The Works of His Hands

I am happy to announce that my forthcoming book The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith is now available for pre-order on Amazon. 

The book will be released by Kregel Publications on November 19, 2019. I will be announcing the release (and pre-order availability) on Twitter and Facebook in the early fall, but I wanted to give the readers of this blog an advanced notification.

All editorial work on the book is complete, and endorsements from advance readers are coming in. Alister McGrath, one of my favorite theologians (and people), has contributed a wonderful foreword, and the marketing team is preparing to spread the word.

My wife and I just got back from a week-long trip to Wheaton College (near Chicago) for the annual American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) conference, where I gave a talk related to my previous post on replication. I also chaired a session, presented a report on God and Nature to the ASA Executive Committee, met Ken Miller, Hugh Ross, and many old friends, took a tour of Fermilab, and had a great time.

I also had a chance to give out a few flyers produced by the Publisher to advertise the book.  The pre-order price of $16.99 is guaranteed until release.

TWHH Flyer

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Replication and Evolution

When most people, including scientists, even including evolutionary and molecular biologists, talk about evolution, they dwell on the critical aspects of variation and natural selection almost exclusively. These two processes are considered to be the heart and soul of the evolutionary process. But there is another process that must also exist for evolution to occur, and that is replication of the organism in the next generation. I am not talking about reproduction, which of course must occur. Replication is more than simply an organism reproducing itself. Replication is the means by which reproduction occurs with extreme accuracy, so that the characteristics of the original are inherited in the offspring. Replication is what makes inheritance possible. And the fact that replication is less than 100% accurate is what allows for the existence of variation, which is critical for evolution.

What we tend to overlook is that replication, while it cannot be perfect (so as to allow for variation), must be very, very good. If it weren’t, then whatever selective advantage an organism might have gained by a change in some allele would not be transmitted to the next generation, and no evolution would occur. If a bird had developed better vision than its siblings, that bird would have a great selective advantage during its own lifetime. But if that characteristic were not inherited by its offspring, evolution of better eyesight in that species would never happen.

Modern life replicates its phenotype with at least 99.99999% fidelity. This leaves enough room for naturally occurring errors (mutations) to produce the variation needed for Darwin’s theory to work. But what about the lower limit of replication fidelity? How good must replication be in order to avoid “error catastrophe”—which means, in this context, a level of error such that no selective advantage is possible?

The threshold for a mutation rate that would cause an error catastrophe has been determined theoretically and confirmed by experiment to be simply equal to the inverse of the size of the genome. Thus, if an organism has a genome of 10,000 bases, like some bacteria and viruses, a mutation rate greater than 0.0001 or 0.01% would lead to a loss of any selective advantage for the fittest organisms, and thus it would not allow for evolution to work. This seems like a very low mutation rate, and it is, but of course in large multicelled organisms with genomes in the billions of bases, the error rate is correspondingly lower. Since replication fidelity is equal to 1 minus the mutation rate, the minimal level of replication fidelity is 0.9999 for single-celled organisms, and 0.9999999 for animals and plants.

Are such high values for replication fidelity in early life reasonable to expect? Not when we consider that for even the most primitive modern organisms, replication, transcription and translation involves a host of error correction enzymatic processes, all of which had to evolve—but how could they if the prevailing error rate was too high to allow for evolution?

This seems to leave a large gaping hole in our attempt to understand the origin of life, particularly the origin of evolution. The best solution to this mystery is to posit some other type of evolutionary process whereby early primitive cells could replicate themselves (meaning their entire phenotype) with great accuracy that did not involve the extremely complex advanced mechanisms of DNA replication and DNA-directed protein synthesis. The RNA world (generally assumed to predate DNA world) doesn’t look much better. Even if we assume that the RNA-world genome is a set of RNA ribozymes, and that the smallest such self-replicating molecule might be as small as 50 bases, we still need to have a 98% accuracy in replication of RNA, which is far less than the 80% fidelity (at best)  observed in lab experiments. We have no idea what such an alternative evolutionary mechanism not working with replicating nucleic acid polymers might consist of.

But we can still address the fundamental question of replication fidelity evolution even if we have no idea how that evolution could have occurred. I recently completed a study of a simulation model for studying replication fidelity in early life that makes no assumptions about replication mechanisms.

The results (which I have recently submitted in a paper for publication) are interesting. To summarize, it seems very clear that regardless of what the unknown evolutionary mechanism might be, a smoothly continuous evolutionary path to high replication fidelity is impossible. At some point during the evolution of protolife to modern life, there had to be one or more major jumps (saltational events) in the degree of replication fidelity. We have a long way to go before we can get close to any idea of how life and evolution might have gotten started.


