Sunday, 30 November 2014

No, you don't just 'read' the creation narratives. (Or why ignorance of hermeneutics has cursed us with YEC)

It's axiomatic that if there is a contradiction between interpretations of the Bible and science, then we have a problem with Biblical understanding that needs to be corrected. Unfortunately, our community has more than a few people who confuse a natural reading of the Bible with its original meaning. A knowledge of basic hermeneutics, which was once part of our community, is sadly lacking.

Reformed pastor Scott Hoezee's words may be aimed at the evangelical world, but they apply just as well to us:
After I preached a sermon in Iowa some years ago—a sermon that had nothing to do with cosmic origins or Genesis—a man came up to me to inquire what we at Calvin Seminary were thinking about Genesis 1-2. About four or five words into my reply I mentioned the word “interpretation” and this prompted the man to cut me off cold. “That is just your problem,” he snapped. “Stop interpreting it and just read it!” 
Again and again we hear about the importance of a “natural reading” of the early chapters of Genesis. It’s clearly a literal narrative, we are assured—it was written as such and so requires no interpretation whatsoever to uncover its meaning. Just read it! But on this point some are self-deceived: the “natural” readers of the text are employing a hermeneutical tool—fueled by an upfront hermeneutical decision—no less than those who take the text in other ways. Even as you cannot properly understand any three-chapter chunk of Matthew’s Gospel without thoughtfully and carefully employing several different hermeneutical tools, so you cannot read Genesis or any part of the Bible without doing the same thing.
It is important to recognise that Genesis, while written for all people, was not originally written to us. Those who fail to enter the ancient Near Eastern world of Genesis and read the text, not as a literal how-to manual of creation, but as a polemic against paganism which accommodated ancient Near Eastern cosmogeography to make a theological point will never fully understand the message of Genesis. Worse still, those who ignore genre and context lock themselves in a hermeneutical bubble. As Hoezee says:
But when some fellow believers cut themselves off from the entire interpretive tradition of both Jews and Christians alike by claiming that their view is so obviously true no interpretation is even involved, there is little hope for a common starting point. Worse, it is likely that those who wield a different hermeneutical tool than young earth creationists will, in increasingly shrill tones, be dismissed as enemies of God’s Word.
Unfortunately, that is what we are increasingly seeing. If those who have the intellectual honesty to accept the universe as it is, rather than how others demand it should be, we should not be surprised to see our community dwindle into fundamentalist irrelevance.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

No, there never was a Cambrian 'explosion.' Here's why.

If you hear a special creationist talk about how the 'Cambrian explosion' poses an insuperable problem for evolution, you can safely ignore everything that person has to say about palaeontology. Special creationists still perpetuate the myth that no complex multicellular life existed prior to the start of the Cambrian 542 million years ago, with all major phyla springing into existence without any trace of ancestry. This is false. The reality is somewhat different:

Souce: BioLogos

As one can see, not all major phyla appeared at the start of the Cambrian. Poriferans, cnidarians, and molluscs appearing prior to the Cambrian, while bryozoans appeared near the end of the Cambrian. The period commonly referred to as the Cambrian explosion took place over a twenty million year period, hardly an explosion. As palaeontologist Keith Miller notes, "[t]he Cambrian “explosion” appears to have had a 'long fuse.'"

Monday, 24 November 2014

Dispelling creationist misconceptions about ENCODE

In 2012, some scientists made hyperbolic claims that the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements Project (ENCODE) had shown that 80% of our genome was functional. Unsurprisingly, special creationists latched onto this now-refuted claim as if it somehow invalidated common descent. It did not. Apart from the fact that those with the ENCODE project did not declare that their research rebutted evolution, special creationists ignored two points:

1. Functional does not mean essential. Actively transposing retrotransposons writing over essential DNA are functional, but are definitely harmful
2. Once again, the evidence from consonant phylogenetic trees and shared genomic 'errors' is independent of any claim about 'functionality'

Unfortunately, almost all special creationists peddling the ENCODE claim have not caught up with the refutation of the hyperbolic '80% is functional' claim so a detailed rebuttal is needed.

