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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Confirmation of a Creationist Prediction Becomes Even More Stunning

Posted by jlwile on August 11, 2014

A model of the vertebrate retina, showing the Müller cells (image by Dr. Jens Grosche, Universität Leipzig, found in reference 2)

A model of the vertebrate retina, showing the Müller cells (image by Dr. Jens Grosche, Universität Leipzig, found in reference 2)

Nature is filled with amazing designs, which leads me to the conclusion that it is the product of a Magnificent Designer. Of course, many scientists disagree with that conclusion, and some of them try to argue against it by pointing out examples of what they think are bad designs in nature. One of the oft-cited examples is the retina of the human eye. As Dr. Michael Shermer puts it:1

The anatomy of the human eye shows that it is anything but “intelligently designed.” It is built upside down and backwards, with photons of light having to travel through the cornea, lens, aqueous fluid, blood vessels, ganglion cells, amacrine cells, horizontal cells, and biploar cells, before reaching the light-sensitive rods and cones that will transform the signal into neural impulses.

To understand what he is saying, look at the illustration above. When light hits the surface of the eye’s retina, it has to travel through layers of cells that essentially connect the retina to the rest of the nervous system. Only then can it reach the light-sensitive cells, called rods and cones, and be converted into a signal that can be sent to the brain. This, of course, seems backwards to most evolutionists. According to them, if the retina were designed intelligently, the rods and cones would be at the retinal surface so they are the first thing the light hits. That way, the connecting neurons could be placed behind the rods and cones so they don’t interfere with the light in any way.

Like most arguments inspired by evolution, the more we learned about the human retina, the less reasonable this argument became. Back in 2007, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA showed that light doesn’t have to travel through the connecting neurons to reach the rods and cones. Instead, as shown in the illustration above (which appeared on the cover of the journal), there are special cells, called Müller cells, that collect the light and guide it to the rods and cones.2

Three years later (in 2010), an analysis published in Physical Review Letters concluded:3

The retina is revealed as an optimal structure designed for improving the sharpness of images.

The authors of the analysis showed that the position of the rods and cones in the retina combined with the way the Müller cells guide the light to them make them much less sensitive to light that is scattered within the eye itself. This, in essence, reduces the “noise” that the rods and cones would get from errant photons, making the overall image sharper and clearer.

I blogged about this previously, pointing out that it is precisely what creationists predicted and quite opposite what evolutionists maintained. I am bringing it up now because further research has confirmed the creationist prediction in an even more stunning way!

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Road Salt Changes Butterflies, Perhaps for the Better

Posted by jlwile on August 7, 2014

A snow plow spreads salt to melt ice on the road. (click for credit)

A snow plow spreads salt to melt ice on the road. (click for credit)

Living in Indiana, I see snow plows spreading salt on the roads every winter. I don’t think much about them, because I have seen them all my life. However, I ran across an interesting study that indicates the salt they spread actually affects some of the insects that live near the road. Sodium chloride (the main ingredient in road salt) is such a ubiquitous chemical in nature that I never thought about how road salt might affect the flora and fauna that live near the side of the road, but the study indicates that for butterflies, the effect is significant.

The authors studied flora near the side of salted roads and found that the amount of sodium in the plants can be as much as 30 times what exists in the same plants that live more than 100 meters from the side of the road. That’s not very surprising, since most roads get salted quite a bit, especially during winters with lots of snow and ice. The surprising aspect of the study is the profound effect these elevated salt concentrations had on monarch butterflies that eat roadside milkweed while they are caterpillars.

The authors found that compared to monarch butterflies that ate milkweed plants in prairies far from the road, the male monarchs that ate salted roadside milkweed had much stronger flying muscles. The females were different, however. They had larger eyes than their prairie-raised counterparts.1 To confirm that it was really the salt having this effect and not some other chemical that might be found near the roadside, the authors reared cabbage white butterflies in the lab. They saw exactly the same effect – the males that ate a high-salt diet had stronger flying muscles, while the females had larger eyes.

