Thursday, November 27, 2014

Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe

I really enjoy reading about the intersection of faith and science. I love when someone writes a book showing how each bolsters the other. That was the case in Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe. The title refers to the molecular and cellular structure of life. When Darwinism was being first discovered and propagated, biochemistry was unknown and as such, not invited to the party. But now that we know the secrets of the cell, we have opened “Darwin’s Black Box” and can see that Darwinism is inadequate as an explanation for the cellular structure.

The cell contains within it many structures that are “irreducibly complex.” That is, they cannot be made any simpler and still function. Darwin’s theory rests on small adaptations to already working structures that simply improve it with each adaption. However, Darwin stated, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” Behe then provides examples of just the sort of structures Darwin feared. 

He starts with the cilium. A cilium is a quite complicated structure of a cell that allows the cell to move in liquid with a hair-like appendage that beats like a whip. Although we have spent years researching this structure and discovering its complexities, it seems no one has been able to describe a pathway for evolution to bring about its existence. It is simply irreducibly complex. It cannot be made any simpler and still function in any positive way. And natural selection must have a positive feature to select. It cannot “hold onto” certain features knowing they will be used in the future. Each step in the evolutionary process must be beneficial right now, as is, before it can be selected to remain in the DNA of an organism.

He next brings up the system of blood clotting. Although we give it very little thought, the idea that we can be cut, bleed, clot up and stop bleeding is actually a wonder. Most of the time, leaks do not repair themselves, but simply leak until the vessel is empty. But our system of blood clotting is so fine-tuned, that not only do we not bleed out, but the clotting is very limited. If the clotting process began and was not checked by other processes all of our blood would clot and the circulation would stop. This very complicated system of protein that turn on and off other proteins would cause death if any individual part had not yet evolved. 

Behe also cites the “cell’s labyrinthine protein-transport pathway” as another system that cannot be reduced. Like the blood clotting system, the systems within a cell that transport proteins and waste are very finely tuned and highly dependent on other processes. A single flaw in the system causes death. How did this Rube Goldberg-like contraption evolve one piece at a time, when the entire system must be functioning in order to survive? Another question unanswered by the Darwinists. It seems, the more we study these beautifully complex system the farther away an evolutionary explanation moves. We can describe the processes, but we cannot explain the origins.

He moves on to describe other molecular structures like RNA which do not suffer from irreducible complexity, but rather from what he calls “the problem of road kill.” Like a small animal trying to cross a thousand lane highway, it is technically possible, but unbelievably highly improbably. Scientists have described self-replicating RNA arising completely randomly as “a near miracle.” In fact, once again, the more we know, the more miraculous it would be. 

While Darwinists can describe gradual changes that have occurred to complex system, no one has ever been able to offer a realistic explanation of how the system began in the first place. Imagine a mousetrap. If one tried to describe its evolution, he might start with the wooden block. But that alone will not catch any mice and will therefore be worthless. If a holding bar magically appeared, but was too short, it wouldn’t reach the catch. A spring might wander in from another structure, but is if it wasn’t just right, it would not work. A mousetrap is irreducibly complex. No one can explain how it could evolve, and be useful, one piece at a time. Similarly scientists who start out trying to provide models for these complex systems, generally move on and study other things. In fact many biochemistry textbooks have stopped referring to evolution at all and simply concentrate on the systems. Or if they do, they simply say evolution happened and we’ll leave the “how” for later. 

Finally he moves into the crux of the book, Intelligent Design. He defines design as “the purposeful arrangement of parts.” It is the elephant in the room. The explanation no one dares offer. But design can be difficult to detect. Sometimes very abstract artwork may look like random paint spatters, but may in fact be designed. But when something works as a system to accomplish more than its individual parts, we may confidently presume design. That is not to say we can infer the identity of the designer, simply that a thing has been designed by someone or something. 

Some argue against design because of “design flaws.” This however falls apart when we realize that to say something has a design flaw is to put ourselves above the original designer. I may look at a piece of obviously designed art and think it was badly done, but I cannot say mistakes were made. The artist certainly thinks the artwork represents his intent and accomplishes his purposes. Emotions categorically against any form of a “designer” seem to guide the scientist who cannot accept the design theory. Emotion and not rationality.

“The result of these cumulative efforts to investigate the cell -- to investigate life at the molecular level -- is a loud, clear, piercing cry of ‘design!’ The result is so unambiguous and so significant that it must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science.” Yet it is met with embarrassed feet-shuffling. Why? For some it’s absolute devotion to naturalistic explanations. A priori. It’s like the bumper sticker, “War is not the answer.” Scientists, who have dedicated their lives to the natural sciences, declare above all, “Design is not the answer.” If God himself appeared to the world’s scientist and said, “I did it.” Scientist would feel forced to respond, “That’s all very nice and well, but seeing as you are outside the natural world, we cannot accept You as an explanation.” Also, in the last century, science has found itself as an antagonist to religion instead as a symbiotic partner. This has seemed to force scientist to take sides. They side with their own. 

