The End of Evolution

I used to believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was the unifying principle behind all of biology, and that this idea was not only scientifically valid, but also consonant with my deep faith as a Christian. The theory does not explain the origin of life, but then it was never intended to do so.

I now realize that while Darwinian evolution might have been the single predominant force for change during the almost 3-billion-year history of life on earth, this is no longer true, and it is likely that it will never be true again.

What am I talking about you ask?

Take a road trip in the country and look around you. Passing farms, you might see some cows, chickens, cornfields, wheat farms, tomato and strawberry fields, vineyards. Even in the city you can see animals like dogs and cats.

None of the plants or animals mentioned in the last paragraph are a product of natural selection. They are all products of Intelligent Design—the designer in this case being humans. I am not talking about genetically modified foods, but of selective artificial breeding, which has been a human activity for thousands of years.

We have altered the biological characteristics of dozens of species in a tiny fraction of the time that natural selection would have taken. We have also driven hundreds of species to extinction, also in a dramatically short time. One of the key ingredients of natural selection is the environment, which used to change with glacial slowness. In fact, the pace of environmental change was probably just about right to match the equally slow genetic changes caused by random mutations. But since the dawn of man,  we have been making changes to the environment, and we do so at an increasingly rapid pace.

And what about us? We are still natural animals, and since our origin, we have been subject to natural selection. Lighter (and darker) skin color and the ability to drink milk as adults are some of the adaptive changes that we have experienced. But as our culture and technology have grown, we have begun to replace natural selection with our own brand of evolution. We have filled the globe, but our technological revolutions in transportation have made it impossible for any group of humans to remain isolated long enough to form a new species, so further speciation of H. Sapiens is impossible.

Certain phenotypic variants that might have been advantageous or produced a less fit organism a few thousand years ago now have little effect on our capacity to survive and reproduce. Being big, strong, fast and keen-eyed ain’t what they used to be. Being smart, creative, empathic, social and resilient are better keys to success. Medicine and hygiene have made irrelevant many physical and genetic variants that used to be deadly.

What has happened is that we human beings have begun to replace natural selection as the force for determining the future of biology.

How is this possible? If we ourselves are the product of evolution, then how can it be that we are able to supplant what has worked since the origin of life? Does this mean that evolution included the seed of its own demise, by eventually allowing for the development of a creature that would surpass it? That is possible.

Or perhaps, while our bodies are certainly a product of evolution, those aspects of being human that allowed us to progress to where we are—our consciousness and our unique skills—are derived from some other source. We are animals. But we also have some spark of divinity, given to us as a gift. I believe this is the reason we have been able to rise above and leave behind the rules of natural selection, and make blind directionless evolution a thing of the past. 

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Should you be a writer?

Many people ask themselves (and sometimes others) this question. Maybe you are one of them. You like writing. Maybe you write well. You have lots of ideas for plots and characters, and you feel that when you write, you are doing something creative and sometimes wonderful. But you don’t have a lot of time to devote to writing. After all, you still need to go to work, raise your family, go shopping, and so on. So should you be a writer? You probably think I am going to say that depends on how much time you can spend, how good you think you are, how likely you think you can get published, and so on. No, I am not going to say that. The answer is much more simple, and very clear.

No, you should not be a writer. That is the answer. Forget it. Don’t even think about it. You will never be a writer, and you should give up any notions or fantasies of being a writer. It’s over.

I am not kidding! I mean it. And here is why. Being a writer is a terrible idea. First, you cannot survive financially as a writer. Income is low and sporadic. The chances of ever making even a dime from writing are incredibly low, about the same as getting hit by lightning. But even if a miracle happens and you get published, remember that the average book sells a total of 600 copies, which means your total take (on average) will be around $600-1000. You could increase your sales by getting a publicist and paying for ads, and doing lots of marketing. All of which is expensive, and although your sales might get into the thousands, you won’t break even.

