Thursday, 31 December 2009

The Bible and Mythology part 3

For the final post of 2009 it seems only right that we should head into the underworld.

Hades was the brother of Zeus in Greek mythology and Lord of the Underworld, ruling over the dead. In the tradition of tyrants Hades yearned for more power and more subjects – looking favourably on those who would send him more dead and not being willing to let any of his subjects leave.

"Hades is not to be soothed, neither overcome, wherefore he is most hated by mortals of all gods."
Homer, Iliad 9.158

His special helmet rendered him invisible and he liked to keep dogs – three-headed ones.

By the Christian era Hades became the name not just of the god, but of the whole underworld as a place.

In the New Testament we find references to Hades, but significantly it is used only to indicate the grave or death – not an entire underworld civilization. The only place where this is referred to is in Jesus parable (made up story) of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16).

So again the Bible takes commonly held ideas and uses them to bring people to God. Peter must have felt a thousand feet tall when Jesus said this to him:

‘And I tell you, you are Peter. And on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell [hades] shall not prevail against it.’
Matthew 16 v 18

(Part 1) (Part 2)

Thursday, 24 December 2009

All things bright and beautiful?

Jean Henri Fabre describes a bee-eating wasp, the Philanthus, who has killed a honeybee. If the bee is heavy with honey, the wasp squeezes its crop...

"so as to make her disgorge the delicious syrup, which she drinks by licking the tongue which her unfortunate victim, in her death-agony, sticks out of her mouth at full length... At the moment of some such horrible banquet, I have seen the Wasp, with her prey, seized by the Mantis: the bandit was rifled by another bandit. And here is an awful detail: while the Mantis held her transfixed under the points of the double saw and was already munching her belly, the Wasp continued to lick the honey of her Bee, unable to relinquish the delicious food even amid the terrors of death. Let us hasten to cast a veil over these horrors"

Quoted from 'Pilgrim at Tinker Creek' by Annie Dillard

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The Bible & Mythology part 2

In Paul's speech from Athens (Acts 17) he makes use of a number of references to Greek mythology:
1) He uses one of their altars to introduce them to Yahweh - the Unknown God v23
2) He picks up on the idea of 'the ether', the medium that the Greeks believed sustained them, and replaces it with God - 'in him we live and move and have our being' v28. This is actually a quote from the poet Epimenides (600BC).
3) Quoting other poets (Aratus and Cleanthes) he even lifts a line from a Hymn to Zeus! 'We are his offspring.' (v28)!

This repeats the pattern seen in part 1 where the Bible uses existing myths and beliefs as a base for teaching people about God.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

God the Potter

One of the side-effects of William Paley's famous 'Watchmaker' analogy of creation is that it seems to have tram-lined our thinking of what it means for God to be our Creator. It conjures the picture of God bending over a bench fiddling with the various parts of each creature before releasing them into the world.

Science should cause us to change our view on this and instead see God as a potter, that is someone who both started the wheel in motion and continues to mould and shape His masterpiece.

The interesting thing is that this is exactly how the Bible portrays God:

But now, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Jeremiah 64 v 8

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Bible & Mythology part 1

This is the god Marduk, one of the chief players in middle-eastern mythology and a character that illustrates how the Bible uses mythology to bring people to God.

In his epic struggle with Tiamat (the dragon in the background) the great beast tries to swallow Marduk only for the hero to emerge, splitting the belly of the beast in two.

A dramatic tale but what's the point? Well for me it helps us to understand why Jonah had such an impact on the people of Assyria. They had been used to hearing tales of their god emerging from the belly of a beast and so it must have been amazing to see Jonah spewed up onto the sand - a testimony to the divine origin of his message.

God's message takes people from whatever understanding they have and draws them to know Him, the true and living God.

Friday, 20 November 2009

The evolution of religion

A recent essay in the journal Science discusses the evolution of religion.

There are two strands to these kinds of studies. The first is to look for archaeological evidence for symbolic thought (like these carvings), or burial practices that indicate a belief in an afterlife. The second is more psychological, and considers what kind of thought processes are required for religious belief to exist and ask how they could have evolved (i.e. what benefits would there have been for survival and reproduction).

The article admits that the data available is really sketchy but one thing I found interesting was the reference to a study of children showing that they tend towards teleological explanations i.e. we seem built to look for an ultimate purpose.

The children were asked whether rocks are pointy because a) they are made of small bits of material or b) to prevent animals from sitting on them. The youngsters preferred the second option.

More questions than answers (what’s new!) but whether by natural selection or otherwise we’re built to seek a higher meaning to life.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The amber flyglass

Amber is fossilised tree resin. It provides as with an intriguing alternative to the fossil record, especially where insects are concerned, because it can seemingly freeze creatures in time

In this paper a new kind of fly has been discovered. As predicted by evolutionary theory it has some similarities to modern-day flies BUT it also has striking differences. It is so different that it has been categorised as being the first example of a new family.

Around 100 million years ago Cascoplecia insolitis was buzzing around the skies, getting in the eyes of dinosaurs and the like. It shows the unique feature of having miniature eyes at the located at the end of a small protuberance (see arrow above). These are alongside the main compound eyes.

The fact that this novelty hasn’t survived indicates that it was an adaptation to specific circumstances that finally became a dead end.

(Incidentally, the name apparently means ‘old’ and ‘strange’!)

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

All across the multiverse

A recent paper by some Stanford physicists has taken a theoretical count of the possible number of universes in a multiverse. Yes I said that correctly! Imagine the whole thing starting as a immensly dense blob of everything, and then inflating like a balloon. As the surface area increases, so the theory goes, universes form in the space.

Is there any evidence for it? No, and there never will be, but the concept is a vital one for materialists who need to find an explanation for our 'just-so' universe. But just in case you are interested, the answer they came up with is 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 7!!!!!!

Well now we know!

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The hardest question

Apparently Albert Einstein once said that ‘the hardest thing to understand is why we can understand anything at all.’ I think he was wrong. The hardest thing to understand is why should there be anything to understand in the first place?

There is nothing so unfathomable as existence. Why on earth, or anywhere else for that matter, should any thing exist? It’s ironic that the one thing that is most obviously true to all of us is also the most baffling. The question of the ultimate origin is an enigma for all of us; believer, atheist or agnostic alike. For the believer, where did God come from? For the atheist, where did the universe (or multiverse) come from? For the agnostic, where did that question come from?

Yet the one thing that is absolutely certain is that we do in actual fact exist, and for as long as there has been human thought there has been an urge to try and understand it.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Dinos of a feather

Here’s more on the evolutionary origin of birds from dinosaurs (where the archetypal fossil is Archaeopteryx!)

