Have researchers identified how parasitic microbes as referred to at the start of the article accomplish their ends?  And could that mechanism even be mirrored in human beings?  It seems like a ton more variables that need to be explained rather than providing an elusive answer to the question of altruism in human beings.




Copying Jesus

June 5, 2017

One of the miraculous signs Jesus performed as evidence of his divine power, authority, and identity was bringing dead people back to life.  One such example is in Luke 7 He restores a young man to life as the funeral procession is carrying him to burial.  Death is our final and greatest enemy, the question mark that hangs over all people and their quest to understand both the purpose of this life and whether anything awaits beyond.

Scientists are trying to bring the dead back to life as well.  Or at least the brain dead.  I don’t envision their success in this effort, but neither do I think that failure will dissuade them – and others – from continuing to try.

Three in a Row

May 31, 2017

Scanning the news this morning I came across three interesting articles.

The first is a not-so-veiled criticism of President Trump’s ban on certain electronic devices in airline cabins – meaning passengers have to put these items in their checked luggage instead.  As I reflected on this  article, it strikes me as one of the dumbest articles I’ve recently read.

The article ignores the fact that lithium ion batteries are “inherently volatile” beyond wanting to criticize a policy decision.  If they’re that dangerous, why are they allowed on flights at all?  Why are we using them in electronic devices that we carry with us everywhere if they are essentially the equivalent of little time bombs?  Wouldn’t the article be better aimed at critiquing why such a volatile substance is accepted beyond the parameters of certain airline flights from certain countries?

The second article is a great discussion of what may appear to be  rather arcane Supreme Court ruling that actually has a great deal of actual and potential impact for consumers everywhere.  I’ve long been distrustful of the growing trend of virtualizing ownership.  Seen most clearly in computer operating systems and software, it’s the idea that you don’t really own a product, per se.  Rather, you are paying for the right to access something that still belongs to someone else and who has ultimate say over what you do or don’t do with what you’re accessing.  Physical and intellectual property issues are critical not just for their economic implications but in terms of privacy and consumer rights.  Definitely worth a read through!

The final article describes the renaming of a NASA project to send a probe closer to the sun than ever before.  Instead of calling it the Solar Probe Plus (which is admittedly a lousy name!), it is being renamed the Parker Solar Probe in honor of a scientist.  But the article immediately reminded me of one of my favorite author’s short stories – The Golden Apples of the Sun.  It’s the name of both one of his short stories – about a manned trip to the sun to actually scoop up and bring back to earth some of the sun’s essence – as well as the anthology that includes the story.  Since Bradbury’s story pre-dates Eugene Parker’s solar scientific contributions, I think it’s at least worth considering.  Plus, The Golden Apples of the Sun is a far more beautiful name for a solar probe!

Memories and Magic

April 10, 2017

I found this article a couple of weeks back and it struck me but I’ve wanted to ponder it for a bit before posting on it.

The gist of the story is that scientists think that superstitious, magical-thinking is behind people’s attachments to personal items belonging to people who have died (or, I would argue, haven’t necessarily died but are no longer part of our lives).  The implicit assumption seems to be that if there are two identical items, then our attachment to the one shouldn’t necessarily be any stronger or different than the attachment to the other.  To reinforce this, they nickname this preference magical contagion.   This is a very materialistic understanding of reality and humanity, and very dismissive of personal attachment to memories evoked from a particular item.  Scientists assume that if two things are identical, then any preference for one over the other based on who it belonged to must be magical.

The assumption is that this is somehow illogical and irrational behavior and therefore requires an explanation.  That explanation they call social connection.  The test they run for this is rather curious, I think.  They first make a group of people feel ostracized or unwelcome in a social setting and then test to see how heavily they prefer items personally related to someone they admire.  The assumption was that the need for social acceptance caused a higher level of attachment to objects personally associated with known people.  Hence, the need for social connection is at the root of magical contagion.  The article notes that social disconnection is not the cause of magical contagion, it just intensifies the belief or need for it.

Thus, the desire to have something that belonged to someone important in some way gets disregarded as essentially irrational.

