A Failed Test of Fossil Record Interpretation

When you read about earth history in most textbooks, lots of definitive statements are made concerning events that occurred in the distant past. For example, in Biology: How Life Works, Volume 1 (Morris et. al., Macmillan 2014, 2016), students are told:

A giant meteor struck Earth 66 million years ago, causing the extinction of dinosaurs and many other species…Researchers have documented other mass extinctions, but the event that eliminated the dinosaurs appears to be the only one associated with a meteorite impact. (p. 7)

Any unsuspecting student reading those words would think that we know that a mass extinction of dinosaurs occurred 66 million years ago, that it was definitely cause by a meteor impact, and that there have been other mass extinction events as well.

The problem, of course, is that definitive statements like the ones above come from interpretations of the fossil record. The fossil record itself is spotty at best, and the interpretations are based on all sorts of unverifiable assumptions. So the obvious question becomes, “How accurate are those interpretations?” That’s awfully hard to test, since we can’t go back in time and confirm them. However, the great thing about science is that original thinkers can come along and figure out ingenious ways to test what you might think is untestable.

A team of researchers from the Florida Museum of Natural History, the University of Bologna, the University of the Bahamas, and the State University of New York at Geneseo decided to test how well we know things like the mass extinction events discussed in the textbook I just quoted. They took a series of geological samples from the Po Plain in Italy that are supposed to represent what went on over the past 126,000 years. They specifically examined the mollusks in those samples, which leave behind hard shells.

Their test was both simple and brilliant: Imagine that a mass extinction event occurred right after the samples were taken, and all 119 identified species of mollusks that are currently living there had been wiped out. Would this hypothetical mass extinction be properly interpreted from the fossil remains in the geological samples that had been taken? Not surprisingly, the answer was a solid, “No!”

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Are All Animals Really Omnivores?

An alligator eats a pond apple (courtesy of the Everglades NPS)

I was teaching one of my online biology courses yesterday and discussed something virtually every biology student learns: classifying organisms as producers (who make their own food), consumers (who eat other organisms for food), or decomposers (who decompose dead organisms for food). I then mentioned that consumers can be further classified as herbivores (eating only plants), carnivores (eating only animals), or omnivores (eating both plants and animals). I then asked the students how they would classify an alligator. Of course, they classified alligators as carnivores. I then showed them the picture above. That alligator is eating a fruit (a pond apple) on purpose.

It has long been known that alligators and crocodiles ingest plant material, but it was originally thought to be accidental. Perhaps the alligator was biting for a fish, missed, and took in some plant material that was floating in the water. However, recent research shows that in most species, the ingestion is probably not by accident. It is a part of the dietary strategy.

After class, I was looking at the scientific literature and ran across an incredible report about a similar phenomenon in bonnethead sharks. Once again, it has been well known that these sharks ingest seagrass, but it was thought to be accidental. Furthermore, since a carnivore’s digestive system is tuned towards breaking down meat, it was thought that the sharks gained no nutrition from the accidentally-ingested grass. We now know that this is definitely not the case.

The authors of the study fed bonnethead sharks a diet that was mostly seagrass with just a bit of squid. The seagrass had been labeled with a specific isotope of carbon (carbon-13), which makes up only about 1% of naturally-occurring carbon. This allowed the them to identify the chemicals from the seagrass and figure out what happened to them after the seagrass had passed through the sharks. They found that the sharks were actually digesting the seagrass and using it for nutrition. In fact, even though their diet was 90% seagrass, the sharks gained weight! Finally, the authors found that the sharks’ digestive tracts showed the activity of enzymes which are designed to break down plant matter. They write:

We show that a coastal shark is digesting seagrass with at least moderate efficiency, which has ecological implications due to the stabilizing role of omnivory and nutrient transport within fragile seagrass ecosystems.

If sharks and alligators can eat and digest plant matter, probably all animals we think of as carnivores are at least capable of eating and digesting plant material. Combine that with the fact that animals thought to be strict herbivores have been found deliberately eating other animals, and we come to the strong possibility that all animals are really omnivores.

