The Non-Conservation Principle in Biology

There is no denying that biology is a form of chemistry. Biology is derived from and depends on all the rules of chemistry, including equilibrium, reaction kinetics, catalysis, organic synthesis, hydrolysis, entropy, etc. However, biology is a form of chemistry not seen elsewhere in the universe. Biology has emergent properties that do not allow the chemical rules we know from simple chemistry to fully (or even partially) explain the behavior of biological systems.

At first glance, the most important distinguishing feature of biological chemistry from non-biological chemistry is the degree of complexity found in living organisms. Several hundred growth factors, cyclins, kinases, molecular switches, cascade systems, recognition signals, signal transducers, receptors, and assorted other protein factors have been identified in just the related fields of transcriptional regulation and cell growth control. All of these chemical entities interact in complex concentration-dependent ways with each other and with other factors. The same is true for energy conversion, homeostasis, reproduction, and all the other functional attributes of living cells. Add a higher level of physiological complexity for multicellular organisms, and we have further emergent properties that we can see in the life all around us.

But it isn’t only the enormous degree of complexity per se that makes biology fundamentally different from the chemistry and physics from which it emerged. The distinguishing factor of biological entities is that there is no conservation law for life. Life may be created and destroyed. Living entities are formed from other living entities, and the destruction of life (defined as death) is irreversible.

The biological non-conservation principle does not violate the physical laws of conservation, because when a biological entity dies, only its biological attributes are destroyed. Matter and energy of the organism are neither created nor destroyed but are conserved or transformed as required by the laws of physics.

The physical law of energy and matter conservation can be expressed by the simple equation:


where X is the sum of energy and matter in a system, and T is time. There is no change in the total energy and matter content in the system as time goes by. Therefore  X = K, a constant.

If Y is the sum of biological entities, a simple analog of the first equation is


where the rate of change in Y can be anything from negative to 0 to positive, depending on the relative values of the rates of birth (dB/dT) and death (dD/dT). The value for Y at any time can range from 0 (extinction) to C, the maximum carrying capacity of the system for life. This indicates that life is not conserved – it can be created or destroyed.

The non-conservation principle (NCP) distinguishes life from all other forms of energy and matter and leads directly to some of the important laws and attributes of biological systems. Physical and chemical rules can be used to describe the action of an enzyme or the flow of energy in a cell, but at higher levels of biological organization, physical laws are not of much use, and uniquely biological laws that take the NCP into account are required. The most important of these is evolution by natural selection, which is utterly dependent on the NCP. Without biological death, natural selection could not function. It is the requirement for death, as well as the requirement for inheritance of characteristics, that make evolution a biological construct, not directly applicable (except in very general analogies) to nonbiological systems.

Organisms die when the complex chemical interactions between hundreds to thousands of molecules no longer function in a way to maintain chemical homeostasis. The death of organisms is not equally probable, and that fact allows for natural selection to occur. Because natural selection must favor survival (by definition), biological creatures evolve with a teleonomic (Mayr’s term for programmed teleology in biology) drive toward increased fitness. Thus, creatures become better adapted to their environments, and new features arise. This is not at all proof or even indication of external design, but it is evidence for an internal design.  I might mention that Daniel Dennett is a proponent of biological teleology, so the idea is clearly not theistic in and of itself.

The reductionist temptation to dismiss the existence of purely biological laws in the study of biology is a philosophical mistake that has likely been a barrier to progress in our understanding of life. Many modern biologists have rejected this view, and devoted themselves to an exciting exploration of the way complexity and emergence can lead to major insights in biological theory. I believe that a recognition of the non conservation principle in biology should be an important part of that exploration. .


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About the Bible.

“You guys are kidding, right?”

“What do you mean?”

“What do I mean? You are collaborating on a book. One of you writes the first chapter, the other writes the second. And so on”

“Right. That’s what we did.”

“Great. But tell me something. Did either of you read what the other one wrote?”

The two authors looked at each other, and then back at the editor.

“Um, well, I mean… Not in, you know, detail,” said the first author (we will call him P). “But I thought he did a fine job.”

“Really? Interesting. You thought he did a fine job. You (pointing at P) talk about man being created “male and female, He created them” on Day 6, and your friend here (pointing at Mr. J) talks about some guy made of dust and a woman made from his rib. Did you happen to notice that the two of you wrote two chapters for one book (and a very important book, because the plan was to put it in the beginning of the whole anthology) that not only are inconsistent but  contradict each other?” The editor was raising his voice.