I won’t venture to assume that everybody likes to keep things that belonged to important people in their lives.  But I’ve met very few people who, when visiting their homes or talking with them don’t have some sort of memento.  These aren’t necessarily lonely people, and they certainly don’t appear irrational.

It’s tempting to make the argument that what is lacking is a spiritual dimension – that somehow an object actually owned or worn or used by someone has some bit of their essence to it, and that this would be the unstated reason why people prefer that item over an identical item without the personal association.  But I’m uncomfortable with that as it leads us slightly down the path towards an almost animist view of creation, where spiritual essences and properties are attached to most everything and we begin to revere objects for this property.  I don’t think it’s my rationalist, materialist upbringing (as a part of Western culture in the 20th and 21st centuries) that wants to discard this.  I don’t think it’s Biblical either.  Nothing in Scripture leads me to conclude that there is a spiritual essence which we pass on to objects.

I think it’s just part of human nature, by and large.  Why do I want the item from that person that they actually owned, rather than an identical one?  Because they actually owned it.  Is that rational or logical?  I can’t see the argument why it is, but certainly not from a strict materialist perspective.  What makes it special is that they owned it or wore it or purchased it.  When we see that item, it reminds us of that person.  It isn’t magical, but it’s important.  Just because you can’t quantify the why of that importance in physical terms shouldn’t denigrate it with such a pejorative term!

Movie Review: Is Genesis History?

March 16, 2017

I’ve stopped doing movie reviews by and large, since I’m apparently hyper-critical.  However this movie bears mentioning, and actual encouragement to see it.

Is Genesis History? provides an examination of common assumptions about our world that are grounded in an evolutionary/natural selection model.  The movie asks the question, is the evolutionary/natural selection model, which predicates that the earth is millions and millions of years old and that all of the animal and plant species we see today evolved from much simpler organisms over time supported by the physical evidence in our world?

The movie is a series of interviews with a variety of scientists who are Christian and believe that the best interpretation of the data available in the world around us is the Genesis explanation, which states that creation came into being in six days and that the earth might be much, much younger than the evolutionary/natural selection model asserts.  They offer intelligent and compelling arguments showing how the answers most of us were given in school about the world and how it came to be are unsatisfactory at best, and completely contrary to what we actually see in the world.

Normally I wouldn’t go to see a movie like this, but last week at happy hour, a recent Westmont Grad who is preparing to go to medical school mentioned that she had seen it and it made a favorable impression on her.  She doesn’t hold to a six-day creation perspective despite being a strong Christian, and is much more comfortable with some sort of theistic evolution answer, where God gets the ball rolling but evolution is the tool He uses.  She thought the movie raised some really good questions that gave her good food for thought.  I’m pleased to report that her assessment was very fair.

Is Genesis History? is not an attempt at debate.  No counterpoints are raised, no experts are interviewed to explain how they refute the assertions made by the experts in the film.  That’s not the film’s purpose.  The film intends to show that there is some good reason to doubt the prevailing ideas about the universe and our little corner of it, and to suggest that Genesis might really be taken seriously not in contradiction to science, but in an alternate interpretation of physical data.  It isn’t the Bible or science, but the Bible as a guiding lens for how science interprets the data it has.

The biggest question that was raised in my mind against their interpretations of data has to do with the Flood.  I believe the flood narrative, and I believe that it means what it says – a worldwide flood.  My question is that the various experts in this movie proposed a theory that says that the dinosaurs lived before the Flood, and went extinct with the Flood.  Yet Genesis 6 & 7 give the impression that representatives of every type of living creature were present on  the ark with Noah and his family (Genesis 6:19-20; 7:8-9, 14-16).

Did God determine which animals would be saved and which would not?  Did some of the animals that were saved on the ark die on the ark?  Genesis doesn’t state specifically that every animal or species on the ark was saved.  I like the answer that the experts in the film give, but if we want to take Genesis seriously (and we should!), then how do we come to grips with this issue?  I’ll be doing some more research to see if they answer that question on their web site.