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Thoughts on Science, ID, Evolutionary Continuity, and Eugene Koonin

In 2007, the famous and highly respected evolutionary biologist, Eugene Koonin, published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Biology Direct. The paper is titled “The Biological Big Bang model for the major transitions in evolution.” In the abstract, he summarizes the problem he aims to address as follows:

Major transitions in biological evolution show the same pattern of sudden emergence of diverse forms at a new level of complexity. The relationships between major groups within an emergent new class of biological entities are hard to decipher and do not seem to fit the tree pattern that, following Darwin’s original proposal, remains the dominant description of biological evolution.

In other words, he is stating the observed fact that there are frequent discontinuous jumps in complexity, with the emergence of entirely new classes of biological entities (including organisms and biochemical molecules).

His model evokes the cosmological concepts of rapid inflation and Big Bang singularity. In the biological case, the inflation is the result of “extremely rapid evolution,” and the biological “Big Bang” emergence of novel complexity “is envisaged as being qualitatively different from tree-pattern cladogenesis.” In other words, not at all Darwinian gradualism.

Koonin is an atheist who despises creationism and Intelligent Design (ID), and he is a fiercely independent and brilliant thinker. One might wonder how the tone and content of this paper was received by reviewers, except that we don’t need to wonder at all. Biology Direct is an open access journal that also uses open review, still fairly rare among scientific journals. The names of the reviewers are published, as are their comments and the author’s replies. I found this fascinating to read.

In one comment, the reviewer (William Martin) writes:

“In each major class of biological objects, the principal types emerge “ready-made”, and intermediate grades cannot be identified.” Ouch, that will be up on ID websites faster than one can bat an eye.

Koonin responds:

Here I do not really understand the concern… there is little I can do because this is an important sentence that accurately and clearly portrays a crucial and, to the very best of my understanding, real feature of evolutionary transitions…  if our goal as evolutionary biologists is to avoid providing any grist for the ID mill, we should simply claim that Darwin, “in principle”, solved all the problems of the origin of biological complexity in his eye story, and only minor details remain to be filled in… However, I believe that this is totally counter-productive and such a notion is outright false… I think we (students of evolution) should openly admit that emergence of new levels of complexity is a complex problem and should try to work out solutions some of which could be distinctly non-orthodox…

(Note: most of what I omitted in that quote are protestations against ID.)

Complaints by some academic scientists about language in scientific papers and presentations that sounds too much like ID or creationism are not uncommon these days. I fully agree with Koonin that such rigid adherence to the dogma of neo-Darwinism is counterproductive in the search for truth. It might, in fact, simply be true that some of the ideas of ID are more consonant with the reality of biological evolution than is generally acknowledged.

In fact, the prediction that ID folks might jump on this and similar ideas has come to pass to some extent. Randy Isaac recently drew my attention to a meeting in Austria where evolutionary biologists presented ideas contesting the standard model of Darwinian gradualism, and even discussed the forbidden word – teleology. Several members of the ID-based Discovery Institute also presented their work at this meeting.

An article about this meeting written by Discovery Institute’s newsletter “Evolution News” claims that some of the speakers from academia expressed fears of possible harassment or worse from their academic departments because of the kind of concern expressed in the reviewer’s quote above. It is certainly the case that hints of Intelligent Design sympathy are not well received in academic biology.

Eugene Koonin has no need to worry about reactions to his thoughts. His position (at the Library of Medicine in the NIH) and his reputation as a brilliant scientist are secure. Like Stephen Jay Gould and the more modern proponents of the extended evolutionary synthesis, Koonin is not afraid (thank God) to move the entire field of evolutionary biology forward with bold new ideas.

Science cannot be stopped by political, religious, or social viewpoints. At least not for long. It is my own belief that just as the original Big Bang theory put astrophysics and Christian cosmology in closer concordance, we will eventually see a similar trend in biology. God willing.


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About My Book and Two Others (by Jon Garvey and Joel Edmund Anderson)

My new book, The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith is now in the final editorial stage, and the Publisher (Kregel Publications) has been working on starting the marketing and promotion process. The book is a first-person account of how I, formerly an atheist scientist, came to embrace Christianity while maintaining my scientific worldview. It includes several chapters on modern science and its compatibility with faith in a creator God.

You can find a link to a new website for the book by clicking on the “My Book” tab above. That site will contain updates as the book goes through the publishing process up to and beyond its release date of November 19, 2019.

I am honored and blessed to announce that famed theologian (and scientist) Alister McGrath from Oxford University has written a wonderful Foreword for the book, and a final cover design has been crafted and approved, as shown below.


When the book is available for pre-order, I will be sure to post that here, as well as on my Facebook and Twitter accounts.


