Review of Shadow of Oz

shadow_ozDr. Wayne D. Rossiter earned his Ph.D. in ecology and evolution from Rutgers University in February of 2012 and is currently an assistant professor of biology at Waynesburg University. His book, Shadow of Oz, has already caused me to write two blog posts (here and here). In one of those posts, a commenter called Rossiter’s book a “must read,” and I have to agree. While I have issues with some of the content, on the whole it is a valuable addition to the wealth of information that has already been written on the subject of origins. As a result, I encourage you to read this book and seriously think about its contents.

In some ways, the main thrust of his book is obvious: the standard view of Neo-Darwinism (random mutations filtered by natural selection) is incompatible with the Christian faith. I don’t know many people who would disagree with that statement. Nevertheless, the way Rossiter makes that point is rather profound. Early on in the book, for example, he gives five extended quotations from different authors regarding the history of the universe. The first and fourth are from Dr. Carl Sagan (atheist), the second is from Dr. Richard Feynman (atheist), the third is from Dr. Richard Dawkins (atheist). The fifth is from Dr. Karl Giberson (Christian who is a staunch evolutionist). The passages are indistinguishable, and that’s the point. As Rossiter says:

I could have chosen any number of brief atheistic accounts of the history of the universe, and not one of them would differ in any functional way from the one offered by Giberson. (p. 25)

Rossiter’s discussion of Dr. Kenneth Miller’s views on origins is equally insightful and perhaps even more damning. He shows that, like Giberson, the “creation” account that Miller believes is indistinguishable from that of an atheist. Further, he shows in rather stark terms just how confused Miller is when it comes to what he believes. For example, Rossiter quotes Miller as saying that he tells his students that he believes in Darwin’s God. However, as Rossiter makes clear, that statement is pure nonsense:

…as Miller admits earlier in his book, Darwin was not a believer in God. He became a staunch agnostic, who demanded strict naturalistic answers for life’s workings. As so, it’s quite appropriate that Miller should claim to share Darwin’s view. (p. 163)

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Another Bad Sermon Illustration

A shepherd in Wales (click for credit)
A shepherd in Wales (click for credit)

My first post on a bad sermon illustration led a person on Facebook to ask me about a different sermon illustration. That also turned out to be a bad one. Well, that post led another person on Facebook to ask about another sermon illustration:

If a shepherd has a sheep that is always straying and getting into trouble, sometimes what the shepherd will do is break two of the sheep’s legs. Then the shepherd would set the bones and carry the lamb on his shoulders. It would take about five to eight weeks for the sheep’s bones to heal, and in that time, the lamb would grow closer to the shepherd. Once the sheep was well, he wouldn’t want to stray anymore because of the bond that developed between him and his master.

Maybe something traumatic has happened in your life because this is God’s way of breaking your legs.

Like the other two sermon illustrations I wrote about, this one is false. Breaking an animal’s bone is a risky business, and it causes an enormous amount of trauma. In addition, there are chances for complications, poor recovery, etc. In his classic book The Sheep, William Arthur Rushworth discusses what you should do with a sheep that has a broken leg.1

A sheep will, as a rule, nurse a broken leg and make a good recovery if the parts have been properly dressed, but unless the animal be a valuable ram or ewe, especially desired for breeding purposes, it is best not to try treatment, but to turn the animal at once over to the butcher.

I could not find any work from any reputable source that indicates a shepherd would ever intentionally break a sheep’s leg.

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Using Pigeons to Diagnose Cancer?

Dr. Pigeon examines a microscope image of tissue to see if it is cancerous. (image from the article being discussed)
Dr. Pigeon examines a microscope image of tissue to see if it is cancerous.
(image from the article being discussed)

Pigeons are surprisingly smart birds. Quite a while ago, I wrote about how pigeons can learn to solve probability problems better than some people. In addition, homing pigeons can use sound to find their way back home. Now here’s a new way of looking at the intelligence of pigeons: they can use their pattern-recognition abilities to find cancer in microscopic images of tissue!

