Organisms in their niche: passive modeling clay or problem-solving entities?

One person’s cultural background can bias their view about people from other cultures…even before they have ever met. Could people also have a bias about how they think about other creatures? It may even be possible that scientific culture could prejudice the way researchers see creature-environmental relations with the potential to bias whole research programs.

Last November, Great Britain’s prestigious Royal Society held a conference to deliberate if evolutionary theory needed an “extension” to accommodate fresh ideas from new discoveries. Nature had also opened the question for debate (Fig. 1). Supporters of status quo evolutionary theory held that new findings could readily be explained within the current structure. While an advocate of the new “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis,” Gerd Muller of the University of Vienna had previously stated that one value of the extension would overcome the “restrictions” of “externalism.”[1] Externalism is principally a way to think about how organisms formed, yet it may bias how we think and write about a creature’s behavior. What is externalism supposed to explain for evolutionary theory and what elements of it does Muller hope to escape?

Fig. 1: Nature recognized the growing number of researchers dissenting from aspects of the Darwinian model and opened a discussion in 2014. Laland, K. et al. 2014. Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? Nature. 514 (7521):161-164.

As it turns out, disputes over whether the source of an organism’s form derives from external or internal causes have been longstanding. Stephen Jay Gould frames this historical discussion: “The designation of one principle or the other [internalism/structuralism or externalism/functionalism] as the causal foundation of biology virtually defines the position of any scientist towards the organic world and its causes of order. Shall we regard the plan of high-level taxonomic form as primary, with local adaptations viewed as a set of minor wrinkles (often confusing) upon an abstract majesty? Or do local adaptations build the entire system from the bottom up?…This dichotomy continues to define a major issue in modern evolutionary debates: does functional adaptation or structural constraint maintain priority in setting evolutionary pathways and directions?”[2]

In this case, the phenomenon most in need of explanation is: why do organisms appear to fit their environments so well? They have traits that seem to precisely relate to, and even exploit properties of nature (e.g., inertia and gravity) and other external conditions. Externalists, see these traits as imposed on organisms from the outside. This generally happens by the very external conditions, designated as “selective pressures,” which match so well to the trait. Michael Denton explains that according to the paradigm “often referred to as functionalism, the main designs of life (pentadactyl limb, body plans, etc.) are not the result of physical law, that is, not immanent in nature or arising from intrinsic physical constraints inherent in biological matter, but rather the result of specific adaptations built additively by selection during the course of evolution, to serve particular functional ends, ends that are imposed by the environment and that are external to the organism itself.”[3]

Few people recognize that in the externalist approach organisms are viewed essentially as passive lumps of clay being molded by their environment. In fact, two researchers stated that is exactly how Charles Darwin’s theory encapsulates the organism-environment relationship, “He [Darwin] accepted the view that the environment directly instructs the organism how to vary, and he proposed a mechanism for inheriting those changes…The organism was like modeling clay, and remolding of the clay meant that each of the billions of little grains was free to move a little bit in any direction to generate new form…If an organism needed a wing, an opposable thumb, longer legs, webbed feet, or placental development, any of these would emerge under the proper selective conditions with time.”[4] Which Marta Linde Medina, another leading theoretician in this field, sums up, “as a result, organisms are as passive as the matter that forms them.”[5]

Externalism has a strong philosophical appeal to those who advocate for explanations of biological phenomena that are fully naturalistic. It is certainly not teleological. Externalism also can feed into the view that if God didn’t create nature, nature can somehow create itself—including crafting living things. Interestingly, externalism is analogously central to both Darwin’s theory of evolution and influential psychologist B.F. Skinner’s theory of human behavior. “First, both theories draw on an externalist or ‘outside-in’ pattern of explanation, in which the structure or behaviour of living things is seen as a consequence of their environments. Second, both rely on a process that can be described loosely as ‘trial and error.’”[6]

Externalism is currently the dominant view in biology. Denton elaborates on the probability that any view other than externalism would be “very alien” and essentially “inconceivable to most English-speaking biologists.”[7] But what if it is wrong in the sense that it has identified causality backwards? This updated insight may be indicated by waves of discoveries documented by Gerd Muller and others. They’ve found a principal role for internal factors.

What if populations of organisms could be seen from a design-based perspective as traveling through diverse environments just as human-designed vehicles do? Designed capacity of an entity is always an internal feature as designers build into their craft the ability to successfully engage all anticipated external conditions. Similarly, innate self-adjusting capacity should be true for organisms. Thus, intrinsic design could control both its basic body plan and 100% of its ability to adapt itself to external conditions. Internal programming also specifies certain external conditions to be a stimulus or a cue for both man-made things and organisms. Inherently designed systems control detection of challenging exposures and would specify internally driven self-adjustments primarily as targeted solutions to environmental challenges and rarely, if ever, by “trial-and-error.” Individuals (or populations over multiple generations) could actively detect environmental conditions and could express a spectrum of phenotypes from a relatively stable genotype controlled by innate systems.

Enriching the phenotypic panoply is the capacity of several biological systems to “learn” from environmental interactions by processes similar to IBM’s “Watson” computing system; meaning, organisms are designed with a nature already devised to be nurtured. It may be demonstrated that organisms are causal for the successful fit of their traits-to-exposures, rather than externalism’s notion of personified environments seeing, selecting, and saving traits to build organisms.

Perhaps, the tight organism-environment relationship may be explained by populations of active, problem-solving organisms continuously tracking environmental changes via innate mechanisms to express heritable phenotypes bearing problem solving potential—which already precede environmental challenges. This is worth thinking about as an internalist approach may well be confirmed by continuing research.


Randy J. Guliuzza, P.E., M.D. is a licensed professional engineer and medical doctor previously Board Certified in Aerospace Medicine who now specializes in researching engineering principles of biological adaptation.

