Monday, March 30, 2015

Smoky Mountain Creation Retreat 2015

I'm just back from Core Academy's Smoky Mountain Creation Retreat in Beech Mountain, NC.  Pictures from the weekend can be seen on our Facebook page.  The biggest surprise of the weekend was the four inches of snow that fell the night we got there.  Everyone got in and out safely, so the snow was just fun to watch.

I would love to tell you exactly what we talked about, but most of it was pre-published work in progress.  I talked a bit about Ian Barbour's religion/science taxonomy, and I got a lot of good feedback on my ideas.  That was very helpful.  Jud Davis talked about Hebrew cosmology and the "firmament," which was really exciting and frankly a little shocking.  I'm hoping to see more of this work in the very near future.  Marcus Ross reviewed a pair of contributions he's written for a new book project, and I was pleased to see how much work he had done to make his arguments as good and as modern as possible.  Finally, Lee Spencer was a good sport and reviewed Adventist beliefs about creation.  There was plenty of extra time to chat and catch up with those in attendance, and I think everyone had a really good time.

Next year, we plan to have another Smoky Mountain Creation Retreat on April 1-3, 2016.  Mark your calendars now if you plan to be there.  In the mean time, abstracts for Origins 2015 are due this weekend, April 4.  See the call for abstracts at the Creation Biology Society website.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Reader question: What was the immune system for?

A while back, a reader asked me this interesting set of questions:
Did Adam and Eve need their immune system before the fall?  If they didn't, then was it pre-designed just for the post-fall world? Or was it created after the fall?  If they did need it, what for? Were there natural evils for which they needed immunity? Will there be these evils also after the resurrection?
I don't know about after the resurrection, but I've thought a lot about before the Fall.  It's a lot more complicated than you might think, mostly because of our expectations.

Today we live in a world dominated by the germ theory of disease, which works very, very well.  The idea is that specific infectious diseases are caused by specific agents: microbes, bacteria, viruses, what the public calls "germs."  An example I mentioned last week is cholera, which is caused by Vibrio cholerae, which is transmitted through contaminated water.  Other examples might be malaria, which is caused by a microorganism called Plasmodium, and AIDS, which is caused by HIV.  There are specific criteria that must be met in order to conclude that a particular set of symptoms (the "disease") is caused by a specific organism (the "pathogen"), which is how scientists are confident that infectious diseases can be linked to pathogens.

The immune system is the part of our body that is supposed to ward off infections.  It's an amazing set of cells and organs that can detect alien things in our bodies and dispatch them.  My favorite is the Membrane Attack Complex of the complement system, which basically pokes holes in bacteria and causes them to blow up.  No, I'm not kidding.  It's technically called osmotic lysis, but that just means that the bacterium blows up.

Such an amazing set of structures and biochemistry immediately calls to mind creationist arguments for design.  In other words, the immune system is an amazing design, but that presents an interesting problem.  If there was no disease before the Fall, which is something creationists like me believe, then what was the immune system doing?  If there were no pathogens, then what's the point of an immune system?

To answer this question, let's go back to the germ theory of disease again.  First of all, it works.  That's certain, but it's not the whole story.  There are other things in our world, other microbes in our systems, that are not germs.  In fact, after talking to microbiologists, I get the impression that the vast majority of microbes out there are not germs.  They're just there, doing their thing, not bothering anybody.  Some might even be helping us by making nutrients accessible to us or by controlling pathogenic microbes that might otherwise make us sick.  Our gut bacteria are a good example.  The microbes living in our intestines provide important metabolic functions for us (see this paper for more info), and they are not what we usually think of as "germs."

Contrast that reality with the average person's concept of bacteria today.  Everywhere we go in the developed world, we're encouraged to live an antiseptic lifestyle, with hand sanitizers and antibiotics and even antibacterial soap.  We have a cultural misconception that all microbes are bad, and therefore we should kill them ALL, which might be causing more problems than it helps.  Certainly the rise of antibiotic resistance in real pathogens has been very alarming, and it's attributable to the overuse of antibiotics.

So there's more to the microbial world than pathogens, and there's probably more to the immune system than just fighting them.  Joe Francis has argued that the immune system is just as important for allowing good things in as it is for keeping bad things out.  Another possibility is that the immune system was intended to keep microbes in their appropriate places.  That would assume that infectious disease is largely due to microbes moving into environments they weren't supposed to move into, which implies that the immune system is the thing that's gone wrong, not the microbes.  There are other, more well-known failures of the immune system, like allergies, so a faulty immune system isn't some wild speculation.