Speaking of books, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight two other books that I have recently had the pleasure to read, written by fellow bloggers (and friends).

Jon Garvey’s God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation (Cascade Books, 2019) is a beautifully written book that can be read for pure enjoyment and enlightenment, and/or used as a scholarly resource on the essential problem of evil in God’s creation.

Jon, a retired physician and the blogger behind “The Hump of the Camel” (and a frequent commenter on this blog) uses historical scholarship to argue that neither Scripture nor the early Church fathers maintain the view that the world was perfect before the sin of Adam and Eve. He presents a convincing case that the modern Christian concept of a curse on creation itself (not just the original sin of human beings) is not rooted in traditional orthodoxy nor in the Biblical text. The chapters on science are a powerful antidote to the prevailing popular view of evolution as a violent deadly struggle. In all of this, Garvey speaks to his readers in terms that all can understand.

The optimistic theme of the book, while controversial, is a rare commodity in the modern marketplace of ideas. This book is full of new ideas, fresh approaches, and profound insights. I strongly recommend it.


Joel Edmund Anderson, whose blog is “Resurrecting Orthodoxy,” is a religious scholar and the author of the highly regarded book The Heresy of Ham about the extreme young-earth creationist views of Ken Ham. Joel has now published a new book, entitled Christianity and the (R)evolution in Worldviews in Western Culture: A brief review of Christianity and the development of western civilization…and why it is important to understand if one is to make sense of our world today (Archdeacon Books, 2019).

This is a delightfully written and comprehensive but also highly accessible treatise on philosophical ideas regarding Christianity and religious faith and the historical contexts in which they arose. Anderson covers pretty much all the main threads in Western philosophy and historical viewpoints, going back to ancient Greece. His chapters on the “so-called” Enlightenment and the 19th century contain valuable insights into the origins of many of our modern ideas about the place of religion and Christianity in particular.

I found the descriptions of the major philosophical views and their authors to be refreshingly candid, highly readable, and engaging. If you (like me) tend to fall asleep at the mere mention of the name Kant or Hegel, this book is for you. Not only is the writing clear and jargon-free, but the essences of the ideas are presented in a way that allows for easy understanding of often difficult concepts.

The book also goes into scientific history and the relationship of science with the historical and philosophical trends in Europe.

This is a book for everyone, especially those who are looking for an accurate and insightful depiction of how our worldviews emerged from the thinking of the best and brightest philosophers throughout the ages.


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The Conundrum of New Atheism

If we define atheism as the lack of belief in God, gods, or the supernatural in any way, or even if we define atheism as the positive belief that gods do not and cannot exist, it’s clear that atheist philosophy is based on one simple, negative statement about reality. If things ended there, there would be little or nothing to discuss. My own atheism, which was of the stronger version (no gods exist), was not something I thought about, or spent any time on. I’m pretty sure that was true for the majority of atheists I knew, and I think its probably true for the majority of atheists now as well.

For most atheists in days gone by, the only time their atheism ever came up was if someone said something like “pray with me” or “Do you believe in God?” For me, working in an academic scientific setting, this was a very rare occurrence.

But times have changed. Militant “New Atheism” is a modern movement that is based on taking atheism out of the closet and loudly proclaiming it to the world as an important and proud vision of reality. The slogan on the side of London buses—“There is probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life”— is one of many examples of this new in- your-face public expression of atheism.

The original “Four Horsemen” of atheism—Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett— have made it very popular to go far beyond politely declining an invitation to go to someone’s church or to pray for a mutual friend. The public is exhorted to confront theists, demand rational evidence for their harmful and foolish nonsense, and proclaim the truth of atheism in the public square by publishing books, giving interviews, writing articles, and producing TV shows, films, and online videos—getting the word out that gods are not real by any and every method imaginable.

The original four have been joined by scientists like Krauss, Coyne, Tyson, Carroll, and Atkins; entertainers like Teller, Maher, and Gervais; and YouTubers like Dillahunty, Ra, Andrews, and a slew of others. There are now atheist conventions, atheist rallies, and many atheist organizations.

And there are also a whole set of brand new atheist conundrums, all of which stem from the problem that atheism is supposed to have no common belief system other than a simple negative statement. As it turns out, this is not completely true for a very large number of the followers of the new atheists. If one looks into the ideas expressed by the leaders and routinely echoed by the followers of the new atheism, a great many positive statements about how they see the world can be discerned. Here is a partial list:

  1. Science and the scientific method are the only legitimate epistemology. This view has been called scientism, a term rejected by the new atheist dogma.
  2. Free will does not exist. Strict determinism is the rule in the universe, and therefore free will is an illusion.
  3. Human life is nothing special compared to other life, and human consciousness is an illusion.
  4. Our planet is tiny, insignificant, probably one of millions of such planets with all kinds of sentient life, and there is nothing at all special or even interesting about the earth or its inhabitants.
  5. The concept of purpose, meaning, or anything beyond physics and chemistry is nonsense. Reductionism is the answer to everything, and logical positivism was right after all.
  6. Evolution is not only true, but it provides the answers to all questions not yet answered by other scientific means, such as why is there good and evil, why do we have delusions of meaning and grandeur, what is the origin of love, beauty, emotions, etc.

