Where Science and Faith Converge
  • Do Plastic-Eating Bacteria Dump the Case for Creation?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Jul 18, 2018

    At the risk of stating the obvious: Plastics are an indispensable part of our modern world. Yet, plastic materials cause untold problems for the environment. One of the properties that makes plastics so useful also makes them harmful. Plastics don’t readily degrade.

    Recently, researchers discovered a new strain of bacteria that had recently evolved the ability to degrade plastics. These microbes may help solve some of the environmental problems caused by plastics, but their evolution seemingly causes new problems for people who hold the view that a Creator is responsible for life’s origin and design. But, is this really the case? To find out, we need to break down this discovery.

    One plastic in widespread use today is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This polymer was patented in the 1940s and became widely used in the 1970s. Most people are familiar with PET because it is used to make drinking bottles.

    This material is produced by reacting ethylene glycol with terephthalic acid (both produced from petroleum). Crystalline in nature, this plastic is a durable material that is difficult to break down, because of the inaccessibility of the ester linkages that form between the terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol subunits that make up the polymer backbone.

    PET can be recycled, thereby mitigating its harmful effects on the environment. A significant portion of PET is mechanically recycled by converting it into fibers used to manufacture carpets.

    In principle, PET could be recycled by chemically breaking the ester linkages holding the polymer together. When the ester linkages are cleaved, ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid are the breakdown products. These recovered starting materials could be reused to make more PET. Unfortunately, chemical recycling of PET is expensive and difficult to carry out because of the inaccessibility of the ester linkages. In fact, it is cheaper to produce PET from petroleum products than from the recycled monomers.

    Can Bacteria Recycle PET?

    An interesting advance took place in 2016 that has important implications for PET recycling. A team of Japanese researchers discovered a strain of the bacterium Ideonella sakaiensis that could break down PET into terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol.1 This strain was discovered by screening wastewater, soil, sediments, and sludge from a PET recycling facility. The microbe produces two enzymes, dubbed PETase and MHETase, that work in tandem to convert PET into its constituent monomers.

    Evolution in Action

    Researchers think that this microbe acquired DNA from the environment or another microbe via horizontal gene transfer. Presumably, this DNA fragment harbored the genes for cutinase, an enzyme that breaks down ester linkages. Once the I. sakaiensis strain picked up the DNA and incorporated it into its genome, the cutinase gene must have evolved so that it now encodes the information to produce two enzymes with the capacity to break down PET. Plus, this new capability must have evolved rather quickly, over the span of a few decades.

    PETase Structure and Evolution

    In an attempt to understand how PETase and MHETase evolved and how these two enzymes might be engineered for recycling and bioremediation purposes, a team of investigators from the University of Plymouth determined the structure of PETase with atomic level detail.2 They learned that this enzyme has the structural components characteristic of a family of enzymes called alpha/beta hydrolases. Based on the amino acid sequence of the PETase, the researchers concluded that its closest match to any existing enzyme is to a cutinase produced by the bacterium Thermobifida fusca. One of the most significant differences between these two enzymes is found at their active sites. (The active site is the location on the enzyme surface that binds the compounds that the enzyme chemically alters.) The active site of the PETase is broader than the T. fusca cutinase, allowing it to accommodate PET polymers.

    As researchers sought to understand how PETase evolved from cutinase, they engineered amino acid changes in PETase, hoping to revert it to a cutinase. To their surprise, the resulting enzyme was even more effective at degrading PET than the PETase found in nature.

    This insight does not help explain the evolutionary origin of PETase, but the serendipitous discovery does point the way to using engineered PETases for recycling and bioremediation. One could envision spraying this enzyme (or the bacterium I. sakaiensis) onto a landfill or in patches of plastics floating in the Earth’s oceans. Or alternatively using this enzyme at recycling facilities to generate the PET monomers.

    As a Christian, I find this discovery exciting. Advances such as these will help us do a better job as planetary caretakers and as stewards of God’s creation, in accord with the mandate given to us in Genesis 1.

    But, this discovery does raise a question: Does the evolution of a PET-eating bacterium prove that evolution is true? Does this discovery undermine the case for creation? After all, it is evolution happening right before our eyes.

    Is Evolution in Action Evidence for Evolution?

    To answer this question, we need to recognize that the term “evolution” can take on a variety of meanings. Each one reflects a different type of biological transformation (or presumed transformation).

    It is true that organisms can change as their environment changes. This occurs through mutations to the genetic material. In rare circumstances, these mutations can create new biochemical and biological traits, such as the ones that produced the strain of I. sakaiensis that can degrade PET. If these new traits help the organism survive, it will reproduce more effectively than organisms lacking the trait. Over time, this new trait will take hold in the population, causing a transformation of the species.

    And this is precisely what happened with I. sakaiensis. However, microbial evolution is not controversial. Most creationists and intelligent design proponents acknowledge evolution at this scale. In a sense, it is not surprising that single-celled microbes can evolve, given their extremely large population sizes and capacity to take up large pieces of DNA from their surroundings and incorporate it into their genomes.

    Yet, I. sakaiensis is still I. sakaiensis. In fact, the similarity between PETase and cutinases indicates that only a few amino acid changes can explain the evolutionary origin of new enzymes. Along these lines, it is important to note that both cutinase and PETase cleave ester linkages. The difference between these two enzymes involves subtle structural differences triggered by altering a few amino acids. In other words, the evolution of a PET-degrading bacterium is easy to accomplish through a form of biochemical microevolution.

    But just because microbes can undergo limited evolution at a biochemical level does not mean that evolutionary mechanisms can account for the origin of biochemical systems and the origin of life. That is an unwarranted leap. This study is evidence for microbial evolution, nothing more.

    Though this advance can help us in our planetary stewardship role, this study does not provide the type of evidence needed to explain the origin of biochemistry and, hence, the origin of life through evolutionary means. Nor does it provide the type of evidence needed to explain the evolutionary origin of lifes major groups. Evolutionary biologists must develop appropriate evidence for these putative transformations, and so far, they haven’t.

    Evidence of microbial evolution in action is not evidence for the evolutionary paradigm.

    Resources:

    Endnotes
    1. Shosuke Yoshida et al., “A Bacterium that Degrades and Assimilates Poly(ethylene terephthalate)” Science 351 (March 11, 2016): 1196–99, doi:10.1126/science.aad6359.
    2. Harry P. Austin, et al., “Characterization and Engineering of a Plastic-Degrading Aromatic Polyesterase,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA (April 17, 2018): preprint, doi:10.1073/pnas.1718804115.
  • Sophisticated Cave Art Evinces the Image of God

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | May 23, 2018

    It’s a new trend in art. Museums and galleries all over the world are exploring the use of sounds, smells, and lighting to enhance the viewer’s experience as they interact with pieces of art. The Tate Museum in London is one institution pioneering this innovative approach to experiencing artwork. For example, on display recently at Tate’s Sensorium was Irish artist Francis Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape, a piece that depicts a gray human figure on a bench. Visitors to the Sensorium put on headphones while they view this painting, and they hear sounds of a busy city. Added to the visual and auditory experiences are the bitter burnt smell of chocolate and the sweet aroma of oranges that engulf the viewer. This multisensory experience is meant to depict a lonely, brooding figure lost in the never-ending activities of a city, with the contrasting aromas simultaneously communicating the harshness and warmth of life in an urban setting.

    It goes without saying that designing multisensory experiences like the ones on display at the Sensorium requires expertise in sound, taste, and lighting. This expertise makes recent discoveries on ancient cave and rock art found throughout the world all the more remarkable. As it turns out, the cave and rock art found in Europe, Asia, and Africa are multisensory displays.1 The sophistication of this early art highlights the ingenuity of the first artists—modern humans, who were people just like us.

    Cave Art

    Though many people have the perception that cave and rock art is crude and simplistic, in fact, it is remarkably sophisticated. For example, the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France houses cave art that dates (using carbon-14 measurements) to two periods: 28,000 to 31,000 years ago and 33,500 to 37,000 years ago. These cave sites house realistic depictions of hundreds of animals including herbivores such as horses, cattle, and mammoths. The art also depicts rhinos and carnivores such as cave lions, panthers, bears, and hyenas. The site also contains hand stencils and geometric shapes, such as lines and dots.

    The Chauvet Cave human artists painted the animal figures on areas of the cave walls that they polished to make smooth and lighter in color. They also made incisions and etchings around the outline of the painted figures to create a three-dimensional quality to the art and to give the figures a sense of movement.

    Multisensory Cave Art

    One of the most intriguing aspects of cave art is its location in caves. Oftentimes, the animal figures are depicted deep within the cave’s interior, at unusual locations for the placement of cave paintings.

    Recently, archaeologists have offered an explanation for the location of the cave art. It appears as if the artists made use of the caves’ acoustical properties to create a multisensory experience. To say it another way, the cave art is depicted in areas of the caves where the sounds in that area of the cave reinforce the cave paintings. For example, hoofed animals are often painted in areas of the caves where the echoes and reverberations make percussive sounds like those made by thundering hooves when these animals are running. Carnivores are often depicted in areas of the caves that are unusually quiet.

    San Rock Art

    Recently, researchers have discovered that the rock art produced by the San (indigenous hunter-gatherer people from Southern Africa), the oldest of which dates to about 70,000 years ago, also provides viewers a multisensory experience.2 Archaeologists believe that the art depicted on the rocks reflects the existence of a spirit world beneath the surface. These rock paintings are often created in areas where echoes can be heard, presumably reflecting the activities of the spirit world.

    Who Made the Cave and Rock Art?

    Clearly, the first human artists were sophisticated. But, when did this sophisticated behavior emerge? The discovery of art in Europe and Asia indicates that the first humans who made their way out of Africa as they migrated around the world carried with them the capacity for art. To put it another way, the capacity for art did not emerge in humans after they reached Europe, but instead was an intrinsic part of human nature before we began to make our way around the world.

    The discovery of symbolic artifacts as old as 80,000 years in age in caves in South Africa (artistic expression is a manifestation of the capacity to represent the world with symbols) and the dating of the oldest San rock art at 70,000 years in age adds support to this view.

    Linguist Shigeru Miyagawa points out that genetic evidence indicates that the San separated from the rest of humanity around 125,000 years ago. While the San remained in Africa, the group of humans who separated from the San and made their way into Asia and Europe came from a separate branch of humanity. And yet, the art produced by the San displays the same multisensory character as the art found in Europe and Asia. To say it another way, the rock art of the San and the cave art in Europe and Asia display unifying characteristics. These unifying features indicate that the art share the same point of origin. Given that the data seems to indicate that humanity’s origin is about 150,000 years ago, it appears that the origin of art coincides closely to the time that modern humans appear in the fossil record.3

    Cave Art and Rock Evince the Biblical View of Human Nature

    The sophistication of the earliest art highlights the exceptional nature of the first artists—modern humans, people just like you and me. The capacity to produce art reflects the capacity for symbolism—a quality that appears to be unique to human beings, a quality contributing to our advanced cognitive abilities, and a quality that contributes to our exceptional nature. As a Christian, I view symbolism (and artistic expression) as one of the facets of God’s image. And, as such, I would assert that the latest insights on cave art provide scientific credibility for the biblical view of human nature.

    Resources

    Endnotes
    1. Shigeru Miyagawa, Cora Lesure, and Vitor A. Nóbrega, “Cross-Modality Information Transfer: A Hypothesis about the Relationship among Prehistoric Cave Paintings, Symbolic Thinking, and the Emergence of Language,” Frontiers in Psychology 9 (February 20, 2018): 115, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00115.
    2. Francis Thackery, “Eland, Hunters and Concepts of ‘Symapthetic Control’: Expressed in Southern African Rock Art,’ Cambridge Archaeological Journal 15 (2005): 27–35, doi:10.1017/S0959774305000028.
    3. Miyagawa et al., “Cross-Modality Information Transfer,” 115.
  • A Genetically Engineered Case for a Creator

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | May 09, 2018

    Since the 1960’s, the drug noscapine has been used in many parts of the world as a non-narcotic cough-suppressant. Recently, biomedical researchers have learned that that noscapine (and chemically-modified derivatives of this drug) has potential as a cancer drug. And that is nothing to sneeze at.

    The use of the drug for nearly a half century as a cough suppressant means the safety of noscapine has already been established. In fact, pre-clinical studies indicate that noscapine has fewer side effects than many anti-cancer drugs.

    Unfortunately, the source of noscapine is opium poppies. Even though tens of tons of noscapine is isolated each year from thousands of tons of raw plant material, biochemical engineers question if the agricultural supply line can meet the extra demand if noscapine finds use as an anti-cancer agent. Estimates indicate that the amounts of noscapine needed for cancer treatments would be about ten times the amount currently produced for its use as a cough suppressant. Complicating matters are the extensive regulations and bureaucratic red tape associated with growing poppy plants and extracting chemical materials from them.

    It takes about 1 year to grow mature poppy plants. And once grown, the process of isolating pure noscapine is time intensive and expensive. This drug has to be separated from narcotics and other chemicals found in the opium extract, and then purified. Because poppy plants are an agricultural product, considerable batch-to-batch variation occurs for noscapine supplies.

    Chemists have developed synthetic routes to make noscapine. But, these chemical routes are too complex and costly to scale up for large scale production of this drug.

    But, researchers from Stanford University believe that they have come up with a solution to the noscapine supply problem. They have genetically engineered brewer’s yeast to produce large quantities of noscapine.1 This work demonstrates the power of synthetic biology to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. But, the importance of this work extends beyond science and technology. This work has significant theological implications, as well. This work provides empirical proof that intelligent agency is necessary for the large-scale transformation of life forms.

    Genetically Engineered Yeast

    To modify brewer’s yeast to produce noscapine, the Stanford University research team had to: 1) first, construct a biosynthetic pathway that would convert simple carbon- and nitrogen-containing compounds into noscapine, and then, 2) add genes to the yeast’s genome that would produce the enzymes needed to carry out this transformation. Specifically, they added 25 genes from plants, bacteria, and mammals to this microbe’s genome. On top of the gene additions, they also had to modify 6 of genes in the yeast’s genome.

    Biosynthetic pathways that yield complex molecules such as noscapine can be rather elaborate. Enzymes form these pathways. These protein machines bind molecules and convert them into new materials by facilitating chemical reactions. In biosynthetic pathways the starting molecule is modified by the first enzyme in the pathway and after its transformation is shuttled to the second enzyme in the pathway. This process continues until the original molecule is converted step-by-step into the final product.

    Designing a biosynthetic route from scratch would be nearly impossible. Fortunately, the team from Stanford took advantage of previous work done by other life scientists who have characterized the metabolic reactions that produce noscapine in opium poppies. These pioneering researchers have identified a cluster of 10 genes that encode enzymes that work collaboratively to convert the compound scoulerine to noscapine.

    The Stanford University researchers used these 10 poppy genes as the basis for the noscapine biosynthetic route they designed. They expanded this biosynthetic pathway by using genes that encode for the enzymes that convert glucose into reticuline. This compound is converted into scoulerine by the berberine bridge enzyme. They discovered that the conversion of glucose to reticuline is tricky, because one of the intermediary compounds in the pathway is dopamine. Life scientists don’t have a good understanding how this compound is made in poppies, so they used the genes that encode the enzymes to make dopamine from rats.

    They discovered that when they added all of these genes into the yeast, these modified microbes produced noscapine, but at very low levels. At this point, the research team carried out a series of steps to optimize noscapine production, which included:

    • Genetically altering some of the enzymes in the noscapine biosynthetic pathway to improve their efficiency
    • Manipulating other metabolic pathways (by altering the expression of the genes that encode enzymes in these metabolic routes) to divert the maximum amounts of metabolic intermediates into the newly constructed noscapine pathway
    • Varying the media used to grow the yeast

    These steps led to an 18,000-fold improvement in noscapine production.

    With accomplishment, the scientific community is one step closer to have a commercially-viable source of noscapine.

    Synthetic Biology and the Case for a Creator

    Without question, the engineering of brewer’s yeast to produce noscapine is science at its very best. The level of ingenuity displayed by the research team from Stanford University is something to behold. And, it is for this reason, I maintain that this accomplishment (along with other work in synthetic biology) provides empirical evidence that a Creator must play a role in the origin, history, and design of life.

    In short, these researchers demonstrated that intelligent agency is required to originate new metabolic capabilities in an organism. This work also illustrates the level of ingenuity required to optimize a metabolic pathway once it is in place.

    Relying on hundreds of years of scientific knowledge, these researchers rationally designed the novel noscapine metabolic pathway. Then, they developed an elaborate experimental strategy to introduce this pathway in yeast. And then, it took highly educated and skilled molecular biologists to go in the lab to carry out the experimental strategy, under highly controlled conditions, using equipment that itself was designed. And, afterwards, the researchers employed rational design strategies to optimize the noscapine production.

    Given the amount of insight, ingenuity, and skill it took to engineer and optimize the metabolic pathway for noscapine in yeast, is it reasonable to think that unguided, undirected, historically contingent evolutionary processes produced life’s metabolic processes?

