Where Science and Faith Converge
  • Pseudoenzymes Illustrate Science's Philosophical Commitments

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Dec 07, 2016

    A few months ago, I had a serious accident while shooting a compound bow in my backyard. The arrow jammed in the guide, and in my attempt to free the arrow, I caused the bow string to derail. When that happened, the string struck my left eye with such force that it fractured my orbit in five places and damaged my retina. I am now legally blind in my left eye. Thankfully, I still have some peripheral vision, but I lost all the central vision in my injured eye. (To mothers everywhere: Yes, I wasn’t careful and I shot my eye out. I should have listened.)

    Because of my injury, there is a blacked-out area in the center part of my field of vision which prevents me from focusing with my left eye. Sometimes, if something is on my left side, I can’t see it—even if it is in plain view.

    Science’s Blind Spot

    Over the years I have come to appreciate that, very often, the creation/intelligent design vs. evolution controversy has less to do with the evidence on hand, and more with how each side sees the evidence. As a case in point, when examining the features of biochemical systems, most creationists and intelligent design proponents readily see evidence of a Creator’s handiwork. Yet adherents to the evolutionary paradigm don’t see evidence for design at all. Instead, they see flawed designs. Why? Because they view biochemical systems as the outworking of an unguided evolutionary history. According to this view, evolution’s mechanisms have cobbled together biochemical systems by co-opting and repurposing existing systems to generate novel biochemical functions. As such, evolution produces kludge-job designs. Not the elegant, sophisticated systems expected if life stems from a Creator’s handiwork.

    In part, the differing perspectives are shaped by philosophical commitments and the expectations that flow from them. To expound upon this point: the philosophical framework for contemporary science is methodological naturalism. Accordingly, scientific explanations for the universe and phenomena within the universe (such as the characteristics of biochemical systems) must have a mechanistic accounting—an explanation exclusively rooted in natural processes. Any explanation that appeals to the work of supernatural agency violates the tenets of methodological naturalism and is not even entertained as a possibility.

    The consequences of methodological naturalism are far ranging for the creation/intelligent design vs. evolution controversy. The constraints of methodological naturalism exclude a priori any model that appeals to intelligent agency to explain, say, the design of biochemical systems. So although biochemical systems bear the appearance of design, the scientific community must explain the design as a product of evolutionary mechanisms. Why? Because they have no other option. If biochemical systems didn’t evolve, then they must have been created. But, the tenets of methodological naturalism forbid this explanation. Hence, biochemical systems must have evolved—by default.

    If biochemical systems arise via evolutionary mechanisms, then they must be cobbled together. They must be poorly designed. Consequently, adherents of the evolutionary paradigm are conditioned to see biochemical systems as poorly designed—even if they aren’t—because of their commitment to methodological naturalism. Many can’t see the design that is in plain view for creationists and intelligent design adherents.

    The recent discovery of pseudoenzymes helps illustrate this point.

    Pseudoenzymes: Evidence for Evolution or Intelligent Design?

    The existence of pseudoenzymes came to light about a decade ago when the human genome sequence was made available for researchers to study. It turns out that almost every enzyme family encoded by the human genome includes seemingly nonfunctioning members. (Enzymes are proteins that catalyze—or facilitate—chemical reactions in the cell.) Biochemists have dubbed these nonfunctioning enzymes pseudoenzymes. These proteins bear structural resemblances to other members of their enzyme families, yet they are unable to catalyze chemical reactions.

    Because researchers have already detected pseudoenzymes within every known enzyme family, they expect that many more pseudoenzymes await discovery. In fact, analysis of thousands of genomes has identified pseudoenzymes throughout the biological realm. To put it another way: Pseudoenzymes seem to be pervasive in biochemical systems.

    Evolutionary biologists view pseudoenzymes as a byproduct of life’s evolutionary history. Presumably, these noncatalytic enzymes arose when genes encoding their functional counterpart became duplicated. After this event, the duplicated genes experienced mutations that disabled the catalytic function of their protein products, generating pseudoenzymes.

    For adherents of the evolutionary paradigm, the widespread occurrence of pseudoenzymes serves as a prima facie (based on first impression) challenge to intelligent design, and a compelling reason to think that biochemical systems are the product of an evolutionary history. In this framework, pseudoenzymes are vestiges of life’s evolutionary past; nonfunctional biochemical scars that impede cellular functions.

    On the other hand, as a creationist and intelligent design proponent, I resist this conclusion. Why? Because I have a different set of presuppositions than most in the scientific community. I believe that life arose through a Creators direct intervention and that science has the tool kit to detect evidence of intelligent agency at work. Because of my precommitments, I would posit yet-to-be-discovered functions for pseudoenzymes and a rationale for why these enzymes bear structural similarity to catalytic counterparts within their enzyme family.

    And this is exactly what biochemists have discovered—pseudoenzymes are, indeed, functional, and there are good reasons why these biomolecules resemble their catalytic analogs.

    The Role and Rationale for Pseudoenzymes

    In a recent primer written for the open access journal BMC Biology, two biochemists surveyed recent work on pseudoenzymes, concluding that this newly recognized class of biomolecules plays a key role in cellular signaling pathways.1

    The authors reflect on the role the evolutionary paradigm played in delaying this insight. They state:

    “Because of the prejudice that focused attention on the catalytic functions of enzymes in signalling pathways, for a long time pseudoenzymes were considered to be dead—and therefore evolutionary remnants or bystanders in cell signalling networks. Contrary to this view, however, pseudoenzymes have now emerged as crucial players operating with an impressive diversity of mechanisms that we are only beginning to understand.”2

    In other words, the biases created by viewing pseudoenzymes as the byproduct of evolutionary processes hindered biochemists from identifying and characterizing the functional importance of pseudoenzymes.

    But this flawed perspective of viewing pseudoenyzmes as junk is changing. To date, biochemists have identified at least four functional roles for pseudoenzymes:

    1. They serve as protein anchors, locating cell signaling enzymes to appropriate locations within the cell.
    2. They function as scaffolds bringing enzymes of the same signaling pathway into proximity with one another, allowing the enzymes to efficiently work in conjunction with one another.
    3. They modulate the function of cell signaling proteins by binding to them, exerting an allosteric-type effect.
    4. They compete with “catalytic” cell signaling enzymes by binding the substrate without transforming it, regulating substrate transformation.

    In part, the functional significance of pseudoenzymes justifies viewing these biomolecules as the work of a Creator. But, if these biomolecules are designed, why would pseudoenzymes be so structurally like their catalytic cohorts? Evolutionary biologists maintain that these similarities reflect their evolutionary history. But, if there is reason for the structural similarities, it further justifies viewing pseudoenzymes as designed systems. As it turns out, a rationale does exist for the close similarity in structure between pseudoenzymes and other members of their enzyme family. As the authors of the survey note:

    “Enzyme structures are predisposed to mediating interactions with protein or metabolite ligands and thus these folds are the ideal templates for nature to repurpose for entirely new functions.”3

    In other words, for pseudoenzymes to influence cellular signaling pathways, they must bind substrates and interact with other proteins in the pathways with a high degree of specificity and with the identical specificity as their catalytic counterparts. Their close resemblance to their catalytic analogs allows these biomolecules to do just that.

    In short, in fulfilling their vital role as regulators of cell signaling pathways, pseudoenzymes display elegance, sophistication, and ingenuity. As a creationist, this is the reason I view these systems as a Creator’s handiwork. Because the field of pseudoenzyme biochemistry is so young, I anticipate the evidence for design to dramatically expand as we learn more about these surprising biomolecules.

    Yet, despite everything we have learned about pseudoenzymes, adherents to the evolutionary paradigm simply can’t see these biomolecules as anything other than the product of an evolutionary history.

    Because of the blind spot created by their philosophical commitments, the design of these systems is occluded from their view—and that causes them to miss the mark.

    Resources
    The Cell’s Design: How Chemistry Reveals the Creator’s Artistry by Fazale Rana (book)
    Pseudoenzymes Make Real Case for Intelligent Design” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Q&A: Is Christianity a Science Showstopper?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Does the Evolutionary Paradigm Stymie Scientific Advance?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Q&A: Is Evolution Falsifiable?” by Fazale Rana (article)

    Endnotes
    1. Patrick Eyers and James Murphy, “The Evolving World of Pseudoenzymes: Proteins, Prejudice, and Zombies,” BMC Biology 14 (November 2016): 98, doi:10.1186/s12915-016-0322-x.
    2. Ibid.
    3. Ibid.
  • Ancient Muds Bog Down Evolutionary Explanation for Life’s Origin

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Nov 30, 2016

    When I was a kid, I played a lot of sandlot football. And nothing was more fun than playing football after a hard rain on a muddy field. It was a blast to slosh around in the mud. But if the field was too muddy, it was hard to run, making it difficult to advance the ball down the field.

    Scientists like playing in the mud, too. And recently, a scientist from the University of Washington had a good time working with ancient mud from early Earth (dating to 3.8 billion years in age). As a result of her efforts, Eva Stüeken now argues that the nitrogen in some of the oldest muddy sediments on Earth was produced by microorganisms.

    Her interpretation of the nitrogen in ancient muds adds to the mounting evidence for an early and rapid origin of life, making it more difficult for the scientific community to advance an evolutionary explanation for life’s start.1

    In earlier studies, geochemists measured about 430 parts per million (ppm) nitrogen in biotite minerals recovered from 3.8-billion-year-old sediments of the Isua Formation of Greenland. Typically, the highest levels of nitrogen co-occur with graphite granules. (Some geochemists regard the graphite granules as a biomarker.) Because nitrogen is an integral component of biomolecules such as DNA and proteins, the occurrence of this element in the biotite can be taken as a biosignature.

    Unfortunately, it is not that straightforward. Some geochemists claim that the nitrogen in the ancient mud comes from abiotic sources. For example, lightning and volcanism can fix atmospheric nitrogen, conceivably accounting for its presence in the biotite grains.

    To test this idea, University of Washington earth scientist Eva Stüeken modeled the amount of abiotic nitrogen that would be expected in ancient muds if it came exclusively from abiotic processes. She determined that abiotic pathways were insufficient to explain nitrogen levels, meaning that some of the nitrogen must be biogenic.

    Early Life on Earth

    The presence of nitrogen in ancient muds adds to the mounting geochemical and fossil evidence that points to the presence of life on early Earth. (See the Resources section below to learn about other evidences for early life on Earth.) It looks like life appeared on Earth as soon as our planet could sustain it. In fact, a case can be made that life could not have originated and persisted on Earth prior to 3.8 billion years ago. This constraint means that life must have originated within a geological instant.

    Both the geochemical and fossil evidence indicate that Earth’s first life was microbial in nature. Though morphologically simple, the geochemical data indicates this life was biochemically diverse and complex. There are good reasons to think that the first life-forms could engage in a wide range of metabolic activities including: photosynthesis, methanogenesis, methanotrophism, and sulfur disproportionation. While far from conclusive, the biogenic nitrogen in the ancient muds suggests that Earth’s first life also had the capacity to fix nitrogen.

    Evidence for Evolution or Creation?

    As discussed in Origins of Life, the sudden, early appearance of metabolically sophisticated life on Earth is difficult to accommodate within an evolutionary framework. Traditionally, origin-of-life researchers have maintained that the origin-of-life process would have required hundreds of millions of years—maybe even a billion years. To put it another way, when viewed from an evolutionary standpoint, no one would have expected that lifes origin would have happened so rapidly.

    This latest insight about the ancient muds creates an additional problem for evolutionary models. It argues against the existence of a prebiotic soup on early Earth. This idea is a cornerstone for most origin-of-life models. Accordingly, life emerged on early Earth out of a prebiotic soup—a complex chemical mixture—as the molecules in the soup became more complex and, eventually, self-organized into the first cellular entities.

    If a prebiotic soup existed on Earth, it should leave behind a geochemical signature in the oldest rocks on Earth. Geochemists have uncovered chemical residues in the oldest rock formations on Earth—including the nitrogen in the ancient muds—but inevitably, these residues turn out to be biogenic in origin, not abiotic. In other words, there is no geochemical evidence for a prebiotic soup. This idea is all covered with the mud.

    On the other hand, the sudden appearance of biochemically complex life on early Earth bears the signature of the Creator’s handiwork. They are also key predictions for the RTB model for life’s origin.

    Resources

    Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off by Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross (book)
    Creating Life in the Lab: How New Discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case for the Creator by Fazale Rana (book)
    Science News Flash: 3.7-Billion-Year-Old Fossils Perplex Origin-of-Life Researchers” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Early Life was More Complex than We Thought” by Fazale Rana (article)
    When Did Life First Appear on Earth?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Origin-of-Life Predictions Face Off: Evolution vs. Biblical Creation” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Fossils Indicate Early Life Was Metabolically Complex and Diverse” by Fazale Rana (podcast)
    Life May Have Begun 300 Million Years Earlier Than We Thought” by Fazale Rana (podcast)

    Endnotes
    1. Eva Stüeken, “Nitrogen in Ancient Mud: A Biosignature?” Astrobiology 16 (September 2016): 730–35, doi:10.1089/ast.2016.1478.
  • Can a Creation Model Explain the Origin of Mitochondria?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Nov 23, 2016

    Some called her a scientific heretic. Others were a bit more kind, describing her as a maverick.

    Lynn Margulis (1938–2011) earned her reputation in the late 1960s when she proposed the endosymbiont hypothesis for the origin of eukaryotic cells. Because her ideas about evolution didn’t conform to Darwinian principles, evolutionary biologists summarily dismissed her idea out of hand and then went on to ignore her work for a couple of decades. She was ultimately vindicated, however, as the endosymbiont hypothesis gradually gained acceptance.

    Today, Margulis’s proposal has become a cornerstone idea of the evolutionary paradigm and is taught in introductory high school and college biology courses. This classroom exposure explains why I am often asked about the endosymbiont hypothesis when I speak on university campuses. Many first-year biology students and professional life scientists alike find the evidence for this idea compelling, and consequently view it as providing broad support for an evolutionary explanation for the history and design of life.

    Yet, new work by biochemists from Cambridge University make it possible to account for the origin of eukaryotic cells from a creation model perspective, providing a response to the endosymbiont hypothesis.1

    The Endosymbiont Hypothesis

    According to this hypothesis, complex cells originated when symbiotic relationships formed among single-celled microbes after free-living bacterial and/or archaeal cells were engulfed by a “host” microbe. (Ingested cells that take up permanent residence within other cells are referred to as endosymbionts.)

    Accordingly, organelles, such as mitochondria, were once endosymbionts. Once taken inside the host cell, the endosymbionts presumably took up permanent residency within the host, with the endosymbionts growing and dividing inside the host. Over time, the endosymbionts and the host became mutually interdependent, with the endosymbionts providing a metabolic benefit for the host cell. The endosymbionts gradually evolved into organelles through a process referred to as genome reduction. This reduction resulted when genes from the endosymbionts genomes were transferred into the genome of the host organism. Eventually, the host cell evolved both the machinery to produce the proteins needed by the former endosymbiont and the processes needed to transport those proteins into the organelle’s interior.

    Evidence for the Endosymbiont Hypothesis

    The main line of evidence for the endosymbiont hypothesis is the similarity between organelles and bacteria. For example, mitochondria—which are believed to be descended from a group of α-proteobacteria—are about the same size and shape as a typical bacterium and have a double membrane structure like gram-negative cells. These organelles also divide in a way that is reminiscent of bacterial cells.

    There is also biochemical evidence for the endosymbiont hypothesis. Evolutionary biologists view the existence of the diminutive mitochondrial genome as a vestige of this organelle’s evolutionary history. Additionally, the biochemical similarities between mitochondrial and bacterial genomes are taken as further evidence for the evolutionary origin of these organelles.

    The presence of the unique lipid called cardiolipin in the mitochondrial inner membrane also serves as evidence for the endosymbiont hypothesis. Cardiolipin is an important lipid component of bacterial inner membranes, yet it is not found in the membranes of eukaryotic cells—except for the inner membranes of mitochondria. In fact, biochemists consider it a signature lipid for mitochondria and a vestige of this organelle’s evolutionary history.

