Francis

In July 2004, I went to Washington DC to attend a meeting/symposium of the Genetic Variation Working Consortium (GVC). This was group of about 2 dozen scientists who had been funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (part of the NIH) to study the “Ethical, Legal and Social Implications” (ELSI) of the human genome project.  I was among this first group of people who had gotten grants from the ELSI program to study the social implications of genetic diversity in the human population, and most of us were specifically investigating issues of race and genetics.

I was honored to be there with so many well known, highly respected population geneticists, social scientists, anthropologists, and others. We all gave brief talks, mine was on the first day of the 3 day conference. When we introduced ourselves, one woman at the table said she was a lay observer representing the faith community.

On the second day, somebody new joined us, a very tall man who sat next to the non-scientist observer, and chatted with her very amiably. The man next to me (a famous geneticist) whispered to me “OMG, that’s Francis Collins”. I noticed that the entire room had gone quiet and everybody was studiously not staring at the Director of the NHGRI, who had only 3 years earlier published the first map of the entire human genome. The ELSI program was Collins’ brainchild. This kind of attention to important non-scientific consequences of scientific advances became a hallmark of Dr. Collins’ subsequent years in leadership at the NIH.

That was my first meeting with Francis, who struck me as unusally kind and gracious for such a famous and distinguished scholar. At the time, I knew little about the man, but that was to change. A few years later, while in the throws of coming to Christ (with much hesitation and gnashing of teeth) I read his book, The Language of God, which showed me that being a scientist (even an outstanding one) and a Christian was not an impossible contradiction.

Five years after that initial meeting, Francis resigned from the NHGRI to found the Christian organization Biologos, and then in 2009 he was appointed Director of the entire NIH. Coincidentally I arrived at the NIH as a Division Director in the Center for Scientific Review 2 months before Francis took over his new duties.

I came to know him well, from senior staff meetings at the NIH (where he unfailingly treated us to newly written songs with with his guitar accompaniment) and at a couple of smaller,  focused meetings on review policy issues. At the same time I kept seeing him in a Christian context of Biologos and American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) and other Christian gtherings in the Washington DC area.  We spoke a few times, and I was thrilled to learn that he everntually knew who I was from my role as Editor-in-Chief of the ASA magazine God and Nature. Hero worship on my part? Absolutely.

Now, aftter 12 years as NIH Director, Dr. Francis Collins has stepped down and is (at least for the moment) outside of the public eye. For years, Collins  has been extolled by Predidents, Senators, the press and so  many others  as an exemplary scientist and a faithful Christian. In addition to leading the NIH masterfully through 12 years of political and financial turmoil, while managing to maintain and even increase the NIH’s budget for the performance of life-saving biomedical research, Dr. Collins has had a brilliant record in setting a high moral and ethical tone to American science based on his deep Christian faith.

However, recently the chorus of praise for Dr. Collins has become less than entirely unanimous, even among the Christian community. Some have raised issues characterized as “failures” of Collins’ tenure at the NIH.

Francis Collins has often stated that he is opposed to deliberately creating embryos for the purposes of research, but that he finds it permissible to use embryos that have been already been created at IVF clinics and are destined to be discarded otherwise. Some Christian commenters who view IVF is immoral, believe that Collins as a professing Christian should have worked to prevent any use of embryos for research, even those destined to be destroyed. This argument is like arguing against using the organs of a donor killed by a drunk driver, because of the source of the organs’ availability.

Some critics of Collins have argued that as NIH Director, he is ultimately responsible for all funded research grants, including those that these critics object to, whether they involve the use of fetal cell lines or research on potentially deadly viruses. But that is not how NIH works.

Each of the 21 Institutes that make up the National Institutes of Health is fully autonomous—the NIH Director has no say in what research individual Institutes carry out or fund within the confines of existing policies. NIH funding decisions are made by independent panels of academic scientists, and the individual Institutes. At no point does any part of this decision go to the desk of the NIH Director.

Some politicians and journalists have claimed that Collins and Tony Fauci, head ot the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, are responsible for “creating SARS-CoV-2” by sponsoring gain of function research. This is both scientifically and administratively nonsense. The grant to Dr. Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance had nothing to do with the emergence of COVID-19, and interested readers can see the details in an excellent summary recently published in Science.

