Friday, July 31, 2009

Glad You Could Make It: The Astounding Improbability of Humanity

"Humans are here today because our particular line never fractured, never once at any of the billion points that could have erased us from history." Stephen Jay Gould

We were almost goners. About 70,000 years ago our fore bearers were on the brink of extinction. According to a study conducted by geneticists at Stanford University, drought and other environmental challenges whittled the number of homo sapiens living in Africa to around 2,000 just prior to the stone age. It is from this small group of brave souls that you and I and six and a half billion others are derived. This fairly shallow gene pool accounts for the lack of genetic diversity among people today.

So how in the world are scientists able to trace our origins back to this small population of hearty hunter-gatherers? As it turns out, our shared history is written in our DNA. Despite the striking physical differences among different people groups and races, at the level of our DNA, we're all pretty much the same. In fact, you have to look pretty hard to find any differences at all.

Enter: "microsatellites" - these are short, repetitive segments of DNA that differ between populations. These little guys have a very high mutation rate as they are passed from generation to generation, so these subtle little mutations begin to stack up when two populations diverge.

Researchers from Stanford University and the Russian Academy of Sciences compared 377 microsatellite markers in DNA collected from 52 regions around the world. Analysis of these various DNA samples show a close genetic kinship with two hunter-gatherer populations in sub-Saharan Africa the Mbuti pygmies of the Congo Basin and the Khosian bushmen of Botswana. This leads scientists to believe that these two groups make up the oldest branch of modern humans. Imagine what life would have been like when the entire population of earth could have fit comfortably in an average sized sports arena with plenty of room left over.

But that close call wasn't our first brush with oblivion. Life on this planet has nearly been extinguished several times. There have been five major extinction events (and several less dramatic ones). The most recent was the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction, about 65 million years ago. This is well known as the end of the age of the dinosaurs but much of the life on earth also came to an end
about 70% of all species living at that time. All that destruction thanks to a several-mile-wide asteroid that struck the Yucatan Peninsula. It's hard to wrap your mind around an explosion of that ferocity. Some estimates put it at roughly equivalent to 100 million megatons. As a point of comparison, the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined were 35 kilotons.

Before that around 200 million years ago was the Triassic extinction. About 75% of all living things came to the end of their genetic lines during this period. This housecleaning was more than likely caused by volcanic activity. And we're not talking about a puny little Mount Saint Helens. Think massive floods covering major parts of continents. Now instead of water, think lava. A maelstrom fit for Mephisto himself. The volcanism may have led to deadly global warming with ash blotting out the sun and turning our atmosphere into a convection oven. The death toll: 22 percent of marine families, 52 percent of marine genera. There's no way to know how many vertebrate species bit the dust.

Prior to that, mother nature went on the granddaddy of all killing sprees: the Permian extinction, which happened about 245 million years ago. 95% of species were given their hats and shown the door. Even a third of all insects were swatted. And its hard to get rid of those little buggers.

About 120 million years before the Permian was the Late Devonian extinction. Most everything that was living then was living in the seas. The great majority of them were wiped out.

And, before that, was the Ordovician-Silurian extinction, about 439 million years ago, caused by a drop in sea levels as glaciers formed, then by rising sea levels as glaciers melted. The toll: 25 percent of marine families and 60 percent of marine genera.

In short, it's been a rough ride for creatures great and small. If intentionality could be ascribed to the random acts of nature, one might draw the conclusion the our planet treats complex life as if it were an infection and means to cure it whenever it breaks out. And its antibiotics are climate change, pandemics, volcanism, ice ages and the occasional comet or asteroid. Take two cataclysmic explosions and call me in the morning.

But, somehow, we made it. Bill Bryson writes in A Short History of Nearly Everything, "The one thing we have in common with all other living things is that for nearly four billion years our ancestors have managed to slip through a series of closing doors every time we needed them to."

