One of the many claims of creationists is that human beings coexisted with dinosaurs, but the fossil record does not back this claim. Dinosaurs became extinct around 65 million years ago, whereas the oldest modern human fossils are less than a million years old. So how do creationists reply to this? Creationists have pointed to alleged evidence which suggested that human and dinosaurs were contemporaries such as fossil footprints of human and dinosaurs found side by side. However, this evidence has turned up to be either the result of misinterpretations or hoaxes. Never to be discouraged by negative evidence, creationists have turned to another source of evidence: art!
Ancient humans throughout the world have left a large number of inscriptions, paintings, sculptures, and other forms of art in their caves, dwellings, and artifacts such as pottery. In these, ancient humans depicted some of the animals that were in their vicinity and which they often hunted. The idea is that, if humans and dinosaurs were living side by side, dinosaurs would be represented in ancient art. Is this the case?
Creationists claim that this is indeed the case, and they point to many examples of ancient art throughout the world that seem to show large animals that in some cases bear resemblance to dinosaurs. Unfortunately there are many problems with this claim.
To begin with, some of these pieces of ancient art have been exposed as hoaxes. Among these are the Ica Stones and the Acambaro Figurines that depict dinosaurs or humans interacting with dinosaurs.
Other instances of ancient art that were claimed to be dinosaurs, such as those at the Kachina Bridge site and at various other sites, have been reinterpreted as symbolizing other animals or mythical creatures, or to be the product of the blending of several weathered figures plus mud or mineral stains. Finally, other claims that paintings or figures of dragons represent dinosaurs are clearly a stretch of the imagination.
There are some genuine depictions of animals in ancient art that bear a resemblance to dinosaurs. One of the most famous is a carving in the Temple Ta Prohm in Cambodia, which looks like a dinosaur called a stegosaurus.
However upon careful analysis, this resemblance turns out to be superficial. For example, the spikes in the tail are missing, the proportion of the head to the rest of the body is all wrong, and the carving seems to show the presence of horns or ears in the animal’s head which do not occur in stegosaurs. Skeptics believe that this carving represents another animal such as a rhinoceros, and that the alleged plates on its back, which are found in other carvings in the same temple, may represent leaves. This disagreement exposes the central problem of taking ancient art as proof for the existence of something: interpretation.
Even in these modern times of science, technology, and urbanization, human populations develop a cultural mythology that gives rise to fantastic beliefs in notions, characters, or entities that often end up being represented in art. This process has been probably taking place since the dawn of humanity. Even when we see an ancient carving, painting, or sculpture that bears an unambiguous resemblance to something modern, how do we know that the resemblance is not a coincidence? How do we know that what the author actually saw is what he or she depicted in the art as opposed to it being a representation of a dream, a belief, an embellished story, or something that was misperceived? To show you how problematic the interpretation of ancient art is, let me tell you about ancient astronauts.
There is a group of people that claims that ancient art shows that primitive cultures had contacts with ancient astronauts and their machines. They point out to art all over the world that seems to depict images that bear resemblance to people wearing helmets and different types of crafts. For example, the lid of the tomb of the Maya ruler Pacal the Great depicts a human figure manipulating the controls of what seems to be a space vessel which even has flames coming out of one end.
Egyptian hieroglyphics from the temple of Seti I at Abydos contain images of what appear to be a helicopter and other types of modern looking crafts.
Petroglyphs from the Camonica Valley in Italy seem to depict figures wearing helmets.
This post is not the place to deal with these claims, but let me just mention that they are all based on misinterpretations of what these figures represent.
Ironically, some creationists have been among the most vocal critics of ancient astronaut proponents. However, how is using ancient art to argue for the existence of ancient astronauts different from the argument championed by creationists that humans coexisted with dinosaurs? How do we tell what is real? The answer is we can’t. Ancient art alone cannot be taken as proof of the existence of the entities represented in the art. Additional evidence is required. Consider the case of mammoths.
There are hundreds of representations of mammoths in cave and other forms of art in areas of Europe and Russia, but there is also abundant evidence that ancient humans hunted mammoths or scavenged their corpses for food, and used their tusks to construct dwellings, to produce tools, and to carve and make art. The dating of mammoth and human remains and tools found in these areas also show a degree of overlap in the geological age indicating that these two species were contemporaneous. Why is there no such evidence for dinosaurs and humans?
Creationists often complain that scientists are biased against their ideas, but how do they expect to be taken seriously when they demand that science upend well-established scientific theories backed by vast amounts of solid evidence based solely on a few carved or painted figures? We might as well accept that ancient astronauts visited the Earth!
Photograph of Ica Stone Brattarb used here under an Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Photograph of Acambaro figurines by Fchavez2000 is used here under a GNU Free Documentation License, version 1.2.
A drawing of the lid of the tomb of Maya ruler Pacal the Great by Madman2001 is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.
Image of the so called helicopter hieroglyphs by Olek95 are in the public domain.