The Genomic Evidence for Common Descent: 6. Scars of DNA repair and out of place DNA elements

The consonance of molecular and morphological phylogenetic trees, coupled with the pattern of distribution of pseudogenes, retrotransposons, and endogenous retroviral elements makes the case for common descent just from comparative genomics alone unassailable. Yet, there is even more genomic evidence from scars of DNA repair, elements of mitochondrial DNA in nuclear DNA, and ectopic telomeric DNA. Arguing that God has created humans and apes with:
  • identical scars of DNA repair
  • identical mitochondrial DNA elements in nuclear DNA
  • identical telomeric DNA elements
all at the same places in their genomes simply to deceive human beings poses insuperable theological problems. Common descent however readily and easily explains these patterns.

The Genomic Evidence for Common Descent: 5. Endogenous Retroviral Elements

One could easily argue that further posts demonstrating the evidence for common descent from genomics are superfluous given that the case has already been made beyond reasonable doubt. However, the point of these posts is to show that given multiple independent lines of evidence converge on the same conclusion, the special creationist argument is clearly shown to be iterated special pleading.

The power of the evidence from endogenous retroviral elements is that they are clearly alien to the human genome as they are undeniably evidence of ancient retroviral infection that became integrated into the germ line, and subsequently inherited by descendant species. The odds of exactly the same retrovirus integrating into the germ line at exactly the same place in the genomes of related species is billions to one against just for a single retroviral element. Given that there are multiple such examples in human and ape DNA, the chance becomes so remote as to be negligible.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Genomic Evidence for Common Descent: 4. Retrotransposons

The evidence from nuclear gene phylogenies and shared identical pseudogenes alone is enough to confirm human-ape common ancestry beyond reasonable doubt, but the evidence from comparative genomics does not end there. Retrotransposons, mobile genetic elements that copy and paste themselves randomly throughout the genome provide another line of evidence for common descent. Unlike pseudogenes, retrotransposons are essentially selfish genetic material, existing solely to propagate itself throughout its genomic host. The presence of identical retrotransposon material at the same place in the genomes of related species is prima facie evidence that those species shared a common ancestor in which the retrotransposition event first took place. Once again, there is simply no credible special creationist explanation for their existence.

The Genomic Evidence for Common Descent: 3. Shared identical pseudogenes

If a university lecturer receives six term papers that not only share the same four paragraphs in the conclusion which are word-for word from Wikipedia, except for identical spelling errors at the same place in the paragraphs that closely resemble Wikipedia, she is unlikely to conclude that purely by chance, all six students independently wrote four concluding paragraphs that happened to resemble Wikipedia word for word, and independently made the same spelling mistakes. Rather, she is entitled to conclude that one student plagiarised Wikipedia, making a few spelling errors in the process, and that the remaining five students copied that original paper.

A similar phenomenon exists in comparative genomics, where identical genetic 'errors' are found in exactly the same place in the genome when we compare genomes from a number of related species. These 'errors' include broken genes, remnants of ancient retroviral infection, mobile genetic parasites, and markers of DNA repair. These are not design features, but evidence of an ancient accident which occurred in an ancestral species, and was subsequently inherited by descendant species. This post will review the evidence from pseudogenes.

The Genomic Evidence for Common Descent: 2. Gene similarity and the consonance of evolutionary trees

Special creationists, well aware that the genomics evidence provides compelling evidence for common descent have attempted to explain this away by appealing to common design. This argument fails to recognise that given the redundancy of the genetic code, there are hundreds of billions of ways to code for exactly the same short protein: the potential genomic coding space is unimaginably large. 

Common descent would predict that the coding sequences for a gene common to all life would cluster in a group, with closely related organisms differing by only a few mutations, while organisms that are distantly related would have had time since they last shared a common ancestor for many mutations to build up. Conversely, if special creation was true, we would not expect to see the gene sequences cluster in this way: in fact, there is enough room in the 'gene space' for each species to have its own coding sequence with a considerable amount of space around each gene, thus neatly refuting common descent.