 

References

[1]Muller, G. B. and M. Pigliucci. 2010. Evolution—The Extended Synthesis. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, p. 13.

[2]Gould, S. J. 2002. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p. 252.

[3]Denton, M. J. 2013. The Types: A Persistent Structuralist Challenge to Darwinian Pan-Selectionism. BIO-Complexity, (3):1−18. doi:10.5048/BIO-C.2013.3

[4]Kirschner, M. and J. Gerhart. 2005. The Plausibility of Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 3. 31.

[5]Linde Medina. M. 2011. Reply to the Comments on “Natural Selection and Self-Organization: A Deep Dichotomy in the Study of Organic Form.” Ludus Vitalis 19 (36):387-397.

[6]Godfrey-Smith, P. 2010. It Got Eaten. London Review of Books. 32 (13):29-30. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n13/peter-godfrey-smith/it-got-eaten

[7]Denton, M. Two Views of Biology: Structuralism vs. Functionalism. Posted on evolutionnews.org February 3, 2016 accessed on March 28, 2017. https://www.evolutionnews.org/2016/02/two_views_of_bi/

Posted in Biology, Design, Environment, Evolutionary Theory, Philosophical and Historical Perspectives | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Review of the Documentary Film “Is Genesis History?”

Is Genesis History? asks a question that many Christians struggle with. Is the first book of the Bible comprised of pious myths? Is it an allegory designed to teach important lessons about God, but not actually a record of the history of life on Earth? Or is it a reliable record of events that actually occurred in the past? In other words, is Genesis the oldest book of history available today, one that records events that really did occur in the ancient past, or is it and the information it contains something else?

Dr. Art Chadwick of Southwestern Adventist University discusses dinosaur fossils with Is Genesis History? host Del Tackett.

Dr. Art Chadwick of Southwestern Adventist University discusses dinosaur fossils with Is Genesis History? host Del Tackett.

In addressing whether or not Genesis is history, host Del Tackett of Focus on the Family takes viewers to a number of spectacular locations. At each of these, he interviews an expert who explains the significance of what is being viewed. Paul Nelson comes across very well in a museum of computing and Marcus Ross in a museum full of dinosaurs and other fossils. Art Chadwick’s segment out at the spectacular dinosaur site he and his team are excavating is impressive, and who wouldn’t be interested in what Steve Austin has to point out in the Grand Canyon? The way in which the film takes viewers to places and exposes them to some of the abundant scientific research makes this a fascinating and compelling film. I count a total of 11 expert scientists ranging from microbiologist Kevin Anderson to astronomer Dany Falkner, but Hebraist Steve Boyd and Pastor George Grant add a dimension that rounds out the film in an interesting way. It turns out that the humanities play a role as important as the sciences in addressing questions about Genesis.

This doesn’t mean that every possible line of evidence is explored, the focus of the film is on history, geology and time, but there is so much data and so many questions that covering everything is more than the work of a lifetime. While some wise restraint is shown, if I had one criticism, it would be that Is Genesis History? still probably tries to cover a bit too much ground in too little time. At least this keeps it moving along at a brisk pace and gives a general overview of some of the science that is consistent with the Genesis account, as well as theological arguments and commentary on the original Hebrew.

Most Young Earth Creationists will probably love Is Genesis History?. It is a good general introduction to some of the evidence consistent with events like the flood and the understanding of origins shared by Bible-believers. Those who do not share that belief, but are willing to take this film as an education in what others are thinking will be better off for watching it. On the other hand, zealous deniers of the Genesis record of history will find it maddening. Is Genesis History? will inevitably get lots of 1 and 5 star reviews if it is ever sold on Amazon.com.

Probably the most valuable thing about Is Genesis History? is that it makes quite clear to any viewer that there are serious scientists and scholars who are willing to engage with and, in fact, embrace the biblical account of history and the data from nature. In addition, a significant amount of that data they engage with is consistent with and well interpreted within a biblical paradigm. In other words, believers are not fanatics who believe based on blind faith. There are reasonable empirical reasons to believe that Genesis really is a record of history and, in general, the interpretations that come out of this paradigm are quite rational.

Is Genesis History? avoids advocacy of controversial models that seem improbable when you think about them. If I give examples, I risk many long and pointless discussions with those who believe some of them actually do make sense, so I’ll avoid that. Watching a film about the creation in which it is not necessary to occasionally wince as some improbable speculation is trotted out as both true and supported by the Bible is wonderful.

Finally, the way Is Genesis History? is being released is interesting. It will be screened for one night, February 23, 2017, in several hundred theaters across the US. This is being done through an organization called “Fathom Events.” How effective will this be? Only time will tell, but my expectation is that it will get a lot of church groups into theaters that night. Christians should not be embarrassed to take a Christian group to see it, or a friend who is interested, but not a believer. The production quality is pretty good; it moves along at a stimulating pace and Del Tackett is an engaging host who draws out the expertise of the 13 experts featured in the film. I’ll be going to watch it and expect I will be in some very good company.


Epilog – February 24, 2017

These are my reactions after watching Is Genesis History? at the Regal Riverside Plaza Stadium 16 theater in Riverside. Please note that I’m writing from memory, so there may be some minor errors in my recall of details, but my objective is to report major impressions rather than give an exhaustive and detailed critique.