Photograph of petroglyphs in Italy by Luca Giarelli used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) license.
Image of alleged stegosaur carving at Ta Prohm Temple by Harald Hoyer is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.
Photograph of a cast of a Stegosaurus stenops skeleton (AMNH 650) in the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt am Main by Evak is used here under a GNU Free Documentation License, version 1.2.
Mammoth hunt image used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) license.
One aspect of meandering rivers that has always interested me is oxbow lakes. Oxbow lakes are parts of a meandering river that have been cut off from the main river and become U-shaped lakes with no inflow or outflow of water. They derive their name from the collar placed on the neck of oxes to which the plow is attached. Oxbow lakes are formed because in the bend of a curving river there is more erosion of the outer bank and more sediment deposition on the inner bank. Thus the shores at the narrow side of a river loop tend to erode and connect establishing a new channel for the river, sealing the loop, and turning it into a lake. Oxbow lake formation is a well-recognized consequence of the physics of meandering rivers and there are even mathematical models that explain their formation.
Even before science came of age, people living in river basins figured out that oxbow lakes formed as part of normal river dynamics. Although oxbow lake formation cannot be seen in real time because they can take decades to form, any meandering river has a number of these potential lakes in various stages of formation. All that smart people had to do was put together all these different stages in a sequence to figure out how oxbow lakes are formed. Today with the advent of satellites we can see the formation of oxbow lakes such as the one shown in the video below in the Ucayali River in Peru between 1985 and 2013.
As far as I know, the notion of linking together the different stages of oxbow lake formation to answer the question of how these landlocked lakes form never generated any controversy. You would probably agree with me that linking all these stages to form a sequence was the smart and logical thing to do. Now I want to connect the narrative of this post so far with its title and address in parallel the theory of evolution.
Even before modern science came along, fossils of plants and animals (different stages of oxbow lake formation) were being discovered all over the world that bore resemblance to modern plants and animals (fully formed oxbow lakes), but at the same time displayed some differences. Charles Darwin had the idea that (just as different stages of oxbow lake formation are linked) all these fossils were linked and represented ancestral forms of these modern plants and animals (stages of oxbow lake formation). Although Darwin’s idea at the time he formulated it came short of fully explaining how this could happen, modern genetics coupled to other disciplines like geology, embryology, chemistry, physics, ecology, and so forth have confirmed that Darwin’s idea is true.
I realize that there are differences between fossils and stages of oxbow lake formation. For example, fossils are static and represent the past, while the different stages of oxbow lake formation are dynamic and are all found in the present. Also, some of the biggest evolutionary changes take place over millions of years, so we will never be able to see this process in those time scales as we can see oxbow lake formation with satellites. But my main point is that if we want to know the origin of an entity, whether an oxbow lake or an organism, and we find several apparent stages in the development of that entity that seem to point to a sequence, then linking these stages to infer how the entity came into being is a perfectly logical and smart thing to do.
So why do so many Americans accept the theory of oxbow lake formation without any controversy but reject the theory of evolution? If it is legitimate to put together all the stages of oxbow lake formation to come up with an explanation regarding how these lakes arise, why is it not acceptable to do the same with fossils and living things including humans?
This is, of course, a rhetorical question. I know that creationism is based on a literal interpretation the Bible. Whereas scientists look at different stages of oxbow lake formation or fossils and then follow a bottom-up approach allowing observations and experiments to guide them in finding the truth, creationists take for certain whatever is in the Bible and follow a top down approach trying to fit observations or experimental results to scripture. I suspect that if the Bible contained a very specific religious description regarding the creation of oxbow lakes that had nothing to do with river dynamics, creationists would also be objecting current scientific explanations of oxbow lake formation.
I don’t mean to disrespect or belittle something as important as faith and religion. I subscribe to Stephen Jay Gould’s proposal that science and religion occupy what he called non-overlapping magisteria, and I am sympathetic to the plight of a creationist who with horror sees atheism as the only alternative to not believing literally in the creation story described in the book of Genesis. As I have explained before, I believe that science should not operate in a vacuum. We should provide believers with a way to reconcile their beliefs with the fact of evolution.
One possible way to do this involves the finding by the Pew Research Center that support for evolution as gauged by a poll can change considerably if the phrasing of the question is altered. If people were asked whether humans evolved over time by natural selection with God having nothing to do with this or whether humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, 31% chose the latter alternative, which is the strict creationist interpretation. However, if the option was included to allow for God somehow guiding the evolutionary process giving rise to humans, support for the strict creationist view dropped to 18%.
Of course, it is not in the nature of science to deal with God or the possibility that God influenced evolution, but I favor approaches such as allowing for a role for God in the process of evolution as a means of making our population more accepting of basic scientific facts in order to avoid the needless wasteful social conflict that has dragged on for decades. That way we can speed up the day in which we will all accept that the natural history of oxbow lakes and living organisms have some things in common.
