I am reading a fascinating book entitled Galileo’s Daughter (Penguin Books, 2000). The author discusses Galileo’s life in the light of letters from one of his daughters, who lived most of her life as a nun. Her convent name was Suor Maria Celeste. While I have read a lot about the life of Galileo, this book has given me some new insights. It does a great job of blending the science that he worked on with the personal joys, sorrows, and difficulties that he experienced.
Currently, my favorite book on Galielo is Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible by Dr. Richard Blackwell. Published by The University of Notre Dame Press, it gives an unvarnished account of how poorly Galileo was treated by the Roman Catholic Church. In the end, however, this new book might end up becoming my favorite resource regarding this great man of science and faith. Of course, once I am completely finished, I will give it a thorough review.
The purpose of this post is to discuss an amazingly insightful thing written by Galileo way back in 1623. In a work that was meant to refute an interpretation of comets by Orazio Grassi, Galileo wanted to make it clear how little he cared about the opinion of the majority of scientists. He said:
The testimony of many has little more value than that of few, since the number of people who reason well in complicated matters is much smaller than that of those who reason badly. If reasoning were like hauling I should agree that several reasoners would be worth more than one, just as several horses can haul more sacks of grain than one can. But reasoning is like racing and not like hauling, and a single Arabian steed can outrun a hundred plowhorses. (p. 93)
Interestingly enough, Galileo was wrong about comets. He thought they were an atmospheric phenomenon, but we now know they are “dirty snowballs” that orbit the sun.
I expect nearly every creationist and Intelligent Design blog will eventually discuss this, but I thought I would throw in my “two cents” about a study that has serious implications for the creation/evolution controversy. Laura Poliseno and her colleagues have published a study in Nature that has demonstrated a function for a class of pseudogenes.1 The study will result in a radical change in biology’s understanding of what has been disparagingly called “junk DNA.”
Let’s start from the beginning. A pseudogene is a section of DNA that looks a lot like a gene that exists in another section of an organism’s genome. However, despite this similarity, the pseudogene does not produce a protein. In other words, suppose a researcher finds a gene that produces a given protein. Let’s call it “gene A.” If the researcher finds another part of the organism’s genome that looks incredibly similar to “gene A” but with a few modifications that make it impossible for the organism to turn it into a protein, that part of the organism’s genome is called a pseudogene.
Since pseudogenes cannot be turned into proteins, it has long been thought that they are the result of a gene being duplicated at some point in history and then being mutated to the point where the gene cannot be used anymore. Indeed, as a commentary in the same issue of Nature says:
Pseudogenes are considered to be defunct relatives of known genes. 2
What Poliseno and her colleagues have conclusively demonstrated is that at least some pseudogenes are anything but defunct, and they might not even be relatives of known genes.
As you can see by the links on the right, I am a fan of the Discovery Institute. As its website says, “The Institute discovers and promotes ideas in the common sense tradition of representative government, the free market and individual liberty.” Those are three concepts that are very near and dear to my heart. As a result, I get their Discovery Institute Views, and I read with interest the Summer 2010 edition.
On the front page of that newsletter, there was an article about Wesley J.
Smith, senior fellow at the Institute’s Center for Human Rights and Bioethics. He is a champion of human exceptionalism, the seemingly obvious concept that people are more valuable than other forms of life on this planet. At first, it seemed a bit odd to me that this concept needs a champion, since it is, as one of my chemistry professors used to say, “intuitively obvious to the most casual observer.” As I learned from the article, however, there are people who actually attempt to argue against this self-evident idea.
One such person is Peter Singer, professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. In 1979, he published a textbook called Practical Ethics. In 1993, a second edition was published, and that’s the one I found at the library. After skimming parts of the book and reading other parts, I can definitely say that this is one guy who has taken the hypothesis of evolution and twisted it into lunacy.