There’s been some controversy about the timing of the transitions – because the more transitional examples appear in younger rocks than less transitional ones – but that is most likely a quirk of the hap-hazard nature of fossilisation. Anyway this new find, Anchiornis huxleyi has helped shed some light. It’s a theropod dinosaur about the size of a cow and its around 151-161 million years old, which makes it a few million years older than Archaeopteryx. That’s the important point because it re-addresses the temporal discrepancies.

One other thing, it even has feathers on it’s feet!

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Making Sentience

At the Dawkins evening one of the questions was about sentience and how it could have arisen. The answer given was that it must have been through natural selection but no one knows how. It would be easy to jump right in to the old ‘god of the gaps’ trap here and say ‘Aha! That’s the bit that God did!’ but that would be foolish. A) because the gap may close and B) because the implication is that God wasn’t involved in any other part.

By natural selection or some other means God has created us as sentient beings. What that means is that we are aware of ourselves. If you think about it, the most logical way for a completely natural process to go would be toward something akin to a computer i.e. something capable of completing tasks of ever-increasing complexity but without ever actually being self-aware. It’s amazing how far artificial intelligence has come, we only have to look at computer games to see that, but it is a completely blind intelligence

Yet we are not computers. We have a highly developed sense of who we are and who others are. God has created us to be aware of ourselves, and aware of Him.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

The whole tooth

All good scientific ideas have the power to make predictions. When these predictions are put to the test they can testify to the truth of the idea. Here’s an example.

Now most mammals have teeth but some, such as anteaters or baleen whales, don’t. Evolutionary theory suggests that these toothless creatures evolved from ancestors that did have teeth. So here’s the prediction. We should be able to scan the genome of the animals with no teeth and find the remnants of tooth-making genes still present. Its like digging in the sand for the broken relics of a foregone era.

As most people know teeth are covered in a hard outer shell known as enamel. One of the key genes in enamel production is called enamelin. Researchers have looked for the broken pseudogenes of enamelin in mammals without teeth and, as predicted by evolutionary theory, they’ve found them. The family tree above maps it all out.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

A date with Dawkins

I've just returned from an interview and Q&A with Richard Dawkins. Surprisingly it was quite enjoyable!

Dawkins' recent book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' aims to lay out the scope of the evidence for evolution. The problem has always been that whilst his previous books (or at least the ones I've read) have always contained well-written popular science, they have also dripped with the anti-religious venom. Bowlfuls of it.

If this evening is anything to go by Dawkins may finally be starting to separate the teaching of science from the proselytizing of atheism. In an hour long session there were only one or two barbed comments, the rest was all about science. Questions ranged from the application of Darwinism to economics, to how evolution will respond to climate change - all interesting stuff.

My own journey from Young Earth Creationism then Old Earth Creationism through to Theistic Evolution has been helped firstly by Christians who have illustrated there is nothing to fear in evolution, and secondly science writers who stick to science. Dawkins' books have actually been an obstacle to my education.

So if this really is a change in attitude and a leopard really can change its spots (evolution in action!) then we could all be better off.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Are humans evolving?

Yes we are. In general the speed of evolution depends on how well an organism is adapted to its environment. If it is really well adapted then evolution will be slow because there won’t be many beneficial mutations. On the other hand it is not very well adapted – so there’s loads of room for improvement – then evolution will occur quickly (relative to geological time that is!)

The authors of this paper write:

‘The past 10,000 years have seen rapid skeletal and dental evolution in human populations and the appearance of many new genetic responses to diets and disease.’

They go on to find evidence for selection pressures acting on the human genome.

I should say that this only shows that we have been evolving over recent millennia. Now, with the globalisation of the worlds population and healthcare that can actually preserve disadvantageous genes in the pool, things might be very different.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Mother of all living

In Genesis 3, after the fall, we read of Adam giving his wife a (new?) name:

'The man called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.'
v 20

What does this mean? Well first let's try and take it literally. In this reading Eve is the mother of everything that has life. Genesis 1 (i.e. the nearby context)describes this life being in every moving creature of both land and sea. In fact even the serpent (ch 3v1) is described as being a part of the 'living'!

There are many mother earth myths that talk of living creatures being born of a woman but I don't believe that this is what Genesis is saying to us. I think that this is to be taken spiritually not literally. Like much of what we read in this chapter this title is in anticipation of Jesus Christ. God says to the serpent:

'I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel'
v 15

Now, this isn't talking about a literal battle between humans and snakes but rather a spiritual battle between the ways of good and the ways of evil. Eve's offspring wins, crushing the head of the serpent's. This is the victory of Christ that brings life to all.

'...that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.'
Hebrews 2 v 14

That is how Eve is the mother of all living, because all who are alive are alive through Christ.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Information is everything

A paper has recently been published by Intelligent Design advocate William Dembski. I’ve tried to read it but it’s way over my head so instead I’ve opted for the ‘lite’ version i.e. an intelligent design blog!

‘Dembski and Marks' article explains that unless you start off with some information indicating where peaks in a fitness landscape may lie, any search — including a Darwinian one — is on average no better than a random search.’

That seems to be saying that you can’t build a Darwinian machine from scratch.

‘The implication, of course, is that some intelligent programmer is required to front-load a search with active information if the search is to successfully find rare functional genetic sequences.’

That sounds plausible to me – and I’m in no position to critique it! – but I think we need to qualify the conclusions. This is an argument against materialism and not evolution.

Evolution begins when you have information that can be copied accurately (but not totally accurately, there has to be some error creeping in) and when this information is in competition with other bits of information i.e. genomes.

This article seems to be suggesting that getting to that point requires the system to be ‘front-loaded’ i.e. set up beforehand. When you examine the elaborate copying mechanisms used by the cell to replicate its information then it is easy to visualize this.

But seeing that all cells have this equipment then there is little to stop evolution proceeding and as part of the process it does generate new genetic information.

So this paper may well raise serious issues for the materialist, but for the theist who recognizes evolution it is simply confirmation of what we already knew! There is a creator at work in the natural world who guides all things to fulfill His purpose.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Oh deer, mice!

A classic example of evolution in action has just been identified.

Deer mice living on the sand hills of Nabraska have gone for a new colour in their hair. The sand hills have a distinctive colouration compared to the soil around them and these mice have evolved to blend in. Seeing as the sand hills are relatively recent – possibly only 8000 years old – this adaptation to evade predators has occurred reasonably quickly.