So there are lots of possibilities and lots of areas to explore to understand the function of a pre-Fall immune system.  In the mean time, we should all ease up on the antibacterial soap.  You can't imagine how many friends you're slaughtering with that stuff.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

BioLogos's Brad Kramer weighs in on the "War on Science"

You might remember my comments on National Geographic's cover story on the "War on Science."  Recently, content writer Brad Kramer posted a response on the BioLogos website.  For those who don't know, BioLogos is the leading evangelical organization that advocates acceptance of evolution (and an old earth and an old universe).  As a young-age creationist, we don't really see eye to eye on that subject, but I was encouraged to read most of Kramer's article.

Kramer also noted the odd tone of the National Geographic article, as it swerved back and forth between an honest appraisal of science and insistence that science yields TRUTH.  Kramer and I disagree in the end though because he views science as generally reliable in the long run.  Science can have missteps here and there but eventually the hard work of many scientists converge on the truth.  I tend to think that science can get stuck for a long time in spots where scientists think they've got the truth but they don't.

Beyond that disagreement, I did have some quibbles with the article.  Kramer claims that science never goes backward:  "The progress of science is, in the long run, forward. We aren’t going back to a geocentric universe or a belief in the medical effectiveness of leeches."  Oops.  Bad example.

In reality, medicinal use of leeches and maggots are making a big comeback.  I know it sounds horrifying, and the idea of maggots wriggling around in a wound is already making my stomach turn, but there are evidently real medical benefits.  Here's an interesting article on the subject from Live Science which opens with a story of a woman who saved her infected feet by use of maggots.  I spent less than five minutes in Google scholar and found many scientific papers detailing the benefits of medicinal leeches.  Here's one from the Annals of Internal Medicine that shows that leeches are effective for treating osteoarthritis of the knee (PDF).  Here's another one that talks about something called an "unsalvageable venous obstruction."  I don't even know what that is, but leeches help there too.

But no, science never goes backwards ... except when it does.  Another example: How about those antibiotics?  What a godsend!  They will cure what ails you, except that overuse of antibiotics has now bred germs that aren't susceptible to antibiotics.  Oops!  Let's not use antibiotics so much.

And don't even get me started on the weird history of biogeography.  The weird thing in biogeography are the disjunctions - places where very similar species are separated by an ocean.  Sometimes the species are on islands, and sometimes on separate continents.  One explanation was vicariance - animals and plants got their modern distribution on land masses that are no longer there.  In Darwin's day, this was the favorite explanation of a guy named Edward Forbes.  He speculated that land bridges used to connect continents (like Europe and North America) so that species now separated by oceans used to have a much larger range on land that sank into the ocean.  Then Darwin argued that Forbes was wrong and instead championed the occasional lucky dispersal across oceans to account for these disjunctions.  Darwin even did experiments like floating seeds in saltwater to see how long they could go and still germinate.  Then came plate tectonics and suddenly vicariance got some new life.  There weren't land bridges, but the continents used to be all connected.  Then plate tectonics and biogeography developed to the point where scientists decided that many disjunctions were much younger than the continental split, and so we're back to the occasional lucky dispersal as Darwin hypothesized.  Today it's sort of a mix.  Vicariance and dispersal are both invoked depending on the situation.  I could go on and on.  Madagascar is fascinating case study.  You should look it up some time.

The BioLogos-ians would probably argue that these are just especially complicated examples of science moving forward, and they illustrate just how messy science can get even while eventually arriving at the truth.  Right?  Because we've arrived at the point of knowing that leeches are helpful not for the old reasons but for sophisticated new reasons that are closer to the truth.

That could be, but it still doesn't escape the unescapable tribalism.  So I'm going to side with history.  Science will change in the next century into something that might be laughable or even unrecognizable to those of us alive today.  We're just one tribe in the history of many, and we see things the way our tribe tells us to see things.  There's a truth out there, and we glimpse it from time to time.  But we can't forget that we all see through a glass darkly.

By the way, if you're interested in experimenting with leech therapy, check out Biopharm Leeches.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Intro to Origins" is now complete

It seems like just yesterday, but it's been almost three years since I taught a really long Sunday school class on origins.  At the time, I still worked for Bryan College.  So I took a camera to church and started recording my lessons, with the idea that I might use the video in a class someday.  Just a few weeks after I started that class, the big crisis happened, and I realized that those recordings might be really valuable to me someday.

That day has finally come.  "Introduction to Origins" is now available from Core Academy as a series of online short courses, designed especially for teachers looking for Continuing Education Units.  If you're not a teacher, you can still take the courses.  Parts 1 & 2 have already debuted, and now Part 3 will be available for the next short course session (beginning April 6).