My reaction falls into two categories: 1) the actual experience of the event and 2) my take on the final cut. I will begin with the experience itself, but to do that I should first mention something that occurred shortly before the showing. This was a posting by Paul Nelson repudiating what he said in the film. It can be found at:

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2017/02/new-film-is-genesis-history-presents-a-false-dichotomy-i-dissent-from-my-role-in-it/

This sounds far worse than it actually is, but Paul’s concern about the way he comes across in the film is valid. For a detailed explanation, read what Paul has to say. Paul is concerned that he placed the fundamental dichotomy between evolution and long time periods versus creation and short time periods, which is wrong place. He feels—and I’m sympathetic to this view—that the true dichotomy revolves around the philosophy of naturalism. If methodological naturalism is embraced as the rule for scientific knowledge, we come to an interpretation of nature which generally includes evolution and long time periods. If we reject naturalism, we head in the direction of theism which may or may not involve creation over long or short time periods. It is unusual for the premiere of a film to coincide with a critique by one of those involved of their own performance, but I personally think this is fantastic. It reflects incredibly positively on those who worked on Is Genesis History?. These are not people who are offering simplistic explanations rooted in traditional interpretations. Paul shows an admirable concern for what is true and a willingness to evaluate what they have done and correct misconceptions. I am in deep admiration of the courage and humility it took to do this. In addition, I believe that Paul’s repudiation brings a level of clarity that we seldom see in discussions of origins.

After procrastinating for way too long, when I went to purchase my ticket online for Is Genesis History?, I was both surprised and pleased to see that the screen where I was to watch it was almost sold out. This meant reserving a seat near the end of the very front row. After I purchased my ticket, there were about 8 seats left. When I arrived to see the film, I was surprised to see that it was being shown on a second screen in the multiplex theater, but have no idea if this was added in response to the fact that the first screen sold out. What was interesting was seeing the number of people who just looked like Christians in the lobby. In fact, I ran into one or two people I know who were there to see the film. Looking at what was showing on the other screens in the theater, the juxtaposition of Fifty Shades Darker with Is Genesis History? was interesting. If nothing else, showing Is Genesis History? in this particular multiplex meant that two of its screens were showing something of actual interest and with the potential to edify viewers.

As expected, when I took my front row seat to watch Is Genesis History?, there were not many empty seats. In fact, in this 76-seat room, I counted 3 empty seats, but I’m not sure about the few handicapped seats that were available. Certainly, there were less than 10 empty seats, but I have no idea how many there were at the other screen in the same theater. The crowd itself seemed to be excited about what was going on, with different snippets of conversation revealing, unsurprisingly, a large proportion of evangelical Christians. The gentleman seated next to me attends The Grove Community Church in Riverside. Strangely, while there was nothing on the screen and the lights were turned down, there was some audio running that sounded as if it belonged with video. At exactly 7:00 pm, the scheduled start time, anticipation was clearly high, but nothing actually happened. Eventually, what sounded like an opening series of ads for other films began, but there was still no image on the screen. This prompted some joking and murmuring among the audience. Further technical difficulties marred the start of the program. Eventually, there was video, but no audio and finally, with a bit of an audience cheer, we had both. However, we were still subjected to a long series of promotions for different wonderful looking programs and extra materials associated with Is Genesis History? Then, a short film was shown detailing who the experts featured in the film are.

While I think everyone was more than ready to get into the film at this point, showing this short about the authors before the feature film did address one objection raised before the showing, that viewers could have the misimpression that Steve Boyde, an expert in Hebrew, was associated with Hebrew Union College, where his interview was filmed. While Dr. Boyde has a Ph.D. in Hebraic and Cognate Studies from Hebrew Union College, both the short and website for Is Genesis History? make it clear that he does not work there. I believe this misimpression arose from the fact that in the film itself the lower thirds consistently give both the name of the person being interviewed and the place where the interview took place. So “Steve Austin” and “Grand Canyon” appear together and the pattern repeats with the other experts. So, while Dr. Boyde does have some legitimate association with Hebrew Union College, the lower third was simply revealing the location of the interview.

The film itself didn’t start until 7:30 pm, half an hour after the scheduled start time. Some of this may have been due to the initial technical difficulties, but irrespective of that, my personal feeling was that the amount of material before starting was excessive and detracted from the experience. It may be that some of it was shown to cover for the technical problems, but I have no real way of knowing. What was clear was that there was some degree of relief among the audience when the actual main feature started and we could sit back to enjoy it in our special reclining theater seats.

I will get to a short critique of the final cut of Is Genesis History? in a moment, but want to mention that at the end of the feature, there was an interview by the host, Del Tackett, of three of the experts featured in the film: Andrew Snelling, Danny Faulkner and Robert Carter. When the film ended by fading to a quotation of Romans 1:20, there was a smattering of applause among the audience, but this petered out when the film went straight into the interview. Many in the audience had clearly enjoyed the film, but were ready to leave, so the interview was a bridge too far. During it some started to leave. This was a pity as the interview did a lot to flesh out some important points, like the fact that not all creationists agree on all interpretations of the evidence. When the end finally came, it was after the scheduled ending time of 9:00 pm, suggesting that the technical issues at the start drove the timing of everything back by several minutes.

So how would I summarize the overall experience? For me it was pretty wonderful. Being with other believers is always a joy and Is Genesis History? really is an interesting film to watch. Yes, there were some technical difficulties and these probably made the experience seem to drag on a little too long at the end, but overall it was great.

As far as the final cut of Is Genesis History? is concerned, this is a good film and my overall impression remains consistent with my initial review of an earlier cut. Del Tackett’s opening at Mt. St. Hellens is very cleverly done. His interviewing style is great and he does the very difficult job of bringing experts in various fields to the point in a reasonably succinct way. That is not a trivial achievement!

What about Paul Nelson’s repudiation of what he says on the film? I continue to admire Paul for what he did. As a philosopher, he is clearly seeking for the greatest precision and clarity in the important point he is making. Having said that, I’m fairly sure that more casual viewers will not be troubled by what is actually on the film.