    Resources:

    Creating Life in the Lab: How New Discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case for a Creator by Fazale Rana (book)

    New Discovery Fuels the Case for Intelligent Designby Fazale Rana (article)

    Fattening Up the Case for Intelligent Designby Fazale Rana (article)

    A Case for Intelligent Design, Part 1by Fazale Rana (article)

    A Case for Intelligent Design, Part 2by Fazale Rana (article)

    A Case for Intelligent Design, Part 3by Fazale Rana (article)

    A Case for Intelligent Design, Part 4by Fazale Rana (article)

    The Blueprint for an Artificial Cellby Fazale Rana (article)

    Do Self-Replicating Protocells Undermine the Evolutionary Theoryby Fazale Rana (article)

    A Theology for Synthetic Biology, Part 1by Fazale Rana (article)

    A Theology for Synthetic Biology, Part 2by Fazale Rana (article)

    Endnotes
    1. Yanran Li et al., “Complete Biosynthesis of Noscapine and Halogenated Alkaloids in Yeast,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA(2018), doi: 10.1073/pnas.1721469115.
  • Did Neanderthals Produce Cave Paintings?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Apr 25, 2018

    One time when our kids were little, my wife and I discovered that someone had drawn a picture on one of the walls in our house. Though all of our children professed innocence, it was easy to figure out who the culprit was, because the little artist also wrote the first letter of her name on the wall next to her masterpiece.

    If only archaeologists had it as easy as my wife and me when it comes to determining who made the ancient artwork on the cave walls in Europe. Most anthropologists think that modern humans produced the art. But, a growing minority of scientists think that Neanderthals were the artists, not modern humans. If anthropologists only had some initials to go by.

    In the absence of a smoking gun, archaeologists believe they now have an approach that will help them determine the artists’ identity. Instead of searching for initials, researchers are trying to indirectly determine who the artists were by dating the cave art. They hope this approach will work because modern humans did not make their way into Europe until around 40,000 years ago. And Neanderthals disappeared around that same time. So, knowing the age of the art would help narrow down the artists identity.

    Recently, a team from the UK and Spain have applied this new dating method to art found in the caves of Iberia (southwest corner of Europe). And based on the age of the art, they think that the paintings on the cave walls were produced by Neanderthals, not modern humans.1

    Artistic expression reflects a capacity for symbolism. And many people view symbolism as a quality unique to human beings, contributing to our advanced cognitive abilities and reflecting our exceptional nature. In fact, as a Christian, I see symbolism as a manifestation of the image of God. Yet, if Neanderthals possessed symbolic capabilities, such a quality would undermine human exceptionalism (and with it the biblical view of human nature), rendering human beings nothing more than another hominin.

    Limitations of Dating Cave Art

    Dating cave art is challenging, to say the least. Typically, archaeologists will either: (1) date the remains associated with the cave art and try to establish a correlation, or (2) attempt to directly date the cave paintings using carbon-14 measurements of the pigments and charcoal used to make the art. Both approaches have limitations.

    In 2012, researchers from the UK and Spain employed a new technique to date the art found on the walls in 11 caves located in northwest Spain.2 This dating method measures the age of the calcite deposits beneath the cave paintings and those that formed over the artwork, once the paintings had been created. As water flows down cave walls, it deposits calcite. When calcite forms it contains trace amounts of U-238. This isotope decays into Th-230. Normally, detection of such low quantities of these isotopes would require extremely large samples. The researchers discovered that by using accelerator mass spectrometry they could get by with 10-milligram samples.

    By dating the calcite samples, they produced minimum and maximum ages for the cave paintings. While most of the 50 samples they took dated to around 25,000 years in age (or more recent than that), three were significantly older. They found a claviform-like symbol that dated to 31,000 years in age. They also found hand stencils that were 37,000 years old and, finally, a red disk that dated to 41,000 years in age.

    Most anthropologists believe modern humans made their way into Europe around 40,000 years ago, prompting researchers to suggest that maybe Neanderthals created some of the cave art, “because of the 40.8 ky date for the disk is a minimum age, it cannot be ruled out that the earliest paintings were symbolic expressions of Neanderthals, which were present at Cantabrian Spain until at least 42 ka.”3

    Dating the Art from Three Cave Sites in Iberia

    Recently, this research team applied the same U-Th dating method to the art found in three cave sites in Iberia: (1) La Pasiega, which houses paintings of animals, linear signs, claviform signs, and dots; (2) Ardales, which contains about 1,000 paintings of animals, along with dots, discs, lines, geometric shapes, and hand stencils; and (3) Maltravieso, which displays a set of hand stencils and geometric designs.

    The research team took a total of 53 samples from 25 carbonate formations associated with the cave art in these three cave sites. While most of the samples dated to 40,000 years old or less, three measurements produced minimum ages of around 65,000 years in age, including: (1) red scalariform from La Pasiega, (2) red areas from Ardales, and (3) a hand stencil from Maltravieso. On the basis of the three measurements, the team concluded that the art must have been made by Neanderthals because modern humans had not made their way into Iberia at that time. In other words, Neanderthals made art, just like modern humans did.

    Are These Results Valid?

    At first glance, it seems like the research team has a compelling case for Neanderthal art. Yet, careful examination of the U-Th method and the results raise some concerns.

    First, it is not clear if the U-Th method yields reliable results. Recently, a team from France and the US questioned the application of the U-Th method to date cave art.4 Like all radiometric dating methods, the U-Th method only works if the system to be age-dated is closed. In other words, once the calcite deposit forms, the U-Th method will only yield reliable results if none of the U or Th moves in or out of the deposit. Unfortunately, it does not appear as if the calcite films are closed systems. The calcite films form as a result of hydrological activity in the cave. Once a calcite film forms, water will continue to flow over its surface, leeching out U (because U is much more water soluble than Th). This process will make it seem as if the calcite film and, hence, the underlying artwork is much older than it actually is.

    In the face of this criticism, the team from the UK and Spain assert the reliability of their method because, for a few of the calcite deposits, they sampled the outermost surface, the middle of the deposit, and the innermost region. Measurements of these three samples gave ages that matched the expected chronology, with the innermost layer measuring older than the outermost surface. But, as the researchers from France and the US (who challenge the validity of the U-Th method to date cave art) point out, this sampling protocol doesn’t ensure that the calcite is a closed system.

    Additionally, critics from France and the US identified several examples of cave art dated by both carbon-14 methods and U-Th methods, noting that the carbon-14 method consistently gives much younger ages than the U-Th method. This difference is readily explained if the calcite is an open system.

    Secondly, it seems more plausible that the 65,000-year-old dates are outliers. It is important to note that of the 53 samples measured, only three gave age-dates of 65,000 years. The remaining samples gave dates much younger, typically around 40,000 years in age. Given the concerns about the calcite being an open system, should the 65,000-year-old samples be viewed as mere outliers?

    Compounding this concern is the fact that samples taken from the same piece of art give discordant dates, with one of the samples dating to 65,000 years in age and the other two samples dating to be much younger. The team from the UK and Spain argue that the artwork was produced in a patchwork manner. But this explanation does not account for the observation that the artwork appears to be a unified piece.

    What Does Neanderthal Biology Say?

    The archaeological record is not the only evidence we have available to us to assess Neanderthals capacity for symbolism (and advanced cognitive abilities). Scientists can also glean insight from Neanderthal biology.

    As I discuss in Who Was Adam?, comparisons of the genomes of Neanderthals and modern humans reveal important differences in a number of genes related to neural development, suggesting that there are cognitive differences between the two species. Additionally, the fossil remains of Neanderthals indicate that their brain development s took a different trajectory than ours after birth. As a result, it doesnt appear as if Neanderthals experienced much of an adolescence (which is the time that significant brain development takes place in modern humans). Finally, the brain structure of Neanderthals indicates that these creatures lacked advanced cognitive capacity and the hand-eye coordination needed to make art.

    On the basis of concerns about the validity of the U-Th method when applied to dating calcite films and Neanderthal brain biology, I remain unconvinced that Neanderthals made cave art, let alone had the capacity to do so. So, to me, it appears as if modern humans are, indeed, the guilty party. The entire body of evidence still indicates that they are the ones who painted the walls of caves throughout the world. Though, I doubt either my wife or I will have these early artists scrub down the cave walls as punishment. The cave art is much too precious.

    Resources

    Endnotes
    1. D. L. Hoffmann et al., “U-Th Dating of Carbonate Crusts Reveals Neanderthal Origin of Iberian Cave Art,” Science 359 (February 23, 2018): 912–15, doi:10.1126/science.aap7778.
    2. A. W. G. Pike et al., “U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain,” Science 336 (June 15, 2012): 1409–13, doi:10.1126/science.1219957.
    3. A. W. G. Pike et al., “U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art.
    4. Georges Sauvet et al., “Uranium-Thorium Dating Method and Paleolithic Rock Art,” Quaternary International 432 (2017): 86–92, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2015.03.053.
  • Why Are Whales So Big? In Wisdom God Made Them That Way

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Apr 18, 2018

    When I was in high school, I had the well-deserved reputation of being a wise guy—though the people who knew me then might have preferred to call me a wise—, instead. Either way, for being a wise guy, I sure didn’t display much wisdom during my teenage years.

    I would like to think that I am wiser today. But, the little wisdom I do possess didn’t come easy. To quote singer and songwriter, Helen Reddy, “It’s wisdom born of pain.”

    Life’s hardships sure have a way of teaching you lessons. But, I also learned that there is a shortcut to gaining wisdom—if you are wise enough to recognize it. (See what I did there?) It is better to solicit the advice of wise people than to gain wisdom through life’s bitter experiences. And, perhaps there was no wiser person ever than Solomon. Thankfully, Solomon’s wisdom was captured in the book of Proverbs. Many of life’s difficulties can be sidestepped if we are willing to heed Solomon’s advice.

    Solomon gained his wisdom through observation and careful reflection. But, his wisdom also came through divine inspiration, and according to Solomon, it was through wisdom that God created the world in which we live (Proverbs 8:22–31). And, it is out of this wisdom that the Holy Spirit inspired Solomon to offer the insights found in the Proverbs.

    In Psalm 104, the Psalmist (presumably David) echoes the same idea as Solomon: God created our world through wisdom. The Psalmist writes:

    How many are your works, Lord!

    In wisdom you made them all;

    Based on Proverbs 8 and Psalm 104, I would expect God’s wisdom to be manifested in the created order. The Creator’s fingerprints—so evident in nature—should not only reflect the work of intelligent agency but also display undeniable wisdom. In my view, that wisdom should be reflected in the elegance, cleverness, and ingenuity of the designs seen throughout nature. Designs that reflect an underlying purpose. And these features are exactly what we observe when we study the biological realm—as demonstrated by recent work on aquatic mammal body size conducted by investigators from Stanford University.1

    Body Sizes of Aquatic Mammals

    Though the majority of the world’s mammals live in terrestrial habitats, the most massive members of this group reside in Earth’s oceans. For evolutionary biologists, common wisdom has it that the larger size of aquatic mammals reflects fewer evolutionary constraints on their body size because they live in the ocean. After all, the ocean habitat is more expansive than those found on land, and aquatic animals don’t need to support their weight because they are buoyed by the ocean.

    As it turns out, common wisdom is wrong in this case. Through the use of mathematical modeling (employing body mass data from about 3,800 living species of aquatic mammals and around 3,000 fossil species), the research team from Stanford learned that living in an aquatic setting imposes tight constraints on body size, much more so than when animals live on land. In fact, they discovered (all things being equal) that the optimal body mass for aquatic mammals is around 1,000 pounds. Interestingly, the body mass distributions for members of the order Sirenia (dugongs and manatees), and the clades Cetacea (whales and dolphins), and Pinnipeds (sea lions and seals) cluster near 1,000 pounds.

    Scientists have learned that the optimal body mass of aquatic mammals displays an underlying biological rationale and logic. It reflects a trade-off between two opposing demands: heat retention and caloric intake. Because the water temperatures of the oceans are below mammals’ body temperatures, heat retention becomes a real problem. Mammals with smaller bodies can’t consume enough food to compensate for heat loss to the oceans, and they don’t have the mass to retain body heat. The way around this problem is to increase their body mass. Larger bodies do a much better job at retaining heat than do smaller bodies. But, the increase in body mass can’t go unchecked. Maintaining a large body requires calories. At some point, metabolic demands outpace the capacity for aquatic mammals to feed, so body mass has to be capped (near 1,000 pounds).

    The researchers noted a few exceptions to this newly discovered rule. Baleen whales have a body mass that is much greater than 1,000 pounds. But, as the researchers noted, these creatures employ a unique feeding mechanism that allows them to consume calories needed to support their massive body sizes. Filter feeding is a more efficient way to consume calories than hunting prey. The other exception is creatures such as otters. The researchers believe that their small size reflects a lifestyle that exploits both aquatic and terrestrial habitats.

    Argument for God’s Existence from Wisdom

    The discovery that the body mass of aquatic mammals has been optimized is one more example of the many elegant designs found in biological systems—designs worthy to be called the Creator’s handiwork. However, from my perspective, this optimization also reflects the Creator’s sagacity as he designed mammals for the purpose of living in the earth’s oceans.

    But, instead of relying on intuition alone to make a case for a Creator, I want to present a formal argument for God’s existence based on the wisdom of biology’s designs. To make this argument, I follow after philosopher Richard Swinburne’s case for God’s existence based on beauty. Swinburne argues, “If God creates a universe, as a good workman he will create a beautiful universe. On the other hand, if the universe came into existence without being created by God, there is no reason to suppose that it would be a beautiful universe.”2 In other words, the beauty in the world around us signifies the Divine.

    In like manner, if God created the universe, including the biological realm, we should expect to see wisdom permeating the designs in nature. On the other hand, if the universe came into being without God’s involvement, then there is no reason to think that the designs in nature would display a cleverness and ingenuity that affords a purpose—a sagacity, if you will. In fact, evolutionary biologists are quick to assert that most biological designs are flawed in some way. They argue that there is no purpose that undergirds biological systems. Why? Because evolutionary processes do not produce biological systems from scratch, but from preexisting systems that are co-opted through a process dubbed exaptation (by the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould), and then modified by natural selection to produce new designs.3 According to biologist Ken Miller:

    Evolution . . . does not produce perfection. The fact that every intermediate stage in the development of an organ must confer a selective advantage means that the simplest and most elegant design for an organ cannot always be produced by evolution. In fact, the hallmark of evolution is the modification of pre-existing structures. An evolved organism, in short, should show the tell-tale signs of this modification.”4

    And yet we see designs in biology that are not just optimized, but characterized by elegance, cleverness, and ingenuity—wisdom.

    Truly, God is a wise guy.

    Resources

    Endnotes
    1. William Gearty, Craig R. McClain, and Jonathan L. Payne, “Energetic Tradeoffs Control the Size Distribution of Aquatic Mammals,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (March 2018): doi:10.1073/pnas.1712629115.
    2. Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 190–91.
    3. Stephen Jay Gould and Elizabeth S. Vrba, “Exaptation: A Missing Term in the Science of Form,” Paleobiology 8 (January 1, 1982): 4–15, doi:10.1017/S0094837300004310.
    4. Kenneth R. Miller, “Life’s Grand Design,” Technology Review 97 (February/March 1994): 24–32.
  • Mitochondria’s Deviant Genetic Code: Evolution or Creation?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Apr 11, 2018

    Before joining Reasons to Believe, I worked for nearly a decade in research and development (R&D) for a Fortune 500 company. During my tenure, on several occasions I was assigned to work on a resurrected project—one that was mothballed years earlier for one reason or another but was then deemed worthy of another go-around by upper management.

    Of course, the first thing we did when we began work on the old-project-made-new was to review the work done by the previous R&D team. Invariably, we would come across things they had done that didnt make sense to us whatsoever. I quickly learned that instead of deriding the previous team members for their questionable decision-making skills and flawed strategy, it was better to track down past team members and find out why they did things the way they did. Almost always, there were good reasons justifying their decisions. In fact, understanding their rationale often revealed an ingenuity to their approach.

    The same can be said for mitochondria—bean-shaped organelles found in eukaryotic cells. Mitochondria play a crucial role in producing the energy that powers the cell’s operations. Based on a number of features possessed by these organelles—features that seemingly don’t make sense if mitochondria were created by a Divine Mind—many biologists believe that mitochondria have an evolutionary origin. Yet, as we learn more about mitochondria, scientists are discovering that the features that we thought made little sense from a creation model vantage point have a rationale for why they are the way they are. In fact, these features reflect an underlying ingenuity, as work by biochemists from Germany attests.1

    We will take a look at the work of these biochemists later in this article. But first, it would be helpful to understand why evolutionary biologists think that the design of mitochondria makes no sense if these subcellular structures are to be understood as a Creator’s handiwork.

    The Endosymbiont Hypothesis

    Most evolutionary biologists believe the best explanation for the origin of mitochondria is the endosymbiont hypothesis. Lynn Margulis (1938–2011) advanced this idea to explain the origin of eukaryotic cells in the 1960s, building on the ideas of Russian botanist Konstantin Mereschkowsky.

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

    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.)

