Save Endangered Species? Why Bother?

ParrotsKeeping endangered species around is an icon of environmentalist efforts, but in perspective, is it worth it? Should endangered species be any priority to Christians? There are easy ways to jump to a yes or no, but these are really questions that require some careful thought. Neither scripture nor science offer simple answers.

Unfortunately, scripture doesn’t offer much direct advice on this sort of problem. This makes sense, because managing ecosystems from our modern global perspective would have been foreign to ancient authors. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any useful principles we can get from the Bible here.

I think two of the most important principles come from Genesis. In the first few chapters, we are shown that God’s attitude to creatures is that they are good creations. Furthermore, humans are given responsibility to rule over and manage the Earth. So isn’t it obvious that we should work hard to use our powers to preserve all species?

It’s easy jump to a yes at this point. Creatures are good, and according to our duty to take care of the planet, we should save endangered species. However, the reality isn’t so simple. I think that science offers some information we need to make an informed opinion here.

Earth is quickly losing biodiversity at present, but this isn’t the first time this has happened. In fact, the planet’s geological history shows 5 separate mass extinction events happening before the present. The one we probably hear about most is the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction that killed off the dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and many other species. But that isn’t even the biggest extinction in Earth’s history!

Amount of biodiversity on Earth through the history of life. absolute levels of biodiversity look lower in earlier periods, but that may be due to fewer fossils surviving from then. What is clear are 5 major drops in diversity.
Amount of biodiversity on Earth through the history of life. Absolute levels of biodiversity look lower in earlier periods, but that may be due to fewer fossils surviving from then. What is clear are 5 major drops in diversity. (Source)

Have a look at the above graph. The arrow pointing to the “Late Cretaceous” drop is the extinction event that infamously killed the dinosaurs. It’s a pretty big drop, but not the biggest. That award goes to the “Late Permian” extinction, which killed off a whopping 96% of all species on the planet! That’s quite the blow of biodiversity to recover from, but recovering is just what happened.

After every major extinction, the Earth’s biodiversity has always recovered. We understand pretty well that through the process of evolution new species arise. New life forms always emerge to take the place of old ones that go extinct. Our own form of life, mammals, seem to have used this opportunity. Mammals became more common precisely because other species like the dinosaurs weren’t around anymore to compete with.

This is the natural order of things: species come and species go. Even outside of major extinction events, there are always some species going extinct and others newly arising. That fact sounds downright ecclesiastical to me: “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the Earth remains forever” (ESV Ecclesiastes 1:4). Extinction isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and is part of the natural creative process of the evolution of biodiversity.

That’s not to say that extinction is always OK either. We don’t just have the responsibility to maintain the Earth as a very nice zoo, but we depend on biodiversity for our very survival. To survive, we need oxygen to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and low enough levels of dangerous chemicals like hydrogen sulfide around to not kill us. Not to mention how much of our economy depends on harvesting wildlife like fish, or growing crops. These are all services and supplies provided for us by the current balance of ecosystems around the world. Unfortunately, we’re more than capable of upsetting that balance.


A classic example is the crash of Atlantic Cod populations after decades of over-fishing. In the above graph, you can see that around 1965, over 800,000 tons of Atlantic cod were being harvested per year. That’s an enormous amount of food supply for us humans, not to mention the economic value to us! Atlantic cod are not extinct yet, but the population has crashed and has yet to recover. It seems that the balance of the ecosystem here has shifted indefinitely.

And that’s just one example of species prevalence affecting us. In recent years, bee colonies have been disappearing, which is certainly a threat to our food supplies. For decades now, toxic algae blooms have been poisoning life in our oceans and lakes due to chemical runoff from human activity and climate change. That’s just two more examples, but there are many possible ways for the situation on Earth to go terribly wrong. If these sorts of problems are not managed, the result could only be catastrophic death and suffering for human and animal life. I don’t think there is any debate that we have a responsibility to avoid that kind of outcome.

So there are probably endangered species we can afford to lose, and will just get replaced by new species over time. There are definitely other species that would cause big problems for us if they go extinct. It may be tempting at this point to think that we could just focus on managing the species that are important to us, but things aren’t so simple. Unfortunately for that plan, life exists in tangled webs of ecosystems and depend on each other to survive, and we only know so much about how those webs are connected.

What we do know is that rapid change is dangerous. All of those mass extinctions in Earth’s history were a result of big changes happening quickly: things like enormous asteroid impacts, poison gasses building up in the air, or out of control volcanic activity. The biggest threats to human and animal life and well-being are likely large-scale habitat destruction and human-induced climate change at the moment. If we lose lots of biodiversity quickly, there is a high risk of losing species important to our survival. Not to mention the general increase in death and suffering that major extinction events bring.

A Balanced View

Life is good, and biodiversity is both wonderful and useful to us. Loss of species can be sad, and if it is an important type of creature, it may even risk our health or well-being. But not all species loss is a terrible thing, and some is part of the normal creative process of new life forms evolving. Should we let a particular endangered species go extinct? Maybe it doesn’t matter, depending on the species. The best thing we can do for  all life is to try to manage the Earth to be as slow to change as possible. From a Christian perspective, I think this fits well with our call to be peacemakers as responsible rulers of this planet we depend on.



3 B-Movie Young Earth Ideas That Would Melt The Planet


Being a biologist and a Protestant Christian on the somewhat traditional/conservative side can be fuel for some interesting conversation. And frustration, but let’s stay positive. Occasionally I have the amusing experience of talking with someone who believes in a Young Earth and reacts to my dismissal of the idea with something like, “Creation Science is just as scientific as mainstream science.” Or, “You just haven’t read the Creation Science!” This reaction could be an explanation for why I dismiss it as unscientific, but I would suggest that the opposite is true.

It’s true that in the past decades Creation Science has enjoyed being an industry worth many millions of dollars, and well-educated people have been paid to produce Creation Science in that time. If there was a way the Earth could be young, these folks would have found it. But the truth is not “up for grabs,” and reality has a way of revealing itself when ideas are tested scientifically. Despite all the funding and popularity, the Young Earth hypothesis has a reliable problem: the oceans boiling and Earth melting. That is a big obvious hypothesis fail, at least in the world of doing real science.