In light of all this, the idea that humans are the pinnacle and central aim of creation seems a little naive at best and profoundly hubristic at worst. Mankind is the Johnny-come-latey of the biosphere. And it seems clear that the ancient earth was anything but a Garden of Eden. Our privileged planet was a rather inhospitable youngster.

But we are unique in the sense that we are the only intelligent species among the billions who have flourished and perished during our planet's history. In fact, as far as the evidence shows us, higher intelligence has only arisen once in the history of the observable universe. We are the beneficiaries of a billion failed experiments carried out by a blind tinkerer, driven by random mutations, shaped by natural selection and tested by global catastrophes.

So what's the take away? Be happy. You made it! The odds were not in your favor. The genes inside you carry the war wounds of countless devastations. You come from good stock. You're one of the lucky ones a real survivor. And, for the moment, life is good.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

153 Fishes

I had an interesting conversation with a good friend of mine about a well known but not very well understood Gospel story. The story is sometimes referred to as the "miraculous draught of fish." There are two slightly different versions of this story contained in the Gospels: one is in Luke 5:1-11. The other, in the Gospel of John, chapter 21.

The version of the story according to Luke is set near the beginning of Jesus' ministry. He is speaking to a crowd of people at the Lake of Gennesaret. He steps into a boat and continues to teach the people who are standing on the shore. When he finishes his address to the crowd he tells Simon Peter to take the boat into deeper water and cast his nets. Simon and his companions have been fishing all night and they haven't caught anything. None the less, Simon does as Jesus instructs him. So many fish are caught the nets begin to break. But the actual number of fish isn't mentioned. In the act of directing Simon to make this miraculous catch, Jesus establishes his identity in Simon's eyes as the messiah.

Now, the story in John is quite different. For this version of the story the Gospel writer places the action after Christ's resurrection. Simon Peter and several other disciples go on an all night fishing expedition and catch nothing. As dawn breaks a man calls to them from the shore asking them if they have any fish. The disciples do not realize at first that this man is Jesus. He tells them to throw their net on the right side of the boat. They do so and they catch so many fish they are not able to haul them onto the boat. They pull the net full of fish behind their boat to the shore. They have caught 153 fish.

Both versions of the story are rife with symbolism and meaning. If the stories are read in a purely literalistic way, some of the subtleties might escape the reader. I think the number 153 is symbolic but what does it signify? Scholars have speculated about the significance of the number for centuries. Saint Jerome, a fourth century church father, asserted that there were exactly 153 species of fish in the sea. But we know this estimate is much too low. 29,500 species have been identified so far but marine biologists speculate that there are many more yet to be discovered.

In his book "Studies in Biblical and Semitic Symbolism" Maurice Harry Farbridge explains that Saint Augustine was fascinated by the symbolic meaning hidden behind the number and he devised a complicated mathematical expression to reveal the numerological significance. His formula went as follows:10 is the symbol of law (10 commandments) and the number 7 is traditionally associated with spirit. So 10 + 7 = 17. 17 represents holiness. 153 is the sum of all the numbers in progression ( 1 + 2 + 3 .... + 15 + 16 + 17 = 153). Pretty clever.

Mr. Farbridge goes on to explain that, around the first century, Greek philosophy began to influence Jewish interpretations of the symbolism of numbers found in scriptures. Undoubtedly the writers of the New Testament were influenced by Hellenistic culture. Which brings us to Pythagoras and, in my opinion, the key to understanding the significance of 153.

Pythagoras was a pretty interesting character. Today he is mostly known for his theorem but he was a central figure in the ancient world. Born about half a century before Christ, Pythagoras was a mathematician, philosopher and the founder of his very own religion, Pythahoreanism. His disciples observed a strict lifestyle that included vegetarianism, religious rituals and rigorous self discipline.

What can be said with any accuracy about the historical Pythagoras is clouded by the mythical glorifications of his life. Within just a few generations he had become deified and many legends about him were widely disseminated throughout Greek culture. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he was known as a wonder-worker who had a thigh of gold and he could be two places at the same time.