    Presumably, organelles such as mitochondria were once endosymbionts. Once taken into the host cell, the endosymbionts then took up permanent residency within the host, with the endosymbiont 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 the machinery to produce the proteins needed by the former endosymbiont and processes to transport those proteins into the organelle’s interior.

    Evidence for the Endosymbiont Hypothesis

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

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

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

    Does the Endosymbiont Hypothesis Successfully Account for the Origin of Mitochondria?

    Despite the seemingly compelling evidence for the endosymbiont hypothesis, when researchers attempt to delineate the details of a presumed evolutionary transition, it becomes readily apparent that biologists lack a genuine explanation for the origin of mitochondria and, in a broader context, the origin of eukaryotic cells. In three previous articles, I detail some of the scientific challenges facing the endosymbiont hypothesis:

    A Creation Model Approach for the Origin of Mitochondria

    Given the scientific shortcomings of the endosymbiont hypothesis, is it reasonable to view mitochondria (and eukaryotic cells) as the work of a Creator?

    I would maintain that it is. I argue that the shared similarities between mitochondria and alphaproteobacteria—which stand as the chief evidence for the endosymbiont hypothesis—reflect shared designs rather than a shared evolutionary history. It is common for human designers and engineers to reuse designs. So, why wouldn’t a Creator? See this article for more on this idea:

    Why Do Mitochondria Have Their Own Genome and Cardiolipin in Their Inner Membranes?

    However, to legitimately interpret the genesis of mitochondria from a creation model perspective, there must be a rationale for why mitochondria have their own diminutive genomes. And there has to be an explanation for why these organelles possess cardiolipin in their inner membranes, because on the surface, it appears as though mitochondrial genomes and cardiolipin are vestiges of the evolutionary history of these organelles.

    As I have described previously (see the articles listed below), biochemists have recently learned that there are good reasons why mitochondria have their own genome—independent of the nuclear genome—and a sound rationale for the presence of cardiolipin in the inner membrane of these organelles. In other words, these features of mitochondria make sense from the vantage point of a creation model.

    Why Do Mitochondria Have Their Own Genetic Code?

    But, there is at least one other troubling feature of mitochondrial genomes that requires an explanation if we are to legitimately view these organelles as the handiwork of a Creator. For if they are a Creator’s handiwork, then why do mitochondria make use of deviant, nonuniversal genetic codes? Again, at first blush it would seem that the nonuniversal genetic code in mitochondria reflects their evolutionary origin. To understand why mitochondria have their own genetic code, a little background information is in order.

    A Universal Genetic Code

    The genetic code is a set of rules that define the information stored in DNA. These rules specify the sequence of amino acids that the cell’s machinery uses to build proteins. The genetic code consists of coding units, called codons, where each codon corresponds to one of the 20 amino acids found in proteins.

    To a first approximation, all life on Earth possesses the same genetic code. To put it another way, the genetic code is universal. However, there are examples of organisms that possess a genetic code that deviates from the universal code in one or two of the coding assignments. Presumably, these deviant codes originate when the universal genetic code evolves, altering coding assignments.

    The Deviant Genetic Codes of Mitochondria

    Quite frequently, mitochondrial genomes employ deviant codes. One of the most common differences between the universal genetic code and the one found in mitochondrial genomes is the reassignment of one of the codons that specifies isoleucine (in the universal code) so that it specifies methionine. In fact, evolutionary biologists believe that this evolutionary transition happened five times in independent mitochondrial lineages.2

    So, while many biologists believe that the nonuniversal genetic codes in mitochondria can be explained through evolutionary mechanisms, creationists (and ID proponents) must come up with a compelling reason for a Creator to alter the universal genetic code in the genome of these organelles. This issue becomes particularly pressing because biochemists have come to learn that the rules that define the genetic code are exquisitely optimized for error minimization (among other things), as I discuss in these articles:

    The Genius of Deviant Codes in Mitochondria

    So, is there a rationale for the reassignment of the isoleucine codon?

    Work by a team of German biochemists provides an answer to this question—one that underscores an elegant molecular logic to the deviant genetic codes in mitochondria. These researchers provide evidence that the reassignment of the isoleucine codon for methionine protects proteins in the inner membrane of mitochondria from oxidative damage.

    Metabolic reactions that take place in mitochondria during the energy harvesting process generate high levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS). These highly corrosive compounds will damage the lipids and the proteins of the mitochondrial inner membranes. The amino acid methionine is also readily oxidized by ROS to form methionine sulfoxide. Once this happens, the enzyme methionine sulfoxide reductase (MSR) reverses the oxidation reaction by reconverting the oxidized amino acid to methionine.

    As a consequence of reassigning the isoleucine codon, methionine replaces isoleucine in the proteins encoded by the mitochondrial genome. Many of these proteins reside in the mitochondrial inner membrane. Interestingly, many of the isoleucine residues of the inner mitochondrial membrane proteins are located on the surfaces of the biomolecules. The replacement of isoleucine by methionine has minimal effect on the structure and function of these proteins because these two amino acids possess a similar size, shape, and hydrophobicity. But because methionine can react with ROS to form methionine sulfoxide and then be converted back to methionine by MSR, the mitochondrial inner membrane proteins and lipids are protected from oxidative damage. To put it another way, the codon reassignment results in a highly efficient antioxidant system for mitochondrial inner membranes.

    The discovery of this antioxidant mechanism leads to another question: Why is the codon reassignment not universally found in the mitochondria of all organisms? As it turns out, the German biochemists discovered that this codon reassignment occurs in animals that are active, placing a high metabolic demand on mitochondria (and with it, concomitantly elevated production of ROS). On the other hand, this codon reassignment does not occur in Platyhelminthes (flatworms, which live without requiring oxygen) and inactive animals, such as sponges and echinoderms.

    From a creation model vantage point, there are good reasons why things are the way they are regarding mitochondrial biochemistry. In fact, understanding the rationale for the design of mitochondria reveals an ingenuity to life’s designs.

    Endnotes
    1. Aline Bender, Parvana Hajieva, and Bernd Moosmann, “Adaptive Antioxidant Methionine Accumulation in Respiratory Chain Complexes Explains the Use of a Deviant Genetic Code in Mitochondria,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 105 (October 2008): 16496–16501, doi:10.1073/pnas.0802779105.
    2. As I have argued elsewhere, the seemingly independent evolutionary origin of identical (or nearly identical) biological features stands as a significant challenge to the evolutionary paradigm, while at the same time evincing a role for a Creator in the origin and history of life. For example, see my article “Like a Fish Out of Water: Why I’m Skeptical of the Evolutionary Paradigm.”
  • Did Neanderthals Have the Brains to Make Art?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Apr 04, 2018

    Are you a left-brain or a right-brain person?

    In the 1960s, Nobel laureate Roger W. Sperry advanced the idea of the split-brain, with each hemisphere involved in distinct activities. According to this model, the activities of the left hemisphere of the brain include thinking in words, logic, and mathematics while the right hemisphere’s activities include imagination, artistic expression, intuition, and feeling. The popular narrative is that some people, such as artists and musicians, have a more dominant right brain. And people such as scientists and engineers, have a dominant left brain. As it turns out, there is no truth to this idea. Although the activities of the two hemispheres differ, no evidence exists that one side of the brain is more dominant in some people than the other. In reality, both sides of the brain work together to carry out any task.

    While there may not be any obvious differences in the brains of artists and scientists, there do appear to be some significant differences between the brains of modern humans and Neanderthals and, according to psychologist Richard Coss, these differences make it unlikely that Neanderthals had artistic capabilities.1

    As discussed in Who Was Adam?, one of the differences between the brains of modern humans and Neanderthals is the size of the parietal lobe (cortex).2 The modern human brain has a much larger parietal lobe, contributing to the globular shape of our skull (compared to the elongated Neanderthal skull). This area of the brain is involved in the processing required for language and mathematics. It is also the part of the brain responsible for visuomotor coordination.

    Coss argues that the underdeveloped parietal lobe of Neanderthals accounts for the differences in hunting practices between Neanderthals and modern humans. Neanderthals hunted easy-to-kill game that wouldn’t have been wary of their presence. This lack of wariness allowed these hominins to get close enough to the game to thrust their spears into them. On the other hand, the first modern humans hunted dangerous game that would have been cautious of their presence. Modern humans killed these animals from a distance by throwing spears at them. This special hunting practice requires a high degree of hand-eye coordination that is only possible because of our large parietal lobe.

    Coss points out that the same degree of hand-eye coordination required to throw a spear is needed to make representative art. To make art, the first modern humans had to mentally visualize from memory animals that they had previously seen and then translate those mental images into highly coordinated hand-eye movements needed to etch, draw, and paint those animals. According to Coss, Neanderthals were not able to do this because of their underdeveloped parietal lobe. To put it simply, Neanderthals did not have the brain for art.

    This insight has important implications for recent claims that Neanderthals made art, made music, possessed language, and displayed symbolic behavior, all of which require an enlarged parietal lobe. These claims of Neanderthal symbolism have all been questioned based on additional scientific scrutiny. This latest insight from Coss further justifies skepticism about the claims that Neanderthals displayed symbolism and advanced cognition like us. In fact, I would even go one step further. If these hominins didn’t have the brain structure to support artistic expression, then claims of Neanderthal symbolism should be dismissed altogether.

    Many people view symbolism as a quality unique to human beings, contributing to our advanced cognitive abilities and a reflection of our exceptional nature—in ways that align with the image of God. In fact, as a Christian, I see symbolism as a manifestation of the image of God. Yet, if Neanderthals possessed symbolic capabilities, it would undermine human exceptionalism (and with it the biblical view of human nature), rendering human beings nothing more than another hominin.

    But when the full body of scientific evidence about Neanderthal biology and behavior is carefully weighed, it becomes clear that human beings uniquely stand apart from all creatures. We are exceptional.

    Resources

    Endnotes
    1. Richard G. Coss, “Drawings of Representational Images by Upper Paleolithic Humans and Their Absence in Neanderthals Might Reflect Historical Differences in Hunting Wary Game,” Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture 1 (2017): doi:10.26613/esic/1.2.46.
    2. Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross, Who Was Adam? A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Humanity, 2nd ed. (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2014): 200–201.
  • Are Perforated Shells Evidence for Neanderthal Symbolism?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Mar 28, 2018

    When my kids were little, there was a good chance my wife and I would spend our Saturday afternoons hanging out at Chuck E. Cheese’s, while our children ran wild, celebrating the birthday of one of their friends. They loved it. My wife and I endured the chaos (and the mediocre pizza). Two things that helped me through those Saturday afternoons were:

    1. Watching Chuck E. Cheese sing the birthday song.
    2. Playing the gigantic version of whack-a-mole.

    Little did I know then that my fondness for this arcade game would serve me well in my work at Reasons to Believe. Lately, it feels like I’m playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, responding to the steady stream of claims that Neanderthals possessed symbolism—claims that inevitably don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny.

    Many people view symbolism as a quality unique to human beings, contributing to our advanced cognitive abilities and a reflection of our exceptional nature—in ways that align with the image of God. As a Christian, I see symbolism as a manifestation of the image of God. Yet, if Neanderthals possessed symbolic capabilities, this feature would undermine human exceptionalism (and with it the biblical view of human nature), possibly rendering human beings nothing more than another hominin.

    The most recent claim of Neanderthal “symbolism” comes from a research team headed up by the Portuguese archeologist João Zilhão. Based on the dating of a flowstone that caps a deposit from the Cueva de los Aviones site in southeast Spain, these investigators argue that Neanderthals must have possessed symbolism nearly 40,000 years before modern humans displayed this property.1 The researchers age-dated the flowstone, using U and Th isotopes, to about 115,000 to 200,00 years in age. This date indicated to the researchers that the deposits must have been produced by Neanderthals, the only hominins in Iberia at the time. The deposits also harbored several other elements that convinced the researchers of Neanderthals’ capacity for symbolism: (1) red and yellow colorants, (2) ochred and perforated marine shells, and (3) shell containers with residues of pigmentatious materials.

    Still, Some Questions Remain . . .

    At first glance, the research team’s case for Neanderthal symbolism seems compelling, but with a little additional scientific scrutiny, things become much more muddled.

    • For example, the age of the materials at the Cueva de los Aviones site may well be much younger than 115,000 to 200,000 years in age. An earlier study used radiocarbon methods to age-date food shells at this site to be only 45,000 to 50,000 years old. This dating lines up with the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe.2 While the authors of the most recent study dismiss the younger age, arguing that the amount of the radiocarbon in the shells is at the cusp of the method’s detection limits, this concern does not mean that the radiocarbon result is inaccurate. In fact, I would maintain that it is better to determine the age of the artifacts by directly determining the age-date of specimens taken from the deposit than to try to infer the artifacts’ age from complex geological structures associated with the deposit. Moreover, U/Th dating is susceptible to the influence of water flowing through the system. U is water soluble and Th is not. This difference in solubility means that water flow will remove U from the system, making the sample appear to be older than it is. In other words, geologists must make sure that the flowstone is a closed system before regarding the U/Th-determined age of the flowstone to be secure.
    • Another point of concern has to do with whether or not the pigments and the ochred and perforated marine shells at the Cueva de los Aviones site are a reliable indicator of symbolism. Some archaeologists question whether the mere presence of ochre and other pigment materials at a site reflects symbolic capabilities. For example, one research team that also discovered red ochre at a Neanderthal site, dating to 200,000 years in age, concluded: “In our view, there is no reason to assume that the mere presence of iron oxide at an archaeological site, whether Neanderthal or modern human, implies symbolic behavior.”3 Likewise, the perforation of marine shells does not reflect intentional activity on the part of Neanderthals (or even modern humans). A research team from Poland and the UK have shown that predatory mollusks cause the same type of perforations as humans/hominins and at the same locations on the shell surfaces.4

    So, given these concerns, it becomes difficult to conclude with any certainty that Neanderthals displayed symbolism based on this most recent study.

    Does the Weight of Archaeological Evidence Support Neanderthal Symbolism?

    To be certain, the scientific literature is replete with claims that Neanderthals buried their dead, made art and jewelry, mastered fire, made glue, etc. Hence, some scientists argue that Neanderthals displayed symbolic capabilities and advanced cognitive abilities, just like modern humans. Yet, every one of these claims is disputed and they do not withstand ongoing scientific scrutiny. (See the Resources section below.)

    In fact, when the Neanderthal archaeological record is considered in its entirety (the isolated and disputed claims of advanced cognition notwithstanding), a clear and cohesive picture emerges about Neanderthal behavior. Though remarkable creatures, they did not have cognitive abilities on par with modern humans. These creatures were nothing like us.

    Ian Tattersall and Noam Chomsky have pointed out that the Neanderthal archaeological record displays little evidence of technological innovation. Neanderthal technology remained largely static from the time they first appeared (around 250,000 to 200,000 years ago) to the time they went extinct (around 40,000 years ago). In contradistinction, an exponential growth in modern human technology has taken place since our inception as a species. According to Tattersall and Chomsky, this explosive rate of innovation is only possible because of our symbolic capacity and is clear evidence that Neanderthals lacked symbolism.5

    Are Archaeologists Biased against Human Exceptionalism?

    So, then, why are so many claims of Neanderthal symbolism published in the scientific literature? I am of the opinion that these claims are motivated by a desire to undermine the notion of human exceptionalism. It has become increasingly commonplace in some scientific circles to condemn anyone who argues for human exceptionalism as committing an outrageous act of speciesism (with speciesism on par with racism). And what better way to undermine the notion of human exceptionalism and to promote species equality than to make Neanderthals appear just like us?

    Unfortunately, the limited archaeological data makes it easy to claim that Neanderthals displayed symbolism—even if they didn’t. As science writer Jon Mooallem has pointed out:

    “. . . all sciences operate by trying to fit new data into existing theories. And this particular science [archaeology], for which the “data” has always consisted of scant and somewhat inscrutable bits of rock and fossil, often has to lean on those meta-narratives even more heavily. . . . Ultimately, a bottomless relativism can creep in: tenuous interpretations held up by webs of other interpretations, each strung from still more interpretations. Almost every archaeologist I interviewed complained that the field has become “overinterpreted”—that the ratio of physical evidence to speculation about that evidence is out of whack. Good stories can generate their own momentum.6″

    Given this tendency in anthropology, one has to wonder how much an antihuman bias and a commitment to the metanarrative of Neanderthal exceptionalism influences interpretation of the archaeological record. Also, how much do these biases fuel claims about Neanderthal symbolism?

    In fact, archaeologist João Zilhão, who headed up the research team that redated the Cueva de los Aviones site, is a well-known champion for Neanderthal exceptionalism.7 Science writer Michael Balter has described Zilhão as “the Neanderthal’s fiercest advocate, taking on any and all suggestions that their mental abilities might have been inferior to those of modern humans.”8 Anthropologists have accused Zilhão and his oft-collaborator Erik Trinkaus of treating Neanderthals as a “stone age minority group in need of affirmative action.”9 In fact, Zilhão’s bias is well-known by other anthropologists. Jean-Jacques Hublin from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology sees Zilhão on the equivalent of a mission from God. Referring to Zilhão, Hublin notes, “Those who are on a mission from God . . . are those who try to deny any evidence not matching with their personal crusade. The latest debates about Neanderthal abilities are one of the worst examples in which ideological issues have overshadowed scientific advance.”10

    Published claims that Neanderthals possessed advanced cognitive capacities like humans usually receive quite a bit of fanfare. However, as in the game of whack-a-mole, once the evidence is carefully examined it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Claims of Neanderthal symbolism are almost always made based on a single, isolated find and they arise from highly speculative interpretations of the data at hand. When the full body of scientific evidence about Neanderthal biology and behavior is carefully weighed, it seems highly unlikely that these creatures possessed cognitive capacities on par with modern humans.