Particles vs. Bodies

March 14, 2017

I’m often asked whether I think that cremation is an appropriate alternative to burial.  My standard response is that how we dispose of our bodies should reflect what we as Christians are told we are in Scripture.  We are special creations of God, distinct from anything else in creation whether animal, vegetable, mineral, whatever.  The fact that we may share some of the same elements, the same base ingredients as these other aspects of creation is not surprising given the description of our creation in Genesis 2.  But we are far more than the sum of our parts, far more than the chemicals and elements that constitute us.  We bear the imago dei.  How we dispose of our bodies should reflect this at some level.

Which is why I reject other options (or at least some other options) for dealing with a deceased human body as unacceptable.  I’ve repeatedly stated that I disagree with burial options that foster a different view of humanity as simply one part of an eco-system, using a decomposed or cremated body as part of the planting material for a seed(s) that will grow into trees or other vegetation.  I think this confuses the distinctness of humanity that Genesis clearly articulates.

And it is why I’m not a fan of this option – liquefying the body.  The process liquefies the soft tissue of the human body, leaving only the skeletal remains which can then be pulverized into a fine powder and given to the family.  But the liquefied remains are intended to be flushed into the local water system to be chemically treated like any other water.  The idea is that once all you have are basic chemicals and elements, there is no difference.  Treat ’em all the same.

That’s the part I object to.

Our modern obsession with science is problematic in that it all too often insists that everything and everyone is the same.  Genetics seeks to demonstrate not our uniqueness so much as our similarity to other species.  Chemistry dictates that we’re just walking chemical reactions that eventually – for one reason or another – stop.  By viewing humanity exclusively under a microscope we are able to justify any manner of dealing with our bodies – both while we’re alive as well as after we’re dead, arguing that there are no theological or even moral implications since we’re just a collection of chemicals and elements.

The Bible insists that we lift our eyes away from the microscopes sometimes, to see things as He sees them.  Yes, He created the chemicals and the elements that constitute our being.  But He sees us not in these terms, but in terms of being his creation, his unique creation, even the pinnacle of his creation.  We are more than the sum of our parts, more than just a collection of chemicals and elements that happened to accidentally arrange themselves as a human being for a few years.  Our choices for what to do with our bodies after our death should reflect this as a final testimony to our hope in Jesus Christ.

Yes, the body decomposes.  Given proper conditions and time it will on its own liquefy and disintegrate into the ground.  But it does so in the ground, not in a cylinder to be flushed into the water supply like any common grey water or sewage.  Cremation disposes of a great deal of our physicality in smoke and steam, but these elements are released, rather than incorporated back into some sort of system to be repurposed.

You were created unique.  Not an accident or an oversight.  Planned before the dawn of creation by the God who called the cosmos into being.  Special and unique in all of time and space.  Far, far more than just the sum of your parts.  Intended for eternal life and glory.  Step away from the microscope long enough to appreciate that.  You don’t have to deny that our bodies contain basic chemicals and elements.  Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s what defines us.

Contingency Planning

January 21, 2017

Space travel in and of itself is pretty cool and neat.  But what about if something goes wrong?  It turns out contingency planning in space can be a pretty curious area for consideration even though most people are never going to hear about it.  This article changes that, providing a glimpse into an important but not very cheery topic – what do you do with the body of someone who dies in space?  It’s an important question, but not one that has been completely and thoroughly thought out.

It’s an important consideration soas not to endanger or even inconvenience other crew members with bacteria or smell.  Though jettisoning a body out of an airlock – an interstellar equivalent to a burial at sea – may seem beautiful, the practical considerations of such an action – especially when instances are multiplied over time – is hardly as poetic.

Equally curious to me was the offhand comment about burning up trash during the re-entry of resupply ships.  Is it common practice to arrange trash on or outside a ship re-entering Earth’s atmosphere with the intention of that material being burned up?  Are there risks to this in terms of bacteria or other nasties floating about in the atmosphere and perhaps gradually working their way to the ground?  If not, is this another possible solution to mounting concerns about what to do with all the trash we generate?  Fascinating!