There are more, but these are enough to get the picture. It could sound pretty gloomy, but there is some light in this philosophy as well. The famous statement that we are all stardust sounds at first somewhat spiritual, but it is in fact based on the scientific fact that we are constructed from the carbon and other atoms thrown into space by exploding stars. Nice. And it’s science!

But there remains a problem. Science (as all real scientists know) is not a philosophical position, but a method to find natural truths. One can use this method (originally formulated by people who were believers) no matter what one’s religious or philosophical beliefs are, which is why scientists are not all atheists, but also Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc. Atheists cannot claim science as their specific and exclusive domain of knowledge or worldview.

Another problem that modern atheism as a movement faces isn’t philosophical but political. Some atheists see their movement as part of a larger, radical movement for social justice in opposition to the often conservative, oppressive Christian (and for some, Muslim) viewpoints regarding gay rights, the role of women, racism, male privilege etc. But many other atheists challenge this view and reject the progressive brand of atheism as being just as intellectually weak and even unscientific as religious faith.

Dawkins and Harris have spoken in terms that other atheists have considered to be outright misogynistic and racist. Some younger atheists, who simply want nothing to do with the churchiness of their elders, are part of various neofascist or alt-right ideologies stimulated by 4chan, the incel movement, Gamergate, and related cultural trends.

The political rift within “organized” atheism has resulted in bitter feuds and disputes, including the cancellation of a number of atheist conferences, online and in-print hostility and antagonism between atheists, and a dawning realization that atheists have really nothing in common to talk about other than the stupidity of believers— which can eventually get old.

Attempts to forge a philosophical consensus of what kind of ideas should replace belief in God have so far failed. There are so many current and past theistic scientists (including scores of Nobel Laureates) that atheism cannot legitimately claim scientific thinking as its own. The same goes for liberal and social justice political activity. Yes, Christians endorsed slavery at one time, but both the abolitionist and civil rights movements were led by Christians. I have seen atheists on Twitter resort to using historical (especially biblical) references to burning witches or stoning gays as a last resort in condemning Christianity as morally bankrupt.

If it makes no sense to conflate atheism with science, or with social justice, what should be the positive content of modern atheistic philosophy? If all that’s left is their original core belief that there are no gods, there isn’t much to have a movement about. If Christians accept evolution and mainstream science (as the majority do), and if LGBT rights are well established, as is separation of Church and state, it’s hard to discern what religious dangers atheist defense organizations like FFRF need to fight against.  If atheists are unable to come up with some sort of positive message (other than “stop worrying”), it could spell the eventual demise of the New Atheist movement. I predict that within a few years, someone will coin a new phrase: “New Atheism is dead; God, not so much”.

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My Holy Week Tweets

The following are the daily tweets I posted during this past Holy Week. The video clip is from The Gospel According to Matthew by Pasolini (1964). The music at the end of the clip if from an African mass called Missa Luba.

(Ignore the first few seconds of the video)

Saturday 4/13. Tomorrow, Palm Sunday, is the start of Holy week. As is my custom, from now until after Easter, I will engage with other Christ followers, but will not reply to anti-Christian posts or replies. This is a period of deep reflection on our Savior’s sacrifice, not one for arguments.

Palm Sunday 4/14. “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” The words of the Jewish crowd as Jesus entered Jerusalem. All phrases showing they believed Him to be the Messiah. As He has proven to be, and so much more.

Monday 4/15. Jesus cleansed the Temple of the money changers & all who profaned His Father’s house. My Church is an old stone building with courtyards, chapel, lots of space. When I’m there alone, I find the calm & quiet conducive to prayer & reflection. I think Jesus would be happy there.

Tuesday 4/16. The words from Matthew, spoken by Jesus as a man “Yet not as I will, but as Thou wills” should be part of every prayer. We’re told to pray for what we need & what we want, but those words remind us that we are to accept God’s will, even if it seems a bitter cup. We too will rise.

Wednesday 4/17. “He denied it again, with an oath: I don’t know the man!” Peter’s words (Matt 26:72) break my heart, just as they broke Peter’s when the rooster crowed. To face one’s own betrayal, cowardice, & failure is bitter. Yet we do it, are forgiven, & like Peter, carry on in Christ.