But just because a Young Earth is trash science doesn’t mean there’s no entertainment value here! In truth, I sometimes enjoy reading YEC literature. I think I like reading them for the same reason I like awful B-grade disaster movies. Sure, it’s trash science, but seen in the right light, entertaining trash science! It can be a fun thought experiment.

Here are just a few YEC ideas that somehow made it from the reject B-movie plot bin into the Creation Science bin:

Limestone Inferno!

Ever mixed concrete and felt it heat up? That’s a chemical reaction releasing heat as energy. To make the concrete ingredient that causes the heating (lime), limestone is heated up in a furnace, and some of that chemically stored heat energy gets released when you mix the concrete. It’s possible to turn lime back into limestone through another chemical reaction, and that releases heat too. The process of forming limestone is a well-understood chemical reaction, and we know exactly how much heat it releases.

This heat release becomes problem when we try to squeeze formation of the Earth’s limestone into a YEC timespan. It’s especially a problem because YEC organizations routinely try to squeeze the Earth’s enormous limestone formations into being a product of a global flood. Here’s the math for your viewing pleasure, as also seen over at Talk Origins in a great article by Mark Isaak:

  • The formation of calcite (limestone) produces 11,290 joules/gram of heat
  • The Earth has 5 X 10^23 g of limestone
  • Therefore, just 10% of Earth’s limestone forming during a year-long global flood would produce 5.6 X 10^26 joules of heat.

Now, it takes 4,184 joules to heat 1 Liter of water 1 degree Celsius. That works out to increasing 1.195 X 10^21 Liters of water by 100 degrees Celsius. That’s enough heat to boil the Earth’s oceans. In comparison, the Earth only gets about 4.4 X 10^16 joules of heat from the sun every year. I suppose all that energy wouldn’t be released in one day, but at best it would raise the water temperature enough to kill off aquatic life.

If limestone slowly boiling all things alive sounds like an awful movie, trust me, it’s worse as a scientific explanation for limestone.

So Much Lava!

In the same article, Mark Isaak also points out that there is a ton of rock formed from lava mixed in with all those layers supposedly made by a flood. There is enough to release at least another 5.4 X 10^27 joules of heat. That’s also more than enough to boil the oceans. Along with the limestone heat, things would get pretty steamy for Noah.

Any rational scientist would reject this hypothesis far before this point. Admittedly, though, lava does make for a more exciting disaster movie than limestone.

Deadly Radiation Increase!

rate-b-movieI’m pretty sure this one is similar to an episode of Gilligan’s Island. The Institute for Creation Research funded a program called RATE (Radioisotopes and the Age of The Earth) to try to cast doubt on mainstream radiometric dating. Here’s what they say about the findings:

“The RATE book is a definitive resource on radioactive dating for every scientist’s library, whether evolutionist or creationist. It examines radioisotope theory, exposes its plaguing problems, and offers a better alternative.”

Sounds pretty optimistic about their findings, eh? Their hypothesis was that the reason rocks look so old according  to radiometric tests is because radioactive elements used to decay faster. ICR claims that this is a better hypothesis than an Old Earth, and somehow they keep a straight face. Admittedly, this is pretty much the only possible way to escape the super obvious and unambiguous evidence that radiometric testing gives us for an old Earth. But here we get the same problem: squeezing 4.5 billion years of radiation into less than 10,000 years is pretty spicy.

Joe Meert has kindly done the math on this, and the result is an Earth surface temperature well above the 1200 degrees Celsius needed to melt it. If the heat didn’t kill you, the radiation would. This is trash science,  and probably a trash B-movie too. All the main characters would die.


A Young Earth hypothesis gets rejected every time in scientific terms. As it turns out, cramming 4.55 billion years of aging into a few thousand years is an enormous energy release. These are not just bad ideas scientifically, they are Sharknado bad. The above three things are just a small sample of all the ways YEC ideas would cook the planet. How did the mountains form? Where did all the flood water come from and go? Running these numbers is a routine part of testing a scientific hypothesis, but apparently these honest tests just aren’t a concern. A young Earth is an understandable interpretation of the Bible, but scientifically one would never conclude a young Earth.

It’s true that there are a few more mundane YEC hypotheses, but my favorite are definitely the ones where the Earth melts. It’s just so much more spectacular. I can only assume that these YEC organizations have been raiding the dumpster behind a B-movie studio for plot ideas.

Scientific Introduction to Gender for The Concerned Christian

Many conservative Christian writers seem absolutely baffled and outraged about modern discussion about gender. I frequently see authors making statements like, “such and such a person claims to be a boy despite, in fact, being biologically female!” Here in Alberta, there has recently been at least one group expressing concern that new sex ed curriculum is teaching kids anti-Christian ideas. If that is true, I think we can all understand that concern.

But I suspect this outrage stems from some misunderstanding about what gender is. For example, the conservative Christian organization Focus on The Family fails to properly define the term “gender” at all. Despite talking at length about their opinions on gender issues, they define gender as:

“a term borrowed from linguistics by the psychology profession, starting in the 1950’s and ’60s. Until then, the noun “sex” was used to specify male or female.”

Well, sex does specify male or female to this day, as a matter of fact. So that’s a pretty awful and confusing definition, which can only cloud discussion. What does gender mean? Without a clear definition of what psychologists and sociologists mean by the word “gender,” it’s easy to see why a female claiming manliness could seem absurd. Fortunately, good definitions can clear up a lot of confusion and concern. So here’s an introduction to gender for the concerned Christian.

Scientific Considerations

The American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes “Gender” defined as follows:

Gender refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as gender-normative; behaviors that are viewed as incompatible with these expectations constitute gender non-conformity.

So Gender is how we think men or women should feel or behave. It’s about what you DO. This is the stuff like women wearing dresses and men wearing pants. Some cultures involve men leading, being tough, chopping firewood or whatever. Other cultures have a lot more emphasis on women being leaders and men taking care of family members. Even within Christianity, there are different perspectives on what manliness and womanliness should look like. The above definition of gender just says it’s a thing that different people have different ideas about, but doesn’t say anything about who is right.

