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Friday, April 18, 2014

Amazing Ant Rafts

Posted by jlwile on April 27, 2011

It has long been known that when some ants are faced with a flood, they build “living rafts” that float on the water in search of land. The earliest reference I know of to this phenomenon comes from the book Insect Architecture, which was published in 1838:1

The ants consisting of the basis of this group, lay hold of some shrub for security, while their companions hold on by them; and thus the whole colony, forming an animated raft, floats on the surface of the water until the inundation (which seldom continues for longer than a day or two) subsides.

So scientists have known about this for a long time, but how such rafts manage to float has been a mystery. You see, a single ant can float on water for two reasons: First, water has surface tension, and that tension must be broken in order for something to sink. If laid carefully on the surface of water, for example, a metal needle will float. Even though the density of the needle indicates it should sink, the water’s surface tension will keep it afloat. Second, the water-repelling nature of an ant’s outer covering (its exoskeleton) causes tiny bubbles of air to cling to it. The combination of the air bubbles’ buoyancy and the water’s surface tension keeps the ant afloat, but not by much.

Now…if I start stacking ants on top of each other, only a few of them will be in contact with the water. The water’s surface tension combined with the buoyancy of the ants that are actually in contact with the water just isn’t enough to keep the whole stack of ants afloat. Thus, something else must be going on when ants get together to form rafts.

A recent report on fire ant rafts was just published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. It tells us what is actually going on in ant rafts, which is really quite fascinating.

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Land Plant Evolution – Another Example of Mental Gymnastics

Posted by jlwile on April 25, 2011

Spirogrya are part of the Zygnematales, which are now thought to be the closest living relatives of land plants. Click for credit

It is difficult to be an evolutionist these days. Back when morphology (the study of the form and structure of organisms) was the only way we could compare organisms to one another, evolutionists could spin tales of evolution unchecked. However, as science and technology improved, we became able to test those evolutionary tales against genetic data, and the results were devastating. Evolutionary relationships inferred from morphology are often quite different from those inferred from genetics.1

To make matters worse, evolutionary relationships based on genetics are confusing as well. For example, while most of an organism’s DNA is in its cells’ “control center” (the nucleus), some of an organism’s DNA resides in its cells’ powerhouses (the mitochondria). In most muticellular organisms, this DNA (not surprisingly called “mitochondrial DNA”) is thought to be inherited only from the mother. Well, when evolutionary relationships are inferred from mitochondrial DNA, they disagree with evolutionary relationships inferred from nuclear DNA.2 Even when you concentrate on nuclear DNA, the evolutionary relationships inferred from one set of genes disagree with those inferred from a different set of genes.3

These problems came to mind recently as I read a study on the supposed evolution of land plants. Evolutionists have long thought that the the Charales, a biological order of pondweeds, are the closest living relatives to the ancestors of land plants. This is because the Charales are algae, but they are thought to be the most complex form of algae. In addition, they sexually reproduce by making freely-moving sperm cells and much larger, stationary egg cells. This is also the way modern land plants reproduce.

It only makes sense, then, that the most complex algae with the same basic reproductive mode as land plants must be closely related to land plants, right? Wrong…at least according to the genetic data.

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Ultrafast Underwater Traps

Posted by jlwile on April 22, 2011

This video shows how the incredible traps used by bladderworts work. The narrator is hard to understand, but the video is worth watching.

When you study the living world, you can see how the Creator designed organisms to meet the needs of every ecosystem on the planet. Consider, for example, carnivorous plants. Plants form the foundation of many food webs. Using carbon dioxide and water, they convert the energy of sunlight into food for themselves, but they produce much more food than they need. As a result, they are used as a food source by many animals, which in turn are used as a food source by many other animals. Plants, therefore, are crucial to many ecosystems.

The food they make for themselves supplies plants with energy, but like all other organisms, plants need more than energy to live healthy and reproduce properly. They also need specific chemicals to build the molecules they need for survival. Most plants use their roots to absorb those chemicals from the soil. But what about places where the soil isn’t nutritious or it isn’t practical to absorb nutrients from it? Those ecosystems need plants as well, so there need to be plants that can survive in such places.

Enter the carnivorous plants. They capture and digest living organisms, but they don’t use those organisms for energy. Instead, the they use the organisms’ constituent chemicals as building blocks for all the elegant chemistry that they need to do. That way, they don’t have to absorb nutrients from the soil. Even the most barren soil can host carnivorous plants.

While all carnivorous plants are amazing in their own way, a recent study in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B has highlighted the amazing design of one type of carnivorous plant: the bladderwort (genus Utricularia).

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Fruit Fly Genome Studies Confirm That There Is Little “Junk DNA”

Posted by jlwile on April 20, 2011

Creationists and ID advocates predict little junk DNA in nature, and studies confirm that prediction.

Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates long ago predicted that the more we learn about genetics, the more we will see that there is very little “junk DNA” in nature. About a year ago, I discussed the first results that came from project ENCODE. Those results indicate that there is very little DNA in the human genome that is not used by the cell, indicating that there is very little “junk DNA” in people. Not surprisingly, as the genomes of other organisms are studied, we are finding that they also have very little “junk DNA.”

