Dr. Alvin Plantinga on Science and Christianity

Alvin Plantinga, a thoroughly brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable man.
Dr. Alvin C. Plantinga is arguably the most important Christian philosopher alive today. Best known for his works in epistemology, metaphysics, and Christian apologetics, he is widely credited for the revitalization of Christian philosophy that took place in the mid-to-late 1900s. Indeed, a 1980 Time Magazine article reported on the remarkable resurgence that had occurred in religious philosophy and gave Plantinga the lion’s share of the credit for it, calling him “America’s leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God.” Thanks to a member of my church, I found out that he would be lecturing at Taylor University, which is only about 35 minutes from my home. I was incredibly excited to hear such an amazing servant of God, and he certainly didn’t disappoint.

His first talk was entitled, “Science and Religion: Where the Conflict Really Lies.” He started his lecture with several witticisms. For example, many people are surprised to learn that although he is a Protestant, he is currently on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic institution. He says many people wonder why he left his faculty position at Calvin College to go to Notre Dame. “It’s actually quite simple,” he said, “I wanted to become Pope, and there has never been a pope from any university with the name Calvin.” He said he thought it would be fun to be the first Protestant Pope, and the University of Notre Dame would help him get closer to that goal. But he said he quickly found out that “becoming Pope is harder than you might think,” so his dream is still not realized.

I actually think I understand why Dr. Plantinga went from a Calvinist college to a Roman Catholic university. Like all deep thinkers, he understands that in order to be truly educated, we must look at issues from a variety of perspectives. I think part of the reason he ended up as a Protestant philosopher at a Roman Catholic university was so that he could see various aspects of Christian philosophy from a different perspective. I find that quite laudable.

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More Good News for the Gulf!

Oil slick from the Deepwater Horizon spill as seen by a NASA satellite (public domain image)
In September, I discussed some of the scientific findings regarding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that spewed hundreds of millions of gallons of water into the Gulf of Mexico. Those findings were quite encouraging. They showed that the ocean’s natural “cleanup crew” was busy trying to mitigate the damage that we did to the gulf. They demonstrated that the populations of bacteria rose and fell depending on what kinds of hydrocarbons were present in the ocean. This demonstrated there was a good chance that bacteria could take care of most of the oil that was released into the Gulf.

There was one nagging problem, however. While many of the hydrocarbons that were released into the Gulf were being destroyed by bacteria, the lightest hydrocarbon (methane) seemed to be persisting stubbornly. A study of the lighter hydrocarbons in the Gulf, which was published in October of last year, showed that very little methane from the spill had been destroyed.1 In fact, one of the authors of the study said that the results indicated:

methane would persist for many, many years, if not almost a decade.2

Well, it turns out that this particular scientist (and those who agreed with him) just didn’t have enough faith in the ocean’s natural cleanup crew!

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Creating Life in the Lab

Last year, I posted my take on Dr. Craig Venter’s amazing accomplishment in which he copied the genome of one bacterium and transplanted it into a different (but very similar) species of bacterium whose DNA had been removed. It was a marvel of biochemistry, but as I pointed out, it clearly demonstrates the impossibility of abiogenesis (the fantasy that life originated by natural processes). One commenter announced that my claim was bogus and undermined my credibility. He further said that the claim was “infantile and wrong on so many levels.”

Well, I guess there are now at least two PhD chemists whose credibilities have been undermined and who are “infantile and wrong on so many levels.” It turns out that Dr. Fazale Rana, a PhD chemist (with emphasis on biochemistry), also takes the same position in his book, Creating Life in the Lab. Indeed, the theme of the entire book is how modern developments in the attempt to make artificial life have conclusively demonstrated that life cannot the the product of strictly natural processes.

While the goal of Rana’s book is to survey all the different ways scientists are trying to produce life in the lab, he starts out his first discussion of actual laboratory results with Venter. This is probably because Venter has come the closest to producing artificial life. However, as I stated in my original post, Venter’s team had to rely on already-living cells no less than three separate times in order to produce their “synthetic” life form. As Dr. Rana states in his discussion of Venter’s results:

Though not their intention, Venter and his colleagues have provided empirical evidence that life’s components and, consequently, life itself must spring from the work of an intelligent Designer. (p. 46)

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Microbial Me

Bacteroides trichoides, one of the many species of bacteria that live in the human intestine (CDC image)
One of the most fascinating aspects of the biological world is the phenomenon of mutualism – two or more different species living together so that each organism benefits. I have blogged about this topic before (here, here, and here), and I discuss it quite a bit in my science texts. Technically, it is a subcategory of symbiosis, where two or more organisms live together. If all organisms benefit from this living arrangement, we call it mutualism. If one benefits and the others are not harmed, we call it commensalism. If one benefits and another is harmed, we call it parasitism.