After a brief silence, J spoke up. “I cannot change a word or a jot of what I wrote” (I don’t know what a jot is, but that’s what he said). “Everything I wrote was inspired directly from God.”

“Me too,” said P.

The editor threw his pencil down on the desk in exasperation. “Look, we all work for the same team here. If you insist I will send these two chapters upstairs, but I am sure you are both facing some major rewrites.”

A short time later, God called the editor for an audience.

“Yes, Lord?”

“Great job on the Genesis book. I love those first two chapters.”

“Um, thank you, Lord, but…. I mean, are you sure? Don’t they strike you as… Oh, I don’t know, a bit discordant with each other?”

“Well, they were written by two fellas, each with different styles, so yeah, they are diverse all right. That’s exactly what I was going for when I assigned those guys to do this.”

“But, Lord, I am sorry to say this, and I mean no offence, but, well, they contradict each other. I mean there are two completely different versions of the creation of man.”

The Lord smiled.

“I think you are a great editor. But there is something you need to learn about this whole project. I have chosen some wonderful writers with great faith and passion. I have chosen some other writers who are not that wonderful, but whose faith and passion are even deeper. Every word they write is inspired by me, but written by them. If I think they got it wrong, I have them change it. So you never have to worry that I don’t approve of what they hand in to you. You can consider all of it to be preapproved.”

“Now, I will also tell you that I don’t care about having a book that is an easy read. It is not going to be something you can read in two weeks at the beach, and then forget the plot and the names of the characters. It is not going to have a single cliché in it. Many times it will not make sense at all. It will have violence, and poetry, love and anger; it will be exciting, and more boring than a cookbook. It will appear to contradict itself, like in those two chapters, but it won’t really. It will contain enigmas, puzzles, challenges, clues, mysteries, allegories, history, and lots of characters. Sometime the heroes will seem to be villains, and even I will come off as unpleasant at times.”

“But Lord, I thought you wanted this Book, or this series of books, to stand the test of time, to inspire generations of people, to be translated into hundreds of languages and spread throughout the word – to give comfort, advice, and inspiration to your people. Why would you want this book to be so hard to figure out?”

“Because that is exactly how it will stand the test of time and be spread around the world. This Book, My Book, will be read and not understood, until someone works hard enough to get it. It will be discussed and debated. And so people will think and learn. Believe me, I know what I’m doing. I am God, after all.”

“Oh, and by the way. Those first two chapters of Genesis that you are worried about?”

“Yes, Lord?”

“Don’t worry, they don’t contradict each other at all. There is a hidden message in there, that might be a bit obscure, but my people will find all kinds of new ways to understand the world, and when they do, they will figure everything out, including my book. They are good at figuring things out – it’s what they like to do. That’s one of the reasons I love them. They will think and argue and do experiments…

“Do what, Lord?” the editor interrupted.

“Never mind, you will find out. Anyway, eventually they will get it all, and then when they praise Me and the glory of My creation, they will really mean it, for its glorious splendor will amaze and delight them.”

The editor sighed. Sometimes he wished God was not such a micromanager, but then He wouldn’t be God, would he?

“OK Lord, I understand. I will let it all go as I get it.”

“Good. I’m glad to hear it. Because if you think Genesis is tough, wait until you see what D hands in”

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Accepting Evolution

I have noticed that for some people, the reality of evolution is not a scientific issue, nor even a theological one. They will never be convinced by either the science or the theology that evolution is both true and consonant with a Christian view of scripture, because the roots of their opposition lie elsewhere – in a political and social worldview for which evolution has become a marker.

I know that many people have been persuaded by the scientific evidence and/or the theological interpretations that are consistent with evolution as God’s method for creation of the diversity of life. But others use a version of science or the Bible as screens to refute the idea of evolution, because they experience it as an intolerable challenge to their basic definitions of themselves and their concepts of humanity’s place in the world.

Of course, the situation is exacerbated by the insistence of many vocal atheists (in full agreement with YECs) that evolution is an atheistic idea. But I think the problem is deeper than that. Evolution is perceived by many as part of the “liberal” social ethic, along with gay rights and gay marriage, feminism, diversity, universalism, and so on. As a scientific theory, this is nonsense. In fact, historically, evolution has been used as propaganda for the extreme right – think of Nazism, scientific racism, genetic determinism (which is making a strange comeback), and so on.