To understand what fruit flies are telling us about “junk DNA,” you need to understand the term “transcription” as it applies to genetics. The information in DNA is stored in a code, which must be read and translated in order for it to turn into something useful for the cell. It turns out that the cell has an elegant mechanism to do this, and that mechanism can be described in two phases: transcription and translation. In transcription, the code is copied and then transported out of the nucleus of the cell and to the protein-making factories in the cell. At that point, the protein-making factories perform translation, where the code is translated into proteins that perform all sorts of vital functions for the cell.

Since transcription requires a large amount of energy and resources, it is assumed that a cell won’t perform transcription on any portion of DNA that isn’t used by the cell. Thus, by seeing what portions of DNA are transcribed, we can see what portion of the genome is functional. Just as the entire collection of DNA is called a “genome,” the entire collection of transcribed DNA is called the “transcriptome.”

With that background, you can now understand what studies of the fruit fly transcriptome have told us about “junk DNA.”

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The APACHE Conference

Posted by jlwile on April 19, 2011

Last Friday and Saturday, I spoke at the Association of Peoria Area Christian Home Educators (APACHE) conference. It was held in the Peoria Civic Center, which is a very nice facility. Interestingly enough, the home education convention was sharing the facility with a pool and darts convention, which led to some interesting overlap. For example, I wasn’t sure exactly where to go at first, and I ended up walking into an exhibit hall to see what was going on there. I figured I was in the wrong place when a saw a booth with a beer tap!

Once I found where I was supposed to be, I had a great time. Since I am not selling anything these days, I really don’t need a booth. However, the APACHE conference was kind enough to give me one, and it was nice. I put a small card table in the middle of the booth and just sat there, waiting for people who wanted to talk with me. I guess it seemed inviting, because a lot of people sat down and talked with me at length. I got to know several homeschooling parents as well as their children/students.

I ended up talking with two students who had graduated homeschool and are now in college. One was pursuing mechanical engineering, and the other was pursuing crop science, probably with an emphasis in genetics. It was great to hear how well they are doing in their coursework and how much they are enjoying science. Those kinds of conversations really lift the heart of this science educator.

I got two interesting questions that are worth discussing, both related to science.

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Modern Science Is a Product of Christianity

Posted by jlwile on April 15, 2011

I received an E-MAIL from a student a few days ago. He had just finished Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s book, The Grand Design, in which the authors claim that God is not necessary in order to explain the universe. While I have not read the book yet, reviews (even from non-Christian sources) are far from flattering.

The student informed me that Hawking and Mlodinow credit the Ionian Greeks with the discovery of natural laws. This confused him, because in my book, Exploring Creation with General Science, I make it very clear that modern science was born out of Christianity. This is because the concept that nature operates according to strict laws is a natural consequence of the fact that it was created by a Supreme Lawgiver. Without the concept of a law-giving Creator, there would have been no reason to search for natural laws. Indeed, as Dr. Stanley Jaki tells us:1

…the Christian belief in the Creator allowed a breakthrough in thinking about nature. Only a truly transcendental Creator could be thought of as being powerful enough to create a nature with autonomous laws

The search for the laws that govern nature was inspired by Christianity, and as a result, modern science is a product of Christianity.

So what of the Ionian Greeks? Did they do something related to natural laws? Not really. They did do something related to science, however, and their contribution should not be downplayed. Nevertheless, it needs to be put in the proper context.

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What Do Evolutionists Do When One of Their Own Is Honest about the Data?

Posted by jlwile on April 13, 2011

Dr. Lynn Margulis, member of the National Academy of Sciences (click for credit)

Dr. Lynn Margulis is a very interesting person. When she was a young scientist, she wrote a paper entitled “On the origin of mitosing cells.” It was rejected by several scientific journals, but it was eventually published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology more than 40 years ago. In that paper, she proposed an endosymbiotic theory for the origin of eukaryotic cells.1 If you don’t recognize that term, there are two basic kinds of cells in creation: prokaryotic and eukaryotic. Just as the human body has distinct, smaller organs that each perform specific functions, eukaryotic cells have distinct, smaller organelles that each perform specific functions. Prokaryotic cells are smaller than eukaryotic cells and do not have distinct organelles. While humans, animals, plants, and many microscopic organisms are made of eukaryotic cells, bacteria are made of a single prokaryotic cell.

In her paper, which is now considered a landmark publication, she put forth the idea that the organelles in eukaryotic cells formed because one prokaryotic cell engulfed another, and they both somehow survived to work together. The engulfed cell became the organelle, while the cell that did the engulfing became the first rudimentary eukaryotic cell. While this idea did not originate with Dr. Margulis, her landmark paper was the first to provide biochemical data that supported the view. As a result, she has gotten the lion’s share of the credit for the endosymbiotic theory of the origin of eukaryotic cells.