Bioluminescence is an amazing thing. Many living creatures use it to “light up” so they can communicate with others, more easily find food, or defend themselves against predators. In the picture above, for example, there are millions of single-celled organisms (called “dinoflagellates”) in the water. When they are disturbed, they use bioluminescence to glow. They are glowing in the picture because the wave is disturbing them. This is actually a defense mechanism. If the water is disturbed by an animal that eats them (such as a manta ray), the dinoflagellates glow, and the light might attract a predator that will eat (or scare away) the manta ray.
E. A. Widder wrote a review1 of bioluminescence in the May 7th issue of the Journal Science, and it is fascinating. As Widder points out, there are over 700 genera (the classification level above species) of organisms that use bioluminescence, and most of them (about 80%) live in the ocean. The mechanisms by which this process works are elegant and amazing, and they certainly defy any coherent evolutionary explanation.
Before the human genome was sequenced, it was thought that humans had well over 100,000 genes. This reasonable conclusion was based on the fact that that the human body is estimated to produce 120,000 – 140,000 different proteins. Since biology had determined that a gene tells a cell how to make a protein, it was assumed that 120,000 – 140,000 proteins would require 120,000 – 140,000 different genes.
As is often the case with science, however, the data turned out to be very surprising. When the human genome was initially sequenced, it was estimated to contain about 30,000 genes. Today, it is thought that the human genome contains 20,000–25,000 genes.1
So if a human cell requires a gene in order to make a protein, and if the human body produces as many as 140,000 different proteins, how can it do so with “only” 20,000–25,000 genes? A large part of the answer to that question has to do with an amazing process called alternative splicing.
A student recently sent me a question based on a statement made in Dr. Jerry Coyne’s book, Why Evolution is True. Since there doesn’t seem to be much written about it for a general audience, I thought I would summarize the issue. Here is Dr. Coyne’s statement:
One of my favorite cases of embryological evidence for evolution is the furry human fetus. We are famously known as “naked apes” because, unlike other primates, we don’t have a thick coat of hair. But in fact for one brief period we do – as embryos. Around sixth months after conception, we become completely covered with a fine, downy coat of hair called lanugo. Lanugo is usually shed about a month before birth, when it’s replaced by the more sparsely distributed hair with which we’re born. (Premature infants, however, are sometimes born with lanugo, which soon falls off.) Now, there’s NO NEED for a human embryo to have a transitory coat of hair. After all, it’s a cozy 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the womb. Lanugo can be explained ONLY as a remnant of our primate ancestry: fetal monkeys also develop a coat of hair at about the same stage of development. Their hair, however, doesn’t fall out, but hangs on to become the adult coat. And, like humans, fetal whales also have lanugo, a remnant of when their ancestors lived on land.1 (emphasis mine)
Note the strong words by Dr. Coyne. Embryos have “no need” for such hair, and thus its presence can “only” be explained as a remnant of our primate ancestry. Not surprisingly, Dr. Coyne is wrong on both counts.
Craig Venter and his team have built the genome of a bacterium from scratch and incorporated it into a cell to make what they call the world’s first synthetic life form.
It’s an amazing feat of biotechnology, and the process he and his team produced might result in some incredible applications down the road. What I find interesting about the process, however, is how well it illustrates that life simply cannot come about as the result of random chemical reactions guided by some sort of selection process. In other words, this stunning achievement really demonstrates the impossibility of abiogenesis.
The scientific report of Venter and his team’s accomplishment can be found on the website of the journal Science1. I finally got around to reading it, and it is truly fascinating. When you look at the details of how they created their “synthetic” life form, you find that Venter and his team relied on already-living systems not once, not twice, but a total of three times. Without relying on these already-living systems, they would not have been able to produce their “synthetic” cell.
I want to discuss more about Dr. Peter Borger’s excellent posts at Creation Ministries International’s website, because I really think he is onto something. As anyone who is remotely familiar with young-earth creationism knows, God designed specific kinds of organisms. Those organisms were created with the ability to adapt to changing environments, so the organisms we see today are those that descended from the various created kinds. The scientific pursuit dedicated to determining exactly what kinds of organisms were made and how the organisms we see today are related to those created kinds of organisms is called baraminology. This word comes from the Hebrew words bara, which means “created,” and min, which means “kind.”