We are living in world where Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus “what is truth”? has many possible answers. This has probably always been true, in the time of Pilate and throughout history. The challenge is for us to see past our own political and social ideas of truth (which, I believe, are always shaky at best) and see a higher level of truth, that which is gained by the twin pillars represented by the two Books of God’s works and words – the scientific knowledge of nature, and truth of Scripture. Some will say that for evolution, these two books do not agree, but I believe that is false. What is clear is that science and politics treat the definition and description of truth in very different ways.

So we need people to understand that Darwin’s great idea is actually not related to political or social issues, unless it is falsely used in such a way. It is not a political or social theory. It does not say that humans are basically animals, nor does it contend that there is nothing special about human beings. Evolutionary theory, used properly, says nothing about human equality or inequality, and it takes no stand on any of the political issues that are so divisive in the US today. It is a scientific theory that has gotten overwhelming evidentiary support, and is not more political or social than the theory of gravity.

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On Maundy Thursday

On Maundy Thursday, Jesus came into the Church where I was, and sat down in the pew behind me. The service was mostly a musical rendition by the Church choir, along with another church choir and a string quartet. They performed a work by Monteverdi and Haydn’s Missa Brevis. I sat near the front, close to the choir loft, since my wife is a soprano in our Church choir and I like to watch her as she sings.

Maundy Thursday is the Thursday of Holy Week. It marks the Last Supper, the betrayal and arrest of Christ, and is the lead up to the Good Friday remembrance of the Crucifixion. A somber period, full of reflection. I turned around a couple of times to see how Jesus was reacting to the service. He was paying close attention to the sermon, I noticed, but when I turned around during the singing of the Haydn mass, I could see tears on his face, and his eyes were closed.

I also closed my eyes, and began to pray.
“Thank you, Lord,” I prayed, “for this beautiful music”. Jesus answered me.

“You’re welcome” I heard him say, “but it isn’t I, but your lovely wife and her friends who are providing the music”. I spun around in the pew, and saw that Jesus was sitting still with his eyes closed, and there was a very slight smile on his face. He was speaking directly to my soul, without sound.

“And thank the composers, who even now are listening to this beautiful rendition of their work, and are gladdened” I turned back to the front of the Church, bowed my head, and asked Jesus:

“Why have you come here, to this Church, tonight, Lord? There are larger Churches, Cathedrals even, with much larger choirs, filled with professional singers, and famous preachers.”

“I know that, brother. I have heard people say that there are much bigger and better planets than this one, that there are, or there must be, better species than humans, and that the insignificance of this place and this time is staggering. When I hear that I respond, ‘that might be true, but you are here”’.

“Lord are you saying that you have come here for me? Has my time come to go with you?”

“No, brother, not yet. I have come to tell you a parable.  Once there was a fisherman who was never lucky. He struggled to catch enough fish to survive. He prayed all the time for mercy, for help in catching fish. I granted his wish for mercy and answered his prayer. I told him that it didn’t matter how many fish he caught, that what mattered was that he catch the right fish.”

I bowed my head, and heard the choir singing the final Dona Nobis Pacem of the mass. When the Pastor said ‘Amen’, I knew that Jesus had gone. “Thank you, Lord,” I prayed.

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Christian scientists

Some time ago, the militant atheist Richard Dawkins began promoting the idea that while he had to admit that there were some scientists who were Christians, the better scientists, (such as members of the National Academy) tend to be atheists or agnostics. This pronouncement, based on one survey, was not seen as very strong evidence of anything, especially since it was news to no one that most scientists are not very religious. What is much more striking is the large number of modern and past scientists who are or have been religious. This fact goes against the concept that Dawkins was trying to promote, namely that being religious was counter to the basic principles of doing good science.

There are lists of famous or high-quality scientists who were or are Christians, including an extensive one on Wikipedia. I often like to cite some of these people when arguing with atheists who trot out the “no true scientist” argument against faith. I took the Wiki list, and edited it down to only those scientists I have heard of, and/or actually know. These names, each with links to a Wiki article about them, are given below. Following that I have added some of the Nobel Laureate scientists who are professing Christians. I post these lists as a resource for myself, and anyone else who might find them useful. The original Wiki list is far more extensive and detailed, so I recommend that one for purposes that require a more comprehensive treatment. The people in bold, are those I know personally.