The few films that I have personally worked on do not make me an expert on every aspect of film production, but there were a few production issues that did jump out at me. While most of the audio is excellent, there is wind noise in a couple of short segments. The most distracting noise comes during one part of the interview with Art Chadwick where tarpaulins flapping in the wind make a significant racket. Audio is something that anyone producing a film has struggled with and maybe perfection is too much to expect, but those few short segments were distracting for me. The editing is well done and keeps the pace of the film comfortable while constantly moving forward. If there was one change I’d make, it would be to comb through and remove every possible occurrence of the word “absolutely.” Editing audio to remove words can be tricky, but for some reason the word “absolutely” pops up absolutely too many times. In general, the videography is excellent. The way drone shots were used, particularly toward the beginning and end, is spectacular and the impact was greatly enhanced on the big theater screen. At the same time, much of what was filmed occurred in bright sunlight casting harsh shadows. There were many shots that would have been enhanced by using a reflector to brighten the speakers faces, or shooting earlier or later in the day when the lighting is a bit softer and more complimentary. This is particularly true of times when the speakers were wearing hats casting a dark shadow across their face. I wish the director had talked Del Tackett into removing his cap when he was talking out in the field. Finally, I’m not sure whether this was an issue with the camera used or something else, but both in Is Genesis History? and the interview that followed, dark areas on the screen were quite pixelated in some shots. There are a number of reasons this can happen, some of which may be fixable, but whatever the reason, it is a shame to see this sort of thing in a film. While these are minor quibbles and don’t detract from the content of the film, they may not even be visible on smaller screens, it is a pity to see them.

In summary, I’m glad that I joined the thousands of other viewers who attended the rollout of Is Genesis History?. The experience was great and the film itself is well worth seeing, whether or not you agree with everything that is said. If you are interested in seeing Is Genesis History? yourself, the place to watch for additional showings and announcements about DVDs or web streaming is the film’s website at:

http://isgenesishistory.com/

Is Genesis History? was the top film in theaters within the United States on February 23, 2017. It may be tempting to sniff at this, after all, it was a Thursday night, not a weekend, when theater audiences peak. Having said that, over 143,000 people attended, and that is nothing to sniff at. Additional showings have been scheduled, mostly in the same theaters, for Thursday, March 2 and Tuesday, March 7.


Review by Timothy G. Standish, PhD
Senior Scientist
Geoscience Research Institute

Posted in Reviews and Events | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Microbes, Symbiosis, and the Lesson of Interdependence

A very common reaction to the thought of “microbes” is a compelling desire to slather up in hand sanitizer! However, it is seldom realized that the greatest majority of microorganisms are at the very least not harmful, and at the most necessary for human life! Many aspects of microbial interaction with our environment allow it to be so perfect for humans. Some of these aspects include oxygen generation, nitrogen fixation, decomposition, food-chain contributions, food production, and antibiotic production. However, in this blog I want to highlight one specific aspect of the contribution that microbes make to our lives and our environment by focusing on symbiotic relationships.

A symbiotic relationship is one in which at least one partner must be in the relationship in order to survive. We know now that symbiotic relationships between microbes and other organisms are common, and are proving to be more of the rule of life than the exception.

  1. A popular example of symbiosis is the relationship that corals have with algal cells living within them (Fig. 1).The algal cell within the coral photosynthesizes providing metabolic products for the coral to consume, and the coral offers a safe living environment for the alga. When corals become stressed, they often expel the algal cells, causing “bleaching,” and usually soon after die. Corals are the builders of the oceans; constructing reefs that provide safety and an environment for thousands of other organisms to live and thrive.

    Fig. 1: SEM Microphotography of the endodermal tissue of the polyp of a reef coral (Porites porites) that shows the distribution and density of symbiont algal cells (genus Symbiodinium, indicated by the arrows). Photo courtesy of Allisonmlewis, available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbiodinium#/media/File:HostTissue_section.png (CC BY-SA 4.0).

    Fig. 1: SEM Microphotography of the endodermal tissue of the polyp of a reef coral (Porites porites) that shows the distribution and density of symbiont algal cells (genus Symbiodinium, indicated by the arrows). Photo courtesy of Allisonmlewis, available at wikipedia.org (CC BY-SA 4.0).

  2. Lichens are another example of symbiosis involving microorganisms. Lichens typically grow on rocks or the bark of trees and are a symbiosis of algal or cyanobacterial cells living within a fungal matrix of hyphae (long, hair-like fungal cells). Together these organisms form what we know as lichens that are not only beautiful, but form an important part of the food chain for other organisms.
  3. Even more widespread and important, is the symbiosis of bacteria in the guts of all plant-consuming animals. Animals and humans lack the ability to metabolize plants because they can’t digest cellulose, a polymer of glucose that makes up the woody (fibrous) parts of all plants. This glucose is linked together in a fashion that prevents our enzymes from breaking it apart. Nevertheless, cellulose is the main source of carbon and energy for many animals that live on grass, straw, and, in the winters, eat bark right off the trunks of trees. These animals are able to survive on cellulose because they have bacterial symbionts in their guts that convert it into various fats, which can then be digested and consumed for nutrition. I imagine when God spoke the plants and animals into existence and gave them the “herbs of the field to eat,”(Gen 1:30) that He also, in the same breath, created a system of symbiosis where every animal was constantly dependent on something unseen to provide nutrients – an important spiritual lesson of our dependence on God for our daily bread, not only to nourish our physical bodies, but to sustain our spiritual being.
  4. New studies of symbiosis in humans reveal that the bacteria in our guts profoundly impact our health: our microbiome affects obesity, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and mental disorders. Scientists are discovering that the foods we eat not only affect our own health, but the health and variety of our microbiome, which then, in turn, affects our health. Some microbes in our intestines produce vitamin K, a vital nutrient. Researchers now know that human exposure to microbes causes an improvement of their immunity and decreases allergies like hay-fever. Symptoms of some deadly allergies like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis can even be reduced by introduction of microbe infections such as worms. The number of microorganisms in our body is equal to the number of our own cells, however due to their microscopic size we outweigh them!  I believe that when God formed humans he built into us a symbiotic relationship with microorganisms that is part of who we are and aids in the functioning of our bodies. Once again, a spiritual lesson for God’s quiet, but constant help as we make our way through this world.
  5. A final example of a symbiotic relationship is that between soil microbes and plants. Of the vascular plants researched, 95% were found to be associated with mycorrhizae, which are fungi that associate with roots of plants. Additionally, some types of bacteria, referred to as rhizobia, live within the roots of legume plants (such as soybeans, alfalfa, and peanuts) in specialized structures called root nodules where the bacteria provide nitrogen to the plant, and the plant supplies the bacteria with simple sugars (Fig. 2).