Of course, one “take home” message from all this is that creation is marvelously complex, and our attempts to categorize it are incomplete, at best. However, it also has implications when it comes to the issue of origins. Most young-earth creationists (including myself) think that before the Fall, all animals were herbivores. We also believe in a global Flood, where Noah and his family had to care for different kinds of animals on the ark for a bit more than a year. Some of those animals were carnivores, but they could not have been fed other animals (except perhaps some sea creatures from time to time). Creationists critics often say both situations are impossible, because some carnivores must eat meat, or they will die.

If a species of shark can gain weight on a diet of mostly plants, it is at least conceivable that prior to the Fall and for a year on the ark, the animals that gave rise to the “carnivores” we see today could have lived on a diet of only plants.

“Nylon”-Digesting Bacteria are Almost Certainly Not a Modern Strain

This marine bacterium has the ability to digest nylon waste products, despite the fact that it doesn’t live in an environment that contains nylon waste products. (click for credit)

Evolutionists are fond of stating “facts” that aren’t anywhere near factual. For example, when I was at university, I was taught, as fact, that bacteria evolved the genes needed to resist antibiotics after modern antibiotics were made. As with most evolutionary “facts,” this turned out to be nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of evolutionists. We now know that the genes needed for antibiotic resistance existed in the Middle Ages and back when mammoths roamed the earth. They have even been found in bacteria that have never been exposed to animals, much less any human-made materials.

Of course, being shown to be dead wrong doesn’t produce any caution among evolutionists when it comes to proclaiming the “evidence” for evolution. When Dr. Richard Lenski’s Long Term Evolution Experiment (LTEE) produced bacteria that could digest a chemical called “citrate” in the presence of oxygen, it was hailed as definitive “proof” (a word no scientist should ever use) that unique genes can evolve as a result of random mutation and selection. Once again, that “fact” was demonstrated to be wrong in a series of experiments done by intelligent design advocates. They showed that this was actually the result of an adaptive mutation, which is probably a part of the bacterial genome’s design.

Recently, I learned about an impressive genetic study by young-earth creationists Sal Cordova and Dr. John Sanford. It lays waste to another evolutionary “fact” I was taught at university: the recent evolution of nylon-digesting bacteria. The story goes something like this: In 1975, Japanese researchers found some bacteria, which are now charmingly named Arthrobacteria KI72, living in a pond where the waste from a nylon-producing factory was dumped. The researchers found that this strain of bacteria could digest nylon. Well, nylon wasn’t invented until 1935, and there would be no reason whatsoever for a bacterium to be able to digest nylon before it was invented. Thus, in a mere 40 years, a new gene had evolved, allowing the bacteria to digest something they otherwise could not digest.

Of course, we now know that this story isn’t anywhere close to being true.

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Study Demonstrates that Most Animal Species Came Into Existence at the Same Time?

Most of an animal’s DNA is in the nucleus of the cell, but there is DNA in the powerhouse of the cell, which is called the mitochondrion.
In a comment on a previous article, a reader informed me of a study that I had not seen. It was published in the journal Human Evolution and its results are consistent with the idea that 90% of all animal species came into being at roughly the same time. This is certainly not what the hypothesis of evolution would predict, so some creationists as well as some intelligent design advocates have presented the study as evidence against evolution. In my reply to the comment, I expressed skepticism, even though I would love for the conclusions of the study to be correct. Now that I have read the study itself, I am even more skeptical.

The authors of the study analyzed the DNA of many different species of animals. However, they did not look at the DNA found in the nucleus of the cell. That DNA, called nuclear DNA, is responsible for most of an organism’s genetically-defined traits. They looked at mitochondrial DNA, which is the small amount of DNA that is found in the mitochondrion, the structure that produces most of the energy that the cell ends up using. To give you an idea of how different mitochondrial DNA is from nuclear DNA, the nuclear DNA of a human being is over 3 billion base pairs long, while human mitochondrial DNA is just over 16,000 base pairs long. You don’t need to know what “base pairs” are to see that there is only a tiny, tiny amount of mitochondrial DNA in a human cell compared to nuclear DNA.

Now even though there isn’t a lot of mitochondrial DNA, some sections of it seem to be very characteristic of the species of animal from which the cell comes. For example, a 2016 study analyzed a section of mitochondrial DNA (called the COX1 gene) among different species of birds. It showed that the COX1 gene alone was enough to separate 94% of the birds into species. Similar studies indicate that the COX1 gene can separate other species of animals, so the sequence of the COX1 gene is often referred to as the DNA barcode of the animal. This is what the authors of the study I am discussing focused on.