So how did God give these created kinds the ability to adapt to changing conditions? According to Dr. Borger, He gave them baranomes, which are:
pluripotent, undifferentiated genomes with an intrinsic ability for rapid adaptation and speciation. Baranomes are genomes that contained an excess of genes and variation-inducing genetic elements, and the law of natural preservation shaped individual populations of genomes according to what part of the baranome was used in a particular environment.
In other words, the genome of each created organism was full of many genes, some of which the organism didn’t even need. These “excess genes,” as well as changes produced by the built-in elements that promote genetic change, were then acted on by natural selection (which he calls “natural preservation”) to produce the various organisms that we see today. In the article I linked above, Dr. Borger produces some powerful evidence to support this idea.
As I mentioned previously, Dr. Peter Borger has an amazing series of articles on genetics over at Creation Ministries International’s website. He is putting together a very impressive interpretation of the genome based on what has been learned about genetics over the past few years. He starts his series with a discussion of genetic redundancy, which is truly incredible.
The article begins by discussing something that has been known for quite some time: It is possible to disable a gene so that it no longer produces the protein it is supposed to produce. This technique is called gene knockout, because it as if the gene has been “knocked out” of the organism’s genome. The organism is referred to as a knockout organism or just a knockout.
Why would you study a knockout organism? Well, imagine that you have identified a gene but don’t really know what it does for the organism. If you create a version of the organism with that gene knocked out, any negative effects that you see will most likely be the result of the missing gene, so that will give you some idea of what the gene does.
This is a great experimental procedure that has produced a lot of genetic understanding over the years. However, it has also produced a very interesting result: often a knockout organism is not significantly different from the standard (usually called wild-type) organism. In other words, some genes can be knocked out of an organism with little or no effect on the organism itself.
This might sound surprising to someone who is not familiar with the genetics literature, but it really isn’t. In fact, geneticists thought they had an explanation for this interesting result…until experiments over the past decade or so really upset the applecart.
Dr. Stephen Meyer’s book, Signature in the Cell is an enormous success. It was named one of the New York TimesTimes Literary Supplement books of the year by a well-respected atheist. It was on Amazon’s top ten science books of 2009. It has been called a “landmark in the intelligent design debate” by a prominent professor of medical genetics, “a ‘must read’ for all serious students of the origin-of-life debate” by an accomplished PhD in ocean chemistry, and a “decisive case based upon breathtaking and cutting-edge science” by a chemistry professor who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Of course the real way you can see how successful the book has been is to read the hysterical reviews from those who disagree with its conclusions. Many of the reviews are quite comical. For example, on this blog I highlighted Dr. Francisco Ayala’s pathetic review where he not only displays his unfamiliarity with genetics, but he also displays the fact that he hasn’t even read the book.
Well, now you can go to one place to find many of these amusing reviews as well as how poorly they fare when they are evaluated based on science: the online book Signature of Controversy. This book is 105 pages of snarky (one section is called “Attack of the Pygmies”), detailed, and scientifically devastating arguments that show how poorly the critics of Signature in the Cell deal with the science related to the origins debate.
In some ways, this book is even better than Signature in the Cell. After all, the case made by Signature in the Cell is very impressive. However, while I was reading it, I kept asking myself, “What will the critics say about this?” After all, if you want to be truly educated on an issue, you must examine it from all sides. Well, with the help of this book, you can see what the critics have to say, and you can see how poorly what they say compares to science as we know it today.
Often, you can judge the quality and impact of a work based on what its critics have to say about it. The weaker and more desperate the critics’ arguments, the stronger and more important the work. Based on the criticisms leveled at Signature in the Cell, it is clearly one of the strongest and most important books related to the origins controversy.