    Rhizobia nodules on the roots of a cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) plant. Photo courtesy of Dave Whitinger, available at https://en.wikipedia.org (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Rhizobia nodules on the roots of a cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) plant. Photo courtesy of Dave Whitinger, available at wikipedia.org (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Our world is interdependent. God created us to be in association with each other. This is not only seen among humans, but in other created organisms as well. We admit that sin has had an effect on all of creation, and the Darwinian competition and struggle for survival might be an expression of this. However, cooperation and positive interaction between organisms, even of different species, is also an important narrative in biology. One lesson we can glean from this look into the natural world of microorganisms and symbiosis is that we are happiest and healthiest when we are living our lives in service to one another.


Suzanne Phillips, Ph.D., is the chair of the Department of Earth and Biological Sciences, Loma Linda University

Posted in Anatomy and Physiology, Biology, Cooperation, Design, Environment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Great Search

The Geoscience Research Institute is located on the campus of Loma Linda University Health, an institution of higher learning that keeps Christian service at the core of its mission. In this post, we asked Dr. Richard Hart, the President of Loma Linda University Health, to share some personal reflections on the role of knowledge in the quest for meaning and greater understanding. 


In a world drowning in information, there is an even stronger search for ultimate truth. It seems the information age expects each of us to sort out misleading advertisements, internet “facts”, and professionally perpetrated misinformation in our own attempts to determine what is true. Even our recent presidential election and continuing political dialogue centers on the issue of what is really true.

For those of us who feel that knowing truth and having confidence in our belief is not only important, but possible, this great search for truth is both concerning and even prophetic. This becomes even more evident when working in an academic health science institution like Loma Linda, where Biblical truths and scientific advances are both considered essential foundations of knowledge. So how do we tread this line in a world that is now fully captivated by the logic and power of the scientific method and its interpretation of the world around us?

As someone who learned the basics of medicine over 45 years ago, it is clear that many of the “facts” of yesteryear are now debunked and a new set of “facts” has taken their place. Many diseases that had obvious explanations when I was a student are now shown to be something quite different in causation and treatment. Does this mean we are closer to the truth today than before? Or are we just taking our understanding to a different level, only to learn more in the future?

I can apply the same concerns to the Biblical “truths” I was taught as a child. Growing up in rural northern Idaho, life was simple and it seemed the difference between right and wrong was clear. But exposure to the broader world has changed my views on many issues, including race relations, gender issues, addictions, Sabbath observance, impact of genetics, origins, and perhaps most importantly the human and even individual imperfections that influence our church teachings and doctrines. I can see different ways to interpret Biblical concepts that seemed so clear in one direction as a child, but are now more complex and nuanced. Does that mean I am straying from the “truth” or am I reaching a new level of understanding of God’s ideal for mankind?

Coming back to Loma Linda, are there instructions – research boundaries – we should be insisting our faculty adopt and follow? Or are we brave enough to let truth take us where it will, believing that our God is the ultimate arbiter? There is a fascinating debate recorded in our board minutes from the 1950’s when two professors, Richard Walden and Frank Lemon, first proposed studying the causes of death among Adventists in California, comparing them to American Cancer Society controls. Their proposal prompted a big debate – what if we weren’t healthier, if our unusual health practices were not beneficial? Fortunately the board gambled on Walden and Lemon, and their study became the foundation of the Adventist Health Studies that have now gained such acclaim for the benefits of the Adventist lifestyle. I certainly hope that today we do not fear this great search for truth, believing that the One who created us also knows all about our science and Bible and where it must eventually lead.

So where does this leave us? Surely there are some absolutes that are unquestionable? Yes, I am sure there are, in both the Bible and science. But I am also convinced that we must continue to embrace a certain skepticism, a wondering in our souls, about many questions that are before us today. God has given us individually the power to think and question, to wonder and make decisions. Our church pioneers labored long and hard to filter out the essentials that established this church, but also taught the concept of “present trutharth”, the idea that better understandings will come in the future. I am comfortable with that status, even though it leaves a certain uneasiness inside. My sense is that this is exactly the way God wants it, keeping me asking while still believing, having faith before the unknown, wondering while also certain of His care and guidance.


 

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Stability of Organic Molecules: Lessons from Vitamin C

The  stability of organic (carbon-based) molecules is an interesting and challenging topic as there are many different types of functional groups, molecular configurations, and molecular collisions to consider.  Research on the stability of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and other vitamins demonstrates which factors to consider when it comes to the preservation of carbon-based molecules.   Ascorbic acid is a very important but very unstable organic molecule which is characteristic of the class of organic molecules we know as vitamins (Fig. 1).

Figure 1: Ascorbic Acid better known as Vitamin C is an unstable organic molecule that is highly water soluble.

Figure 1: Ascorbic Acid, better known as Vitamin C, is an unstable organic molecule that is highly water soluble.

