Category Archives: Science meets Life

Review of Stephen Meyer’s book “Darwin’s Doubt”

Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent DesignDarwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design by Stephen C. Meyer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I feel somewhat unqualified to give this volume a thorough or critical review since my BS is in Environmental Science and I do not have a command of the peer-reviewed literature on many of the relevant disciplines Meyer touches on. That being said, Meyer appears to have a thorough command of the peer-reviewed literature and consistently refers to it throughout his book to make his case, frequently using the words of convinced-and-published Neo-Darwinists to demonstrate so. Another feather in Meyer’s cap, one that I do feel qualified to grant him, is his ability to use both inductive and deductive reasoning well. This is a skill seldom displayed in the science-centric articles I have come across over the years.

Probably the most enjoyable part (for those who dwell in the light of geekdom) was the amazing crash course in evolutionary studies that Meyer gives his readers. I learned so much about the Burgess shale, epigenetic information, developmental genetic regulatory networks, protein folds, combinatorial space, etc. that I feel like I can now digest some of Meyer’s primary source materials (peer-reviewed, scientific journals) with enough of a rudimentary understanding to be able to read with a more critical eye.

But Meyer’s strength is also the book’s weakness. Some of the chapters are so very dense, saturated with technical terminology, that it was a strain to keep up. I found myself mentally checking out and having to review what I had just been over.

Ultimately, this reviewer felt Meyer did a solid job of two things: 1) critiquing the Neo-Darwinian claim that the diversity of animal life (with special reference to the Cambrian explosion) arose through the accumulation of random mutations and “edited” by virtue of natural selection; and 2) making a solid case for Intelligent Design based solidly on a broad and detailed understanding of the evidence found within the published, peer-reviewed scientific literature and the history of science from Darwin on. Combine these two things with Meyer’s ability to handle inductive vs. deductive reasoning well, and a reader who has a high tolerance for difficult reading is in for a treat.

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Review of Dan Dewitt’s “Christ or Chaos”

christ or chaosThis would be a good summer read for any high school graduate getting ready to head off to college in the fall or for anyone else who wishes to read a very accessible defense of Christian truth.  It is a good presuppositional approach to apologetics aimed at the level of late-high school/early college-aged folks.  This little book (133 pages) is actually a good antidote to the weakest part of Tim Keller’s “Reason for God” because it gives a serious challenge to Darwinian evolution where Keller simply tries to show how evolution and Christianity aren’t incompatible.  Dewitt’s two main challenges to evolution go something like this:

1- It is posited by secular scientists et al that religion was an evolutionary necessity that helped humanity make sense of the world and therefore more equipped to survive.  However, religion is now like a vestigial organ, no longer of any use to humanity and on its way to elimination from the human scene.  But Dewitt responds by pointing out that, if this is the case, then evolution is the author of practical survival skills but also the author of deceit.  Though our genes drove us to religion and equipped us to survive, they deceived us and failed to lead us to what is true about reality.

2- It is also theorized by evolutionary psychology that we are an unrealistically optimistic species and that we are this way because evolution has hardwired our brains this way.  Dewitt quotes Tali Sharot from her TIME magazine article “The Optimism Bias”, “We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures… But both neuroscience and social science suggest that we are more optimistic than realistic.”  In simple terms, hope is irrational.  Again, Dewitt points out that if this is true, namely that evolution is the author of this practical survival mechanism in our brains, then it is also true that evolution has deceived and is deceiving us.

Dewitt rightly points out negatively that if evolution cannot be trusted to point us to an accurate view of reality about religion and even our own thoughts, then why should it be trusted to give us an accurate view in so many other areas?  Or as he puts it, “…how can we break free from the illusion?” (pg. 114)  But Dewitt also uses the data of the human impulse toward both religion and optimism to drive us to ask a positive, observational question: could we be hard-wired with this religious impulse and optimism because we are all yearning to return to Eden?  We have this ache because we know this world is broken, that we are all participants in its brokenness, and that we are incapable of putting the pieces back together by ourselves.  Yet somehow we feel that there is a place where all that is broken will be made whole and all that is sad will become untrue.  And if there is such a place, and if we can’t get there on our own, then maybe there is Someone to do what we can’t, Someone to get us where we can’t go.