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Instant Cooperation Among Organisms

Posted by jlwile on August 4, 2014

The alga (left) and yeast (right) are free-living, but when put in a situation where they must cooperate in order to survive, they do.  (images in the public domain)

The alga (left) and yeast (right) are free-living, but when put in a situation where they must cooperate in order to survive, they do. (electron microscope images in the public domain)

Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while knows that I am fascinated with mutualism – the phenomenon whereby organisms of different species live together in a mutually-beneficial way (see here, here, here, here, and here, for example). I think it is probably a glimpse of what nature was like before the Fall. Based on what I see in mutualism, I think that lots of species were designed to cooperate with one another, and many of the pathological relationships we see today are corrupted versions of previously-beneficial ones.

Evolutionists have a different view, of course. The generally-accepted view is that mutualism starts out with one species trying to exploit another species. Here, for example, is how the text Symbiosis: An Introduction to Biological Associations, Second Edition puts it:1

Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of two organisms starting out in a mutualistic association. Most mutualistic symbioses probably began as parasitic ones, with one organism attempting to exploit another one.

To be fair, the authors of this text do allow for another option. There are some relationships between organisms that seem neither harmful nor beneficial. Barnacles that live on whales, for example, seem to neither harm nor help the whales in most cases. These kinds of relationships are called commensal, and the authors allow for mutualism to start out as a commensal relationship and then evolve into a mutualistic one.

The key, however, is the first sentence in the quote. They say it is difficult to conceive of two organisms starting out in a mutualistic relationship. Why? Because evolutionists cannot allow for a grand design in nature. They can’t look at the relationships in an ecosystem and see how they fit together in an overall plan. Instead, they have to imagine some scenario in which relationships are cobbled together by selfish organisms that are only concerned with their own survival. If organisms live in a mutually-beneficial relationship today, it is only because they evolved together (in a process called coevolution) from a negative relationship or at least a relationship that didn’t begin as a mutually-beneficial one.

A new study indicates that at least in some cases, this evolutionary-inspired idea is wrong.

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Geneticists’ Bias Causes a Big Mistake

Posted by jlwile on July 31, 2014

This is one way to visualize a coding section of RNA.  It has a start codon that tells the cell to start making a protein, followed by a recipe for that protein.  Then there is a stop codon, to tell the cell that it is done making the protein.

This is one way to visualize a coding section of RNA. It has a start codon that tells the cell to start making a protein, followed by a recipe for that protein. Then there is a stop codon, to tell the cell that it is done making the protein.

You’ve heard it many times before. The vast majority of DNA is junk. Of course, the ENCODE project showed how wrong that notion is. Now that we know the vast majority of DNA is functional, you might wonder how in the world the idea of “junk DNA” became so popular among scientists. I suspect there are many reasons, but some recent research has revealed one of them – a bias regarding what it means for DNA to be functional. The research was done on molecules called long non-coding RNAs, which are commonly referred to as lncRNAs.

What are lncRNAs? Well, let’s start with what RNA is. The genes that your body uses are in your DNA, most of which is found in the control center of the cell, called the nucleus. In order for your cells to use those genes, they must be copied by another molecule. This process is called transcription, and the molecule that performs transcription is RNA. Once it has transcribed the gene, RNA leaves the nucleus, at which point it is often referred to as messenger RNA (mRNA), because it is sending a message to the cell.

What’s the message? It is a recipe for building a protein. That recipe is put together in informational units called codons, and it goes to a ribosome, which is a protein-making factory in the cell. The ribosome reads the codons, translating them one-by-one into a protein. Not surprisingly, this process is called translation. How does the ribosome know when to start building the protein? There is a start codon that tells it to start. How does it know when to stop building the protein? There is a stop codon that tells it to stop. As a result, you can think of messenger RNA in terms of the illustration above – it contains a start codon, a recipe for a protein (the blue bar in the illustration), and a stop codon.