Maundy Thursday 4/18. Pilate asked “What is truth?” but Jesus gave no answer, because He knew it wasnt a question. Pilate was saying we will never know the complete truth. He could not understand that the complete incarnated truth was standing in front of him. In 3 days, that truth would be proven.

Good Friday 4/19. The curtain between Heaven and Earth is torn. The ground shakes, the sky darkens. Today we are a people of sorrow, acquainted with grief. In despair, we can only pray, and wait. But He is with us, even today.

Holy Saturday 4/20. Today Peter, no longer a rock, is simply Simon. Imagine him, recalling his failure and despair of yesterday, with no idea of the coming joy. Have you been there? I have. But we know what Simon didn’t. Tomorrow brings joy and hope. Peter will rise with Jesus, and so will we.

Easter Sunday 4/21.

Shout! Run! Sing! Rejoice!


Glory Hallelujah!

He is Risen Indeed.


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Textual Analysis (Silly Alert!).

Biblical scholarship is a very difficult field of study, requiring expertise in many areas. One of the most challenging aspects of understanding the true meaning of Biblical (or any ancient) text is making sense of the wording in the context of the contemporary cultural and linguistic milieu of the period in question. As an example of the perils and trials of textual analysis, lets take this example of a future study of an obscure American text from the early 19th century.

The text is written in the form of a poem, but many authorities believe it was a song. Some scraps showing musical notation associated with parts of  the text have survived, but the fact that all attempts to actually sing the melody indicated by these notes is virtually impossible has led to strong doubts that this poem was actually ever sung. At least not to the tune as notated.

The text follows along with commentary on its analysis.

Title: The Star Spangled Banner

Oh, say can you see,
By the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed
At the twilight’s last gleaming?

Here we are being asked if we can see something in the light of the dawn. Since there is no specification of what we are being asked about, we cannot give a definitive answer. The only clue seems to be that it was something that was hailed – perhaps a taxi cab, or Julius Cesar, at the end of the shining of the twilight. So this must mean (since Julius Cesar was long dead at the time) that we are being asked if we can still see the taxi cab that brought the group of people referred to as “we” home the previous evening, and then parked outside their house in the early dawn. Generally cabs would  not have  stuck around all night outside of the house they delivered people to, so the answer must be no.

Whose broad stripes and bright stars,
Through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched,
Were so gallantly streaming?

So apparently, this taxi cab which is the subject of the first stanza was covered in stripes and decorated with stars, which sounds bizarre (almost all NYC taxicabs were painted yellow for unknown reasons or significance), but then again, so is the idea that people would hail a taxi cab with pride. Maybe there was something special about the cab. The perilous fight is easy. Ever try to get a taxi in midtown NY at the height of the rush hour? It probably wasn’t any easier back then. There is no possible clue to what ramparts they watched over (assuming that the omission of the “v” in “over” has some reason). And it appears that the stripes and stars in the first line were streaming, which makes the appearance of this taxi cab even more bizarre. And why the word “gallantly”, unless it refers to the driver who managed to get them home?

And the rockets’ red glare,
The bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there.

This is really a stumbling block. Its either allegorical (I mean Manhattan can be rough, but rockets and bombs didn’t generally glare and burst in the streets) or this entire incident occurred on July 4th, which actually also fits the last line, since flags were also displayed on that national holiday. The third line is hopelessly obscure. The issue of proof is completely outside of anything related to the rest of the piece.

O say, does that star-spangled
Banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free
And the home of the brave

This last stanza seems to hold some important keys, since it contains the title of the piece (the star spangled banner). Again, as in the first stanza it asks a question, which seems impossible to answer or even understand. Banners are flags (see previous stanza) but what does this have to do with our taxi cab? “Star spangled” is clearly an idiom whose meaning is lost to history, although it might relate to the stars painted on the taxi (see above). The last two lines are extremely difficult. It appears that this banner may or may not be waving over two places, whose descriptions are… well much too general to give any clues about their precise location. The land of the free could be almost anywhere, depending on who exactly (humans? Animals?) are the free creatures referred to. As for home of the brave, well that could be the subjects (“we”), since they did venture out into the night of July 4th in New York City, found a bizarrely decorated taxi, and made it home in one piece. In conclusion, this text is most likely an insignificant personal record of a wild night in New York on a national holiday that clearly involved considerable loss of cognitive function on the part of the writer, probably due to intoxication.