You could get really lucky and have good sales, even into the tens of thousands. It still won’t be enough to support yourself. I know quite a few such successful writers and they almost  all kept their day jobs (luckily for them).

Second, being a writer is harder than most other jobs. You never have any time off. You might like to take some time off, but your brain won’t let you. In the middle of the barbecue, you suddenly have an idea, and you must write it down. A great piece of dialog has a half-life of about ten minutes in your brain. If you don’t write it down, it could be lost forever. For poetry, you have only a minute at the most. And then, when you are seated at the computer, with several hours cleared, and you start typing, half the time you read what you wrote, and it’s so bad you just delete the whole thing.

Third, writing is bad for you. It is a sedentary occupation, which leads to health problems, and it isolates you from other people. When your spouse calls out “Honey, are you there? I wanted to ask you something,” either you don’t hear her or you cringe at the infringement of your time and the potential disastrous interruption of an incredibly moving (though totally fictional) scene. So romance writers need to forgo romance, mystery writers don’t have time for mysteries, adventure writers never leave their chairs—and that’s just the fiction writers. People who write about art don’t paint, biographers don’t lead interesting lives, and science writers don’t do research.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. There are so many reasons to not be a writer that clearly the answer to the question posed in the title is no.

Does this distress you? Do you think I am being unfair, or unkind? Do you think this is a cruel answer? If you say yes to any of those, then I am right.

Do you not give a damn what I say, and you will keep writing no matter what, even if you never publish anything and never make a penny, but it doesn’t matter, because that isn’t why you write, but because you have no choice, the words just come from somewhere, and you must get them down, and you don’t really care what happens after that, whether anyone reads them, and if they do, whether they like them or not, it is just something you do, and I can go to hell, but you are not going to stop doing it?

Well, if that’s true, then I’m wrong, so go ahead. You already are a writer, so don’t stop now. Write!


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Gödel, Penrose, and Consciousness

Brilliant physicist and Nobel Laureate Sir Roger Penrose argues, using Gödel’s Theorem, that consciousness cannot be computational. In other words, there is more to human consciousness than can currently be explained scientifically.

Gödel’s theorems are among the most important—and most difficult to understand—breakthroughs in modern mathematics, and science in general. They are related to the vexing problem of self-referring language, as discussed in the classic book

Gödel’s theorems are among the most important—and most difficult to understand—breakthroughs in modern mathematics, and science in general. They are related to the vexing problem of self-referring language, as discussed in the classic book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter.

As an example of the problem, take the following statement:

“This sentence is false.”

If the statement is true, then it’s false; and if its false, then it’s true. At first sight this might appear to be just a silly trick of self-referential language, but the problems associated with self-reference are not at all trivial. They formed the basis of Gödel’s deep investigation into the theory of arithmetic systems.

Gödel’s two “incompleteness theorems” say that any logical system contains either contradictory statements or statements that cannot be proven. A consistent logical system is composed of a set of axioms which allows you to do arithmetic according to rules related to the axiomatic statements. Gödel found that in any such system there must be at least one statement which is unprovable using just that system’s axioms.  

Gödel was able to prove these theorems, in a way that is far beyond my understanding. What Penrose says (for example, in this recent interview with Jordan Peterson) is that Gödel’s theorem shows that consciousness cannot be fully explained by any kind of numerical computational process. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qi9ys2j1ncg

I do not grasp all the details of how this works, but here is something he said in the interview: “Understanding—whatever that word means—is not computational. It’s not the following of rules. It’s something else.”

The implications of this idea are quite staggering. For one thing, it suggests that while AI might become very intelligent, it could never become fully conscious, in the human sense. It also raises the question of how consciousness could arise in human (and perhaps other) brains if things like computational complexity cannot explain all of it. Indeed, it makes the task of even defining consciousness in a formal scientific sense difficult.

I might be overstating the implications and might not even have a correct understanding of what Sir Roger was saying. But these are my impressions. Corrections in comments are entirely welcome.