    Resources

    Endnotes
    1. Dirk L. Hoffman et al., “Symbolic Use of Marine Shells and Mineral Pigments by Iberian Neandertals 115,000 Years Ago,” Science Advances 4 (February 22, 2018): eaar5255, doi:10.1126/sciadv.aar5255.
    2. João Zilhão et al., “Symbolic Use of Marine Shells and Mineral Pigments by Iberian Neandertals,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 107 (January 19, 2010): 1023–28, doi:10.1073/pnas.0914088107.
    3. Wil Roebroeks et al., “Use of Red Ochre by Early Neandertals,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 109 (February 7, 2012): 1893, doi:10.1073/pnas.1112261109.
    4. Anna Maria Kubicka et al., “A Systematic Review of Animal Predation Creating Pierced Shells: Implications for the Archaeological Record of the Old World,” PeerJ 5 (2017): e2903, doi:10.7717/peerj.2903.
    5. Johan J. Bolhuis et al., “How Could Language Have Evolved?”, PLoS Biology 12 (August 26, 2014): e1001934, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001934.
    6. Jon Mooallem, “Neanderthals Were People, Too,” New York Times Magazine, January 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/11/magazine/neanderthals-were-people-too.html.
    7. Michael Balter, “Neandertal Champion Defends the Reputation of Our Closest Cousins,” Science 337 (August 10, 2012): 642–43, doi:10.1126/science.337.6095.642.
    8. Balter, “Neandertal Champion.”
    9. Balter, “Neandertal Champion.”
    10. Balter, “Neandertal Champion.”
  • Believing Impossible Things: Convergent Origins of Functional Junk DNA Sequences

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Mar 14, 2018

    In a classic scene from Alice in Wonderland, the story’s heroine informs the White Queen, “One can’t believe impossible things,” to which, the White Queen—scolding Alice—replies, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

    If recent work by researchers from UC Santa Cruz and the University of Rochester (New York) is to be taken as true, it would require evolutionary biologists to believe two impossible things—before, during, and after breakfast. These scientific investigators have discovered something that is hard to believe about the role SINE DNA plays in gene regulation, raising questions about the validity of the evolutionary explanation for the architecture of the human genome.1 In fact, considering the implications of this work, it would be easier to believe that the human genome was shaped by a Creator’s handiwork than by evolutionary forces.

    SINE DNA

    One of the many classes of noncoding or junk DNA, short interspersed elements, or SINE DNA sequences, range in size from 100 to 300 base pairs (genetic letters). In primates, the most common SINEs are the Alu sequences. There are about 1.1 million Alu copies in the human genome (roughly 12 percent of the genome).

    SINE DNA sequences (including Alu sequences) contain a DNA segment used by the cell’s machinery to produce an RNA message. This feature allows SINEs to be transcribed. Because of this feature, molecular biologists also categorize SINE DNA as a retroposon. Molecular biologists believe that SINE sequences can multiply in number within an organism’s genome through the activity of the enzyme, reverse transcriptase. Presumably, once SINE DNA becomes transcribed, reverse transcriptase converts SINE RNA back into DNA. The reconverted DNA sequence then randomly reintegrates back into the genome. It’s through this duplication and reintegration mechanism that SINE sequences proliferate as they move around, or retrotranspose, throughout the genome. To say it differently, molecular biologists believe that over time, transcription of SINE DNA and reverse transcription of SINE RNA increases the copy number of SINE sequences and randomly disperses them throughout an organism’s genome.

    Molecular biologists have discovered numerous instances in which nearly identical SINE segments occur at corresponding locations in the genomes of humans, chimpanzees, and other primates. Because the duplication and movement of SINE DNA appear to be random, evolutionary biologists think it unlikely that SINE sequences would independently appear in the same locations in the genomes of humans and chimpanzees (and other primates). And given their supposed nonfunctional nature, shared SINE DNA in humans and chimpanzees seemingly reflects their common evolutionary ancestry. In fact, evolutionary biologists have gone one step further, using SINE Alu sequences to construct primate evolutionary trees.

    SINE DNA Is Functional

    Even though many people view shared junk DNA sequences as the most compelling evidence for biological evolution, the growing recognition that virtually every class of junk DNA has function undermines this conclusion. For if these shared sequences are functional, then one could argue that they reflect the Creator’s common design, not shared evolutionary ancestry and common descent. As a case in point, in recent years, molecular biologists have learned that SINE DNA plays a vital role in gene regulation through a variety of distinct mechanisms.2

    Staufen-Mediated mRNA Decay

    One way SINE sequences regulate gene expression is through a pathway called Staufen-mediated messenger RNA (mRNA) decay (SMD). Critical to an organism’s development, SMD plays a key role in cellular differentiation. SMD is characterized by a complex mechanism centered around the destruction of mRNA. When this degradation takes place, it down-regulates gene expression. The SMD pathway involves binding of a protein called Staufen-1 to one of the ends of the mRNA molecule (dubbed the 3´untranslated region). Staufen-1 binds specifically to double-stranded structures in the 3´untranslated region. This double strand structure forms when Alu sequences in the 3´untranslated region bind to long noncoding RNA molecules containing Alu sequences. This binding event triggers a cascade of additional events that leads to the breakdown of messenger RNA.

    Common Descent or Common Design?

    As an old-earth creationist, I see the functional role played by noncoding DNA sequences as a reflection of God’s handiwork, defending the case for design from a significant evolutionary challenge. To state it differently: these findings mean that it is just as reasonable to conclude that the shared SINE sequences in the genomes of humans and the great apes reflect common design, not a shared evolutionary ancestry.

    In fact, I would maintain that it is more reasonable to think that functional SINE DNA sequences reflect common design, rather than common descent, given the pervasive role these sequence elements play in gene regulation. Because Alu sequences are only found in primates, they must have originated fairly recently (when viewed from an evolutionary framework). Yet, they play an integral and far-reaching role in gene regulation.

    And herein lies the first impossible thing evolutionary biologists must believe: Somehow Alu sequences arose and then quickly assumed a central place in gene regulation. According to Carl Schmid, a researcher who uncovered some of the first evidence for the functional role played by SINE DNA, “Sine Alus have appeared only recently within the primate lineage, this proposal [of SINE DNA function] provokes the challenging question of how Alu RNA could have possibly assumed a significant role in cell physiology.”3

    How Does Junk DNA Acquire Function?

    Still, those who subscribe to the evolutionary framework do not view functional junk DNA as incompatible with common descent. They argue that junk DNA acquired function through a process called neofunctionalization. In the case of SMD mediated by Alu sequences in the human genome, evolutionary biologists maintain that occasionally these DNA elements will become incorporated into the 3´untranslated regions of genes and regions of the human genome that produce long noncoding RNAs, and, occasionally, by chance, some of the Alu sequences in long noncoding RNAs will have the capacity to pair with the 3´untranslated region of specific mRNAs. When this happens, these Alu sequences trigger SMD-mediated gene regulation. And if this gene regulation has any advantage, it will persist so that over time, some Alu sequences will eventually evolve to assume a role in SMD-mediated gene regulation.

    Is Neofunctionalization the Best Explanation for SINE Function?

    At some level, this evolutionary scenario seems reasonable (the concerns expressed by Carl Schmid notwithstanding). Still, neofunctionalization events should be relatively rare. And because of the chance nature of neofunctionalization, it would be rational to think that the central role SINE sequences play in SMD gene regulation would be unique to humans.

    Why would I make this claim? Based on the nature of evolutionary mechanisms, chance should govern biological and biochemical evolution at its most fundamental level (assuming it occurs). Evolutionary pathways consist of a historical sequence of chance genetic changes operated on by natural selection, which also consists of chance components. The consequences are profound. If evolutionary events could be repeated, the outcome would be dramatically different every time. The inability of evolutionary processes to retrace the same path makes it highly unlikely that the same biological and biochemical designs should appear repeatedly throughout nature.

    The concept of historical contingency embodies this idea and is the theme of Stephen Jay Goulds book Wonderful Life. According to Gould,

    “No finale can be specified at the start, none would ever occur a second time in the same way, because any pathway proceeds through thousands of improbable stages. Alter any early event, ever so slightly, and without apparent importance at the time, and evolution cascades into a radically different channel.”4

    To help clarify the concept of historical contingency, Gould used the metaphor of “replaying lifes tape.” If one were to push the rewind button, erase lifes history, and let the tape run again, the results would be completely different each time. The very essence of the evolutionary process renders evolutionary outcomes nonrepeatable.

    Gould’s perspective of the evolutionary process has been affirmed by other researchers who have produced data, indicating that if evolutionary processes explain the origin of biochemical systems, they must be historically contingent.

    Did SMD Evolve Twice?

    Yet, collaborators from UC Santa Cruz and the University of Rochester discovered that SINE-mediated SMD appears to have evolved independently—two separate times—in humans and mice, the second impossible thing evolutionary biologists have to believe.

    Though rodents don’t possess Alu sequences, they do possess several other SINE elements, labeled B1, B2, B4, and ID. Remarkably, these B/ID sequences occur in regions of the mouse genome corresponding to regions of the human-harboring Alu sequences. And, when the B/ID sequences are associated with the 3´untranslated regions of genes, the mRNA produced from these genes is down-regulated, suggesting that these genes are under the influence of the SMD-mediated pathway—an unexpected result.

    But, this finding is not nearly as astonishing as something else the research team discovered. By comparing about 1,200 human-mouse gene pairs in myoblasts, the researchers discovered 24 genes in this cell type that were identical in the human and mouse genomes. These identical genes performed the same physiological role and possessed SINE elements (Alu and B/ID, respectively) and were regulated by the SMD mechanism.

    Evolutionary biologists believe that Alu and B/ID SINE sequences emerged independently in the rodent and human lineages. If so, this means that the evolutionary processes must have independently produced the identical outcome—SINE-mediated SMD gene regulation—24 separate times for each of the 24 identical genes. As the researchers point out, chance alone cannot explain their findings. Yet, evolutionary mechanisms are historically contingent and should not yield identical outcomes. This impossible scenario causes me to question if neofunctionalization is the explanation for functional SINE DNA.

    And yet, this is not the first time that life scientists have discovered the independent emergence of identical function for junk DNA sequences.

    So, which is the better explanation for functional junk DNA sequences: neofunctionalization through historically contingent evolutionary processes or the work of a Mind?

    As Alice emphatically complained, “One can’t believe impossible things.”

    Resources

    Endnotes
    1. Brownyn A. Lucas et al., “Evidence for Convergent Evolution of SINE-Directed Staufen-Mediated mRNA Decay,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA Early Edition (January 2018): doi:10.1073/pnas.1715531115.
    2. Reyad A. Elbarbary et al., “Retrotransposons as Regulators of Gene Function,” Science 351 (February 12, 2016): doi:10.1126/science.aac7247.
    3. Carl W. Schmid, “Does SINE Evolution Preclude Alu Function?Nucleic Acid Research 26 (October 1998): 4541–50, doi:10.1093/nar/26.20.4541.
    4. Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989), 51.
  • Protein Amino Acids Form a “Just-Right” Set of Biological Building Blocks

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Feb 21, 2018

    Like most kids, I had a set of Lego building blocks. But, growing up in the 1960s, the Lego sets were nothing like the ones today. I am amazed at how elaborate and sophisticated Legos have become, consisting of interlocking blocks of various shapes and sizes, gears, specialty parts, and figurines—a far cry from the square and rectangular blocks that made up the Lego sets of my youth. The most imaginative things I could ever hope to build were long walls and high towers.

    It goes to show: the set of building blocks make all the difference in the world.

    This truism applies to the amino acid building blocks that make up proteins. As it turns out, proteins are built from a specialty set of amino acids that have the just-right set of properties to make life possible, as recent work by researchers from Germany attests.1 From my vantage point as a biochemist and a Christian, the just-right amino acid composition of proteins evinces intelligent design and is part of the reason I think a Creator must have played a direct role in the origin and design of life.

    Why is the Same Set of Twenty Amino Acids Used to Build Proteins?

    It stands as one of the most important insights about protein structure discovered by biochemists: The set of amino acids used to build proteins is universal. In other words, the proteins found in every organism on Earth are made up of the same 20 amino acids.

    Yet, hundreds of amino acids exist in nature. And, this abundance prompts the question: Why these 20 amino acids? From an evolutionary standpoint, the set of amino acids used to build proteins should reflect:

    1) the amino acids available on early Earth, generated by prebiotic chemical reactions;

    2) the historically contingent outworking of evolutionary processes.

    In other words, evolutionary mechanisms would have cobbled together an amino acid set that works “just good enough” for life to survive, but nothing more. No one would expect evolutionary processes to piece together a “just-right,” optimal set of amino acids. In other words, if evolutionary processes shaped the amino acid set used to build proteins, these biochemical building blocks should be much like the unsophisticated Lego sets little kids played with in the 1960s.

    An Optimal Set of Amino Acids

    But, contrary to this expectation, in the early 1980s biochemists discovered that an exquisite molecular rationale undergirds the amino acid set used to make proteins. Every aspect of the amino acid structure has to be precisely the way it is for life to be possible. On top of that, researchers from the University of Hawaii have conducted a quantitative comparison of the range of chemical and physical properties possessed by the 20 protein-building amino acids versus random sets of amino acids that could have been selected from early Earth’s hypothetical prebiotic soup.2 They concluded that the set of 20 amino acids is optimal. It turns out that the set of amino acids found in biological systems possesses the “just-right” properties that evenly and uniformly vary across a broad range of size, charge, and hydrophobicity. They also showed that the amino acids selected for proteins are a “highly unusual set of 20 amino acids; a maximum of 0.03% random sets outperformed the standard amino acid alphabet in two properties, while no single random set exhibited greater coverage in all three properties simultaneously.”3

    A New Perspective on the 20 Protein Amino Acids

    Beyond charge, size, and hydrophobicity, the German researchers wondered if quantum mechanical effects play a role in dictating the universal set of 20 protein amino acids. To address this question, they examined the gap between the HOMO (highest occupied molecular orbital) and the LUMO (lowest unoccupied molecular orbital) for the protein amino acids. The HOMO-LUMO gap is one of the quantum mechanical determinants of chemical reactivity. More reactive molecules have smaller HOMO-LUMO gaps than molecules that are relatively nonreactive.

    The German biochemists discovered that the HOMO-LUMO gap was small for 7 of the 20 amino acids (histidine, phenylalanine cysteine, methionine, tyrosine, and tryptophan), and hence, these molecules display a high level of chemical activity. Interestingly, some biochemists think that these 7 amino acids are not necessary to build proteins. Previous studies have demonstrated that a wide range of foldable, functional proteins can be built from only 13 amino acids (glycine, alanine, valine, leucine, isoleucine, proline, serine, threonine, aspartic acid, glutamic acid, asparagine, lysine, and arginine). As it turns out, this subset of 13 amino acids has a relatively large HOMO-LUMO gap and, therefore, is relatively unreactive. This suggests that the reactivity of histidine, phenylalanine cysteine, methionine, tyrosine, and tryptophan may be part of the reason for the inclusion of the 7 amino acids in the universal set of 20.

    As it turns out, these amino acids readily react with the peroxy free radical, a highly corrosive chemical species that forms when oxygen is present in the atmosphere. The German biochemists believe that when these 7 amino acids reside on the surface of proteins, they play a protective role, keeping the proteins from oxidative damage.

    As I discussed in a previous article, these 7 amino acids contribute in specific ways to protein structure and function. And they contribute to the optimal set of chemical and physical properties displayed by the universal set of 20 amino acids. And now, based on the latest work by the German researchers, it seems that the amino acids’ newly recognized protective role against oxidative damage adds to their functional and structural significance in proteins.

    Interestingly, because of the universal nature of biochemistry, these 7 amino acids must have been present in the proteins of the last universal common ancestor (LUCA) of all life on Earth. And yet, there was little or no oxygen present on early Earth, rendering the protective effect of these amino acids unnecessary. The importance of the small HOMO-LUMO gaps for these amino acids would not have become realized until much later in life’s history when oxygen levels became elevated in Earth’s atmosphere. In other words, inclusion of these amino acids in the universal set at life’s start seemingly anticipates future events in Earth’s history.

    Protein Amino Acids Chosen by a Creator

    The optimality, foresight, and molecular rationale undergirding the universal set of protein amino acids is not expected if life had an evolutionary origin. But, it is exactly what I would expect if life stems from a Creator’s handiwork. As I discuss in The Cell’s Design, objects and systems created and produced by human designers are typically well thought out and optimized. Both are indicative of intelligent design. In human designs, optimization is achieved through foresight and planning. Optimization requires inordinate attention to detail and careful craftsmanship. By analogy, the optimized biochemistry, epitomized by the amino acid set that makes up proteins, rationally points to the work of a Creator.