What’s really clever about this research is that it has worked out the genetic mechanism that has brought it about. The light colour is all due to the amount of pheomelanin in the hair. The gene largely responsible for pheomelanin is called Agouti. The researchers noticed in the laboratory that in the pale mice there were 7 differences in the coding area of the gene when compared with the darker mice. These changes lead to 2 differences in the amino acids that are produced (genes are codes that programme sequences of amino acids that in turn are built together into proteins). On closer examination in the wild it was found that one of these changes (a serine deletion) was responsible for the paler colour.

The beauty of this is that it demonstrates the whole process of evolution so neatly. We have a random genetic mutation producing a real survival benefit. Natural selection has seen to it that this change has been able to sweep through the whole population of mice in those sand hils.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Aluminium Clocks

Isotopes are one of the main methods of dating materials. Just one example is Aluminium - which exists in the 2 isotopes of Al-27 and Al-26.

The idea is quite simple. In the beginning you start off with Al-27 but gradually over time this becomes Al-26. The rate at which this happens is constant, so if you measure the relative amounts of the 2 isotopes then you have a good idea of how old the sample is.

Aluminium is more complicated because Al-26 actually then decays to Mg-26 (with a half life of 0.73 million years), but evidence from chondrites (the most common form of meteorite) suggests that Aluminium was found consistently around our solar system in its early days (at a ratio of 10%). This is important because it confirms that it is useful as a chronometer.

In turn we can again be confident that our universe is indeed very, very old.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Biblical contradictions

The website of the American Atheists has a list of contradictions that it claims show how the Bible is not the inspired word of God. Here's an example:


"This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised." -- Genesis 17:10

"...if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing." -- Galatians 5:2

This is a classic example of someone who simply doesn't understand the message and most likely hasn't even tried to understand the message.

In the Law of Moses Jewish boys were required to be circumcised in keeping with the promises made with Abraham (as quoted above). In the New Testament believers are told that there is no need to be circumcised NOT because circumcision is wrong, but because the teaching of Christ goes beyond it.

In Galatians Paul is talking to people who were rejecting the teachings of Christ and going backwards. That's why he said what he said. Th fact is that Jesus said that he didn't come to destroy the Law of Moses - but to fulfil it, and that Paul in some circumstances actually went and carried out circumcision! So the contradiction is not a real one.

Harmonising those two passages is very straight-forward but only if you're actually interested in doing so. Seek and you will find. Close your eyes and all you'll find is the inside of your eyelids.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

In spite of all this...

Tempting though it is to look at animal behaviour and make it human, the comparison may not always be accurate. The problem is, for example, how can we really know what’s going on behind those big dark eyes of man’s best friend?

Having said that some examples nicely illustrate how human morality is so different to anything else in the animal kingdom. A recent study of Chimpanzees highlights this.

The idea of ‘punishment’ is important in social groups because it is an aid to cooperation. If bad behaviour is punished then good behaviour, that helps the group, is encouraged. This might look like morality but at root it’s just a sophisticated form of selfish protectionism.

‘Spite’ is something different. Spite is just punishment for the sake of it i.e. without any positive outcome attached to it.

In this study one chimpanzee was given access to food whilst another chimpanzee had no access to it but instead was able to reach a rope that knocked over the table of food and took it away from both of them. After setting up some suitable controls the researchers found that the chimps didn’t knock the food over out of spite. They then did a second study where the second chimp was allowed to have some of the food before it was given to the first. When the chimp perceived there being a theft they were quick to pull the rope and punish the bad behaviour.

The conclusion? Whilst chimps can be vengeful and punish anti-social behaviour they are not spiteful. This is a peculiarly human behaviour.

Humans are alone in having the freedom to think about and choose our behaviours. We use this freedom for better and for worse, for good and for evil. We are quite willing to act spitefully – even at a cost to ourselves – but thankfully we are also willing to give at a cost too. The choice is ours. The inspiration is Christ.

Friday, 14 August 2009

He also made the stars...

Okay, so this is astrophysics and I understand little but it sounds awesome!

This picture is of an area of space where stars are being formed. The shell in the white box has been expanding for something less than one million years. Around it hydrogen is condensed to a density great enough to create new stars - in fact, where it is densest scientists have located 'two young stellar objects in early evolutionary stages'.

It's the expansion of the shell region that triggers the formation of the stars. The Bible tells us that God made the stars - and not in a way that implies he just 'got the ball rolling' either:

'He also made the stars.'
Genesis 1 v 16

He determines the number of the stars
and calls them each by name.
Great is our Lord and mighty in power
his understanding has no limit.
Psalm 147 v 4, 5

So we must conclude that God is working through these natural processes. He is not separate from them and doesn't rely on supernatural actions to intervene. That's the kind of creationism I believe in.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

All a big Hox

‘Water striders’ don’t hit the headlines very often, but a recent paper about them grabbed my attention. These semi-aquatic insects have adapted to their skating lifestyle with an increase in the size of their middle legs so they can be used as oars, whilst the hind legs have become shorter to act like rudders.

During their development one of the key players in determining all this is the Hox gene Ultrabithorax. A recent study showed that it is the slightly different ways that this gene is expressed during development (both in the timing and also the site of expression) that brings about these changes.

It is often surprising how significant structural differences can be brought about by tinkering with this type of gene.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Through one man...

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned
V 12

So death is a result of sin and in particularly the sin of Adam. Yet one thing that the fossil record shows clearly is that the act of dying had been going on for a long time before Adam was around, so how should we understand this?

In this passage Adam is being used in a representational way. We know this because, well, for one thing Adam wasn’t the first person to sin - Eve nipped in there before him (as Paul highlights in 1 Tim 2 v 14).

So Adam is the representational ‘one man’ through whom sin came into the world. It’s worth recognising here that sin is the choice to do the wrong thing. As Adam and Eve where the first creatures to have a relationship with God, to know him and to know his will, it makes sense that they were the first to be able to choose to go a different way - sin.

The passage in Romans goes on to elaborate how Adam was a ‘type’ of the one who was to come. This is why he is again paired up with Jesus (see also here). The thinking moves on as follows:

For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
V 17

Paul is using Adam to help us understand the significance of Christ. All who are saved are saved through the Lord Jesus. What’s interesting is that this must therefore include those who were born before Jesus existed. Other passages reveal this to be true.

This then helps us understand how death could have existed before Adam. God creates things in anticipation. He created a world where death is the only certainty of life in anticipation of Adam’s sin. He also brought salvation to men in anticipation of the work of Christ.

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous… so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
V 18 - 21

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Before the Cambrian...

It is well known that during the Cambrian period (starting around 540 million years ago) there was an 'explosion' of different forms of life, traits of which can still be seen in the world today. But what came before?

The answer is the creatures of the Ediacara era. Simple multicellular organisms without mouth (or anus!), sponges and the like.