Image from the air of The Carstairs Meanders in the UK by Thomas Nugent is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license. The diagram of Ox Bow lake formation by Maksim is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license. The image of the evolution of the horse by Mcy jerry is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
Many people who agree that evolution is a fact nevertheless are unconcerned with the creation/evolution debate. At most these people will express some qualms about the violation of the separation of church and state when creationists try to teach their religious beliefs masquerading as science in schools, but that’s about it. For them evolution is one of those “science things” that may be interesting to read about, but that is far removed from their everyday reality and does not affect them.
Nothing could be further from the truth. First and foremost, evolution is the framework that allows us to understand how populations of living things propagate and change through time and space. Because of this, evolution has made possible the development of procedures and strategies in dozens of areas of human endeavor that involve dealing with biological entities ranging from DNA fingerprinting to fighting cancer. There are even scientific journals devoted to research into the application of evolutions such as one named (quite fittingly), Evolutionary Applications. However, in the interest of providing tangible examples, in today’s post we will go over some of the applications of evolutionary theory.
Most people have taken an antibiotic during their life. The availability of antibiotics to control or prevent infections by bacteria is something we take for granted. However, bacteria are constantly evolving resistance to antibiotics, and new strains of multidrug-resistant bacteria are compromising our effectiveness to fight infections. This is a fact that can affect your health, as many people have died from infections with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But is not only bacteria. Fungi are evolving resistance to antifungals, and viruses are evolving resistance to antivirals. Evolution explains why this is happening, and in the design and application of new antimicrobials, scientists have to take into account the principles of evolution to both reduce and keep up with the development of resistance by microorganisms. Beyond health, evolution also has benefited agriculture because many pests, including microorganisms, weeds, and insects, are evolving resistance to pesticides. To maintain the capacity of our farmers to peoduce enough crops to meet our food needs, scientists use the principles of evolution to manage the application of pesticides and develop new ones. In the medicines that you take and the food that you eat, you have benefited from evolution.
Even before the theory of evolution was enunciated by Darwin, human beings knew how evolution worked! They knew that they could apply selection strategies to produce farm animals, dogs, plants, or other organisms that bore traits they desired. This directed breeding is nothing more than the application of evolutionary mechanisms (descent with modification) in a directed fashion (artificial selection), and today with the tools of modern genetics this process can be made faster and more effective. If you own or eat animals and plants that have been generated by directed breeding, you have benefited from evolution.
Within the field of evolution there is an important subfield called phylogenetics which studies the evolutionary relationships among biological entities. This discipline, which establishes how these entities are related to one another, has been applied to a breathtaking variety of biological problems and used to answer important real-world questions ranging from the culpability of individuals accused of a crime to the importance of diversity for ecosystems. From designing vaccines and tracking epidemics to determining ancestry among individuals, it is very likely that in one way or another phylogenetics has affected your life.
The Nobel Prize winning chemical engineer, Frances Arnold, has pioneered the application of the mechanisms of evolution to obtain enzymes with novel activities. Enzymes are proteins that make possible (catalyze) chemical reactions. The vast majority of chemical reactions that take place in living things are the result of enzymes. Enzymes are also used in industrial processes, and many industries would benefit from having enzymes with new or more stable activities. To generate these new enzymes, Dr. Arnold generated a population of enzymes with random changes that she had introduced into their structures, and then selected those enzymes that had an activity close to that which she desired. After many rounds of this evolutionary process, she was able to not only obtain enzymes with new activities, but also to obtain enzymes with types activities never seen in nature! Such is the power of evolution. This directed evolution strategy is now generating new enzymes that are being used in industrial processes to produce materials that you are may be using including detergents, oils, and fragrances.
In the field of computer science, the mechanisms of evolution have been adapted into the so-called “genetic algorithms”. These are programs that use an evolutionary strategy to solve problems. The programs are fed a set of random attempts to solve a problem, most of which will not work, but some will work better than others. The program then chooses those attempts that worked the best, and these attempts are copied into a second generation of attempts to solve the problem but introducing random modifications into them (analogous to mutations). This cycle of choosing the best attempts at solving the problem and copying then into the next generation with random modifications is repeated hundreds to thousands of times until a solution to the problem emerges. Genetic algorithms have proven very successful at generating solutions to complex problems in fields ranging from aerospace, electric, and materials engineering, to military planning, law enforcement, medicine, and routing and scheduling. If you are enjoying the benefits of some advance in technology directly or indirectly, it is likely that along the way a genetic algorithm has been used to solve problems that made it possible.
The above list (that is by no means exhaustive) shows that the theory of evolution is not something abstract that is only of interest to academics. The applications of evolution has improved the life of human beings (including creationists) by generating thousands of useful products, technologies, and insights for the solution of critical issues that affect our lives.
Evolution image from Pixabay by Manoel M. Pereira Valido Filho Mvalido is free for commercial use.
