Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Op-ed on Q!

January 24, 2014

Q has just posted an op-ed I wrote about faith and science. Take a look.


The Adam Quest on Radio

January 23, 2014

I’ve been doing a few radio interviews re: The Adam Quest. Here’s one, the Debbie Chavez show, that I think went okay.

Tomorrow, an op-ed I wrote is supposed to go up on the Huffington Post. Knowing that you eagerly await my latest thoughts, I’ll let you know the link.

The Adam Quest

December 16, 2013

Two weeks ago one of the scientists I profile in The Adam Quest, Mary Schweitzer, was featured in The Economist Magazine. Here’s the article. Do you know how rare it is for any scientist to get this kind of recognition? She’s certainly on top of the world in paleontology. And her research is really full of surprises! Very interesting stuff.

So is her life’s story, which I tell in The Adam Quest. She was a housewife raising three kids when she decided to take some courses at Montana State for personal enrichment. She took a class on dinosaurs because she remembered being interested in them as a child. (She was also a Young Earth Creationist who believed that the earth, and thus dinosaurs, were only a few thousand years old. And she had never taken science classes, because they were too hard.)

Mary’s story may be the most interesting and surprising of the scientists whom I profile, but they really are all quite fascinating people.  The theory behind the book is that it’s much harder to demonize people whom you get to know. It certainly worked that way for me.

The book comes out in two weeks. It features profiles of eleven scientists who are Christians and involved in creation-evolution discussions. They are all (or have been) working scientists, defined as science PhDs who have published papers in peer-reviewed journals. They come from different points of view regarding the age of the earth and whether God used evolutionary means to create. I think you’ll find it a very interesting read. Some of my pre-pub readers told me they couldn’t put it down.

The Argument for Listening

December 13, 2013

I’ve heard from several people thoughtfully disagreeing with the premise of my piece. They doubt that anything can be gained by talking with young earth creationists. As one person put it, “almost all [Young Earthers] at my S. Baptist church have a HS diploma at most and do little if any reading beyond devotionals. It is a big jump to assume they could even understand a scientific worldview or how science works. Those who begin by assuming the Bible was written to be literally interpreted by a 21st century person instead of for folks who lived totally different lives 2 to 3 millennia ago are hardly likely to listen to nor understand scholars or scientists. My survival mode as a believer is simply to avoid raising the subject and keep my scientific views to myself.”

Those who believe in a Young Earth often display a mirror image of this: they don’t see any point in dialog with people who don’t treat God’s Word as inspired and infallible. They believe the early chapters of Genesis, understood in a common-sense way, tell us what we need to know, and it’s not that hard to understand. Scientific “evidence,” they say, only takes us in circles, proving what’s already been assumed through naturalistic presuppositions.

Given such very different starting points, nobody can guarantee that any real communication can take place. Both positions are a counsel of despair, but sometimes despair is realism.

It’s a point of faith with me, however, that it’s worthwhile listening to people and trying to understand their point of view. I’ve done a lot of it as a journalist. As we are all human beings, there is often leakage between our air-tight compartments. Some common ground may be discovered.

It’s worth trying if only because it implies treating each other like fellow human beings. When people listen to each other, instead of lecturing each other, it’s amazing how often they find a measure of understanding.

I think of it like marriage counseling. No marriage counselor–my wife is one–can guarantee that a marriage can be saved. But for sure, if the two parties won’t listen to each other, if you can’t get them to try to understand each other’s point of view, it’s pretty hopeless.

We owe it to each other. Those of us who are followers of Jesus are obligated to it. We are told–no, commanded–to love our neighbor. I think that involves, among other things, really listening to him. And the stronger the feelings, the stronger the obligation to try to understand.

The Three Pound Alien In You

October 23, 2012

The latest New Yorker (10/22/12) has a fascinating article on your microbiome, the roughly three pounds of bacteria that roam your body. (You have approximately 10,000 different organisms, all together weighing as much as your brain.) Only subscribers can read the whole piece online, but you will find a short abstract here.