In Radio 4's In Our Time a panel of experts discuss the biota, the climate that influenced it and many other factors. It's a fascinating program and well worth giving a listen if you've got a spare 45 minutes.

Monday, 3 August 2009

The secret place...

My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Psalm 139 v 15

This verse from one of David's most famous Psalms is another example of how the idea of being created from the dust can be a metaphor for the natural process. The 'earth' described here is the same word used in the opening chapter of Genesis where we read that 'God called the dry land Earth'.

So is David saying that he came into being in some mysterious location near earth's molten core? Of course not:

For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
V 13

It's a picture, and part of the wider view that describes our mortal, material existence. This is relevant to one of the scenarios by which we can understand Adam and Eve (discussed here).

Sunday, 2 August 2009

On the up

Last week there was some excitement about this little fellow, Suminia getmanovi.

First some background. This creature lived around 260 million years ago and is from the synapsid group - particularly relevant for us because mammals are thought to have evolved from here. The synapsids are one of the three great groups that make up the class Reptilia and are defined by a hole in the temple area of the skull.

A small graveyard of these animals was discovered in Russia containing over a dozen individuals. The most striking revelations were features that make it likely that Suminia was arboreal – it climbed trees. As such it is the earliest example of a vertebrate that could climb.

One of the key developments surrounds the 1st digit (thumb). The ability to cling on to something like a branch requires the thumb to be flexible enough to be opposable to the other fingers. Suminia has this together with longer limbs and potentially a prehensile tail.

The paper is here.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Genesis 1 v Genesis 2

These thoughts were published by Ronald Storer in 'Creation and the Character of God' (1985)

A Summary of the Differences between the Adam of Genesis 1 (in bold) and the Adam of Genesis 2 (in normal type):

Made together on the 6th day
Made separately with a gap between that included transferring to the garden, collection and naming of animals

Made male and female, Adam not lonely but with his female mate where 2 became 1
Made man and wife, in this case 1 became 2

Made to replenish the earth and multiply his species
No command to propagate, offspring not mentioned, sexual awareness a result of the fall

Made to subdue the earth and have dominion over it
Put in an enclosed and protected place separate from the outside world

Presented as fearless with respect to the world
Put in subjective fear with respect to death and obediance

Subjected to no moral law
Put under probation and prohibition

Viewed as very good
Not yet determined as good or evil, moral goodness the requirement

Made at the end of the process of animal creation
Placed central in the catalogue of plants and animals, proceeding them as a kind shepherd

Presented as king of nature
Presented as a priestly shepherd to take personal interest in creation

Not stated as God conscious
Made God conscious by hearing the voice of God

Made without reference to parental upbringing or family units
Taken as freed from the parental home to embark on a new and independent life by marriage

To eat every herb of the field and fruit of the tree
To eat of the trees except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

I'm your Venus

It’s always good to get a Bananarama song into the title!

The journal New Phytologist has a collection of papers on plant evolution but one that stands out is a piece on the origin of the Venus Fly Trap. This plant fascinated Charles Darwin so much that he once wrote of one of its relatives ‘I care more for Drosera than the origin of species… it is a wonderful plant.’

Plant carnivory evolved at least 6 times independently. Seed fragments of snap-traps like Dionaea date to the late Cretaceous (85-75 million years ago). It is also a good example of how different disciplines come together to tell a story. Molecular analysis has revealed the clues to help piece together the picture, showing how the family trees work out, but then the question is how the progression was made?

The data shows that snap-trap plants evolved from sticky trap-plants (see above for examples of each). Although these differ greatly in morphology and action, therir structures, physiology and modes of action share many common features. Pre-adaptations for all their features exist in their closest relatives. The evolutionary pressure to change seems to be that capturing larger prey brings disproportionately large rewards to traps that can act swiftly and strongly enough to hold on to them.

The genus Drosera is full of plants with sticky traps. Their tacky hairs catch an insect and the more it struggles the more hairs it comes into contact with (many of the hairs even bend towards their stimulus). Before long it is stuck, waiting only to be digested.

But the hairs of snap-traps on the other hand respond by initiating the closing mechanism. As well as that to adapt to being a snap-trap plant you need nectar glands, spaced teeth, rapid closing, crosshatched veins and ability to seal the prey. Though these represent a considerable challenge there are more clues to go on.

The snap-traps teeth and trigger hairs are homologous to those sticky tentacles (although they have lost their mucilage). Indeed in some sticky species the outer hairs don’t actually have any glue, instead they are used to flick prey inside. Seeing as the ‘snap’ is better than the ‘stick’ in wet conditions perhaps that was another selective pressure.

The authors of this paper model the various benefits for each of the changes and illustrate how they would each have helped catch larger prey, concluding that ‘all these traits serve both to retain larger prey within sticky traps and as a pre-adaptations to evolve snap-traps’.

The ‘snap’ and the ensuing digestion uses a lot of energy - which is fine when you’re capturing large prey, so its interesting that the trap's hairs are spaced so that small prey can escape and let the trap re-set before any more energy is wasted.

It is a very interesting paper, though much is necessarily theoretical.

Friday, 24 July 2009


A couple of little gems from my pal Alex!...

'We swim in the atoms of the breath of God. We are spoken into being, imagined before we emerged. God thinking out loud = us'

Gerard Kelly

'This is God's universe and he does things his way.
You might have a better way but you don't have a universe'

J. Vernon McGee

Monday, 20 July 2009

Collins under attack

Over on Panda's Thumb there is an attack on the Scientist and Christian Francis Collins. Its author, Matt Young, reckons that Collins' faith is a God of the Gaps type of affair.

I don't like it when PT puts this kind of stuff up because it is supposed to be a site that promotes science education - and these kind of personal attacks on one man's religious beliefs are no help whatsoever. Collins is one of the best advocates of good science that there is so why is Young trying to shoot such an own goal? It can only be because he has another agenda going on and someone as capable and distinguished as Francis Collins stands in the way.

Putting all that aside does Young actually have a point? Francis Collins moved from being an atheist to becoming a believer (Hmm, I wonder if that has anything to do with Young's agenda?) and one of his main reasons for doing so was the moral law - i.e. the fact that humans are moral creatures is a big pointer towards our divine purpose.

Collins believed that this moral nature defied an evolutionary explanation, but Young thinks otherwise hence the accusation of God of the Gaps. His argument is much less impressive than he makes out. It is basically a repetition of the well established examples of altruism in the natural world (like those between related groups and also reciprocal altruism) as discussed in books like Dawkins' The Selfish Gene.

But these are not examples of morality. At best they are examples of evolution breaking the standard mould of survival of the fittest, and following on from that it is possible to think that this may have been a first step towards true morality.