So how does this relate to lncRNAs? Well, messenger RNA is referred to as “coding RNA,” because it codes for the production of proteins. LncRNAs are called “non-coding RNAs,” because it was thought that they do not code for proteins. Now there are lots of RNAs that are thought to be non-coding, but lncRNAs are relatively long. That’s how they get their name. Well, it turns out for at least some lncRNAs, every part of their name (except RNA) is wrong.

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The 2014 Valley Home Educators Convention

Posted by jlwile on July 28, 2014

This is me at my publisher's booth talking with two homeschoolers.

This is me at my publisher’s booth talking with two homeschoolers.

This past weekend, I spoke at the Valley Home Educators Convention in Modesto, California. It’s a mid-sized convention that is always well-run and a delight to attend. I gave a total of six talks: Why I believe in a Young Earth, Creation vs Evolution: Religion vs Science or Religion vs Religion, Homeschooling: The Solution to Our Education Problem, Why Homeschool through High School, What about K-6 Science?, and ‘Teaching’ the Jr High & High School Sciences at Home. They were all well attended, and I got several good questions. However, I did have one talk (I forget which one) after which no one asked a single question. I don’t recall that ever happening before.

I was a bit concerned about giving the first talk, because it tends to ruffle some feathers. In the talk, I make the (rather obvious to me) point that the young-earth interpretation of Scripture is not the only orthodox interpretation that submits to Scriptural authority. I demonstrate this several different ways, including by pointing out that some of the early church fathers (like Origen) interpreted the days in the creation account to be figurative and not literal. By the 1100′s a figurative interpretation of Genesis was widespread in the church. Other church fathers (like Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria, Augustine, and Hilary of Poitiers) believed that the days had nothing to do with the passage of time but instead were used as a means by which the things that were created could be ordered in terms of priority.

This, of course, goes against what some of my fellow young-earth creationists teach, so sometimes, the content of the talk is greeted with quite a bit of anger. At this convention, however, no one seemed to get angry. In fact, I didn’t get a single hostile question after the talk, which surprised me. Everyone who spoke to me about that talk later said they appreciated how I handled such a hot-button issue. I did get an interesting question related to the talk from someone who came to my publisher’s booth, and it’s the question I want to address in this post.

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An Update on Mark Armitage and the Inquisition

Posted by jlwile on July 25, 2014

This is Mark Armitage giving a talk at a meeting of the Creation Science Fellowship.  (click for source)

This is Mark Armitage giving a talk at a meeting of the Creation Science Fellowship. (click for source)

Last year, I discussed how Mark Armitage fell victim to the evolutionary Inquisiton. In July of last year, he published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Acta Histochemica. In that paper, he reported finding soft tissue in a Triceratops fossil that is supposedly 65 million years old. Remarkably, the soft tissue was composed of tiny, fragile cellular structures which showed no evidence of being mineralized. In addition, there was no doubt that this tissue came from the Triceratops, as it has exactly the microscopic structure one would expect for bone tissue.

That was too much for the High Priests of Science. The Inquisition struck, and Armitage was fired from his position at California State University. Armitage himself commented on the post, indicating he was convinced that his firing was directly related to the paper and he would sue the university.

Today, I ran across an announcement from The Pacific Justice Institute indicating that he has filed the lawsuit. The announcement includes something Armitage mentioned in his comment – that a university official proclaimed:

We are not going to tolerate your religion in this department!

A staff attorney for the Pacific Justice Institute is quoted as saying:

It has become apparent that ‘diversity’ and ‘intellectual curiosity,’ so often touted as hallmarks of a university education, do not apply to those with a religious point of view.

That isn’t news to me. It isn’t news to a lot of other Christians who happen to be scientists, either. It will be interesting to see how this lawsuit progresses.

A Historian Asks: Is it okay to lie about history for a good cause?