    A Creation Model Perspective on Mitochondria

    So, as a creationist, how do I make sense of the evidence for the endosymbiont hypothesis?

    Instead of focusing my efforts on refuting the endosymbiont hypothesis, here, I take a different approach. I maintain that it is reasonable to view eukaryotic cells as the work of a Creator, with the shared similarities between mitochondria and bacteria reflecting common design rather than common descent.

    However, to legitimately interpret mitochondrial origins from a creation model perspective, there must be a reason for the biochemical similarities between mitochondria and bacteria. Previously, I wrote about discoveries that provide a rationale for why mitochondria have their own genomes. (See “Resources.”) Thanks to recent research advances, an explanation now exists for why the mitochondrial inner membranes harbor cardiolipin.

    Cardiolipin’s Function

    Previous studies identified close associations between cardiolipin and a number of proteins found in the mitochondrial inner membrane. These proteins play a role in harvesting energy for the cell to use. Compared to other lipid components found in the inner membrane, cardiolipin appears to preferentially associate with these proteins. Evidence indicates that cardiolipin helps to stabilize the structures of these proteins and serves to organize the proteins into larger functional complexes within the membrane.2 In fact, several studies have implicated defects in cardiolipin metabolism in the onset of a number of neuromuscular disorders.

    The work of the Cambridge University investigators adds to this insight. These researchers were using computer simulations to model the interactions between cardiolipin and a protein complex called F1-F0 ATPase. Embedded within the inner membrane of mitochondria, this complex is a biomolecular rotary motor that produces the compound ATP—an energy storage material the cell’s machinery uses to power its operations.

    Like other proteins found in the inner membrane, cardiolipin forms a close association with F1-F0 ATPase. However, instead of permanently binding to the surface of the protein complex, cardiolipin dynamically interacts with this membrane-embedded protein complex. The researchers think that this dynamic association and the unusual chemical structure of cardiolipin (which gives it the flexibility to interact with a protein surface) are critical for its role within the mitochondrial inner membrane. As it turns out, cardiolipin not only stabilizes the F1-F0 ATPase complex (as it does for other inner membrane proteins), but it also lubricates the protein’s rotor, allowing it to turn in the viscous cell membrane environment. Also, its unique structure helps move protons through the F1-F0 ATPase motor, providing the electrical power to operate this biochemical motor.

    The bottom line: There is an exquisite biochemical rationale for why cardiolipin is found in mitochondrial inner membranes (and bacterial membranes). In light of this new insight, it is reasonable to view the shared similarities between these organelles and bacteria as reflecting common design—the product of the Creator’s handiwork. Like most biological systems, this organelle appears to be designed for a purpose.

    Resources
    Why Do Mitochondria Have DNA?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Mitochondrial Genomes: Evidence for Evolution or Creation?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Complex Protein Biogenesis Hints at Intelligent Designby Fazale Rana (article)
    Archetype or Ancestor? Sir Richard Owen and the Case for Designby Fazale Rana (article)
    Nanodevices Make Megascopic Statementby Fazale Rana (article)

    Endnotes
    1. Anna Duncan, Alan Robinson, and John Walker, “Cardiolipin Binds Selectively but Transiently to Conserved Lysine Residues in the Rotor of Metazoan ATP Synthases,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 113 (August 2016): 8687–92, doi:10.1073/pnas.1608396113.
    2. Giuseppe Paradies et al., “Functional Role of Cardiolipin in Mitochondrial Bioenergetics,” Biochimica et Biophysica Acta—Bioenergetics 1837 (April 2014): 408–17, doi:10.1016/j.bbabio.2013.10.006.
  • Science News Flash: Chimps Use Tools to Fish for Algae

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Nov 16, 2016

    Some of my fondest memories as a little kid are the summer afternoons I spent with my grandfather fishing in the Missouri River, near Mandan, North Dakota.

    I don’t remember catching many fish, but that didn’t matter. I enjoyed spending time with my grandpa. I’m sure the experience was a bit trying for him though. If I detected even the slightest movement, I would reel in my line, hoping there would be a fish on the end. Inevitably, my excitement would give way to disappointment when I discovered that all I had caught was a clump of algae. And, of course, grandpa would have to clean up the mess I created and then recast my line.

    But my response to reeling in an algae clump would have been different if I was a chimpanzee—if the field observations of primatologists from Germany are to be believed. Instead of disappointment, I would have been excited by my green, slimy, catch. As it turns out, chimpanzees will eat algae. It can be a valuable food source for them, rich in protein, carbohydrates, and minerals.

    The German primatologists recently generated headlines when they published a report in the American Journal of Primatology describing 15 months of field work in the Bakoun Classified Forest of Guinea.1 Using camera footage from 11 different sites, the research team observed both male and female chimpanzees of every age using sticks (ranging from 6 inches to 12 feet in length) to “fish” algae out of rivers, streams, and ponds during the dry season.

    The chimpanzees’ fishing efforts could last for up to an hour, with the average duration being around nine minutes. The chimps typically collected around a tenth of a pound of algae for each fishing expedition.

    Evolutionary anthropologists point to these types of observations as shedding important light on the evolution of human behavior. They maintain that the use of tools by chimpanzees is an antecedent to the advanced behaviors displayed by modern humans.

    However, I take a different view, maintaining that these types of discoveries actually undermine the standard models of human evolution. How so? These insights place chimpanzee behavior closer to hominid behavior (inferred from the fossil record). The temptation is to see hominid tool use as transitional, a way station on the path to modern human behavior. Yet the newly recognized behavior of chimpanzees distances the hominids from modern humans. Just because hominids such as habilines and erectines made tools and engaged in other remarkable behaviors doesn’t mean that they were becoming human. Instead, their behavior appears to be increasingly animal-like, particularly in light of the newly discovered chimp activities.

    Resources
    Who Was Adam? by Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross (book)
    Chimpanzee Behavior Supports RTB’s Model for Humanity’s Origin” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Chimpanzees’ Sleeping Habits Closer to Hominid Behavior than to Humans‘” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Chimpanzees Respond to Death like Humans: Evidence for Evolution or Creation? Part 1 (of 2)” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Chimpanzees Respond to Death like Humans: Evidence for Evolution or Creation? Part 2 (of 2)” by Fazale Rana (article)

    Endnotes
    1. Christophe Boesch et al,. “Chimpanzees Routinely Fish for Algae with Tools during the Dry Season in Bakoun, Guinea,” American Journal of Primatology, published electronically November 3, 2016, doi:10.1002/ajp.22613.
  • The Logic of DNA Replication Makes a Case for Intelligent Design

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Nov 09, 2016

    Why do I think God exists?

    In short: The elegance, sophistication, and ingenuity of biochemical systems—and their astonishing similarity to man-made systems—convinces me that God is responsible for life’s origin and design.

    While many skeptics readily acknowledge the remarkable designs of biochemical systems, they would disagree with my conclusion about God’s existence. Why? Because for every biochemical system I point to that displays beauty and elegance, they can point to one that seems to be poorly designed. In their view, these substandard designs reflect life’s evolutionary origin. They argue that evolutionary mechanisms kludged together the cell’s chemical systems through a historically contingent process that co-opted preexisting systems, cobbling them together to form new biochemical systems.

    According to skeptics, one doesn’t have to look hard to find biochemical systems that seem to have been put together in a haphazard manner, and DNA replication appears to be an example of this. In many respects, DNA replication lies at the heart of the cell’s chemical operations. If designed by a Creator, this biochemical system, above all others, should epitomize intelligent design. Yet the DNA replication process appears to be unwieldy, inefficient, and unduly complex—the type of system evolution would generate by force, not the type of system worthy to be designated the product of the Creator’s handiwork.

    Yet new work by Japanese researchers helps explain why DNA replication is the way it is.1 Instead of reflecting the cumbersome product of an unguided evolutionary history, the DNA replication process displays an exquisite molecular logic.

    To appreciate the significance of the Japanese study and its implication for the creation/evolution controversy, a short biochemistry primer is in order. For readers who are familiar with DNAs structure and the DNA replication process, you can skip the next two sections.

    DNA

    DNA consists of chain-like molecules known as polynucleotides. Two polynucleotide chains align in an antiparallel fashion to form a DNA molecule. (The two strands are arranged parallel to one another with the starting point of one strand in the polynucleotide duplex located next to the ending point of the other strand and vice versa.) The paired polynucleotide chains twist around each other to form the well-known DNA double helix. The cell’s machinery forms polynucleotide chains by linking together four different subunit molecules called nucleotides. The nucleotides used to build DNA chains are adenosine, guanosine, cytidine, and thymidine, famously abbreviated A, G, C, and T, respectively.

    The nucleotide molecules that make up the strands of DNA are, in turn, complex molecules consisting of both a phosphate moiety, and a nucleobase (either adenine, guanine, cytosine, or thymine) joined to a 5-carbon sugar (deoxyribose).

    blog__inline--logic-of-dna-replication-makes-case-for-intelligent-design-1

    Image 1: Adenosine Monophosphate, a Nucleotide

    Repeatedly linking the phosphate group of one nucleotide to the deoxyribose unit of another nucleotide forms the backbone of the DNA strand. The nucleobases extend as side chains from the backbone of the DNA molecule and serve as interaction points when the two DNA strands align and twist to form the double helix.
    blog__inline--logic-of-dna-replication-makes-case-for-intelligent-design-2

    Image 2: The DNA Backbone

    When the two DNA strands align, the adenosine (A) side chains of one strand always pair with thymidine (T) side chains from the other strand. Likewise, the guanosine (G) side chains from one DNA strand always pair with cytidine (C) side chains from the other strand.

    DNA Replication

    Biochemists refer to DNA replication as a template-directed, semi-conservative process. By template-directed, biochemists mean that the nucleotide sequences of the “parent” DNA molecule function as a template, directing the assembly of the DNA strands of the two “daughter” molecules. By semi-conservative, biochemists mean that after replication, each daughter DNA molecule contains one newly formed DNA strand and one strand from the parent molecule.

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    Image 3: Semi-Conservative DNA Replication

    Conceptually, template-directed, semi-conservative DNA replication entails the separation of the parent DNA double-helix into two single strands. By using the base-pairing rules, each strand serves as a template for the cell’s machinery to use when it forms a new DNA strand with a nucleotide sequence complementary to the parent strand. Because each strand of the parent DNA molecule directs the production of a new DNA strand, two daughter molecules result. Each one possesses an original strand from the parent molecule and a newly formed DNA strand produced by a template-directed synthetic process.

    DNA replication begins at specific sites along the DNA double helix, called replication origins. The DNA double helix unwinds locally at the origin of replication to produce what biochemists call a replication bubble. The bubble expands in both directions from the origin during the course of DNA replication. Once the individual strands of the DNA double helix unwind and are exposed within the replication bubble, they are available to direct the production of the daughter strand. The site where the DNA double helix continuously unwinds is called the replication fork. Because DNA replication proceeds in both directions away from the origin, there are two replication forks within each bubble.

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    Image 4: DNA Replication

    DNA replication can only proceed in a single direction, from the top of the DNA strand to the bottom. Because the strands that form the DNA double helix align in an antiparallel fashion with the top of one strand juxtaposed to the bottom of the other strand, only one strand at each replication fork has the proper orientation (bottom-to-top) to direct the assembly of a new strand, in the top-to-bottom direction. For this strand—referred to as the “leading strand”—DNA replication proceeds rapidly and continuously in the direction of the advancing replication fork.

    DNA replication can’t proceed along the strand with the top-to-bottom orientation until the replication bubble has expanded enough to expose a sizable stretch of DNA. When this happens, DNA replication moves away from the advancing replication fork. DNA replication can only proceed a short distance for the top-to-bottom oriented strand before the replication process has to stop and wait for more of the parent DNA strand to be exposed. When a sufficient length of the parent DNA template is exposed for a second time, DNA replication can proceed again, but only briefly before it has to stop again and wait for more DNA to be exposed. The process of discontinuous DNA replication takes place repeatedly until the entire strand is replicated. Each time DNA replication starts and stops, a small fragment of DNA is produced. Biochemists refer to these pieces of DNA (that will eventually comprise the daughter strand) as “Okazaki fragments,” named after the biochemist who discovered them. Biochemists call the strand produced discontinuously the “lagging strand,” because DNA replication for this strand lags behind the more rapidly produced leading strand.

    One additional point: The leading strand at one replication fork is the lagging strand at the other replication fork, since the replication forks at the two ends of the replication bubble advance in opposite directions.

    Before the newly formed daughter strands can be produced, a small RNA primer must be produced. The protein that synthesizes new DNA by reading the parent DNA template strand—DNA polymerase—can’t start production from scratch. It has to be primed. A massive protein complex, called the primosome, which consists of more than 15 different proteins, produces the RNA primer needed by DNA polymerase.

    Once primed, DNA polymerase will continuously produce DNA along the leading strand. However, for the lagging strand, DNA polymerase can only generate DNA in spurts to produce Okazaki fragments. Each time DNA polymerase generates an Okazaki fragment, the primosome complex must produce a new RNA primer.

    Once DNA replication is completed, the RNA primers are removed from the continuous DNA of the leading strand and the Okazaki fragments that make up the lagging strand. A protein called a 3’–5’ exonuclease removes the RNA primers. A different DNA polymerase fills in the gaps created by the removal of the RNA primers. Finally, a protein called a ligase connects all the Okazaki fragments together to form a continuous piece of DNA out of the lagging strand.

    DNA Replication and the Case for Evolution

    This cursory description of DNA replication clearly illustrates the complexity of this biochemical operation. (Many details of the process were left out of the discussion.) This description also reveals why biochemists view this process as cumbersome and unwieldy. There is no obvious reason why DNA replication proceeds as a semi-conservative, RNA primer-dependent, unidirectional process involving leading and lagging strands to produce DNA daughter molecules. Because of this uncertainty, skeptics view DNA replication as a chance outcome of a historically contingent process, kludged together from the biochemical leftovers of the RNA world.

    If there is one feature of DNA replication that is responsible for the complexity of the process, it is the directionality of DNA replication—from top to bottom. At first glance, it would seem as if the process would be simpler and more elegant if replication could proceed in both directions. Skeptics argue that the fact that it doesn’t reflects the evolutionary origin of the replication process.

    Yet work by the team from Sapporo, Japan indicates that there is an exquisite molecular rationale for the directionality of DNA replication.

    Why DNA Replication Proceeds in a Single Direction

    These researchers recognized an important opportunity to ask why DNA replication proceeds only in a single direction with the discovery of a class of enzymes that add nucleotides to the ends of transfer RNA (tRNA) molecules. (tRNA molecules ferry amino acids to the ribsosome during protein synthesis.) If damaged, tRNA molecules cannot properly carry out their role in protein production. Fortunately, there are repair enzymes that can fix damaged tRNA molecules. One of them is called Thg-1-like protein (TLP).

    TLP adds nucleotides to damaged ends of tRNA molecules. But instead of adding the nucleotides top to bottom, the enzyme adds these subunit molecules to the tRNA bottom to top, the opposite direction of DNA replication.

    By determining the mechanism employed by TLP during bottom-to-top nucleotide addition, the researchers gained important insight into the constraints of DNA replication. As it turns out, bottom-to-top addition is a much more complex process than the normal top-to-bottom nucleotide addition. Bottom-to-top addition is a cumbersome two-step process that requires an enzyme with two active sites that have to be linked together in a precise way. In contrast, top-to-bottom addition is a simple, one-step reaction that proceeds with a single active site. In other words, DNA replication proceeds in a single direction (top-to-bottom) because it is mechanistically simpler and more efficient.

    One could argue that the complexity that arises by the top-to-bottom DNA replication process is a trade-off for a mechanistically simpler nucleotide addition reaction. Still, if DNA replication proceeded in both directions the process would be complex and unwieldy. For example, if replication proceeded in two directions, the cell would require two distinct types of primosomes and DNA polymerases, one set for each direction of DNA replication. Employing two sets of primosomes and DNA polymerases is clearly less efficient than employing a single set of enzymes.