The NIH Notice of Award sent to Dr. Daszak states:

“No funds are provided and no funds can be used to support gain-of-function research covered under the October 17, 2014 White House Announcement …should any of the MERS-like or SARS-like chimeras generated under this grant show evidence of enhanced virus growth…you must stop all experiments with these viruses and provide the NIAID Program Officer …with the relevant data and information related to these unanticipated outcomes”.

In other words, the NIH did not fund gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses, and never contradicted itself on the matter.

I am confident that these politically based attacks on Francis Collins will fade away, and his unblemished record as a pioneering scientist and evangelical Christian will overcome the poisonous whispers of the ignorant and ungodly. Perhaps it’s a sign of our times that such infamies have seen the light of day. But as Christians, we know that the truth of Jesus will always triumph, and I know that our Lord smiles at Francis Collins, His good and faithful servant. Francis Collins is an American, Christian, and scientific hero, and his tale is inspirational.

Francis with my wife, Aniko Albert and I at an annual ASA meeting in 2017 at Gordon College.

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Who I am

To all my faithful readers and followers, I thank you for being here and reading this. It’s been seven months since my last post, and I am sure many of you thought I was calling it quits for this blog. I thought about that, but clearly I am back, and the blog is about to start a renaissance or resurrection or re birth, or whatever. Here is what happened.

I have been very active online in my Twitter account (now up to 19K followers) doing video interviews, debates, discussions and presentations, Facebook, and so on. I also started a YouTube channel called Faithful Syence, and made quite a few videos. Then, on the advice of an editor, I started doing podcasts. All of this has been very educational for me, since it helped me understand who I am in this modern age. And who I am not.

As it turns out, I am not a videographer, or a podcaster or an actor. I am fine with speaking spontaneously, but when I read a script I sound like a boring undertaker or accountant. My video skills are just barely adequate, but compared to most of the good channels, mine is not at all in the top rank. My YouTube channel has been stuck at just under 1000 followers, and I have no idea if anyone has listened to any of my podcast episodes (Its called “The Works of His Hands”)

As to who I am, its become clear to me that I have always known I am a scientist and a writer. I am a writer of books, letters, scientific peer-reviewed papers, magazine articles, editorials, Facebook posts and comments, speeches, sermons, scripts, newsletters, blog posts and tweets. So, since it makes a lot more sense for a writer to write than to look stupid on a video camera, I am returning my time and energy to this blog, and to other kinds of writing, and leaving the world of videos and podcasts to those who are good at that.

So, thanks for bearing with me these past months. I am finishing up some other writing projects and working on the Winter issue of God and Nature to be released shortly. And after that I will return with regular posts here. Praise God and hallelujah!

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Holy Leaves

It was a beautiful day, and I went outside to spend some quality time in my hammock. Looking up, I could see the beautiful yellows and oranges of the Fall leaves set against the blue sky, white clouds. Some of the trees still had green leaves, and for others they had turned brown. A gust of wind came and I was treated to a shower of gently falling leaves.

I knew of course that leaves were falling because being almost dead, their attachments to the trees had been weakened enough for the wind to pull them loose. But I also knew that God was greeting me and sending me good tidings on this lovely day. The day before was not such a great day, both my wife and I were feeling out of sorts, and she became ill and spent a good part of the day in bed. But this morning we awoke to a new and promising day, free from physical or spiritual troubles, and I know that God was signaling to me his care and attention.

The fact that I knew the mechanism by which the leaves had come to provide me with a beautiful exhibition of nature, and also that I knew it was a message from Lord, and that both kinds of knowledge are simultaneously true, is a good summary of my theology.

But the experience of God smiling on me in my hammock wasn’t quite over. Several minutes after the breeze had stopped, a single leaf floated down and landed right on my chest. I picked it up, and saw that it was an ordinary brown leaf, but dotted with tiny white marks. On closer inspection I found that all of these dots were actually holes. When I put my hand behind them, they disappeared, since the light that made them appear white was blocked. Holding the leaf close to my eyes, I found I could see through the larger holes, but not the smaller ones.

I thought, what a great metaphor for scientific research. Our knowledge is full of holes, and for some, it isn’t that hard to see through and maybe find some new truths, but for others, it just seems to be impossible. I said a brief prayer of thanks to God for sending this useful message or reminder. While I lay there, lost in thought, another larger leaf floated down and also landed on me. It too was brown and had only a few marks on it. One was a quite large and obvious hole, and  near it were three white spots, that were not holes – they were too large, and they remained visible when I blocked the light behind them.