Historical and Contemporary Christian scientists:

Francis BaconIsaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, Robert Boyle, Gottfried Leibniz, Leonhard Euler, Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph Priestley, Alessandro Volta, Andre Marie Ampere, Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage, James Clerk Maxwell, Gregor Mendel, Asa Gray, Lord Kelvin, George Washington Carver, Arthur Eddington, Ronald Fisher, Georges Lemaître, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Michael Polanyi, Wernher von Braun, Ian Barbour, Francis Collins, Darrel R. Falk, Denis Lamoureux, Alister McGrath,  Kenneth R. Miller,  Simon C. Morris, Stephen Barr,  John D. Barrow,  Owen Gingerich, Ard Louis, John Polkinghorne, Jennifer Wiseman, Freeman Dyson, Justin L. Barrett, Denis Alexander 


Christian Nobel Laureates in the Sciences:

Alexis Carrel Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Charles Glover Barkla  Nobel Prize in Physics

Philipp Lenard  Nobel Prize in Physics

Reverend Silas Franklin Millikan, Nobel Prize in Physics

Arthur Compton Nobel Prize in Physics.

Ernest Walton  Nobel Prize in Physics

Nevill Francis Mott Nobel Prize in Physics

John Eccles Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Arthur Leonard Schawlow Nobel Prize in Physics.

Richard Smalley Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Joseph Murray Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Charles H. Townes Nobel Prize in Physics

Werner Arber Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

John Gurdon Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Peter Agre Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Gerhard Ertl Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Brian Kobilka Nobel Prize Chemistry

Antony Hewish Nobel Prize in Physics

William Daniel Phillips Nobel Prize in Physics

Carlo Rubbia Nobel Prize in Physics

Again, I am publishing this post as a resource for anyone who can use it. It shows the utter bankruptcy of the idea that science and Christian faith are not compatible.

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The Meaning of Purpose by Randy Isaac

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Randy Isaac, former Executive Director of the American Scientific Affiliation, and a good friend. Randy and I share an interest in the concept of teleology in biology, and how notions of purpose and causation might fit into the science faith nexus. Randy also has an excellent article on the subject in this months issue of Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith. In this post Randy, an authority on information science, explains the various meanings of purpose. 


The word “purpose” is so common that few people take the time to define it carefully. In contrast, terms like “teleology” and “design” get a lot of attention. More attention needs to be paid to the various nuances of “purpose” as widely used. In this post I consider three distinct usages of the concept of purpose: 1. External agent, 2. Self-determined, and 3. Intrinsic.

1 External agent. The most widely used connotation of “purpose” is a conscious being that ascribes purpose to an object or another being in one of three ways: a. Construction, b. Appropriation, and c. Assignment.

Construction applies predominantly to tools or machines that are designed and built for the purpose of carrying out some task. A hammer, for example, is designed and built to drive a nail into wood. Appropriation refers to a tool or machine constructed for a different purpose but appropriated to do a different task than the one for which it was constructed. A hammer can be used for many purposes other than driving nails. Assignment generally refers to people or animals. Most commonly, an employer asks an employee to serve the purpose of fulfilling some task. Or an animal is trained to carry out a task. In theistic circles, the first thought of “purpose” often refers to God and the purpose in his mind when he created the world, appropriated the laws of nature to carry out his bidding, and his assignment to living plants and animals to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. His ultimate purpose for humans is to have dominion over the earth and to serve in his image as children of God.

2 Self-determined. Purpose can also be a goal that a person selects for themselves. One person may decide to make his purpose in life to serve other people in the ministry, others to become a famous scientist, or a successful politician. In religious communities, this role of purpose is often subjugated to the will of God and becomes the guiding principle of life.

3 Intrinsic. Far less frequently and seldom recognized, the word “purpose” can refer to an intrinsic role or function. This is most commonly used in biology. A leaf, for example, has the purpose of collecting sunlight and synthesizing food for the tree as well as exchanging CO2 and H2O. No conscious agent was involved and the purpose is intrinsic to the tree. As biochemists unravel the grand mysteries of cellular processes, the purpose of myriad biomolecules is discovered. However, this use of the word “purpose” is often misunderstood. Without clarification of its use in an intrinsic sense, many people get the impression that biologists are in fact seeing the work of an external agent in setting a purpose for that biomolecule.