    Ironically, if DNA replication could proceed in two directions, there still would be a leading and a lagging strand. Why? Because bottom-to-top replication is a two-step process and would proceed more slowly than the single step of top-to-bottom replication. In other words, the assembly of the DNA strand in a bottom-to-top direction would lag behind the assembly of the DNA strand that traveled in a top-to-bottom direction.

    Bidirectional DNA replication would also cause another complication due to a crowding effect. Once the replication bubble opens, both sets of replication enzymes would have to fit into the replication bubble’s constrained space. This molecular overcrowding would further compromise the efficiency of the replication process. Overcrowding is not an issue for unidirectional DNA replication that proceeds in a top-to-bottom direction.

    The bottom line: In light of this new insight, it is hard to argue that DNA replication has been cobbled together via a historically contingent pathway. Instead, it is looking more and more like a process ingenuously designed by a Divine Mind.

    Resources
    The Cell’s Design: How Chemistry Reveals the Creator’s Artistry by Fazale Rana (book)
    DNA Soaks Up Sun’s Rays” by Fazale Rana (article)
    DNA: Designed for Flexibility” by Fazale Rana (article)
    How the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology Points to Design” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Why I Believe God Exists: Evidences from a Biochemist” by Fazale Rana (video)

    Endnotes
    1. Shoko Kimura et al., “Template-Dependent Nucleotide Addition in the Reverse (3–5) Direction by Thg1-like Protein,” Science Advances 2 (March 2016): e1501397, doi:10.1126/sciadv.1501397.
  • Can New Medical Technology Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Nov 02, 2016

    When I was in junior high, I would rush home every day after school to tune in to the afternoon reruns of Star Trek.

    Fascinated by the technology possessed by the crew of the Enterprise, I often imagined what it would be like if I had their high-tech devices.

    I was particularly intrigued by the tricorder Spock used to collect readings when the team beamed down to a planet’s surface. As a professional biochemist, I really came to appreciate the powerful technology Spock had at his fingertips. Gaining even cursory insight into a biochemical sample can take weeks of hard work in the lab. But for Spock, pointing the tricorder in the direction of the alien life-form was all he had to do. Of course, Spock didn’t get to have all the fun.

    Dr. McCoy had a tricorder too. His instrument could be used to diagnose sick and injured crew members by simply passing a wand over the patients. Wouldn’t it be great if physicians could diagnosis our ailments so quickly and easily? No more trips to the doctor’s office. No more late-night excursions to the emergency room.

    Well, science fiction is about to become science fact, thanks to work by engineers from Washington University. These researchers developed a smart phone app that can measure hemoglobin concentration in a patient’s blood after the patient presses his/her finger against the phone’s camera.1

    This new technology represents an important advance in medical screening, allowing physicians to quickly test for anemia. This blood disorder is rampant in the developing world, caused by malnutrition and parasite infections.

    Measuring the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity is key for diagnosing anemia. Detecting and monitoring anemia can be difficult in a third-world context, because the most reliable method for determining the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood involves drawing blood and counting red blood cells. This procedure: (1) exposes medical workers to the patient’s blood; (2) runs the risk of being unsanitary, introducing the risk of infection; and (3) requires access to a laboratory to count the red blood cells.

    Noninvasive methods exist, but they require expensive medical instruments.

    These limitations motivated the University of Washington team to develop the smart phone app to measure hemoglobin content in blood. This technology is relatively inexpensive, mobile, and can yield rapid results—ideal for screening for anemia in the field.

    HemaApp

    The University of Washington team dubbed their app: HemaApp. The app makes use of an algorithm that converts video images of the patient’s finger into a series of oscillating curves corresponding to different wavelengths of light. The form of these curves is influenced by the absorption of light by hemoglobin in the blood (which causes blood’s red color). The more hemoglobin, the greater the blood’s light absorption at certain wavelengths of light.

    In a pilot study (involving men and women, patients of all ages, and several ethnicities), the researchers showed that HemaApp performed as well as the leading noninvasive blood monitoring technologies, paving the way to use this technology in the field.

    These researchers think that their accomplishments are the first step toward broader usage of smart phones for medical screening. It is conceivable that the technology can be adapted to screen for sickle-cell anemia, which is caused by mutations to the gene encoding hemoglobin. These mutations lead to hemoglobin with a distorted structure, which alters its light absorption spectrum.

    This technology will also be a benefit to people living in the first world. Patients with anemia can monitor the hemoglobin level of their blood at home, providing them with a tool to more effectively manage their health issues. Because the hemoglobin measurements are made with a smart phone, the data can be easily sent to the patient’s physician.

    HemaApp isn’t quite as impressive as a medical tricorder, but it sure is a big step in that direction.

    Yet, as promising as the biomedical implications are for this advance, the bioethical implications are even more exciting.

    Biomedical Technology, Bioethics, and Social Justice

    Many Christians are vigilant about the ethical implications associated with biomedical advances, raising concerns when technologies undermine the sanctity of human life.

    Yet, a neglected area of bioethics relates to the accessibility of medical care and emerging biomedical technologies. Many diagnostic tools and medical procedures require highly specialized equipment and highly trained personnel. These requirements sometimes render even the most basic medical care so costly that only a relatively small percentage of the world’s population has access to life-saving biomedical technologies.

    In my view, the inequitable distribution of medical care should be considered as much a pro-life issue as the destruction of human embryos associated with many emerging biotechnologies or euthanasia. Like all Christians, I hold the view that all human life has immeasurable value—inherent worth and dignity—because all human beings are made in God’s image. If so, then it is reasonable to think that all human beings have fundamental human rights. And, in my view, that includes equal access to basic medical care. And ideally, beyond that, all human beings should be able to equally benefit from biomedical advances.

    The use of smartphones as a medical screening tool moves us one step closer to realizing this ideal. HemaApp stands as a powerful new biomedical technology, but it is affordable and portable. These features make it possible for the wealthiest and poorest people on the planet to benefit from this advance. In fact, this technology could be transformative for some of the poorest parts of the world by helping medical workers quickly identify and treat those people suffering from anemia.

    The University of Washington researchers bring us one step closer to the dream of a young teenager who loved to watch Star Trek. They are also making it possible to envision how, as human beings, we can boldly go where no one has gone before—to a world where biotechnology provides treatments and therapies for many horrible diseases and injuries and also makes basic medical care accessible to the worlds poor.

    Resources

    Embryonic Stem Cell Research: An Interview with Dr. Fazale ‘Fuz Rana” (article)
    Q&A: Is a New in vitro Fertilization Method Ethical?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    GNINOLC: We Have It All Backwards” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Advance Holds Potential to Resolve Cloning’s Ethical Challenges” by Fazale Rana (article)

    Endnotes
    1. Edward Jay Wang et al., “HemaApp: Noninvasive Blood Screening of Hemoglobin Using Smartphone Cameras,” Proceedings of the 2016 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing (September 2016): 593–604, doi:10.1145/2971648.2971653.
  • Placenta Optimization Shows Creator's Handiwork

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Oct 19, 2016

    The Creator of the universe desires an intimate relationship with each of us.

    It is one of the more outrageous claims of the Christian faith. And no passage of Scripture expresses the intimacy between Creator and creature more than Psalm 139:13.

    A fresh perspective on this passage of Scripture comes from recent work by researchers from Cambridge University in the UK. This study reveals the central role the placenta plays in properly allocating nutritional resources between mother and child, illustrating the intimate care God provided for us through the elegant design of embryological development.1

    This research also has important pro-life implications, providing a response to the claim that the fetus is nothing more than a harmful mass of tissue.

    Nutritional Demands of the Fetus and the Mother

    For a pregnancy to be successful, nutrients must be carefully distributed between the fetus and the mother. Yet sharing nutrients runs contrary to the biological tendencies of the mother and the unborn baby. The fetus has a genetic drive for growth and craves all the nutrients it can get. So does the mother. But for the fetus to grow and develop, the mother must provide it with the nutrients it needs, setting up a potential tug of war between the mother and the developing baby in her womb.

    Ironically, if the fetus hoards nutrients excessively, the hoarding can backfire. If the mother doesn’t have access to sufficient nutrients during the pregnancy, it can negatively impact lactation and the mother’s long-term health, which, in turn, compromises her ability to care for the child after birth.

    As it turns out, the placenta plays a critical role in managing this trade-off. Instead of being passive tissue that absorbs available nutrients from the mother, the placenta dynamically distributes nutrients between mother and fetus, optimally ensuring the health of both mother and developing baby. To do this, the placenta receives metabolic signals from both the mother and fetus and responds to this input by regulating the nutrient amounts made available to the fetus.

    One of the key genes involved in nutrient regulation is called p110α. This gene codes for a protein that integrates the metabolic signals from mother and fetus. The Cambridge University researchers wanted to understand the role that the maternal and fetal versions of this gene play in parsing the nutrient supply between mother and developing baby.

    What Happens When p110α Is Defective in Mother and Child?

    What happens when p110α is defective in mother and child? To answer this question, the research team used mice as a model system, preparing genetic mutants, so that either the mother or fetus had a defective version of the p110α gene. If the mother had a healthy p110α gene, but the fetus a defective version, the placenta developed abnormally. But in spite of its defective appearance, the placenta compensated so that it would still take up the nutrients the fetus needed to develop. However, if the mother had a defective version of the p110α gene, the placenta (which formed abnormally even though the fetus had a healthy version of the p110α gene) transported fewer nutrients to the fetus.

    In adult tissue, the p110α gene plays a role in regulating growth in relationship to nutrient supply and mediates the metabolic effects of insulin and insulin-like growth factors. That means that a defective version of this gene models conditions in which the mother’s health is compromised due to disease, poor nutrition, stress, or other factors.

    On the basis of this study, it appears that when the mother is healthy, the placenta readily transports nutrients to the fetus and dynamically adjusts, even if it forms abnormally. On the other hand, if the mother’s health is compromised, the placenta restricts nutrient flow to the fetus to ensure the mother’s long-term health, with the prospects that the fetus can still grow and develop.

    This insight has important biomedical implications. In the developing world, one in five pregnancy complications involve the placenta. In the developed world, this number is one in eight. The researchers hope that this insight will help them understand the etiologies behind problem pregnancies and also help them identify biomarkers that will alert physicians to problems earlier in the pregnancy.

    This work also has important apologetics implications, as well.

    Indeed, We Are Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

    This work highlights the elegance of embryological development. It seems an exquisite rationale—a biological logic, if you will—undergirds every aspect of development. The optimal way the placenta partitions resources between mother and fetus, carefully managing trade-offs, evinces the handiwork of the Creator, and reveals the Creator’s intimate care for the fetus.

    The devastating effects caused by mutations to the p110α gene raises questions about the capacity of evolutionary mechanisms to explain the origin of the reproductive system in placental mammals. Because the placenta is not a passive conduit for nutrients between mother and fetus, the challenges of explaining its genesis via unguided evolutionary process become insurmountable. If the placenta lacks the capability to effectively allocate resources between the mother and fetus—or even if this process operates in a suboptimal manner—the fetus may not survive, or the mother may not be healthy enough to nurse and rear the child once it’s born. In other words, it becomes difficult to imagine how the placenta’s role in embryological development could evolve from an imperfect system to an optimal system under the influence of natural selection because of the critical, dynamic role the placenta plays in embryological development. If this role isn’t properly executed, the child isn’t likely to make it to reproductive age.

    Is the Fetus Like a Tumor?

    This work also has implications for the pro-life debate. I have often heard pro-choice advocates argue that abortion is not murder, because the fetus is like a tumor. But the work by the scientists from Cambridge University makes this view impossible. Because the placenta dynamically allocates resources between the mother and the fetus in a way that preserves the mother’s health, the fetus cannot be viewed as a tumor robbing the mother of nutrients. Instead, it looks as if the placenta’s function has been designed in such a way to ensure optimal health for both the mother and the fetus. This study also shows that if the mothers health is in jeopardy, the placenta actually compromises the health of the fetus so that the mother’s health is not unduly harmed by the pregnancy.

    Resources
    Curvaceous Anatomy of the Female Spine Reveals Ingenious Obstetric Design” by Virgil Robertson (article)
    What Are the Odds of You Being You? by Matthew McClure (article)
    Morning Sickness May Protect Embryos from Toxins with Fazale Rana (podcast)

    Endnotes
    1. Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri et al., “Maternal and Fetal Genomes Interplay through Phosphoinositol 3-Kinase (PI3K)-p110α Signaling to Modify Placental Resource Allocation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 113 (October 2016): 11255–60, doi:10.1073/pnas.1602012113.
  • Does Oxytocin Cause Spiritual Experiences?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Oct 12, 2016

    Why do people believe in God?

    In 1998, Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, and sociologist Frank Sulloway sought to answer this “Why?” question. Surveying 10,000 individuals from the United States, Shermer and Sulloway learned that nearly 30 percent said the beauty, design, and complexity of the universe justified belief in God, and nearly 20 percent said they were convinced of God’s existence because they experienced God in everyday lives.

    In many ways, this finding isn’t surprising—if Christianity is true. Both the Old and New Testaments teach that God has made himself known through creation. This revelation would be reflected in the beauty, design, and complexity of the natural realm. Scripture also teaches that the Holy Spirit draws nonbelievers to Christ and intervenes in the life of believers.

    In other words, according to this survey, many people hold to belief in God for both rational and experiential reasons.

    Still, a number of skeptics argue that belief in God is a biological phenomenon, exclusively. They maintain that people who believe in God delude themselves into thinking that they hold their belief for rational reasons. Skeptics argue that belief in God instead has to do more with our biology than anything else.

    In 2005, human geneticist Dean Hamer created quite a stir when he published The God Gene. In this book, he claims to have discovered an association between the VMAT2 gene and self-transcendence, a composite of three psychological attributes that presumably reflect an individual’s propensity toward spirituality. As a result of his research, Hamer dubbed VMAT2 “the God gene.” (The VMAT2 gene encodes a membrane-embedded protein that transports monoamines, such as serotonin and dopamine, from the cytosol of nerve cells into synaptic vesicles.) Hamer claims this discovery helps explain why spirituality is heritable and suggests there is a genetic, and, hence, strictly biological basis for why some people believe in God and why others don’t. In other words, our spirituality is biologically determined.

    Added to this claim is recent work by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).1 These investigators claim that when men are administered oxytocin, they develop a heightened orientation toward spirituality and enhanced positive experiences during religious practices, such as meditation. (They define spirituality as the feeling of being connected to other living things and to a higher power.) These responses to oxytocin occurred for both believers and nonbelievers alike, and most closely correlate to variants of two genes that encode proteins involved in the release of oxytocin from the hypothalamus and its transmission between neurons. In other words, the subjects’ responses to oxytocin had more to do with their genetics than their beliefs about God’s existence. The researchers conclude that the growing evidence indicates that “humans—and perhaps some more than others—are biologically predisposed to be receptive to spiritual experiences.”2

    Prior to this study, neuroscientists had indirect evidence that oxytocin release impacted spirituality. For example, researchers observed that people who had transformative religious experiences had elevated levels of oxytocin in their blood. But, thanks to this latest study, a causal connection between oxytocin release and spiritual experience has been established.

    Oxytocin’s Physical Effects

    Oxytocin is a peptide produced by the hypothalamus. This compound serves as a hormone when released into the bloodstream and a neurotransmitter when released into the forebrain.

    Oxytocin has been nicknamed the “love hormone” and the “cuddle chemical.” Exposure to oxytocin enhances empathy and trust. Exposure also reduces self-focus and elicits altruistic responses. To put it another way, oxytocin exposure promotes social bonding.

    This compound is also released during childbirth and breast-feeding, helping mothers and infants to bond. It is also released during sex, promoting a connection between lovers.3

    Does Oxytocin’s Role in Spiritual Experiences Invalidate the Christian Faith?

    Does oxytocin’s role in spiritual experiences invalidate the Christian faith? Hardly. In fact, this discovery and previous work identifying the role oxytocin plays in social bonding, mother-infant bonding, and bonding between mates makes perfect sense within a Christian worldview.