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A Tale from the Lab

Biologists have some neat tricks for seeing the structures of genes. The details are too much to relate, but the end result is an Xray film in which parts of the gene show up as dark bands. The precise pattern of these bands tells us about the specific forms of a gene that are present in different individuals. While we all (humans, that is) have the same genes, (which make us all humans) we also have very slight differences in the sequences of most genes (which make us all different). The sequence differences are what we can see by looking at the X ray film.  

My lab was studying a spcific gene that has some effects on susceptibility to chemical carcinogens. We wanted to see what the gene (called CYP1A1)  looked like in different people. We got graduate students, post docs, some technicians, and a couple of members of the night cleaning crew to donate some blook for the analysis. Not exactly a scientific sample, but for a first look, we figured it didnt matter.

One of my  post-doctoral fellows (the people who do most of the actual lab work)  showed me one of those films  and pointed out that there was a mistake in one of the samples. We always saw either one or 2 dark bands at specific places, but for this sample  there were also two bands much further down from the correct 2 bands, where nothing was supposed to be.I said “don’t worry about it, at least the others look good”.

At that time, most volunteers for research were Europeans or Asians, and there was far less genetic information available for African Americans. My group and a couple of others had noticed this and had been specifically trying to find genetic risk factors in the African American population. So about a month or so after our first attempt to look at the CYP1A1 stucture we did another experiemn using some DNA from a small group of African Americans from a different project.

Before my post doc showed me the result  he said “Sy, do you remember that weird error we found a while back? With the two extra bands?” And then he showed me the Xray  photo (see below). Those same mysterious extra 2 bands showed up in 3 of the 8 samples. I then asked the obvious question:  “who was the person who had extra 2 band pattern from the earlier experiment? Was that Jerry?”

He smiled and nodded, and I felt a chill. It was one of the members of the night cleaning crew, the only African American whose DNA we had ever tested in this experiment. It appeared that we had discovered a new genetic variant found only in people of African descent.

While this was a minor discovery, it does point out one of the critical aspects of science that is often overlooked, especially by non-scientists. We make progress, when things don’t work or make no sense. When we don’t understand or cant explain a result, that is the time for excitement and discovery. The constant speed of light, whether you are going towards it or away from it, made no sense, and led Einstein to relativity. The crazy results of the light scattering diffraction experiment led to quantum theory (simplified but sort of true). The impossible Malthusian calculation that population sizes tend to increase without limit, led Darwin to the grand theory of biological evolution, and the absurd discoveries of sea shells, certain rocks and lavas, in places where they had no business being, led to plate tectonics.

We are fortunate that there is still a huge amount of stuff that makes no sense, so we know there are plenty of new discoveries to be made. But what do we do, when the discoveries themselves, the answers that we find, make no sense either? I don’t mean that some answers lead to new questions, that happens almost always. I mean when we actually have the answer (quantum theory being a great example) and we know the answer is correct, but, still, outside of mathematics, it makes no sense.

This is my new field of enquiry, and it isn’t exactly a scientific one. I am interested in those questions that science has done as much as it can do, but that still remain open. The origin of life is one, the fine tuning of the physical constants in another, the appearance of teleology in evolution is a third, and human consciousness is my favorite. My hope is get the mental equivalent of seeing  that xray film, and feeling that chill of the thrill of discovery once again.

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Simply Simon

I have posted this before.

Today is simply Saturday,  the day between. We know very little about what happened on this day, but we can imagine.  We can imagine a man, much like us. A man defeated, alone, miserable and afraid. This man, who was once called a rock, today thinks of himself as simply – Simon. Imagine him sitting in a strange house in a city not his own, staring out the window, seeing nothing but his own failure, and the loss of all of his hopes and dreams. I have felt this way at times, and perhaps you have also.

He thinks of the glorious promise that he has witnessed the past months, the miraculous and wonderful things he has seen and heard. He thinks of the Man who showed so much faith in him, the Man who has now gone, died, left them all alone, without hope or will. But most of all he thinks of his own terrible failure and betrayal. A failure that his leader had predicted, and which he himself would never have imagined possible.

