It has been known for some time that certain birds of prey tend to congregate near wildfires. Most animals flee from fire, and that’s why the birds are there. After all, the fire is essentially flushing small animals out of the underbrush, making them easy prey for the birds. Now it’s not all that surprising for birds to notice the abundance of easy prey near a fire and eventually figure out that there is an association between fire and prey. However, the authors of this study confirmed something that Aboriginal Australians had known for quite some time – birds actually spread the fires to get even more prey!
This “fire spreading” has been depicted in sacred rituals of the Aboriginal Australians, but many non-Aboriginals have expressed skepticism. As a result, the authors of the study decided to conduct detailed interviews with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians to see if they could both confirm the behavior and figure out a pattern to it. Two of them (Ferguson and Eussen) also reviewed their own observations over years of field work in Australia. Based on the interviews and those observations, a pattern emerged.
The Mexican tetra (Astyanax mexicanus) can be found living in fresh water above or below ground. The ones living in water above ground are “normal,” but the ones living in water below ground (where light is scarce or nonexistent) are blind. As you can see from the picture above, they don’t even have noticeable eyes. Why? The standard view has always been that seeing things takes a lot of energy, so if you can’t see anything because it is always dark, it doesn’t do any good to waste energy on a visual system. However, if you can see things, it is worth the energy, because a visual system allows you to more easily find food, avoid predators, find a mate, etc.
So, if you are a Mexican tetra living in the waters on the surface of the earth and disabling mutations occur in the genes of your visual system, your fellow Mexican tetras will out-compete you, and you will probably die without passing on those mutations to the next generation. However, if you are a Mexican tetra living in the dark and get the same disabling mutation, it will not affect your ability to survive and pass that mutation on to the next generation. As a result, mutations in the visual systems of underground Mexican tetras accumulated over time, leading to blind cave fish.
A couple of years ago, a study confirmed the first part of this story. By comparing the blind version of the species to the version that can see, they showed that the energy “cost” of having a visual system was 5%-15% of the fish’s total metabolism, depending on the size of the fish. As a result, it makes sense that fish who do not use their visual system (like cave fish) would be better off not having one. However, the second part of the story (mutations building up to disable the system) seems to have been falsified, at least for this particular species.
In 1930, Dr. Ronald Fisher (statistician and geneticist) wrote a book entitled, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. In that book, he produced a mathematical proof of what he called the “Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection.” Partly due to his difficult writing style and partly due to a feud in the literature with American geneticist Dr. Sewall Wright, his theorem was misunderstood for quite some time. In 1972, however, physical chemist Dr. George R. Price explained it in a detailed way and showed that it was mathematically correct.
What is the importance of the Theorem and what does it say? This quote from Essential Readings in Evolutionary Biology (by Francisco J. Ayala, John C. Avise, 2014) answers both of those questions:
…Fisher’s formulation of the “fundamental theorem of natural selection,” which would play a preeminent role in the future development of evolutionary genetics: “The rate of increase in fitness of any organism at any time is equal to its genetic variation in fitness at that time.” (p. 73)
In other words, natural selection will cause an organism to increase in fitness as long as its population has variation in the genes associated with fitness. The more variation in those genes, the faster the organism will increase in fitness. As Drs. Ayala and Avise indicate, this theorem became very important in shaping the field of evolutionary genetics.
Six years ago, I wrote an article about Anderson University, where I am an adjunct professor. While the university clings strongly to the essentials of the Christian faith, it does not force its faculty to conform to one interpretation of Scripture. As a result, students are exposed to many different views that exist within Christendom.
In addition, rather than just trying to proselytize for their own view, the faculty are committed to making sure students understand the different ways Christians interpret the world through the lens of Scripture. This is best exemplified by an example. One of the science professors is an old-earth creationist, but he regularly invites me into his classes either to give a young-earth view of the science the students are learning or to engage in a friendly debate with him on the issue of the earth’s age. I especially like the latter, since students see that two people can engage in serious disagreements and still be good friends.
Just before Christmas, someone I respect and admire sent me an article that I wanted to share with my readers. It gives you another example of a Christian College (in this case, a seminary and Bible College) that gets it. To fully appreciate the article, however, you need to know the history behind it.
English and German soldiers celebrating Christmas on the Western Front in 1914.
It’s Christmas time again, and I am in the midst of preparing for many things, including the Christmas Eve service at church. I have been asked to do a short skit about Christmas. You can find some of my past attempts at dramatizing Christmas here, here, here, and here. The one I am doing for this year’s Christmas Eve service is much shorter, and it focuses on a remarkable event that happened during World War I: The Unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914. I think it illustrates the “peace, good will toward men” aspect of Christmas in a very tangible way. Parts of the drama (like the first four sentences) come straight from letters written by soldiers who participated in the event.
Ideally, the person doing the skit should be dressed in something like World War 1 gear. Honestly, a helmet and a long, ratty green coat over khaki pants would probably be good enough. An old-style rifle propped up next to him would be ideal. He should be sitting on a small stool or something like that (I will be sitting on one of the stairs that are on stage) and writing a letter.
As is the case with all of my dramatic material, please feel free to use this in any way you think might edify the Body of Christ. I would appreciate a credit, but there is no copyright on this piece.
An illustration of the differences between RNA and DNA
(click for credit and a larger image)
Several years ago, Dr. Ivan Oransky (MD) and Adam Marcus (MA in science writing) started a blog called Retraction Watch, which reports on scientific papers that have been retracted by the journals that published them or the authors who wrote them. It provides a valuable service to those of us who frequently read the scientific literature, because many journals and authors don’t promote their retractions nearly as much as they promote their papers. Thus, if I want to see whether or not an important publication in the scientific literature has withstood the scrutiny of other scientists, I can check this blog.