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Human Technology is Garbage Compared to Biology

The main printed circuit board from a Hewlett-Packard HP9000 Model 715 UNIX Workstation. (click for credit)

Look at the picture above. It is the motherboard (the main printed circuit board) from a computer. How do you think it came to be? It could have been formed by an earthquake at a spare electronics warehouse. After all, it’s at least possible that in the midst of the warehouse shaking and being destroyed, lots of spare electronic parts started crashing into each other and, as a result, just happened to produce what you see above. Of course, I hope that no one is silly enough to believe such a story. It is obvious that the motherboard is the result of careful design and craftsmanship.

An example of the computer I used in the late 1980s. (click for credit)
As someone who started programming computers with punch cards, used DOE grant money to buy a 40-Megabyte hard disc for $1,200 in 1989, and stored his unimaginably vast (800 Megabytes) thesis experiment data on sixteen separate 10.5-inch magnetic tape reels, I have witnessed a lot of progress in the area of computers. I marvel at how technology can produce a hand-held device that is more powerful than the VAX-11/750 (pictured on the left, without the keyboard and monitor) that I used to analyze my thesis experiment. Nevertheless, with all of the amazing progress that human engineering has produced, it doesn’t come close to what we see in the natural world.

Consider, for example, this article’s comparison of a personal computer to a mouse brain:

A personal computer simulates a mouse-scale cortex model (2.5×106 neurons) 9000 times slower than a real mouse brain operates, while using 40,000 times more power (400 W versus 10 mW). [reference marks omitted for clarity]

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Cells Have Digital-to-Analog Converters

A schematic representation of the digital-to-analog conversion process.
(click to see credit for unedited image)

Suppose you want to listen to some music. You pull out your iPod or your phone, put the earbuds in your ears, and you start to enjoy your favorite tunes. You probably don’t think about the process that makes this possible: digital-to-analog conversion. Computers and devices based on them store all of their information digitally. On your iPod or phone, the music is stored as a string of 1’s and O’s. The 1’s represent electricity being on, and the 0’s represent electricity being off. So as your iPod or phone “plays” the music, it comes out digitally: as pulses of electricity, either on or off.

If you tried to listen to those pulses, they would make no sense to you, because your ears aren’t designed to hear things digitally. Instead, they are designed to hear sounds in a continuous flow. We call this analog. So while your iPod or phone stores music digitally, it must convert that music into a continuous, analog signal so that you can understand it. It does this with an electrical circuit called a digital-to-analog converter (DAC). Here is a picture of a simple one (click it for credit):

Obviously, the digital-to-analog converter in your phone or iPod is much more sophisticated. It produces a higher-quality analog signal, but probably more importantly, it is packed into a tiny space. That’s what really makes it sophisticated. It can do a complex job while taking up very little room.

It turns out that cells have essentially the same thing, but it is significantly more sophisticated than what you find in an iPod or phone.

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The Surprising Reason that Some Cave Fish are Blind

The Mexican blind cave fish (click for credit)

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.

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Another Evolutionary Idea Falisified

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.

While Fisher’s fundamental theorem is still quite correct, it is limited. In particular, it doesn’t take the effect of mutations into account. However, there is a corollary attached to the theorem: Since mutations should increase the genetic variation in a population, mutations should lead to a faster rate of fitness increase. While that corollary was important in shaping Neo-Darwinism, a recent paper published in the Journal of Mathematical Biology has shown that it is false when even mildly realistic conditions are considered.

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Here’s Another College That Gets It

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.

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More Evidence That Bill Nye Has No Idea What He Is Talking About

Bill Nye, the Anti-Science Guy (click for credit)
Bill Nye calls himself “The Science Guy,” but most of his actions are decidedly anti-science. In 2012, he made a video saying that we should censor a scientific idea because it goes against the scientific consensus. He also narrated a faked experiment, demonstrating his ignorance of the physics related to global warming. He published a book about evolution that was riddled with scientific errors. He tried to discuss human reproduction and once again, ended up showing his ignorance. He also contends that the discipline which gave us science is essentially useless. The fact that he is one of today’s spokepersons for science is a frightening indication of this generation’s scientific illiteracy.

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. G√ľnter 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.

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