In the study, researchers put 16 pigeons in a box with a computer screen (shown above). They were shown microscopic images of breast tissue, some of which indicated the presence of cancer, and some of which did not. There were two “buttons” on the computer screen, one on each side of the image. One button represented the answer “this image shows cancer,” and the other button represented the answer “this image does not show cancer.” Each pigeon was free to choose either button, and if the pigeon was correct, it got a pellet of food.

At first, of course, the pigeons’ answers were random. Over time, however, they learned to look at patterns in the image, and within a matter of hours, they were identifying cancer at a rate that was superior to random guessing. Within a month, they were spotting cancer with about an 80% accuracy rate. The most interesting effect, however, was obtained when several birds were shown an image and their combined answers were used to determine whether or not cancer was present. When that was done, the accuracy of the diagnosis was 99%, which is about as good as a trained person!

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Universal Genetic Code? No!

The basic process by which proteins are made in a cell. (click for credit)
The basic process by which proteins are made in a cell. (click for credit)

I am still reading Shadow of Oz by Dr. Wayne Rossiter, and I definitely plan to post a review of it when I am finished. However, I wanted to write a separate blog post about one point that he makes in Chapter 6, which is entitled “Biological Evolution.” He says:

To date, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), which houses all published DNA sequences (as well as RNA and protein sequences), currently acknowledges nineteen different coding languages for DNA…

He then references this page from the NCBI website.

This was a shock to me. As an impressionable young student at the University of Rochester, I was taught quite definitively that there is only one code for DNA, and it is universal*. This, of course, is often cited as evidence for evolution. Consider, for example, this statement from The Biology Encyclopedia:

For almost all organisms tested, including humans, flies, yeast, and bacteria, the same codons are used to code for the same amino acids. Therefore, the genetic code is said to be universal. The universality of the genetic code strongly implies a common evolutionary origin to all organisms, even those in which the small differences have evolved. These include a few bacteria and protozoa that have a few variations, usually involving stop codons.

Dr. Rossiter points out that this isn’t anywhere close to correct, and it presents serious problems for the idea that all life descended from a single, common ancestor.

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Another Bad Sermon Illustration

An adult bald eagle in flight (click for credit)
An adult bald eagle in flight (click for credit)

I posted my previous blog article on my Facebook page, and someone asked about another sermon illustration that involves eagles. A typical version of that illustration is:

To convince the little eagles that the time has come to leave the nest, the parent eagles “stir up the nest.” That is, they rough it up with their talons, and make it uncomfortable, so that sticks and sharp ends and pointy spurs stick out of the nest, so that it is no longer soft and secure, ruining their “comfort zone.” The nest is made very inhospitable, as the eagles tear up the “bedding,” and break up the twigs until jagged ends of wood stick out all over like a pin cushion. Life for the young eaglets becomes miserable and unhappy. Why would Mom and Pop do such a thing?

But to make matters worse, then the mother eagle begins to “flutter her wings” at the youngsters, beating on them, harassing them, and driving them to the edge of the nest. Cowing before such an attack, the little eagles climb up on the edge of the nest. At this point, the mother eagle “spreads her wings” and, to escape her winged fury, the little eagle climbs onto her back, and hangs on for dear life. As if that were not enough, then the mother eagle launches out into space, and begins to fly, carrying the eagle on her back. All seems safe and serene, the little eagle never expected such a thrilling ride — but that was nothing to what was to come shortly. For suddenly, without any warning, the mother eagle DIVES, plummeting downward, depriving the little eagle of its “seat,” and the next thing it knows, it is in free fall, falling, and tumbling down, down, down, in the air, its wings struggling to catch hold of the air currents, but flopping crazily due to its inexperience. For it must learn to flow, and there is nothing like “experience” to teach an eagle to fly! Instinct alone is not enough!