Yesterday, that black day, had proven to the man once called the rock, that he was made of no more than weak, mortal, human clay. Three times he had confirmed his human cowardice, his unworthiness to lead, or even to live. On this Saturday, the man who now once again thinks of himself simply as Simon, is filled with an unimaginable despair at the loss of everything he once valued, most especially his own dignity.

Have you  been there? Have you had to face the fact that you are unworthy because of your actions? No excuses, you simply failed. The time for heroism, for standing tall, for being more than you thought you could be, the time to prove yourself truly a rock of faith, of hope, of goodness, the time had come, and you…you had failed to heed the call. In your weakness or fear, you had simply turned away, waving your hand in dismissal. “No” you said “I don’t know anything about that, Leave me alone”. And not just once, but often. And then it was over, the terrible moment passed, and you were left with only the taste of the ashes of your own personal failure, as the whole glorious edifice you believed in and had worked so hard for, came crashing down in chaos and defeat.

I have been there. That is why I have long been so fascinated by this day without a name, that lies between the day of anguish and the day of triumph. On this day, Simon sits in agony and stares, not yet knowing that tomorrow everything will change again. Today, he is still unaware of tomorrow’s miracle that will change everything in the world forever. Today is the lowest point in his life, but tomorrow he, along with his dispersed friends, will be witness to a breathtaking renewal of hope. The resurrection of tomorrow means not only the resurrection of the living God, not only the rising of the Son of Man, but also the rising of man himself. A man like Simon, weak, afraid, defeated, failed, a man whose despicable actions on the Friday have left him hopeless and full of self-loathing, also rises on Easter Sunday, and once more becomes Peter the Rock.

Like us he is all too human, and yet like us, he is capable of all that he later accomplished. I do not believe he ever forgot his acts of betrayal. But through grace and faith, and his human moral strength, he rose above them, and he fulfilled his destiny as a great fisher of men. So of all the miracles of tomorrow and the days and years that follow, for me the greatest is the miracle of the redemption of the man – the mortal, ordinary fisherman named simply, Simon.  Peace be with you on this day.

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A Very Old Story

One day, 12,494 years ago, somewhere in the middle of Mesopotamia, a young woman named Maya (I don’t know if that was really her name, but I like it, and it does have an Ancient Near Eastern ring to it) was walking around her village feeling bored. She had plenty to do, taking care of three babies and a couple of toddlers, gathering wild grains and nuts, washing clothes and sweeping out the hut, talking to her sisters and aunts and neighbors, and so on. But all of that was just…. boring.

Her husband, like all the rest of the guys, was out on one of their interminable “hunting” trips. She had no idea why they had to spend weeks wandering around and then come home with a couple of deer and some rabbits that they could have caught in a day or so. Well, of course “having no idea” was sarcasm, she (and all the other women) knew exactly what they were doing. Oh yeah, they did do a little hunting, but a lot more drinking fermented fruit juice, and maybe some visits to those harlots in the next valley, and a lot of stupid, drunken singing and storytelling. Men.

Poor Maya was, although she didn’t realize it, one of the smartest human beings alive at the time (or ever for that matter) and she was just bored and frustrated. The only person she could really talk to was the Shaman, who was smarter than most, but he almost never knew the answers to her questions, other than to say “It’s magic.” She wanted to know why the lightning and the thunder arrived together, but the lightning always first. She wanted to know why dogs seemed so smart but couldn’t talk. What happened after you died? What was the moon, and why did it move? And so on. The Shaman would look at her, smile and shake his head. He was in charge of making the rain stop, getting people better when they fell sick, and telling everyone what their dreams meant. But he only knew what he knew, and all of that was magic.