Which leads us to ask what morality really is? Well its a collection of ideas about what is right and what is wrong and the ability to make a choice between them. So the moral law is a partnership of the drawing a line between right and wrong AND the conscious decision-making about which path to take. Both these are a long way from the kind of thing Young is talking about. Social insects making instinctive self-sacrifices is not morality.

So could morality have evolved? I think the best argument would be that humans have brains that are capable of over-ruling our instinctive reactions with much deeper thought processes. From there the moral code could have evolved meme by meme. It's possible, but in a way I'm not sure it's all that relevent.

Our moral code is I think a divine meme given to us by God. He has created us with the ability to make choices and presented us with what those choices are. The fact that many of those choices go against our natural instincts and draw us towards God is a pointer to their divine origin. So when it comes down to it... Collins is probably right.

'It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you'
Deuteronomy 30 v 12+

I've been reading some of Matt Young's other posts and there are times where he is much more balanced...

'The argument that science has disproved God, besides being wrong, puts religious believers who support science into an untenable position and risks alienating precisely those people whose support we desperately need'

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Gene trees

It is well known that the genomes of humans and chimpanzees are very similar – over 95% similar in fact. The differences are in some ways more interesting than the similarities because they give clues as to how and when the ancestral line split apart. Then if you add into the mix the gorilla genome we can go even further back and predict when the human-chimp-gorilla line split.

The problem is that it’s not an exact science. There are a number of variables to factor in like different natural selection pressures, ancestral populations sizes, recombination, and gradual speciation etc, but a recent paper describes a new method of working it all out. They found that the divergence time of the human-chimpanzee line comes out consistently at around 4 million years ago and the human-chimp-gorilla split was around 6 million years ago.

The picture above shows just how complicated the flow of genetic information can get in what seems like a straight forward family tree.

The paper is here

Thursday, 16 July 2009

From one man...

Standing before the great and the good of first century Athens Paul says in his speech that God

‘made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us’
Acts 17 v 26, 27

That quote is taken from the ESV – an excellent and well respected translation of the Bible – but here their use of the word ‘man’ is interesting. The Greek word is haima and it means blood. The KJV says ‘hath made of one blood all nations’ and it consistently translates the word as blood (in every one of its 99 occurrences). The ESV itself usually translates haima as blood so it seems that this is an example of a pre-conceived idea influencing translation. The difference changes the sense of the phrase completely.

Having said that there are senses where it would be true even if it did mean ‘from one man…’ In other places Adam is described as the first man, and Eve as the mother of all living. So Adam and Eve were certainly ‘firsts’ but we must be careful how we understand that idea.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Making the Thymus

When we look at the complicated organs in our bodies it’s natural to wonder how they could have arrived bit by bit. Working out how this might have happened is like trying to unravel the most complicated of puzzles – but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

The thymus is an organ located high up in your chest and between your lungs. Its main job is to produce the immune system employees, T lymphocytes. After building up quite a stock during our more youthful years it gradually diminishes as we get older. So how did it evolve?

Some new research has looked at this question.

The thymus first appears around 500 million years ago in primitive jawed vertebrates. Lymphocytes had been around previously but T lymphocytes needed new technology and the ability to adapt the immune response.

The development of the thymus from the tissues of the developing embryo needs the expression of the gene Foxn1. This gene also plays a part in the gathering of the cells that become T lymphocytes and in the process that leads to their specialisation. So it’s a key piece of the jigsaw. This new study looked at living examples of the animal groups in question to try and piece together the genetic development. They found that Foxn1 is first found in cartilaginous fish (and then in all jawed vertebrates) but it doesn’t just appear out of the blue. It has predecessors. Foxn4 and Foxn4b are more ancient forms. The diagram above shows the relationship in different groups and you can see how the family tree builds up. The paper goes into much more detail but you get the idea how detective biologists can work to solve what are really quite complicated problems.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Who were Adam and Eve? Part 2

(Part 1 is here)

Question: Which Bible character was created when God pinched off a piece of clay?

Answer: Elihu (Job's friend)

‘Behold, I am toward God as you are; I too was pinched off from a piece of clay.’
Job 33 v 6

So, the second way of looking at Adam and Eve from an evolutionary perspective is much less straightforward but it still maintains that they were two real individuals.

As we have seen, in the Bible Adam is not the only one to have been made from the dust. Abraham admits as much:

‘Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.’
Genesis 18 v 27

In fact we are all in the same position. When we die ‘the dust returns to the earth as it was.’ Ecc 12 v 7.

Now Abraham, Elihu and all the rest of us all began our lives as a single cell in our mother’s womb that multiplied and multiplied until our birth… then kept on multiplying! That process is what Elihu is referring to as being ‘pinched off from a piece of clay’. So the idea of Elihu being taken from the clay is a metaphor for the scientific explanation - not an alternative theory.

So it could be that when Genesis 2 describes Adam as being‘formed the man of dust from the ground’ it is a metaphor for natural methods. Our bodies are physically part of the rest of the animal world as Ecclesiastes reinforces:

‘I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.’
Ecclesiastes 3 v 18 – 20

If we go down this symbolic route then it seems likely that Eve’s formation from Adam’s rib is also symbolic and represents the birth of Christ’s bride from his wounds on the cross.

So in this scenario Adam and Eve had a long ancestry behind them but were separated off from the rest of humanity into the isolation of Eden’s paradise. There they were the first to know God, the first to walk with him, and the first to leave him.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Nelly the Elephantimorph

From the Horn of Africa comes a new fossil related to modern day elephants. Its around 27 million years old though all we have are parts of its lower jaw - but teeth can be very revealing. There are specifically intermediate features that show Eritreum melakeghebrekristosi to be a distinct species, and looking at the proportions of the jaw it is possible to deduce other measurements. In the picture above Eritreum is the smaller one.

Its a good example of gradual change over time. For an overview of elephant evolution take a look here.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Eternity in our hearts

There are plenty of creatures out there that have a sense of time. You only have to look at the seasonal migration patterns of birds such as the Swallow to realise that. But we humans are unique in the way that we use time. We have daily schedules, long term plans, a fascination with history, and a sense of eternity.

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart’
Ecclesiastes 3 v 11

Our sense of time relies heavily on our ability to use language. To that extent the Piraha tribe from Brazil are very interesting. Their language has no numbers! It also doesn’t have a perfect tense (e.g. I have gone...) The way their language is structured thus translates into their culture. They only have a very shallow knowledge of their own history (no more than two generations) and there are no creation myths or similar such legends. As a people they live very much in the present.