This is a great, objective, and scientifically accurate definition of the word “gender.” And as Neil Degrasse Tyson has said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” One Christian group may disagree with another on what different genders should do according to God, but it would be a bit dishonest to pretend the word “gender” doesn’t mean what the APA explains.

While we’re talking scientific definitions, here are two more related useful definitions from the APA:

“Sex refers to a person’s biological status and is typically categorized as male, female or intersex. There are a number of indicators of biological sex, including sex chromosomes, gonads, internal reproductive organs and external genitalia.”

“Gender identity refers to one’s sense of oneself as male, female or something else. When one’s gender identity and biological sex are not congruent, the individual may identify along the transgender spectrum.”

So sex is whatever assemblage of reproductive parts you happen to have, gender is what we expect people with that collection of parts to be like, and gender identity is what gender a person actually experiences. The scientific fact of the matter is that gender identity and biological sex don’t always line up. In fact, they seldom line up in some sort of “ideal” sense where a person’s gender identity is the total extreme of their gender. Most men are not the extreme manly-man, who enjoys bear wrestling after he finishes leading an expedition to discover more beard-oil. In any culture, people tend to have some mix of traits associated with different genders.

This is nothing more than an objective scientific view at the facts of the matter. So far, nothing about this offers any serious conflict with any Christian ideas. If facts do conflict with your ideas, the truth-committed individual should do the scientific thing and throw those ideas out. But I suspect that this does not actually conflict with most Christians. The real conflict comes up when we leave the realm of scientific investigation describing nature and start thinking religiously about ideals and values.

Theological Considerations

It seems to be mostly Christians on the conservative end of the spectrum who are really concerned about how society is dealing with gender issues. There is real concern that it is morally right for males to be manly and females to be womanly, and that secular scholarship on the issue is somehow undermining this. I hope that the above definitions of sex, gender, and gender identity can at least ease the fear that modern scholars on this issue are being anything but scientific.  It is not some anti-Christian agenda that says some people’s gender identity do not align with their sex. It’s just the fact of the matter. There is no reason that fact cannot be acknowledged and still hold to moral ideas of gender identity aligning with sex. The objective scientific view does not agree with this moral commentary, but it doesn’t condemn it either.

However, there is still the concern about whether or not this situation is morally good. As I’ve said above, there is diversity of opinion within Christendom on that question, and arguing who is more right is outside the scope of this post. I will say that there are interesting and compelling arguments made by Christians on multiple sides of the issue. And I don’t think we need to fear or avoid each other for disagreeing, but should try to benefit each other through honest respectful discussion. Only ignorance needs to fear knowledge.

Hopefully a clear understanding of gender can relieve some of the Christian concern about it. Here’s to less confusion, less fear, and more productive discussion.

The Sin of Reading Rags (Or, Don’t Click That Link!)

vintage-rag-headerTabloid newspapers have been with us for many years now, reporting the latest celebrity gossip, conspiracy theories, and propaganda. It’s certainly trash reporting, which is why they’ve gotten the title of “Rags,” but it’s mostly harmless trash. But with the advent of the internet, there is a new spin on the old game of gossip and conspiracy theory: build a website that is a space for like-minded folks to get together and say nasty things about non-like-minded folks.

Reading rags like this is wildly popular! It appeals to the narcissistic corners of our souls. Just look how ridiculous those conservatives are. How could anyone be so stupid? They’re almost as bad as those progressives. Have they no common sense? These generalizations about others are really easy to make as long as you stay inside the echo-chamber of the rag. Psychology shows us that we humans have a tendency to make generalizations about other groups, and to dislike them. But we have good reason to resist these tendencies.

I’ve been on both ends of the political spectrum. I grew up in a very right-wing family, and have slowly made my way to the left/center as I’ve gone along in life. I’m still essentially the same person as I was on the right. I absolutely think I used to be wrong on quite a few things I’ve since changed my mind on. But I know I was trying just as hard to be a good, thoughtful, decent person then as I am now. I’ve just come to different conclusions with different evidence. It would be ridiculous to hate myself for having been honestly mistaken. If the goal of Christina conduct is to “love your neighbor as yourself,” it would be ridiculous to hate others for also being honestly mistaken.

Sure, there are some genuinely evil people out there. People just too empirically dangerous to have anything to do with. Some have a fierce commitment to being rotten. But let’s be honest: such people are the minority. No broad brush painting a whole group of people with a particular political leaning as evil could possibly miss many good honest people too.

Many writers see no need to pay heed to inconvenient facts like that. Just a few clicks away you can find an article about how happy women would be if washing machines weren’t invented and they had to stay home doing laundry like good right-wingers. Elsewhere you’ll find that all pro-lifers are just plain crazy right wing nuts. Apparently all scientist who believe in evolution just don’t ask questions. Another writer is so steeped in hate that he couldn’t even announce the healthy birth of his child without a disparaging remark thrown towards those darn millenials. As ridiculous as it sounds, these are all real articles. And these sorts of articles are common at their sources.


Is this any kind of Christian attitude? Should our focus ever be, “Look how awful those other people are”?

There is no way to reconcile these rags with the Jesus who said “Love your enemies.” We should be saying, “Look how human those other people are,” or “Look how much like us they are.” If we believe someone to be wrong about something we might ask, “What is this person’s perspective? What are they missing? How can I communicate better with them?” If you agree with a rag, it can only encourage you to hate others more. If you disagree with a rag, it can only make you angry at being misrepresented.

But just reading the rags isn’t the end of the trouble. These websites make money off of you reading the stuff. More if you share it with others. Just by clicking that link, you’re literally paying someone to say nasty things about others. By sharing a link, you’re increasing its search engine traffic. There is currently no way around this side-effect.

These people are not making chump change either. These people are making hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars from people visiting their flaming piles of dog crap. It doesn’t matter if you agree with the content or not; visiting the site makes them get paid more from advertising companies.

Consider that a website that can get 400 K visits per year can reasonably bring home $100 K in revenue to its owner. How many clicks do professional partisans get per year? For some, millions.

