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.