Many scientists consider mutualism (and symbiosis as a whole) to be a fairly uncommon thing in nature. Sure, you can find some organisms that help each other out from time to time, but overall, nature is about organisms “battling it out” for survival. Nothing could be further from the truth! While organisms do compete against one another in nature, they also help each other quite a bit. As George D. Stanley, Jr wrote a few years ago in the journal Science:1

Symbiosis is the most relevant and enduring biological theme in the history of our planet.

Indeed, symbiosis (and mutualism in particular) is incredibly common throughout creation, and nothing makes that more apparent than a study of the microbiological communities that live in each one of us.

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New Survey in Science Shows That Evolutionary Propaganda Isn’t As Effective As Some Had Hoped

The journal Science recently reported on the results of The National Survey of High School Biology Teachers.1 This survey studied the teaching habits 926 public high school biology instructors that are supposed to be representative of the nation as a whole. The results cause alarm in some and hope in others.

The “take home” result is that 13% of the teachers surveyed spend at least one hour teaching either creationism or intelligent design in a positive light. In contrast, 28% of teachers are strong advocates of evolutionary biology, stressing it as a unifying theme in the life sciences. The majority (roughly 60%), however, advocate neither position. In fact, many of them spend as little time as possible on the subject of origins.

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DNA Is Even More Complex Than We Thought!

An Illustration of DNA.
Author: Kevin Spear
James D. Watson and Francis Crick are credited with determining the basic structure of DNA. They had been studying an enormous amount of data that had been collected on DNA, and in a brilliant flash of insight, they came to the conclusion that DNA is shaped like a spiral staircase. The “stairs” on the staircase were composed of two nucleotide bases linked together. There are four nucleotide bases in DNA: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G). In their model, A could only link to T and C could only link to G. This has become the generally-accepted view of DNA’s molecular structure, and a simplified illustration is shown on the left.

One of DNA’s elegant features is that the nucleotide bases are linked together with hydrogen bonds. Unlike their name implies, hydrogen bonds aren’t really chemical bonds at all. Instead, they are very strong attractions that exist between a hydrogen atom on one molecule and another atom (typically oxygen or nitrogen) on another molecule. Because hydrogen bonds are not true chemical bonds, they are not nearly as strong as chemical bonds. As a result, they can be “broken” with only a small amount of energy.

It turns out that this is the perfect design, because in order for DNA to code for proteins, the double helix must “open up” to expose the nucleotide bases. To do this, the link between the nucleotide bases must be broken. If the nucleotide bases were held together with chemical bonds, it would take a lot of energy to break the link, and that energy could easily damage the other bonds in DNA. Since the nucleotide bases are linked with hydrogen bonds, however, it takes only a small amount of energy to break the link. As a result, DNA can “open up” very easily, and the rest of the molecule is not harmed when that happens.

Watson and Crick determined all this, including exactly where the hydrogen bonds formed. Not surprisingly, the way in which the links form is called Watson-Crick pairing. Well, it turns out that there is another way the nucleotide bases can pair up, and a recent study shows that this is yet another amazing design feature of DNA.

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Here’s How Desperate Naturalists Are Becoming

This illustration shows that some molecules form two isomers that are like hands. They are mirror images but are not superimposable.
(Image courtesy of NASA)
Naturalistic evolutionists face many problems, most of which are the result of the fact that science doesn’t support what they want to believe. As a result, they must make up desperate explanations to work around what science clearly says. Nowhere is this more true than in origin-of-life research. Serious scientists understand that life comes only from other life. That’s what all the data clearly demonstrate. However, a naturalistic evolutionist simply cannot believe that. As a result, he or she must cook up wild scenarios by which nonliving chemicals can react with one another to magically create life.

Of course, there are countless problems with such wild scenarios. Demski and Wells recount many of them in their book, The Design of Life. Simon Conway Morris has an even more devastating review of the various origin-of-life scenarios in his book, Life’s Solution. One of the many intractable issues in any naturalistic origin-of-life scenario is chirality.

There are many molecules that have the same chemical formula but are quite different chemically. Glucose, for example is the sugar found in green, leafy vegetables. Fructose, on the other hand, is the sugar found in fruit. They are chemically quite different (which is why they taste different), but they have the exact same chemical formula: C6H12O6. They are chemically different because despite the fact that they contain exactly the same complement of atoms, the atoms arrange themselves into differently structured molecules. We call such molecules isomers.