Ball’s Pyramid is a rock monolith that thrusts its nearly vertical basalt walls 1,800 feet over the surface of the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand. It is known as Ball’s Pyramid because it was discovered in 1788 by Royal Navy officer Henry Lidgbird Ball, who also discovered Lord Howe Island, situated 14 miles to the North. Ball’s pyramid, which is the world’s tallest sea stack (taller than the Empire State building), is the eroded remains of the caldera of an ancient volcano, and it was climbed for the first time in 1965 by a team of Australian rock climbers.
But Ball’s Pyramid is famous for an incident involving an insect. Island environments throughout the world due to their isolation have a special place in evolution. It is common to find on islands living things that are not found anywhere else in the world. Such was the case of the Lord Howe Island stick insect (Dryococelus australis), which could grow up to 6 inches long, and was often used as bait by the local fishermen.
Unfortunately, when a ship ran aground on Lord Howe Island in 1918, it introduced rats to the environment, and the rodents went on to wipe out the entire stick insect population. The last stick insect was seen in 1920, and after that year the species was thought to be extinct. Nevertheless, during the 1960’s, while climbing Ball’s Pyramid was still allowed by the Australian government, climbers sometimes reported that they saw carcasses of stick insects. However, these insects are nocturnal and nobody wanted to climb the jagged rock at night.
Finally in 2001 a handful of Australian scientists risked their lives in the darkness, and a few hundred feet above the waves on the sheer rock cliff they located a population of 24 of the famed Lord Howe Island stick insects eking a living on a few plants, which in turn were precariously growing in some cracks in the rock. After more exploration, they ascertained that these were the only stick insects on Ball’s Pyramid. Imagine that, the last 24 individuals left in the whole world of a species living in an environment that could be wiped out any day by a rock slide!
The insects managed to survive a few more years while the scientists battled the red tape of the Australian government before returning in 2003 to remove some pairs for breeding. The attempt was successful, and today there are thousands of descendants from those original breeding pairs. However, the newly bred Lord Howe Island stick insects looked different from specimens preserved in museums, and there was some question about whether they were a different but related species. Scientists solved this issue by applying the new tools of genomics to samples from the newly bred insects and those preserved in museums. It was determined that the newly bred insects differed genetically from museum samples by no more than 1%, which is how much samples from museum specimens differed from each other. This indicated that the newly bred insects and the original insects were indeed the same species.
Thus the Lord Howe Island stick insect had evaded extinction and come back from the brink thanks to a few daring and motivated scientists, and thanks to many generations of insects that clung tenaciously to life on the windswept spire of Ball’s Pyramid.
Image of Ball’s Pyramid by Fanny Schertzer is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) license. Image of the Lord Howe Stick Insect by Granitethighs is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
The creationist movement has changed strategies. Many of their adherents have become proponents of what is called “Intelligent Design”. Within creationist circles, the Intelligent Design movement is mostly considered a strategy to make inroads into the secular world of science. In transitioning to Intelligent Design many of its proponents accept that the Earth is billions of years old, that there is no geological evidence of a worldwide Universal Flood, and that populations of living organisms have the capacity for microevolution, which is the ability to adapt to changes in the environment.
However, although Intelligent Design proponents accept that microevolution allows organisms to adapt and develop new abilities, they disagree with the idea that microevolution can give rise to evolutionary novelty, and they employ various strategies to explain away many of the numerous examples in the scientific literature where this has been documented. One strategy is to argue that these cases of generation of evolutionary novelty represent nothing but the mere reshuffling of preexisting genetic information. This argument is somewhat baffling as it is akin to saying that a new book is not really new because it is merely a reshuffling of words already present in previous books. But because more than reshuffling is often involved as random mutations are selected that improve certain abilities, Intelligent Design proponents have also argued that a Designer created the capacity in organisms to mutate information, reshuffle it, and adapt to changes in their environment! And, of course, if all else fails, Intelligent Design proponents will argue that the novelty in question is not a real novelty, that it is only a minor change, and therefore it is not evolution but rather just merely “adaptation”.
Despite their acceptance of microevolution, the Intelligent Design movement denies that macroevolution can take place. Macroevolution is large scale changes that produce novelty like the transition from reptiles to birds, or from land dwelling animals to sea dwelling animals. Scientists tell Intelligent Design proponents that macroevolution is what you get if you let microevolution go on for millions of years, but Intelligent Design proponents disagree. A favorite Intelligent Design argument is that nobody has ever observed macroevolution. And this is obvious, of course, because macroevolution is a slow process that takes many millions of years. However, various lines of evidence including the fossil record have allowed scientists to demonstrate quite convincingly that macroevolution has indeed occurred. But, of course, Intelligent Design proponents have several clever retorts.
