Judgment and Peer Review

Peer review is a critical process in modern science. Scientists with expertise in the right field judge the quality of a grant application or a manuscript submitted for publication in a journal. This judgment determines whether the grant will be funded, or the paper published. The work that scientists do to perform these reviews is generally done with very little or no recompense – it is considered to be an honorary task that is part of being a member of the scientific community. Without this kind of judgment by peers, science as we know it would be impossible.  Are there problems with this system? Yes, of course – but, like democracy, it beats all the alternatives.

The last job I had before retirement was at the NIH. I was one of the five Associate Directors of the Center for Scientific Review, the agency that manages the peer review of most of the 80,000 applications for research grants that come into NIH every year from scientists around the country.

In my role as Director of the Division of Physiological and Pathological Sciences, I had the ultimate authority to approve the academic and other well-respected scientists selected by my subordinates to be members of the peer review panels that would collectively review grant proposals on a range of biomedical research areas. I became an expert in all aspects of this kind of judgment.

The scientists who review grants make their judgments based on their own knowledge and experience, and their verdicts determine whether or not a scientist will get grant funds, which often has a major impact on the financial well being, reputation, and career path of the scientist who applied, as well as on others working in his or her lab.

Judgment is a major theme in the Bible.  It is prudent for all those making important judgments to take this responsibility very seriously. It is essential for a Christian to do so, since Christians must follow Scripture when it comes to moral issues like passing judgment. And what does Scripture say? in fact, should humans even act as judges of others, or is that only allowed for God? On first reading, it appears that Scripture answers yes to both alternatives. There are many verses that suggest it is wrong for people to judge one another, or that judgment is the prerogative of God alone:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. (Luke 6:37)

…you who pass judgment on someone else…are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. (Romans 2:1)

 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? (Romans 14:10)

On the other hand, verses that suggest that people are allowed, and even encouraged, to exercise judgment also abound:

…render true and sound judgment in your courts.   (Zechariah 8:16)

Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?  (Luke 12:57)

Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? (1 Corinthians 6:2)

So which is it? Are we supposed to judge or not? Actually,  I think that Scripture is clear. All the anti-judging verses apply to judgment of people. The pro-judge verses apply to judgment of what people do: their works and actions. A summary might be:

“Do not judge your brother, but do judge what he does and says.”

This solution is also consistent with the dilemma of a Christian making judgments about scientific proposals. Scientists who read the grants or papers of their peers make their decisions on the quality of the work presented – on the clarity of the ideas and their likelihood to be correct. While there is a minor aspect of peer review that relates to the individual applicant or author of a manuscript, even that judgment relates to what the individual has done before — it is not about the individual as a person.

I have never heard a grant reviewer say “The idea is good, the methods are fine, the applicant has a great track record, but I know him and he is a miserable person, so I vote no.” In fact such comments are strictly and explicitly forbidden.

As the new Editor-in-Chief of the magazine God and Nature, I am once again in the position of judging other people’s work. I find the wisdom from Scripture satisfying, because it allows me to make judgments on the work of others in humility and with the knowledge that I am following the will of God, as long as I avoid the trap of judging the basic worthiness of any member of the family of God’s people.

The subject of Judgment and Peer Review will be the focus topic for the Summer 2018 issue of God and Nature, and readers are encouraged to submit essays, stories, poems etc. I promise not to be too judgmental.

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Finding My Faith – Update

Just about a year ago, I put up a post called Finding My Faith, which presented a brief summary of  some of my reasons and experiences that led me from atheism to Christianity. Very recently, I posted a tweet that summarized my journey in two sentences and 25 words. That tweet has gotten over 8000 likes, over 5000 retweets, and resulted in my gaining almost 1500 new followers. It also led to numerous requests for more details about my direct experience with Jesus Christ, and how I came to faith.


To begin to answer questiobs about how I came to Christ, I have decided to repost most of my original piece on Finding My Faith, with some edits. If you would like to read more, please leave a comment in the comment section below with either your twitter handle or email. If you have already sent me a DM on Twitter, and I answered you, I will contact you directly.

I had an unusual upbringing for a Christian. My parents were dedicated materialistic atheists. They not only didn’t believe in God – they also thought that anything with a spiritual, psychological or non-rational quality was bogus. I grew up thinking that people of faith were lucky because they could fool themselves into believing that there was a loving God who would take care of them. I wished that it would be possible for me to become a believer. But it wasn’t. I had been too well trained in the dogma of materialism and rationalism to allow anything as weak-minded and logically indefensible as faith to penetrate my mind.