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Unevolved Thinking on Darwin Day

Much virtual ink was spilled recently in celebration of what has been dubbed “Darwin Day,” the annual February 12th celebration of Charles Darwin’s birthday.  Of those articles fighting for the survival of the fittest on the interwebs was a piece published by Huffington Post titled “Darwin Day Revelation: Evolution, Not Religion, Is the Source of Morality“.  While the article reads easily and proved to be quite provocative (hence the current response), the reasoning within it proved to be as fallacious as it was badly misinformed.  But this appears to be standard fare when those within the Darwinian camp attempt to cross professional lines and try and connect biology (evolution) to ethics (morality).  Though I could simply allow readers to click on the article and read it without commentary,  let us take a few things in hand from the article itself to demonstrate the hypothesis.

First of all, Mr. Naff, the article’s creator, opens with a typical look-how-stupid-creationists-are quote lifted from a website with such confidence-bolstering categories as “Conspiracy Facts” and “Forbidden History” and a front page article purporting to have the “latest cutting edge research on UFOs, Remote Viewing, Stargates, Genetic Engineering and Alien DNA.”  After besmirching any respectability creationists might have had in the readers’ minds, he runs off a beautiful litany of scientific information in the areas of paleontology and genetics.  Having established “the fact” of evolution and the idiocy of creationism, he plunges forward to the point of his article, namely that evolution is the best explanation for a universal morality for the human species.  But by this point the fight is already over for most readers.  After all, who wants to be aligned with a bunch of evolutionarily regressive creationists when you can post cool phylogenic models with the ‘in’ crowd?

Secondly, the article betrays a pretty crayon-simple misunderstanding of how religion in general (but Christianity in particular) considers the morality of humanity in general.  For instance, Mr. Naff says, “If religion were the vehicle that delivers morality, then atheists, the disaffiliated, and those who have never heard of God’s laws should show comparatively inferior moral behavior. They don’t.”  But this has never really been the position of, at the very least, Christianity.  As a matter of fact, the Christian understanding of humanity, namely that all humans are created in God’s image, is the very basis for why there seems to be some common, moral currency between humans across the full spectrum of religion and philosophy.  If God has indeed impressed His character onto each person, engraving on our humanity some fundamental moral principles, then we would expect to see reflections of that moral character in every person.  It’s what C.S. Lewis labeled “the Tao” in his book The Abolition of Man.  The problem (from a Christian standpoint) is that our rebellion against God and His ways, namely the suppression of the truth written on our hearts, causes major differences in what individuals deem moral/immoral.  So no, Mr. Naff, the Christian would say that atheists and other non-Christians can and do perform positive, moral actions, sometimes even moreso than some Christians.  But this is not new information.  It has been the position of Christianity for hundreds of years.  The problem in this realm is actually that even our moral actions need redeeming (see chapters 10 and 11 of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God for more on this idea), but that goes beyond the scope of this post.

Next, the hinge pin  and weakest point of the article appears to be that evolution – and more specifically cooperation – has granted us a morality more… uhh… humane than the typical characterization that Darwinian doctrine of survival of the fittest grants us.  After a brief review of some examples of a rudimentary moral instinct in the animal kingdom (e.g. dolphins, elephants, monkeys, and voles), Mr. Naff encourages his readers to consider how the four chambers of our heart is an example of cooperation pointing to evolutionary morality.  But this is a very strange (and fallacious!) thing to do.  After all, our hearts are not independent organisms, and his point is to prove how cooperation between independent organisms points to an evolutionary origin for morality.  However, the fact that the action of our heart’s four chambers are coordinated (not the same thing as cooperation) is as much evidence of evolutionary morality as a heart attack is an instance of immorality.  But even if we reject this heart-cooperation example and simply focus on the rudimentary ‘moral’ instincts found in the animal kingdom, it is fallacious to argue that just because something is observed in nature , therefore it ought to be so.  This poor reasoning (sometimes called the “naturalistic fallacy”) is even eschewed within the stridently evolutionary camp.  Steven Pinker, for instance, a Harvard professor and staunch proponent of evolutionary psychology said, “Today, biologists denounce the naturalistic fallacy because they want to describe the natural world honestly, without people deriving morals about how we ought to behave (as in: If birds and beasts engage in adultery, infanticide, cannibalism, it must be OK).”

In the end, Mr. Naff’s article has to assume certain moral universals  such as cooperation, empathy, and disgust, and then be very selective in the evidence it puts forward as suggesting an evolutionary root to those universals.  Unfortunately, he leaves major, crucial questions unanswered like, “Why should cooperation, empathy, and disgust be deemed good?”  “Cooperation with whom?”  “Empathy towards whom?”  “Disgust over what?”  As a counterpoint, the picture at the top of this post depicts a troop of chimps coordinating an attack on an alpha male, not because he was a “bad actor” among them as Mr. Naff has suggested, but because they wanted the food and the chimpanzistas  that were his.  Why is this activity not included in our canon of human moral universals?  Whose to say that Nietzsche wasn’t right in his work The Antichrist: “What is good? — Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man. What is evil? — Whatever springs from weakness.”  Nevertheless, convinced proponents of Darwinian doctrines are always trying to force this world into their mold.  Daniel Dennett attempted this in the mid 1990’s with his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and he proved to be largely unconvincing even to committed Darwinists.  And Mr. Naff  has resuscitated that attempt only to have it expire yet again, falling prey to those of us unevolved enough to still be willing to question the reigning Darwinian establishment.