    Resources

    Endnotes
    1. Matthias Granhold et al., “Modern Diversification of the Amino Acid Repertoire Driven by Oxygen,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 115 (January 2, 2018): 41–46, doi:10.1073/pnas.1717100115.
    2. Gayle K. Philip and Stephen J. Freeland, “Did Evolution Select a Nonrandom ‘Alphabet’ of Amino Acids?” Astrobiology 11 (April 2011): 235–40, doi:10.1089/ast.2010.0567.
    3. Philip and Freeland, “Did Evolution Select,” 235–40.
  • Love Is in the Air and It Smells Like Intelligent Design

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Feb 14, 2018

    Being the hopeless romantic, I worked hard last year to come up with just the right thing to say to my wife on Valentine’s Day. I decided to let my lovely bride know that I really liked her signaling traits. Sadly, that didn’t go over so well.

    This year, I think I am going to tell my wife that I like the way she smells.

    I don’t know how Amy will receive my romantic overture, but I do know that scientific research explains the preference I have for my wife’s odors—it reflects the composition of a key component of her immune system, specifically her major histocompatibility complex. And, my wife’s immune system really turns me on.

    Odor Preference and Immune System Composition

    Why am I so attracted to my wifes scents, and hence, the composition of her immune system? Several studies help explain the connection.

    In a highly cited study, researchers had men sleep in the same T-shirt for several nights in a row. Then, they asked women to rank the T-shirts according to odor preference. As it turns out, women had the greatest preference for the odor of T-shirts worn by men who had MHC genes that were the most dissimilar to theirs.

    In another oft-cited study, researchers had 121 men and women rank the pleasantness of T-shirt odors and found that the ones they most preferred displayed odors that were most similar to those of their partners. Based on the results of another related study, it appears that this odor preference reflects dissimilarities in immune systems. Researchers discovered that the genetic differences in the MHC genes for 90 married couples were far more extensive than for 152 couples made up by randomly combining partners.

    Body Odor and the Immune System

    So, how does odor reflect the composition of the MHC genes? Researchers believe that the breakdown products from the MHC during the normal turnover of cellular components serves as the connection between the immune system and body odors.

    The MHC is a protein complex that resides on the cell surface. This protein complex binds proteins derived from pathogens after these organisms have infected the host cell and, in turn, displays them on the cell surface for recognition by the cells of the immune system.

     

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    Association of Pathogen Proteins with MHCs

    Image credit: By Scray (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org.licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

    Organisms possess a large number of MHC variants, making the genes that code the MHCs some of the most diverse in the human genome. Because the MHCs bind proteins derived from pathogens, the greater the diversity of MHC genes, the greater the capacity to respond to infectious agents.

    As part of the normal turnover of cellular components, the MHCs are constantly being broken down and replaced. When this happens, protein fragments from the MHCs become dispersed throughout the body, winding up in the blood, saliva, and urine. Some researchers think that the microbes in the mouth and on the skin surface lining body cavities metabolize the MHC breakdown products leading to the production of odorants. And these odors tell us something about the immune system of our potential partners.

    Advantages of Having a Partner with Dissimilar MHC Genes

    When men and women with dissimilar MHC genes pair up, it provides a significant advantage to their children. Why? Because parental MHC gene dissimilarity translates into the maximal genetic diversity for the MHC genes of their children. And, as already noted, the more diverse the MHC genes, the greater the resistance to pathogens and parasites.

    The attraction between mates with dissimilar immune genes is not limited to human beings. This phenomenon has been observed throughout the animal kingdom. And from studying mate attraction of animals, we can come to appreciate the importance of MHC gene diversity. For example, one study demonstrated that salmon raised in hatcheries displayed a much more limited genetic diversity for their MHC genes than salmon that live in the wild. As it turns out, hatchery-raised salmon are four times more likely to be infected with pathogens than those found in the wild.

    Is Love Nothing More than Biochemistry?

    Does the role odor preference plays in mate selection mean that love is merely an outworking of physiological mechanisms? Does it mean that there is not a spiritual dimension to the love we feel toward our partners? Does it mean that human beings are merely physical creatures? If so, does this type of discovery undermine the biblical view of humanity?

    Hardly. In fact, this discovery 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. 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; also, how and what we think can influence our spirit.

    So, in light of Stanford’s model, we can make sense of how love can be both a physical and spiritual experience while preserving the biblical view of human nature.

    Smells Like Intelligent Design

    Clearly, the attraction between two people extends beyond body odor and other physical processes and features. Still, the connection between body odor and the composition of the MHC genes presents itself as an ingenious, elegant way to ensure that animal populations (and human beings) are best positioned to withstand the assaults of pathogens. As an old-earth creationist, this insight is exactly what I would expect, attracting me to the view that life on Earth, including human life, is the product of Divine handiwork.

    Now, I am off to the chocolatier to get my wife a box of her favorite chocolates for Valentine’s Day. I don’t want her to decide that I stink as a husband.

    Resources

  • Rabbit Burrowing Churns Claims about Neanderthal Burials

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Feb 07, 2018

    As a kid, watching cartoons was one of the highlights of my afternoons. As soon as I arrived home from school, I would plop down in front of the TV. Among my favorites were the short features produced by Warner Brothers. What a wonderful cast of characters: Daffy Duck, Sylvester and Tweety, Yosemite Sam, the Tasmanian Devil, the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. As much as I loved to watch their shenanigans, none of them compared to the indomitable Bugs Bunny. That wascally wabbit (to quote Elmer Fudd) always seemed to create an upheaval everywhere he went.

    Recently, a research team from France has come to realize that Bugs Bunny isn’t the only rabbit to make a mess of things. These investigators learned that burrowing rabbits have created an upheaval—literally—at Neanderthal archaeological sites, casting doubt on claims that the hominins displayed advanced sophisticated cognitive abilities.1

    Researchers from France unearthed this problem while studying the Regourdou Neanderthal site in Dordogne. Neanderthal bones and stone artifacts, along with animal remains, were recovered from this cave site in 1954. Unfortunately, the removal of the remains by archaeologists was done in a nonscientific manner—by today’s standards.

    Based on the arrangement of the Neanderthal remains, lithic artifacts, and cave bear bones at the site, anthropologists initially concluded that one of the Neanderthals found at Regourdou was deliberately buried, indicating that these hominids must have engaged in complex funerary practices. Many anthropologists consider complex funeral activities to reflect one of the most sophisticated examples of symbolic behavior. If so, then Neanderthals must have possessed similar cognitive abilities to modern humans, undermining the scientific case for human exceptionalism and, along with it, casting aspersions on the biblical view of humanity.

    Questions about Neanderthal Burials

    Yet, more recent analysis of the Regourdou site has raised questions about Neanderthal burial practices. One piece of evidence cited by anthropologists for the funerary burial at this French cave site was the recovery of bear remains associated with a nearly complete Neanderthal specimen. Some anthropologists argued that Neanderthals used the cave bear bones to construct a funerary structure.

    But anthropologists have started to question this interpretation. Evidence mounts that this cave site functioned primarily as a den for cave bears, with the accumulation of cave bear bones largely stemming from attritional mortality—not the deliberate activity of Neanderthals.

    Rabbits at Regourdou

    Anthropologists have also recovered a large quantity of rabbit remains at the Regourdou site. At first, these rabbit bones were taken as evidence that the hominids had the cognitive capacity to hunt and trap small game—something only modern humans were thought to be able to do.

    One species found at the Regourdou cave site is the European rabbit (Ochotona cuniculus). These rabbits dig interconnected burrows (called a warren) to avoid predation and harsh climatic conditions. Depending on the sediment, the warren architecture can be deep and complex.

    Because the researchers discovered over 10,000 rabbit bones at the Regourdou site, they became concerned that the burrowing behavior of these creatures may have compromised the integrity of the site. To address this issue, they used radiocarbon dating to age-date the rabbit remains. They discovered that the rabbit bones were significantly younger than the sediments harboring them. They also noted that the skeletal parts, breakage pattern of the bones, and surface modification of the rabbit remains indicate that these creatures died within the warrens due to natural causes, negating the claim that Neanderthals hunted small game. This set of observations indicates that the rabbits burrowed and lived in warrens in the Regourdou site, well after the cave deposits formed.

    Perhaps of greatest concern associated with this finding is the uncertainty it creates about the integrity of sedimentary layers, because the rabbit burrows cross and perturb several layers, resulting in the mixing of bones and artifacts from one layer to the next. This bioturbation appears to have transported artifacts and bones from the upper layers to the lower layers.

    Upheaval of the cave layers caused by the rabbits means that grave goods associated with Neanderthal skeletons may not have been intentionally placed with the body at the time of death. Instead, they may just have happened to wind up next to the hominin remains due to burrowing activity.

    Such tumult may not be limited to the Regourdou cave site. These creatures live throughout France and the Iberian Peninsula, raising questions about the influence that the rabbits may have had on the integrity of other archaeological cave sites in France and Spain. For example, it is not hard to envision scenarios in which rabbit burrowing caused mixing at other cave sites, resulting in the accidental association of Neanderthal remains with artifacts initially deposited in upper cave layers made by modern humans who occupied the cave sites after Neanderthals. If so, this association could mistakenly lead anthropologists to conclude that Neanderthals had advanced cognitive abilities, when in fact they did not. While Bugs Bunny’s antics may amuse us, it is no laughing matter to consider the possible impact rabbits may have had on scientific findings.

    Only Human Beings Are Exceptional

    Even though some anthropologists assert that Neanderthals possessed advanced cognitive abilities like those of modern humans, ongoing scientific scrutiny of the archaeological evidence consistently fails to substantiate those claims. This failure is clearly the case with the Regourdou burial. No doubt, Neanderthals were fascinating creatures. But there is no compelling scientific reason to think that their behavioral capacity threatens human exceptionalism and the notion that human beings were created to bear God’s image.

    Resources

    Endnotes
    1. Maxime Pelletier et al., “Rabbits in the Grave! Consequences of Bioturbation on the Neandertal ‘Burial at Regourdou (Montignac-sur-Vezérè, Dordogne)” Journal of Human Evolution 110 (September 2017): 1–17, doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2017.04.001.
  • Is the Laminin “Cross” Evidence for a Creator?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Jan 31, 2018

    As I interact with people on social media and travel around the country to speak on the biochemical evidence for a Creator, I am frequently asked to comment on laminin.1 The people who mention this protein are usually quite excited, convinced that its structure provides powerful scientific evidence for the Christian faith. Unfortunately, I don’t agree.

    Motivating this unusual question is the popularized claim of a well-known Christian pastor that laminin’s structure provides physical evidence that the God of the Bible created human beings and also sustains our lives. While I wholeheartedly believe God did create and does sustain human life, laminin’s apparent cross-shape does not make the case.

    Laminin is one of the key components of the basal lamina, a thin sheet-like structure that surrounds cells in animal tissue. The basal lamina is part of the extracellular matrix (ECM). This structure consists of a meshwork of fibrous proteins and polysaccharides secreted by the cells. It forms the space between cells in animal tissue. The ECM carries out a wide range of functions that include providing anchor points and support for cells.

    Laminin is a relatively large protein made of three different protein subunits that combine to form a t-shaped structure when the flexible rod-like regions of laminin are fully extended. Each of the four “arms” of laminin contains sites that allow this biomolecule to bind to other laminin molecules, other proteins (like collagen), and large polysaccharides. Laminin also provides a binding site for proteins called integrins, which are located in the cell membrane.

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    Figure: The structure of laminin. Image credit: Wikipedia

    Laminin’s architecture and binding sites make this protein ideally suited to interact with other proteins and polysaccharides to form a network called the basal reticulum and to anchor cells to its biochemical scaffolding. The basal reticulum helps hold cells together to form tissues and, in turn, helps cement that tissue to connective tissues.

    The cross-like shape of laminin and the role it plays in holding tissues together has prompted the claim that this biomolecule provides scientific support for passages such as Colossians 1:15–17 and shows how the God of the Bible must have made humans and continues to sustain them.

    I would caution Christians against using this “argument.” I see a number of problems with it. (And so do many skeptics.)

    First, the cross shape is a simple structure found throughout nature. So, it’s probably not a good idea to attach too much significance to laminin’s shape. The t configuration makes laminin ideally suited to connect proteins to each other and cells to the basal reticulum. This is undoubtedly the reason for its structure.

    Secondly, the cross shape of laminin is an idealized illustration of the molecule. Portraying complex biomolecules in simplified ways is a common practice among biochemists. Depicting laminin in this extended form helps scientists visualize and catalog the binding sites along its four arms. This configuration should not be interpreted to represent its actual shape in biological systems. In the basal reticulum, laminin adopts all sorts of shapes that bear no resemblance to a cross. In fact, it’s much more common to observe laminin in a swastika configuration than in a cross-like one. Even electron micrographs of isolated laminin molecules that appear cross-shaped may be misleading. Their shape is likely an artifact of sample preparation. I have seen other electron micrographs that show laminin adopting a variety of twisted shapes that, again, bear no resemblance to a cross.

    Finally, laminin is not the only molecule “holding things together.” A number of other proteins and polysaccharides are also indispensable components of the basal reticulum. None of these molecules is cross-shaped.

    As I argue in my book, The Cell’s Design, the structure and operation of biochemical systems provide some of the most potent support for a Creator’s role in fabricating living systems. Instead of pointing to superficial features of biomolecules such as the “cross-shaped” architecture of laminin, there are many more substantive ways to use biochemistry to argue for the necessity of a Creator and for the value he places on human life. As a case in point, the salient characteristics of biochemical systems identically match those features we would recognize immediately as evidence for the work of a human design engineer. The close similarity between biochemical systems and the devices produced by human designers logically compels this conclusion: life’s most fundamental processes and structures stem from the work of an intelligent, intentional Agent.

    When Christians invest the effort to construct a careful case for the Creator, skeptics and seekers find it difficult to deny the powerful evidence from biochemistry and other areas of science for God’s existence.

    Resources:

    Endnotes
    1. This article was originally published in the April 1, 2009, edition of New Reasons to Believe.
  • Did Neanderthals Self-Medicate?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Jan 24, 2018

    Calculus is hard.

    But it is worth studying because it is such a powerful tool.

    Oh, wait!

    You don’t think I’m referring to math, do you? I’m not. I’m referring to dental calculus, the hardened plaque that forms on teeth.

    Recently, researchers from Australia and the UK studied the calculus scraped from the teeth of Neanderthals and compared it to the calculus taken from the teeth of modern humans and chimpanzees (captured from the wild) with the hope of understanding the diets and behaviors of these hominins.1 The researchers concluded that this study supports the view that Neanderthals had advanced cognitive abilities like that of modern humans. If so, this conclusion creates questions and concerns about the credibility of the biblical view of humanity; specifically, the idea that we stand apart from all other creatures on Earth because we are uniquely made in God’s image. Ironically, careful assessment of this work actually supports the notion of human exceptionalism, and with it provides scientific evidence that human beings are made in God’s image.

    This study built upon previous work in which researchers discovered that they could extract trace amounts of different types of compounds from the dental calculus of Neanderthals and garner insights about their dietary practices.2 Scientists have learned that when plaque forms, it traps food particles and microbes from the mouth and respiratory tract. In the most recent study, Australian and British scientists extracted ancient DNA from the plaque samples isolated from the teeth of Neanderthals recovered in Spy Cave (Belgium) and El Sidrón (Spain). These specimens age-date between 42,000 and 50,000 years in age. By sequencing the ancient DNA in the samples and comparing the sequences to known sequences in databases, the research team determined the types of food Neanderthals ate and the microorganisms that infected their mouths.

    Neanderthal Diets

    Based on the ancient DNA recovered from the calcified dental plaque, the researchers concluded that the Neanderthals unearthed at Spy Cave and El Sidrón consumed different diets. The calculus samples taken from the Spy Cave specimens harbored DNA from the woolly rhinoceros and European wild sheep. It also contained mushroom DNA. On the other hand, the ancient DNA samples taken from the dental plaque of the El Sidrón specimens came from pine nuts, moss, mushrooms, and tree bark. These results suggest that the Spy Neanderthals consumed a diet comprised largely of meat, while the El Sidrón hominins ate a vegetarian diet.

    The microbial DNA recovered from the dental calculus confirmed the dietary differences between the two Neanderthal groups. In Neanderthals, and in modern humans, the composition of the microbiota in the mouth is dictated in part by the diet, varying in predictable ways for meat-based and plant-based diets, respectively.

    Did Neanderthals Consume Medicinal Plants?

    One of the Neanderthals from El Sidrón—a teenage boy—had a large dental abscess. The researchers recovered DNA from his dental calculus showing that he also suffered from a gut parasite that causes diarrhea. But, instead of suffering without any relief, it looks as if this sick individual was consuming plants with medicinal properties. Researchers recovered DNA from poplar plants, which produce salicylic acid, a painkiller, and DNA from a fungus that produces penicillin, an antibiotic. Interestingly, the other El Sidrón specimen showed no evidence of ancient DNA from poplar or the fungus, Penicillium.