    In his book The Biology of Sin, neuroscientist Matthew Stanford presents a model that helps make sense of these types of discoveries.4 Stanford points out that Scripture teaches that human beings are created as both material and immaterial beings, possessing a physical body and nonphysical mind and spirit. Instead of being a “ghost in the machine,” our material and immaterial natures are intertwined, interacting with each other. It is through our bodies (including our brain), that we interact with the physical world around us. The activities of our brain influence the activities of our mind (where our thoughts, feelings, and emotions are housed), and vice versa. It is through our spirit that we have union with God. Spiritual transformation can influence our brain’s activities and how we think, and how and what we think can influence our spirit.

    If God created human beings to (1) be in a relationship with him, (2) form monogamous relationships with the opposite sex, (3) multiply and fill the Earth, and (4) be in community with one another, wouldn’t it make sense that he would have created biological mechanisms to ensure bonding between members of a community, between mother and child, between husband and wife, and between each of us and God? Oxytocin appears to be just such a mechanism. Having a biological mechanism that promotes bonding between members of a community, between mothers and children, and between husbands and wives makes added sense when considering how difficult these relationships are. Oxytocin’s influence ensures that parents won’t abandon their children when they become a burden. It helps marriages remain intact during challenging times in the relationship.

    But what about the observation that some people seem to have a greater biological propensity for spiritual experiences than others? Doesn’t that seem unfair? Does that mean that God created some people to respond to him and others not to?

    This question assumes that the only basis for belief is spiritual experience. There are rational reasons to think God exists. Scholars have developed compelling philosophical and scientific arguments for God’s existence. There is historical and archaeological evidence that supports the credibility of the Old and New Testaments. A powerful case can be made for the historicity of Christ, including his death and resurrection. Scripture also teaches that God has written his law on our hearts. We know there is an inherent right and wrong, and we are well aware that we don’t conform to that standard. In other words, even if we don’t have a propensity for spiritual experiences at all, we still have the capacity to recognize the truth of the Christian faith and our desperate need for forgiveness. Whether we have spiritual experiences or not, we all have the ability to understand and respond to the gospel.

    Scripture teaches that each person possesses a unique set of gifts. Each of us has distinct strengths and weakness. Scripture also teaches that when we come together, each of our gifts contribute to the community, and our collective strengths and weaknesses complement each other. If what Scripture teaches on this point is true, wouldn’t we expect God to create humans (as a population) with biological variability? I know many Christians for whom the life of the mind is far more important to their faith than spiritual experiences. I also know many Christians for whom religious experiences are central to their faith. Both types of people play critical roles in the church. To put it another way, our Creator may have had good reasons to design humans with varying biological propensities to spirituality.

    One final point: Skeptics need to be careful when they assert that oxytocin release into the forebrain causes spiritual experiences, and, ultimately, conclude that belief is a biological phenomenon. The knife cuts both ways. If belief in God has a strictly biological basis, that means so does atheism. In other words, atheists can’t claim that they reject belief in God for rational reasons, or because they have superior intellect. In their model, they are just as much victims of their biology as they claim Christians are.

    Resources

    Magnets and Morality” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Does Human Morality Arise from Brain Chemistry?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Is There a Biological Basis for Belief?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Is There a Biological Basis for Belief? A Follow Up” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Epigenetics—Sins of the Father” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Sex Does Bring a Man Closer to God—Science Is Proving It!” with Fazale Rana (a Wenz World radio interview)

    Endnotes
    1. Patty Van Cappellen et al., “Effects of Oxytocin Administration on Spirituality and Emotional Responses to Meditation,” Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience 11 (June 2016): 1579–87, doi:10.1093/scan/nsw078.
    2. Ibid.
    3. This observation prompted the headline “Having Sex Makes Men More Likely to Believe in God.” It is tempting to inquire if the converse is true.
    4. Matthew Stanford, The Biology of Sin: Grace, Hope, and Healing for Those Who Feel Trapped (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 15–19.
  • Q&A: Is Evolution Falsifiable?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Oct 05, 2016

    I expected to get a reaction—and I did.

    Last week I posted the below ‘meme’ on my Facebook page and Twitter account, claiming that the evolutionary paradigm is unfalsifiable because of the stranglehold that methodological naturalism has on the operation of science.

    blog__inline--is-evolution-falsifiable-1

    And of course, it elicited a rather negative reaction by at least one atheist who listed a number of ways to falsify biological evolution, delineated by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne.

    So, is biological evolution falsifiable? Was it unwarranted on my part to claim that biological evolution is unfalsifiable? Am I “full of it,” as this skeptic asserted?

    My response: In principle, chemical and biological evolution are falsifiable, as are all scientific theories. But in reality, the evolutionary paradigm is unfalsifiable—because of the influence of methodological naturalism.

    In effect, methodological naturalism restricts the available explanations for the universe and phenomena within the universe such as the origin and history of life. Certain explanations are off the table, a priori. As a consequence, intelligent design/creationism cannot be part of the construct of science.

    The Effect of Methodological Naturalism on Scientific Inquiry

    Methodological naturalism provides the philosophical framework for science. This concept is distinct, yet related to philosophical naturalism. According to philosophical naturalism, all that exists is the material, physical universe. There is no supernatural. There is no reality outside of the universe itself. There is no God. As the late astronomer Carl Sagan once quipped, “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”

    In contradistinction to philosophical naturalism, methodological naturalism claims to be metaphysically neutral on the question of God’s existence. According to the tenets of methodological naturalism, when one engages in the scientific enterprise it is necessary to suspend belief in God, regardless of one’s personal convictions. The only allowed explanations for the universe and phenomena within the universe are natural process, mechanistic explanations. One cannot appeal to the supernatural. But that doesn’t mean the supernatural doesn’t exist. Simply put, the supernatural is not given a place in the scientific project.

    In other words, if you believe that God exists, your views cannot influence the way in which you conduct science. Methodologically speaking, you must function as if God does not exist. Sometimes methodological naturalism is called provisional atheism or benchtop atheism. This restriction makes methodological naturalism functionally equivalent to philosophical naturalism, rendering science an inherently atheistic enterprise, though, again, its practitioners may well believe God exists.

    In effect, methodological naturalism restricts the available explanations for the universe and phenomena within the universe such as the origin and history of life. Certain explanations are off the table, a priori. As a consequence, intelligent design/creationism cannot be part of the construct of science. Any explanation that states an intelligent agent is responsible for, say, the origin of life, is prohibited. As a result, chemical and biological evolution are the only available alternatives for someone who’s trying to scientifically account for the origin and history of life.

    The net effect is this: Chemical and biological evolution are true by default, regardless of the evidence at hand. No matter how much evidence exists challenging the evolutionary paradigm, it cannot be supplanted because there is no other alternative explanation that is allowed.

    A Failed Prediction for the Evolutionary Paradigm

    As it turns out, discordant phylogenies plague evolutionary biologists. On this basis alone, one could conclude that the evolutionary paradigm has been falsified.

    As an illustration of this point, consider one of the ways that Jerry Coyne thinks biological evolution can be falsified:

    “Complete discordance between phylogenies based on morphology/fossils and on DNA. While individual genes can show discordance by lateral transfer—rotifers, for example, have incorporated into their genome from DNA from very unrelated organisms, and this is also common for bacteria. But lateral transfer of genes, as opposed to their direct descent from parent to offspring, is relatively uncommon. So, for example, if we sequenced the genome of a blue whale and found that on the whole the species was more closely related to fish than to mammals, we’d have a serious problem for the theory of evolution.”

    Coyne’s prediction is similar to one made by the late evolutionary biologist Morris Goodman. According to Goodman, one of the founders of the discipline of molecular anthropology:

    “If the biblical account of creation were true, then independent features of morphology, proteins, and DNA sequences would not be expected to be congruent with each other. Chaotic patterns, with different proteins and different DNA sequences failing to indicate any consistent set of species relationships, would contradict the theory of evolution.”1

    As it turns out, discordant phylogenies plague evolutionary biologists. It is not uncommon for evolutionary trees built from morphological features to disagree with evolutionary trees built from DNA sequence data. Again, it is not uncommon for molecular phylogenies to disagree with one another when constructed using different regions of the genome. (For examples, see the articles listed below under Resources.) On this basis alone, one could conclude that the evolutionary paradigm has been falsified—or at minimum one would be justified to express skepticism about the capacity of the evolutionary paradigm to account for the origin, history, and design of life.

    Again, these are not predictions made by intelligent design proponents or creationists. These are predictions made by evolutionary biologists, both of whom are (or were) skeptics. And on the basis of these predictions, the evolutionary paradigm has failed.

    But Wait—Not So Fast

    How do evolutionary biologists respond to the pervasive problem of discordant phylogenies?

    By arguing that the discordance can be dismissed because morphological data is an unreliable indicator of evolutionary history. How do they know this is the case? Because morphological and molecular phylogenies disagree.

    Or they claim that the discordance results from incomplete lineage sorting. How do they know incomplete lineage sorting has occurred? Because evolutionary trees built using different genes (or genomic regions) disagree.

    Another way evolutionary biologists dismiss the discordant trees is to assert that some regions of the genomes are phylogenetically uninformative. That is, these regions of the genome don’t issue a phylogenetically reliable signal. How do evolutionary biologists know this to be the case? Because evolutionary trees built from certain regions of the genome don’t yield the expected results—and consequently, produce discordant phylogenies.

    These responses are classical instances of circular reasoning. In effect, evolutionary biologists are using discordant evolutionary trees as a way to explain why discordant evolutionary trees result when they attempt to build phylogenies using different data sets.

    Is Evolution Falsifiable?

    Why the circular reasoning? Because if one adheres to methodological naturalism, the only valid scientific explanation for the origin and history of life is through some type of evolutionary process. Evolution must be true by default. Why? Because if the evolutionary paradigm is falsified, then the only other alternative is intelligent design/creationism. And this approach to biology is prohibited, a priori, because of philosophical commitments to a materialistic approach to the life sciences. This state of affairs can only lead to tautologies when failed predictions arise, though the tautologies are draped in scientific jargon.

    So, is biological evolution falsifiable? Yes, in principle. But no, in reality.

    I suspect that when evolutionary biologists list “if-they-are-true” observations that would disprove biological evolution, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily willing to consider another paradigm. Because if they were, they would readily see the evolutionary paradigm’s many shortcomings.

    Resources

    Origin of Complex Cells: A Big Event for Evolution or Creation?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    DNA Sequences: More Is Not Better” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Birds Terrorize Evolutionary Biologists” by Fazale Rana (article)

    Endnotes
    1. Morris Goodman, “Reconstructing Human Evolution from Proteins,” chap. 8.4 in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution, Steve Jones et al., eds. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 307–13.
  • Science News Flash: First Three-Parent Baby Born

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Sep 29, 2016

    Shocking headlines from around the world have announced the first-ever birth of a baby with three parents (two mothers and one father)!

    The research team who carried out this work will report the details about the conception and birth of this child at next month’s meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, to be held in Salt Lake City.1

    Born to Muslim parents, this baby was conceived without destroying any embryos in the process. Fertilization took place in a test tube using the father’s sperm cells and a donor’s egg. Prior to fertilization, the researchers removed the nucleus from the donor’s egg and replaced it with the nucleus from one of the mother’s egg cells. In other words, the fertilized egg had genetic material from two women. The nuclear DNA came from the mother-to-be and the DNA in the egg’s mitochondria came from the donor.

    This procedure ensured that the child would be free from the devastating effects of a mutated gene in the mother’s mitochondrial DNA that causes Leigh syndrome.

    This procedure holds the potential to eradicate hundreds of genetic disorders caused by mutations to mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria play a key role in energy production for the cell. If these organelles aren’t healthy, it can lead to a number of devastating neurodegenerative and muscular degenerative disorders.

    How should Christians think about this exciting new biotechnology? Is it ethical? Will it lead to designer babies? Should we play God?

    My answers to these questions might surprise you…

    For details about this technique and my thoughts on how Christians should respond to this biomedical discovery, check out the February 25, 2014 edition of Science News Flash (podcast).

    Resources

    Designer Babies?” by Fazale Rana (podcast)

    Endnotes
    1. J. Zhang et al., “First Live Birth Using Human Oocytes Reconstituted by Spindle Nuclear Transfer for Mitochondrial DNA Mutation Causing Leigh Syndrome,” Fertility and Sterility 106 (September 2016): e375–e376, doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2016.08.004.
  • Did Neanderthals Make Jewelry?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Sep 28, 2016

    I was a troublemaker in high school. And that meant I spent more than my fair share of time in Mr. Reynold’s office—our school’s vice principal.

    It wasn’t long before we developed a bit of a dance that played out each time I was summoned to his office. Mr. Reynolds would accuse me of some misdeed (for which he usually had ample evidence) and I would respond with an elaborate defense, hoping to convince him of my innocence. I quickly learned that if my excuse was to stick, every detail of my story had to hang together.

    A few days ago, I was reminded of my conversations with Mr. Reynolds when I learned about recent work by a large team of collaborators from the US, UK, Germany, and France. Based on their research efforts, these paleoanthropologists claim to have new evidence that Neanderthals produced body ornaments and, hence, possessed the capacity for symbolism and advanced cognitive abilities—just like us.1 Yet, this story doesn’t hang together when considering other details about Neanderthal biology and natural history.

    Take it from someone who has experience concocting stories—the claim that Neanderthals displayed symbolism doesn’t pan out.

    The Grotte du Renne Cave Site

    During a recent visit to the well-studied Grotte du Renne cave site in central France, these research collaborators unearthed previously unknown hominid bone fragments. These pieces of bones were morphologically nondescript. Yet these investigators found the bones to be highly informative, thanks to the application of newly developed, sophisticated techniques that allowed them to characterize ancient protein and mitochondrial DNA fragments associated with the bones. These ancient biomolecules indicated that the bones came from a Neanderthal infant.

    This discovery is significant because these newly discovered bone fragments were recovered in the same layers that contain beads made from animal teeth, shells, and ivory. These “necklaces” serve as markers for symbolic capacity—a property that many people think defines modern humans. Symbolic capacity is a behavioral feature that causes a number of anthropologists to think that modern humans are behaviorally unique and exceptional.

    The Grotte du Renne site contains 15 archaeological layers spanning about 12 feet in depth. Neanderthals and modern humans occupied this cave at various times between 28,000–45,000 years ago. The top layers—which are the most recent—contain artifacts produced by modern humans. However, the most interesting layers are VIII, IX, and X. These layers contain Neanderthal remains, with layer X harboring markers for symbolism. This layer dates to about 40,000 years in age. If this data is accepted at face value, it indicates that these hominids evolved the capacity for symbolic behavior and possessed advanced cognitive abilities just before their extinction.

    Neanderthals appeared about 250,000 years ago and became extinct around 40,000+ years ago. The archaeological record indicates that for most of their existence Neanderthals behaved in a relatively unsophisticated manner compared to modern humans. (This behavior is described as the Mousterian culture.) However, based on the findings from the Grotte du Renne, some paleoanthropologists have argued that around 40,000 years ago—the time of modern humans’ arrival in Europe and right before Neanderthals’ disappearance—these hominids evolved the capacity for modern behavior and with it, symbolic thought. (Paleoanthropologists refer to this behavior as the Châtelperronian culture.)

    Neanderthal Symbolism and the RTB Human Origins Model

    The existence of the Châtelperronian culture means that modern humans aren’t behaviorally unique. From an evolutionary vantage point, it implies that advanced cognitive abilities evolved independently in modern humans and Neanderthals (with the antecedents for symbolism residing with the direct evolutionary ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals).

    If this insight stands, it undermines the view of humanity espoused by Scripture—namely, that human beings uniquely bear God’s image—and, specifically the RTB human origins model (detailed in the expanded and updated edition of Who Was Adam?), which regards symbolism as an aspect of the image of God.

    So what did this research team discover and what conclusions can they legitimately draw from their discoveries?

    It is also worth noting that every previous claim for Neanderthal symbolism from the archaeological record has failed to withstand scientific scrutiny.