Scientists, seeing their theory of Darwinian evolution crumble, have turned to the metaphysical and unverifiable theory of the multi-verse. They have cried, “Uncle.” They now support a theory that has no basis whatsoever in scientific fact or the natural world. It cannot by definition. It can never be “discovered” or researched. Its existence is a matter of faith. I believe the bottom line, is that scientists still have their god, but their god does not call them to life of holiness. The multi-verse requires nothing of them. The real God, however, has a few ideas about we should live. Heaven-forbid!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Men Who United the States by Simon Winchester

I heard Simon Winchester, author of the book, The Men Who United the States, on the Dennis Prager show. His book sounded interesting and I like the title, so I gave it a shot. 

It was OK, somewhat interesting, but definitely not my usual cup of tea. 

Lots of interesting stories about interesting people who contributed in one way or another to bringing unity to America, whether through travel and the opening up of previously undiscovered areas or innovation. 

Winchester states at the beginning, “America is, after all, a nation founded as a home for the single simple idea of universal human freedom. The country was established as a grand experiment, with people invited from all over the world to take part, to help build a nation of free souls, each to be given an equal opportunity to seek as each saw best the greatest happiness for themselves. The question I try to address in the following chapters is: just how has it managed to adhere, to keep itself annealed into one for all the years and decades since?”

To organize an admittedly ambitious project, he uses the rubric of the ancient elements: wood, earth, water, fire, and metal. Each builds on the other in roughly chronological order. 

He begins with the time America was dominated by wood. Specifically, the woods. He highlights Thomas Jefferson in particular for opening up vast territory to the newly independent United States with his Louisiana Purchase. Believing, unlike the Native Americans, that land should be surveyed and owned, he sent out the Louis and Clark expedition to detail what this new land encompassed. He embodied a form of American exceptionalism that declared we would own the land from sea to sea. He both opened up a new frontier and gave America a mission to keep pushing borders and boundaries. Louis and Clark and their fellow explorers united the nation geographically and topographically. 

Soon America’s story takes her beneath the earth. The men who further united the nation geologically dove under the land to both map it and determine its substance. As amateur geologists began to discover the potential of the land, people set out in multitudes “because of what they knew, what they had heard told, or what they suspected about the very earth of which the West was made. Men like Stephen Long, Lieutenant Eliakim Scammon, and John Fre´mont became famous for filling the blank spaces of the maps. Ferdinand Hayden, a character in his own right became famous for discovering Yellowstone, a heretofore rumored area hidden behind difficult terrain. 

After mapping the United States, travel became a great concern. This is where America’s story turns to waterways. From the earliest days in the New World, explorers had searched for the holy grail, a navigable waterway which would transverse the continent. John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, first began the quest. Richmond now stands where he was forced to turn back. If God hadn’t provided a way, Americans would make one. Canal building started up with the energy and intensity of any new technology. George Washington himself was a big proponent of canals to strengthen and enervate a new country in desperate need of an economic boost. Small canal building led to larger canals as new technologies developed which eventually led to the Erie canal at 363 miles long. This canal “would change the face of America.” In addition, the Mississippi River literally united the nation from north to south. It would take a corp of engineers to tame the might river and control it for economic uses. 

Eventually, despite the tremendous advances, America’s story turns to one of fire. In order to go farther, faster, America needed more power than offered by water. We needed engines. A Scotsman named John McAdam first saw the need to improve the roadways before any engine-powered vehicle could safely make the trek. His improvement in road making soon carried his name as a generic term: macadam. Soon his macadam roads were covered in tar. Today we call these tar macadam roads, tarmac. Of course, before individual engine-powered vehicle could travel these new roads, investors and business engaged in a flurry of railroad building, uniting the states east to west, but also causing a disunity north to south. The most famous example of this east to west unity is seen in the transcontinental railroad. Now fire united the nation.  Of course trains could only go from station to station. To be able to get off at a station and continue on your journey required the genius of Henry Ford. McAdams early roads would need improvements to handle the new and growing traffic. This became the obsession of Dwight Eisenhower, to create a unified Interstate Highway System of roads suitable for a rapidly developing nation. Soon automobile travel opened up to air travel. The nation was not only becoming more united, it was becoming smaller. 

America was not only united by fire with the building of the railways, but united by metal. Not only the metal tracks which crossed its girth, but telegraph lines went up simultaneously with each mile of track laid. For this ingenious innovation, Samuel Morse deserves credit. His first declarative transmission, “What hath God wrought” seemed “a suitable portentous epigraph for an era of change.” Then Alexander Graham Bell joined Morse in fame with transmission of voice. Thomas Edison worked out how to record those voices as well as introducing electricity to the nation. Today the lines that criss-cross America are fiber-optic, carrying the internet all over the nation. 

Winchester is an engaging writer. The men whose stories he tells so well are engaging, often eccentric, figures. His progressive biases show once in a while, like when he declares NPR non-partisan, and repeated extols the involvement of the government in the technological feats. But these are small irritants in an otherwise interesting and well-researched book.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Darwin's Angel by John Cornwell

Darwin’s Angel by John Cornwell was not what I expected. It’s written from the perspective of an angel speaking directly to Darwin’s heir, Richard Dawkins. So it’s interesting, but a little odd. 