    If Neanderthals were able to self-medicate, the researchers conclude that these hominins must have had advanced cognitive abilities, similar to those of modern humans. One of the members of the research team, Alan Cooper, muses, “Apparently, Neandertals possessed a good knowledge of medicinal plants and their various anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, and seem to be self-medicating. The use of antibiotics would be very surprising, as this is more than 40,000 years before we developed penicillin. Certainly, our findings contrast markedly with the rather simplistic view of our ancient relatives in popular imagination.”3

    Though intriguing, one could argue that the research team’s conclusion about Neanderthals self-medicating is a bit of an overreach, particularly the idea that Neanderthals were consuming a specific fungus as a source of antibiotics. Given that the El Sidrón Neanderthals were eating a vegetarian diet, it isn’t surprising that they occasionally consumed fungus because Penicillium grows naturally on plant material when it becomes moldy. This conclusion is based on a single Neanderthal specimen; thus, it could simply be a coincidence that the sick Neanderthal teenager consumed the fungus. In fact, it would be virtually impossible for Neanderthals to intentionally eat penicillin-producing fungi because, according to anthropologist Hannah O’Regan from the University of Nottingham, “It’s difficult to tell these specific moulds apart unless you have a hand lens.”4

    Zoopharmacognosy

    But even if Neanderthals were self-medicating, this behavior is not as remarkable as it might initially seem. Many animals self-medicate. In fact, this phenomenon is called zoopharmacognosy.5 For example, chimpanzees will consume the leaves of certain plants to make themselves vomit, in order to rid themselves of intestinal parasites. So, instead of viewing the consumption of poplar plants and fungus by Neanderthals as evidence for advanced behavior, perhaps, it would be better to regard it as one more instance of zoopharmacognosy.

    Medicine and Human Exceptionalism

    The difference between the development and use of medicine by modern humans and the use of medicinal plants by Neanderthals (assuming they did employ plants for medicinal purposes) is staggering. Neanderthals existed on Earth longer than modern humans have. And at the point of their extinction, the best that these creatures could do is incorporate into their diets a few plants that produced compounds that were natural painkillers or antibiotics. On the other hand, though on Earth for only around 150,000 years, modern humans have created an industrial-pharmaceutical complex that routinely develops and dispenses medicines based on a detailed understanding of chemistry and biology.

    As paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall and linguist Noam Chomsky (along with other collaborators) put it:

    “Our species was born in a technologically archaic context . . . . Then, within a remarkably short space of time, art was invented, cities were born, and people had reached the moon.”6

    And biomedical advance has yielded an unimaginably large number of drugs that improve the quality of our lives. In other words, comparing the trajectories of Neanderthal and modern human technologies highlights profound differences between us—differences that affirm modern humans really are exceptional, echoing the biblical view that human beings are truly made in God’s image.

    Resources

    Endnotes
    1. Laura S. Weyrich et al., “Neanderthal Behavior, Diet, and Disease Inferred from Ancient DNA in Dental Calculus,” Nature 544 (April 20, 2017): 357–61, doi:10.1038/nature21674.
    2. Karen Hardy et al., “Neanderthal Medics? Evidence for Food, Cooking, and Medicinal Plants Entrapped in Dental Calculus,” Naturwissenschaften 99 (August 2012): 617–26, doi:10.1007/s00114-012-0942-0.
    3. “Dental Plaque DNA Shows Neandertals Used ‘Aspirin,’” Phys.org, updated March 8, 2017, http://phys.org/print408199421.html.
    4. Colin Barras, “Neanderthals May Have Medicated with Penicillin and Painkillers,” New Scientist, March 8, 2017, http://www.newscientist.com/article/2123669-neanderthals-may-have-medicated-with-penicillin-and-painkillers/.
    5. Shrivastava Rounak et al, “Zoopharmacognosy (Animal Self Medication): A Review,” International Journal of Research in Ayurveda and Pharmacy 2 (2011): 1510–12.
    6. Johan J. Bolhuis et al., “How Could Language Have Evolved?,” PLoS Biology 12 (August 26, 2014): e1001934, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001934.
  • Does Development of Artificial Intelligence Undermine Human Exceptionalism?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Jan 17, 2018

    In each case catalytic technologies, such as artificial wombs, the repair of brain injuries with prostheses and the enhancement of animal intelligence, will force us to choose between pre-modern human-racism and the cyborg citizenship implicit in the liberal democratic tradition.

    —James Hughes, Citizen Cyborg

    On one hand, it appeared to be nothing more than a harmless publicity stunt. On October 25, 2017, Saudi Arabia granted Sophia—a lifelike robot, powered by artificial intelligence software—citizenship. This took place at the FII conference, held in Riyahd, providing a prime opportunity for Hanson Robotics to showcase its most advanced robotics system to date. And, it also served as a chance for Saudi Arabia to establish itself as a world leader in AI technology.

    But, on the other hand, granting Sophia citizenship establishes a dangerous precedent, acting as a harbinger to a dystopian future where machines (and animals with enhanced intelligence) are afforded the same rights as human beings. Elevating machines to the same status as human beings threatens to undermine human dignity and worth and, along with it, the biblical conception of humanity.

    Still, the notion of granting citizenship to robots makes sense within a materialistic/naturalistic worldview. In this intellectual framework, human beings are largely regarded as biological machines and the human brain as an organic computer. If AI systems can be created with self-awareness and emotional capacity, what makes them any different from human beings? Is a silicon-based computer any different from one made up of organic matter?

    For many people, sentience or self-awareness is the key determinant of personhood. And persons are guaranteed rights, whether they are human beings, AI machines, or super-intelligent animals created by genetic engineering or implanting human brain organoids (grown in a lab) into the brains of animals.

    In other words, the way we regard AI technology has wide-ranging consequences for how we view and value human life. And while views of AI rooted in a materialistic/naturalistic worldview potentially threaten human dignity, a Christian worldview perspective of AI actually highlights human exceptionalism—in a way that aligns with the biblical concept of the image of God.

    Will AI Systems Ever Be Self-Aware?

    The linchpin for granting AI citizenship—and the same rights as human beings—is self-awareness.

    But are AI systems self-aware? And will they ever be?

    From my perspective, the answers to both questions are “no.” To be certain, AI systems are on a steep trajectory toward ever-increasing sophistication. But there is little prospect that they will ever truly be sentient. AI systems are becoming better and better at mimicking human cognitive abilities, emotions, and even self-awareness. But these systems do not inherently possess these capabilities—and I don’t think they ever will.

    Researchers are able to create AI systems with the capacity to mimic human qualities through the combination of natural-language processing and machine-learning algorithms. In effect, natural-language processing is pattern matching, in which the AI system employs prewritten scripts that are combined, spliced, and recombined to make the AI systems comments and responses to questions seem natural. For example, Sophia performs really well responding to scripted questions. But, when questions posed to her are off-script, she often provides nonsensical answers or responds with non-sequiturs. These failings reflect limitations of the natural-language processing algorithms. Undoubtedly, Sophia’s responses will improve thanks to machine-learning protocols. These algorithms incorporate new information into the software inputs to generate improved outcomes. In fact, through machine-learning algorithms, Sophia is “learning” how to emote, by controlling mechanical hardware to produce appropriate facial expressions in response to the comments made by “her” conversation partner. But, these improvements will just be a little bit more of the samediffering in degree, not kind. They will never propel Sophia, or any AI system, to genuine self-awareness.

    As the algorithms and hardware improve, Sophia (and other AI systems) are going to become better at mimicking human beings and, in doing so, seem to be more and more like us. But, even now, it is tempting to view Sophia as humanlike. But this tendency has little to do with AI technology. Instead, it has to do with our tendency to anthropomorphize animals and even inanimate objects. Often, we attribute human qualities to nonhuman, nonliving entities. And, undoubtedly, we will do the same for AI systems such as Sophia.

    Our tendency to anthropomorphize arises from our theory-of-mind capacity—unique to human beings. As human beings, we recognize that other people have minds just like ours. As a consequence of this capacity, we anticipate what others are thinking and feeling. But we can’t turn off our theory-of-mind abilities. And as a consequence, we attribute human qualities to animals and machines. To put it another way, AI systems seem to be self-aware, because we have an innate tendency to view them as such, even if they are not.

    Ironically, a quality unique to human beingsone that contributes to human exceptionalism and can be understood as a manifestation of the image of Godmakes us susceptible to seeing AI systems as sentient “beings.” And because of this tendency, and because of our empathy (which relates to our theory of mind capacity), we want to grant AI systems the same rights afforded to us. But when we think carefully about our tendency to anthropomorphize, it should become evident that our proclivity to regard AI systems as humanlike stems from the fact that we are made in God’s image.

    AI Systems and the Case for Human Exceptionalism

    There is another way that research in AI systems evinces human exceptionalism. It is provocative to think that human beings are the only species that has ever existed that has the capability to create machines that are like us—at least, in some sense. Clearly, this achievement is beyond the capabilities of the great apes, and no evidence exists to think that Neanderthals could have ever pulled off a feat such as creating AI systems. Neanderthals—who first appear in the fossil record around 250,000 to 200,000 years ago and disappear around 40,000 years ago—existed on Earth longer than modern humans have. Yet, our technology has progressed exponentially, while Neanderthal technology remained largely static.

    Our ability to create AI systems stems from the capacity for symbolism. As human beings, we effortlessly represent the world with discrete symbols. We denote abstract concepts with symbols. And our ability to represent the world symbolically has interesting consequences when coupled with our abilities to combine and recombine those symbols in a nearly infinite number of ways to create alternate possibilities.

    Our capacity for symbolism manifests in the form of language, art, music, and even body ornamentation. And we desire to communicate the scenarios we construct in our minds with other human beings. In a sense, symbolism and our open-ended capacity to generate alternative hypotheses are scientific descriptors of the image of God. No other creature, including the great apes or Neanderthals, possesses these two qualities. In short, we can create AI systems because we uniquely bear God’s image.

    AI Systems and the Case for Creation

    Our ability to create AI systems also provides evidence that we are the product of a Creator’s handiwork. The creation of AI systems requires the work of highly trained scientists and engineers who rely on several hundred years of scientific and technological advances. Creating AI systems requires designing and building highly advanced computer systems, engineering complex robotics systems, and writing sophisticated computer code. In other words, AI systems are intelligently designed. Or to put it another way, work in AI provides empirical evidence that a mind is required to create a mind—or, at least, a facsimile of a mind. And this conclusion means that the human mind must come from a Mind, as well. In light of this conclusion, is it reasonable to think that the human mind arose through unguided, undirected, historically contingent processes?

    Developments in AI will undoubtedly lead to important advances that will improve the quality of our lives. And while it is tempting to see AI systems in human terms, these devices are machines—and nothing more. No justification exists for AI systems to be granted the same rights as human beings. In fact, when we think carefully about the nature and origin of AI, these systems highlight our exceptional nature as human beings, evincing the biblical view of humanity.

    Only human beings deserve the rights of citizenship because these rights—justifiably called inalienable—are due us because we bear God’s image.

    Resources

  • Did Neanderthals Make Glue?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Jan 10, 2018

    Fun fact: each year, people around the world purchase 50 billion dollars’ (US) worth of adhesives. But perhaps this statistic isn’t all that surprising—because almost everything we make includes some type of bonding agent.

    In the context of human prehistory, anthropologists consider adhesives to have been a transformative technology. They would have provided the first humans the means to construct new types of complex devices and combine different types of materials (composites) into new technologies.

    Anthropologists also consider the production and use of adhesives to be a diagnostic of advanced cognitive capabilities, such as forward planning, abstraction, and understanding of materials. Production of adhesives from natural sources, even by the earliest modern humans, appears to have been a complex operation, requiring precise temperature control and the use of earthen mounds, or ceramic or metal kilns. The first large-scale production of adhesives usually centered around the dry distillation of birch and pine barks to produce tar and pitch.

    Even though modern humans perfected dry distillation methods for tar production, the archaeological record seemingly indicates that it wasn’t modern humans who first manufactured adhesives from tar, but, instead, Neanderthals. The oldest evidence for tar production and use dates to around 200,000 years ago, based on organic residues recovered from a site in Italy. It appears that Neanderthals were using the tar as glue for hafting flint spearheads to wooden spear shafts.1 Archaeologists have also unearthed spearheads with tar residue from two sites in Germany dating to 120,000 years in age and between 40,000 to 80,000 years in age, respectively.2 Because these dates precede the arrival of modern humans into Europe, anthropologists assume the tar at these sites was deliberately produced and used by Neanderthals.

    For some anthropologists, this evidence indicates that Neanderthals possessed advanced cognitive ability, just like modern humans. If this is the case, then modern humans are not unique and exceptional. And, if human beings aren’t exceptional, then it becomes a challenge to defend one of the central concepts in Scripture—the idea that human beings are made in God’s image. Yet, claims that Neanderthals are cognitive equals to modern humans fail to withstand scientific scrutiny, time and time again. (See Resources section below.) This, too, is the case when it comes to Neanderthal tar production.

    How Did Neanderthals Extract Tar from Birch Bark?

    Though it appears that Neanderthals were able to produce and use tar as an adhesive, anthropologists have no idea how they went about this task. Archaeologists have yet to unearth any evidence for ceramics at Neanderthal sites. To address this question, a team of researchers from the University of Leiden conducted a series of experiments, trying to learn how Neanderthals could dry distill tar from birch bark using the resources most reasonably available to them.

    The research team devised and evaluated three dry distillation methods:

    • The Ash Mound Method: This technique entails burying rolled up birch bark in hot ash and embers. The heat from the ash and embers distills the tar away from the birch bark, but because the bark is curled and buried, oxygen can’t easily get to the tar, preventing combustion.
    • The Pit Roll Method: This approach involves digging a cylindrical pit and then placing a burning piece of rolled-up birch bark in the pit, followed by covering it with earthen materials.
    • The Raised Structure Method: This method involves placing a vessel made out of birch bark in a pit, igniting it, and covering it with sticks, pebbles, and mud.

    Of the three methods, the researchers learned that the Pit Roll technique produced the most tar and was the most efficient method. Still, the amount of tar that was produced was not enough for large-scale use, but just enough to haft one or two spears at best. The tar produced by all three methods was too fluid to be used for hafting.

    Still, the research team concluded that Neanderthals could have dry distilled tar from birch bark, using methods that were simple and without the need to precisely control the distillation temperature. They also conclude that Neanderthals must have had advanced cognitive abilities—on par with modern humans—to pull off this feat.

    Did Neanderthals Have Similar Cognitive Capacity to Modern Humans?

    Does the ability of Neanderthals to dry distill tar (using crude methods) and use it to haft spears reflect sophisticated cognitive abilities? From my vantage point, no.

    The recognition that the methods Neanderthals most likely used to dry distill tar from birch bark didn’t require temperature control and were simple and crude argues against Neanderthal sophistication, not for it. To this point, it is worth noting that birch bark naturally curls, a factor critical to the success of the three dry distillation methods explored by the University of Leiden archaeologists. In other words, curling the birch bark was not something Neanderthals would have had to discover.

    It is also worth pointing out that recent work indicates that Neanderthals did not master fire, but instead made opportunistic use of fire. These creatures could not create fire, but, instead, harvested wildfires. There were vast periods of time during Neanderthals’ tenure in Europe when wildfires were rare because of cold climatic conditions, meaning Neanderthals didn’t have access to fire. Because fire is central to the dry distillation methods, Neanderthals would have been unable to extract tar and use it for hafting for a significant portion of their time on Earth. Perhaps this explains why recovery of tar from Neanderthal sites is a rare occurrence.

    Still, no matter how crude the method, dry distilling tar from birch bark seems to be pretty remarkable behavior—until we compare Neanderthal behavior to that of chimpanzees.

    Comparing Neanderthal Behavior to Chimpanzee Behavior

    In recent years, primatologists have observed chimpanzees in the wild engaging in some remarkable behaviors. For example, chimpanzees:

    • manufacture spears from tree branches, using a six-step process. In turn, these creatures use these spears to hunt bush babies
    • make stone tools that they use to break open nuts
    • collect branches from specific trees with appropriate mechanical characteristics and insect-repellent properties to build beds in trees
    • collect and consume plants with medicinal properties
    • understand and exploit the behavior of wildfires

    In light of these remarkable chimpanzee behaviors, the manufacture and use of tar by Neanderthals doesn’t seem that impressive. No one would equate a chimpanzee’s cognitive capacity with that of a modern human. And, likewise, no one should equate the cognitive capacity of Neanderthals with modern humans. In terms of sophistication, complexity, and efficiency, the tar production methods of modern humans are categorically different from those of Neanderthals, reflecting cognitive superiority of modern humans.

    Do Anthropologists Display a Bias against Modern Humans?