For example, if there are no fossil intermediates between organisms “A” and “C”, Intelligent Design proponents will point this out claiming that “C” appeared suddenly (was designed) as opposed to evolving from A. However, if a fossil intermediate is found, “B”, Intelligent Design proponents will reply that there are no intermediates between “A” and “B”, and between “B” and “C”! Nothing but the discovery of highly detailed fossils documenting gradual change between two organisms will convince them that evolution has taken place. The obvious problem with this is that such highly detailed evidence may not be possible given the dynamics of the processes of fossilization and speciation, and the sizes of the populations of organisms involved in the process. In any case, why should the intermediate be an intermediate? After all it could be a different organism that was intelligently designed and that just happened to share characteristics of the other two!
In the elaboration of their criticism of evolution, Intelligent Design proponents also argue for the premise that they call “irreducible complexity”. What this means is that complex biological structures are composed of many parts each of which is necessary for their function. Therefore, they argue, a structure will not acquire its proper function unless all components are present and functional. Thus it is impossible for these structures to have evolved by accumulating their constituent parts because the assembly of these components into non-functional structures (at least until the last component is added and the whole becomes functional) would not be selected because they confer no advantage. To illustrate this principle, Intelligent Designers select structures that leave no fossil record such as bacterial flagella (a structure that allows bacteria to propel themselves) and demand that evolutionists come up with explanations as to how they could have evolved. Evolutionists have duly responded by pointing out several ways in which bacterial flagella could have evolved from simpler structures. But Intelligent Designers are not impressed. As described in the previous paragraph, they expect exhaustive step by step descriptive explanations of how these systems evolved, and when the ones provided don’t meet their demands, they declare a win for Intelligent Design.
So we can only arrive at one conclusion. Intelligent Design has been intelligently designed! The strategy is clear. First, bite the bullet and accept some of the most obvious things like geological and astronomical evidence for an old Earth and microevolution (there will be time to come back to a literal interpretation of Genesis later). Second, concentrate your attacks on those aspects of evolutionary theory that can only be studied through fragmentary evidence, such as events that have occurred in the distant pass, or indirect evidence, such as those involving structures that leave no fossil record. Finally, demand a level of proof that is incompatible even with the best possible evidence that could be generated.
As an offshoot of creationism, Intelligent Design has been tailored to achieve one goal, and that is to discredit evolution and endow with academic respectability the notion that a designer is behind the appearance of new life forms in our world. Of course, when your ideas cannot be proven wrong even with the best possible evidence, then your ideas are not scientific, and with all of its twisting and turning around the evidence, Intelligent Design cannot hide this fact.
The image from Pixabay by sbtlneet is used here under a CC0 Creative Commons license.
Some people claim science is a killjoy. Why measure and analyze and classify everything? Why try to figure out how everything works? Why can’t scientists let nature be and enjoy it without dissecting it apart and figuring out what makes it tick? Are scientists spending too much time locked away in labs to relate to the world like normal people? And even those that do get out and interact with nature, shouldn’t they stop viewing everything through the prism of ecosystems and niches and predator-prey relationships and whatnot?
I have to strongly disagree with this notion. From my vantage point, science vastly enriches our enjoyment of the world and greatly magnifies the sense of awe that we can feel.
Consider a mighty peak like Mount Everest. Imagine you are at the foot of the mountain and you tilt your head back so much that your neck hurts. You can see the great rocky summit reared against the arc of the sky gleaming in the sun sporting a plume of wind-swept snow. The highest point in the planet is so beautiful and majestic. Now allow me to quote what nature writer John McPhee wrote in his book Annals of the Former World:
“When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains had formed into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.”
That lofty pinnacle up there was once part of a sea bottom! This knowledge expands our capacity for enjoying the beauty of Everest and its significance. And it’s not just Mount Everest. Every mountain, every hill, every rock outcrop has a fascinating geologic story behind it. The landscapes all around us are ephemeral instants of geologic time where mountains reach for the sky and are eroded to the ground for eternity.
Suppose you go to the zoo with your family. You stare in amazement at the elephants, giraffes, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, pandas, lions, tigers, antelopes, apes, and other animals. Such diversity of sizes and body shapes, such colors, such beauty. All these living things form part of the tapestry of life. How many stories and paintings have they inspired? But as it turns out, we are part of the weave! Scientists have discovered that all these animals, including us, arose on this planet through a process of evolution which means we all share common ancestors. So when you peer into the eyes of a chimpanzee, you are looking back to the dawn of our species because they are one of our closest relatives.
Now imagine it’s nighttime and you are in the country far away from the lights of the city. You stare at the sky and see the myriad of stars, the diffuse cloud of our galaxy the Milky Way, and perhaps even a planet or two. Those marvelous worlds and suns so far removed from us. How many songs, and poems, and stories have they inspired?
Now allow me to quote what the late astronomer Carl Sagan said in his famous program Cosmos:
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.”
Yes, the components of your body and in fact of all life on Earth were created “up there” billions of years ago by some of the most titanic explosions that the universe has ever produced. Doesn’t that blow your mind away?