Posted by jlwile on July 22, 2014

Pinocchio, the beloved character in Carlo Collodi's novel, had a nose that grew when he lied. (click for credit)

Pinocchio, the beloved character in Carlo Collodi’s novel, had a nose that grew when he lied.
(click for credit)

Not too long ago, the Fox network aired a reboot of Cosmos. The first version, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, was a thirteen-part series hosted by Dr. Carl Sagan. The reboot, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, was a thirteen-part series hosted by Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson. While both series were mostly about science, they each mentioned the history of science from time to time. While I can’t comment on the first series, I can say without a doubt that the new series was spectacularly awful when it came to science history.

It started off badly when the first episode elevated Giordano Bruno to the status of scientific hero and martyr. The problem is, of course, that history tells a completely different story. Bruno was a champion of all sorts of strange ideas (such as that Satan would be redeemed by God and that Jesus was a magician, not the Son of God), and when he did discuss science, it was clear he didn’t understand it very well. He ended up being a martyr for magic and the occult, not for science. In addition, the serious natural philosophers of the day, like Kepler and Galileo, opposed Bruno.

Perhaps the worst treatment of science history by the new Cosmos was its discussion of Newton. Dr. Tyson actually claimed

Newton’s laws of gravity and motion revealed how the sun held distant worlds captive. His laws swept away the need for a master clockmaker to explain the precision and beauty of the solar system. Gravity is the clockmaker. [Episode 3: "When Knowledge Conquered Fear"]

Nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, the Master Clockmaker was the reason Newton came up with his Universal Law of Gravitation. Unlike the philosophers of the past, Newton believed that all motion should follow the same basic set of principles. This led to his Universal Law of Gravitation as well as his Laws of Motion. Why did Newton believe this? According to Dr. Morris Kline:1

The thought that all the phenomena of motion should follow from one set of principles might seem grandiose and inordinate, but it occurred very naturally to the religious mathematicians of the 17th century. God had designed the universe, and it was to be expected that all phenomena of nature would follow one master plan. One mind designing a universe would almost surely have employed one set of basic principles to govern related phenomena.

So rather than sweeping away the need for a Master Clockmaker, the laws he discovered were firmly rooted in the belief that there is a Master Clockmaker.

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A Great Story I Heard During a Radio Interview

Posted by jlwile on July 18, 2014

This is Vivienne McNeny, the Sociable Homeschooler. (click for her radio show website)

This is Vivienne McNeny, the Sociable Homeschooler. (click for her radio show website)

I just finished an interview with Vivienne McNeny, host of an internet radio show called The Sociable Homeschooler. It was a delightful interview for many reasons, not the least of which is that Mrs. McNeny has a wonderful personality and is great at interviewing people. At the beginning of our time together, she told a story that was very encouraging to me, and at least a part of that story should be encouraging to many homeschoolers as well.

She and her husband homeschooled their children, and although they are both focused on the arts, their youngest son, Simon, was focused on science. They used my high school curriculum for science, but they also read my book, Reasonable Faith: The Scientific Case for Christianity together. She says that her son enjoyed the book, and when he went to college, he referenced it in a paper he wrote for one of his science professors, Dr. Collin Thomas. Dr. Thomas requested a copy of the book, and Simon gave him one. He said that he really enjoyed the book, even though he is not a Christian.

Now, of course, that part of the story was encouraging to me, but the rest of the story should be encouraging to many other homeschooling parents. She said that this professor used to feel sorry for homeschooled students…until he started getting them in his college classes. Now he thinks they are better college students than his publicly-schooled students. She interviewed him on her radio show approximately two years ago, and the interview is fascinating. If you have time, I encourage you to listen to it in its entirety. It starts at 15:20 on the recording that is posted on the website.