According to an account going back to high antiquity and recorded in the writings of Plato, Pythagoras was traveling along one day when he came upon some fishermen who were drawing up their nets which were filled with fish. Pythagoras told the fishermen that he could tell them the exact number of fish they had caught, which the fishermen thought to be an impossible task. The fishermen said that if he was right they would do anything he said. They counted all the fish and Pythagoras was totally accurate in his estimate. He then ordered the fishermen to return the fish to the sea and for some mystical reason none of them died.

The specific number of fish is not mentioned in the story. However 153 is a number that is closely associated with Pythagoras. Among his other achievements in mathematics, he is credited with discovering that 153 is the denominator in the closest fraction known, at the time, to the true value of the square root of 3, the fraction in question being 265/153. The ratio of 153:265 was consequently known throughout the Hellenistic world as the measure of the fish.

Why? Take a look at the diagram below...

Two circles of equal size are brought together whose centers are located on each other's circumferences. When this is done the width to height ratio of the intersecting region is very close to 265/153.

So there you have it. But what does it all mean? One conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that the writers of these Gospel stories were men of their time who understood the cultural themes that would resonate with their readers. The writers and the redactors that followed them had very specific points of view and they were dedicated to an agenda. I don't think all the Gospel stories should simply be interpreted as straight-forward, historical biographies. If we do that we may miss the nuanced theological messages that give the stories their structure and their power.

In developing the stories of the miraculous draught of fish, the New Testament writers seek to build on the widespread reverence that Greeks of the day would have had for Pythagoras. The underlying message is that Christ is greater than Pythagoras, able not only to know the number of fish that were caught but also to miraculously draw them into the net.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Bible "Prophesy"?

The following is from a correspondence between a good friend of mine, Paul Kirbas, and myself. Paul is the Head Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Wheaton, Illinois. I've known Paul since High School and we like to discuss the deep theological issues...


I'm reading a book by John Ankerberg and John Weldon titled "Handbook of Biblical Evidences." I know from our previous conversation that you don't seem to put a lot of stock in traditional apologetics. Assuming that, I don't think you would be very impressed with this book. The authors paint with a broad brush, operate with a lot of presuppositions and I think some of their arguments simply rely on other authorities who repeat the same stuff they say. They even occasionally use other books they have written as footnote sources. The three main sections of the book have to do with creation (the authors are creationists—they use most of the standard evolution denial arguments) the Bible (Biblical inerrancy, fulfilled prophesies) and the person of Jesus.

I want to focus on the second section, specifically, prophesy fulfillment. Reading some of their claims has caused me to dig into this a little further and I've researched a variety of sources. One of the biggest proofs of divine inspiration that traditionalists like to use is fulfilled messianic prophesy. And one of the most popular verses they like to point to is Isaiah 7:14 "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." Now, the traditional understanding of this verse is that Isaiah is prophesying the birth of Christ. However, if you look at the context of the entire chapter, that doesn't seem to make any sense.

In fact, if you read the next few verses things seem to get a little confusing...15 He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. 16 But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. 17 The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria."

There are a few problems here in terms of squaring this prophesy with the traditional view. First of all, since Jesus was God in the flesh wouldn't he have been born knowing enough to reject the wrong and choose the right? We are told he was completely sinless.

Second, there doesn't seem to be anything here to indicate a 700 year time scale. Isaiah is communicating to King Ahaz about current events and conditions, not about something that is to take place centuries later. He is trying to assure him that the two kings who are warring against him, Pekah, king of Israel and Rezin, king of Syria would be "laid waste". (Which, actually turned out not to be the case according to 2 Chronicles) The birth of this son was supposed to be a sign from the Lord that Ahaz would be successful in the coming battle.

Another problem is the word "virgin". The Hebrew word, correct me here if I'm wrong, is "ha-almah" which simply means young woman.

A straightforward reading of the scripture would seem to indicate that the son Isaiah was referring to was his own. In the next chapter he says "Here am I, and the children the LORD has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the LORD Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion."