I became a scientist and embarked on a career in genetics and environmental health research, I began reading about physics, and found that some of the language of cosmology, quantum physics, and relativity didn’t sound that different from the language of mysticism. Intellectually, from a scientific point of view, I found the denial of the existence of transcendental mysteries in our universe and in our lives to be untenable. If Hawking can write of imaginary time, if we need to understand that space really bends, and that the uncertainty principle is true, how can we deny the reality of mystery? I also began thinking about some new ideas in my own field of genetics and evolution, and biology in general, that didn’t quite fit with the purely materialistic paradigm of strong atheism. I became convinced that there might be something….more. But thinking that there might be something out there and actually experiencing it are not the same thing. I remained an agnostic because I had no strong reason to believe anything else.

In my 40s I began accompanying a Catholic woman to church. I found it to be a surprisingly pleasant and non-threatening experience. It was a surprise because I had been taught that churches were the source of superstition, guilt, torment, and hostility.  The priest’s sermons were as surprising as the rest of the mass. The theme of this religion, which I had been taught was all about intolerance and power, seemed to be about love. I heard about the power of faith, forgiveness, and redemption, and about how all human beings are worthy of God’s love and how Jesus treated sinners (like me) as people worthy of His love and attention.

This didn’t make me a Christian – I was still on the outside looking in.  But I had  had several dreams that I later realized were direct calls from God, but did not understand when I dreamed them  They are all described in the book. Two of the dreams included the figure of Jesus Christ, but I did not realize that at the time.  In the last of these, I dreamt I was outside of a walled garden. I knew that in this garden there was to be found everything I had always been looking for, but there was no way I could climb over the wall to get in. I kept going around the walls, trying to climb up, falling down, and getting terribly frustrated. And then a man (Jesus) showed up, and said to me, “What’s wrong with you?” I explained I was trying to get into the Garden, but could not scale the wall. He smiled and said, “Then why not use the door?” and pointed to a door in the wall that I hadn’t seen before. I asked what I needed to do to gain entry. He answered, “Nothing, just open the door and go in.” So I did.

This dream and the others moved me, and helped me to break down my certainty that atheism was correct, and reinforced the sense I was getting after attending Church, that perhaps Christianity was a good thing. But still I resisted. How could I believe in something that might not be true? By now I knew that wanted to believe, I wanted to enter the garden, but was afraid to walk through the door, even with Jesus Christ holding it open for me. (When I had that dream I had not yet known the Gospel: “Seek and you shall find, knock and it will opened for you“).

I became a believer one day through the grace of the Holy Spirit. While driving on the Pennsylvania turnpike I had a direct experience of the power of the Lord, and it came from inside me out into the world. I had to pull over, stop the car, and for the first time in my life, I knew that God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Son, and the blessed Holy Spirit were as real as anything I could see or touch. I cried and prayed, and felt the joy of the Lord permeate my being, which has lasted to this day. Hallelujah and amen.


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How Evolution Works

I have been asked many times to explain how so called “macro-evolution” works. There are of course many excellent books and articles online and off that cover this, but I thought it might be a good idea to have a blog post that explains it quickly and simply that I can refer to when asked. The following is adapted from a book manuscript (which might get published some day).

To see how macroevolution (the origin of new species) works, we can use a hypothetical animal, maybe one in the cat family. Let’s call it a lipard. And let’s say that there is a population of these large cat-like carnivores living on a large plain with plenty of prey animals. The lipards have gotten better and better at hunting thanks to several improvements (microevolution) in  vision, muscle strength, digestion of meat, and other traits. And all of these positive changes eventually got shared by the whole population of lipards, due to breeding and natural selection (like all examples of microevolution).

But now the population of lipards becomes divided so that there are two groups of lipards that cannot interbreed. Perhaps one group crossed a river, a desert, or a mountain range and couldn’t get back, or they just wandered so far away that it wasn’t convenient to find mates in the other group.

Now both groups of lipards continue to accumulate new genetic variations through mutations, but because they are no longer interbreeding with each other, the new variantions in one group do not spread to  the other group. With time, each group begins to differ in their variations. Now, for each  group, natural selection could choose different genetic variants to be successful than in the other group.

Its also possible that some differences in the two groups could arise by chance, and not have any important effects on survival (like slight differences in skin color). But the key point is that none of the changes will spread to the other group, because the two populations cannot interbreed.

With the passage of time,  different traits will appear  in one of the groups that are not found in the other. In one group, the skin could become darker, and in the other, males could develop a large mane of hair around their heads.  Both groups continue to change independently of each other, and after a long enough time, neither group resembles the original lipards. One group has become lions, and the other has become leopards.