Of course I knew that all the holes, as well as the white spots had been made by some kind of insect, but I was more interested in trying to understand the divine messages in these leaves. The second one seemed more obscure, but as I looked carefully at those white almost translucent spots, I realized that my conclusions from the first leaf were a bit simplistic and incomplete. The second leaf indicated that things are not always so simple. Holes are obvious, but white spots may be many things, the beginning of the generation of a new hole, or maybe the leaf’s attempt to repair a previous hole. The exact nature of the white spot, what it was made of, how did it get there, was beyond my knowledge, and would require active effort to solve. Yes, I thought, again how appropriate for a scientist embarking on a new area of research (as I have been doing for a few weeks).

I closed my eyes, rocked a bit on the relaxing hammock, and thanked my God for His wisdom, guidance and attention, as well as for the amazing, undeserved blessings I had been given.

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Now, get up!

In 2007 I published a book about the environment (I was a professor of Environmental Health) entitled Where We Stand: The Surprising Real State of our Planet”. Like most book titles, this was chosen by the publisher. My original title was “The Good News” since the book was about the fact that the state of our planet, including pollution levels, literacy, disease, infant mortality, even political freedom had been getting better since the second world war. I myself was surprised by this, as was everyone else, because there was no sign of it in any kind of media.

The book was filled with charts and figures, data and other demonstrations of the truth of my point. I also had a chapter mildly castigating my fellow enviornmentalists for their overwhelmingly gloomy outlook on everything, even in the face of facts like the recovery of endangered species, and the continuous drop in levels of hazardous chemicals like lead in the environment, and I pleaded with those responsible for helping the relevant legislation (the Clear Air Act, The Endangered Species Act etc) to get enacted and enforced to at least acknowledge their own success.

The book was a flop, and sold very few copies. As for any book there were many reasons for this. It wasn’t terribly well written, there were too many charts, figures and data, and the publisher took almost no interest in promoting it. But the main reason was the well known fact that the last thing the public wants to hear about is good news.

Does that sound counter intuitive? It shouldn’t. The publisher rejected my working title, because they said it sounded like a religious book, the good news referring to the Gospels. It wasn’t. I was not yet even a Christian, although I was thinking about it. But I think the real reason they didn’t go with it, was they (and everyone in the media business) knew full well that good news just doesn’t sell.

Look at what’s going on now. Even the NY Times has been running a series of online blog posts about how there is too much emphasis on everything going wrong with the COVID vaccines, the various virus variants, the lack of public health measures, the bad side effects, doubts about the future, etc. Hardly a word about the obvious reality that this very serious pandemic is being brought under control, despite enormous odds. The Times reporters warn that this emphasis on doom and gloom, so long the norm in all reporting, might have some negative consequences in terms of undermining confidence in the future, not to mention a further worsening of an already universal crisis in mental health.

I don’t know why bad news is so popular and good news isn’t. But I don’t like it. I didn’t like it before I became a Christian, but now that I am one, I see it as a religious issue. Christians have something that they can always look at with joy, hope and optimism – the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and its significance for all of humanity. They can see the good that is being done by other humans all around them, as expressions of Christ’s command to love one’s neighbor, and to feed the widows and orphans, care for the stranger.

Of course, we know that there are terrible things in this world, who doesn’t, and most of us have no good explanation for how a loving God can allow that to be. But when we think of the coming Holy Week, the suffering and final victory of our Savior, and the hope of that message, we also recognize the reality of a happy ending, or at least the possibility of a happier future. Christians mourn the death of friends (as I am now doing) and weep at the loss. But we do not descend into the hell of unrelieved terror, misery and gloom, but dwell in hope and the promise of eternal joy, even if we cannot fathom what that means.

Perhaps we can all start by thinking about what is very likely to happen in the next couple of months. Schools are opening, and teachers are greeting their students. Every day a couple of million more Americans (and 10 million people around the world) are getting vaccinated and getting out of danger. Barber shops will open, restaurants will begin serving, people will begin to visit each other, grandparents will hug their growing grandchildren, planes and trains will be full again.