    Recently, in a New York Times article, science writer Jon Mooallem called attention to paleoanthropologists prejudices when it comes to Neanderthals. He pointed out that the limited data available to these scientists from the archaeological record forces them to rely on speculation. And this speculation is inevitably influenced by their preconceptions. Mooallem states,

    “All sciences operate by trying to fit new data into existing theories. And this particular science [archaeology], for which the “data” has always consisted of scant and somewhat inscrutable bits of rock and fossil, often has to lean on those metanarratives even more heavily. . . . Ultimately, a bottomless relativism can creep in: tenuous interpretations held up by webs of other interpretations, each strung from still more interpretations. Almost every archaeologist I interviewed complained that the field has become “overinterpreted”—that the ratio of physical evidence to speculation about that evidence is out of whack. Good stories can generate their own momentum.”3

    Mooallem’s critique applies to paleoanthropologists who are modern human supremacists and those with an anti-modern human bias that seeks to undermine the uniqueness and exceptionalism of modern humans. And, lately, reading the scientific literature in anthropology, I get the strong sense that there is a growing anti-modern human bias among anthropologists.

    In light of this anti-modern human bias, one could propose an alternate scenario for the association of tar with flint spearheads at a few Neanderthal sites that comport with the view that these creatures were cognitively inferior to modern humans. Perhaps Neanderthals threw birch or pine into a fire they harvested from a wildfire. And maybe a few pieces of bark or some pieces of branches near the edge of the fire naturally curled, leading to dry distillation” of small amounts of tar. Seeing the tar exude from the bark, perhaps a Neanderthal poked at it with his spear, coating the piece of flint with sticky tar.

    When we do our best to set aside our preconceptions, the collective body of evidence indicates that Neanderthals did not have the same cognitive capacity as modern humans.

    Resources

    Endnotes
    1. Paul Peter Anthony Mazza et al., “A New Palaeolithic Discovery: Tar-Hafted Stone Tool in a European Mid-Pleistocene Bone-Bearing Bed,” Journal of Archaeological Science 33 (September 2006): 1310–18, doi:10.1016/j.jas.2006.01.006.
    2. Johann Koller, Ursula Baumer, and Dietrich Mania, “High-Tech in the Middle Palaeolithic: Neandertal-Manufactured Pitch Identified,” European Journal of Archaeology 4 (December 1, 2001): 385–97, doi:10.1179/eja.2001.4.3.385; Alfred F. Pawlik and Jürgen P. Thissen, “Hafted Armatures and Multi-Component Tool Design at the Micoquian Site of Inden-Altdorf, Germany,” Journal of Archaeological Science 38 (July 2011): 1699–1708, doi:10.1016/j.jas.2011.03.001.
    3. P. R. B. Kozowyk et al., “Experimental Methods for the Palaeolithic Dry Distillation of Birch Bark: Implications for the Origin and Development of Neandertal Adhesive Technology,” Scientific Reports 7 (August 31, 2017): 8033, doi:10.1038/s41598-017-08106-7.
    4. Jon Mooallem, “Neanderthals Were People, Too,” New York Times Magazine, January 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/11/magazine/neanderthals-were-people-too.html.
  • New Research Douses Claim that Neanderthals Mastered Fire

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Jan 03, 2018

    A few months ago, I posted a link on Twitter to a blog article I wrote challenging the claim that Neanderthals made jewelry and, therefore, possessed the capacity for symbolism.

    When I post articles about the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals, I expect them to generate a fair bit of discussion and opinions that differ from mine (and I expect this article about neanderthal’s use of fire to be no exception). But one response I received was unexpectedly jarring. It came from a Christian who accused me of being “out of touch,” wasting time discussing frivolous issues,” and “targeting the elite with a failed apologetic.” He admonished me to spend my time on real issues related to social justice concerns and chastised me for not focusing my efforts reaching out to the “marginalized.”

    As part of my reply to my new “friend,” I pointed out that the identity and capability of Neanderthals has a direct bearing on the gospel and, consequently, social injustices in our world, because it relates to the question of humanity’s origin and identity. And what we believe about where we come from really matters.

    Scripture teaches that human beings are uniquely made in God’s image. And, it is the image of God that renders human beings of infinite worth and value. Because we bear God’s image, Christ died to reconcile us to the Father. And, as Christians, the immeasurable value we place on all human life motivates us to battle against the injustices of the world—because the people who suffer these injustices are image bearers. According to Scripture, when we love and serve other human beings, it equates to loving and serving God.

    Yet, the biblical view of humanity has been supplanted in the scientific community by human evolution. According to this idea, human beings are not the product of a Creator’s handiwork—the crown of creation—but, like all life on Earth, we emerged through unguided, historically contingent processes. In the evolutionary paradigm, human beings hold no special status. Human beings possess no inherent worth. We possess no more value than any other creature that has ever existed throughout Earth’s history. Human beings lack any inherent worth or dignity in the evolutionary paradigm. And, within this framework, there can be no ultimate meaning or purpose to human life.

    Sadly, the evolutionary view of humanity is not confined to the halls of the academy. It permeates and influences cultures throughout the world. Once human life is rendered meaningless and stripped of its inherent value, there is no fundamental justification to stand against injustice. In fact, it becomes easier to excuse acts of injustice and becomes tolerable to look the other way when these acts occur. In the evolutionary framework, no genuine motivation exists to rescue the marginalized of our world. I would go one step further and argue that many of the social ills we face throughout the world have their etiology in the evolutionary view of humanity.

    I regard my work as a Christian apologist as an antidote to this toxic worldview. Towards this end, I strive to demonstrate the credibility of the biblical view of humanity—apart from biblical and theological appeals. In an increasingly secular world, we can’t simply adopt a theological stance, declaring that human beings bear God’s image, and leave it at that. Few nonbelievers will accept that approach. We must respond to the scientific challenge to the image of God with scientific evidence for human uniqueness and exceptionalism. This endeavor isn’t about challenging the elite with an obscure apologetic argument for the validity of Christianity. Ultimately, it is about establishing the foundation for the gospel and generating the impetus and justification to treat human beings as creatures with inherent worth and dignity. As Christian apologists when we “target the elite” with apologetic arguments for the Christian worldview, we are serving the marginalized in our world.

    As described in Who Was Adam? a scientific case can be marshaled for human exceptionalism in a way that aligns with the biblical view of the image of God. Remarkably, a growing minority of anthropologists and primatologists now believe that human beings really are exceptional. They contend that human beings do, indeed, differ in kind, not just degree, from other creatures. The scientists who argue for this updated perspective have developed evidence for human exceptionalism within the context of the evolutionary paradigm in their attempts to understand how the human mind evolved. Yet, ironically, these new insights marshal support for the biblical conception of humanity.

    However, one potential challenge to human exceptionalism relates to the cognitive capabilities of Neanderthals. Based on archeological and fossil finds some paleoanthropologists now argue that these hominids: (1) buried their dead; (2) made specialized tools; (3) used ochre; (4) produced jewelry; (5) created art; and (6) even had language capacities. These are behaviors one would naturally associate with the image bearers.

    Yet, as discussed in Who Was Adam? (and articles listed in the Resource section), careful examination of the archeological and fossil evidence reveals just how speculative the claims about Neanderthal “exceptionalism” are. Recent insights on Neanderthal fire use illustrate this point.

    Did Neanderthals Use Fire?

    While controversy abounds among paleoanthropologists about fire use by hominins such as Homo erectus, most scientists working in this field believe Neanderthals mastered fire. This view finds its basis in the discovery of primitive hearths, burned bones, heated lithics, and charcoal at Neanderthal archeological sites. Frankly, fire use by Neanderthals bothers me. If these creatures could create and use fire—in short, if they mastered fire (called pyrotechnology)it makes them much more like us—but uncomfortably so.

    Yet, recent work raises questions about Neanderthal fire usage.1 Careful assessment of archeological sites in southern France occupied by Neanderthals from about 100,000 to 40,000 years ago indicates that Neanderthals could not create fire. Instead, they made opportunistic use of natural fire when available to them.

    The French sites show clear evidence of fire use by Neanderthals. However, when researchers correlated the archeological layers harboring evidence for fire use with paleoclimate data, they found an unexpected pattern. Neanderthals used fire during warm climate conditions and failed to use fire during cold periods—the opposite of what would be predicted—if Neanderthals had mastery over fire.

    Instead, this unusual correlation indicates that Neanderthals made opportunistic use of fire. Lightning strikes that would generate natural fires are much more likely to occur during warm periods. Instead of creating fire, Neanderthals most likely collected natural fire and cultivated it as long as they could before it extinguished.

    Such evidence shows that human beings are unique and exceptional in our capacity to create and curate fire, distinguishing us from Neanderthals.

    Chimpanzees Exploit Natural Fire

    Still, the capacity to make opportunistic use of fire seems pretty impressive. At least until Neanderthal behavior is compared to that of chimpanzees. Recent work by Jill Pruetz indicates that these great apes understand the behavior of natural fires and even exploit them.2 Pruetz and her collaborator observed the response of the Fongoli community of chimpanzees to two wildfires in the spring of 2006. The members of the community calmly monitored the fires at close range and then changed their behavior in anticipation of the fires’ movement. To put it another way, the chimpanzees’ behavior was predictive, not responsive. This capacity is impressive, because the behavior of natural fires is complex, depending on wind speed and direction and the amount and type of fuel sources.

    So, as impressive as Neanderthal behavior may seem, their opportunistic use of fire seems more closely in line with chimpanzee behavior than that of human beings, who create and control fire at will. In fact, Pruetz believes one reason chimpanzees don’t harvest natural fire relates to their lack of manual dexterity.

    How Did Neanderthals Survive Cold Climates without Fire?

    If Neanderthals were opportunistic exploiters of fire and it was only available to them when the climate was warm, how did they survive the cold? One possibility is that they simply migrated from cold climes to warmer ones.

    Another possibility is that the hominins made clothing. At least, this is the common narrative about Neanderthals. Yet, recent work indicates that this popular depiction is incorrect. These creatures did not make clothing from animal skins, but instead made use of animal hides as capes.3

    A team of paleoanthropologists reached this conclusion by studying the faunal remains at Neanderthal and modern human archeological sites and comparing them to a database of animals used to make cold weather clothing. While both modern humans and Neanderthals used deer, bison, and bear hides for body coverings, the remains of these creatures were found more frequently at modern human archeological sites. Additionally, the remains of smaller creatures, such as weasels, wolverines, and dogs were found at modern human sites but were absent from sites occupied by Neanderthals. These smaller animals have no food value. Instead, modern humans used the animal hides to trim clothing.

    This data indicates that modern humans made much more frequent use of animal hides for clothing than did Neanderthals. And when modern humans made clothing, it was more elaborate and well-fitted than the coverings made by Neanderthals. This conclusion finds added support from the discovery of bone needles at modern human archeological sites (and the absence of these artifacts at Neanderthal sites), and reflects cognitive differences between human beings and Neanderthals.

    Even though Neanderthals made poorly crafted body coverings and most likely made little use of fire during cold periods, they were aided in their survival of frigid conditions by the design of their bodies. Anthropologists describe Neanderthals as having a hyper-polar body design that made them well-adapted to live under frozen conditions. Neanderthal bodies were stout and compact, comprised of barrel-shaped torsos and shorter limbs, which helped them retain body heat. Their noses were long and sinus cavities extensive, which helped them warm the cold air they breathed before it reached their lungs. Neanderthals most likely survived the cold because of their body design, not because of their cognitive abilities.

    Even though many paleoanthropologists assert that Neanderthals possessed cognitive abilities on par with modern humans, careful evaluation finds these claims wanting, time and time again, as the latest insights about fire use by these hominins attest.

    Compared to the hominins, including Neanderthals, human beings do, indeed, appear to be exceptional in a way that aligns with the image of God. These are far from “frivolous issues.” The implications are profound.

    What we think about Neanderthals really matters.

    Resources

    Endnotes
    1. Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “Timing of the Appearance of Habitual Fire Use,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 108 (July 19, 2011), E298, doi:10.1073/pnas.1106759108; Paul Goldberg et al., “New Evidence on Neandertal Use of Fire: Examples from Roc de Marsal and Pech de l’Azé IV,” Quaternary International 247 (2012), 325–40, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2010.11.015; Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “On the Role of Fire in Neanderthal Adaptations in Western Europe: Evidence from Pech de l’Azé IV and Roc de Marsal, France,” PaleoAnthropology (2011), 216–42, doi:10.4207/PA.2011.ART54.
    2. Jill D. Pruetz and Thomas C. LaDuke, “Brief Communication: Reaction to Fire by Savanna Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) at Fongoli, Senegal: Conceptualization of “Fire Behavior” and the Case for a Chimpanzee Model,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 141 (April 2010) 646–50, doi:10.1002/ajpa.21245.
    3. Mark Collard et al., “Faunal Evidence for a Difference in Clothing Use between Neanderthals and Early Modern Humans in Europe,” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 44 B (December 2016), 235–46, doi:org/10.1016/j.jaa.2016.07.010.
  • Does the Recovery of Oils from a Fossilized Bird Evince a Young Earth?

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Dec 20, 2017

    Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

    –Acts 17:11

    Is there scientific evidence that the earth is only 6,000 years old?

    In spite of the valiant efforts of young-earth creationists (YECs), I have yet to come across any compelling scientific arguments that the earth is only a few thousand years old. At least not until I learned about the numerous discoveries of soft-tissue remnants associated with fossils that date to several hundred million years in age, in some instances. (For a detailed survey of the soft tissues recovered from the fossil record, check out my book, Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth.) These discoveries give me some pause for thought about the age-of-the-earth measurements.

    These types of discoveries generate a lot of excitement among paleontologists. Having access to soft-tissue materials provides the scientific community with inspiring new insights into the biology of these ancient creatures.

    They also create a lot of excitement for YECs, because the findings suggest to them that the geologists’ dating methods are unreliable. Before these discoveries, very few scientists would have ever thought that soft-tissue materials could survive in the geological layers for thousands—let alone hundreds of millions—of years because of unrelenting decomposition processes. And yet, the number of soft-tissue fossil discoveries continues to mount. For example, investigators from the UK, the US, and Germany recently reported on the recovery of endogenous oils from the fossilized uropygial gland of a bird specimen that dates to 48 million years in age.1 I will take a closer look at what they found after a bit of explanation to show why it is critical to understand such a discovery.

    For YECs, the isolation of soft-tissue materials from fossils indicates that the fossils cannot be millions of years old but, at best, only a few thousand years old—and most likely deposited by a catastrophic worldwide flood. They reason that if the fossils are only a few thousand years old, then the methods used to age-date the fossils must be faulty. That being the case, then the same methods used to date the earth, too, must be flawed.

    As an old-earth creationist, I must admit the discovery of soft-tissue materials associated with fossils represents one of the most interesting arguments for a young earth I’ve encountered. On the surface, the argument seems reasonable. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that many YEC organizations (such as Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International, and the Institute for Creation Research) have elevated the existence of soft tissue materials in the fossil record to one of their central arguments for a young earth. I observe many well-meaning Christians following suit, using this same argument in their efforts to convince seekers and skeptics about the scientific reliability of the Genesis 1 creation account. Unfortunately, most people who are scientifically minded fail to find this argument persuasive because of the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence for the reliability of radiometric dating. And as a result, skeptics are often driven further away from the Christian faith.

    When using scientific discoveries to demonstrate God’s existence and to defend the reliability of the biblical creation accounts, it is critical to adopt a posture like that of the Bereans. It is incumbent on all of us to investigate or “examine” on our own to ensure the arguments we use are sound.

    That’s why I wrote Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth. In this book, I make every effort to take the soft-tissue argument seriously. But, following the Bereans’ example, I thoroughly examine each premise of their argument to see if it holds up to scrutiny, including their central claim: soft-tissue materials cannot persist in fossils that are millions of years old.

    Though admittedly counterintuitive, after thorough investigation into this claim, I have come to believe that soft-tissue remnants can survive in the fossil record. To illustrate how this survival is possible, let’s use the recently discovered 48-million-year preening oil isolated, fossilized uropygial gland as a case study.

    Discovery of Preening Oil in a 48-Million-Year-Old Fossilized Gland

    The 48-million-year-old fossil bird specimen that possessed uropygial gland oils was recovered from the Messel Pit. Located in Darmstadt, Germany, this UNESCO World Heritage site has yielded a number of important vertebrate fossils throughout its history and still serves as a source of exciting new fossil discoveries today.

    While carefully examining this bird specimen (which still remains unclassified), the paleontologists noted the outline of the uropygial gland at the base of the tail region. To confirm this interpretation, the researchers attempted to extract remnants of preening oil from this putative gland. Motivated by previous soft-tissue finds and the discovery of lipids (a class of biomolecules that include oils) in other ancient geological deposits, the research team removed milligram amounts of the fossilized uropygial gland from the specimen and extracted material from the sample. Afterward, they subjected the extracts to chemical analysis, relying on a technique known as pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Analysis with this technique begins with a heating step that decomposes the analytes into small molecular fragments that, in turn, are separated by gas chromatography and then analyzed by mass spectrometry. This technique produces profiles of molecular fragments that serve as a fingerprint, helping scientists determine the identity of compounds in the sample.