What we see is a remarkable consonance between molecular and morphological phylogenetic trees. Common descent is the only rational explanation for this. Here's why:

The Genomic Evidence for Common Descent: 1. Synteny and the chromosome 2 fusion event

The evidence for common descent just from comparative genomics alone is overwhelming. As more than one person has said, even if every single fossil vanished, we would still be able to demonstrate the fact of common descent from the record in the genomes of all living creatures. We can see this from:
  • The shared order of genes in living creatures
  • Similar genes in related creatures
  • The presence of identical genetic 'glitches' (pseudogenes, retrotransposons, endogenous retroviral elements, telomeric DNA, 'scars' of DNA repair, and mitochondrial DNA elements in nuclear DNA) in the same places in genomes of related species
This is precisely what we would expect if common descent was true. Conversely, there is simply no credible special creationist explanation, other than to say God has deliberately created life both with genetic errors (our failure to synthesise vitamin C is a fatal inborn error of metabolism as without vitamin C we die from scurvy) and placed exactly the right pattern of mutations, broken genes, remnants of ancient viral infection and fragments of mobile DNA as to simulate common descent. Apart from being an ad hoc explanation writ large, it also makes God out to be a deceiver, and as one person once put it God is not the author of a lie, not even a white one.

Friday, 21 November 2014

This is why I don't bother talking with hard-core anti-evolutionists any more

Unfortunately, my experience with anti-evolutionists has shown me they are unwilling to pursue a reasonable discussion under the terms outlined above.

Put simply, given that the evidence for evolution comes from multiple independent fields such as palaeontology, developmental biology, and comparative genomics, and that it is impossible for any one person to master all these disciples to such a degree as to be able to comment authoritatively on them, anyone who asserts that there is no evidence for evolution is on the wrong side of the facts, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Likewise, anyone who blithely dismisses evidence for evolution without having any professional qualifications or background in the subject of interest is effectively precluding discussion by default.

Evolution and human anatomy - our history is written in our anatomical quirks

Studying and practicing medicine have taught me many things, of which arguably the most profound is that nothing in medicine makes sense except in the light of our evolutionary origins. From the multiple anatomical quirks to a genome riddled with broken genes, mobile parasitic genomic elements and the decayed remnants of ancient retroviral infection, what we see shouts one fact - we share common ancestry with all life on this planet.

I have spent some time detailing the genomic evidence that confirms our shared ancestry with the great apes, so some time looking at the anatomical and paleontological data would not go astray. The following series of videos from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute serve admirably to provide that information.

Note: while this website contains a wealth of information detailing the considerable evidence for common descent and large-scale evolutionary change, a series of posts systematically detailing (for reference / FAQ purposes) would not go astray, particularly given the misinformation and recycled YEC mendacity that is too often circulated uncritically in our community. Over the next few days, I will be posting a series of article detailing this evidence.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Confessions of a Failed Young Earth Creationist

Anecdotes from former YECs who have made the transition to evolutionary creationism are some of the most heart-warming stories any person of faith can hope to read, as they show that it is possible to escape the exegetic, theological, and scientific dead-end of YEC. In this post at the BioLogos blog, Church of England theological trainee Daniel Stork Banks relates his theological life story, including details of his temporary detour into YEC.

While YEC is abominable science and even worse theology, not every YEC is a mendacious dispenser of theological poison. Banks recounts that the YEC 'scientist' who catalysed his temporary transition was "not a manipulator or a firebrand, just a soft-spoken, genuine man of good faith. To a young person like me trying to be a faithful Christian, his lecture turned on a light in my mind." The belief system however inevitably inculcates elitism, arrogance, and paranoia:
But there was a downside to all this enthusiasm. Firstly; it made me very intolerant of contemporary Christians who “compromised” God’s word in Genesis through their unbelief. Secondly, my evangelism no longer started with Jesus but with Genesis, and my literalistic interpretation of its first two chapters devastated my ability to evangelise effectively. I became such an expert in young-earth creationist theology and science that it turned into a wrecking ball for my faith. Not only did I have to persuade people of God’s existence and what Jesus had done for them, but I now had to throw images of triceratops with riding saddles into the mix too. (Emphasis mine)