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My Academic Genealogy

Becoming a scientist involves, among other things, personal transmission of knowledge and methodology from academic scientists to their students and trainees. Every scientist has spent time as an apprentice in the laboratory of a senior academic advisor or mentor, from whom they learned the tools and tricks of the trade. The budding scientist learns how to write a paper, how to make collaborations, how to hold a pipette, how to survive long periods of experimental failure, how to set up apparatus, and on and on. When students finally graduate with a doctoral degree, they go out into the world, and, eventually—with time, hard work and success—they become professors and begin to train their own students. And the cycle repeats, creating a long chain of teachers and students.

Every scientist can be said to be the product not only of his/her advisor but of all those scientists along the chain, creating a sort of genealogy of advisors and students, analogous to parents and children.  Its possible to produce the “academic genealogy” of any scientist by tracing the mentors of mentors as far as possible. I recently did this for myself using a web site called The Academic Family Tree. I will present the results going from myself backwards in time:

My mentor Charlotte Russell was Professor of Biochemistry at City University of New York, where she worked on heme biochemistry, as well as protein purification and natural product biochemistry.

Her mentor David Shemin (1911 – 1991) was Professor of Biochemistry at Columbia University. He worked on Heme biosynthesis and the biochemistry of red blood cell formation.

His mentor Robert M. Herbst (1904 – 1992) was Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Northwestern University. He worked on reactions and synthesis of amino acids and peptides, the synthesis and chemistry of polynitrogen heterocyclic systems, and the chemistry of medicinal compounds.
His mentor Treat Baldwin Johnson (1875 – 1947) was a Professor at Yale who worked on pyrimidine chemistry.

His mentor Henry Lord Wheeler (1867-1914) was Professor at Yale and a pioneering organic chemist and biochemist. His research focused on pyrimidines. He developed a test for the presence of uracil and cytosine. He was a founding editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

His mentor Horace Lemuel Wells (1855 – 1924) was professor of analytical chemistry and metallurgy at Yale. Wells dealt with inorganic chemistry and mineral analysis, especially with the salts of the halogens.

His mentor Oscar Dana Allen (1836 – 1913) was a professor at Yale, who investigated the chemistry of cesium and rubidium and made the first accurate determination of the atomic weight of cesium.

His mentor Samuel William Johnson (1830 – 1909), traveled to Germany to study under Von Liebig. He became Professor of Agricultural Chemistry at Yale. He devised apparatus for the determination of carbon dioxide and improved the Kjeldahl method for determining nitrogen in proteins.

His mentor Justus von Liebig (1803 – 1873) was the founder of organic chemistry and made major contributions to agricultural and biological chemistry. He invented the Liebig condenser (still used today). After his studies in Paris with Gay-Lussac, he returned to Germany, where he become Professor at the University of Giessen.

His mentor Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (1778–1850) is known for his discovery that water is made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, and for Gay-Lussac’s law of  gasses. He also worked on measurement of alcoholic content in beverages.

His mentor Claude Louis Berthollet (1748 -1822) is known for his scientific contributions to the theory of chemical equilibria, for his contribution to modern chemical nomenclature, and work on bleaching agents.

Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) is widely considered to be the “father of modern chemistry” and central to the 18th-century chemical revolution. He identified oxygen and hydrogen, did research on combustion and stoichiometry, and had a major influence on both the history of chemistry and the history of biology.

 So I am 12 academic generations removed from the father of chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier. Pretty neat.

This was nice to see, but not surprising. It’s likely that most current scientists can trace their academic genealogy to early illustrious giants. What it means is that all scientists are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us in a very personal way.

But on another level, it’s nice to think that perhaps some word of wisdom conveyed from Lavoisier to Berthollet might have been passed down through these generations and repeated to me from Charlotte Russell, and from me to many others. Because it didn’t end with me. I have trained ten grad students and eleven post docs. And most of them have trained others. I have academic “children” and “grandchildren” as well as twelve generations of “ancestors.” This means that scientific conferences are actually family reunions of thousands of academic “cousins.”

I did a quick check, and I am happy to see that I am (academically) related to Francis Collins, Linus Pauling, and many more modern scientists, with Von Liebig as a common ancestor who trained dozens of European and American chemists and biochemists.  Welcome to the family!



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Biblical Inerrancy and Biblical Science

I recently read the draft of a brilliant paper by one of the leaders in the science-and-faith field, my friend Denis Lamoureux. Denis is well known for his outspoken views and the fact that he is in possession of not one, nor two, but three doctoral level degrees, one in dentistry, one in evolutionary biology, and one in theology. In this paper (which I read as a draft, but which will be published shortly), Denis writes about one of his favorite subjects, the scientific consensus about the nature of the world in the ancient near east (ANE).

Reading his draft article gave me some ideas about the use of the word “inerrancy” as applied to Old Testament descriptions of cosmology, biology, and geology. What follows is a rough summary of those ideas.