And churches will open, worshippers will meet and hug each other with joyful tears, and also mournful tears for those not still with us. Our choirs will sing, our organs will resound, and the body of Christ will raise their voices to give thanks to the Lord. We will emerge from our fear and sorrow, as we have so often in the past, and give glory to our Creator.  As Jesus said to Paul when His newest disciple had fallen to his knees “Now get up…”. (CEV, AMP). It is time for us to get up.

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A New Biology

Everyone agrees that evolution by natural selection is real. Some Christians (YECs and IDers) claim it only works for “microevolution” but not for the creation of new species, although AIG now claims that evolution ends above the species level at families or even orders. Evolutionary creationists agree with biologists that evolution applies to speciation and that so-called “macroevolution” operates according to the same principles as microevolution.

I propose that this silly and non-productive argument among Christians should end. Is evolution by natural selection a reality? Yes, no argument. Is the current understanding of all aspects of biological science including evolution and abiogenesis complete and finished. By no means. Also, no argument. So what next?

Let’s focus on that second issue. What areas of scientific uncertainty or downright mystery remain to be solved? (hint: there are lots of them). Let’s see if we can move the field forward by the inclusion of previously “forbidden” ideas such as teleology in biology, the meaning of obvious design, the origin of information, and the beauty and complexity of living systems. I don’t mean that we should use any of these as proofs of God’s providence, but that, as was done for physics a century ago, we expand the science of biology to include tools that are currently considered outside of scientific application. Einstein, Schrodinger and Heisenberg used new mathematical concepts to change the scientific worldview of space, time, matter and energy. Let’s do the same for biology, using all possible tools.

Will we, by doing so, prove that God “did it”? I doubt it. But I would bet that we will find pointers to divine action, much as the fine tuning of the physical constants, and the origin of the universe has provided such pointers. I would bet that we will find similar pointers with more scientific understanding of abiogenesis, and of many aspects of biological evolution, biological regulation, and biological information.

So, to conclude, I am pleading for an end to debates about evolution. Let’s stick to the science, which is certain to lead, as it always has, to the truth, and have faith that that truth, as it always has, will lead us to God.

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My Latest Research on Origin of Life

About two years ago, I started on a project to probe the mystery of how the self-replication of cells could evolve to the high accuracy it has in all life. I was especially interested in whether the development of accurate replication could have occurred through the slow, gradual process of evolution that is assumed by the “continuity principle.”

The continuity principle has been described by evolutionary biologist Eugene Koonin as the “…general Darwinian principle… [that] evolution must proceed via consecutive, manageable steps, each one associated with a demonstrable increase in fitness.” While Darwin insisted on very small steps of increasing fitness, we now know that there are many exceptions to this rule. Major evolutionary changes can occur in a noncontinuous way, as sudden and dramatic increases in fitness. We call these jumps in fitness saltations.  

Only living cells replicate themselves. Genes made of DNA replicate themselves directly and also code for the replication of all the cellular constituents, including proteins. In modern cells, genes and (indirectly) proteins are replicated with over 99.9999% accuracy. I was interested in how high replication fidelity evolved at life’s beginning, and whether such evolution followed the continuity principle.

The model I developed deals with two critical biological parameters possessed by all living cells, and presumably by proto-cells at the origin of life as well. These parameters are the probability of the survival of cells between cell divisions and the degree of fidelity of replication.

Using a computer-based simulation model, I obtained data on the growth rate of cell populations. I made the following assumptions: 1. Cells can divide into two new daughter cells. 2. There is a period of cell growth between each division, during which cells may perish or survive, depending on their probability of survival. 3. Cells with high replication fidelity are more likely to pass on their survival probability than cells with low replication fidelity.  

The data were generated using various inputs of both parameters (from 0 to 100%) and a Monte Carlo approach, which converts probabilities to actual simulated data. To produce significant results, thousands of replicate runs were done for each condition.

I found that if the starting values of survival probability and replication fidelity were each less than 70%, all the cells died out by the 6th generation.  Even with perfect replication fidelity (100%) a starting value for survival probability below 63% will lead to eventual extinction of the population.

Contrary to expectation, cell populations with very low (even zero) replication fidelity can survive and evolve, although barely. However, the lower the accuracy of replication, the higher the initial survival probability must be to maintain population survival. With no replication fidelity at all, the minimum value of survival probability to avoid extinction is 95%.