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

More on human evolution

It is a testament to how fear and dogma can blind reason when the copious fossil record for human evolution is not even acknowledged, let alone contemplated. Although writing for an evangelical audience, these remarks from geologist Davis Young apply equally validly to our community:
The modern evangelical church is extremely sensitive about open discussion of scientific issues that bear on Genesis 1-11. Enough Christians are so afraid of what might turn up in such discussions that anyone who does try to explore the issues is in ecclesiastical jeopardy. The prevailing atmosphere of fear tends to squelch attempts to deal with these issues. The issue of the origin of humankind is especially sensitive. It seems that the church is afraid to look into paleoanthropology. Where is the curiosity about the physical history of human beings? Among the multitude of evangelical commentaries on Genesis, hardly any of them address the problems of anthropology. Geology is often discussed. Some of the commentators have admitted the possibility of a local flood; others are not yet sure of the legitimacy of geological findings. But virtually all of the commentators assume the anthropological universality of the flood without any engagement whatsoever with the archaeological and anthropological data relevant to the question of the flood's impact on the human race. It's as if the hundreds, perhaps thousands of ancient human sites around the world didn't exist. - Young DA “Theology and Natural science,”  Cited in Noll M The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans 1994)
Although a few years have passed since the announcement of the transitional fossil Australopithecus sediba, this presentation is well worth viewing again:

The evidence is real. It confirms the reality of evolution. It will not go away. If however we respond to it with fear, excommunication, stifling of discussion, and the privileging of human dogma over the true witness of creation, then it is our community that will go away as the best and brightest leave, or are driven out, and the fundamentalist residue collapses in on itself and withers away.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

How to convince an open-minded YEC of the reality of evolution in ten minutes

My stated goal - convincing a YEC of the reality of evolution in ten minutes - is admittedly somewhat ambitious. It took me 15 years to go from YEC to EC, and that was a journey I fought most of the way. Having said that, this video by respected cell biologist and Christian Kenneth Miller is an excellent overview of basic scientific epistemology, and the best way to engage YECs. Given how lethal to the long-term intellectual future of any community YEC is, information such as this desperately needs to become widely known in our community.

Miller is of course the author of the excellent Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, yet another book which needs to be on the shelf of all Christadelphians who take the Bible-Science issue seriously and are after quality information on the subject. One can but hope that the day will soon come when this excellent book is sold by the CMPA.

Friday, 14 November 2014

"The Wonder of the Universe: Hints of God in Our Fine-Tuned World" - new book by Karl Giberson

One book that should be on every Christadelphian bookshelf is The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions co-authored by medical geneticist and current National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins and physicist Karl Giberson. Collins and Giberson ably show why evolution is true, and that it is no threat to Christian faith. As an antidote to the mendacious nonsense from ICR, CMI, and AiG, not to mention the theologically and scientifically vacuous arguments advanced by home-grown Christadelphian YECs, it is medicine sorely needed in our community.

The two books of divine revelation - a graphical commentary

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Man's fallible interpretation of the Bible versus the perfect witness of creation: who wins?

My post title is a direct allusion to the title of a blog post by geologist Jonathan Baker, "Man's Fallible Opinion vs. God's Perfect Word: Who Wins?" Baker, whose excellent post 100 Reasons the Earth is Old featured in one of my recent blog posts notes that he has received zero scientific objections to his list of reasons. This is hardly surprising as there is no credible scientific evidence to support a young Earth. Instead, the objections to his list are based purely on the belief that a literal reading of the Bible not only teaches that the Earth is 6000 years old, but trumps all scientific evidence. In other words, the choice is framed in terms of flawed human understanding versus the word of God. Where this argument falls apart of course is in its conflation of a naive, wooden, literal reading of the creation narratives with the word of God. In other words, the YECs have privileged their fallible interpretation of the Bible over the evidence from the natural world. Given that they constantly rail against the 'wisdom of men', it is ironic that by privileging a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, they are in fact idolising the wisdom of men.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Gravity, like evolution is only a theory...