Just at it thinks all is hopeless and lost, however, the mother eagle swoops down below and catches it once again on its back, and soars back into the atmosphere. Much relieved, the young eagle hangs on for dear life. But just when he thinks everything is “OK” once again, the mother pulls another sneaky trick, and dumps him into the air, alone, again! Once again, the little eagle struggles, this time his wings begin to work a little better, and instead of tumbling like a rock pulled by gravity to certain destruction below, he manages to slow his descent, and is able to stay aloft a little longer, as his wings begin to strengthen. Again, if necessary, the mother eagle rescues him from death, and soars back into the heavens. But just as he thinks everything is finally “hunky dory,” she does it again! And down he goes! Finally, he learns how to catch the air currents and ride the winds, and begins to soar “like an eagle” — and now experiences the thrill of total “freedom” and “liberty”! Now he is no longer confined to the parameters of the nest. Now he is free to soar in the sky, and to be a true “eagle.”

Like the previous one I wrote about, there is nothing true in this illustration.

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A Bad Sermon Illustration

An adult bald eagle in flight (click for credit)
An adult bald eagle in flight (click for credit)

A student who has used some of my science courses contacted me asking if something he heard in a sermon was actually true. He said that it sounded kind of hard to believe, based on what he knew about science. The student’s question made me happy for two reasons. First, it showed that he was diligent in trying to learn the truth. Second, it showed that he was able to take what he had learned from my science courses and use it to do some critical thinking.

Here is one version of the story he heard:

The eagle has the longest life-span among birds. It can live up to 70 years, but to reach this age, the eagle must make a hard decision. In its 40’s, its long and flexible talons can no longer grab prey which serves as food. Its long and sharp beak becomes bent. Its old-aged and heavy wings, due to their thick feathers, become stuck to its chest and make it difficult to fly. Then, the eagle is left with only two options: die or go through a painful process of change which lasts 150 days. The process requires that the eagle fly to a mountain-top and sit on its nest. There, the eagle knocks its’ [sic] beak upon a rock until it plucks it out. After plucking it out, the eagle will wait for a new beak to grow back and then it will pluck out its talons. When its new talons grow back, the eagle starts plucking its old-aged feathers. After five months, the eagle takes it famous flight of re-birth and lives for 30 more years!

The idea, of course, is that change is hard, but if you make the change, great things can happen. While this is an inspiring tale, almost nothing in it is true. Let’s just start from the beginning and work through the story, comparing what the story claims to what we know about eagles.

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C.S. Lewis Wasn’t an Anti-Evolutionist, but He Did Work for British Intelligence!

This collection contains some of C. S. Lewis's most important works. (click for credit)
This collection contains some of C. S. Lewis’s most important works. (click for credit)
More than three years ago, I ran across two articles that mischaracterized C. S. Lewis’s views on creation. I wrote about both of them, but the one that distressed me the most claimed that Lewis was a “creationist and anti-evolutionist.” Since it so severely mischaracterized Lewis’s views, I asked the publisher, Creation Ministries International (CMI), to remove it from their website. At first, they did not. I wrote two other articles on the subject (here and here) and thought I was done.

Later on, however, an email correspondence led me to write a detailed rebuttal of the article and send it to the journal in which it was originally published. The journal published my rebuttal and gave the author of the article space to respond (which is the proper thing to do). However, it was clear that he could not defend what he had done to Lewis’s words. As a result, CMI eventually withdrew the article. I am pleased that they did the right thing.

Why am I telling you this? Because I recently ran across another article about C.S. Lewis, and it makes an incredible claim: “C.S. Lewis Was a Secret Government Agent.” The article was written by a well-respected Christian academic, Dr. Harry (Hal) Poe, who is also an avid collector of items related to Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein, and other literary figures who interacted with them. While the phrase “secret government agent” is a bit over-the-top, the essence of article seems quite reasonable, and it illustrates how someone as well-studied as C.S. Lewis can still harbor a surprising secret!