Furthermore, at low levels of survival probability, improvement of either survival probability or replication fidelity is not possible, and neither parameter can evolve to more advantageous levels. This further suggests that the earliest life forms must have begun with a probability of survival of at least 50%. 

The results presented so far are consistent with saltation rather than a continuous, gradual process in the development of replication fidelity and survival probability. More direct evidence for this was derived by a statistical approach.

Continuity involves a process that progresses in small steps where each step produces a meaningful difference in an outcome compared to the previous step. We can assess such meaningful differences by tests of statistical significance. Continuity can then be measured by the smallest increase of some input that results in a statistically significant difference in outcome.

I found that when the survival probability was high, there was strong evidence for a continuous evolution of replication fidelity. However, at survival probabilities lower than 60%, there was clear evidence for gaps in continuity, and these gaps got larger as the survival probabilities decreased.

During the origin of life, it’s likely that both the probability of survival and replication fidelity were far from perfect. They were possibly quite low at some early points in life’s development. A lack of continuity in the evolution of both of these critical aspects of living cells strongly suggests that early life could not have evolved without some dramatic jumps in the levels of both survival probability and the accuracy of cellular self-replication.

These results are universal and don’t depend on the specific biochemical mechanisms of cell replication or survival. They can be applied to any living, self-replicative system, including the modern information storage and translation system of DNA and protein synthesis, an RNA-world paradigm of collections of individual self-replicating and catalyzing ribozymes, or any other as yet unknown primitive system for replication of cellular components and characteristics.  

A technical peer-reviewed paper describing this project and its results has been accepted for publication in the scientific journal Acta Biotheoretica (published by Springer Press). While the paper is still in press, you can access the pre-print pdf from my web site at https://sygarte.com/paper/

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Shouting Praise

And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. …No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away. Ezra 3

The Jews are people of history. Five hundred years before Christ, Jews stood in worship and joy as they celebrated the beginning of the restoration of the Temple destroyed by the Babylonians over a century earlier. By this time, the people had been through slavery in Egypt, liberation and wandering in the desert, warfare with powerful enemies, the kingdoms of David and Solomon—days of glory and days of ruin and defeat—followed by the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the exile to Babylon.

Imagine standing in that crowd, back in Jerusalem, shouting and weeping for joy at the greatness of God as construction of the Second Temple began. I can imagine that easily. I am descended from those people. And what I know, as do we all, is that history did not end on that joyous day.

Conquest, misery, and relapse into sin plagued the nation for another half a millennium, until finally the most powerful empire the world had ever seen conquered the land, once again destroyed the Temple, and sent the people into exile.

But something else happened. A new prophet arose with a new message. Jesus Christ told the people things they had not heard before. Among them was that he was not just a prophet, but indeed the one who comes in the name of Lord, the long-awaited Messiah. When He was killed and then rose to life three days later, all prophesies were fulfilled, and as his disciples dispersed across the world, the most amazing of all prophesies began to become true—the whole word began to worship the one true God, the God of Israel; all the world became Jewish.

For the Jews themselves, (as for everyone) history did not end. They suffered through 2000 years of persecution, including, within living memory, the most horrendous genocide in the history of a fallen and sinful world. The surviving remnant, as they had done so many times in history, rebuilt their lives, formed a new nation, and began to prosper.

I was born in the year of the establishment of the state of Israel, but my family, although Jewish, did not celebrate this event. They had lost all sense of religion or national identity, and my own Jewish identity was only brought home to me by means of the violent hatred of some of my neighbors.

And yet, in the fullness of time, I learned to think of the God of my forefathers as real, and soon after that, I came to worship the Jewish Messiah, now the savior of the entire world, including those enemies from my childhood. I came to see myself standing in a different circle, a wider circle of worshippers, people from every possible origin, all singing the praises of God and thanking Jesus Christ for His sacrifice to save them from sin.

I am still a person of history. History is not over. We will still suffer, and we will still rebuild. We will celebrate in joy and mourn in sorrow. We cannot know all the things that will face humankind, but we now know that we are all people of history, and that that history will eventually have an end. For one day there will be a final celebration, a final day of joy unending, as the Kingdom of God comes to earth, we are all reborn, and we all sing Hosanna, Hallelujah as Jesus returns in unending glory. The cycle of history will end in peace and joy. Until that day, give praise to God, from whom all blessings flow. Amen.