Finally, imagine being able to create reality by the mere act of observing it. Imagine an entity that can be a wave and a particle at the same time, that can be in two different places simultaneously, or that appears to go back in time. Imagine split realities, multiple universes, spooky actions at a distance, and a cat that is both dead and alive. These are some of the bizarre or counterintuitive phenomena and ideas generated by quantum mechanics. Quantum Mechanics is the highly successful theory ushered into existence by individuals that have become the stuff of legend such as Bohr, Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger, and which has made possible computers, smartphones, the internet, GPS, and MRI. Many scientific theories have challenged specific beliefs that humans beings harbored regarding their surroundings, but quantum mechanics has called into question our most basic notions of matter, space, and time, generating amazing realms where fantasy seemingly merges with realty, and where we can wander and wonder.
These discoveries, and many others that have opened our senses and imagination to the hidden secrets of our planet and the universe, were only possible thanks to generations of researchers who spent years of their lives in offices, labs, or in the field thinking, measuring, analyzing, classifying, and performing experiments. These scientists were awed by their discoveries, and they have generated inspiration for poets, painters, writers, photographers, musicians, filmmakers, sculptors, and many others.
Are you ready to be inspired? Learn about science!
Schrodinger's Cat by Jie Qi is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license, Everest photo credit: Rupert Taylor-Price / Foter.com / CC BY, Galaxy (CC0), Chimpanzee photo by Afrika Force is used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
In 1999 the secret “Wedge Document” was leaked to the world. This document outlined the master plan of the proponents of Intelligent Design to infiltrate the scientific establishment and make Intelligent Design a valid scientific notion worthy of being taught in school alongside the theory of evolution.
The governing goals of the plan were: “To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies”, and “To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God”.
However, the highflying expectations of the Intelligent Design movement were stopped cold by a 2005 ruling by a Pennsylvania judge that exposed Intelligent Design as nothing more than religion masquerading as science. This was the last of a string of legal defeats that creationist suffered in the United States.
One of the things that caught my attention about the Wedge Document is that creationists apparently object to materialistic explanations of how life on Earth arose and evolved. This greatly puzzles me because it is widely understood that science is incapable of any other type of explanations! And this is not due to science being co-opted by materialists who want to destroy God and religion.
Let me give you an example. Suppose you throw a bicycle in a pond that contains several fish. After a while the fish will probably swim around the bicycle, but they will definitely never ride it. Can you conclude that the fish rejected the bicycle? Of course not, because it is not in the nature of fish to ride bicycles. Following this analogy, we must understand that the whole concept of a God, or any proposal that involves theistic (related to a God) intervention, is not in the nature of science to analyze or comprehend. Science cannot elaborate hypotheses that involve divine intervention to explain what happens in the world, because they are not testable. Only materialistic explanations are testable, and here is where the problem arises.
Creationist believe that the Earth is 10,000 years old, that life on Earth appeared in one creation event involving 7 days, that there was a universal flood, and that the first man was created from clay directly by God. Of course science has found that the Earth is billions of years old, that the diversity of life on Earth did not appear in a span of 7 days, that there was no universal flood, and that humans evolved from other life forms. Creationists view these notions as an attack on their beliefs, and they are scandalized when this knowledge is taught in schools. Are scientists doing this to reject the literal creation story of the book of Genesis in the Bible, discredit theism, and impose materialism?
The answer is no. Scientists ask questions and provide answers based on the evidence. Of course, a particular answer may conflict with your beliefs, but what are scientists to do if that is where the evidence leads them? There is no ill will, no master plan to discredit theism and impose materialism, just the search for truth. There are some scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, who disavow religion and advocate exclusively for materialistic explanations regarding the origin of life and humanity, and that is their prerogative as freethinking individuals in an open society. But a large number of scientists from many cultures are believers, and they see no conflict between science and religion. However, what these scientists understand is that religious books such as the Bible should not be used as textbooks of natural history. These scientists subscribe to the maxim attributed to Galileo that the Bible teaches how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.
Science is the best method we have to find the truth about the behavior of matter and energy in the world around us. In this sense, when it comes to the natural world, science can help us in deciding what to believe or how to believe it. But science has limitations. It cannot tell us what is right or wrong, it cannot give us the guidance we seek as to the best way to live our lives from a moral and ethical point of view, it cannot provide us with values. This is the realm of religion, faith, and belief. These different areas of expertise that the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould called non-overlapping magisteria are necessary for the education of balanced human beings, and they should be kept separate. Science should be taught as science and religion should be taught as religion.
Creationist should, to quote a person whose teachings they know very well, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's”.
The tittle page image of the Wedge Document is in the public domain.
I have visited Wolf Rock several times while hiking in the Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland. I keep returning to this rock formation despite the fact that you can’t see anything from it, as opposed to the breathtaking vista you can see from nearby Chimney Rock. So I decided to write a post about it.