That many visits means a ton of cash in advertising revenue. It is true that none of these sources exclusively write irrational hate for the “other”, but let’s be honest, it’s a big part of their business. Trying to help people understand each other and work together in a civil society is not a big part of their business.

Being loving is the business of Christianity. Understanding others, and thus being careful to not bear false witness against them, is the business of Christianity. The cultural environment within the church is yours and mine to build; let’s be sure to take that responsibility and make it a place where hate is absolutely unwelcome. We can’t always stop people from being hateful, but we don’t have to pay them to do it.

So don’t read that rag. Don’t click that link, nor share it. I know how enticing it is to find out the details behind that inflammatory headline, but it is the duty of Christians to be peace-makers, not hater payers.


Sola Scriptura Needs Science for Sanity


Science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria that cannot comment on each other’s business, according to evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. One cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” according to philosopher David Hume. Taking these commonly held ideas together, one might think that scientific investigations have nothing important to add when thinking about theology.

Critics of these ideas point out that the goal of moral and theological reasoning is to comment on the real world. How can scientific facts not affect how we should live? On the flip-side, if our theology is true, how can it not intersect practically with natural reality? The trouble is that if some theological idea is thought up in a completely abstract manner–far from contact with any physical reality–it’s not hard to drift off into some bizarre territory.

But that sort of drifting around in crazy town is an unfortunate tendency of Protestant traditions, where “Sola Scriptura” is an important principle. Take John Piper for example. Piper has some pretty specific ideas about how he thinks men and women are supposed to be, which he has derived from his interpretation of scripture. But have a look at what he has to say in this article about how men “should” behave:

“suppose Jason knows that Sarah has a black belt in karate and could probably disarm the assailant better than he could. Should he step back and tell her to do it? No. He should step in front of her and be ready to lay down his life to protect her, irrespective of competency. It is written on his soul. That is what manhood does.”

So according to Piper, men “should” get killed and then allow the surviving woman to competently take care of a threat rather than just letting a competent woman defend both of them. Apparently, “manhood” is more important than life itself. It’s a statement that would seem absolutely bizarre to anyone standing outside of Piper’s echo-chamber of completely abstract reasoning. Life is good, and important. Zero deaths is better than the death of a fragile “manhood.” This is not a complicated moral calculus. The solution is obvious from an empirical standpoint. But in the land of purely abstract thinking, where men and women acting in certain ways are abstract values of critical importance, it doesn’t seem so bizarre.

It honestly makes me sad to see Piper so off the deep end. I can remember reading Desiring God years ago, and still think there is some great stuff in there. Times and people change, I guess, as well as our perceptions of them.

Piper is far from alone in the history of Protestants refusing to consider the value of scientific conclusions. Well into the 20th century, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) still had at least one major theologian arguing for geocentricism. That’s about 400 years since Copernicus argued for a heliocentric solar system. Seem silly? Not in the land of Sola Scriptura minus Science:

“It is unworthy of a Christian to interpret Scripture, which he knows to be God’s own Word, according to human opinions (hypotheses), and that includes the Copernican cosmic system, or to have others thus to interpret Scripture to him.” – Franz Pieper (Christian Dogmatics, vol. 1, page 473)

Substitute “Copernican cosmic system” for “Modern theory of Evolution” and this sort of thinking will still pass in LCMS today. It’s par for the course in many conservative Protestant churches.

So what’s the solution? Ignoring concrete reality when working out theology is a great way to go off the deep end. I would suggest that there is an important relationship between physical facts and spiritual realities. Christians certainly ought to derive their values from a careful interpretation of scripture. But there must be the humility of realizing that any conclusions we make are interpretations. Assuming there is any truth at all, some interpretations will be better than others. There is always the serious possibility of being wrong. Even insanely wrong.

If a well understood and strongly supported scientific idea disagrees with a theological interpretation, the theology might be wrong.  Science clearly shows that the Earth orbits the sun, not the other way around. A man preserving his life by not going on a useless suicide mission to stand in the way of a far more combat-competent woman defending herself is obviously the better option. Refusing to admit the scientific/empirical voice into the conversation here not only makes a mockery of Christianity, but it can be downright dangerous.

That’s why all serious theological reasoning needs to take physical findings into account. Physical findings cannot conclude abstract values, but they must inform how we apply our values. We are physical people living in a physical world. We can use physical facts to investigate how to apply our value of human life to early stages of development and concepts of personhood. Research findings can discover how best to help and counsel victims of abuse. Science is an essential ingredient in understanding our reality and how to love our neighbors.

Christians need science and scripture when working out our theology. All truth is God’s truth, and we need all the truth we can get.

Evolve Your Own Army of Drunken Walkers and Other Educational Evolution Simulators

Want to understand evolution better, or explain it handily to others? Evolution simulators can be a great way to explain the concepts in an easy-to-understand way. I’m hoping to run a short discussion series on different Christian perspectives on evolution and human origins at my university this spring, and the first goal will have to be making sure everyone understands what evolution actually is. Given the huge differences in understanding and acceptance of evolution between life scientists and members of conservative Protestant churches in North America, this is an important conversation to have.

To that end, I’ve collected a few neat evolution simulators to help explain some concepts. These won’t give you a full understanding of how evolution works, but they are handy and fun ways to understand some of the concepts better.

Rednuht Genetic Walkers
This is definitely the most silly/fun evolution simulator I’ve found. The premise is that a bunch boxy humanoids start in a standing position, and more-or-less randomly move their limbs to walk. They are very bad at walking. The most successful walker is the one who manages to get the farthest. The race ends when all of the drunken walkers have fallen over, and the next generation spawns. The winner is cloned a bunch of times in the new generation, and also randomly mutates in some cases to act differently. Over time, more successful mutants develop and get less terrible at walking. Essentially, this is a computer learning to play QWOP by using brute force problem solving.

Some of my evolved walkers. The guy on the left is about 1 second from a faceplant.

Besides the delight of watching hundreds of boxy humans fall on their faces, this also demonstrates a couple important points of how evolution works:

1. Optimization based on “success”: Here “success” means getting chosen by the program after walking the farthest. In biology, “success” means reproducing. Whoever reproduces the most for the next generation “wins” and individuals like the winners end up more represented in the future generation.