Another supposedly messianic prophesy that evangelicals often point to is Psalm 22. Specifically the 16th verse: “Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.” According to apologists this is a prophesy of the crucifixion of Jesus, crucifixion being a mode of execution that would not be invented for hundreds of years. I think this is stretch. In the Hebrew Bible the equivalent verse reads like this: “For dogs have surrounded me; a band of evildoers encompassed me; like a lion they are at my hands and my feet.”

Well, there are supposed to be 400 or more messianic prophesies so this would be a pretty long email if I try to scrutinize all of them. Let me just say that I think a careful, critical analysis of these "prophesies" ought to give a Biblical literalist some serious questions.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Radically Moderate

This will be a very short post which I will expound upon at greater length in due time. I just want to shed a little light on my choice of "Radically Moderate" as my Political View on my Facebook page.

Let me start with a quote by Grouch Marx “I'd never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.” I'm not a joiner. I don't like labels. Once you put a label on something, you don't have to think about it anymore. I'm not a Republican. And I'm not a Democrat although I have liberal leanings and I tend to vote for Democratic candidates. I also have some libertarian leanings as well—I believe in the free market, limited government and the fewest possible constraints on individual liberties. Some of you will see that as being at odds with my voting record. Hence, the difficulties with labels.

Whenever one philosophy is taken to it's most extreme ends to the exclusion of all other philosophies and competing viewpoints, the results are usually disastrous (Nazi Germany, Stalin's Russia, The killing fields of Cambodia). That's because no one has a lock on Ultimate Truth. And if someone tells you they So that's why it's difficult for me to hitch my wagon to any one party or political philosophy. I prefer to analyze specific issues and candidates on their own merits.

In the interest of full disclosure I have to admit that I didn't make up the phrase "Radically Moderate." I stole it from Dan Carlin.

Listen to his podcast. He's a little abrasive in his delivery but I like this guy. He makes sense. And he knows something about history. If you want to talk about politics but you don't know anything about history, here's my advice—stop talking.

Well, I'll dig deeper into this later.

Thank you.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Letter to the Teacher

I'd like to share a letter a wrote to my daughter's science teacher. My daughter is a Junior at a private Christian school near Atlanta, Georgia. I believe she is receiving a good education at this school. But I had serious reservations about a particular book that was required reading. The book is "The Chemistry of the Blood" by Dr. M.R. De Haan.

Mr. ————— :

I wanted to write and offer my thoughts about a book that is required reading in your course. I offered to help my daughter Ashley write an essay covering the 5th and 6th chapters of “The Chemistry of the Blood.” I read the chapters and I don’t take any issue with Chapter Six. It seems to reflect the traditional understanding of the Biblical doctrines concerning prayer. But there are several points in Chapter Five that I find very inaccurate and outdated.

First of all, I want to say that I have no formal scientific training but science is a subject that fascinates me and I spend a lot of my free time reading books and listening to audio books and podcasts on a wide range of scientific subjects. I’m a big fan of such writers as Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, E.O. Wilson and Brian Greene, among others.

It’s my opinion that “The Chemistry of the Blood” may have some usefulness in terms of spiritual teaching. But in Chapter Five Dr. De Haan wanders into the areas of cosmology, anthropology and evolutionary biology and it becomes very apparent that he is out of his element. On page 69 he describes — or attempts to describe — Big Bang Theory. The description he gives is an oversimplification of the cosmological model that this theory represents. In 1943 when “The Chemistry of the Blood” was published some of the finer points of the theory were still being worked out, however, even at that stage of its development, the theory predicted the existence of cosmic microwave background radiation. Using satellite technology this radiation was detected and confirmed in 1964. This, along with other lines of evidence, solidified this theory as the best scientific explanation of the origin of the universe. Today this is an uncontroversial theory that is widely accepted even by Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig.