So our sense of eternity is in part due to our language abilities. It’s also got a lot to do with maturity. A recent study confirmed what everyone probably knew already and that is that it isn't until we get to our late teens that we really start thinking outside of the moment and realise the long-term implications of our actions. Compared to adults, adolescents are less future orientated and less likely to plan for the future. What's fascinating is that the areas of the brain associated with foresight and planning continue developing through into the mid-20s.

From a faith point of view our far-sighted brains and erudite language combine to allow us to begin to comprehend eternity. The Bible says that eternity is why we're here in the first place!

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Hand in hand

The vocal atheist PZ Myers thinks that science and religion are at odds with one another. His argument is that they are direct competitors vying for the position of sole pathway to truth in the universe. As science is true, he reasons, religion must be false.  Well the good news is that in this competition everyone's a winner!

But let's go back to the argument.  He justifies the claim by stating that our goal is to find out...

'about the nature of the universe, about our history, about how we function, and then we encounter a conflict: religion keeps giving us different answers. Very different answers. They can't all be right, and since no two religions give the same answers, but since science can generally converge on similar and consistent answers, I know which one is right. And that makes religion simply wrong.'

Well to begin with, I agree. Not all religions can be right, but that's a red herring for this discussion. What's far more relevant is that my experience of faith is the exact opposite of what Myers is suggesting. Convergence does in fact happen and this hits on important feature of Myers' writing: he consistently misrepresents faith (basically I think because he doesn't understand it). Here's a classic example:

'science is a process, a body of tools, that has a long history of success in giving us robust, consistent answers. We use observation, experiment, critical analysis, and repeated reevaluation and confirmation of events in the natural world. It works. We use frequent internal cross-checking of results to get an answer, and we never entirely trust our answers, so we keep pushing harder at them...

Religion, on the other hand, uses a different body of techniques to explain the nature of the universe'

Well no, actually, and again I just don't recognise my own experience of faith in what Myers is saying. I recognise that there is first a step of faith that entails believing in divine revelation but after that there are actually remarkable parallels between scientific method and religion. Collect evidence, make a hypothesis, test it, consider other lines of evidence etc etc - that's good theology!

The rest of what Myers writes about is the common descent of picking up examples where religion has gone wrong and extrapolating that to the whole subject. That's just poor logic but its amazing just how often it comes up. Does bad science mean that we reject all of science? Of course not, the argument is idiotic.

The Bible and the Natural World are both products of God's Word so in the final analysis they are absolutely compatible - in fact they go hand in hand.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

All items reduced... part 3

The study of life (humans very much included) has not missed out in race to reduce. Our studies have borne much fruit. The realisation that DNA, inherited and reproducible, encodes our entire bodies has revolutionised our understanding. A natural conclusion of this might be that everything about us can be explained by our genes. Going back to our ‘onion’, we’ve peeled back all the layers to the core, found there a reel of programming, and then worked our way back out taking with us explanations for everything as we go. In some ways this is helpful and indeed true. In other ways it is hopelessly inadequate.

Take for example human behaviour. It is true that our genes do affect us and the way we act. We know this from twin-studies. Taking whole series of identical twins and seeing how their behaviour is similar or different to their brother or sister gives us a good idea of how much influence their shared genetic programmes have. What we find is that whilst the genes do have their say, they don’t have control. For some behaviour patterns there is a stronger genetic pressure than others, but the important thing to realise is that their effects are limited. They are only a fraction of the story.

Genes contain the programmes that have given us the bodies, and especially the brains, that in turn have given us permission to enter a whole new world, an unprecedented vista of culture, history, legacy, spirituality, morality and countless other things that when added together make us human. In these realms genes are like a parent unwilling to let go of a child though it has come of age. They still have influence but they’re limited, sometimes even powerless.

Suppose I were offered the position of Agony Aunt in my local paper (an unlikely scenario I know). In my new position I get asked by one heartbroken individual about why they were suffering so much in their love life. Would it be out of place of me to politely suggest that their problem is all down to their particular variant of the gene AVPR1A (known to be involved in pair bonding and relationship quality)? Or how about if I blame it all on their oxytocin levels? I don't think it would go down to well or even actually be of any help. Clearly, in these kind of situations reductionism doesn't work.

So, whilst we can gain much from breaking any complex subject down into its component parts - in many cases that isn't enough. Some scientist/philosophers fail to spot the difference.

Friday, 26 June 2009

On the origin of life...

Why is it that anytime even a *hint* of a drop of water is found anywhere else in space there are loud cries of 'Life!' to accompany it? Is it anything to do with research budgets?

The latest example spotted by NASA is Enceladus, a tiny moon orbiting Saturn.  Let's be fair though, if they're right then this is more than just a drop - its a whole subterranean ocean.  The BBC report has the following quote:

"We need three ingredients for life, as far as we know - liquid water, energy and the basic chemical building blocks - and we seem to have all three at Enceladus, including some fairly complex organic molecules," commented John Spencer, a Cassini scientist from the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.
Now don't get me wrong, this is an exciting find, but the one thing that has been learnt in the study of abiogenesis so far is that it is far from straightforward.  The search is still on for how to get to 'first base'  and gather all the necessary basic ingredients.  A very recent suggestion is Titan, another one of Saturn's satellites.  It has an atmosphere made from Nitrogen and Methane giving traces of other simple organic compounds.  So maybe the basic chemicals were synthesized there and came to Earth on the No 42 meteorite?

I'm not saying a natural mechanism for life's origin will never be found but if it is I'll wager it will be very intricate, very coincidental and very unlikely... almost to the point of being unbelievable.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Who were Adam and Eve? Part 1

In uniting the twin progeny of God’s Word (the Bible and Creation) the most serious question raised is, ‘How do Adam and Eve fit in?’

There are at least two possible scenarios that I’d like to suggest.

The first is the simplest and most literal option. Adam was miraculously moulded from the dust of the ground and Eve just as miraculously was moulded from Adam’s flesh: in other words exactly as a straight reading of Genesis 2 describes.

The Bible does indicate that there were other humans around at the time but Adam and Eve were special. In the Garden of Eden they were separated off from the world beyond its boundaries, free to live and walk with God, and the first creatures to have a knowledge of and relationship with Him.

This was the beginning of God’s direct revelation. With such revelation comes responsibility. Knowing what God wants brings the opportunity to accept or reject it. As Genesis 3 documents they chose the latter and so sin (choosing to go against God) entered the world.

Following their eviction Adam and Eve’s family went on to build their lives in the dog-eat-dog world outside. And the rest? Well that's history.

See here for an alternative scenario.

All items reduced... part 2

(Part 1 is here)

Well it wasn't a leaf!

The problem is that you were only looking at part of the picture.