Researchers have realized that the bugs we have been killing off with such zest are fundamentally part of our system, sometimes doing good and sometimes doing bad. They are like an extra organ, just discovered. For example, there’s evidence that microbial populations help us keep our weight down by controlling our appetite–that’s probably why farmers feed antibiotics to pigs and find that they gain weight faster. The widespread use of antibiotics in children may be the reason for the epidemic of obesity, the article suggests, not the size of the colas available. Antibiotic use may also be linked to the dramatic rise in asthma. And who knows what else.

It makes sense: if you have ten thousand species weighing three pounds swimming around in you for your entire life, their interactions would have to be complicated. (If you had a three-pound cat sitting on your head, those interactions would be complicated too.)

Where do you get your microbiome? Mostly at birth, from your mother’s vagina. Those who are born by C-section don’t get nearly all the bugs, which may explain why C-section children can have special health issues.

With the increase in C-sections, and the greatly increased use of antibiotics, there seems to be a serious downward trend in the organisms, generation by generation. That could spell serious trouble. We don’t really know, because research into the microbiome is just in its infancy. We do know this: medicine just got more complicated.


October 12, 2012

Last week I traveled to Maine to talk to a group of pastors. It’s a group that meets approximately once a month, inviting in a speaker to stimulate dialogue. Usually they have an academic come, so I was a change of pace. I’m not saying they were slumming….

I wanted to talk about world views as they relate to the topic of my last book, Miracles, and my next book, The Search for Adam. I’ve become convinced that we get tangled up in the classic Enlightenment paradigm separating Nature from Super-Nature.

Regarding miracles, both believers and unbelievers look for something unnatural, something that breaks the laws of nature. Skeptics don’t see it and conclude the Super-natural doesn’t exist except in the imagination of naive believers. Believers claim to see impossible things and conclude that they have proof that God is real. Either way, the basic belief is that Super-Natural is in an entirely separate realm from Nature, the only realm in which you can see God at work.

Regarding evolution, it’s much the same. The New Atheists (such as Richard Dawkins) say that nature explains everything, and there’s simply no need to summon up Super-Natural explanations, which are superfluous or dangerously false. Critics of evolution, such as those promoting Intelligent Design, contend the opposite: nature doesn’t even explain itself. There’s no way that nature produces complex organisms without Super-Natural intervention! For either side, the basic belief is that Nature is one thing, Super-Nature another, and they agree that if you can explain everything by purely natural causes, then the Super-Natural is superfluous or nonexistent and we live in a directionless and pointless universe without God.

This division of Nature and Super-Nature is so natural to us that we fall into it without realizing it. But it’s not a biblical view. In the Bible, God is (to use theological words) both immanent and transcendent. We aren’t deists who believe God set the universe in motion and went off to live in his Super-Natural realm; we are theists who insist that God holds everything together–that without him, the world cannot for a moment exist. His presence and power are in everything he has made. He is both in nature and above nature at the same time. Or as I put it in Miracles, everything is natural and supernatural at the same time.

So, it’s an interesting scientific question whether evolution can explain complex life forms, but it says nothing about God’s presence and power. God could create through evolution or he could work through other means. Either way, faith is what enables us to know of his presence and power in creation. (See Hebrews 11:3)

Similarly with miracles: there exist no violations of the laws of nature, because it is God’s creation and whatever he does is, by definition, natural. As Augustine put it: nature is what God does. Do surprising and mysterious things happen? That’s a question of evidence. You can’t come up with a general answer, you have to ask the question one event at a time. God can do anything. Does he? Whether he does or doesn’t do a miracle, he is (we know by faith) present and powerful all the time.

Recognizing God’s immanence is hard work, because it’s so out of step with the presumptions of our time. If we could learn to think biblically about nature and Super-Nature–about the creation and God–we would avoid a lot of fruitless arguments.

Known Evils vs. Unknown Evils

July 13, 2012

The latest New Yorker has an article on mosquitoes and dengue fever, a potentially deadly and incurable disease that affects millions every year. The only way to combat dengue is to combat mosquitoes, and that means pesticides. However, a British research group has figured out a way to produce millions of genetically modified mosquitoes who, once released from the laboratory, will go out and mate with other dengue mosquitoes, pass on their infertile genes, and then die. Apparently, based on the results of field trials, it works. It’s not a cure-all, but it’s a way to kill off dengue fairly inexpensively without pesticides.