    Characterization of the Grotte du Renne Bone Fragments

    The research team saw the discovery of the morphologically indistinct bone fragments in layer X as an opportunity to try out new methods they recently developed, designed to recover and characterize ancient protein fragments from fossil specimens. They hope that these fragments (which are much more likely to be present in ancient bones than DNA) will provide insight into the taxonomic identity of the bone fragments, but also help scientists gain insight into the biology and natural history of ancient organisms. (The study of ancient proteins is called paleoproteomics).

    Early work in paleoproteomics demonstrates that fragments of certain forms of collagen can be used to identify large bodied genera. These researchers extracted proteins from 196 bone fragments found in layer X. Of those, 28 possessed a collagen fingerprint that identified them as coming from a hominid.

    The researchers then extracted more than 70 different proteins from 3 of the 28 bone pieces. As is true for all studies involving ancient biomolecules, contamination by biomolecules from the environment and human handlers is a real concern. Because of this complication, the researchers employed an elaborate set of steps to discriminate endogenous proteins from contaminants, including:

    • Analyzing extraction blanks: Proteins found in both the blanks and samples must be contaminants introduced in the handling of the bones.
    • Assessing chemical alteration of proteins: As proteins age, they undergo characteristic chemical changes (such as glutamine and asparagine deamidation). Proteins that don’t show these transformations must be contaminants.
    • Searching protein databases: The researchers compared the amino acid sequences of the extracted proteins with amino acid sequences of proteins produced by nonhuman animals. Matches were taken as contaminants.

    Through this process, the researchers discovered a number of collagens and non-collagen proteins that appeared to be authentic. Many of these extracted proteins are produced by cells during bone growth. Isotope analysis of collagen extracted from the hominid bones indicate that they came from an individual whose chief diet was breast milk. On this basis, the researchers concluded that the fragments were from an infant. They then found that the amino acid sequences of the extracted collagens matched collagen amino acid sequences found in both Neanderthals and Denisovans. (The researchers deduced the amino acid sequences of hominid collagens from the Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes.)

    Additionally, the researchers recovered mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from one of the bone pieces. The sequence of this DNA aligns with Neanderthal mtDNA, providing confirmatory evidence that the bone fragments came from a Neanderthal.

    Finally, the researchers used carbon-14 dating of extracted collagen to determine the age of the bone pieces at 37,000–39,000 years bp (before the present).

    On the basis of all of these results, they concluded that the bone pieces came from a Neanderthal infant that was buried in the cave around 38,000 years ago, and more broadly that Neanderthals produced the “necklace beads” found in layer X.

    It is important to point out that this is not the first time anthropologists have arrived at this conclusion. Anthropologists have long had evidence from morphologically informative fossils for the co-occurrence of Neanderthal remains and symbolic artifacts in layer X. The novelty of this work centers around the power of paleoproteomics and ancient DNA analysis to provide key insight into the identity of fossil remains and the natural history of ancient creatures.

    Did Neanderthals Display Symbolism?

    Does the co-occurrence of Neanderthal remains and symbolic artifacts in layer X provide evidence for Neanderthal behavior on par with modern humans? It can, but this conclusion has to align with everything else we know about Neanderthal biology and behavior—and it doesn’t.

    For example, previous work by other archaeologists at the Grotte du Renne has demonstrated that the layers in this cave have been mixed. It appears as if past occupants dug into the cave floor, turning over the cave layers. This activity means that the association between Neanderthal remains and symbolic artifacts could merely be coincidental.

    In the face of this challenge, paleoanthropologists could argue that the 37,000–39,000-year-old date of the remains in layer X (determined in the latest study)—which matches the age of the symbolic artifacts—indicates that mixing didn’t impact layer X. Yet within the past few years, paleoanthropologists have shown that carbon-14 dating of Neanderthal remains has been plagued by carbon-14 contaminants, which renders their measured ages younger than they actually are. Improved methodology (designed to remove these contaminants) places Neanderthal extinction around 45,000+ years bp. This well-known contamination issue raises questions about the dating of the Grotte du Renne specimens, leaving open the real possibility that the Neanderthal remains are much older than 38,000 years in age. If so, it makes it likely that mixing of the cave layers did, indeed, occur.

    Apart from the mixing of the Grotte du Renne cave layers and questions about the dating of the Neanderthal remains in layer X, the most significant reason for skepticism about claims regarding Neanderthals’ symbolic capabilities centers around what we have learned about the anatomy and physiology of this hominid’s brain.

    Collectively, these observations indicate that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to modern humans. It is hard to square these biological differences with claims that Neanderthals displayed symbolism.

    It is true: Neanderthals had a brain size comparable to modern humans (maybe even slightly larger), but as I point out in Who Was Adam?, the body mass of Neanderthals was larger than modern humans. Anthropologists think that the ratio of brain size to body mass is a better indicator of intelligence than brain size alone. This ratio is called the encephalization quotient (EQ). The EQ of modern humans is greater than that of Neanderthals, indicating that these hominids were cognitively inferior to modern humans.

    More importantly, the brain structures of modern human and Neanderthals differ. As discussed in Who Was Adam?, Neanderthals possessed an underdeveloped parietal lobe compared to modern humans. This part of the brain plays a role in processing information that supports language and mathematical reasoning. Also, Neanderthals devoted a greater region of their brain to vision and body control than modern humans. This would have left a smaller portion of the brain available for advanced cognition. Paleoanthropologists have determined that blood flow to Neanderthal brains was significantly lower compared to modern humans, implying that these hominids inherently lacked the capacity to support the same high level of interneuronal connectivity and synaptic activity as modern humans.

    As discussed in Who Was Adam?, comparisons of modern human and Neanderthal genomes also reveal differences in genes involved in neuronal development. This result helps explain the morphological differences between modern human and Neanderthal brains.

    I also point out that studies of Neanderthal dental microanatomy reveal that these creatures had a rapid, practically nonexistent adolescence. This rapid maturation leaves little time for brain development to occur after birth like it does in modern humans.

    Collectively, these observations indicate that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to modern humans. It is hard to square these biological differences with claims that Neanderthals displayed symbolism.

    Finally, it is worth noting that every previous claim for Neanderthal symbolism from the archaeological record has failed to withstand scientific scrutiny.2 It is unclear if Neanderthals buried their dead, and if they did, these burials most certainly were not ritualistic. Claims of Neanderthal music and art haven’t panned out, and there is no concrete evidence that Neanderthals had language capacity.

    Take it from someone who has experience concocting stories, the claim that Neanderthals displayed symbolism doesn’t hang together. Anthropologists who claim otherwise should be sent to detention during their lunch hour.

    What if the association between Neanderthal remains and symbolic artifacts proves true? There are other ways to explain their co-occurrence. Because Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted for a brief period of time in Europe, it could be that Neanderthals “appropriated” modern human artifacts and carried them to their cave sites. Given everything we know about Neanderthal brain anatomy, this is a much better story than one that has Neanderthals possessing symbolic capabilities.

    Resources
    Who Was Adam? by Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross (book)
    Paleoanthropologists Mixed Up about Neanderthal Behavior” by Fazale Rana (article)
    The Latest on Neanderthal Extinctions” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Did Neanderthals Make Art?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Did Neanderthals Bury Their Dead with Flowers?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Do Neanderthal Cave Structures Challenge Human Exceptionalism?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Neanderthal Brains Make Them Unlikely Social Networkers” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Blood Flow to Brain Contributes to Human Exceptionalism” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Human, Neanderthal Brains Only Differ after Birth” by Fazale Rana (podcast)

    Endnotes
    1. Frido Welker et al., “Palaeoproteomic Evidence Identifies Archaic Hominins Associated with the Châtelperronian at the Grotte du Renne,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, published electronically September 16, 2016, doi:10.1073/pnas.1605834113.
    2. For more details, see the articles listed in the resource section of this piece and the expanded and updated edition of Who Was Adam?: A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Humanity.
  • Blood Flow to Brain Contributes to Human Exceptionalism

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Sep 21, 2016

    Are human beings exceptional? Are we unique, as the Bible teaches?

    Recent work by paleoanthropologists from Australia adds to the mounting scientific evidence for human exceptionalism. These scientists demonstrate that modern humans have an unusually high rate of blood flow to our brains, compared to other primates, including the hominids represented in the fossil record.1 They argue that the increased blood flow to the human brain reflects an unusually high level of: (1) neuron-neuron connectivity; and (2) synaptic activity. Ultimately, these enhanced capabilities support the uniquely advanced cognitive capacity displayed by modern humans. To put it differently, the increased blood flow to the modern human brain helps account for the cognitive differences between humans and the other hominids, including Neanderthals.

    This research helps support a key prediction of RTB’s human origins model (derived from the biblical text) by demonstrating a fundamental difference between humans and Neanderthals.

    Measuring Blood Flow to Hominid Brains

    To establish the relative blood flow to the brains of modern humans and hominids, the researchers measured the radius of the opening of two holes at the base of the skull that serve as the entryway for the internal carotid arteries. These blood vessels accommodate about 85 percent of the blood flow to the human brain. These arteries also give rise to the middle cerebral arteries (which supply the lateral portions of the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes) and the anterior cerebral arteries (which supply the medial parts of the frontal, and parietal lobes).

     

    blog__inline--blood-flow-to-brain-contributes-to-human-exceptionalism-1

    Image: Internal Carotid Artery. Credit: Wikipedia

    These holes in the skull exclusively provide the conduits for the internal carotid arteries. No accompanying nerves or veins pass through these openings. Blood flow and blood pressure controls the radius and the wall thickness of the arteries, making the size of these openings a reasonable proxy for blood flow to the brain.

    Performing measurements only for complete and undamaged skull openings, the researchers determined the radius of the carotid openings for 34 hominid specimens, representing 12 species, including:

    • africanus (8 specimens)
    • afarensis (3 specimens)
    • boisei (1 specimen)
    • habilis (1 specimen)
    • naledi (1 specimen)
    • rudolfensis (1 specimen)
    • georgicus (1 specimen)
    • erectus (5 specimens)
    • heidelbergensis (2 specimens)
    • neanderthalensis (5 specimens)
    • floresiensis (1 specimen)
    • Archaic sapiens (5 specimens)

    Brain Blood Flow in Hominids

    In lower primates, neuron numbers increase with brain mass in a linear manner (because neurons occupy a constant volume). Measurements made in a previous study for 34 haplorhine primates saw brain blood flow scaling with brain volume.

    But the researchers observed something different for the hominids. While the blood flow to the brain scaled with increases in brain volume for the Australopithecines and early Homo species, a different pattern was observed for H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, and Neanderthals. Increases in cerebral blood grew at a faster pace than expected based on increases in brain size.

    For modern humans, the increase in cerebral blood flow maxes out, even departing further from the trend line observed for the late appearing Homo species. To put it another way, modern humans (H. sapiens sapiens) stand as an outlier, with an unusually high cerebral blood flow, even compared to Neanderthals.

    Differences in Brain Blood Flow between Humans and Neanderthals

    The primate brain possesses an extremely high aerobic demand, requiring prodigious amounts of oxygen. For modern humans, the brain is responsible for 25 percent of our resting metabolic activity. The brain needs a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients (such as glucose). The disproportionate blood flow to the human brain reflects the high level of interneuronal activity and synaptic transmissions between nerve cells.

    Even though Neanderthals had roughly the same brain size as modern humans, the cerebral blood flow to their brain was significantly lower. This observation implies that these hominids inherently lacked the capacity to support the same high level of interneuronal connectivity and synaptic activity as modern humans. This result lines up with a wide range of other findings (detailed in the expanded and updated edition of Who Was Adam?) indicating Neanderthals had limited cognitive capacity compared to modern humans. Collectively, these results justify skepticism regarding claims that these creatures possessed symbolic capability (language, art, music, body ornamentation, etc.).

    Brain Blood Flow and Implications for Human Uniqueness

    This research helps support a key prediction of RTB’s human origins model (derived from the biblical text) by demonstrating a fundamental difference between humans and Neanderthals. Instead of viewing hominids as evolutionary transitional forms, RTB’s biblical model holds that hominids, including Neanderthals, were animals made by God. They possessed intelligence and emotional capacity, but lacked the image of God—a quality associated only with anatomically modern humans (Genesis 1:26–27). Therefore, we expect that Neanderthals would have displayed behavior that is qualitatively different from, and inferior to, that of modern humans. This study provides confirmation of this expectation.

    This study also provides scientific support for the biblical teaching that human beings are uniquely made in God’s image. If human beings truly are image bearers, then we should expect that scientific data would emerge for human exceptionalism, and it has in a way that aligns with the biblical perspective of humanity’s unique cognitive and behavioral capacities.

    Resources
    Who Was Adam?: A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Humanity by Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross (book)
    Neanderthal Brains Make Them Unlikely Social Networkers” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Did Neanderthals Make Art?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Did Neanderthals Bury Their Dead with Flowers?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Do Neanderthal Cave Structures Challenge Human Exceptionalism?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Human, Neanderthal Brains Only Differ after Birth” by Fazale Rana (podcast)

    Endnotes
    1. Roger Seymour, Vanya Bosiocic, and Edward Snelling, “Fossil Skulls Reveal that Blood Flow Rate to the Brain Increased Faster than Brain Volume during Human Evolution,” Royal Society Open Science 3 (August 2016): 160305, doi:10.1089/rsos.160305.
  • Does the Evolutionary Paradigm Stymie Scientific Advance?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Sep 12, 2016

    A common challenge I often hear is that creationism and intelligent design are showstoppers for science. If we conclude that “God did it,” skeptics complain, “wouldn’t that shut down scientific inquiry?”

    A few years ago, I had a brief email exchange with a prominent origin-of-life researcher who sincerely raised that concern:

    “I would be interested in how you think the creation model approach . . . will lead to scientific advance. Your book Origins of Life clearly showed that science does not have all the answers to how life may have begun, and of course I agree with that conclusion. What this means to me is that we have some beautiful open questions to work on to try to find the answers. But in your book, at the end of each chapter, you typically ended with the creationist answer to open questions: God did it. This is what I meant by stopping the questioning process. If the answer is that God did it, where do we go from there?”

    I responded to this concern elsewhere, but, at this juncture, I would like to point out that the evolutionary paradigm can also shut down scientific inquiry, delaying the discovery of key scientific insights, and often with important biomedical implications.

    The evolutionary paradigm can also shut down scientific inquiry, delaying the discovery of key scientific insights, and often with important biomedical implications.

    This point is powerfully illustrated by the latest work by a team of researchers from Duke University.1 These investigators demonstrated that the highly repetitive satellite DNA associated with centromeres displays function.

    Repetitive DNA in Evolutionary and Creation Models

    From within the evolutionary framework, this discovery was unexpected. Most molecular biologists have long viewed highly repetitive DNA sequences as nonfunctional. In fact, much of the satellite DNA sequences in the human genome (which comprise 10 percent of the genetic makeup of humans) have been ignored by the research community, because of the influence of the evolutionary paradigm. These sequences have long been regarded as the leftover vestiges of an unguided, evolutionary history.

    A press release from Duke University describing this latest work acknowledges this omission: “Even though the sequence of the human genome was declared complete more than a decade ago, it retains several glaring gaps, especially in the repetitive sequences around centromeres.”2

    Sequencing highly repetitive DNA sequences is extremely challenging, to be sure. And this is part of the reason for the gaps in the human genome sequence. But, because of the influence of the evolutionary paradigm, few, if any, biologists thought these repetitive sequences were anything other than junk. Viewing satellite DNA as junk took away any motivation on the part of molecular biologists to “plow ahead” and try to determine these recalcitrant DNA sequences.

    On the other hand, a creation model/intelligent design perspective predicts that nearly all of the DNA sequences found within the human genome would display function—including highly repetitive satellite DNA sequences. And this prediction is satisfied by the latest insights from the Duke research team.

    To be fair, the Duke researchers were working from an evolutionary framework. So, why were they studying satellite DNA, if other life scientists chose to ignore these sequences? The researchers from Duke University were trying to understand the structure-function relationships of centromeres.