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Another Atheist Who Became a Christian

Dr. Wayne Rossiter holds a Ph.D in ecology and evolution from Rutgers University. (click for credit)
Dr. Wayne Rossiter holds a Ph.D in ecology and evolution from Rutgers University. (click for credit)
Over the holidays, I started reading a book entitled Shadow of Oz. I have yet to decide whether or not to post a full review of it, but I did want to point out what I have found to be the most interesting part of the book so far: the conversion story of its author, Dr. Wayne D. Rossiter.

Dr. Rossiter earned his Ph.D. in ecology and evolution from Rutgers University in February of 2012 and is currently an assistant professor of biology at Waynesburg University. One thing I found so fascinating about his conversion story is that it is rather different from mine. Science caused me to doubt my atheism, and an investigation of the evidence led me to a belief in Christianity. For Dr. Rossiter, however, it was not science itself that caused him to doubt his atheism. Instead, what he saw as the consequences of atheistic science caused him to fall into the Savior’s arms. Here is how he begins his conversion story:

…I had developed into a staunch and cantankerous atheist by the time I got to Rutgers to pursue a Ph.D. This was aided by an equally atheistic advisor who was of Dawkins’s ilk. Advanced education at our best universities is surprisingly insular. Like bobbleheads, we tend to read and agree on the same things, and give little to no countenance to critics of our views. (pp. 3-4)

I couldn’t agree more with his take on the insular nature of advanced education in the U.S. I vividly remember several instances from my early years in academia where a “senior” member of a research group would make fun of a position with which he disagreed, and the rest of us would bob our heads in agreement without even trying to suggest that there might be good reason to at least examine that position seriously. At the time, I didn’t understand how anti-science such actions were, but now that I look back on them, I shake my head at the sorry state of our advanced education system.

What caused Dr. Rossiter to doubt his atheism? After achieving an important milestone in every academic’s life (publication in a major journal of his field), he and his wife celebrated. He stayed up after his wife went to bed, and he became plagued by the “big questions” about life:

On what rational grounds could I care about the state of the planet (or even my family) after I’m gone? And what did I even mean by “good” or “bad”? I couldn’t argue that any objective morality existed apart from our subjective experiences. Any moral laws that might objectively exist – whether or not anyone ascribes to them – would be beyond our grasp, and we would have no objective or rational reason to obey them if they did exist. Nothing mattered. This is Dennett’s “universal acid,” and Darwin’s ideas applied that acid to the human condition. If molecules led to cells, and cells to organs, and organs to bodies, then the “molecules-to-man” hypothesis was true. We really were just wet computers responding to external stimuli in mechanical and unconscious ways. No soul, no consciousness. Just machines. I was completely and utterly devastated. (pp. 4-5)

This led to some serious soul-searching, which included psychiatric counseling. His counselor was a Christian, and that intrigued him, so he read some intellectuals who found belief in God to be both rational and compelling. This caused him to doubt his atheistic view of science, and eventually, he became a Christian. The university at which he now teaches is a Christian university.

I have to say that I have never been impressed by the argument from morality, which is one of the issues he touches on in his quote above. I recognize that there are many who see it as the most convincing evidence for God’s existence, but it never swayed me as an atheist. Even now that I am a believer, I don’t see its power.

However, I do agree strongly with the last part of his quote. As I see it, if you believe that life is simply a collection of molecules whose interactions are guided by natural forces, there is no way you can believe in free will or consciousness. After all, if my brain is all there is to my mind, then there is no way for me to choose my beliefs or my actions. Indeed, my brain is simply a collection of cells, and those cells interact according to strict chemical and physical laws. There is no way to deviate from the outcomes required by those laws, so none of my actions or thoughts are my own. They are simply the consequences of the initial conditions of my brain and the interactions of its parts.

While this logical conclusion never convinced me to doubt my atheism (I was happy to be an automaton), I can see how it would cause others to do so. I thank God that it helped Dr. Rossiter to see the Light!