There are many kinds of isomers, and one specific kind is a stereoisomer. Consider your hands. They are mirror images of one another. If you hold them together at the palms, your fingers and thumbs all match. However, if you try to lay one of your palms on the back of your other hand, your fingers and thumbs will not match. Your thumbs, for example, will be on opposite sides. In other words, while your hands are reflections of each other, they cannot be superimposed on one another. There are molecules like that as well. They are mirror images of each other, but there is no way you can turn one of the molecules around and make it look exactly like the other molecule. Such molecules are called stereoisomers. Because they are like your hands, we actually refer to one stereoisomer as the “left-handed” isomer and the other as the “right-handed” isomer.

An example of such a molecule is shown in the sketch above. The amino acid alanine can be formed two ways. Like your hands, those two molecules are mirror images of each other, but there is no way you can turn one of those images into an exact replica of the other. If a molecule has a stereoisomer, it is called a chiral molecule, and chiral amino acids cause all sorts of headaches for those who want to believe that life sprung from nonliving chemicals.

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If You Thought Some of My Other Posts Were Geeky…

A tortoiseshell cat helps explain genetics in light of X-inactivation. (Click image for credit)
A few posts back, I commented on some experimental genetic results that throw a real monkey wrench into the generally-accepted view of the evolution of gender. Part of that post dealt with the concept of X-inactivation, the process by which one of a woman’s X chromosomes is inactivated so that she has no more functional X chromosomes than a man. A commenter known as jsilverheels then asked an excellent question, which I attempted to answer.

All of that discussion related to chromosomes, dominance, recessiveness, etc. got me thinking about sex-linked inheritance. It’s a common subject taught in high school biology, and it is something I discuss in my biology textbook. However, X-inactivation seemed (in my mind) to contradict something that is routinely taught in most high school biology courses. I searched the web for an answer to this apparent contradiction, but to no avail. No matter what kinds of keywords I used, I couldn’t find an article that addressed this particular problem.

As a last resort, I ended up E-MAILing my sister-in-law. My wife is brilliant, and she comes from a family of brilliant people. Her oldest sister is not only an accomplished molecular biologist, she is also a dedicated college professor. I knew she would have the answer to this question, but I hate to bother people who are busy doing such productive things. Nevertheless, I really wanted an answer, so I broke down and sent her the question. Not surprisingly, she answered it straightaway. I thought I would blog about it, mostly so I would remember it later on.

WARNING: If you thought what I have posted before was geeky, you probably won’t like what appears below the fold!

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Who Cares About The Data? Don’t Question the Dogma!

Sterile worker ants tend their queen (the large one), her eggs, and her developing young
(Click image for credit)

Some of the most successful animals in creation have complex social structures. Consider the picture above. The queen ant (the large one in the picture) is the only one that can reproduce. The worker ants that tend the queen, care for her young, gather food, clean the nest, and protect the nest are sterile. They typically live short, dangerous lives so that the queen can live a long, safe life and produce many offspring.

When you look at the world through the simplistic lens of evolution, one obvious question is, “How could such social structures evolve?” If evolution is based on the idea of the survival of the fittest, why would individuals evolve to protect and care for some other individual? Worse yet, why would they evolve to become sterile, so that only the individual they are protecting and caring for can reproduce? Darwin tried to answer these questions with the concept of “group selection.” He thought that under certain circumstances, natural selection could work on a group of organisms instead of just on individuals. Evolutionists pursued this idea for quite a while, but then a more fashionable idea came along.

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Oh No! He’s Wrong Again!

Susumu Ohno is famous for postulating the existence of “junk DNA.” In his paper introducing the term, here is what he wrote about DNA sequences that he thought were nonfunctional:1

Our view is that they are the remains of nature’s experiments which failed. The earth is strewn with fossil remains of extinct species; is it a wonder that our genome too is filled with the remains of extinct genes?

Of course, as time went on, we slowly learned how wrong Ohno was in this assessment. While many DNA sequences are not used to produce proteins, specific functions have been found for much of this supposed “junk.” Indeed, as more and more functions have been found for more and more “junk” sequences, it is becoming increasingly clear that very little junk exists in the genome.

While Ohno did some marvelous work in his illustrious career, much of it was hampered by the blinders of evolution. When you are compelled to believe that nothing but natural processes are responsible for life, you simply cannot see the deep complexity of creation. As a result, you force simplistic ideas on science, whether the data support them or not. The idea that much of an organism’s genome could be filled with “junk DNA” is a perfect example of how evolutionary thinking produces absurd conclusions.

Recently, Yuanyan Xiong and colleagues have laid to rest another evolution-inspired idea that originated with Susumu Ohno.

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