Vitamin stability has been studied for decades under a variety of storage conditions, and it is interesting to see how chemical manufacturers address long term stability issues. As stated on the website of DSM  (a chemical company located in the Netherlands): “The vitamin manufacturing industry has developed products of high purity and quality, with improved stability, high bioavailability and optimum handling and mixing properties…. However, when dealing with complex and reactive compounds such as the vitamins, no product form can offer complete and unlimited protection against destructive conditions, excessive periods of storage or severe manufacturing processes. The individual feed manufacturer must take responsibility for assuring customers that vitamins have been stored, handled and added to feeds in an optimum manner and that vitamin levels are routinely monitored for quality assurance.”

Temperature, water content, pH, oxygen levels, light (type/intensity), catalysts (metals like Fe, Cu, etc), inhibitors, chemical interactions, energy (heat), and time are all factors that affect the stability of organic molecules. Double bonds and other functional groups are susceptible to rearrangements and reactions that vary with these conditions and is why organic chemistry textbooks are so thick! Vitamin C is somewhat stable in a dry, powdered form but dilution in water greatly accelerates the transformation of ascorbic acid into a biologically unusable form.   Low pH’s can slow this degradation but at neutral to higher pH, dilute solutions of vitamin C can degrade very quickly. Every organic molecule has its  own conditions of stability. In general, UV-light and oxygen are constantly attacking these molecules and rearranging their structures into molecular configurations unsuitable for their original purpose.   Water speeds the degradation. This is why many vitamins and pharmaceuticals are packaged in thick, dark containers with desiccants.

Eliminating water, oxygen, and energetic radiation (gamma, x-ray, UV, visible) can greatly extend and preserve organic molecules which is why some biomolecules can be preserved for longer periods of time when embedded in crystalline or amorphous solids like amber or stone. Scientists have tried to mimic natural means to preserve biochemical molecules through the use of sugars like trehalose. Trehalose can help enzymes and proteins preserve their activity when lyophilized (freeze-dried) together. Other sugars and polyols have been explored as a partner chemical that provides many hydrogen bonding sites that stabilize the complex 3-D structure of proteins, enzymes, and nucleic acids in the absence of water but trehalose seems to be one of the best.

Water Bears (tardigrades) (Fig. 2) have been in the news lately because new information about their genome relating to their ability to survive harsh conditions such as absolute zero, vacuum of space, and high temperatures around volcanoes was recently published.

Scanning electron microscopy images of the extremotolerant tardigrade, Ramazzottius varieornatus, in the hydrated condition (a) and in the dehydrated state (b), which is resistant to various physical extremes. Scale bars, 100 μm. From Hashimoto et al., 2016, Nature Communications, 7, 12808 (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License).

Scanning electron microscopy images of the extremotolerant tardigrade, Ramazzottius varieornatus, in the hydrated condition (a) and in the dehydrated state (b), which is resistant to various physical extremes. Scale bars, 100 μm. From Hashimoto et al., 2016, Nature Communications, 7, 12808 (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License).

The November 7, 2016 issue of Chemical & Engineering News featured this recent research as it interests chemists and engineers who are trying to find innovative ways to preserve unstable carbon-based molecules of life: “Although commonly found in moss and lichens, tardigrades are truly aquatic animals, requiring a film of water surrounding their body to take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. Without water, they dry out, practically cease metabolism, and curl up into a sturdy desiccated form called a tun. It is the tun state that enables tardigrades to withstand many extremes. And then if they return to water, they bounce right back.”   It is believed that tardigrades produce various “dry-tolerant proteins” that “are intrinsically disordered in water but develop secondary structures in the dehydrated state that allow them to stabilize DNA, proteins, and cell membranes.”

Carbon-based chemistry in living systems is  constantly under thermodynamic and kinetic distress from heat, light, radiation, oxygen, water and other reactive chemicals that limits their longevity. This is to say nothing of the enzymatic biological attacks from the microbial world that slice-and-dice organic chemicals in an effort recycle them for their own energetic requirements.   The same flexibility that allows living systems to constantly recycle and renew carbon-based materials are the same mechanisms that inhibit long term stability.


Ryan T. Hayes is a Ph.D. chemist (Andrews University) studying how to preserve vitamin C and other biomolecules through the use of spherical nanopolymers called dendrimers.

 

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Sabbath, Creation and Redemption

The Sabbath, a day set aside to honor the Creator, provides an important opportunity to review briefly two spiritual riches, among many, of the Genesis Creation narratives.

A Creator Worthy of Worship

Thankfully, God created through a death-free method of creation in six days, rather than over long ages as deep-time evolutionary theory suggests. As evolutionist David Hull rightly observes: “The God implied by evolutionary theory is not a loving God who cares about His productions . . . [He] is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray.”[i] The worship-worthiness of God is at stake here in the method of creation God uses. The biblical, benign, six-day Creation renders God a good Creator worthy of worship, and not Darwin’s cruel Devil who creates savagely over long ages.[ii] This means that the seventh-day Sabbath is a memorial of a method of Creation which establishes the worship-worthiness of our Creator.

A Creator Able to Justly Forgive Sins

The Sabbath is also a memorial of the sin-forgiving power of the Creator. Deep-time evolutionary theory requires that not only the animals, but even Adam and Eve were under the curse of physical death from the beginning. In this model, death did not enter planet Earth through the disobedience of our first parents, as indicated, for instance, in Romans 8:20-21 and Romans 5:12. Theologian Nigel Cameron observes that this circumstance “overthrows the sin-death causality, and in so doing pulls the rug from under the feet of the evangelical understanding of the atonement.”[iii] If deep-time evolutionary theory is true, the death of Christ on the cross is not the wage of sin. However, if a six-day Creation is true, death in all living things appears after human sin meaning that the sin-death causality is preserved and the blood of Christ still forgives sins.