On this day, feeling bored, Maya, holding one baby on her hip, and taking a toddler by the hand, wandered over to a flat patch of ground just outside the village, before the forest started, where a couple of weeks ago she had done something silly. Last year, having noticed that wild wheat grew from the ground, she had taken some wheat and buried it in the ground, just to see what would happen. She wondered if it would pop up again. It did. She told everyone, and the general reaction was disbelief or disinterest. But two weeks ago, she had done something a bit different. She had seen many times how the tiny hard seeds (they weren’t called seeds yet) of many plants, even trees, flew around the air and finally settled in the ground. So this time she had buried only the seeds of the wheat.

When she got to her patch (the very first garden or farm, ever), there were the shoots sprouting from the ground. Maya was no longer bored.

The council meeting (composed of all the men) agreed to hear Maya, and they all laughed at the folly of women. Nobody believed her trick, and as one wit put it, even if it were true, so what? But the Shaman and the Chief were lost in thought and didn’t laugh. The Chief asked her, “Can you eat the wheat that grew from those seeds?” “Yes,” she said, “I used it making bread.”

“Hmm” said the Chief, who would become the world’s first economist.

“But how is such magic possible?” asked the Shaman. “You are saying that you have made something from nothing. How can a whole plant come from a tiny little stone? It makes no sense.”

“How does a baby come from the seed of a man?” Maya countered (I told you she was a smart cookie). The people were not completely sure that this was true, but Maya was, because she had done a careful epidemiological study. Women only became pregnant if they had sex.

So, that was the start of the revolution in human life that led in a direct line to shopping malls, reality TV, the internet, and all the other manifestations of the fact that human beings have too much free time on their hands since food is so easy to come by.

So what is the answer to Maya’s question about seeds and plants and babies, and in fact all of her other questions? We know of three ways to answer all questions. Magic, religion, and science. Magic came first and is the most primitive and least useful. Magic is a chaotic system with few if any rules, and it presupposes a universe filled with capricious and unpredictable spirits, demons, demigods, and mysterious forces which make things happen that have no explanation. According to magic, the spirit dwelling in the seed comes forth to make a plant. This spirit could decide, however, to not show up, or just sleep through the season and allow a famine.

The twin children of magic are religion and science. No, religion is not the same thing as magic. Religion (like science) is based on overarching principles and the concept of an order in nature that cannot be violated by spirits, demons, or humans. The religious idea of agriculture is that God made plants and animals, and the creation of plants included the wondrous properties of their seeds to produce bounty for humanity.

Science also uses some all-encompassing ideas and techniques to find out all that is possible to learn about how things happen. Scientific investigation allows us to probe quite deeply into the mechanisms by which seeds produce plants, and the information we learn is so astounding that it leads to ever more questions.

Maya knew all of this already 12,494 years ago. She believed in a God who oversaw everything that happened. She also believed in the spirits of the woods, and the earth. And she believed that she could find truth by paying close attention to the world around her, and by trying things out to see what happened. With time, God and reason made the spirits unnecessary and inconvenient for humans to still believe in (although magic is far from dead in the world). Many people today believe that God and science are engaged in an epic struggle for supremacy, but the reality is that both are needed. But that’s a whole nother story.

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Morality and Evolution

There is of course, no question that genes play a role in behavior throughout evolutionary history. Bees, for example are known to sacrifice their lives for the good of the hive. But while this might appear to be the result of a laudatory impulse on the part of individual bees, it is nothing of the sort. No bee decides, in a moment of supreme valor, to give her life for the good of her fellow creatures. There is no moral imperative acting here, but only the evolutionary pressure that produces an appearance of high altruism. Clearly no virus ever decides to be “good” and target the upper respiratory tract rather than the lungs. Increased transmissibility and decreased host mortality is a well known and very frequent evolutionary strategy for infectious, lethal viruses.

While these are fairly extreme examples, the same sort of thing applies to a large extent (though admittedly not entirely) to behavioral traits coded for by human (as well as other animal) genes. Increased empathy might be expected to result in behaviors that are more “morally good” according to many human cultures. But a careful examination of the literature shows this is not always the case. Genetically determined autonomic reactions to a scene of violence may lead to complex and variable behavioral outcomes. This point is made in several papers that reference the OXTR rs53576 allele of the oxytocin receptor gene, one of the most studied behavioral genes. .