At any period of history, there tends to be a general consensus about what is true about the world, whether based on basic observations or more scholarly efforts in logic and experimentation. This doesn’t mean everyone agrees or holds the same views as the consensus—we need only examine the present day to find millions of people who believe all sorts of nonscientific and extraordinary things. Likely this has always been true. But at least among the intellectual and cultural elite, scientific understanding about how the world works tends to spread and take root in the culture, and often the entire civilized world. This was no less true in the ANE than in Classical Greece, medieval or Enlightenment Europe, or today.

There is little question that the Biblical treatment of scientific knowledge reflects the scientific consensus of the ANE, including Egypt, Mesopotamia and probably other ANE cultures as well—with some regional variations, of course. Most of the details of that consensus have been since proven to be false or, at best, incomplete.

This fact has fueled a long-standing controversy about the issue of Biblical inerrancy. The thinking goes, if God inspired the writing of the Bible, why would He allow the human writers to get it wrong? God surely knows the truth: there is no firmament in the sky, and the Sun doesn’t circle the Earth. Why wouldn’t an omniscient God correct those mistakes?

One approach to this thorny issue has been various flavors of concordance, meaning attempts to interpret the words of Scripture in a way that would show that they weren’t really wrong, because instead of referring to actual physical reality, they were either allegorical or metaphorical, or somehow meant to imply something other than what they say.

Biblical literalists, including YECs, dismiss such arguments, based on the difficulty of knowing how to interpret Scripture. Of course Scriptural interpretation is always being done (by everybody) and we are able to distinguish between different kinds of Biblical texts (poetry, history parable, etc.). Still, the problem with concordance is that it doesn’t really address the central question of why God would allow something false to be written in His Book.

But where does that leave us? If we acknowledge that there are incorrect scientific statements in the Bible, we are admitting that inerrancy is a myth. That acknowledgment then brings into question everything in the Bible and weakens the basis of our faith. Or does it?

Let’s imagine that a group of scientists of Christian faith decided to rewrite the Bible today, in a revised modern version that would correct all the scientific errors of the original and produce a truly inerrant version. We would add our knowledge of the universe: the laws of physics, evolution, microbiology, and so on.

But would such a revision really be scientifically inerrant? Would it be true? Not likely. We now know that scientific truth is subject to rapid and dramatic change, and I am sure no one would doubt that our current version of the true nature of cosmological and biological origins and mechanisms would appear terribly errant to readers 5000 years in the future.

So we are left with the unanswered question posed by Pilate in John 18:38 “What is Truth?”

My point is that describing the complete scientific truth about our universe (which inerrancy would require) is impossible for any human at any time. This is a fact we now know, and clearly it has always been known by God, which is why He did not attempt to correct the erroneous information that the inspired Biblical writers committed to paper. On this view, it is a mistake to even discuss any scientific treatment as being either errant or inerrant outside of its historical context. Does anyone attack Darwin for not knowing about genes? Or Pasteur for ignoring viruses? Why didn’t Galileo discuss Black holes? And so on.

It has struck me that when God appeared on earth, hundreds of years after the composition of Genesis, He spoke of many things and taught many lessons, but He said nothing about science. Jesus could have corrected some of the earlier errors about nature. After all, the science of that time had progressed thanks to Greek philosophy, and some of that new knowledge probably had spread to Judea. But no such modernization of the original text was ever recorded among the sayings of Jesus. When He spoke of fulfilling the law, Jesus was talking about moral and behavioral statements, not the understanding of nature or how the world was built.

The theological statements of Scripture are inerrant. The scientific and nature-based statements of Scripture are errant because they must be, since we cannot know the final truth of any part of them. Therefore, I propose that when we discuss Biblical inerrancy, we remove any scientific descriptions of the world (including the details of its creation) from the discussion and focus on the universal and timeless truths of God’s Word.

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After I rejected the strong atheism of my upbringing, I spent many years wondering what the truth was about the existence of God. I investigated several theistic and spiritual systems. At one point I became fascinated with Jewish mysticism; I read several books on Buddhism; I listened to relatives who had delved deeply into Indian religion; I learned transcendental meditation. (I even peeked into Scientology – and I fled.)

All of this convinced me that there really was something that existed beyond the material world studied by science. I called this something “spirituality”. I began thinking that maybe the idea of “God” was the immaterial manifestation of this spiritual reality. But I was also getting the sense that if that was true, God was a very distant and unknowable entity. Both the Kabballah and the sayings of the Buddha seemed to confirm this.

I found myself standing on the shores of a sea of mystery, certain that the waters hid treasures of beauty and goodness, but with no way to see them for myself.