Now there are serious problems with her theory. For example, she makes much of the fact that mitochondria (eukaryotic organelles that power the cell) are similar to bacteria. As a result, it should make sense that mitochondria were actual bacteria at one time. However, the similarities are rather trivial. There are significant structural and biochemical differences between the two, which makes the idea that mitochondria came from bacteria quite untenable. Nevertheless, endosymbiotic theory is currently the consensus view among evolutionists for how eukaryotic cells arose. Thus, it is not surprising that Dr. Margulis was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983.

While the problems associated with endosymbiotic theory are interesting, what really fascinates me is how two well-known evolutionists have reacted to her recent interview, published in Discover Magazine.

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While Mortals Weep

Posted by jlwile on April 11, 2011

My Aunt Kay

How do you measure the impact a person has on your life? Perhaps it’s by the size of the hole that is in your heart once she is gone. My aunt Kay recently passed into the arms of her loving Savior, and by that measure, I am just beginning to realize the huge impact she had on me. Not only did she do the typical kinds of things an aunt does for a nephew (babysit me, spoil me, punish me, love me, etc.), there are specific things she did that I know changed the course of my life forever. For example, I was in love with a young lady back in high school, and I was determined to marry her. However, my aunt Kay took me aside one day and had a long talk with me. She explained to me why this young lady would not be good for me. Amazingly enough, I ended up listening to her, and as a result, I was able to meet and marry Kathleen, who is truly my perfect match.

But it’s more than the babysitting, spoiling, punishing, and expert advice. It’s that, along with my parents, she modeled what sacrificial and unconditional love is all about. Some people say they love their family, but aunt Kay really meant it. She showed how much she meant it by regularly giving up her own time, money, and pleasure for the sake of another family member.

She also showed me that love is not something we give when someone does the right thing. It is something we give regardless of what the other is doing. I can think of dozens of times she reared up like a mother bear protecting her cubs when I griped and complained about someone in the family. She didn’t tolerate such nonsense, because as far as she was concerned, we are supposed to love our family unconditionally. There were simply no ifs ands or buts about it.

She also showed me the value of simple faith. Aunt Kay was a very smart woman; she was even a teacher at one time. However, she didn’t like to overanalyze the Christian faith. To her, it was very simple. Jesus loved her, and she loved Jesus. That’s all there was to it. As a former atheist who essentially had to be argued into the Kingdom, I learned from her that there is more to being a Christian than knowing and believing the right things.

Now that she is gone, I will no longer have the benefit of her example. I will no longer have the benefit of her counsel. I will no longer have the benefit of her laughter. I will no longer have the benefit of her love. I know there are many in heaven who are rejoicing at her arrival, but here on earth, this mortal can do nothing but weep.

More on Mutualism

Posted by jlwile on April 8, 2011

Sweet Potato Whiteflies (public domain image)

I write and speak a lot about mutualism (see here, here, here, here, and here, for example). Not only do I find it to be incredibly fascinating, but I also think it is a clear indication that the living things we see around us have been designed. Indeed, the various ways in which two or more organisms work together to survive are often so intricate and precise it seems crystal clear to me that these mutualistic partners were made for each other.

One of the very common types of mutualism you see in creation involves microorganisms inhabiting and helping plants, animals, and people. As I mentioned in a previous post, for example, our bodies are teeming with microorganisms, and without them, we would not be nearly as healthy. Animals and plants also harbor an amazing variety of microorganisms, which help them do such diverse things as digest cellulose (in the case of termites) and resist heat (in the case of panic grass). Well, I recently came across yet another example of mutualism between an animal and a microorganism, and it adds yet another level of complexity to the process.

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The Midwest Homeschool Convention

Posted by jlwile on April 4, 2011

Last weekend I spoke six times at the Midwest Homeschool Convention. It was an incredible conference. It definitely had the highest attendance of any conference at which I have spoken in the past couple of years. While there were a lot of people who were upset over the fact that Ken Ham had been disinvited from the conference, that didn’t seem to affect the attendance in any significant way. There were a few people who were wearing white buttons that said “I stand with Ken Ham,” but that was really the only visible effect of the controversy. For those who were upset at Mr. Ham’s disinvitation, I thought the buttons were an appropriate way to demonstrate their displeasure. They did not demean anyone else, and they did not disrupt the convention, but they showed displeasure. My hat goes off to whoever came up with that idea!

As is typical, I spoke on two broad subjects – homeschooling and Christian apologetics. One of my homeschooling talks was on how to homeschool at the high school level, and another was on the data that show how homeschooled students compare to non-homeschooled students academically and socially. I also gave one of my favorite talks there – “Be Open Minded, but Don’t Let Your Brain Fall Out.” It stresses the need for people to investigate multiple positions and learn to think critically while doing that. My Christian apologetics talks focused on fulfilled prophecy, design in nature, and the historical reliability of the Bible.

Not surprisingly, I was asked a number of excellent questions during my talks, and I want to focus on two of them. One deals with the studies that have been done on homeschooled students, and the other deals with probability arguments in the creation/evolution debate.

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