Even if there were a much tighter relationship between phenotypic effects of genes related to feelings and emotions with behavioral consequences, it is very well known that both emotions and behaviors are multigenic, and often involve highly complex gene environment interactions. A large literature of identical twin studies has shown that genetics accounts for no more that 50% of almost all behavioral and mental phenotypes. All of this makes prediction of anything to do with moral actions based on genotypes of one or a few genes extremely difficult.

Taking the OXTR allele as an example of this complexity, we find that in a paper describing the effects of the gene on empathy, the A allele appears to be dominant, whereas another paper, finds the G allele to be dominant  for effects on child behavior.

Both studies concur that this polymorphism is in Hardy Weinberg equilibrium, meaning that selection pressure for either allele is currently absent, and the gene probably was never a target for natural selection.

Returning to the issue of moral choices, the very fact that there is no single objective morality for all human cultures is strong evidence against an evolutionary genetic connection. Yes, there are differences in allele frequencies in many of these genes in different ethnic groups, but these differences are generally not meaningful. I was once involved in the review of a grant application which hypothesized that different frequencies of a particular polymorphism in a neurotransmitter gene could explain why African Americans are more violent than European Americans. The grant was not well received due to lack of any preliminary evidence and the implausibility of the claim. The truth is that human populations differ genetically from each other only in very small ways, and social, cultural and psychological factors far outweigh genetic factors in determining moral and ethical behaviors.

This does not mean that there are no genetic correlates with human acts of moral good or evil. All humans (except for rare variants like psychopaths) recognize the inherent good in caring for children, in love, and in doing kindness to kin and relatives. And all recognize that doing harm to these people is bad. There is no question that these moral understandings and resulting behaviors are of evolutionary origin, since the same behaviors are seen in many mammalian and even other animal species.

But we only need to think of moral values in modern cultures that extol the killing of “enemies”, the mistreatment of people with sexual or other nonconforming phenotypes, the way women are treated and so on, to see that once we go deeper than the fundamental common values, we find purely cultural determinants of morality, with no genetic influence at all.

Cultural evolution (which includes good explanations for different human moral codes) is fundamentally different than biological evolution, which depends on genetic variation. For morality it is memes, not genes that count. It is cultural evolution, not Darwinian biological evolution that has given us fire, shelter, technology,  the internet and everything else that makes us more than just another ape.

Links to the papers mentioned:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-44175-6

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/job.351

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC3923324/

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The Good Old Days

Everyone knows how horrible modern life is, especially here in the US. Technology running rampant, terrible food, crowds, pollution, on and on. If only we could turn the clock back and live like we used to in “The Good Old Days”

The Good Old Days were really great. Think about how well we used to eat. No preservatives, no chemical additives, just pure, unadulterated, partly spoiled meat, fish and dairy products. Sour milk has now become a lost food item, that most of us (except for a few single guys who insist on drinking week old milk straight out of the carton) have never even tasted. And we didn’t have to worry about fruits or vegetables going bad because there weren’t any, unless you lived in the country.

And no junk food!!

So wait, you are asking, if people didn’t eat Snickers, Cheetos, meat, milk, fruit, vegetables, what DID they eat? Bread, mostly. Good nutritious, whole grain bread. Morning, noon and night. Some folks had corn, tomatoes and potatoes also. Lots and lots of potatoes.  Of course this was true in the more recent Good Old Days, since corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and other crops (chocolate, tobacco) didn’t exist in Europe until they were brought from the New World.

The Good Old Days were really good old days when it came to beverages. None of this modern nonsense about drinking water. Ground water, (rivers and streams) was too polluted to drink in the good old days, so unless you had a well, water was not an option. Even wells often went bad, and people learned to only accept water from trustworthy sources. Milk was also not an option, unless you were on a farm. Juice and soda didn’t exist. (no fruit, remember), and coffee was a rare luxury. Tea was available, but could be expensive (remember the Boston party?).