2. Brute-force problem solving: Mutations are the random outcomes of chemistry, so evolving a way to get more “success” is a brute-force process of making guesses at a solution. As a result, the solutions aren’t always very elegant, but they do work. This is a bit more apparent in the Rednuht Genetic Cars program. The best cars can be pretty awful, but manage to limp along the farthest and win the race.


Bacteria MEGA Plate Experiment

Researchers over at Harvard set up this experiment to show how evolution occurs over space and time. It’s pretty spectacular! The set-up is a huge agar gel (sort of like Jello, only for bacteria to grow on). Stronger doses of an antibiotic are in the gel towards the center. Each time the bacteria reach the frontier of a stronger antibiotic dose there is a pause in growth until some mutant can grow in the stronger dosed area. There are different solutions to the same problem (as seen in evolving cars or walkers above). Eventually some mutants always manage to find a way to adapt.

I think this is my favorite tool for explaining evolution some concepts of, because it shows so much so simply:

1. Brute-force problem solving: The bacteria were genetically analyzed after the experiment, and different solutions were mutated to solve the same problems. Some of these mutated solutions let some strains grow faster than others, while other solutions led to slower growth but were a quicker solution when faced with a stronger dose of antibiotic.

2. Biogeography and niche filling: Getting to the center of the plate isn’t the only way to “win” for the bacteria here. It’s just one way of winning. Some bacteria lived happily on the edges with no antibiotic around, and that’s a win for them. The wide-open frontier of unused space (niche) in the middle is an opportunity for mutants, and that’s a win for them. The end result is different bacteria filling different spaces in the environment. We see the same thing everywhere in the world, with life finding different ways to live in pretty much all the different environments found on Earth.

Genetic and physical map of the different bacteria strains evolved during the experiment.
Genetic and physical map of the different bacteria strains evolved during the experiment.

3. Cladistic nested hierarchy: At the end of the experiment, lines are drawn in the video to show the different branches of mutations that showed up. This branching pattern is called a nested hierarchy, and it’s the result of multiple speciation events from a common ancestor. We see the same pattern when comparing genes from many different types of creatures. That makes common descent a pretty obvious conclusion.

A nested hierarchy of the gene for making vitamin C. Figure adapted from Biologos at:
A nested hierarchy of the gene for making vitamin C among some mammals. Figure adapted from Biologos at:

Red Lynx Population Genetics Simulator
This is the most powerful evolution simulator I’ve found, but it’s unfortunately also the least entertaining. Red Lynx considers how an allele (version of a genes) behaves in a population over time. It lets you specify mutation rate, population size, # of generations, migration, allele dominance, allele starting frequency, and selection strength. Once set, the program calculates the outcome and gives you a tidy graph. If you’re familiar with the Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium Law, you can set it to evolve the way you want. Or you can just experiment with the settings and see how different factors affect evolution.

Here are some examples:
1. Genetic Drift: With a low population, even completely neutral alleles can end up completely dominant (fixed) or get cleaned out of the population entirely. This random fluctuation of allele frequency in a population is called genetic drift. Small populations drift more than larger populations.

Three runs of Red Lynx with a low population (800). The allele has no advantage, but becomes the only allele in the population 2 out of 3 times.
Three runs of Red Lynx with a low population (800). The allele has no advantage, but becomes the only allele in the population 2 out of 3 times.

2: Selective forces: Since it’s inception, selection has been the name of the game in evolution. All else being equal, even a small level of selection can drastically shape a population over time.


Those are the best evolution simulators I’ve found so far, but I’m always keen to find new ones. Evolution might be the most misunderstood scientific concept in North America, so there is still a long way for science education to go here. Easy to understand examples are a great way to address the problem. If any readers find other cool evolution simulators, do let me know!

The Myth of The Perfect Genome

Most of us in modern times know that DNA makes up the biological blueprints for life. Genome is the word for all of a person’s DNA. Unfortunately, sometimes a person’s DNA includes instructions that cause disease. There is a popular idea that this problem is a result of mutations taking us away from having a “perfect” genome. This idea of a perfect genome goes along well with some readings of the Bible that would conclude humans were created perfect and without disease at some point. Since that time we are supposedly getting worse and more diseased, somehow due to sin. But there is a big problem with this idea of a perfect genome: it is a complete myth. There is no such thing as perfect biology.

Perfection vs. Optimization

Consider how you would design a car. What is the perfect car? Maybe a so-called “perfect” car would have all of the things we want most. It might be super fast,  have great handling, high acceleration, be cheap to buy, have super high gas mileage, a great sound-system, etc. All the bells and whistles. But can we actually build that car?

In reality, we can’t. If we want high acceleration and speed, we have to give up some gas mileage benefits. If we want low cost, we probably have to give up some of the sound-system. In order to get any benefit we need to give up some of a different benefit; everything is a trade-off. It’s important to note here that this is not a result of sin in any meaningful way. Instead, it’s just a logical consequence of not having infinite power and resources at our disposal.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t get cars we are very happy with. The car I drive is “perfect” for me in the sense that it’s everything I need it to be, but for a person with different needs it would be a pretty awful car. “Optimal” is a far more accurate word for describing my car than “perfect.” An optimal car may not have the infinite power and resources to do literally anything, but an optimal car balances getting me the most possible things I need from it with the trade-offs that are available to me. I don’t have a super fast car, but I don’t need to go fast. I don’t have a lot of money, so I happily trade off high speed for low cost.

“Perfect” really isn’t an accurate word to describe cars or biology. “Optimal” is a far better word. “Perfect” often carries the idea of goodness or rightness in some moral or spiritual sense that can certainly appeal to a religious perspective of the world. But physics knows no perfection, it knows only optimization.

The Optimal Genome

Cars make a relatively simple example, but how about genetics? If we are healthy, it may be easy to think of ourselves as being “perfect” genetically. But genetic change is not deviation from some perfection. In biology we see the same concept as we saw in cars: there is no perfect genome, only an optimal genome for a particular situation.