Dr. De Haan then goes on to give a caricature of the theory of evolution. It is very clear from his description that he doesn’t understand the theory and he lampoons it in a attempt to make it seem silly and implausible. In some circles this is a controversial theory and many people reject it on religious grounds which is their right. But if the theory is to be presented it should be presented accurately and comprehensively so that the students can fully grasp it and examine it on its own merits. However one may feel about the implications of the theory it cannot be denied that it is almost universally accepted by scientists around the world and it is supported by many lines of evidence including the fossil record, genetics, homology, paleo-anthropology, etc. The geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said “Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution.” Students who intend to pursue careers in science or medicine will be required to learn the theory very thoroughly at the college level. It would be a disservice to those students to deprive them of a fair and accurate introduction to the established facts that undergird the theory. The theory can be taught within the framework of a Christian worldview. Many professional scientists who are also religious have no difficultly finding compatibility between evolution and their faith traditions. A good example of this is Kenneth Miller, Professor of Biology at Brown University — an outspoken defender of evolution and a devout Catholic. Another good example is Francis Collins, one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project. He is an evangelical Christian and he wrote “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.”

But back to the was what I read on page 70 that really gave me pause and caused me to be seriously skeptical of Dr. De Haan’s scientific credentials (After a quick Google search I found that, outside of his medical degree, he had none). He writes “ not speculative or theoretical. True science deals with proved facts...Any theory which is later proved to be false proves that it was unscientific. True science rests on unalterable and eternally established facts.” This is absolutely laughable and it betrays a complete ignorance of the scientific method. The very essence of the scientific endeavor is curious speculation — asking “why?” and “how?” and “what if?” with no commitment to a preordained conclusion and an openness to follow the evidence where ever it may lead. Were Newton’s laws of gravity considered “unscientific” once they were superseded by Einstein’s theory of general relativity? Will Einstein’s achievement be considered “unscientific” now that physicists are developing string theory in order to resolve general relativity’s incompatibility with quantum mechanics? Of course not. Every finding in science is provisional and tentative. Every theory is falsifiable and can be improved and refined with better evidence. Science isn’t about establishing ultimate or absolute truth. That falls within the domain of philosophy and religion. True “proofs” are only found in mathematics.

In short, it is my feeling that this book has no place in a science class.

I also want to quickly touch on a few passages from pages 79 & 80. Dr. De Haan writes “Anything which draws the woman away from the an abomination of the Lord.” And “The current custom of women’s dress is a greater menace to the welfare of America than invasion from a foreign power (He is referring here to women wearing pants)...The modern dress of our women is an invitation to moral decay...and the judgment of the Lord.” He goes on “To see men, even preachers, running about in public with only a pair of shorts is a disgrace to civilization.” And finally “The woman’s place is in the home and there is nothing more Godlike than MOTHERHOOD.” Even if this book continues to be used as a part of a Bible class I would hope that the parts of the book which follow in the same vein as the quotes above would be critically analyzed and held up as artifacts of obsolete and antiquated thinking that was typical in the early part of the last century but from which we have advanced. It would be an interesting sociological study in the progression of cultural norms. As a father of two girls I would hope that they would be exposed to more up-to-date and relevant books that affirm and empower them as women and instill in them the confidence to pursue any goal they choose whether inside the home or in the professional world.

Thank you.

A Few Thoughts on Skepticism

I recently created a Discussion Group on my Facebook Page called "Skeptically Speaking." The idea to do this was inspired by one of my favorite podcasts, "The Skeptics Guide to the Universe." It was my desire to find a hand full of like-minded folks who share my interest in scientific subjects and critical thinking. To clarify the intentions behind setting up the Discussion Group I posted a note on my page that provides an exposition. For those interested in my blog I have posted the text of that note here...

Since I named our Discussion Group "Skeptically Speaking" I thought it might be helpful for me to share my thoughts on the subject of skepticism. So let me define what I call a good skeptic by trying to debunk the straw man conception that true believers have of skeptics.

I'm reading a book by John Ankerberg and John Weldon titled "Handbook of Biblical Evidences." Throughout the book the authors refer to skeptics as people who, because of their personal biases, are not willing or able to consider the "evidence" of Biblical claims. Here's a quote: "skeptics...wish to find 'evidence' to support their skepticism." Another: Skeptics "allow their personal materialistic philosophies to color their interpretation of scientific data."