The Fossil Record and the Global Biblical Flood

The biblical model of a recent, death-free, six-day Creation is dismissed by those who consider the fossiliferous geologic column as the record of millions of years of evolutionary history. However, the biblical account of a global flood resulting in massive destruction of life neutralizes the deep-time geologic criticism based on the fossil record. A global biblical flood responsible for the accumulations of fossil-bearing strata disentangles the six-day Creation from the contention of a preceding record of death, and thus preserves the sin-death causality and the efficacy of the Cross to justly forgive our sins (Rom 3:25; 1 John 1:9). To those skeptical about considering the biblical Flood in the construction of geological models of earth history, Leonard Brand offers these instructive comments: “To use our biblical worldview as a basis for scientific predictions is compatible with the scientific process because it does exactly what science is supposed to do. It puts our theories and hypothesis out in the open to be discussed, to be supported by accumulating evidence, or refuted by the evidence.”[iv]

Conclusion

This brief discussion suggests that the Sabbath is thereby a weekly memorial of a benign method of Creation showing that the Creator is worthy of worship. Secondly, the Sabbath is also a memorial of the truth of the sin-death causality and the power of the Creator to justly forgive our sins. The truth about the six-day Creation, testified by the Sabbath, encourages us all to worship our Maker joyfully with the deepest conviction possible and with thankful praise without end.

John T. Baldwin, PhD.


Endnotes

[i] David Hull, “The God of the Galápagos,” Nature 352 (August 8, 1991):485-486.

[ii] Writing to his friend, J. D. Hooker in a letter dated July 13, 1856, Charles R. Darwin states: “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel works of nature,” (“Darwin Correspondence Project,” The University of Cambridge [2015[:http:/www.darwinproject.ac.uk., accessed May 20, 2015).

[iii] Nigel Cameron, Evolution and the Authority of the Bible (Greenwood, S.D. Dak.: Attic Press, 1983), p. 66.

[iv] Leonard Brand, “Worldviews and Predictions in the Scientific Study of Origins” Origins 64 (2015): 10.

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The geological story told by Iceland

Iceland is a volcanic island in the North Atlantic Ocean, slightly below the Arctic Circle. The island is situated on a mid-ocean ridge at the boundary between the North American plate and the Eurasian plate. In Iceland, we find evidence of horizontal movements, in which two plates spread apart as the crust dilates with intrusion of new magma. Iceland, however, is also associated with a mantle plume (a narrow stem of upwelling of magma from deep in the mantle) that has maintained volcanism high and vigorous [1]. Spreading creates some sort of symmetry in the buildup of the island (although slightly distorted by the mantle plume) with the youngest rocks situated on the ridge and the older rocks away from the ridge on both sides (Figure 1).

fig-1

Figure 1: A simplified map of the geology of Iceland showing the spreading ridge in orange and the volcanic systems where volcanism takes place. Older volcanic terrains lie on both sides of the ridge. From https://www.soest.hawaii.edu.

The rocks forming the island are mostly stacks of solidified lava flows. The lava flows are inclined towards the spreading ridge, exposing a continuous sequence of lava flows that date from the middle Miocene to the present. In the oldest part of the sequence, found in the glacially carved fjords of eastern and western Iceland, the lava flows are intercalated with sediments and deposits with plant remains of large trees not found in Iceland today [2]. Continuing upwards in the sequence, we find volcanic products and sediments that are linked to the Ice Age (Plio-Pleistocene) [3], and then on top of the sequence at the ridge we find young lava flows and sediments formed after the Ice Age (Holocene).

The earliest volcanism in Iceland is regarded as being mostly of so called flood basalt type, that is, large outpourings of magma from fissures, forming lava flows that covered widespread areas [4], [5]. Around the world, we find several provinces with flood basalts that indicate events of great turmoil in earth’s mantle in the past. Some of these lava flows in these provinces have volumes 100’s to 1,000’s of km3. These events are difficult to explain in conventional uniformitarian terms, but fit well into catastrophic creationist models e.g. [6], [7] that place this volcanism in conjunction with the biblical Flood and its aftermath. Flood basalt volcanism has only recently caught the attention of scientists, and ongoing volcanic activity in Iceland could help in deciphering the effects of such colossal volcanism. For example, the eruption of Laki in 1783-84, which is regarded by many geologists as a small flood basalt eruption, created a lava flow field of about 15 km3 in 8 months (common sizes of modern eruptions are <0.1 km3), and released about 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide (about three times the annual industrial output in Europe in 2016), triggering temperature drops in Europe of about 1-3°C [8], [9]. The cooling resulted in bad winters and summers leading to poverty and famine in Europe and the death of thousands of people [10], while famine and fluoride poisoning of the surface waters in Iceland caused the death of over 50% of the livestock. The 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano was observed to trigger algae blooms under the ash plume [11], while elevated levels of sulfuric acid, HCL, HF, and metal concentration were measured in snow and precipitation in the Holuhraun eruption in 2014-15 [12]. Furthermore, although not an observation from Iceland, volcanic emissions of CO2 can result in artificial radiocarbon ages (excessively old ages) caused by excess CO2 concentrations in the volcanic grounds [13]. These examples demonstrate that the secondary effects of volcanic eruptions can be many, and we expect the environmental pressure of the flood basalt volcanism around the world in earth’s past history to have been enormous, something that creationists should explore in light of the volcanism associated with the biblical Flood and its aftermath.

Iceland has a wide variety of volcanic products, created in volcanic events ranging from effusive lava outpourings to explosive eruptions [14]. Considering that the largest glaciers in Europe are found in Iceland, some of the volcanic eruptions in Iceland occurred and will occur under glaciers (Figure 2).

fig-2

Figure 2: A view over Landmannalaugar in central south Iceland. The thick rhyolite lava flow centered in the photo (see cars on campsite for scale) is named Laugahraun and erupted around 1477. The light colored mountains surrounding Laugahraun are also of rhyolitic composition but are from eruptions under ice during the ice age.