    The research team detected C-8 to C-30 n-alkanes, n-alkenes, and alkylbenzenes in the uropygial gland extracted—as expected if the fossil contained remnants for preening oil. The profiles of the fossilized uropygial gland extracts differed from the profiles of extracts taken from shales that make up the geological layer that originally housed the fossil specimen. This result indicates that the uropygial gland extracts are not due to contamination from the surrounding geological layers. When the researchers compared the extracts of the fossilized glands to extracts of uropygial glands of extant birds (such as the common blackbird, the ringed teal, and the middle spotted woodpecker), they noted a difference in the profiles. This difference most likely reflects chemical alteration of the original preening oil during the fossilization process.

    How the Preening Oil Was Preserved

    So how can soft tissue material, such as preening oil, persist in fossils for millions and millions of years?

    In Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, I point out that paleontologists believe that soft-tissue preservation reflects a race between two competing processes: decomposition and mineral entombment. If mineral entombment wins, then whatever soft tissue that has avoided decomposition remains behind—for millions and millions of years. Once encased in mineral deposits, soft-tissue materials become isolated and protected from the environment, arresting the decomposition processes that would otherwise destroy them.

    Anything that slows down the rate of decomposition will help soft-tissue materials to hang around long enough for mineral entombment to take place. One factor contributing to soft-tissue survival is the structural durability of the molecules that make up the soft tissues. In most instances, the soft tissues that survive are made up of highly durable materials. Toward this end, some of the components of preening oil (such as long chain alkanes) are chemically inert, making them resistant to chemical decomposition.

    Though usually destructive, in some instances chemical reactivity can contribute to soft-tissue survival. This reactivity likely contributed to the survival of the preening oil. The team of paleontologists believes that the alkene components of the preening oils reacted to form high-molecular-weight polymers that, in turn, became resistant to chemical decomposition.

    While not subject to chemical decomposition, long chain hydrocarbons would serve as an ideal food source for microbes in the environment. This process would work against preservation. But, microbial decomposition of preening oil is unlikely, because some of the components of the uropygial gland secretions possess antimicrobial activities.

    Also, the shale that harbored the fossil bird is oxygen-depleted. The absence of oxygen in this geological setting most likely contributed to soft-tissue survival, preventing oxidative decomposition of the preening oil.

    In other words, there are several collective mechanisms in play that would stave off the decomposition of the original preening oil, though it does look as if the original material did become chemically altered. The bottom line: There is no reason to think that soft-tissue materials derived from the original preening oil in the uropygial glands could not persist for 48 million years or longer in the fossil record.

    At first glance, the soft-tissue argument for a young earth seems so compelling. Yet, when carefully evaluated (“examined”), it simply doesn’t hold up.

    Becoming Bereans

    As Christians, we should expect that there will be scientific discoveries that affirm our faith by revealing God’s fingerprints in nature and by supporting the creation accounts found in Scripture. Key biblical passages (such as Psalm 19 and Romans 1:20) teach this much. Yet, we must also recognize that as human beings interpreting nature (through science) and interpreting Scripture can be complex undertakings. As such, we can make mistakes. We are fallen creatures, we have limited knowledge, insight, and understanding, and we have preconceived notions . . . all of which influence our interpretations. And, it is for these reasons that we must all operate like the Bereans. We should respond to scientific arguments for the Christian faith with eagerness, but before we use them, we must rigorously evaluate them to ensure their validity and, if valid, to understand the arguments’ limitations. Sincere, well-meaning Christians can be wrong and can unintentionally mislead other Christians. But, when that happens it is our fault, not theirs, if we are mislead because we have failed to take the “noble,” Berean-like approach and do our homework.

    Resources to Dig Deeper

    Endnotes
    1. Shane O’Reilly et al., “Preservation of Uropygial Gland Lipids in a 48-Million-Year-Old Bird,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 284 (October 18, 2017): doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.1050.
  • Brain Synchronization Study Evinces the Image of God

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Dec 13, 2017

    As I sit down at my computer to compose this post, the new Justice League movie has just hit the theaters. Even though it has received mixed reviews, I can’t wait to see this latest superhero flick. With several superheroes fighting side-by-side, it begs the question: “Who is the most powerful superhero in the DC universe?”

    I’m not sure how you would respond, but in my opinion, it’s not Superman or Wonder Woman. Instead, it’s a superhero that didn’t appear in the Justice League movie (but he is a longtime member of the Justice League in the comic books): the Martian Manhunter.

    Originally from Mars, J’onn J’onzz possesses superhuman strength and endurance, just like Superman. He can fly and shoot energy beams out of his eyes. But, he also has shapeshifting abilities and is a powerful telepath. It would be fun to see Superman and the Martian Manhunter tangle. My money would be on J’onn J’onzz because of his powerful telepathic abilities. As a telepath, he can read minds, control people’s thoughts and memories, create realistic illusions, and link minds together.

    blog__inline--brain-synchronization-study

    Image credit: Fazale Rana

    Even though it is fun (and somewhat silly) to daydream about superhuman strength and telepathic abilities, recent work by Spanish neuroscientists from the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain, and Language indicates that mere mortals do indeed have an unusual ability that seems a bit like telepathy. When we engage in conversations with one another—even with strangers—the electrical activities of our brains synchronize.1 In part, this newfound ability may provide the neurological basis for the theory of mind and our capacity to form complex, hierarchical social relationships, properties uniquely displayed by human beings. In other words, this discovery provides more reasons to think that human beings are exceptional in a way that aligns with the biblical concept of the image of God.

    Brain Synchronization

    Most brain activity studies focus on individual subjects and their responses to single stimuli. For example, single-person studies have shown that oscillations in electrical activity in the brain couple with speech rhythms when the test subject is either listening or speaking. The Spanish neuroscientists wanted to go one step further. They wanted to learn what happens to brain activities when two people engage one another in a conversation.

    To find out, they assembled 15 dyads (14 men and 16 women) consisting of strangers who were 20–30 years in age. They asked the members of each dyad to exchange opinions on sports, movies, music, and travel. While the strangers conversed, the researchers monitored electrical activities in the brains using EEG technology. As expected, they detected coupling of brain electrical activities with the speech rhythms in both speakers and listeners. But, to their surprise, they also detected pure brain entrainment in the electrical activities of the test subject, independent of the physical properties of the sound waves associated with speaking and listening. To put it another way, the brain activities of the two people in the conversation became synchronized, establishing a deep connection between their minds.

    Brain Synchronization and the Image of God

    The notion that human beings differ in degree, not kind, from other creatures has been a mainstay concept in anthropology and primatology for over 150 years. And it has been the primary reason why so many people have abandoned the belief that human beings bear God’s image. Yet, this stalwart view in anthropology is losing its mooring, with the concept of human exceptionalism taking its place. A growing minority of anthropologists and primatologists now believe that human beings really are exceptional. They contend that human beings do, indeed, differ in kind, not merely degree, from other creatures, including Neanderthals. Ironically, the scientists who argue for this updated perspective have developed evidence for human exceptionalism in their attempts to understand how the human mind evolved. But, instead of buttressing human evolution, these new insights marshal support for the biblical conception of humanity.

    Anthropologists identify at least four interrelated qualities that make us exceptional: (1) symbolism, (2) open-ended generative capacity, (3) theory of mind, and (4) our capacity to form complex social networks.

    As human beings, we effortlessly represent the world with discrete symbols. We denote abstract concepts with symbols. And our ability to represent the world symbolically has interesting consequences when coupled with our abilities to combine and recombine those symbols in a countless number of ways to create alternate possibilities. Our capacity for symbolism manifests in the form of language, art, music, and even body ornamentation. And we desire to communicate the scenarios we construct in our minds with other human beings.

    But there is more to our interactions with other human beings than a desire to communicate. We want to link our minds together. And we can do this because we possess a theory of mind. In other words, we recognize that other people have minds just like ours, allowing us to understand what others are thinking and feeling. We also have the brain capacity to organize people we meet and know into hierarchical categories, allowing us to form and engage in complex social networks.

    In effect, these qualities could be viewed as scientific descriptors of the image of God.

    It is noteworthy that all four of these qualities are on full display in the Spanish neuroscientists study. The capacity to offer opinions on a wide range of topics and to communicate our ideas with language reflects our symbolism and our open-ended generative capacity. I find it intriguing that the oscillations of our brain’s electrical activity couples with the rhythmic patterns created by speech—suggesting our brains are hard-wired to support our desire to communicate with one another symbolically. I also find it intriguing that our brains become coupled at an even deeper level when we converse, consistent with our theory of mind and our capacity to enter into complex social relationships.

    Even though many people in the scientific community promote a view of humanity that denigrates the image of God, common-day experience continually supports the notion that we are unique and exceptional as human beings. But, for me, I find it even more gratifying to learn that scientific investigations into our cognitive and behavioral capacities continue to affirm human exceptionalism and, with it, the image of God. Indeed, we are the crown of creation.

    Resources to Dig Deeper

    Endnotes
    1. Alejandro Pérez et al., “Brain-to-Brain Entrainment: EEG Interbrain Synchronization While Speaking and Listening,” Scientific Reports 7 (June 23, 2017): 4190, doi:10.1038/s41598-017-04464-4.
  • Molecular Scale Robotics Build Case for Design

    by Telerik.Sitefinity.DynamicTypes.Model.Authors.Author | Dec 06, 2017

    Sometimes bigger is better, and other times, not so much—particularly for scientists working in the field of nanotechnology.

    Scientists and engineers working in this area are obsessed with miniaturization. And because of this obsession, they have developed techniques to manipulate matter at the molecular scale. Thanks to these advances, they can now produce novel materials (that could never be produced with macro-scale methods) with a host of applications. They also use these techniques to fabricate molecular-level devices—nanometer-sized machines—made up of complex arrangements of atoms and molecules. They hope that these machines will perform sophisticated tasks, giving researchers full control of the molecular domain.

    Recently, scientists from the University of Manchester in the UK achieved a milestone in nanotechnology when they designed the first-ever molecular robot that can be deployed to build molecules in the same way that robotic arms on assembly lines manufacture automobiles.1 These molecular robots can be used to improve the efficiency of chemical reactions and make it possible for organic chemists to design synthetic routes that, up to this point, were inconceivable.

    Undoubtedly, this advance will pave the way for more cost-effective, greener chemical reactions at the bench and plant scales. It will also grant organic chemists greater control over chemical reactions, paving the way for the synthesis of new types of compounds including drugs and other pharmaceutical agents.

    As exciting as these prospects are, perhaps the greater significance of this research lies in the intriguing theological implications. For example, comparison of the molecular robots to the biomolecular machines in the cell—machines that carry out similar assembly-line operations—highlights the elegant designs of biochemical systems, evincing a Creator’s handiwork. This research is theologically provocative in another way. It demonstrates human exceptionalism and, by doing so, supports the biblical claim that human beings are made in the image of God.

    Molecular Robotics

    University of Manchester chemists built molecular robots that consist of about 150 atoms of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen. Though these robots consist of a relatively small number of atoms, the arrangement of these atoms makes the molecular robots structurally complex.

    The robots’ architecture is organized around a molecular-scale platform. Located in the middle of the platform is a molecular arm that extends upward and then bends at a 90-degree angle. This molecular prosthesis binds molecules at the end of the arm and then can be made to swivel between the two ends of the platform as researchers add different chemicals to the reaction. The swiveling action brings the bound molecule in juxtaposition to the chemical groups at the tip ends of the platform. When reactants are added to the solution, these compounds will react with the bound molecule differently depending on the placement of the arm, whether it is oriented toward one end of the platform or the other. In this way, the bound molecule—call it A—can react through two cycles of arm placement to form one of four possible compounds—B, C, D, and E. In this scheme, unwanted side reactions are kept to a minimum, because the bound molecule is precisely positioned next to either of the two ends of the molecular platform. This specificity improves the reaction efficiency, while at the same time making it possible for chemists to generate compounds that would be impossible to synthesize without the specificity granted by the molecular robots.

    Molecular Robots Make the Case for Design

    Many researchers working in nanotechnology did not think that the University of Manchester scientists—or any scientists, for that matter—could design and build a molecular robot that could carry out high precision molecular assembly. In the abstract of their paper, the Manchester team writes, “It has been convincingly argued that molecular machines that manipulate individual atoms, or highly reactive clusters of atoms, with Ångstrom precision are unlikely to be realized.”2

    Yet, the researchers were motivated to try to achieve this goal because molecular machines with this capacity exist inside the cell. They continue, “However, biological molecular machines routinely position rather less reactive substrates in order to direct chemical reaction sequences.”3 To put it another way, the Manchester chemists derived insight and inspiration from the biomolecular machines inside the cell to design and build their molecular robot.

    As I have written about before, the use of designs in biochemistry to inspire advances in nanotechnology make possible a new design argument, one I call the converse watchmaker argument. Namely, if biological designs are the work of a Creator, these systems should be so well-designed that they can serve as engineering models and otherwise inspire the development of new technologies.

    Comparison of the molecular robots designed by the University of Manchester team with a typical biomolecular machine found in the cell illustrates this point. The newly synthesized molecular robot consists of around 150 atoms, yet it took an enormous amount of ingenuity and effort to design and make. Still, this molecular machine is far less efficient than the biomolecular machines found in the cell. The cell’s biomolecular machines consist of thousands of atoms and are much more elegant and sophisticated than the man-made molecular robots. Considering these differences, is it reasonable to think that the biomolecular machines in the cell resulted from unguided, undirected, contingent processes when they are so much more advanced than the molecular robots built by scientists—some of them among the best chemists in the world?

    The only reasonable explanation is that the biomolecular machines in the cell stem from the work of a mind—a divine mind with unlimited creative capacity.

    Molecular Robots Make the Case for Human Exceptionalism

    Though unimpressive when compared to the elegant biomolecular machines in the cell, molecular robots still stand as a noteworthy scientific accomplishment—one might even say they represent science at its very best. And this accomplishment stresses the fact that human beings are the only species that has ever existed that can create technologies as advanced as the molecular robots invented by the University of Manchester chemists. Our capacity to investigate and understand nature through science and then turn that insight into technologies is unique to human beings. No other creature that exists today or that has ever existed, possesses this capability.

    Thomas Suddendorf puts it this way:

    “We reflect on and argue about our present situation, our history, and our destiny. We envision wonderful harmonious worlds as easily as we do dreadful tyrannies. Our powers are used for good as they are for bad, and we incessantly debate which is which. Our minds have spawned civilizations and technologies that have changed the face of the Earth, while our closest living animal relatives sit unobtrusively in their remaining forests. There appears to be a tremendous gap between human and animal minds.”4

    Anthropologists believe that symbolism accounts for the gap between humans and the great apes. As human beings, we effortlessly represent the world with discrete symbols. We denote abstract concepts with symbols. And our ability to represent the world symbolically has interesting consequences when coupled with our abilities to combine and recombine those symbols in a nearly infinite number of ways to create alternate possibilities.

    Our capacity for symbolism manifests in the form of language, art, music, and even body ornamentation. And we desire to communicate the scenarios we construct in our minds with other human beings. In a sense, symbolism and our open-ended capacity to generate alternative hypotheses are scientific descriptors of the image of God.

    There also appears to be a gap between human minds and the minds of the hominins, such as Neanderthals, who preceded us in the fossil record. It is true: claims abound about Neanderthals possessing the capacity for symbolism. Yet, as I discuss in Who Was Adam, those claims do not withstand scientific scrutiny. Recently, paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall and linguist Noam Chomsky (along with other collaborators) argued that Neanderthals could not have possessed language and, hence, symbolism, because their crude “technology” remained stagnant for the duration of their time on Earth. Neanderthals—who first appear in the fossil record around 250,000 to 200,000 years ago and disappear around 40,000 years ago—existed on Earth longer than modern humans have. Yet, our technology has progressed exponentially, while Neanderthal technology remained largely static. According to Tattersall, Chomsky, and their coauthors:

    “Our species was born in a technologically archaic context, and significantly, the tempo of change only began picking up after the point at which symbolic objects appeared. Evidently, a new potential for symbolic thought was born with our anatomically distinctive species, but it was only expressed after a necessary cultural stimulus had exerted itself. This stimulus was most plausibly the appearance of language. . . . Then, within a remarkably short space of time, art was invented, cities were born, and people had reached the moon.”5

    In effect, these researchers echo Suddendorf’s point. The gap between human beings and the great apes and hominins becomes most apparent when we consider the remarkable technological advances we have made during our tenure as a species. And this mind-boggling growth in technology points to our exceptionalism as a species, affirming the biblical view that, as human beings, we uniquely bear God’s image.

    Resources to Dig Deeper

    Endnotes
    1. Salma Kassem et al., “Stereodivergent Synthesis with a Programmable Molecular Machine,” Nature 549 (September 21, 2017): 374–8, doi:10.1038/nature23677.
    2. Kassem et al., “Stereodivergent Synthesis,” 374.
    3. Kassem et al., “Stereodivergent Synthesis,” 374.
    4. Thomas Suddendorf, The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 2.
    5. Johan J. Bolhuis et al., “How Could Language Have Evolved?” PLoS Biology 12 (August 26, 2014): e1001934, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001934.

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