One of the most frequently used dismissals of evolutionary biology by science denialists is the assertion that it is 'only a theory.' So to is the germ theory of disease, general relativity, and atomic theory, yet special creationists tend to listen to medical advice and take antibiotics when they have a bacterial infection, accept the reality of gravitational lensing and black holes, and regard the statement that matter is composed of atoms as unproblematic. The problem of course is that special creationists fail to appreciate that in science, theory does not mean 'wild hunch or speculation', but a collection of facts, hypotheses and rules about an aspect of the natural work which has explanatory and predictive power. In other words, a scientific theory is anything other than a wild guess.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Why living organisms can tolerate mutations better than special creationists think they can

One of the biggest mistakes made by evolution denialists is to claim that all mutations are deleterious, and as a consequence evolution could never occur. This betrays a deep ignorance of current research into evolutionary biology, which shows that mutations don't cause the disasters special creationists think they do. In Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution's Greatest Puzzle, respected evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner points out that as a consequence of the fact that genotypes form a huge interconnected network, they are actually quite robust. As evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel notes in his review of Wagner's book, these mutated networks are very much able to function:
...and  it is this insensitivity to random change that makes biology robust to mutations and mishaps, and evolvable. Even better, Wagner finds that he does not have to travel very  far along these mutational pathways before  he encounters new neighbourhoods, where  the networks produce different products.  For instance, a network that can consume glucose might lie near one that can consume other fuels, such as acetate. Wagner thinks  that these features of gene networks are repeated in proteins, metabolisms and the  basic chemistry of cells. In vivo studies back  him up.  
This offers an answer to one of the most fundamental questions of evolution: how has natural selection had time to search the almost limitless library of life? The answer,  posits Wagner, is that it does not usually have to search very far: squid and albatrosses  are closer neighbours than we might have expected. Arrival of the Fittest will give you a new appreciation of the sheer improbability, but also the plausibility, of the diversity  of life.
Full review is here.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Do you believe that every human alive descends exclusively from Adam? That's not what Genesis says.

It's an article of faith among some Christadelphians that every single human who has ever lived descends exclusively from Adam. The motivation for this is the unscriptural belief that there was a physical change in Adam's nature from a so-called 'very good' status to one capable of corruption and death. This view has been clearly refuted by the genomic and fossil evidence which flatly refutes the belief that every human alive descends exclusively from two people living 6000 years ago. The scientific evidence has spoken, and monogenism has been refuted. [1] 

The most damning thing about this argument is that contrary to what its adherents claim, it is made despite, not because of the Biblical evidence. Being refuted by the scientific evidence is one thing, but being falsified by the Biblical data should be enough for those who claim to be Bible students to accept that their belief in universal human descent from Adam is scripturally untenable, and should be abandoned.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Suboptimal design and the problem it poses for special creation

As a medical doctor, my profession brings me face to face with the stark fact that the human body, from the gross anatomical level down to the genomic, abounds with many features that either predispose us to suffering, disease, and even premature death. Reconciling this with special creation is frankly impossible for those who believe that every species - including humans - was individually hand-crafted. YEC arguments that suffering entered the world as a consequence of Adam's sin are immediately falsified by the overwhelming evidence of parasitism, predation, and disease hundreds of millions of years before the appearance of Homo sapiens (let alone Adam). Many people are unfamiliar with the considerable evidence for suboptimal design in the human body which directly or indirectly causes morbidity and mortality, so a post on this subject is definitely indicated, if only to educate those who conflate their uninspired, uninformed, fundamentalist reading of the Bible with the inspired word itself, creating a totally needless conflict between the overwhelming evidence for an ancient, evolving biosphere and an interpretation of the Bible which owes everything to biblicist ignorance and nothing to careful, informed study.