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Why I Block

For the last six years before my retirement, I was the Director of the Division of Physiological and Pathological Sciences at the Center for Scientific Review at the NIH. I supervised about 50 PhD scientists, who were responsible for recruiting and managing review panels (“study sections”) of 20 to 30 academic scientists who reviewed about 20,000 grant applications each year.

Among my duties was attendance at many of the meetings, held three times a year, at which about 100 grant proposals were discussed, rated, and voted on. I usually spent just enough time at each study section to make sure things were going smoothly and according to the many rules and policies of the NIH, which is, of course, a governmental agency.

At one of those hundreds of study section meetings I attended during my tenure, things were not going smoothly at all. A bitter and acrimonious debate had broken out between two members of the committee over the value of a grant proposal. A senior scientist, a dean at a prestigious university, was furious with a younger, outspoken woman who had raised questions about the quality of a proposal that the dean thought was outstanding. The argument between the two had begun to get heated when I entered the room. I listened to some of the comments and signaled to my subordinate, who was running the meeting as the federally designated official, to cut off discussion. But when she tried to do so, the dean angrily stood up, shook his fist at his opponent, and said something to her.

I then also got up, announced who I was, and said the meeting was hereby closed. I then told the dean to leave immediately, that the proposal under discussion would be deferred until the next review cycle four months later, and the meeting would reconvene in an hour. The Dean was red-faced and told me I couldn’t throw him out, and did I know who he was? I told him that if he didn’t leave immediately he would be arrested, and I knew exactly who he was since it was I who approved his appointment to the committee, and it would be I who was going to dismiss him from membership.

He left.

Now, here is the important part. What he said to the woman, which made me have to take the extremely unusual and drastic steps that I took, based on very clear policy rules, was this:

“Your own work is substandard, so you cannot judge others.”

He didn’t curse her; he didn’t threaten her (that did happen another time, not with me but in another division, and the perpetrator was in fact arrested). He didn’t call her any names, or accuse her of being a liar, or a fraud, or a coward, or a jerk. He didn’t say she was dishonest or a moron, or not a real scientist, or a fool, or vile, or any other direct insult. But he did attack her professional standing, and that is strictly forbidden by NIH policy in the context of a review panel.

It’s no secret that academics do not all love each other, and rivalries and even hatreds are common. But there are rules of discourse that are seldom violated without severe consequences, and direct disparagement is not allowed.

I grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood controlled by the Gambino Family boss, Crazy Joey Gallo. One thing I learned quite early was never to directly insult a stranger, because you never knew who they might be connected to. People on the street were always very polite and friendly… Until they weren’t. But saying F…you to a stranger if he bumped into you was unheard of, and possibly suicidal. I remember arriving at school one morning and seeing a guy hanging on the school fence. He was alive, but not in good shape. The cops came to cut him down as we watched from a distance. Joey Gallo was called crazy for a reason.

So, having a pretty good feel for the advantages of avoiding direct insult, both in the context of living in a Mafia neighborhood, and in that of the high-level scientific peer review of research grants, imagine my reaction when I first came to Twitter and read the comments of people who didn’t agree with me. “Creepy pervert,” “delusional,” “embarrassment to science,” “lobotomized,” “disgusting,” “dishonest,” “under drugs,” and so on.

This was a new world for me. I am not unfamiliar with rough language. As a student, I drove a taxi in Manhattan, and my language is as colorful as that of any other native New Yorker. When appropriate. It’s not appropriate when talking to someone whose uncle is married to the daughter of a capo in the Gambino family. It’s also not appropriate when speaking to a colleague who might very well be reviewing your next paper for publication or in any academic, or scholarly environment.

But apparently it is the way people behave on Twitter. I have finally gotten used to it, and I no longer become enraged. I don’t know if these people all had protected childhoods, have never achieved a level of accomplishment where such expressions of immature and uneducated nonsense are frowned upon, or are simply hiding behind anonymity. But now when somebody calls me an idiot or a fraud, I simply block them and pay no more attention. It’s kind of like throwing them out of the room – my room, at least.