    Centromeres

    These chromosomal regions are made up of highly repetitive DNA dubbed alpha satellite DNA and comprise about 5 percent of the human genomes. Centromeres serve as the attachment site for replicated chromosomes during the cell division process.

    blog__inline--does-evolutionary-paradigm-stymie-scientific-advance-1

    Image: 3-D Chromosome Illustration.

    The alpha satellite DNA of centromeres displays several layers of organization that are built upon a 171 base pair (bp) unit called a monomer. In turn, these monomers are repeated numerous times to form higher order repeats (HORs). The size of the HOR is specific for each of the 22 autosomes and 2 sex chromosomes that comprise the human genome. For example, the HOR of chromosome X consists of 12 monomers, while the HOR of chromosome 8 is made up of six monomers. The next level of organization, called HOR arrays, arises from the extensively repeated occurrence of HORs.

    There can be two or more HOR arrays within centromeres. For example, chromosome 17—the subject of the Duke University study—possesses two HOR arrays, dubbed D17Z1 and D17Z1-B.

    Proteins comprising the kinetochore bind to one or the other HOR array on chromosome 17. (The kinetochore protein complex binds to the centromere, serving as an attachment site for the mitotic spindle, which pulls apart the sister chromosomes during cell division.)

    blog__inline--does-evolutionary-paradigm-stymie-scientific-advance-2

    Image: Mitotic Spindle. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    As it turns out, for 70 percent of people, the centromere assembles at the D17Z1 site of chromosome 17 for both sister chromosomes. For 30 percent, centromere assembly occurs at the D17Z1 site for one of the sister chromosomes and at the D17Z1-B site of the other.

    Variations in the Repetitive DNA of Centromeres

    In an attempt to determine why one site is used for centromere assembly as opposed to the other, the researchers from Duke University discovered sequence and size variations for the monomers used to build the HOR arrays. And this variation plays a key role in dictating the site for centromere assembly. They also discovered that some sequence and size variants display a loss of functional competency. In other words, this variability can cause the chromosome to become unstable and/or the mitotic spindle fails to properly form. The researchers think that these failures may lead to increased risks of cancer, birth defects, and infertility.

    If the instability becomes too great, the centromere will assemble at alternate HOR array sites, explaining why (for 30 percent of the population) centromere assembly occurs at different sites for the sister chromosomes of human chromosome 17.

    Repetitive DNA Displays Function

    This work indicates that repetitive DNA sequences within the human genome do, indeed, possess functional attributes, just as creationists and intelligent design adherents have predicted. And the researchers think that their insight is only the beginning. Beth Sullivan, the senior researcher for the project stated:

    “What we found in this study is probably the tip of the iceberg. There could be all sorts of functional consequences to having variation within the complex, repetitive portion of the genome that we don’t know about yet.”3

    Implications for Evolutionary and Creation Models

    Many regard the shared “junk DNA” sequences in the genomes of humans and the Great Apes as the most compelling evidence for evolution. When the human genome sequence was first reported in the early 2000s, geneticists estimated that at least 95 percent of human DNA sequences are junk.

    Over the last decade, discovery after discovery has demonstrated that many classes of junk DNA display function. In fact, the ENCODE project indicates that a vast proportion of the human genome is functional, not junk.

    Yet, many evolutionary biologists reject the results of the ENCODE project, insisting that this research effort has mistakenly assigned function to many of the human genome DNA sequences. Why are evolutionary biologists skeptical of the ENCODE project results? Because, if these results are valid, then the evolutionary paradigm can’t be correct.

    Recent work by Duke University scientists demonstrates that, in spite of skepticism over the ENCODE project results, researchers continue to discover new functions for junk DNA. It turns out that these repetitive sequences serve a role in the process of cell division, expanding the role of junk DNA beyond regulating gene expression.

    But in spite of these discoveries, many evolutionary biologists doggedly cling to the view that junk DNA must be nonfunctional because of their deep-seated commitment to the evolutionary paradigm. All of this makes me wonder:

    Is the skepticism about the functional utility of junk DNA—fueled by the demands of the evolutionary paradigm—a science stopper?

    Resources

    Who Was Adam?: A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Humanity by Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross (book)
    Q&A: Is Christianity a Science Showstopper?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Responding to ENCODE ‘Skeptics‘” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Do Scientists Accept the Results of the ENCODE Project?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Is Most of Our DNA Garbage?” by Fazale Rana (podcast)

    Endnotes
    1. Megan E Aldrup-MacDonald et al., “Genomic Variation within Alpha Satellite DNA Influences Centromere Location on Human Chromosomes with Metastable Epialleles,” Genome Research, published electronically August 10, 2016, doi:10.1101/gr.206706.116.
    2. Marla Vacek Broadfoot, “Variation in ‘Junk’ DNA Leads to Trouble,” Duke Today (blog), Duke University, August 30, 2016, https://today.duke.edu/2016/08/variation-%E2%80%9Cjunk%E2%80%9D-dna-leads-trouble.
    3. Ibid.
  • Science News Flash: 3.7-Billion-Year-Old Fossils Perplex Origin-of-Life Researchers

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Sep 07, 2016

    Good things can come from bad circumstances.

    This idea is beautifully illustrated by the research efforts of a team of Australian scientists. Climate change has triggered the excessive melting of ice and snow in western Greenland. This loss of snow and ice concerns many people, but, on the other hand, it has been a boon for the scientific community. It has exposed a new outcropping of rocks, giving geologists first-time access to a rare window of the earth’s distant past. As it turns out, these rocks harbor what appears to be the oldest fossils on Earth—stromatolites that date to around 3.7 billion years in age.1

    Billion year old fossils 

    Image: Stromatolites in western Australia

    This latest insight has important implications for understanding the origin of life. In fact, on the day researchers from Australia reported this discovery in scientific literature, it made headlines in news outlets around the world.2

    Evidence for Early Life on Earth

    As Hugh Ross and I discuss in Origins of Life, geochemists have unearthed a number of chemical markers in the Isua Supracrustal Belt (ISB) of western Greenland that strongly hint at microbial life on Earth between 3.7 and 3.8 billion years ago. But origin-of-life researchers debate the bio-authenticity of these geochemical signatures, because a number of potential abiotic processes can produce similar geochemical profiles.

    Most scientists doubted that fossils would ever be unearthed in the Isua rock formations because these outcrops have undergone extensive metamorphosis, experiencing high temperatures and pressures—conditions that would destroy fossils. But these newly exposed formations contain regions that have experienced only limited metamorphosis, making it possible for fossils to survive.

    Careful microscopic and chemical characterization of the Isua stromatolites affirms their biogenecity. These analyses also indicate that they formed in shallow water marine environments.

    These recently discovered stromatolites (and the previously detected geochemical life signatures in the Isua formations) indicate that a complex and diverse ecology of microorganisms existed on Earth as far back as 3.7 billion years ago.

    Prior to the discovery of 3.7 billion-year-old stromatolites, origin-of-life researchers widely agreed that microbial life existed on Earth around 3.4–3.5 billion years ago, based on the recovery of stromatolites, microbial mats, microfossils, and geochemical signatures in rock formations found in western Australia. Many origin-of-life researchers have expressed amazement that complex microbial ecologies were present on Earth as early as 3.4 billion years ago. For example, paleontologist J. William Schopf marveled:

    “No one had foreseen that the beginning of life occurred so astonishingly early.”3

    The researchers who recovered and analyzed the Isua stromatolites expressed similar surprise:

    “The complexity and setting of the Isua stromatolites points to sophistication in life systems at 3,700 million years ago, similar to that displayed by 3,480–3,400 million-year-old Pilbara stromatolites.”4

    From a naturalistic perspective, the only way for these researchers to make sense of this discovery is to conclude that life must have originated prior to 4 billion years ago. They state: “This implies that by ~3,700 million years ago life already had a considerable prehistory, and supports model organism chronology that life arose during the Hadean (>4,000 million years ago).”5

    Implications for Evolutionary Models

    However, the researchers’ explanation for the appearance of a complex, diverse microbial ecosystem at 3.7 billion years ago is problematic, when the natural history of early Earth is considered.

    Traditionally, planetary scientists have viewed the early Earth as hot and molten, from the time of its formation (4.5 billion years ago) until ~3.8 billion years ago. This era of Earth’s history is called the Hadean. Accordingly, oceans were not present on early Earth until around 3.8 billion years ago. They believe a number of factors contributed to the hellish environment of our early planet, chief of which were the large impactors striking the earth’s surface. Some of these impact events would have been so energetic that they would have volatilized any liquid water on the planet’s surface and rendered the surface and subsurface as a molten state. In light of this scenario, it would be impossible for life to originate much earlier than 3.8 billion years ago. To put it another way, if the traditional understanding of early Earth history is correct, then it looks as if complex microbial ecologies appeared on Earth suddenly—within a geological instant. It is impossible to fathom how the explosive appearance of early life could happen via evolutionary mechanisms.

    More recently, a number of planetary scientists have proposed that early Earth only remained molten for the first 200–300 million years of its history. After which time, oceans became permanent (or maybe semi-permanent) features on the planet’s surface. The basis for this view has been the discovery of zircon crystals that date between 4.2–4.4 billion years ago. Geochemical signatures within these crystals are consistent with their formation in an aqueous setting, implying that oceans were present on Earth prior to 3.8 billion years ago.

    But this revised scenario doesn’t help the evolutionary approach to life’s origin. Around 3.8 billion years ago, a gravitational perturbation in the early solar system sent asteroids towards Earth. Some estimates have the earth experiencing over 17,000 impact events during this time. This event, called the late heavy bombardment (LHB), was originally regarded as a sterilization event. If so, then any life present on Earth prior to the LHB would have been obliterated. That being the case, again, it appears as if complex microbial ecologies appeared on Earth suddenly, within a geological instant.

    Recently, some planetary scientists have challenged the notion that the LHB was a sterilization event. They argue that life on the planet’s surface would have been destroyed, but life in some environments, such as hydrothermal vents, could have survived. In other words, there would have been refugiums on Earth that served as “safe houses” for life, ushering it through the LHB.

    Yet the latest discovery by the Australian scientists doesn’t fit this scenario. The Isua stromatolites formed at the earth’s surface in a shallow water environment. In fact, the research team generated data that effectively ruled out stromatolite formation near hydrothermal vents. But if the refugium model has validity, the Isua fossils should have formed in a high-temperature milieu.

    Finally, pushing life’s origin back to more than 4 billion years ago doesn’t solve the problem of a sudden origin-of-life—it merely displaces it to another window of time in Earth’s history. Origin-of-life researchers have geochemical evidence suggesting that life was present on Earth between 4.2–4.4 billion years ago. Given that the earth was molten for the first 200–300 million years of its existence (minimally), that doesn’t leave much time for life to originate.

    No matter the scenario, a naturalistic, evolutionary approach to the origin-of-life can’t seem to accommodate the sudden appearance of life on Earth. On the other hand, if a Creator brought life into being, this is precisely the mode and tempo expected for life’s appearance on Earth.

    Implications for Creation Models

    While the discovery of 3.7 billion-year-old stromatolites confounds evolutionary explanations for life’s origins, it affirms RTB’s origin-of-life model. This model is derived from the biblical creation accounts and make two key and germane predictions: (1) life should appear on Earth soon after the planet’s formation; and (2) first life should possess intrinsic complexity. And both of these predictions are satisfied by this latest advance.

    Resources
    Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off by Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross (book)
    Creating Life in the Lab: How New Discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case for the Creator by Fazale Rana (book)
    Life May Have Begun 300 Million Years Earlier Than We Thought” by Fazale Rana (podcast)
    Early Life Was More Complex Than We Thought” by Fazale Rana (article)
    When Did Life First Appear on Earth?” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Insight into the Late Heavy Bombardment and RTB’s Creation Model” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Origin-of-Life Predictions Face Off: Evolution vs. Biblical Creation” by Fazale Rana (article)

    Endnotes
    1. Allen P. Nutman et al., “Rapid Emergence of Life Shown by Discovery of 3,700-Million-Year-Old Microbial Structures,” Nature, published electronically August 31, 2016, doi:10.1038/nature19355.
    2. For a detailed discussion of this discovery and its implications for the creation/evolution controversy, listen to “Fossils Indicate Early Life Was Metabolically Complex and Diverse,” Apologia (Ex Libris), podcast audio, August 31, 2016, https://www.reasons.org/podcasts/apologia-premium/fossils-indicate-early-life-was-metabolically-complex-and-diverse.
    3. J. William Schopf, Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth’s Earliest Fossils (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 3.
    4. Allen P. Nutman, “Rapid Emergence of Life.”
    5. Ibid.
  • Have Origin-of-Life Researchers Found the RNA World "Money Train"?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Aug 31, 2016

    As I write this blog post, amateur treasure hunters in Poland are trying to determine if a local legend is true. According to the lore, during the end of World War II, as the Germans escaped the advancing Soviet army, a train loaded with $200 million in gold, silver, and valuable art disappeared in a complex series of secret tunnels beneath a castle in the Owl Mountains. The treasure hunters claim they have evidence for the location of the buried train and now local authorities are excavating three sites of potential interest. But skepticism abounds. It’s not clear if the legend has any basis in reality. The treasure hunters and local officials may be looking for a treasure that may never have existed.

    Over the last several decades, origin-of-life researchers have been on a quest for their own version of a “money train”: a self-replicating ribozyme. If they can find such a molecule—which may not have ever existed—they will go a long way toward validating one of the most prominent origin-of-life models: the RNA world hypothesis. Recent work by scientists from the Scripps Institute adds to the hope that a self-replicating ribozyme may one day be discovered.1 But careful assessment of their work indicates that their hope may not be based in reality.

    The RNA World Hypothesis

    Many origin-of-life investigators think that RNA predated both DNA and proteins as the premier replicator and information-harboring molecule. Accordingly, RNA operated as a self-replicator that catalyzed its own synthesis. The RNA world hypothesis supposes that, over time, numerous RNA molecules representing a wide-range of catalytic activity emerged. At this point in life’s history, biochemistry centered exclusively on RNA. With time, proteins (and eventually DNA) joined RNA in the cell’s arsenal. During the transition to the contemporary DNA-protein world, RNA’s original function became partitioned between proteins and DNA, and RNA assumed its current intermediary role. RNA ancestral molecules presumably disappeared without leaving a trace of their primordial existence.

    In the mid-1980s, the discovery of RNA molecules with enzymatic activity (called ribozymes) propelled the RNA world hypothesis to prominence.

    Since then, several scientific teams working in the laboratory have produced a number of ribozymes with a range of biological activity using a technique called in vitro evolution. For many origin-of-life researchers, this work adds more credibility to the RNA world scenario. In principle, it demonstrates that life centered on RNA biochemistry is conceivable.

    The Quest for a Self-Replicating RNA

    The real “money train” for the RNA world is a self-replicating ribozyme, but researchers have made limited progress toward discovering this type of ribozyme. For example, they have produced a variety of ribozymes that (1) assist in the synthesis of ribonucleotides; (2) join two RNA chains together (in a process called ligation); and (3) add ribonucleotide subunits to the end of an RNA molecule, extending the chain. All of these activities are necessary for replication of RNA molecules, yet, to date, biochemists have been unable to make RNA with genuine self-replicating capability.

    The latest work by scientists from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) adds to these accomplishments, moving origin-of-life researchers closer to a self-replicating RNA. But the train still hasn’t arrived at the station.

    The researchers from TSRI extended the work of earlier studies, using in vitro evolution to modify a ribozyme dubbed the class I RNA polymerase ribozyme. This molecule—initially generated by researchers in the 1990s—can join together some RNA molecules once they bind to a template to produce larger RNA molecules. Later, researchers modified the original ribozyme so that it could use a template to form RNA chains over 100 nucleotides in length. Unfortunately, the modified version of the class I RNA polymerase ribozyme is quite finicky. While it can only transcribe RNA with certain nucleotide sequences and cannot transcribe RNA molecules with complex three-dimensional structures.