They still have a lot in common, but they are now two separate species. Please note that no lion turned into a leopard or vice versa. Both lions and leopards share a common ancestral species, the lipard, which now no longer exists. It didn’t go extinct – it evolved. Lipards themselves had evolved from an ancestor that they had in common with tigers and snow leopards, and even further back with cheetahs and domestic cats. And they all became separate species the same way: population isolation, separate genetic changes in the separate populations, and continued evolution by natural selection. This is what Darwin observed among species of finches in separate islands of the Galapagos chain.

We can keep looking backwards in biological history. All the cat-like animals are descended from a no-longer-living ancestor shared with bears, wolves, hyenas, badgers, and other carnivores. If we keep going we will find a common ancestor for all mammals, and then all vertebrates, and so on. For an excellent book that describes all of this in beautiful detail, there is nothing to match The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins.

Is there any evidence for this scenario of how the diversity of life arose? Yes, tons. There is so much evidence, both in fossil records and from genetics, that there is no doubt at all that the theory of evolution for the origin of species is correct (though perhaps not complete – see “New Ideas in Evolutionary Biology”).

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God and Nature

For the past six years, I have been a member (and now a fellow) of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA). From the ASA web site

The ASA was founded in 1941 as an international network of Christians in the sciences. As scientists, members of the ASA take part in humanity’s exploration of nature, its laws, and how it works. As Christians, ASAers want to know not just how the universe operates and came into being, but why it exists in the first place. 

We in the American Scientific Affiliation believe that God is both the creator of our vast universe and is the source of our ability to pursue knowledge — also, that honest and open studies of both scripture and nature are mutually beneficial in developing a full understanding of human identity and our environment

The ASA publishes a peer reviewed, scholarly journal, Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith, and a less formal online magazine, God and Nature . I have published papers, book reviews and articles in both.

The founding editor of God and Nature, Emily Ruppel Herrington, is stepping down to pursue other career interests. Emily is a good friend of mine, and she has done an outstanding job as Editor-in-Chief of the magazine.

I have been asked to step into the role of Editor-in-Chief of God and Nature, and I have accepted this honor with humility and gratitude for the chance to serve the Lord and the community of scientific believers who publish their ideas in that venue. I am fortunate that Ciara Reyes, a gifted editor, writer, and molecular biologist will continue to serve as Managing Editor.

I ask the readers of this blog to pray for the continued success of the magazine, and for me as I take on this new role. I am very likely to approach some of you to contribute essays, musings, memoirs, etc. to the magazine. Meanwhile I encourage everyone to consider joining the ASA, even if you are not an active scientist. Please check out the website for information on membership categories.

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Some Wisdom from the Past

Arthur Thomson, also known as Lord Kelvin, was an English physicist (and Christian) who wrote a book titled “Progress of Science in the Century” published in 1901. The century referred to was the 19th.. I have a copy of it among my collection of pre-20th century science books. It can also be found online. The book is a fascinating and eye-opening account of most scientific fields (especially physics and chemistry) and the enormous strides that had been made prior to the Einstein and Planck revolutions. Toward the end of the book, Kelvin discusses biology (which had barely begun to be a science) and some philosophy. The following is an excerpt from that section, that I believe contains some important wisdom for our own time.

The three main moods or attitudes of mind observable in human relations to nature — practical, emotional, and scientific. They find expression in doing, feeling, and knowing; in practice, in art, and in science; they may be symbolised by hand, heart, and head. And as one of the moods often has temporary dominance, we are all apt to err in over-doing, or over-feeling, or over-knowing. Our thesis then is that some measure of completeness of life — in ideal at least — is the condition of sanity in human development. A thoroughly sane life implies a recognition of the trinity of knowing, feeling, and doing. It spells health, wholeness, holiness,

Many other opinions of authoritative experts might be cited, varying greatly in their form, but with this common basis of agreement that the phenomena of life cannot be restated in the language of chemistry and physics. And yet, the reader may well ask, “Is this more than a pious opinion, an argumentum ad ignoratiam? Is not biological analysis still in its youth? Have not partial restatements been given of numerous functions? May one not look forward to the time when these may be completed?

This leads us, in concluding this discussion, to follow Prof. Karl Pearson in pointing out again the radical misunderstanding which exists in many minds in regard to scientific method. The material of science is “the routine of our perceptual experience”; we think over this, though we never understand it; we make sure by experiment that the sequence of sense-impressions which constitutes the routine is not illusory; we make sure that the routine is perceived by others also (for science is social), lest we should be the victims of an idiosyncrasy; and by and by, if we are clever enough, we give “a description in conceptual shorthand (never the explanation) of the routine of our perceptual experience.”