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Tribalism and Christ

Miriam called her mother with some great news. “Ma, I just met a wonderful man. He’s kindhearted, really smart, great sense of humor, very successful, and he is crazy about me.” Brief silence, and then her mother speaks. “Nice, dear. Is he Jewish?”

While that is in the format of a Jewish joke, the exact same conversation could be heard from a pair of Pakistanis, Catholics, Latinos, Japanese, or Russians. Or anybody else. I knew a woman from Milan, Italy, who complained that all three of her daughters had married stranieri – foreigners. The men referred to were an American, a native of Venice and a man who hailed from a particular suburb of Milan that most Milanese looked down on.

Tribalism is an innate and universal characteristic of humanity. Pre-literate tribes often call themselves by a word that means humans or “the people,” and many refer to other tribes using less complimentary language. Tribalism is of course at the root of racism, nationalism, and a great deal of the wars and miseries in human history.

We don’t know the origin of this sense of belonging to an exclusive group, but we do know that it manifests itself in childhood, and becomes a critical feature of social interactions throughout adolescence. Tribalism expanded at some point beyond the extended family unit to encompass actual tribes and eventually even nations. But at its root it remains what it was inherited by early humans from a long phylogenetic ancestry going back to the dawn of mammals at least. And that is a recognition of familial ties as paramount in the definition of individual worth.

You are a bona fide member of a tribe if your biological parents were members, and that gives one a connection to all the other members, since all can be connected to each other through birth.

This family connection principle is so firmly rooted in our inner instincts that evidence for it is everywhere. The question “who are you” generally means: what is your tribal history, who were your parents, and what tribe were they part of? “Where are you from?” has the same general purpose. When a white person meets someone they have spoken to on the phone and see that they’re Black (even though they didn’t “sound” Black) the first reaction is “Oh, you’re Black” (or Asian or white or whatever you didn’t expect). But racism is only most extreme form of tribalism.

The concept that a person’s membership in a tribe is inherited makes a lot of sense, actually, since early on everyone could see that parental traits were inherited in offspring. The Biblical phrase “each according to its kind” is a very early biological understanding of the principle of inheritance of characteristics, whereby animals only give birth to animals that are just like them. This was also seen in human beings, and it became visibly obvious that tall tribes had tall children, hairy tribes kept having hairy kids, and so on. In modern days this observation has become the well understood science of genetics. In older days the term used was “blood.” When people used to say, “Of course he’s clever – it’s in his blood” referring to the intelligence of his forebears, now they would substitute the word genes for blood.

This is why detailed genealogies, usually oral, but later written down, have been so important everywhere in the world from Pacific islands to the Middle East. As empires spread and nations conquered each other, it became crucial to be identified as a member of the conquering tribe vs. the losers, so one would not be cast as a slave by mistake.

In a small backwater of the Roman Empire, amongst a very difficult tribe with some very odd religious beliefs, a teacher or prophet began preaching a number of strange and entirely subversive ideas. Among these was a certain message of love that seemed to transcend tribal boundaries. Jesus Christ certainly was a member of his own tribe and a follower of their holy books and historical religion. But his claims and his call were different from those of most of the other itinerant preachers who could be found everywhere in those days. He defied the authorities of his own religion, and proclaimed himself the Son of Man, leading many to consider him to be the long-promised king who would change the world for his tribe. But Jesus had other messages as well. He told people that they should love their neighbor, which in those days could mean people belonging to other tribes. He told a story about how a foreigner (the good Samaritan) was just as worthy as the members of his own tribe. He even ministered to a Roman officer. This was something new and simply revolutionary.

After his death, his followers took this new idea further. The Apostle Paul wrote, “In Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female.” Probably the most revolutionary and idealist words ever written.

Christianity continued on the path of anti-tribalism for the next millennium, and despite the inborn human drive to define us and them as opposing tribes, has rarely officially strayed from that path. Missionaries have never said “Oh, no, we don’t want to go there. Those people are not really like us, and we see no reason for them to hear the word of Christ.” Just the opposite. From Patrick who landed on the island of terrifying savages called the Irish, to the more modern missionaries who went to Africa, Japan, and many hostile parts of the earth, Christianity has added every nation on the planet to the list of Greeks and Jews, Barbarians and Scythians.