Here in this simple analogy we come to realise the great danger of reductionism, and how errors can creep into our thinking. The closer we get to a topic, the more we zoom in, the narrower our field of view becomes, until we eventually lose sight of the whole picture. Where the picture is relatively simple this isn’t a problem. The reduction can tell us just about everything we need to know. Reducing the flight of a passing comet to be an object that follows clear, definable laws of physics allows us to predict with incredible accuracy the next time when we’ll see that comet again. All well and good. But what about something more complicated?


Some diseases lend them self to a reductionist approach. A single point mutation in a length of genetic code can wreak havoc. Whilst the symptoms may be complicated, reduce it down to the level of the gene and we find the cause of the problem. Yet most of medicine isn’t quite so simple. Many diseases have much more complicated causes, they can affect different people in different ways, and treatments that work on one individual might not work on another. Then there are the psychological issues. What effect do they have? The reductionist is doomed to failure. That’s not to say that there isn’t a logic to what is happening, there is, but it cannot be reduced. Doctors have long realised that to be successful they have to take a holistic approach, tailoring their treatments to the patient and looking at the whole picture.

Reductionism is a great tool for solving 1-dimensional problems. It has its uses in more complicated situations as well but these are limited because often a 3, 4 or 5 dimensional problem cannot be broken down into components. Each aspect affects the others; unless you have them altogether the picture isn’t true. Perhaps we see this most clearly when we start to look in the mirror.

Monday, 22 June 2009

All items reduced... part 1

If monolith of science can be described as having a ‘general tendency’ it would probably be fair to say that this has been to reduce the universe down. No we’re not talking about a giant shrinkage experiment to create a new kind of Lilliput. What we are saying that in order to understand the world science has tried to reduce it, break it up, to its component parts. So the computer that I sit at to type this out can be broken down to keyboard, mouse, processor chips, memory cards etc and these in turn can be broken down into their basic materials, silicone, plastic, aluminium, and then even further to atoms, molecules, and whizzing electrons, and then… You get the idea. The great thing about this process is that, hopefully, as we reduce down through the various orders of magnitude, like peeling back the layers of an onion, each layer explains how the last one worked. So, the passage of electrons through conductors explains how computer chips work, for example.

This procedure has yielded outstanding results in practically every single discipline of science and as such has led some people to suggest by reducing the world down, again and again, we will eventually be able to explain our entire existence. Is this true? Or being drunk on our own success have we missed something?

Consider the image above. What is it?

Friday, 19 June 2009

Why I am not an atheist

1) Though the universe offers no proof of God's existence it does show strong evidence. From the anthropic principle to the remarkable beginning of life on earth and onwards to the arrival of us human beings there is plenty to suggest that there is more going on than mindless, meaningless materialism.

2) God has spoken to us through the Bible. Its message, delivered over a period of 1500 years to over 40 different individuals, testifies to that.

3) The prophetic vision of the Bible commends it as being from God.

4) After the crucifixion of Jesus many of his followers were persecuted, tortured and killed for their belief that Jesus had risen. Many of these were eye-witnesses.

5) The human senses of eternity, morality and spirituality are there for a reason.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

A bird in the hand...

There are lots of reasons to think that birds evolved from therapod dinosaurs but there are also lots of questions. One of those questions appears to have been answered by a new fossil find.

Early therapods have a hand with five digits. Birds have three. As the shape of the birds 'fingers' look like numbers 1, 2 and 3 of their dino predecessors it was assumed that they had simply lost numbers 4 & 5 through time.

Then enter the developmental biologists to throw a spanner into the works! They observed that in bird embryos all five digits start to develop, but then numbers 1 & 5 wither away leaving 2, 3 & 4. That kind of vestige is powerful evidence for evolution but it did leave a bit of a puzzle. This new find helps sort it out. The developmentalists were right.

Limusaurus inextricabilis is a therapod dinosaur of a 160 million year vintage. It has 4 digits but number 1 is dramaticaly reduced in size whilst 5 is absent completly, and there are shape changes too... in other words this is a snapshot in the process that starts with 5 fingered therapods and ends with modern day birds.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The first man, the last man

In the New Testament the actions of Adam and Jesus are compared the one against the other. Looking at the details of this pairing can be very enlightening in regard to understanding who Adam was. Here's an example:

'Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.' 1 Corinthians 15 v 45

Before we go any further there's a ground rule for the discussion that follows, and that is:

The sense in which Adam is the first man must be the same as the sense in which Jesus is the last - its all part of the same argument.

Okay, well I must admit I find it hard to say exactly how Jesus is the 'last'. One thing that is obvious is that he is not the 'last' in terms of the line of human history. The testimony of two thousand years of babies born proves that! Likewise it must follow that we cannot use this passage to insist on Adam being the 'first' in the line of human history.

So what does it mean? At the moment my favourite suggestion is that Jesus was the last man in the duration of the reign of sin. (Here I'm picking up ideas from Romans 5). Jesus defeated sin, so after him it was finished.

But for this to be acceptable we still need to check it back against the ground rule. Does the principle still hold true when we apply it to Adam? Well yes it does. It follows neatly that, as Jesus was the last man, so Adam was the first man in the line of the reign of sin.

Finally, as an added bonus, this whole suggestion runs nicely in continuity with the earlier part of the chapter:

'For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.' v 21, 22

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Something for the mantlepiece

A new 100 000 year old find from South Africa may provide an insight into the culture of early humans. This one is a piece of engraved ochre and can be added to various other examples of pierced shells and geometric carvings that have been dated as being over 75 000 years old. The only explanation for objects like these seems to be human culture of some kind.

Looking at the photographs of these artefacts with my untrained eye I can't help thinking that some of them look fairly innocuous, but then others have clearly deliberate markations - like the one above.

The big question is: What are they for? Are they symbols intended to mean something?

The authors of this paper (Henshilwood et al) are sure that the marks are not notations (record keeping). Instead they believe them to be symbolic and part of a tradition of symbology.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

One eye open, one eye closed

I've just been reading an essay by Susan Blackmore (psychologist and author of books such as 'The Meme Machine'). In it she writes:

'In spite of education and rational thought, and in spite of the harm done by religious war and oppression, it seems generally hard for people to live without religion.'

Quotes like this illustrate how as a group atheists are just as prone to words of arrogant piety as anyone else, but that's not the point I want to bring out here.

Blackmore has written extensively about 'memes'. Whilst the name 'meme' may sound exotic the fundamental thesis is very simple. A meme is basicaly 'an idea'. The big revelation is that some ideas do well and prosper, others fall by the wayside. Hardly anything earth shattering.

To be fair though the suggestion that a meme can be thought of in ways similar to a gene is helpful. Like genes, ideas can be replicated, altered and spread through the population. They undergo a kind of natural selection too.