“The problem of whether life is or is not a mechanism is thus not a question of whether the same things, ‘matter’ and ‘force,’ are or are not at the back of organic and inorganic phenomena—of what is at the back of either class of sense-impressions we know absolutely nothing— but of whether the conceptual shorthand of the physicist, his ideal world of ether, atom, and molecule, will or will not also suffice to describe the biologists’ perceptions.”

That it does not at present seems the opinion of the more philosophical physiologists; if it ever should it would be “purely an economy of thought; it would provide the great advantages which flow from the use of one instead of two conceptual shorthands, but it would not ‘explain’ life any more than the law of gravitation explains the elliptic path of a planet.”

“Atom” and “molecule” and the rest are concepts, not phenomenal existences, therefore even if the physicists’ formulae should fit vital phenomena —which they do not seem to do—there would be no “explanation” forthcoming, for “mechanism does not explain anything.”

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Is God Imaginary?

There are many essential equations that describe the physical reality of the universe. Einstein’s E = mc2 is probably one of the most famous, and also the simplest. In the 1920s, physicist Erwin Schrödinger developed an equation that is of prime importance in quantum physics and chemistry. I first learned about (and worked with) this equation in an advanced physical chemistry course in college. The equation is critical in understanding the behavior of electrons, molecules and the wave functions of physics. Here it is:


It isn’t a simple equation at all – all of the terms have complicated meanings – but here I will only discuss one part of it.

Recently I saw an amusing post on Twitter by an atheist that was also in the form of an equation. It was this:


This was a somewhat clever attempt by the poster to say something about God. The square root of -1 (and indeed of all negative numbers) is called an imaginary number. So the atheist poster was trying to make the point that God is imaginary.

The reason such numbers are called imaginary is because the square root of a negative number doesn’t make sense. Such a thing violates basic rules of mathematics (actually the laws of arithmetic, see Sheila’s comment below) which say that the squares of all numbers, both positive and negative, are positive. Therefore, a negative number cannot have a square root.

But, unknowingly, the poster of this little doodle has made a profound theological point in direct contrast to the one he thought he was making. As it turns out, the square root of -1, while imaginary, is of critical importance in math and science. It is used often enough to have been given its own symbol: i. Now take another look at the Schrödinger equation above. Do you see the very first term? Yes, it’s an i.

So if God = i, then God is a crucial component in the basic laws of nature.

While this might seem a silly exercise in chastisement of an atheist with just enough scientific knowledge to get himself in trouble, there is also an important point here. And that has to do with what we mean by imaginary. God does exist in our imagination, and perhaps we cannot ever actually get a picture of the reality of God. Much like imaginary numbers. But this says nothing about the existence of God as a real and ultimate force in nature. The unintended metaphor of God being like the square root of -1 is actually quite powerful. Being imaginary does not equate to being false or nonexistent. Neither in modern science nor in theology (nor in many other areas). We already know that the basic principles of modern physics, from relativity to quantum mechanics, describe a world of reality that seems irrational to us. And here, again, we can use a metaphor from mathematics. There are also irrational numbers, the best known being pi, whose values can never be precisely known but only approximated.

So, if imaginary and irrational are critical adjectives needed to give an accurate scientific description of natural reality, how can the labeling of anything as imaginary or irrational (such as God) be an indication of non-existence? On the contrary, it would be quite strange if the creator and sustainer of all that exists were some analog of a 19th century clockwork maker or engineer.

I would like to express my thanks to the atheist who came up with this brilliant meme, and I can only pray that he (and others) will see, as I do, the miraculous hand of God in his unintended profession of faith.

(I am hoping that one of my most faithful readers, Sheila Deeth, a mathematician, will see this post and comment, especially if revisions are called for).


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RNA and the Origin of Life

First Happy New Year to all. Now, for the matter at hand.

Traditionally, the scientific field of origin-of-life research has been divided into two camps based on what theorists propose came first: replication or metabolism. The “replicators-first” group think that once molecules (like DNA or RNA) capable of self-replication appeared, metabolism was sure to follow. The other group counters that  replication is not possible without enzymes and metabolic processes in place first.

Both sides are probably right, since proteins require genes (DNA) in order to be made, and DNA requires protein enzymes to replicate itself. Without enzymes and metabolism, it’s hard to imagine efficient and accurate replication. But without replication, any advanced metabolism that arises in a particular proto-cell cannot survive into the next generation.