A discussion of teleology is most interesting in the context of evolution. The intricate role of so many complex biomolecules is astounding. Purpose is evident everywhere and the conviction is clear that there is some kind of design going on. Is that design merely apparent or is it the action of an external agent? How can one tell the difference? I would suggest that perhaps it is neither merely apparent nor the work of an external agent but the result of intrinsic purpose.

The nature of intrinsic purpose arises in the context of emergence. Philosophers like Phil Clayton, George Ellis, Nancey Murphy, and others are exploring the importance of emergence in contrast to the reductionism which is so prevalent in the scientific community. Emergence refers to the multi-level hierarchy of explanation of the universe. Fundamental levels like atoms and molecules enable higher-level complexity. In turn, these higher-level complexities can constrain or control the action of the atoms and molecules in an exquisite recursive feedback loop. The net result is a system that has intrinsic purpose in the sense of a particular role or function which, in turn, is a component of a larger and even higher-level system.

In this way, purpose and meaning can arise intrinsically in complex systems. The notions of teleology and design need not refer to external agents or involve conscious beings. Intrinsic purpose deserves to be recognized and studied further to understand how teleology exists in biology.


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Christianity as Child Abuse?

The first time I heard of this new atheist meme, I was so shocked that I ignored it. But since then it has grown in popularity. One can now find people writing that teaching any religion to children is child abuse, since children are being made to grow up believing in a lie. Child abuse is a terrible and very real problem. Teaching any world view to your children is not child abuse, and to say that teaching religion to kids is child abuse lessens and trivializes the terrible reality of actual child abuse.

The deranged atheists who make this claim insist that by teaching young children lies, parents are affecting their whole lives and preventing them from understanding the truth about the world. Well, if teaching your kids that God created the world, and that Jesus Christ loves them no matter what they do, is child abuse, then what is this:

“Daddy, what happens when we die?”

“Nothing. Death is the end. We just stop existing. Forever.”

“But Katy said her grandpa is in Heaven.”

“There is no such thing as Heaven. It’s a fairy tale to make people feel better. Once a person dies, there is nothing at all. They can’t think. They feel nothing. They don’t exist”.

“So when you die, I will never see you again?”

“That’s right, and when you die, your children and your friends will never see you again, and you won’t exist. God and Jesus and Heaven and all that stuff is just make believe.”

How do you think that makes a kid feel? I know the answer, because that is what I was told from early childhood. The answer is I found it terrifying and depressing, and I could not grasp the enormous misery of the finality of it. Although I believed what my parents told me, I fervently wished it wasn’t true.

I was told other things too as a child. I was told about how Comrade Stalin was a great man who would help us all become free of tyranny. I was told that the Soviet Union was a paradise of happy workers, and that once the whole world was communist, there would be peace, freedom and prosperity forever. I believed this also for a while, but as with most young people, I began having doubts about the wisdom of my parental culture, and eventually rejected it. That is what human beings do. Unless very sophisticated and reinforced brain washing techniques (as in a cult) are used, most children can easily decide (based on their own experiences and free choice) what to believe and what not to believe.

Keeping children isolated in a cult, without the ability to interact with diverse points of view can be abusive, and such cases are known. But cults are clearly defined and can be identified by their characteristics. Christianity is not a cult. Atheism isn’t either. There are Christian-based cults, and atheistic cults, and those are dangerous.

But normal religious beliefs are not any more abusive than any other worldviews, and a lot less so than some. The argument that it is abusive to teach lies to children is not only false, it begs the question of what is a lie. Who is going to be the judge of which lies you tell your kids will put you in jail for child abuse (which, lets remember, is a crime)? Should it be people like Sam Harris, who  know the truth, because he says so? Should it be a commission of scientists and scholars who determine what is factually accurate and what is a lie? This solution has been tried. But Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union didn’t work out too well in matters of intellectual accomplishment, nor in avoiding levels of child (and adult) abuse way beyond our imagination.

Let’s not tolerate this dangerous and stupid idea that teaching children about Christianity is child abuse. Let’s fight back against it. Militant Atheism has gone way too far with this one, and it needs to stop.


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