And then, prompted by a friend, I read the Gospels. I had read some of them before in school, but only as an exercise to reinforce my atheistic scorn at the stupidity of Christianity. Back then I was focused on the magic, the contradictions, the naiveté of the ignorant who believed in scientifically impossible events like the resurrection.

When I read the Gospels the second time, my mind was open, freed of the ideological certainty of atheism. I still saw the contradictions, but now they appeared as evidence for truth, the kind of differences one would expect in true eyewitness accounts. I still saw the magic, but now it confirmed for me my new-found conviction that science is not the only pathway to truth. And now I saw the figure of Jesus Christ, and reading His words, I realized that God must have seen me standing on the shore, staring helplessly at the waves. Jesus Christ rose from those waters and held out His hand to me.

“So you want to see God?” He asked me. “Here I am.”

The above is a poetic image, but something very similar actually happened to me, in a dream about a frightening cliff, and in another about a beautiful garden. Jesus was there in both, showing me a new reality, helping me find the gate. Jesus Christ was real, He was the incarnation of God, and He was calling me.

Well, let’s take a deep breath. I was at the time, as I had been long before and remain today, a scientist. And by most objective measures, a fairly successful one. I know that dreams are images produced by neurophysiological and psychological factors, and, like so many subjective experiences, they can be easily explained  as materialistic phenomena. So perhaps I had those dreams (and other subjective experiences) because I wanted to (as I have since been told many times).

That explanation was the one I had used as a young man to dismiss several similar experiences that I couldn’t readily make sense of at the time. But now I rejected it, as I rejected atheism as a failed worldview.

I thought of the widespread belief among scientists of the late 19th century that there wasn’t much else to learn about the physics of the universe, and the idea that the origin of life would be a simple problem of chemistry to solve. What replaced all these beliefs was not something simpler and more elegant, but theories that are far more complex and perhaps even semi-mystical, bringing into question our reliance on pure materialism as the universal truth of nature. I expect the same to happen with the current popular notion that consciousness is nothing but an illusion,

To say that dreams are just neurological impulses is like saying a Kandinsky painting is just paint and canvass, a Beethoven symphony is just sound waves, and love is just a trick of hormones. One could as easily say that the ideal gas law or the Schrödinger equation are just letters and symbols with an equal sign in the middle. And what you’re looking at now is merely the geometrical arrangement of two-dimensional symbols against a white background – “reading” is an illusion.

Which brings me back to my reading of the gospels. The figure of Jesus was powerful and produced a sense of awe in my soul. But perhaps even more important to me were the mortal characters in the story. Acts of the Apostles, which I read for the first time, brought these people into sharp focus. Peter, the man who denied Christ and abandoned him at the end, and Paul, the archenemy of the new faith, sprang off the pages as real people, not the subjects of a mythological propaganda piece. I was quite used to the stories of Soviet heroes from my childhood – they were so perfect that even as a child, I suspected that there might be just a touch of exaggeration there. But Peter was weak before he became strong; Paul was headstrong and vicious before he became virtuous (if still headstrong).

It was the resurrection of Jesus Christ that produced the transformations of these men. It was the same event that brought them together and called out to so many people of the time. It was the event that led within less than 100 years to the growth of a new religion to over a million believers – despite persecution, the murders of their leaders, and the destruction of Jerusalem, the original center of the new faith.

There was no doubt in my mind as I finished Acts that the resurrection was the central point of Christianity, that it defined who Jesus was and who we are. Because I saw myself in Peter, and even more so in Paul. Not because of the great work they did after the resurrection, but because of Peter’s weakness and Paul’s intransigence. And as I finally came to accept Christ as my Lord and Savior (the details of which, along with those of my dreams I have written about elsewhere), I saw that I and all of suffering humanity are perfectly reflected in the transformed lives of these apostles.

But how can a scientist believe in miracles? That question has been asked and answered numerous times, and I have not much wisdom to add. I rejected scientism a long time ago, even while still an atheist, so I have no problem understanding that science has limits, and that miracles, by definition, are not addressable by science. Even my father, a communist, atheist, strict materialist, and also a physical chemist, told me that the scientific method is not able to address all questions in life and nature.

Science has been my lifelong passion, but I have always been enamored of history, and while I never considered making it an official professional relationship, my attachment to the lure of historical scholarship has also been a lifelong affair. Everything I have read about the history of Christianity confirms my subjective belief in the reality of Christ’s resurrection and divinity. Again, this case has been presented by many, and I can only add that I found it convincing from the time I understood the historical reality of the first century.

I believe in the resurrection of Christ because I believe in God, and in Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God on earth, and I believe in the redemption of human beings like Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene, myself, and you. If there was no resurrection, there would have been no Christianity, and history would have been entirely different, probably without science, hope, or moral progress. As C.S. Lewis so famously said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.”

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