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A Global Flood… an Evolutionary Theory?

The NY Times recently published a fascinating article in which a new theory within the pale of evolutionary orthodoxy has been proposed to explain the explosion of diversified biological lifeforms during the Cambrian period.  The new theory?  A global flood!  Sorry, folks.  No big boats.  No animals coming on by two-sies, two-sies.  Just lots of water and a more complex version of punctuated equilibrium.  This Cambrian explosion has been a scientific conundrum that has generated lots of head-scratching and hypotheses (a.k.a. speculation) with very little consensus.  One of the scientists quoted in the article puts it this way: ““It became apparent just how many hypotheses there were out there… Thirty-plus over the past 10 years.”  The scientific community is still testing the waters with this new global flood theory, but as another scientist is quoted, “It’ll be a fun next decade.”  One thing that is certainly NOT happening is that the theory’s proponents are being discredited.  However, if a scientist with a certain religious affiliation proposed the theory that the explosion of different lifeforms appearing in the fossil record was caused by a global flood resulting in massive loss of biological life, that scientist would be decried as a religious fanatic and a scientific heretic.  Does this new global flood theory require any less scientific speculation and narratival creativity than the old theory that there was a global flood that caused a massive loss of life, hence the increased diversity in the fossil record over a short period of time?  No.  But what can we imply from this apparent duplicitous character in the scientific search for truth about the origin of life?  We can draw out the implication that the scientific community is very unscientific when vetting its theories.  Scientists, be creative.  Be imaginative in interpreting the data and weaving it into a narrative of historical events.  Just make sure you wipe that filthy religious muck off before you come in to the lab.

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An Unscientific Look at Jack Collins’ book (part 2)

[Opening Caveat: This post is really for eggheads like me.  Let the reader be warned that my thoughts are often confusing and confused.  Or maybe I’m just trying to ask the reader to give me license to do a little poor writing.]

I get the feeling as I read Dr. Collins’ book, namely his discussions of the literary culture in which Genesis was written and the author’s communicative intent, that there is a little bit of confusing-trees-for-forest problem going on.  Dr. Collins works quite hard at showing his readers that the biblical creation account has a lot of the flavor of ancient near eastern myths and yet isn’t somehow a myth in and of itself.  I’m fine as far as that goes.  But I am not sure where the idea comes into play that there is a Divine Author at work here.  Dr. Collins is working mightily to demonstrate how human authors would have taken Moses’ words in Genesis, but where is the discussion of how God is revealing more of his original intent as we march through redemptive history?  [Dr. Vern Poythress lays this process down quite well here, but no where is any of Dr. Poythress’s works mentioned in a footnote nor included in the 11 page bibliography in the back.]  If I could draw an analogy to help illustrate my frustration, it would go something like this.  Imagine all the ancient near eastern myths create a large multi-colored fog.  As you walk through the misty surroundings of ancient near eastern history, the myths are floating all around you in various forms and colors.  But then you come to these two large stone tablets that have words written on them.  And because these tablets are in the middle of this fog, they are covered with the multi-colored dampness of the fog.  But there is a drastic difference between the multi-colored fog, and the tie-dye appearance left by the fog on the tablets.  The difference is this: the tablets are solid.  The fog isn’t.  I feel as if Dr. Collins is spending page upon page discussing the patterns of condensation left on the tablets without ever discussing the tablets themselves or the words written thereon.  Maybe the discussion of the divine author’s intent is outside the scope of the book, but since he is writing to an evangelical audience who cares about such a thing, it would seem like bad planning on Dr. Collins part if that is the case.

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An Unscientific Look at Jack Collins’ book (part 1)

When coming at a subject like the one Dr. Collins is attempting to wrestle to the ground, it must feel a little like that scene from Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring where that cadre of unlikely heroes are just outside the mines of Moria and trying to battle the multi-tentacled Watcher in the Water that rose up from the murky depths nearby.  Just when you think you have the reach of the beast in hand, you find three more tentacles threatening to drag you under.  And Dr. Collins adds a few more tentacles to do battle with because he insists that his book “say something about everyday life” (p.21).  But I commend Dr. Collins for this because the amount of glory gained for Christ when slaying any beast is directly proportional to the number of tentacles it has.