What is the real significance of this revolutionary refusal to consider tribal or national identity when if comes to finding the path to God? It’s a refutation of the importance of blood (or genes, or inheritance or genealogy) when it comes to anything important. What Christ and his Apostles taught the world was that it doesn’t matter if you can trace your lineage back to David or Moses or Abraham. All are equal in Christ. It doesn’t matter if you were born into a family with a proud legacy of good deeds, high education, with devout and well regarded ancestors, or if you were an orphan born out of wedlock to a prostitute and a thief and grew up in poverty and ignorance. Either way you are an equal member of the tribe of man, and therefore a child of God, and you, even you, are worthy of the love of Christ.

This message is still as crazy, controversial and radical as it was 2000 years ago. It goes against all of our inborn instincts, and of course we all know that in practice many Christians have failed to heed it.

But there is no denying that God sent His son into the world to tell us and show us many things, and this is one of them.

And so the question is, if it doesn’t matter whether or not you are the “blood” or genetic or genealogical descendant of Abraham or Caesar or Charlemagne or whoever, does it matter if you are a blood descendant of Adam? This is in a way a trivial question, because of course we are all descendants of everyone who lived 6000 to 10000 years ago, as Joshua Swamidass (in The Genealogical Adam and Eve) and others have clearly demonstrated. But if there were some isolated people who perhaps didn’t get to be part of the blood relations of Adam’s descendants, does it matter? Not to Christianity, it doesn’t. Sin is not a genetic trait. Knowledge of God is not a genetic trait. The Fall affected all men not because as Adam’s descendants we somehow inherited a gene for sin. Original sin along with the image of God has indeed been passed down through the generations, because of who we all are biologically, and because of who we are as God’s creation. Bloodlines do not matter for a Christian. Christ destroyed “us against them” ideology. Christ washed away the idea of blood with his blood and promised salvation to all.

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Life Changes

It certainly does, as every biologist will tell you. And so do individual human lives. Certainly we have all experienced a great deal of change in this remarkable (generally not in a good way) year of 2020.

The change I want to talk about here is about this blog, and my own life of writing, internet posting, YouTube speaking, and my ongoing career in general. Apparently I still do have a career, even though I officially retired five years ago.

In order to keep up with changes in that career I need to make some changes in my blogging life and webpage presence. This post will explain those changes.

I began this blog five years ago, right after my retirement, and for a while was posting several times a month. After the publication of my book The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith (Kregel Publications) in November 2019, I was advised to use a new website devoted to the book for marketing and publicity purposes. I therefore started a new site: The Works of His Hands for that purpose, and transferred all my new blogs as of early November 2019 to that site.

Not wanting to lose my readers and subscribers from this site, I posted the first paragraph of each new blog (there have been five since that time) here, followed by a link to enable readers here to read the full text of the posts at the new site.

I am now in the process of building a new (third) website – https://sygarte.com/. This website will be mostly for the purpose of marketing my current book, as well as any additional books that may be published in the coming years. The new site will also be the repository of much of the information about myself and my history of publications, presentations, videos, and other aspects of my present life in science and faith ministry.

The new site will NOT contain a blog, but will have links to this site, so that readers of the new site can easily access current and previous blog posts here. I will no longer be posting only the first paragraph of new posts here, nor will I be posting any new blog posts on The Works of His Hands. I have already included the full texts of the last five posts on this site.

The following Pages that currently reside on this blog site will be transferred to the new sygarte.com website: About Me, Publications, Presentations, FAQs, Curriculum Vitae, and these pages will eventually be removed from this site.

The webpage currently devoted to my book, The Works of His Hands, will be terminated, and information from that site including About the Author, Contact info (and forms), Endorsements and Reviews, Event Calendar and Excerpts will be transferred to the new https://sygarte.com/ site.

So to summarize, in the near future I will have two websites, The Book of Works, which will be limited to blog posts only, and a new comprehensive website – https://sygarte.com/, which will be my main website for everything except blog posts.

Subscribers to this site will continue to receive notifications of new posts, which will be shown in full here. I strongly urge all my subscribers to visit and sign up for the new website, including joining the mailing list for Newsletters available on that site.

Finally I want to thank everyone for their loyalty over the years, for the many wonderful, insightful and uplifting comments you have made to posts during those years, and also express my hope that you will continue to visit this site, read new posts and add your insights.

I also welcome any comments, questions of idea you might have about these changes. Peace be with you.

 

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