The punch-line Blackmore suggests is that many aspects of culture like language, music, art, and religion are merely products of the selfish meme. Its a moot point, but for our purposes here lets go with it. Let me raise two issues.

Firstly, even if all of the above are the products of the evolution of memes it doesn't stop them being true.  This is where her logic seems to short-circuit. Take music for example. The mathematics of melodies, harmonies and rhythms are easily established and so the difference between music and just noise is quantifiable. Even if, as Blackmore suggests, it took memes to discover it - music is still 'true'.

This point is rammed home when you get to what many people think of as being the holy grail of reason - science. Well, our scientific understanding can thought of as being nothing more than the product of an arms race between memes.  Our understanding that the earth travels round the sun is a very effective meme.  Is it then simply the product of our collective imagination?  Of course not.  More than just a meme it is actually true.

The same ultimately applies to religion. Even if it was memes that first uncovered religiosity, it was because it was there to be discovered in the first place.

Secondly, and much more succinctly, we musn't forget that most (all?) of our meme's come from external sources. For those of us who 'believe' its obvious that one of those sources is God. Religious ideas can well be thought of as a pool of memes going round our minds. It doesn't stop them being true, and it doesn't stop them being from God.

Blackmore highlights how easy it is to fall into the trap of reductionism. She has one eye peering down a reductionist microscope, and the other is tight shut.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Cain's Enemies

I used to think that the story of the human family is precisely the same as the story of Adam and Eve's. That may be true spiritualy but Genesis 4 gives three reasons to suspect that outside of Eden they were not alone.

Firstly there's the classic question of Cain's wife. Its amazing that the incestuous explanation of this has persisted for so long... like incest is only wrong for genetic reasons? There is no reason in the text insisting that Cain married his sister - its based purely on the assumption that there were no other humans around (and that the first family were geneticaly dramaticaly different from the rest of us). Cain started his family outside of Eden, which is where I would suggest he found his wife as well.

Secondly there is the question of Cain's enemies. When God told him he was to be evicted from Eden how did he respond?

'Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.' v 14

Whoever finds me will kill me? It seems that Cain knew full well that outside of Eden's protection he would be in a world of violence and danger. Perhaps he was talking about wild animals? Well the text simply doesn't read that way. See how God reassures him, it seems to be pointedly aimed at the only animal we know that could understand such a curse... humans:

'Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him.' v 15

If there still lingers any doubt verses 23, 24 seem to clear the matter up.

And thirdly there's the details of Cain's building projects.

'When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch. ' v 17

Now we'd be wrong to thing of this as a spralling metropolis like London, New York or Sydney but equally its something more than pitching a tent. The Hebrew indicates that this was a guarded settlement and so its another indication that there were other human beings around at the time - to live with and to try and live without.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Creationism or creationism?

The term 'Creationist' has been well and truly pigeon holed over the last forty-odd years to describe a specific view that life on earth (that's each individual kind of organism) arose literaly out of nothing by God's supernatural power.

Well, writing that first sentence has taken me about 5-minutes. When you think about it the whole idea of 'Creationism' has an incredibly narrow focus. Sure there are variations (broadly speaking from Young Earth to Old Earth Creationism) but when you come down to it what links them together is that opening phrase. Its tempting to define Creationism as a belief in a literal understanding of the opening chapters of Genesis but actually that doesn't work either. Whilst its true that the young-earthers do take things hyper-literaly, the old-earthers by necessity can't do the same.

When you think about for long enough the Creationist view becomes inconsistent. The Bible is clear that you - sat reading this posting - and me - sat writing it - have been created by God. Take Job, as an example:

'Your hands fashioned and made me... Remember that you have made me like clay;
and will you return me to the dust... You clothed me with skin and flesh,
and knit me together with bones and sinews.' ch 10 v 8-11

Powerful words, but let's try understand them in a way that is true and consistent to the Creationist interpretation. Let's take this passage literally. Let's forget genetics, meiosis, mitosis, embryology or any other aspect of the science of reproduction. Let's picture a ball of mud in our mother's womb.

Well of course no one does. These aspects of science find acceptance across the board. What this means is that to believe in the words of Job and believe in God as a creator means to believe in a God who works THROUGH natural processes. The natural consequence of that is that Creationism (with a big 'C') is a breaking of the mould.

Sure there are clear examples of 'special creation' - Jesus must have got a Y-chromosome from somewhere - but these are the exception, not the rule.

I am all for consistent creationism.

Monday, 8 June 2009

All Change!

A common and misleading claim of Creationist literature is that there aren't any examples of transitional fossils. In other words every creature that ever existed on this planet has appeared without even a glimmer of any preceeding relatives in the fossil record.

Well, a special edition of the Journal 'Evolution: Education and Outreach' has come out that is all about transitions. It's open access so anyone can read it and you'll find it here.

There are in fact some very good examples of transitions and they provide strong evidence that rather than 'zapping' new creatures from nothing the Creator works through process to bring His word to fruition.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Roll back the clock

One way of working out how far back the human line goes is to use the 'Mitochondrial Clock'.

Mitochondria are like the engine of the cell - they supply the energy to help the cell do what it needs to do. But what's handy is that these little boiler houses have their very own package of DNA (separate from that found within the nucleus of the cell).  Rather being a mix of both parent's DNA - like in the nuclear version - the package found in Mitochondria comes entirely from the mother.  That keeps things nice and simple.

As time goes on that DNA mutates a little and on average it mutates at a predictable rate.  So if you take a group of modern day people and see how different their mitochondrial DNA is, then it's possible to trace how far back it would have been that those people had the same DNA pattern - what's dubbed as Mitochondrial Eve.

Well a new piece of work has looked at the accuracy of this method and calibrated it. The researchers worked out that humans dispersed from a small population around 55-70 000 years ago (Soares et al, American journal of Human Genetics 2009).  As part of their study they ran checks against known points in recent history where human populations have resettled, and these used these to verify their findings. What this means is that the group being tested shared an ancestor in a small group of human beings all that time ago.

This is way before Adam and Eve walked the Garden of Eden and together with other evidence illustrates that the human lineage extends a long, long way. I discuss the Biblical for this here

In the beginning...

Well I've been thinking of doing this for a while and now I actually have!

From this point on all the thoughts I've been tinkering with for the last x years will be logged down and recorded in all their preposterousness and for posterity.

There's an alarming thought.

I should explain the title. Its a Greek word for 'invisible' or 'that which can't be seen'. Take a look at the verse at the bottom of the screen and you'll see why.

Finally I also wonder what it is I would like to get out of this?  Clarity I suppose.  The chance to travel along and see where we go.  The odd comment would be nice too!