So people drank what was safe, – alcohol. That why they call it the Good Old Days. Beer, mead, ale, wine, this is what everyone drank all the time in the Good Old Days. Drinks with alcohol were safe from bacterial contamination, and besides had many other advantages. They made the idea of spending 13 to 16 hours a day working in a field, or in a mill, or just trying to survive, a bit more palatable. After all, we should remember that in the Good Old Days, 99% of folks were poor.

And being poor in The Good Old Days meant being really poor. No spoiled kids crying because they didn’t get a Wii for Christmas. No kids crying because they didn’t want to go to school. No school. Nobody complaining about waiting at the doctor’s office for an hour. No doctors. With an average lifespan of 35-45 years, the whole problem of taking care of old folks, and what to do after retirement just didn’t  come up.

Also, that whole conflict that women face these days about choosing between career or family, well, that wasn’t an issue at all in the Good Old Days. Women got married, had kids and raised them (or the few that survived infancy), until they died in childbirth or from starvation or plague. Ah the simple life, free of those tough decisions we face these days. Well, actually, sometimes women did have choices to make, If she failed to find a husband, or if her husband died in a mill, mine, farm or other accident (or was killed in a war, or by a thief or a nobleman). a woman had the choice of prostitution or the convent. 

Now you might be starting to think that I am being sarcastic, and that I hold the view that Good Old Days were really pretty crappy. There might be some truth to that. My problem is that I can never really figure out exactly when and where the Good Old Days were supposed to have taken place. A time and place that we would all love to return to. At the moment Im stumped. I did have a nice day yesterday though.

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Controversy

During my scientific research career, I have never known of any scientific field that is not marked by controversy. When I retired from research and took a position as a senior official in the Center for Scientific Review of the NIH (the agency responsible for managing the review of 80% of US grants in the Biomedical sciences), this observation was strongly confirmed. In many study sections, controversial ideas were often hotly debated.

Controversy is part of the scientific process and is often the driver of progress. New ideas, which are the fuel of science, are always controversial, until sufficient evidence is accumulated for them to attract support. The worst thing that can happen to any area of scientific research (as I have witnessed) is an end to controversy. The development of a profound and stifling consensus is usually the signal for a stagnant and soon to be outdated field.

As Christian scientists or Christians interested in science, how should we deal with scientific controversy? There are those who propose we avoid it. They claim that the entire movement of evolutionary creation, theistic evolution (TE/EC), is based on the premise that Christians should strictly adhere to the consensus views of mainstream science, and reject the controversial positions associated with pseudoscience, such as young earth creationism, or intelligent design. I agree, of course. Being a Christian should not give us warrant to reject sound scientific principles.

But how far should this go? Do we avoid all scientific positions that seem to be held by a minority of scientists at the moment, for fear of being labelled “unscientific” or apologists for a “Christian-friendly” approach to some issue? Some within the TE/EC movement would say yes. Many of these people are not scientists themselves, or have not been active researchers, and their focus is not on finding new (and therefore controversial) truths about the world, but rather on teaching known truths and agreed upon consensus views to other Christians. Their goal is to foster a tolerance from the wider scientific community by avoidance of any boat rocking that might cast doubt on the legitimacy of their claims to be followers of science. I think there is a role for this attitude, and it is a proper and important part of the overall mission to advance the cause of Christ in the world we live in.

But it is not the only such mission for Christian men and women of science. Some of us want to go further. Some few may take the risks that all good scientists take to stir up controversy, to propose bold new ideas, to do the work needed to support those ideas, argue for them, provide data for them, and not worry if they are outside the mainstream, in fact deliberately go outside the mainstream.