Well the first aspect of this topic toward which Dr. Collins applies his academic and pastoral tools is how we should read biblical history, including what relation the biblical accounts have to “myth”, and how our worldview lenses filter all this stuff.  For starters one of the things that I loved to read was Dr. Collins’ insistence on the overarching need, even in this age of technological expertise and scientific precision, for a “captivated imagination” (pg. 20).  He uses C.S. Lewis to help us see where the concept of “myth” can help us by joining forces with history and science to present our modern minds with something far more satisfying and liveable than any of the parts by themselves can provide.  Think of it this way: we are all modern/postmodern, so the idea of holding onto “myths” might be fun, but certainly not true.  After all, science and technology hold the keys to the secular kingdom of which we are all well-adjusted citizens.  But we also see day in and day out that the priests of science insist we pay homage to their god before the voice of “myth” can be heard.  But when we listen to the music that is being played in the secular cathedrals of science, what we hear is something akin to a cat trying to climb a bay window with its claws.  Dr. Collins is quite successful in pulling back the curtain to reveal the reality that every worldview, even the modern priesthood of scientism, is underwritten by some sort of myth.

However, it is exactly at this point that I think Collins fails to help us as his students, not simply to recognize that the myth is there, but to evaluate the myth that is there.  Certainly, he speaks of the modern scientific materialism of today as being founded on a “bleak” myth or a story that ends with a pointless life (see pages 29-30), but nowhere does he help us evaluate these overarching stories as either good/evil or beautiful/ugly or even if we are obligated somehow to choose which one should have the upper hand.

Though he uses C.S. Lewis when it comes to defining myth, he would have done well to go a little further in allowing Lewis to be his tutor in helping us see the value of marrying the concepts of myth and history.  Here, let me quote an excerpt from another Lewis essay entitled “Myth Became Fact” taken from God in the Dock.  Though he is speaking specifically of the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Lewis’ insights are pertinent to the discussions surrounding the biblical creation story:

      Myth is the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with that vast continent we really belong to.  It is not, like truth, abstract; nor is it, like direct experience, bound to the particular.  … The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact … By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle…  To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth  (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths.  The one is hardly more necessary than the other… We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology.  For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.

Here, in my opinion, is the best way to make use of the often-slippery term “myth” as it relates to the creation account.  Here is where Lewis helps us see that the Creator God isn’t the dispassionate and distant watch-maker of the scientists who must create and govern according to their rulebook.  Nor is He the capricious and fanciful divine child who we see playing in the dirt in so many Ancient Near Eastern mythologies.  What we get in the biblical account is a Creator who gives us our playbook but reserves the right to come and play in the dirt at His pleasure.

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Preliminaries to an Unscientific Look at Jack Collins’ book

Charity.  It’s what I hope to characterize the following musings about C. John “Jack” Collins’ book Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?  Charity towards a fellow believer’s published writing seems to be the best order of the day as well, especially if one plans on being somewhat critical (which it appears to be the case here, though I do hope Dr. Collins will help correct me where I am muddle-headed).  So toward those charitable ends, I must reveal a few of my credos, my beliefs about Dr. Collins, though he and I have never met.  First of all I believe him to be a sincere Reformed Christian who is devoted to Christ and is ill-deserving of the blogospheric pontifications he mentions that he has endured here.  In this same light, I do not believe him to be a teeth-gritting, hand-wringing respectability hound who is desperately seeking entrance into what C.S. Lewis called “The Inner Ring“.  I believe his being a minister in good standing within his presbytery and in the employ of our denominational seminary for almost 20 years ought to grant him the benefit of the doubt from his fellow PCA ministers like myself. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I have had no personal correspondence with Dr. Collins about his book.  I did not feel the need to check with him before hammering out a few thoughts on  his book for the same reason (I imagine) that he did not feel the need to check with me before he published his book (But if you read his acknowledgements you’ll see he certainly has a lot more rock stars in his brain trust than I have in mine. ;))  But all of these provisos, credos, and other forms of mental brush-clearing is not to say that Dr. Collins’ work doesn’t deserve some closer scrutiny.

Lastly, so any readers know what mental drawer to file this under, I titled this post (and any subsequent posts)  “unscientific” for two reasons: 1) because I only have an undergrad degree in a hard science, so I don’t think I am necessarily qualified to offer any thoughtful scientific input on the subject; and 2) because I am not finished reading the book yet and so my comments will be non-systematic, meandering at times, and subject to qualification and retraction.

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