The most widely held scientific theory for any part of abiogenesis is that an “RNA world” of life arose first and then morphed into the modern DNA world. The idea came from the finding that some RNA molecules (like the ribosome) can act as pretty good catalysts called ribozymes. The implication was that RNA could be both a replicator and metabolic catalyst at the same time, thus solving the dilemma of which came first. And a lot of evidence was gathered to support the theory.

But the excitement about RNA as a major step in the origin of life faced several stubborn problems. Further research showed that the efficiency and accuracy of RNA replication in the absence of protein enzymes was really not good enough to allow for a stable informational state. One of the most serious issues was the tendency of long RNA strands to “self-anneal”: to fold up and stick to themselves or to other RNA strands. The annealing reaction is about a thousand times faster than spontaneous non-catalyzed replication, so left on its own, RNA will probably never replicate itself.

Enter Jack Szostack, the Harvard biochemist, Nobel Laureate, and a leading light in RNA World research. Szostack’s research group was actively trying to solve the annealing problem, and he had a brilliant idea. While there were no proteins around at this stage, there were amino acids, and it was likely that two or a few amino acids could be joined together in a small chain called an oligopeptide by an RNA molecule with catalytic activity like the modern ribosome. Szostak said in the introduction to his breakthrough 2016 paper:

In order for subsequent rounds of replication to be possible, reannealing of the separated single strands must occur on a time scale that is comparable to or slower than the rate of strand copying.

He reasoned that an oligopeptide might be able to interact with an RNA strand in a way that would prevent annealing or at least slow it down long enough to allow time for replication. If true, this could also be the origin of the evolution of longer peptides and eventually proteins. And, in a wonderful set of experiments, it worked! From the abstract of the paper:

…oligoarginine peptides slow the annealing of complementary oligoribonucleotides by up to several thousand-fold; This method for enabling further rounds of replication suggests one mechanism by which short, non-coded peptides could have enhanced early cellular fitness, potentially explaining how longer, coded peptides, i.e. proteins, came to prominence in modern biology.

The impact this paper had on the field of origin of life research is hard to exaggerate:. A major stumbling block to acceptance of RNA World as a viable hypothesis was overturned. Despite my long-held skepticism, I also began to accept the possibility that RNA World might have happened. It all made perfect sense. Better replication by longer and better peptides would give a selective advantage to a cell, allowing for evolution of more advantageous RNA sequences and the birth of long proteins.

But science is not an easy pursuit. (I can say that with authority after 35 years.) Things go wrong. A lot. And as shocking as it is, things can go wrong for Nobel Laureates also. As it turned out, Szostack’s great idea was wrong, and the Nature paper showing the evidence in favor of the idea was also wrong. In a retraction published on November 23, 2017, Szostack wrote:

…we have been unable to reproduce observations suggesting that arginine-rich peptides allow the non-enzymatic copying of an RNA template in the presence of its complementary strand… we now understand that the data reported in the published article are the result of false positives that arose from … random errors, including transfer and concentration errors, affected the ratio of the concentrations of the RNA template and its complementary strand…in reality these reactions did not contain enough complementary strands to completely inhibit the reaction.

What that paragraph means is that others in his lab were unable to reproduce the same results that are reported in the paper, and they found out why. Somebody made some mistakes, and the results were not due to what they thought, but were an example of that most terrible of all words for lab scientists – an artefact. In other words, the results were a mistake. But even worse news came next. When carefully doing the experiments again, and avoiding all errors, they found the opposite of what they first reported and had hoped to find:

Subsequent experiments suggested that arginine-rich peptides may not slow the reannealing of complementary strands, and that what we had previously interpreted as a decrease in annealing rate was actually an artefact…

In other words, it looks like peptides do NOT slow reannealing, and therefore there is still no known mechanism for RNA to self-replicate. It ain’t over yet. I am sure many labs with tweak the experimental conditions in all kinds of ways to see if something will work. And it might. But it doesn’t look likely, and if things stay as they are now, RNA world and origin-of-life research is back to square one.

What is the lesson here? Szostack admitted to Retraction Watch that “In retrospect, we were totally blinded by our belief [in our findings]…we were not as careful or rigorous as we should have been… in interpreting these experiments.” Yes, I have been there. It’s really hard for a scientist to remain objective and skeptical when everything seems to work just right, and your hypothesis is supported by the experimental data.

The other lesson is that the origin of life has no easy answers, and in fact I can’t think of another field in modern biology where the answers seem to be so hard. Maybe that itself is telling us something.

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