Consider the allele (version of a gene) that causes Sickle Cell Anemia. Ordinarily our red blood cells are a nice round shape with a dip in the middle, almost like a doughnut with a hole not quite punched all the way through. But in someone who carries two copies (homozygous) of the Sickle Cell mutation, red blood cells tend to get all misshapen and clog up blood vessels. This is both painful and life-threatening, so the Sickle Cell mutation is not too optimal right?

. Some normal and sickle red blood cells. Photo by OpenStax College - Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web site., Jun 19, 2013., CC BY 3.0,
Some normal and sickle red blood cells. Photo by OpenStax College – Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web site., Jun 19, 2013., CC BY 3.0,

Wrong. The Sickle Cell mutation isn’t all bad, it’s just a trade-off that most of us here in North America don’t need. People who have one copy of the Sickle Cell mutation don’t get the bad effects of the Sickle Cell allele, but they do get a natural resistance to malaria. This means that in places like Africa where malaria is common, carrying one copy of the Sickle Cell mutation gives you a pretty great benefit. The only risk is if you have kids with someone else who carries the gene then each child you have has a 25% chance of suffering from Sickle Cell Anemia. Malaria is deadly, so in areas where malaria is common, the benefits can outweigh the costs. People in malaria heavy regions are more likely to carry at least one copy of the Sickle Cell mutation

Shaed areas show how common the Sickle Cell allele is in climates where malaria is common. Photo by Muntuwandi at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Shaded areas show how common the Sickle Cell allele is in climates where malaria is common. Photo by Muntuwandi at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

On the other hand, here in North America, the Sickle Cell mutation offers no benefit and only a cost. An optimal genome here is not the same as an optimal genome in Africa. The forces of evolution are constantly shaping what genes are common in a population, so the Sickle Cell allele is far more common in people in places like Africa than here in North America. Over time, populations evolve to get rid of strictly harmful mutations completely. Evolution knows no perfect genome, but is an efficient optimizer. Optimization through evolution  is the reality that we see in the modern study of genetics.

So No Perfect Genome?

In light of all of the above, there really can’t be such a thing as a perfect genome. What contributes to health in one situation will always contribute to disease in another. A “perfect” genome is like a square circle: just nonsense.

However, there is something to the spirit behind the myth. From a Christian perspective, we see that God describes creation as “good” in the early chapters of Genesis. Life should be good, we think. A life created by following an optimized blueprint is the best life to be had for a limited creature. Certainly not everyone’s DNA is optimal, and not every life is as healthy and good as we would hope. But I don’t think the Christian hope lies in having been created perfect in some way, but rather in being sustained, redeemed, and renewed by a good God who is perfect in every way.


Talking to Evolutionists: 9 Thoughts for Creationists

part-2-headerIf there’s a lot of pessimism among evolutionists about the productivity of trying to talk to creationists, there’s at least as much pessimism among creationists. Many times I’ve heard (or made, in my YEC days) comments about how such discussions with those of us who have “drunk the evolution kool-aid” are a waste of time. But why should conversation about a topic important to all parties involved ever be a waste of time? I’m an optimist here: I think the only limit to productive conversation is lack of love and charity for one another. That shouldn’t be too hard for Christians, right? Well, here are some thoughts for how creationists can help make that happen.

1. Ask Questions Earnestly

Things like “10 Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution” are a staple of YEC rhetoric. Asking questions can be a great way of probing the validity of an idea, and of learning more about it. Unfortunately, a lot of the time these questions are just asked to try to stump an evolutionist in order to jump to a preferred conclusion. If there is an answer, the person trying to stump the other isn’t really interested in it, or learning at all, and just jumps to the next attempt at stumping. This is frustrating for everyone involved. Only ask questions if you want to know the answers.

2. Do Proper Research Before Making an Argument

There is a tendency among some YEC folks to basically copy and paste arguments from their favorite YEC website. This is done without taking the time to actually understand the argument they are making thoroughly, or checking for how the broader scientific community would answer the argument. This type of arguing is a rude waste of time, but can be easily spotted in just about any online forum by probably most YEC folks participating. Doing proper research is hard work, and if someone doesn’t do any of that hard work before making an argument, other people are forced to do ALL of that hard work in order to have a conversation. Rude, dude.

3. Know How Much You Don’t Know

There’s nothing wrong with not being an expert in something. At best, each of us is an expert in a few things. I personally know quite a bit about biology, and even a thing or two about chemistry. However, it would be somewhat silly if I were to go about confidently disagreeing with physicists about something like the validity of Cosmic Inflation Theory when I don’t even have a high-school level physics understanding. It is unfortunately a human tendency to think we know more than we do, so let’s always work hard to maintain our humility.

4. Know You Are Honestly Seeking The Truth

Great! Good for you. So are most other people. There certainly are some dishonest folks around, but I can’t have much of a productive conversation with someone bent on thinking I disagree with them because I’m too proud/not listening/not committed to seeking the truth/etc. You can’t have a productive conversation about anything with that attitude. You can have a productive conversation about everything if we start with “I think you are honestly mistaken” instead of “I think you’re evil.”

5. Don’t Wast Time Talking with Uncharitable People

Not everyone can have a conversation on the basis of thinking you are honestly mistaken. I wouldn’t waste time disagreeing about Theism with someone as caustic as Richard Dawkins, and YEC people shouldn’t waste time disagreeing with folks like that about evolution or the age of the Earth.

6. Disagreeing with Scientific Consensus is Fine. Being A Jerk Is Not.

Just because you disagree with the vast majority of experts doesn’t necessarily make you wrong. Disagreement is encouraged in science, so if you think you’ve got a great (yet unpopular) idea, then by all means pursue it. For example: creationists have been welcome to present their research at the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union. On the other hand, being a jerk about disagreeing is not welcome in academia, and it shouldn’t be welcome in the church either. It’s never okay to make accusations about the integrity or faith of another person just for having a different perspective.