Here's what the courses cover:

1.  Introduction
2.  Faith and Science (BONUS LESSON)
3.  The Creation/Evolution Debate Today
4.  A Case for Creationism
5.  A Case for Theistic Evolution
6.  The Rest of the Story
7.  The History of the Universe 1
8.  The History of the Universe 2
9.  Christians and Cosmogony

10.  Earth History
11.  Earth History 2
12.  Christians and Geology
13.  Flood Geology 1
14.  Flood Geology 2
15.  Flood Geology 3  (BONUS LESSON)
16.  Darwin
17.  After Darwin

18.  Evolution 1
19.  Evolution 2
20.  Evolution 3
21.  Creation Biology 1
22.  Creation Biology 2
23.  Human Origins (BONUS LESSON)
24.  Creationism Retrospective
25.  Parting Thoughts

Notice that the BONUS LESSONs were never actually presented during the Sunday school.  So if you were there for every class, you never saw those lessons.  I'm really excited about finishing work on this, and I'm looking forward to helping other Christians understand what all the hub-bub is about.  What's it like taking this course?  Here's one review posted to our Facebook page:
Intro to Origins Part 1 is a great course. I am viewing the lessons a 2nd time and it is both a blessing to the mind and heart. In the early sessions this course accomplishes several things, among which are shedding light on "faith", "reason", and "science" -- concepts which many do not pause to carefully define before plunging into debate. If you are just beginning your creation studies this is an excellent place to start. But it is also recommended as a re-introduction for those of us who have studied for some time. Intellectual honesty....Christian charity.....straight talk.....spiritually refreshing and mentally stimulating.
How do you take the course?  Click the images above to go to the course page at Core Academy of Science.  The price is $50 per course, but for a limited time, you can use the code CORESCI2015 to get 25% off.  If you have other questions, check out our new FAQ page.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Neandertals, natural selection, and scrub jays

This week's post is a hodgepodge of interesting things that caught my eye last week.

First comes word of new Neandertal "jewelry" from Croatia.  According to a paper in PLOS ONE by Radovčić et al., the discovery consists of eagle talons and a bones with careful cut marks and surface wear that occurred post-mortem.  The authors interpret the cut marks as evidence of preparation of the bones to make decorations and the surface wear as a result of the bones rubbing against other items that they would have been lashed to.  The discovery comes from the well-known Neandertal site at Krapina (OK, "well-known" if you follow such things).  This is not the first evidence of Neandertal jewelry, as previous discoveries from Spain indicated that Neandertals made jewelry out of painted sea shells.  This is also additional evidence that Neandertals worked with bone, since the first known Neandertal bone tools were only recently discovered.  These newly-discovered eagle talons just add more evidence for the cultural sophistication of Neandertals.  As a creationist who thinks that Neandertals are human descendants of Adam and Eve, none of this sophistication is remotely surprising to me.  I suspect that as our knowledge of Neandertals increases, we will continue to find more and more wonderful evidences of their sophistication.

Next, a recent article in Evolution from Langin et al. details the fascinating discovery of what we might call "speciation in progress" on Santa Cruz island.  Santa Cruz is home to a unique species of jay called the island scrub jay.  They're substantially bigger than mainland scrub jays in nearby California.  The typical explanation for unique island species (ever since Darwin) is that they diverged from their mainland cousins when they were cut off on the island from the mainland.  The isolation of the island is thought to be important to making new species.  If the island and mainland populations were able to mingle, then they presumably would not diverge into different species.  Except, with this research, we find that that doesn't always hold.  On Santa Cruz island (just west of Oxnard, CA), Langin et al. found significant differences in the bill shape of scrub jays inhabiting oak forests and those inhabiting pine forests.  Even though the pine and oak forests are adjacent habitats, Langin et al. still found reduced gene flow between the populations, meaning that oak-inhabiting scrub jays tend to mate with other oak-inhabitors and pine-inhabitors tend to mate with other pine-inhabitors.  This isn't the first evidence of divergence on a single island (For example, see the palms of Lord Howe Island), but it is surprising that something as mobile as a bird would show this pattern of divergence.

Finally, I was alerted to a fascinating omission of sorts on the Answers in Genesis website.  Normally, new articles published in their online journal Answers Research Journal (ARJ) are treated to front page news on the main website, but this past week, they slipped one into the journal without the front page treatment.  I don't know what that means, but the article is "Natural selection: assessing the role it plays in our world" by Jean Lightner.  Lightner argues that natural selection probably hasn't played a large role in the history of life, which is not something that I find all that startling or controversial.  I've said it before: There hasn't been enough time in the history of the world for natural selection to do much of anything.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.