When magma erupts under water/ice it fragments generating tephra and volcanic breccia, which reworked and remobilized in the water form volcanic sediment deposits [15]. Later, these deposits are modified and hardened by hydrothermal alteration and become what geologists call hyaloclastites. Thus, hyaloclastite deposits preserve evidence of transport by currents and gravity flows indicative of relatively rapid formation within the watery environment of these subglacial eruptions. The process of alteration in the hyaloclastites was thought to require a long time but took only a few years to happen in Surtsey Island that emerged from the sea in an eruption in 1963-67 [16]. Therefore, subglacial eruptions may be a good analogue to very dynamic, high-energy watery environments with rapid sedimentation, reworking, transportation and hardening of sedimentary deposits.

Another interesting phenomenon observed in Iceland is the generation of large volumes of meltwater with geothermal activity and volcanism under glaciers. These meltwaters can burst in high-energy catastrophic flooding events. Outburst floods from eruptions in the glacially covered Katla volcano are estimated to have reached flow rates >200,000 m3/s (which is the flow rate of the Amazon river) [17]. The force of such raging waters carve canyons in hours and leave vast sedimentary flood plains. The canyons of the touristic Gullfoss and Detifoss waterfalls, and the “sandur” deposits (sand plains) in south Iceland are a witness to these glacial outburst floods.

Therefore, Iceland provides insight into several geological processes of great relevance to creationists working on developing models for processes that might have occurred during or after the biblical Flood. Going from plate tectonics, the ice age, flood basalt volcanism and its secondary effects, to catastrophic erosion and sedimentation, all these themes are displayed in an unspoiled environment immersed with natural beauty.


 

References

[1]Bjarnason, I., 2008, An Iceland hotspot saga, Jökull, 2008, 58, 3-16.

[2]Denk, T.; Grímsson, F. and Kvacek, Z., 2005, The Miocene floras of Iceland and their significance for late Cainozoic North Atlantic biogeography, Botanical Journal of Linnean Society, 149, 369-417.

[3]Geirsdóttir, Á., 2011, Chapter 16 – Pliocene and Pleistocene Glaciations of Iceland: A Brief Overview of the Glacial History, Jurgen Ehlers, P. L. G. and Hughes, P. D. (Eds.), Quaternary Glaciations – Extent and ChronologyA Closer Look, Elsevier, Volume 15, 199-210.

[4]Walker, G. P. L., 1959, Geology of the Reyðarfjörður area, Eastern Iceland
Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 1959, 114, 367-391.

[5]Oskarsson, B. V. and Riishuus, M. S., 2014, The mode of emplacement of Neogene flood basalts in eastern Iceland: Facies architecture and structure of simple aphyric basalt groups, Volcanol. Geotherm. Res., 2014, 289, 170-192.

[6]Austin, S. A.; Baumgardner, J. R.; Humphreys, D. R.; Snelling, A. A.; Vardiman, L. and Wise, K. P., 1994, Catastrophic plate tectonics: A global flood model of earths History, Walsh, R. E. (Ed.), Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Creationism, 609-621.

[7]Baumgardner, J. R., 2003, Catastrophic plate tectonics: The physics behind the Genesis flood, Ivey Jr., R. L. (Ed.), Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Creationism, 113-126.

[8]Thordarson, T. and Self, 2003, Atmospheric and environmental effects of the 1783-1784 Laki eruption: A review and reassessment, Geophys. Res., 2003, 108, AAC 7-1-AAC 7-29

[9]Wikipedia – The Laki eruption.

[10]Grattan, J.; Durand, M. and Taylor, R., 2003, Illness and elevated human mortality in Europe coincident with the Laki Fissure eruption, Oppenheimer, C.; Pyle, D. M. and Barclay, J. (Eds.), Volcanic degassing, GeologiGeological , London, Special Publications, 213, 401-414.

[11]Achterberg, E. P.; Moore, C. M.; Henson, S. A.; Steigenberger, S.; Stohl, A.; Eckhardt, S.; Avendano, L. C.; Cassidy, M.; Hembury, D.; Klar, J. K.; Lucas, M. I.; Macey, A. I.; Marsay, C. M. and Ryan-Keogh, T. J., 2013, Natural iron fertilization by the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption, Res. Lett., 40, 921-926.

[12]Gíslason, S. et.al., 2015, Environmental pressure from the 2014-15 eruption of Bárðarbunga volcano, Iceland, Geochemical Perspectives Letters, 1, 84-93.

[13]Pasquier-Cardin, A.; Allard, P.; Ferreira, T.; Hatte, C.; Coutinho, R.; Fontugne, M. and Jaudon, M., 1999, Magma derived CO2 emmisions recorded in 14C and 13C content of plants growing in Furnas caldera, Azores, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 92, 195-207.

[14]Thordarson, T. and Larsen, G., 2007, Volcanism in Iceland in historical time: Volcano types, eruption styles and eruptive history, Journal of Geodynamics, Hotspot Iceland, 43, 118-152.

[15]Schopka, H. H.; Gudmundsson, M. T. and Tuffen, H., 2006, The formation of Helgafell, southwest Iceland, a monogenetic subglacial hyaloclastite ridge: Sedimentology, hydrology and volcano-ice interaction, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 152, 359-377.

[16]Jakobsson, S., 1972, On the consolidation and palagonitization of the tephra of the Surtsey volcanic island, Iceland, Surtsey Research Progre. Rep. VI, 121-129.

[17]Tomasson, H., 1996, The jokulhlaup from Katla in 1918, Annals of Glaciology, 22, 249-254.

 

 

 

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