7. Making Accusations Can Be Fine, But It’s Tough to Do.

Let’s be honest, there are dishonest people out there, and the cause of love and charity does not tie our hands against calling that out. However, we need to always keep in mind the threat of bearing false witness against one another. There are certainly some YEC scientists that I have no problem calling liars, because a) they repeatedly misrepresent facts I can easily verify and b) they have enough education that I have strong reason to believe they know better than what they are saying. The same can be said about some scientists representing just about any perspective. That isn’t an easy standard of evidence to reach in all cases, but it’s necessary to keep oneself honest.

8. Stay On Topic

There is an unfortunate tendency in YEC rhetoric to jump from one topic to the next very quickly without fully addressing anything. This is sort of like point #2 (above) on steroids. This technique, dubbed the Gish Gallop, is nothing to be proud of in YEC history. To have a productive conversation, pick something specific to argue about and then stick to that until it’s been fully discussed.

9. Good Conversations Take Time

Unlike the Gish Gallop, have a good, productive, respectful conversation takes time. A lot of time. If you don’t have a lot of time for it, maybe skip out on discussing this sort of thing at all. There are plenty of other valuable things to do, so there’s no reason to feel bad about skipping this one. But if you do take the time to make the long trip from one perspective to another, even if only for an intellectual visit, it can certainly be well worth your while.

Talking To Creationists: 10 Thoughts For Non-Creationists

Talking to CreationistsThere can be an awful lot of pessimism about talking to creationists. Young Earth Creationism (YEC) is a fairly common view in North America, and unfortunately conversation on the topic often generates more heat than light. There are tons of articles out there discussing the validity of the YEC view, but it seems there is precious little said about the business of people actually talking to creationists. Unfortunately, talking to creationists often involves quite a bit of uncharitable things being said. I’ve spent about a decade thinking and talking about the issue (half of that as a YEC myself), and have noticed a few things I find helpful for increasing the light and decreasing the heat. Here are 10 things to keep in mind if you’re a non-YEC person who wants talking to creationists to not be a waste of time:

1. Creationists are usually good, honest, intelligent people.

Most creationists are not dishonest or unintelligent, and probably have about as good a grasp on things like evolution as the average non-YEC person. A few even have post-secondary science education. Your conversation partner is probably just an honest person the same as you only with a different set of facts; treat them like you would want to be treated. Love your neighbor as yourself.

2. Understand the underlying epistemology.

How can honest educated people be YEC? It’s because of their epistemological balance. Science is one way of knowing things, and faith is understood as another. If YEC is the only possible conclusion to your faith, it’s entirely possible to value that above even the most obvious scientific conclusions; remember that science is not capable of achieving 100% certainty, even though 99.99% is pretty good. That might be hard to understand if you’ve never been a YEC person, but it can definitely be a rational conclusion. YEC Biologist Dr. Todd Wood is a great example of this.

3. Be honest about your perspective.

I personally have enough education to see quite clearly that we can be as scientifically certain about common descent as we can be about the Earth orbiting the Sun. Most YEC people disagree with that assessment. There’s no sense beating around the bush here; I see what I see, and they see what they see. It would be disingenuous for any of us to pretend otherwise.

4. Make the conversation goal about learning instead of converting.

Because of the epistemological balance, someone can understand how unequivocally science points to an old Earth and common descent and still conclude as a YEC. Don’t be surprised if their mind isn’t changed. Unless a Christian can see a rational way of understanding the Bible in a non-young Earth way, they might just never change their mind. But if one or both of you get a better understanding of the scientific evidence or scripture in the process of talking, that’s still a great thing. There’s lots to learn, and learning is a lot more fun for everyone than being frustrated that someone doesn’t agree with you.

5. Know that a good conversation is a time commitment.

Most people don’t have significant training in Biology, Geology, or other relevant topics, including people who accept an old Earth and common descent. Any productive conversation may be long and require careful study and long explanations. There is an awful lot of ground to cover. Productive conversation on this topic requires some time commitment, so know that going into conversation. If you don’t have time for it, don’t waste what time you have. Doing drive-by’s on blogs is likely not going to change anyone’s mind.

6. Be a good friend and listen.

Listen to them. I know how clear the evidence is. I know that the chances of a YEC person having some evidence or question that actually shows a young Earth is as likely as someone showing that geocentricism is true. You still need to be a good friend and listen carefully to their points and questions. YEC people often have some great interesting questions that you may have never thought of! Talking to creationists can be a chance to learn something new and interesting.

7. Choose your conversation medium carefully.

Choose your medium carefully; blowing up a blog comment section is probably not a way to easily have an in-depth conversation. Maybe a Facebook PM, email, or in-person conversation would give the proper space for this. Also remember that many people are much stronger at communicating either in-person or in writing. Play to your strengths, and respect other peoples’ strengths too.

8. Focus on being specific.

It’s easy for conversations to be a waste of time if every topic is only gets a shallow treatment. Evidence is very easily dismissed when it is very poorly understood. Don’t leave a topic until it’s well understood. If someone isn’t willing to be specific and try to understand things well, don’t waste your time talking to them.

9. Not everyone is ready to talk or think about this issue.

Even if you’re up to having this sort of conversation, not everyone else is. A lot of the rhetoric of YEC leaders is extremely polarizing and involves all kinds of uncharitable accusations about the honesty and faith of scientists and other Christians interpreting the scientific and scriptural evidence in a non-YEC way. It’s such a part of that sub-culture that many otherwise charitable people will talk this way without necessarily realizing what sort of rhetoric they are using. Don’t waste your time. You (hopefully) are trying your best to understand the truth about scripture and science with the knowledge you have. Anyone who can’t accept that can’t have a conversation about this. It’s OK to just end a conversation if you aren’t being treated fairly.

10. Try to be gracious.

You’ll probably get treated unfairly some of the time, even by great people. That’s just part of the subculture, and the Dunning-Kruger effect doesn’t help. We all fall for that sort of thing sometimes, so let’s try hard to be self-aware and give the benefit of the doubt where you can. Hopefully others will do the same for you.

If you keep those 10 things in mind, hopefully talking to creationists can be a good experience for everyone involved. Talking to creationists productively can be done, as long as it can be done peacefully and charitably. Sometimes that means turning down a lot of unpromising conversation opportunities. Stay tuned for an upcoming post for YEC folks talking with us Evolution types!