In other words, skeptics already have their minds made up. And it's true that there are some people who are skeptical in that way. These are a priori skeptics. But that is not a good skeptic. A good skeptic approaches the world with an open mind and an excitment about the process of learning and exploring possibilities. A good skeptic is keenly interested in examining evidence of any kind for most claims. Of course if I claim I have an invisible elephant living in my garage, no one, skeptical or otherwise, is going to believe me. Why not? Because there are some basic things we as educated people living in the modern world can agree on because everything in our shared experience confirms certain realities.

And there are different levels of reasonable skepticism. If I meet someone and he tells me his name is Frank there's no good reason for me to be skeptical of his statement. But if he tells me that his name is Frank and that he died yesterday and came back to life this morning I'm going to require a little more evidence other than his testimony before I will believe him. As Carl Sagan said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

But as we move further away from our comon experience of everyday realities, as we begin to consider things that may dwell in the fuzzy edges between reality and fantasy, people tend to divide into different camps. These various camps or positions fall along a wide spectrum.

At one extreme end of the spectrum are people who are fantasy prone. These individuals haven't met a conspiracy theory or a piece of magical thinking that they don't like. These are the people who are always forwarding emails containing stories that turn out to be urban legends. These are folks who use "miracle" to describe just about anything that is out of the ordinary.

On the other extreme end of the spectrum are those who are not only hardcore skeptics, they are cynics. These folks just aren't interesting in anything that falls outside their limited view of reality and are quick to dismiss even things which may be well-established but with which they are not familiar. They are closed-minded and lack intellectual curiosity.

Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. But I think (and I'm just speculating here) that more than 50% of the populations in industrialized western cultures tend to lean more toward the fantasy prone end of the spectrum. Most people, for instance, would probably say they believe in luck to some degree or another. Most people have a few pet superstitions. Some of these superstitions may be so minor and inconsequential that their owners may not be consciously aware of them. Think of what a big deal a lot people still make about Friday the 13th. Many buildings, even today, don't have a 13th floor.

And then there's all the rampant magical thinking that is at the heart of the self-help industry and about half the stuff Oprah is pushing on her beguiled audience. Just believe hard enough and you too can be rich, thin and in love!

I spend a lot of time thinking about why people believe what they believe. What are the fault lines, so to speak, that separate critical thinkers -- skeptics -- form the rest of us. And I'm still working this out but so far I think it breaks down to two major questions:

1) Is the universe purely materialistic or iis there something beyond reality as we experience it?


2) Do we believe what we believe because it makes us feel good?

When a person wrestles with these two questions they will have addressed what is at the core of their decision-making process when evaluating truth claims.

I've been on a journey over the last few years. A journey of intellectual inquiry and re-evaluation of my thought processes and belief systems. I don't expect this journey to end as long as I have a pulse. And I make no claims to have arrived at any great and lasting Truth. I can only give you the provisional conclusions that I've drawn at this point.

First, based on my observations, all phenomena which can be explained can be explained in materialistic, natural terms. I have seen no evidence of the supernatural. One could argue that the supernatural, by its very nature, lies outside the realm of scientific investigation. Assuming that to be the case, I would have to say that I'm agnostic in regard to the supernatural.

Second, whether it makes me happy or sad to believe a thing has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not said thing is true. It has been said that "the truth will make you free." You may be free but you may not be happy. When you find out a loved one has cancer you're going to know the truth and you're not going to be happy about it. I say that to say this: be very skeptical of the person who claims that embracing the belief system that he is peddling will make you a much happier person. You may be deluded into a kind of happiness based on self deception but you won't be any closer to the truth.

So, in conclusion, I'd like to address the various topics in our discussions within the framework of critical thinking. I think the best tool for understanding reality is the scientific method and a rational analysis of empirical data. But I'm certainly open to debate on this point. Let's throw some ideas around and see what happens.

Thank you for reading.