As you can imagine, there are opponents who greatly fear anything with “genetically modified” as its modifier. They raise the specter that these mosquitoes will prove to be little Frankensteins, and they are fiercely opposed to any further field tests.

It’s an interesting variation on the familiar GM foods argument. And another case of how to appropriately use the precautionary principle.

In this case, the good involves reduced use of pesticides and thousands of lives saved. Dengue is a proven reality. It’s not theoretical.

We have to balance that proven evil against the possible evil of an unknown Frankenstein. It’s the fear of the unknown (possibly infinitely bad) versus the known (quantifiably bad).

How do you do this calculus? Anti-GM activists act as though the answer is obvious, but it’s very far from obvious to me. We can’t let the precautionary principle cut off all innovation. When and how do we use it appropriately? I tend to be a technological optimist and would err on the side of trying new technologies that save lives. But I have to admit there are other arguments. I don’t know the answer.

Randomness and Design

July 11, 2012

I found this quote quite helpful in untangling a word that gets used in discussions about evolution:

“The word “random” as used in science does not mean uncaused, unplanned, or inexplicable; it means uncorrelated. My children like to observe the license plates of the cars that pass us on the highway, to see which states they are from. The sequence of states exhibits a degree of randomness: a car from Kentucky, then New Jersey, then Florida, and so on—because the cars are uncorrelated: Knowing where one car comes from tells us nothing about where the next one comes from. And yet, each car comes to that place at that time for a reason. Each trip is planned, each guided by some map and schedule. Each driver’s trip fits into the story of his life in some intelligible way, though the story of these drivers’ lives are not usually closely correlated with the other drivers’ lives.”

–from Stephen M. Barr, “The Design of Evolution,” First Things, October, 2005

A Tale of Two Scientists

July 6, 2012

Christianity Today just published my cover story on two biologists, Todd Wood and Darrel Falk. (It’s online here.) Todd is a young earth creationist. Darrel is an evolutionary creationist. I did in-depth interviews with both of them as research for the book I’m working on, The Search for Adam. I like both of them a lot. They are deeply committed Christians, deeply sincere, and both extremely knowledgeable scientists. I’m hoping this will pique the interest of some publishers!

Dinosaurs Cited in Montana

June 26, 2012

I’ve been interviewing scientists for my next book, tentatively entitled The Search for Adam.  Last week I was in Bozeman, Montana, to talk to Mary Schweitzer. I’ve met some very interesting people through these interviews, but none more fascinating than Schweitzer. She’s a living embodiment of “never say never.”

She was in her thirties, married and with three children, when she started taking classes at Montana State University, aiming at personal enrichment. A class on paleontology got her interested in dinosaurs. She volunteered to work at the Museum of the Rockies and then had so many questions that her mentor Jack Horner, dino consultant for Jurassic Park, told her to get a PhD.

While a PhD candidate she made one of the most amazing discoveries in paleontological history. Making thin sections of a T. Rex leg bone, she recognized small, red circles with darker nuclei embedded in the channels where blood vessels once ran. They looked like red blood cells. That’s still the best guess as to what they are, though proving it is difficult. The discovery made her famous.

A few years later, she was setting up her new lab at North Carolina State when she opened a box of bones chips from a new T Rex skeleton. She pulled one out, looked it over, and said, “It’s a girl, and she’s pregnant!” She had recognized medullary bone, which birds form to store up calcium before they produce eggs. It’s a short-lived phenomenon with a unique structure–only in birds, only when they are pregnant. This was the first (and so far only) time it was found in a dino fossil, and the first time paleontologists were able to identify a dinosaur’s gender.

Shortly thereafter she was experimenting with acid on the bones, trying to etch their surface layer to reveal structure, when the acid went too fast and dissolved the entire bone. Only it didn’t. There was a translucent, stretchy material left behind–collagen, apparently, preserved through ninety million years. It seemed impossible, and many scientists refused to believe it. Her discovery has thrown into question previous understandings of how fossils form. Three times in a decade Schweitzer made discoveries that sent paleontologists into a tizzy.

Schweitzer is a very passionate Christian. (In fact, she was a young earth creationist when she first went back to school.) For her, the world of dinosaurs is testimony to the richness and beauty of God’s creation. I’m looking forward to writing up her story.