The Low Down: A New Review On Sexuality In The New Atlantis Has Conservatives Talking

Study Cover PhotoThis morning LCMS posted a link to an article with an article by Ryan T. Anderson with a flashy headline: “Almost everything the media tell you about sexual orientation and gender identity is wrong.” LCMS doesn’t seem ever to do any significant critical scientific evaluation of the sources it uses, and other conservative outlets (especially Roman Catholic ones) seem to be all over the article too, so I figured a quick review was in order. Here’s the low down.

All the fuss is about a new item called “Sexuality and Gender: findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences,” and was published in the journal The New Atlantis. It was authored by Dr. Lawrence S. Mayer (PhD) and Dr. Paul R. McHugh (MD). The item itself is meta-analysis. This is a sort of research where scientists don’t do any original research; they just review large amounts of studies on a particular topic and try to spot major trends and gaps in knowledge. A meta-analysis is basically just figuring out what we know and don’t know about an issue. Because this sort of thing looks at so many studies, a well-done meta-analysis can be one of the strongest levels of evidence for an idea that there can be in science. So this is potentially big news. Here’s a quick look at what’s going on.

The Journal

The journal itself, The New Atlantis, isn’t a peer reviewed publication from what I can tell. Peer review isn’t a perfect process; in fact, it can actually be kind of a low bar. If your work can’t pass  as competently put-together upon review by someone who is qualified to work on the topic your project is on, that’s likely because it’s trash. That does not mean that The New Atlantis is trash, nor does it mean this particular meta-analysis is trash. It just means the authors might not have wanted to engage the psychology community in a scholarly way.

The Authors

Now for the authors. McHugh is an MD who the editor of the piece calls “arguably the most important American psychiatrist of the last half-century.” I’m not a psychology buff, so I won’t comment on how important this fellow has actually been, but there it is. An author search in Scopus (kind of like Google for Academic publications) shows him to have 167 publications since 1962, so that’s a fair amount of scholarly work. None of those publications are on the topic of sexual orientation or gender identity, so he doesn’t seem to have much experience in this field. With 167 publications I expect him to be competent enough to take on a task like this, though.

Mayer is just introduced by the editor as “an epidemiologist trained in psychiatry,” so apparently he isn’t as dazzling as McHugh. That shows in his previous work: a search in Scopus returns just 64 publications since 1971. That’s still quite a bit of work, but like McHugh, none of Mayer’s previous scholarly work that was published in peer reviewed journals appears to be on the topic of sexual orientation or gender identity. He is a trained PhD researcher, though, so I expect him to be competent to take on the task of a meta-analysis.

However, since neither of these fellows have experience engaging with peer reviewed scholarly journals on this topic anytime before in their decades of experience, it is a bit weird that they didn’t opt for peer review for this this work. I mean, if you’re working with something you’re not experienced with, wouldn’t you want it to be reviewed by an experienced person? Kinda sketchy, but not proof of trashiness.

The Review

I have not read the entire review, but have skimmed it to see the major points and how well it treats some things I have a little familiarity with. It’s over 150 pages long, and this is supposed to be a short review.

APA Journal
A peer reviewed journal by the APA. If Mayer and McHugh’s meta-analysis is so important, why isn’t it in a journal like this?

My main impression from the review is that there isn’t anything really surprising about the findings. For example, on the topic of childhood cross-gender identification, they note that only a small number of such children carry that identification into adulthood. They also note that genetics seems to play a role in sexual orientation. Their most prominent point seems to be that there is still much to learn about just about every aspect of gender identity and sexual orientation. We don’t have a good understanding about what causes these things biologically. I have written briefly about some of these things before, and there is nothing particularly controversial about any of this. It seems well-understood by major scholarly psychology organizations like the APA previous to this meta-analysis being written. The claims mostly seem technically accurate.

There were some hints of bias. As I have pointed out before, the clear experience that transsexual and non-heterosexual people testify about is that they did not choose to be that way, and it feels as if they were born that way. McHugh and Mayer rightly point out in their analysis that we don’t understand these things well enough to prove that either sexual orientation or gender identity is innate (has a cause like genetics). However, I could find no mention of the qualitative evidence that the testimony of transsexual and non-heterosexual people provide. That’s the sort of thing that scholarly psychology organizations like the APA are also taking into consideration, but McHugh and Mayer don’t seem to.

Another very loud silence from McHugh and Mayer is complete silence on the topic of attempts by some groups to treat homosexual people to make them more heterosexual. Such treatments are well-understood to be unhelpful at best, and harmful at worst, so I would expect at least a mention in a large scale meta-analysis that seeks to “draw attention to — and offer some scientific insight about — the mental health issues faced by LGBT populations.”

So a few possible omissions, but overall the meta-analysis seems to do an okay job of saying a lot of stuff every scholarly psychology organization already has a good handle on. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t published in a scholarly psychology journal. I’m not a psychologist, so it’s possible that there are deeper issues or good things I can’t spot with only a brief look.

So Where Was The Media Wrong?

Honestly, I’m not sure. It seems like this is a case of conservative mouthpieces spinning relatively okay scholarship into something it isn’t. Take what Anderson says about mental illness for example:

“But they argue that the evidence suggests that [social stress] “does not seem to offer a complete explanation for the disparities in the outcomes.” It appears that social stigma and stress alone cannot account for the poor physical and mental health outcomes that LGBT-identified people face.”

From what I can tell, McHugh and Mayer are right in this case. Social stigma and stress only statistically account for most of the mental illness as far as we can measure so far. But is that really something the media got wrong? It seems like Anderson is being misleading when he claims that the media is wrong about just about everything they say about gender identity and sexual orientation. It makes a great headline, but isn’t great honesty.

Once again, it’s disappointing to see churches like LCMS support people’s ideas simply because they are the “right” conclusions rather than because their ideas pass rigorous scientific review. If churches seriously care about the truth, they should be careful about what comments they support on scientific topics. Spin, whether it be conservative or liberal, is dishonest and sinful. We can do better.

And that’s the low down on that.