Wolf Rock is a large stretch of rock around 400 feet long and 30 feet high that protrudes over the surrounding woodland. The northern half is sufficiently clear of vegetation that you can see it using Google Maps. From above, it seems to be made of blocks that have been assembled next to each other (see picture at left).
Wolf Rock and other such rocks in the park began as grains of sand that were washed off mountains to the west and deposited on a shallow sea that existed in this area 550 million years ago. When the African continent collided with North America 250 million years ago, and formed the Appalachian Mountains, the sand was compressed and crystalized into a very hard rock called quartzite. Since then, the Appalachians, which were once as high as the Rockies, have eroded down to the heights they have today, and ledges of quartzite like Wolf Rock that are more erosion resistant than the surrounding rock have been exposed.
What impressed me at first about Wolf Rock is how massive it is and how suddenly is rises from the surrounding terrain. In fact, Wolf Rock is the only site in the park where rock climbing is allowed and there are several routes on the rocks that have names and are popular with local climbers.
Once you climb to the top by a trail that you can barely make out among the rocks, you find yourself in a unique fractured landscape. When you head north along the surface of the rock you have to jump and climb your way around a maze of boulders and crevasses.
The crevasses can be quite deep and they can swallow you whole if you fall!
A remarkable feature of the top of Wolf Rock is the many pitch pine trees (Pinus rigida) that grow on the rocks. It’s amazing how these trees have adapted to this environment and make a living from the roots they insert into the cracks among the stones.
The monolith is slowly breaking up into many discrete sections that give it the modular appearance that you see in the Google Maps image above.
As you make your way among these cyclopean blocks you find traces of their ancestry like this mineral vein (see below) on the formations named King and Queen Rocks. The shadow of me taking the picture can give you an idea of the size of these boulders.
At the north end of Wolf Rock, you find the emblematic Wolf’s Head Rock Pillar towering over the so called boulder garden in that area.
In this section you also find the Suspended Rock, which is a slab of rock stuck in between adjacent boulders in a manner reminiscent of the famous Kjeragbolten boulder in Norway.
Wolf Rock is not the longest, biggest, highest or many other -est rock formation in the United States, but for me it is a quiet out of the way place where I can connect with nature and wander around and ponder.
Ponder about the magnificent geologic processes that shaped our planet over the eons.
Ponder about the remarkable way life has evolved and adapted to the landscape as mountains were eroded into sand that washed into sea bottoms that in turn were lifted back into mountains that are now in the process of being eroded into sand again.
Ponder about how humanity through observation and experiment has uncovered these amazing facts about our world.
Alternatively, of course, I can just sit on a small boulder under the shadow of a pitch pine tree, close my eyes, and feel the wind blowing in my face.
For many centuries humans have wondered what makes us look the way we look. Why do people from different ethnicities still have a common recognizable body plan? What makes children look like their parents? These questions were all answered with the discovery and study of the molecule deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. Human DNA carries the blueprint to make a human being and keep it alive. It is because of DNA that all humans look more or less the same.
The way DNA works is that there are discrete sequences of this molecule called genes that carry the instructions to make proteins. The proteins thus made go on to make, organize, and maintain our bodies. But when scientists started sequencing the DNA molecules they found that the DNA in genes was the exception rather than the rule. Today we know that the 20,000 or so genes that human beings possess make up only 1.5% of the DNA in our bodies. The vast majority of our DNA (98.5%) is not organized into genes, and it’s not converted into proteins. What is it? The amazing answer seems to be that a good chunk of is not human!
About 8% of our DNA contains sequences that bear homology to a class of existing viruses called retroviruses (one example of a retrovirus is the AIDS virus, HIV). The viruses multiply by infecting an individual’s cells and inserting themselves into the cellular DNA. The cell’s machinery then makes more copies of the virus which go on to infect other cells and eventually get transmitted to other individuals. Once the virus has incorporated into the host’s cell DNA, it’s known as an endogenous virus. If the virus infects a sperm or an egg then it can be transmitted to all the cells of the offspring, and their offspring, and so on. Along the way in this process a virus may lose infectivity for several reasons and just become one more sequence of DNA.
This process seems to have happened multiple times during millions of years in the evolution of our ancestors. As a result today we have 5 times more viral DNA in our genome than we have genes coding for human proteins. However, as it turns out, this is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Endogenous viruses are just one class of elements that are called “transposable elements”. There are other classes of transposable elements that, like the viral elements, can transpose from one site in the DNA to another and get copied, but unlike the viral elements, these other transposable elements cannot leave the cell. There is uncertainty regarding the origin of these other transposable elements. Scientists have proposed that some of them evolved from viruses. Other transposable elements may have originated from endogenous molecules, but then acquired a parasitic independent life of their own. Be it as it may, all in all transposable elements comprise over 45% of our DNA, a whopping 30 times more DNA than that which is contained in the genes that code for human proteins! This calculation only takes into account transposable element sequences that can be recognized as such. It is very likely that the percentage is much higher, as many ancient transposable elements sequences in our genome have degraded due to mutation and other processes and are nowadays unrecognizable. It must also be pointed out that transposable elements are not only present in humans. All forms of life have transposable elements in their DNA, ranging from maize where transposable elements comprise 70% of the genome to bees where it is only 1%.