Last week, while scanning the new entries, I ran across an interesting one. It reported on a major paper published last year in the journal Nature Chemistry. Despite the fact that it was published only 18 months ago, it has already been cited by 26 other papers in the scientific literature. Why? Because it appeared to solve a very serious problem in what is probably the most popular origin-of-life scenario.
Because the origin-of-life scenario I was taught as fact at university has fallen out of favor among origin-of-life researchers, other scenarios are being explored. One such scenario is the “RNA world” hypothesis. In this view, life was not initially based on DNA. Instead, it was based on a similar molecule, RNA (the differences between the two molecules are shown in the graphic above). This view has garnered a lot of attention, because RNA can do something DNA cannot. It can speed up chemical reactions without being used up in the process.
Why is this important? Many chemical reactions that occur in living systems happen slowly on their own. To be used by a cell, they need to be sped up. Cells do that today with enzymes, and they make those enzymes based on instructions that are found in their DNA. The problem is, of course, that a living system is needed to replicate DNA. But that living system depends on the information stored in DNA. How was DNA originally produced if its very replication is based on the information it contains? The RNA world gets rid of that problem.
The apparent correlation of the events with storm systems leads us to hypothesize that they are caused by electrical discharges to the stratosphere or ionosphere.
This generated interest among certain research groups, so ground-based observatories, airborne detectors, and other space-based observatories began looking for the same thing. It is now well-known that lightning is accompanied by the production of high-energy gamma rays.
While these gamma rays are of high enough energy to induce nuclear reactions, until now there has been no conclusive evidence that such reactions are actually occurring in connection with lightning storms. However, thanks in part to a Japanese academic crowdfunding site, we now have strong evidence that lightning does, indeed, produce nuclear reactions in the atmosphere!
As I was preparing to blog about a completely different subject today, I realized that over the past few days, I have come across two more examples that indicate Bill Nye really has no idea what he is talking about, so I decided to put off the topic I was going to discuss and write about those examples instead. One of them relates to the first anti-science action I mentioned above. Nye made a video telling parents to stop thinking for themselves and encouraging their children to think for themselves. Instead, he told them to simply parrot what the High Priests of Science say when it comes to the origin of life and its diversity. Obviously, that is about as anti-science as one can get. Along the way, he made an incredibly ignorant statement about the debate regarding origins:
Denial of evolution is unique to the United States.
As I pointed out previously, that is utter nonsense. There are creationist movements in many, many countries, including Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Mexico, and the Netherlands. Just a few days ago, however, I blogged about a specific example that comes from Germany. In 2015 Dr. Günter Bechly, a German paleontologist who was the curator of the Stuttgart Museum of Natural History, publicly announced that he thinks Intelligent Design is the best explanation for the origin and diversity of life. The Inquisition was mobilized, and he is no longer the curator of the Stuttgart Museum of Natural History. He is now a Senior Fellow at an Intelligent Design Think Tank, and he spoke at an Intelligent Design conference that was held at Cambridge University.
If denial of evolution were unique to the United States (as the anti-science guy says) Dr. Bechly would not have been “converted” from materialist NeoDarwinism to Intelligent Design, and there would not have been an Intelligent Design conference at one of England’s most famous universities.
A 2009 display used by paleontologist Dr. Günter Bechly. It was meant to show that the weight of the scientific evidence supports NeoDarwinian Evolution. For Dr. Bechly, it ended up having the opposite effect! (Image taken from the video linked below.)
In 2009, one of the largest German events celebrating the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, was headed up by Dr. Günter Bechly, a world-renowned paleontologist with an incredibly impressive list of original research published in the peer-reviewed literature. At the time, he was the curator of the Stuttgart Museum of Natural History, and he wanted to show, in no uncertain terms, that there is absolutely no scientific dispute about origins. As a result, one of the displays in his museum’s celebratory exhibit (shown above) was a scale with creationist and intelligent design resources on one side and Darwin’s book on the other. Darwin’s single book tipped the scale, indicating that the weight of the scientific evidence was in evolution’s favor.
…and what I recognized to my surprise is that the arguments I found in those books were totally different from what I heard either from colleagues or when you watch Youtube videos where the discussion is around intelligent design versus NeoDarwinian evolution. And I had the impression on one side that those people are mistreated – their position is misrepresented and on the other hand that these arguments are not really receiving an appropriate response. And they have merit.
He ended up being scientifically convinced that Intelligent Design is the better explanation for the amazing world he had been studying his entire career, and he made that decision public in 2015. Then he faced a firestorm.
I have written about tragedy and faith in previous posts (see here, here, and here). As Christians, we should understand that the pain we experience as a result of tragedy is temporary in light of eternity. We will eventually be in a place where all tears are wiped away (Revelation 21:4), and that should provide us with some measure of comfort. But there’s a big difference between being comforted and being thankful, isn’t there? Can we really be thankful if we experience a serious tragedy?
Yesterday, I preached at my home church, Wesley Free Methodist. I have preached there a few times before, and you can find three of my sermons and many better ones preached by others on the church’s “Weekly Message” page. This sermon was different, however, because it was not the sermon I wanted to give. It was challenging, and if you listen to it, you will hear my voice crack a few times due to emotion. However, I think the message I am trying to impart is important, so I am sharing it here.
You can listen to the sermon by clicking on the “play” icon in the bar below, or you can right-click on the link below the bar and choose “Save Link As” to download it to your device. If the message touches you and you think you know of someone else it might touch, feel free to share it.