He states his purpose in writing as such, “I intend not so much to pick a fight with the good professor as to offer a few ‘grace notes’ and marginal glosses in the interests of shaper logic, closer insight, and factual accuracy, not so much to settle the debate as to stir it once more.” And he definitely approaches his subject with the respectful, but authoritative demeanor you would expect from an angel.

The angel starts off discussing Dawkins’s sources. He states, “Your book is as innocent of heavy scholarship as it is free of false modesty.” He notes the author most often cited is... Dawkins. I like his ironic tone, and I imagine he speaks with a British accent!

He points out Dawkins’s tendency to dismiss certain things out of hand. Imagination, poetry, beauty, religion are all suspect because they are not reducible to scientific principles. The angel gently chides him for his close-mindedness. 

As to theologians, the angel points out the flaws in Dawkins’s criticism of them by noting, “Your impatience with the general untidiness of the Scriptures and the different ways in which theologians, and indeed most believers, read them betrays your neglect of even minimal enquiry into the nature of scriptural scholarship.” In addition, after dismissing the entire field of theology as so much rubbish, the angel points out that Dawkins indignantly comments that theists have made no attempt to answer him. Odd seeing as there is thousands of years worth of literature Dawkins has clearly never read.

Since Dawkins seeks to replace religion with science, the angel reminds him of both the Nazi and Communist regimes that did just that with disastrous results. When Dawkins states that science will create “the honest and systematic endeavor to find out the truth about the real world,” the angel hears echoes of “I am the Truth, the Way, and the Life.” Maybe Dawkins just seeks to substitute one religion over another. The religion of science combined with atheism has never worked out well.

Another aspect of religion that Dawkins shares with his fellow true believers is a type of fundamentalism that seems “to have never encountered the wavering shades of skepticism experienced by most religious believers.” His unwavering belief in Science gives the angel pause, as most believers in God readily admit to doubt. In fact, Dawkins takes his beliefs to a place where he seems to suggest others have no right to believe anything else. Few religionists would go this far.

The angel shutters when Dawkins agrees with a fellow atheist that raising children in a religious home amounts to child abuse. In an understated manner he says, “I suspect that children are more in danger of being passive recipients of pompous self-righteousness than they are of religious training.” Apparently Dawkins and his fellow believers will decide what exactly constitutes the “bad ideas” they seek to shield children from. I think it’s interesting that the Bible states in Malachi 4:6 that the Messiah “will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” Yet here we have a group intentionally turning the children away from their fathers. 

The angel is also mystified by Dawkins attempts to replace the consolation of an afterlife offered by religion. Dawkins seriously believes that knowing one looked in the face of a meaningless universe and truthfully acknowledged its meaninglessness will give one so much comfort that an afterlife, and the idea of meeting loved ones who have gone on before, is irrelevant. “Tell that to a teenager dying of cancer, and his family.” Surely the thought of a meaningless universe where death is just a stage and the final death is no more or less meaningful than the death of anything else will comfort that family. Easy to see why 90% of the world’s population has rejected Dawkins’s view.

This short book is a fun read. It’s the conversation I’m sure the author wishes he could have with Dawkins. So he uses Dawkins’s own words and then responds. In the person of the Angel, he brings beauty and poetry to his writing and a depth rarely experienced outside of religious writings.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The New School by Glenn Harlan Reynolds

Since I love the topic of education, I picked up The New School by Glenn Harlan Reynolds. His book intends to show “How the Information Age will Save American Education from Itself.” If only that were true!

He begins by remarking that our current educational system is firmly rooted in the past - over a hundred years ago to be exact. In the 19th century, it was considered very modern to emulate the Industrial Revolution in education. Children and education were treated as a factory. The goal was to produce efficient, obedient factory workers. Therefore the school worked like a machine - on a rigorous schedule, orderly rows of desks, same subjects and assignments for each student in each class, students are advanced at a pre-determined time according to age, not ability. In short, children were treated as interchangeable cogs in a machine. 

It’s not clear if this model ever worked well, but it is clear that it is an anachronism in the 21st century.

Higher education has also experienced a change from its original intent of polishing young gentlemen for careers in the ministry or law to a place dedicated to training farmers and mechanics after the Civil War to a place for everyone after WWII. Today we have the mess of too many students being pushed into a path that is becoming more and more unaffordable. 

He believes, like many others, that something that cannot continue, won’t. He sees the movement to homeschooling, charter schools, online schools and other alternatives as a sign that the dam is beginning to crack. People are not happy with a one-size-fits-all education when unlimited potential for customization exists. 

Most of the book is spent cataloguing the problem and detailing ways we might see education go in the future. He believes we will evolve and adapt and that the old way of doing things will necessarily fall off. I’m not so sure. Once the government gets involved, ossified programs seem to still continue long after efficacy has proven non-existent. 

But, we can dream.