If DNA is indeed the blueprint to make and maintain a human being, what are we to make about this excess of alien DNA in our bodies? The answer can be found in evolution.
Transposable elements and organisms have coevolved through millions of years in an arms race where these elements sought to transpose and make more and more copies of themselves, and organisms sought to silence them lest they transpose to the middle of a vital gene compromising its function. Although transposable elements were very active in our evolutionary past, nowadays less than 0.05% of our transposable elements are still active, but their activity is associated with genetic diseases and even cancer.
However, this is half of the story. The other half is that organisms have figured out how to domesticate, modify, and co-opt transposable elements into important processes in our life cycles. For example, several genes of viral origin are used to make possible the development of the placenta. Without these genes we would not exist. Another example involves the adaptive immune system. To generate the diversity in antibodies necessary to fight off infection, immune cells employ a system derived from transposable elements. Without transposable elements forming part of our DNA we would not have a functioning adaptive immune system. We have also derived other benefits from transposable elements such as the expansion of our genomes with the creation of new genes and regulatory regions. In fact, transposable elements seem to have facilitated the very evolution of many species including ours.
So these transposable elements that in the past were separate entities that pursued their own agendas within the bodies of our ancestors are now part of who we are: the aliens within are us!
Creationists often claim that the complexity of life in our planet is evidence of a creator. They argue that the perfection observed in the many structures that make up the bodies of organisms can only be explained by the presence of a designer. Scientists, however, have repeatedly pointed out that the design of organisms does not have to be perfect, rather just good enough to allow them to survive and reproduce. In fact, scientists have found many flaws in the design of organisms which point to them being the result of a natural process. The critics of creation science argue that if these flawed structures had been designed by a creator, said entity would indeed be a very sloppy one.
Most of the debate regarding intelligent design seems to be centered on macroscopic structures such as the eye, but what if we focus on something much smaller and more fundamental? I am talking about DNA, the molecule that carries the blueprint of life. Can we find any evidence of intelligent design in DNA? To examine this let’s look at the organization of genes. Genes are the actual segments of DNA that carry the instructions that are used to make life happen. These genes have specific functions. Some are involved in energy metabolism, others are involved in the synthesis of proteins, others are involved in the transmission of signals, and so on. So my question is: how would a creator, as opposed to a natural process, organize the genes in the DNA molecule?
To use an analogy, let’s think of a person who has 500 books and wants to place them into shelves. A reasonable person would probably organize books together by categories such as detective stories, romance, science fiction, horror and so forth. This would take a certain amount of effort and discernment. On the other hand, a sloppy or lazy person, or a person employing a random system to distribute books would probably place them in the shelves with no discernible order. Does the DNA of even a single living thing display evidence of intelligence being involved in the organization of genes in their DNA molecules?
Well, you will be surprised to know that I have found one such example! In the figure below I present the DNA of a species of bacteria (this particular bacterial DNA is circular). As you can see, as in the above analogy of the books in the shelves, the genes are neatly organized into categories. All the genes involved in DNA metabolism (in yellow) are in one area of the DNA molecule, whereas all the genes involved in making transport and binding proteins (in purple) are in another area, and the same is true for genes with other functions and even genes that we have not yet classified or whose function is unknown to us!
So there can be no question about it. Here is irrefutable evidence of intelligent design. No natural process can account for the existence of this molecule. This DNA was designed by an entity with a consciousness (and a very well developed sense of tidiness). When it comes to the process that made the DNA of this bacterial species come into being, creationists are 100% right!
Unfortunately the designer of this bacterial DNA molecule is not God but a scientist named Craigh Venter. Dr. Venter and his team were trying to design a minimal bacterial genome to study the functions of genes that are required for life, and they wanted all genes organized in discrete units that they could move around. So (much in the same way that we defragment a computer to organize all the information that ends up scattered over its memory banks) they proceeded to defragment the bacterial DNA generating the one presented above. But, how did the initial bacterial DNA look? See the original figure below.
The original DNA is in the left hand side. The seemingly random scattershot organization of its genes is not unique to this bacterial DNA. All DNAs from all species of living things sequenced so far show this lack of organization of the genetic information into any overall cohesive pattern.
So now you know how real intelligent design looks: it looks like nothing that can be found in the natural world.
Illustrations taken from the presentation From Synthetic Life to Human Longevity by Dr. Craig Venter's at the Inaugural Scientific Symposium of the Center for Systems Biology Dresden (CSBD) on June 1st, 2017. The use of these illustrations is covered under the United States Copyright Law of Fair Use (Title 17 of the United States Code, Section 107).