And when we do that, we should pray for support, not antagonism from our fellow Christian scientists in the teaching and outreach camp. Because, when we do this sort of work, or when we proclaim and support such work done by others, we are doing two things: we are behaving in the best traditions of pure science, and we are helping to advance our knowledge of the truth. If we act according to the rules and procedures of strict scientific rigor, we need not worry about the consequences of our actions, since in both science and faith, God’s truth will always prevail.  ‘

I was recently appointed to the editorial board of a new scientific journal called BioCosmos . The journal’s mission is “to present a wide variety of novel perspectives on the origins and nature of life that go beyond the standard neo-Darwinian paradigm of biological evolution. The focus will be on theoretically innovative, data-driven analysis and experimental results from biology and biochemistry… The aim is to encourage high quality scientific research and debate, which result in novel theoretical or experimental approaches that deal with unsolved problems of the standard biological theories. “

At this point, reading behind the lines, you might have the impression that this will be a journal focussing on Intelligent Design or other non-standard views of biological evolution. You would not be entirely wrong, but I think there is more to it than that.

The next part of the mission statement says “the journal’s peer review process will take to heart Newton’s ‘Hypotheses non fingo’. In other words, it will judge the theoretical claims proposed by authors in terms of the evidence placed before the reader rather than in terms of how standard theorists might deal with the same evidence.”

In two Zoom meetings of the Editorial Board, the issue of what to include, and whether to automatically reject certain topics was discussed. There emerged a consensus that the main criterion for paper acceptance in the journal will be scientific integrity and and the quality of the data, discussion and interpretation of results, as in any other mainstream scientific journal. It was also agreed that purely philosophical papers would be better placed elsewhere. What will not be part of the review process is avoidance of controversy.

All members of the Editorial Board see this as an experiemnt and an adventure that may or may not succeed. At the moment there is only one paper that has been published and appears on the journal website, which happens to be my own. The paper went through 2 rounds of rigorous peer review,  and I would assume that will be the norm. A couple of other papers have been accepted, and eleven have been rejected.

The true test will come when a scientifically unimpeachable paper presents some controversial views. Hopefully, this new journal will survive and provide a respected platform for the kind of good scientific work that many in the Christian and science community want to do, as discussed above. Prayers are welcome.

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THEM (A Confession)

Early one morning a few years ago, a nondescript man started on a journey to a foreign land. The man was dressed casually, and inexpensively, He carried an ordinary briefcase filled with secret papers. He passed unnoticed through airport security and customs. At his destination he was met by a special unmarked van. Besides the driver, the vehicle contained three of his compatriots, all heading to the same private meeting. He knew two of the passengers, one well, the other only casually. He didn’t know the third man, but he had heard of his reputation. Like himself, his fellow passengers in the van appeared ordinary, and no one would have guessed that each of them was in control of millions of dollars, euros or yen, and headed large teams of associates. They were all in their 50s or 60s and had become powerful leaders at their local bases of operations.

The van deposited them at a small rural resort that was to host this international powwow of about 70 such men and women. There was no security because this meeting was so secret, so unknown, that none was needed. There were no cameras, no press, no tourists, no outsiders. Few other people in the entire world knew that this meeting was even taking place, and they were not talking.

At the meeting the nondescript man listened carefully as the discussions and presentations of his fellow conspirators wove a complex thread of potential collaborations, financial management, and distribution of resources. Reports of progress, intelligence on issues of import were shared among all the participants. And then, of course, there were the private, even more secret, hallway tete-a-tetes between pairs and small groups of individuals, all designed to further the individual ambitions of each of the conspirators, while also moving their common agenda forward.

They naturally all knew that their discussions and decisions would have a major impact on the lives of millions of people all over the world. They laughed and joked, just like any ordinary social group would do, but behind their sometimes casual and jocular behavior, the seriousness and indeed fanaticism of their common goals was always present.

It sounds pretty ominous. And it is all true. I know  because I was there. Yes, I am the nondescript man, one of the conspirators at this secret, totally unreported, never publicly discussed meeting in the quiet secluded mountains of a foreign country. I confess. I am one of THEM.

So who were we, and what were we discussing? Care to guess? I will give the answer in a comment later.

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