    TSRI scientists randomly mutated the RNA sequence of the modified version of the class I RNA polymerase to generate a population of 100 trillion molecules. From this population, they selected those ribozymes that could transcribe two different RNA molecules with a complex three-dimensional structure. Once they identified the ribozymes with the desired properties, they repeated the process, mutating the newly identified ribozymes to produce a new population of molecules. After 24 rounds, they had successfully evolved a ribozyme (they called the 24-3 ribozyme) that can copy RNA molecules with complex three-dimensional structures and, in turn, make copies of RNA molecules it had already copied. That is, the 24-3 polymerase can amplify specific RNA molecules 10,000 fold.

    While this is an important advance for the RNA world hypothesis, the 24-3 polymerase can’t copy itself, a necessary requirement for self-replication.

    Evolution or Intelligent Design?

    This work has important implications for the creation-evolution debate. Origin-of-life researchers and evolutionary biologists count these types of studies as support for the RNA world hypothesis. More broadly, they point to these types of studies as evidence that evolutionary processes can generate information-rich molecules from random sequences and transform existing biomolecules into ones with new or improved function.

    As a Christian apologist, I have to acknowledge that these scientists have a point. In principle, evolutionary mechanisms can generate bioinformation.2 But, I would argue that studies in in vitro evolution have failed to provide any evidence that evolutionary processes can generate information under the conditions of early Earth.

    As I discuss in Creating Life in the Lab, the process of in vitro evolution relies on a carefully developed experimental design and researcher intervention. The protocol begins with a large pool of RNA molecules with random nucleotide sequences, and hence, random structures. From this pool, researchers select (through the experiment’s design) RNA molecules with a predetermined set of chemical properties. These selected RNA molecules are recovered and their number amplified by the enzyme reverse transcriptase and the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). PCR also employs an enzyme, a DNA polymerase. The new RNA sequence is then randomly altered to generate a new pool of RNA molecules using another enzyme called T7 RNA polymerase, and the process is repeated again and again until RNA molecules with the desired chemical properties emerge. Production of the RNA self-replicators also required researchers to modify the structure of ribozymes generated by in vitro evolution using rational design principles to improve upon the ribozymes’ function.

    The “evolution” of RNA molecules in the laboratory is a carefully orchestrated process devised and managed by intelligent agents. Its success hinges on thoughtful experimental design. Researchers are manipulating the evolutionary process, guiding it to the desired outcome. It must be noted that essential to the success of in vitro evolution studies are the enzymes (protein molecules with a complex, fine-tuned structure), reverse transcriptase, T7 RNA polymerase, and DNA polymerase—molecules that would never have existed in an RNA world. It stretches the bounds of credulity to think that this process, or one like it, could have occurred naturally on early Earth.

    As thrilling as this most recent achievement is, origin-of-life researchers have fallen short of demonstrating that information-rich RNA molecules can evolve under the uncontrolled conditions of early Earth.

    It is ironic: The very experiments designed to bolster an evolutionary explanation for the origin of life provide powerful support for the role intelligent agency must play in the genesis of life.

    Resources
    Creating Life in the Lab: How New Discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case for the Creator by Fazale Rana (book)
    Too Good to be True: Evolution and the Origin of Bioinformation” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Intelligent Design: The Right Conclusion, but the Wrong Reasons” by Fazale Rana (article)
    Does New Approach Solve Origin-of-Life Problem?” by Fazale Rana (article)

    Endnotes
    1. David P. Horning and Gerald F. Joyce, “Amplification of RNA by an RNA Polymerase Ribozyme,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, published electronically August 15, 2016, doi:10.1073/pnas.1610103113.
    2. Some people might find it surprising that I would acknowledge this point, because many Christian apologists assert that evolutionary mechanisms cannot generate information. In my view, that claim is patently false, as work in in vitro evolution has demonstrated, time and time again.
  • Piltdown Man: The Fact and Fantasy of the Hominid Fossil Record

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Aug 24, 2016

    In high school and college, I played my fair share of practical jokes. While a few of the victims of my hoaxes appreciated my sense of humor, most were “not amused.” (To quote my high school English teacher Mrs. Hodges who, in turn, was quoting Queen Victoria: “Mr. Rana, we are not amused.”)

    Hoaxes aren’t just frowned upon in high school. They are really frowned upon in science. They undermine the integrity of the scientific process. And because of the damage they can cause, scientific hoaxes have been known to end careers.

    Perhaps one of the most significant scientific hoaxes ever took place around the turn of the last century, when Piltdown man fossils were discovered. These fossils—which turned out to be forgeries—were touted as the missing link in human evolution and misdirected paleoanthropology for nearly 40 years. Though many suspects have been identified, nobody knew who perpetrated this hoax—until now, thanks to the efforts of a multidisciplinary research team from the UK.1

    Piltdown Man

    In 1912, Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward reported on fossils recovered from ancient graves near Sussex, England. Pieces of a human-like cranium, a partial ape-like jaw, and a few worn-down molars were interpreted to come from an individual hominid (deemed Eoanthropus dawsoni). The fragments displayed the very features that evolutionary biologists expected to see in the missing link.

    Dawson and Woodward reported that their specimen was associated with other ancient mammal fossils, so they dated their find at about 500,000 years old.

    Piltdown man’s status as humanity’s ancestor gained further credence with Dawson’s 1915 report of a second specimen recovered near Sheffield Park (dubbed Piltdown man II).

    Exposing the Fraud

    However, after Raymond Dart discovered Australopithecus in 1924, some scientists began to think Dart’s newly recognized hominid—not Piltdown man—was the one that led to modern humans. Scientists further questioned Piltdown man’s importance as a transitional form in the 1930s when paleoanthropologists discovered and confirmed Pithecanthropus erectus and Sinanthropus pekinensis as ancient hominids. For some paleoanthropologists, Piltdown man was relegated to a mere evolutionary side branch. But still, Piltdown man cast a shadow over paleoanthropology, causing some scientists to question the significance of Dart’s finds and the hominids unearthed in China.

    The legendary Piltdown man forgery went unrecognized for nearly 40 years until a team of scientists exposed it as a fraud in 1953. Better dating of the site of Piltdown man’s discovery and careful chemical and morphological analysis of the fossil specimens ultimately exposed what Alexander Kohn (one-time editor of the Journal of Irreproducible Results) called “the most elaborate scientific hoax ever perpetuated.”2 The fossils were actually carefully doctored modern remains stained with a dye to make them appear old. The cranium pieces were human. The jaw bone fragment came from an orangutan. The teeth were carefully filed to fit the mandible and make them appear more human-like.

    So who is responsible for the Piltdown man forgery? Science historians have debated the perpetrator’s identity and the motivation behind his or her actions. Thanks to the work of the multidisciplinary team, we are closer to knowing who the perpetrator was. These scientists applied state-of-the-art analytical techniques to the Piltdown man fossils to gain better insight into the nature of the forgery. Using DNA analysis, they determined that the orangutan jaw bone and molars from Piltdown man and Piltdown man II specimens came from the same creature that lived in Borneo.

    Three-dimensional x-ray imaging indicated that the skull bones and teeth were all doctored in the same way. The same dental putty was used to fill bones and affix teeth to the mandible for Piltdown man I and II specimens. These results all point to the work of a single forger.

    Given the circumstances surrounding Piltdown man’s “discovery,” the evidence strongly points to Charles Dawson as the culprit. As the authors of the study point out:

    “Over the years, at least 20 others have been accused of being the perpetrator, but in many cases, the allegation also includes Dawson as co-conspirator. This is largely because the story originated with him, he brought the first specimens to Dr. Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the British Museum (Natural History) in 1912, nothing was ever found at the site when Dawson was not there, he is the only known person directly associated with the supposed finds at the second Piltdown site, the exact whereabouts of which he never revealed, and no further significant fossils, mammal or human, were discovered in the localities after his death in 1916.”3

    As impressive as this work is: Why spend so much effort to study fossil forgery? The rationale is two-fold. First, this study demonstrates the value of emerging techniques to shed light on age-old questions in paleoanthropology. Second, this project focuses renewed attention on the Piltdown man forgery—100 years after Dawson’s death—serving as a reminder of how powerful biases can influence interpretations of the fossil record.

    Science historians have long discussed why the scientific community so readily accepted Piltdown man as authentic, and why it took so long to recognize the discovery as a forgery, since (at least in retrospect) many indicators along this line were quite evident.

    These complex questions have complex answers. In part, the ready acceptance of Piltdown man stemmed from the eagerness to find the “missing link” to support Darwin’s model for human evolution with evidence from the fossil record. Piltdown man exactly fit the scientific community’s preconceived ideas as to what the transitional intermediate between humans and apes must look like. According to Kohn:

    “Scientists, contrary to lay belief, do not work by collecting only ‘hard’ facts and fitting together information based on them. Scientific investigation is also motivated by pursuit of recognition and fame, by hope and by prejudice. Dubious evidence is strengthened by strong hope: anomalies are fitted into a coherent picture with the help of cultural bias.”4

    To put it another way: Scientists are human, and from time to time their fallibility or bias can influence the scientific process. The scientists who took part in this study agree. Based on their investigation into the Piltdown man forgery, they acknowledge that:

    “It has opened our eyes to the scientific rigour required to avoid being deceived in the same manner as so many scientists were between 1912 and 1917. As scientists, we must not be led by preconceived ideas in the evaluation of new discoveries.”5

    I fully agree with the authors, but as a skeptic of the evolutionary paradigm I have to ask: Has a different type of bias colored the interpretation of hominid fossil record? Many biologists claim that human evolution is a fact. In light of this commitment, anthropologists interpret the hominid fossil record from a preconceived evolutionary perspective, in spite of the scientific challenges to human evolution that arise from the hominid finds. In my experience, few, if any, anthropologists are open to the possibility that evolutionary mechanisms alone may be insufficient to account for humanity’s origins, regardless of the evidence at hand.

    And, in my view, this bias has misdirected attempts to understand humanity’s origins for the last 150 years.

    Resources
    Q&A: Are There Transitional Intermediates in the Fossil Record?” by Fazale Rana (Article)
    The Amazing Disappearing Hominid!” by Fazale Rana (Article)
    A Key Transitional Form in Human Evolution May Not Have Existed” by Fazale Rana (Article)
    The Unreliability of Hominid Phylogenetic Analysis Challenges the Human Evolutionary Paradigm” by Fazale Rana (Article)
    Who Was Adam? by Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross (Book)

    Endnotes
    1. Isabelle De Groote et al., “New Genetic and Morphological Evidence Suggests a Single Hoaxer Created ‘Piltdown Man,’” Royal Society Open Science 3 (August 2016): 160328, doi:10.1098/rsos.160328.
    2. Alexander Kohn, False Prophets: Fraud and Error in Science and Medicine, rev. ed. (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 133.
    3. De Groote, “New Genetic and Morphological Evidence.”
    4. Kohn, False Prophets, 140.
    5. De Groote, “New Genetic and Morphological Evidence.”
  • DNA: Designed for Flexibility

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Aug 17, 2016

    Over the years I’ve learned that flexibility is key to a happy and successful life. If you are too rigid, it can create problems for you and others and rob you of joy.

    Recently, a team of collaborators from Duke University and several universities in the US discovered that DNA displays unexpected structural flexibility. As it turns out, this property appears to be key to life.1 In contrast, the researchers showed that RNA (DNA’s biochemical cousin) is extremely rigid, highlighting another one of DNA’s unique structural properties that make it ideal as the cell’s information storage system.

    To appreciate DNA’s uniquely optimal properties, a review of this important biomolecule’s structure is in order.

    DNA

    DNA consists of two chain-like molecules (polynucleotides) that twist around each other to form the DNA double helix. The cell’s machinery forms polynucleotide chains by linking together four different sub-unit molecules called nucleotides. DNA is built from the nucleotides: adenosine, guanosine, cytidine, and thymine, famously abbreviated A, G, C, and T, respectively.

    In turn, the nucleotide molecules that make up the strands of DNA are complex molecules, consisting of both a phosphate moiety, and a nucleobase (either adenine, guanine, cytosine, or thymine) joined to a 5-carbon sugar (deoxyribose). (In RNA, the five-carbon sugar ribose replaces deoxyribose.)

    blog__inline--dna-designed-for-flexibility-1 

    Image 1: Nucleotide Structure

    The backbone of the DNA strand is formed when the cell’s machinery repeatedly links the phosphate group of one nucleotide to the deoxyribose unit of another nucleotide. The nucleobases extend as side chains from the backbone of the DNA molecule and serve as interaction points (like ladder rungs) when the two DNA strands align and twist to form the double helix.

    blog__inline--dna-designed-for-flexibility-2 

    Image 2: The DNA Backbone

    When the two DNA strands align, the adenine (A) side chains of one strand always pair with thymine (T) side chains from the other strand. Likewise, the guanine (G) side chains from one DNA strand always pair with cytosine (C) side chains from the other strand.

    When the side chains pair, they form cross bridges between the two DNA strands. The length of the A-T and GC cross bridges is nearly identical. Adenine and guanine are both composed of two rings and thymine (uracil) and cytosine are composed of one ring. Each cross bridge consists of three rings.

    When A pairs with T, two hydrogen bonds mediate the interaction between these two nucleobases. Three hydrogen bonds accommodate the interaction between G and C. The specificity of the hydrogen bonding interactions accounts for the A-T and G-C base-pairing rules.

    blog__inline--dna-designed-for-flexibility-3 

    Image 3: Watson-Crick Base Pairs

    Watson-Crick and Hoogsteen Base Pairing

    In DNA (and in RNA double helixes), the base pairing interactions occur at precise locations between the A and T nucleobases and the G and C nucleobases, respectively. Biochemists refer to these exacting interactions as Watson-Crick base pairing. However, in 1959—six years after Francis Crick and James Watson published their structure for DNA—a biochemist named Karst Hoogsteen discovered another way—albeit, rare—that the A and T nucleobases and the G and C nucleobases pair, called Hoogsteen base pairing.

    Hoogsteen base pairing results when the nucleobase attached to the sugar rotates by 180°. Because of the dynamics of the DNA molecule, this nucleobase rotation occurs occasionally, converting a Watson-Crick base pair into a Hoogsteen base pair. However, the same dynamics will eventually revert the Hoogsteen base pair to a Watson-Crick pairing. Hoogsteen base pairs aren’t preferred because they cause a distortion in the DNA double helix. For a “naked” piece of DNA in a test tube, at any point in time, about 1 percent of the base pairs are of the Hoogsteen variety.

    blog__inline--dna-designed-for-flexibility-4 

    Image 4: Watson-Crick and Hoogsteen Base Pairs
    Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    While rare in naked DNA, biochemists have recently discovered that the Hoogsteen configuration occurs frequently when: 1) proteins bind to DNA; 2) DNA is methylated; and 3) DNA is damaged. Biochemists now think that Hoogsteen base pairing is important to maintain the stability of the DNA double helix, ensuring the integrity of the information stored in the DNA molecule.

    According to Hashim Al-Hashimi, “There is an amazing complexity built into these simple beautiful structures, whole new layers or dimensions that we have been blinded to because we didn’t have the tools to see them, until now.”2

    It looks like the capacity to form Hoogsteen base pairs is a unique property of DNA. Al-Hashimi and his team failed to detect any evidence for Hoogsteen base pairs in double helixes made up of two strands of RNA. When they chemically attached a methyl group to the nucleobases of RNA to block the formation of Watson-Crick base pairs and force Hoogsteen base pairing, they discovered that the RNA double helix fell apart. Unlike the DNA double—which is flexible—the RNA double helix is rigid and cannot tolerate a distortion to its structure. Instead, the RNA strands can only dissociate.

    It turns out that the flexibility of DNA and the rigidity of RNA is explained by the absence of a hydroxyl group in the 2’ position of the deoxyribose sugar of DNA and the presence of the 2’ hydroxyl group on ribose sugar of RNA, respectively. The 2’ position is the only structural difference between the two sugars. The presence or absence of the 2’ hydroxyl group makes all the difference. The deoxyribose ring can more freely adopt alternate conformations (called puckering) than the ribose ring, leading to differences in double helix flexibility.

    blog__inline--dna-designed-for-flexibility-5 

    Image 5: Difference between Deoxyribose and Ribose

    This difference makes DNA ideally suited as an information storage molecule. Because of its ability to form Hoogsteen base pairs, the DNA double helix remains intact, even when the molecule becomes chemically damaged. It also makes it possible for the cell’s machinery to control the expression of the genetic information harbored in DNA through protein binding and DNA methylation.