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About That Habitable Planet…

Posted by jlwile on July 15, 2014

This NASA image represents an artist's conception of what the first four planets around Gliese 581 were thought to look like in 2010.  (click for larger version)

This NASA image represents an artist’s conception of what the first four planets around Gliese 581 were thought to look like in 2010. (click for larger version)

Gliese 581 is a star that exists about 20 light years away from earth. It became important in the astronomy community back in 2005, when a planet (dubbed Gliese 581b) was detected orbiting it.1 Two years later, two more planets (dubbed Gliese 581c and Gliese 581d) were found there.2 Two years after that, a fourth planet (Gliese 581e) was found.3 All of that was interesting, but it didn’t catch much attention outside of the astronomy community.

Then something amazing happened. A year later, Dr. Steven Vogt and his colleagues found two more planets (Gliese 581f and Gliese 581g) orbiting the star. The amazing thing is that one of those planets (Gliese 581g) was found in the habitable zone of the star! What does that mean? If a planet is too close to its star, it will get very hot. If it is too far from its star, it will remain cold. Life as we know it requires a fairly narrow range of temperatures to exist, so if a planet is to host life, it can’t be too close or too far from its star. It must be in a position that is “just right,” and we call that position the habitable zone of the star. Gliese 581g was in that zone, and even more amazing, it had a mass that was only 3.1 times as much as earth’s mass!4

What did that mean? It meant that Vogt and his colleagues had found the first planet that might be enough like earth to support life. Since it was only 3 times as massive as earth, it was expected to be rocky (like earth), and since it was in the habitable zone, it could have the right temperature to support life. Of course, there are lots of other requirements for a planet to be able to support life as we know it, but that was ignored in all the excitement. NASA released an image (shown above) of what the four inner planets orbiting the Gliese 581 might look like. Notice that the most prominent planet is Gliese 581g, and notice how similar it looks to earth. Dr. Vogt said:

Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent.

I blogged about this planet back in 2010, noting that it might not even exist. Well, it turns out that the latest, in-depth study of Gliese 581 confirms that Gliese 581g, along with Gliese 581d and Gliese 581f, don’t exist.

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Academic Freedom and Christian Colleges

Posted by jlwile on July 10, 2014

This sign contains the English translation of Wheaton College's motto, "Christo et Regno Ejus."  (click for credit)

This sign contains the English translation of Wheaton College’s motto, “Christo et Regno Ejus.”
(click for credit)

On June 30, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by University of Pennsylvania English professor Peter Conn entitled, “The Great Accreditation Farce.” In that article, which Binghamton University history professor Adam Laats calls a “hatchet job,” Dr. Conn tries to argue that Christian colleges which require their faculty to sign a statement of faith should not be given accreditation. After all, he says:

Skeptical and unfettered inquiry is the hallmark of American teaching and research. However, such inquiry cannot flourish—in many cases, cannot even survive—inside institutions that erect religious tests for truth. The contradiction is obvious.

Now I have to admit I have some sympathy for that argument. In a post I wrote nearly three years ago, I highlighted one Christian university that does not make its faculty sign a detailed statement of faith: Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana. In that post, I said Anderson University “gets it” when it comes to what a university is all about – honest, open inquiry. In my view, a detailed statement of faith restricts the search for truth, and that’s not what a Christian university should be about. Certainly, a Christian university should be staffed by Christian faculty, but it should not restrict that faculty’s fields of inquiry with a detailed statement of faith.

Even though I have some sympathy for Dr. Conn’s argument, it is wrong on at least two counts. First, while I would never teach at a university that requires a detailed statement of faith, that doesn’t mean such a university shouldn’t receive accreditation. After all, the purpose of accreditation is not to make sure the university is a bastion of skeptical and free inquiry. Instead, according to The U.S. Department of Education:

The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.

This has little to do with how much skeptical and unfettered inquiry is going on at the institution. Instead, it has everything to do with the quality of the classes, the depth of the material covered, and the standards to which the institution holds its students.

The other reason Dr. Conn’s argument fails is more important: Using his argument, very few (if any) secular colleges could be given accreditation, because they don’t allow skeptical and unfettered inquiry, either.

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