    It is intriguing that DNA’s closet biochemical analogue lacks this property.

    It appears that DNA has been optimized for data storage and retrieval. This property is critical for DNA’s capacity to store genetic information. DNA harbors the information needed for the cell’s machinery to make proteins. It also houses the genetic information passed on to subsequent generations. If DNA isn’t stable, then the information it harbors will become distorted or lost. This will have disastrous consequences for the cell’s day-to-day operations and make long-term survival of life impossible.

    As I discuss in The Cell’s Design, flexibility is not the only feature of DNA that has been optimized. Other chemical and biochemical features appear to be carefully chosen to ensure its stability; again, a necessary property for a molecule that harbors the genetic information.

    Optimized biochemical systems comprise evidence for biochemical intelligent design. Optimization of an engineered system doesn’t just happen—it results from engineers carefully developing their designs. It requires forethought, planning, and careful attention to detail. In the same way, the optimized features of DNA logically point to the work of a Divine engineer.

    Resources
    DNA Soaks Up Sun’s Rays” by Fazale Rana (Article)
    The Cell’s Design by Fazale Rana (Book)
    The Cell’s Design: The Proper Arrangement of Elements” by Fazale Rana (Podcast)

    Endnotes
    1. Huiqing Zhou et al., “m1A and m1G Disrupt A-RNA Structure through the Intrinsic Instability of Hoogsteen Base Pairs,” Nature Structure and Molecular Biology, published electronically August 1, 2016, doi:10.1038/nsmb.3270.
    2. Duke University, “DNA’s Dynamic Nature Makes It Well-Suited to Serve as the Blueprint of Life,” Science News (blog), ScienceDaily, August 1, 2016, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/08/160801113823.htm.
  • Can Keratin in Feathers Survive for Millions of Years?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Aug 10, 2016

    I don’t like conflict. In fact, I try to avoid it whenever possible. And that’s part of the reason I never wanted to become directly involved in the young-earth/old-earth controversy that takes place within the church.

    Frankly, I find the debate tedious, and a distraction from the real work at hand: helping skeptics and seekers recognize the scientific evidence for God’s existence and Scripture’s reliability.

    Of course, if people ask me age-of-the-earth questions, I am quick to explain why I hold to an old-earth/day-age interpretation for Genesis 1 and what I see as biblical, theological, and scientific issues with a young-earth/calendar day interpretation of the Genesis 1 creation account.

    Soft Tissues in Fossils and the Age of the Earth

    Over the course of the last few years, one question that has come up a lot relates to the discovery of soft tissue remnants in fossils, such as the blood cells and blood vessels remains recovered from a T. rex specimen that age-dates to 68 million years old. Young earth creationists make use of these surprising results to argue that it is impossible for fossils to be millions of years old. They argue that soft tissues shouldn’t survive that long. These materials should readily degrade in a few thousand years. In their view, these finds challenge the reliability of radiometric dating methods used to determine the age of these fossils, and along with it, Earth’s antiquity. Instead, they argue that these breakthrough discoveries provide compelling scientific evidence for a young Earth and support the idea that the fossil record results from a recent global (worldwide) flood.

    Because I’m a biochemist—and an old earth creationist—people frequently ask me how I make sense of the T. rex find and the discovery of other types of soft tissue remnants in the fossil remains of other creatures that age-date to several hundred million years, in some cases.

    Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth

    These queries eventually motivated me to write Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth. And I am glad I did. Aside from the young-earth/old-earth debate, the scientific questions related to soft tissue finds in fossils are captivating.

    The central question of Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth centers around soft tissue durability: If radiometric dating is reliable, then how is it possible for soft tissue remnants to persist for millions of years?

    Recent work by a research team at North Carolina State University (NC State)—headed up by Mary Schweitzer—helps address this question, specifically focusing on beta-keratin fragments recovered from the fossilized feathers and claws of Shuvuuia deserti and Rahonavis ostromi.1

    How Can Keratin Survive in Fossils?

    As I discuss in Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, some biomolecules (such as keratins) form extremely stable structures that delay their degradation. Keratins have a number of structural features (such as extensive crosslinking) that helps explain why fragments of these proteins could survive for tens of millions of years, under the right conditions.2 But my analysis was theoretical. Even though my assessment was based on sound biochemical principles, it would be nice to have some corroborating experimental evidence to support my claims. (The old saying in science applies: “theories guide, experiments decide.”) And that is precisely what the NC State researchers provide in their recent study.

    Feather Decomposition

    Schweitzer and her team conducted a ten-year experiment to gain insight into the natural degradation processes of feathers (and other biological materials made up of keratins such as skin, claws, beaks, and hair). To do this, they exposed feathers from a Hungarian partridge to a variety of conditions, and then analyzed the samples busing: (1) transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to monitor changes in the fine structure of the feather’s anatomy; and (2) a technique called in situ immunofluorescence to determine if pieces of keratin proteins persisted in the feather remains.

    Of particular interest is the feather samples Schweitzer and her team wrapped in aluminum foil and heated in an oven for 10 years at 630°F—conditions used to sterilize glassware. Many paleontologists consider high heat to be a proxy for deep time.

    Perhaps it is no surprise, when viewed under a microscope, the macroscopic features of feathers treated at high temperatures were completely lost. Instead the only thing visible were shiny black pieces of “charcoal-like” material. Yet, when examined at high magnification with a TEM, the investigators were able to visualize fragments of feather barbs. Using their immunofluorescence technique, the researchers were able to detect clear evidence of keratin fragments in the sample.

    These observations align with my thoughts about keratin’s durability, making it all the more reasonable to think that soft tissue remnants persist in millions-of-years old fossil remains. In fact, when the researchers applied their immunofluorescence to the Shuvuuia deserti samples, once again, they found evidence for keratin fragments in these fossil remains.

    Preservation Mechanisms

    As I point out in Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, molecular durability alone isn’t sufficient to account for soft tissue survivability. For soft tissue remnants to persist in fossil, the rate of fossilization has to outpace the rate of soft tissue degradation. When that happens, a mineral ‘casing’ will entomb the soft tissue before it completely decomposes, preserving it for paleontologists to later discover. In addition to molecular durability, scientists have identified a number of mechanisms that contribute to both the degradation and preservation of soft tissues during the process of burial and fossilization.

    Along these lines, the NC State scientists speculate on processes that might extend keratin’s survivability in feathers—at least, long enough for mineral entombment to occur. They think one of their observations about the high-heat sample offers a clue. The research team noted that melanosomes (the organelles that harbor pigments, giving feathers their colors) were absent after heating for ten years at 630°F. On this basis, they conclude that paleontologists have made a mistake when they interpret microbodies as melanosomes in fossilized feathers. Instead, they think that the mirobodies derive from microbes.

    This reinterpretation is good news for keratin preservation on two accounts. It is true that microbial activity can destroy soft tissues, but the NC State scientists think it can also help speed up the fossilization process leading to the preservation of keratin remnants. How? Because microbes secrete materials (called exopolymeric substances) that promote deposition of minerals, speeding up the entombment of the soft tissue. Additionally, the NC State researchers think that melanosome degradation may also be important. When these organelles break down, they release their contents (eumelanin) which may function like a fixative, slowing down tissue degradation long enough for the soft tissue to be entombed.

    The NC State study has unearthed fascinating details regarding feather decomposition and provides key insights that help account for the persistence of keratin in fossilized remains of reptiles, birds, and feathered dinosaurs that date to tens of millions of years old.

    Resources
    Structure of Collagen Unravels the Case for a Young Earth” by Fazale Rana (Article)
    Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth by Fazale Rana (Book)

    Endnotes
    1. Alison Moyer, Wenxia Zheng, and Mary Schweitzer, “Keratin Durability Has Implications for the Fossil Record: Results from a 10 Year Feather Degradation Experiment,” PLoS One 11 (July 2016): e0157699, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0157699.
    2. Fazale Rana, Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2016), 57–58.
  • The Evolution of the Automobile: Evidence for Intelligent Design

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Aug 03, 2016

    “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

    As the story goes, baseball player and manager Yogi Berra first uttered this famous yogi-ism sitting in the dugout watching Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit back-to-back home runs. Something that happened on more than one occasion.

    Yogi Berra’s verbal blunders are legendary. But, perhaps none top the blunder made by biologist Tim Berra. Berra’s blunder didn’t have anything to do with what he said, but with what he wrote in his book Evolution and the Myth of Creationism, published in 1990.

    Berra’s Blunder

    Targeting a nontechnical audience, Berra presented a case for biological evolution and explained why he and so many scientists think evolution is a fact. As part of this project, he described the evidence for human evolution, highlighting the progressive features of the hominid fossil record. Berra argues,

    “If the australopithecines, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus were alive today, and if we could parade them before the world, there could be no doubt about our relatedness to them. It would be like attending an auto show. If you look at a 1953 Corvette and compare it to the latest model, only the most general resemblances are evident, but if you compare a 1953 and a 1954 Corvette, side by side, then a 1954 and 1955 model, and so on, the descent with modification is overwhelmingly obvious. This is what paleontologists do with fossils, and the evidence is so solid and comprehensive that it cannot be denied by reasonable people.”1

    In comparing Corvette models with “transitional intermediates” in the fossil record, Berra made a significant error that has become known among creationists and ID proponents as Berra’s blunder. It almost goes without saying, Berra’s mistake was to use Corvettes—machines designed by automotive engineers—as an analogy for the hominid fossil record, claiming that sequential anatomical changes among the various hominid species reflect the outworking of an unguided evolutionary process in the same way that sequential design changes to Corvettes reflect the evolution of technology. But, as pointed out at that time by several creationists and intelligent design proponents, the Corvette sequence actually tells us something about how intelligent agents sometimes create: namely, designers can attain their goals by progressively modifying existing designs. To put it another way, the chronological appearance of organisms in the fossil record displaying serial changes to their anatomical, physiological, and behavioral features could be explained as the work of a Creator who was successively producing creatures that displayed modifications of an archetypical design. In this sense, the fossil record doesn’t necessarily compel reasonable people to accept biological evolution any more than does the evolution of the American automobile.

    The sequential changes seen in the fossil record just as reasonably reflect the work of a mind as mechanism.

    Déjà Vu Once More

    Recently, researchers from UCLA made the same blunder as Tim Berra—all over again!2 These investigators wanted to understand the principles that influence the tempo and mode for technology development in a society. As a case study, these investigators examined the appearance and disappearance of American car and truck models manufactured between 1896 (when automobiles were first produced) and 2014, using the same approach that paleontologists might use to study the fossil record. Specifically, they monitored the year-by-year diversity of automobile models, paying special attention to the number of new models that were produced (analogous to speciation) each year and the number of discontinued models (analogous to extinction).

    These researchers also explored the factors influencing the diversity of automobile models each year. Particularly, they assessed the effects of competition, and the impact of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and oil prices.

    Their analysis indicates that the “origination” and “extinction” rates of automobile models displayed highly similar patterns over the course of the last 118 years. In both cases, origination and extinction rates were highest early in the automobile’s history, gradually declining to lower rates over time. The rates of decline dramatically slowed in the 1960s when the Big Three auto manufacturers rose to dominance in the American market place. Since the 1980s, the rate of automobile model extinction has outpaced the appearance rate of new models. However, during this time frame, the lifespan of automobile models has significantly increased.

    The UCLA researchers also discovered that completion has had a much greater influence on automobile diversity than GDP and oil prices.

    Based on these results, the authors of this study argue that when a technology is in its early stages, manufacturers introduce more experimental designs into the marketplace. But because these designs are experimental, they also disappear more rapidly. They maintain that the appearance and disappearance rates slow as dominant designs emerge. When that happens, it becomes too costly to introduce experimental models into the marketplace. Eventually, cost becomes such a significant factor that it causes the life expectancy of designs to persist for longer time periods.

    Based on this study, the UCLA scientists predict that in the near future the number of hybrid and electric car designs will rapidly diversify—a radiation event, of sorts—because these technologies are in their nascent stages.

    The Fossil Record and the Case for Creation

    The UCLA researchers demonstrated that some of the techniques paleontologists use to study the fossil record—and hence, the history of life on Earth—can yield important insights about the way cultures and technologies change and develop. However, as with Berra’s blunder, they treated designed objects as if they were fossils, which, according to the evolutionary paradigm, are produced by unguided, mechanistic processes. The approach the UCLA research team used to study technology development, once again, highlights the fact that the sequential changes seen in the fossil record just as reasonably reflect the work of a mind as mechanism.

    But, it is possible to take the implications of their work one step further. Not only can we argue that the progressive anatomical changes observed in fossilized organisms reflect the Creator’s handiwork, but so do overall patterns in the fossil record. The UCLA study demonstrates that when it comes to technology produced by human designers, the number of design variants and the rate that designs appear and disappear from the marketplace have a rational basis. Though the rationale may be different than what the UCLA researchers discovered for the automobile’s evolution, it becomes all the more reasonable to view changes in biological diversity and origination and extinction rates in the fossil record as reflecting a Creator’s intentional activity.

    In other words, the evidence (the fossil record and homology) that biologists insist provides compelling support for the evolutionary paradigm actually finds ready explanation from a creation model perspective.

    Resources

    Archetype or Ancestor? Sir Richard Owen and the Case for Design” by Fazale Rana (Article)

    Endnotes
    1. Tim Berra, Evolution and the Myth of Creationism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 117.
    2. Erik Gjesfjeld et al., “Competition and Extinction Explain the Evolution of Diversity in American Automobiles,” Palgrave Communications 2 (May 2016): 16019, doi:10.1057/palcomms.2016.19.
  • Science News Flash: Are Humans Still Evolving?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Aug 01, 2016

    Are human beings divinely created? Or are we the product of an evolutionary history? Or both?

    Nearly everyone has some interest in human origins. And for that reason, it’s not surprising that discoveries in anthropology frequently garner headlines and serve as fodder for popular science pieces.

    Recently, paleoanthropologist John Hawks from the University of Wisconsin-Madison wrote an excellent piece for the August 2016 edition of The Scientist entitled, “Humans Never Stopped Evolving.” In this article, Hawks discusses a number of recent studies that identify natural selection at work in human beings and presents scientific updates on several well-known examples of evolutionary changes in humans, such as the ability to digest milk sugar and the origin of regional differences (racial diversity).

    In all cases, the underlying implication is: If we observe human evolution happening before our eyes—time and time againthen we have clear-cut evidence that human beings evolved. But is that really the case? Is that the proper conclusion to draw from these scientific observations?

    I would say, no.

    From a creationist perspective, that the ability of humans (and other creatures) to adapt through microevolutionary change is evidence for God’s provision and providence.

    The evolutionary changes described by Hawks are merely examples of microevolutionary changes—variation within a species. In fact, it could be argued from a creationist perspective that the ability of humans (and other creatures) to adapt through microevolutionary change is evidence for God’s provision and providence.

    Hawks’ examples of human evolution fall into the same category as (1) the acquisition of antibiotic resistance by bacteria; (2) the development of pesticide and herbicide resistance by insects and plants; (3) the change in wing color of the peppered moth; and (4) the variation in beak shape by the finches on the Galapagos Islands.

    These common examples of evolutionary changes are often cited as evidence for biological evolution. Microevolutionary changes, however, don’t necessarily extend to support macroevolutionary changes (the creation of biological novelty through undirected evolutionary processes). And there are many reasons—see Who Was Adam?—to be skeptical of evolutionary explanations for the origin of humanity.

    Evidence for human microevolution does not constitute evidence for human evolution.

    Resources
    Evidence That Humans Are Evolving Is Not Evidence for Human Evolution” by Fazale Rana (Article)
    Human Evolution Speeding Up” (Podcast)
    Modern Life’s Pressures May Be Hastening Human Evolution” (Podcast)
    Who Was Adam? by Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross (Book)
    RTB Live! Vol. 15: Exploring the Origin of the Races with Fazale Rana (DVD)

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