Review – Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins

Bishop, R.C., Funck, L.L., Lewis, R.J., Moshier, S.O., and Walton, J.H, 2018, Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins: Cosmology, Geology, and Biology in Christian Perspective, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 659 p.

Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins is authored by five professors from Wheaton College. Wheaton is an Evangelical institution with rigorous admissions standards, and therefore has a smarter-than-usual student body. These professors have been jointly teaching a class on origins (SCI 311) at Wheaton for a number of years, giving students an overview of both biblical and scientific aspects of origins.

The book is divided into seven sections:

  1. Getting Started on the Journey – Four chapters on biblical interpretation and the interaction between science and Christian faith. These chapters lay a foundation for the rest of the book, and introduce themes which permeate many of the scientific concepts that follow, such as the functional integrity and ministerial action of the creation.
  2. Cosmic Origins – Six chapters covering Genesis 1, the big bang model and fine tuning in the universe. The unit ends with a chapter on “Biblical and Theological Perspectives on the Origins of the Universe” (units 3–6 end with a similar chapter).
  3. Origin and Geologic History of Earth – Eight chapters covering the origin of the solar system, catastrophism and uniformitarianism; the interpretation of the flood account in Genesis, geologic time, and Earth history.
  4. Origin of Life on Earth – Five chapters covering abiogenesis (the origin of life), as well as theological perspectives on the topic.
  5. Origin of Species and the Diversity of Life – Five chapters on biological evolution.
  6. Human Origins – Four chapters on biblical and evolutionary perspectives on the origin of humanity.
  7. Concluding Postscript – One chapter: “Biblical and Theological Perspectives on New Creation, Creation Care, and Science Education.”

This book is not written as an unbiased overview of all the Christian perspectives on origins. In other words, it is not like the Four Views on ________ books (some of which are excellent) that are already available at Christian bookstores. Instead, the book is written from a perspective that accepts big-bang cosmology, standard old-Earth geology, and biological evolution as scientifically-valid ways of understanding God’s creation. In terms of biblical interpretation, the book is written from a perspective that views the Bible as the inspired and authoritative Word of God, but which also places a strong interpretive emphasis on the worldviews present in the ancient world. If you have read any of John Walton’s Lost World books (Such as The Lost World of Genesis One), you will have an idea what to expect in the sections on biblical interpretation (though written more for a general audience than the Lost World books). The authors, therefore, fall within the broad credal orthodoxy of “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The authors accept Adam and Eve as historical persons, as well as Noah’s flood as a historical event, but interprets these less literally than either young-Earth creationists, or old-Earth creationists such as Hugh Ross.

The chapters which examine what the Bible says about origins topics (e.g. Chapter 13, The Genesis Flood, and Chapter 29, Human Origins: Genesis 2–3) are excellent. In fact, the examination of why Noah’s flood does not, according to Genesis 6–9, have to be what we would picture as a global deluge, is one of the best I have read. This book will provide its readers with a solid foundation not only for understanding the biblical and theological side of origins topics, but will give them greater confidence in the Bible as the inerrant and authoritative Word of God.

The section on geology is the longest part of the book, and consists of the following chapters:

  • Chapter 11 – Origin of the Earth and Solar System
  • Chapter 12 – Historical Roots of Geology: Catastrophism and Uniformitarianism
  • Chapter 13 – The Genesis Flood
  • Chapter 14 – The Rock Cycle and Timescales of Geologic Processes
  • Chapter 15 – Rocks of Ages: Measuring Geologic Time
  • Chapter 16 – Plate Tectonics: A Theory for How the Earth Works
  • Chapter 17 – Reading Earth’s History in Rocks and Fossils
  • Chapter 18 – Biblical and Theological Perspectives on Earth History

In this unit, Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins does not cover the same breadth of material as a complete introductory textbook on physical or historical geology would, but what it does cover, it covers in some depth. For instance, Chapter 15 not only discusses radiometric dating in a general way, but introduces more advanced topics such as concordia and isochron dating that are not found in most introductory geology textbooks. Knowledge of these techniques provides readers with greater confidence that radiometric dating works, and usually works well.

Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins offers an excellent overview of the biblical and scientific issues surrounding the origins of the universe, Earth, life, biological diversity, and human beings. It is well-written and accessible to non-scientists as well as scientists. It will be a reference work that I go to often for science topics I’m a little weaker on, as well as for biblical and theological arguments regarding origins. I recommend the book for:

  • Educators in Christian schools. This book would be a great teacher’s supplement to my Earth Science: God’s World, Our Home.
  • Home-school parents.
  • Pastors and youth-group workers.
  • Anyone who is serious about Bible-science issues: young-Earth creationists (so they have a better understanding of the “other side”), old-Earth creationists, and evolutionary creationists
  • Christians in the sciences

Grace and Peace

Copyright © 2019 Kevin Nelstead, GeoChristian.com

I thank IVP Academic for giving me a review copy of this book.

 

Tardigrade

From today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, the most bizarre, alien-appearing animal on Earth, the tardigrade:

tardigrade_eyeofscience_960_thumb

Go to APOD to see it much bigger (I have only shown it as a thumbnail for copyright purposes).

I’ve thought tardigrades were pretty amazing since I first learned about them in Invertebrate Zoology a long, long time ago. Here’s APOD’s description:

Explanation: Is this an alien? Probably not, but of all the animals on Earth, the tardigrade might be the best candidate. That’s because tardigrades are known to be able to go for decades without food or water, to survive temperatures from near absolute zero to well above the boiling point of water, to survive pressures from near zero to well above that on ocean floors, and to survive direct exposure to dangerous radiations. The far-ranging survivability of these extremophiles was tested in 2011 outside an orbiting space shuttle. Tardigrades are so durable partly because they can repair their own DNA and reduce their body water content to a few percent. Some of these miniature water-bears almost became extraterrestrials recently when they were launched toward to the Martian moon Phobos on board the Russian mission Fobos-Grunt, but stayed terrestrial when a rocket failed and the capsule remained in Earth orbit. Tardigrades are more common than humans across most of the Earth. Pictured above in a color-enhanced electron micrograph, a millimeter-long tardigrade crawls on moss.

I didn’t know that tardigrades even have their own phylum.

Grace and Peace

Jesus is for geologists (and other scientists)

I’ve always known that Jesus is for geologists, as well as for biologists, chemists, physicists, archeologists, astronomers, and all other sorts of scientists.

There are, of course, many Christians who are scientists, and many scientists who are Christians. As a graduate student in geology, I found rich fellowship with a half dozen Christian geologists-in-training, and there was a Christian on the faculty of the department as well.

Davis Young, a Christian geology professor (retired), and author of The Bible, Rocks and Time, Christianity and the Age of the Earth, and Mind over Magma: the Story of Igneous Petrology, has written what he considers to be his most important book: Good News for Science: Why Scientific Minds Need God.

The summary on Barnes & Noble reads:

Bridging the fields of natural science and religion, Good News for Science: Why Scientific Minds Need God invites members of the professional scientific community, graduate, undergraduate, and high school science students, science teachers, and members of the general public who are interested in the natural sciences to embrace the Christian faith personally. Employing the theme of good news, this book challenges readers to ponder the question of life after death as a gateway to the overall claim that Christianity, at its best and most consistent, bears good news for both science and the scientist. On the one hand, Christianity, far from being antithetical to science, supplies the rational foundation that makes the scientific enterprise possible. On the other hand, the central message of Christianity brings a firm hope to scientists as individual persons in meeting their deepest needs and desires for genuine significance, purpose, goodness, forgiveness, justice, and relationship with the Creator. In presenting his case, the author eschews pseudo-science and treats with great respect the discoveries of contemporary mainstream natural science, including an ancient universe and Earth, biological evolution, and the standard model of cosmology. The text adopts an informal, personal, conversational style. Good News for Science will be of interest not only to the general scientific community but also to Christians who are seeking a resource to use in presenting Christian faith to scientifically knowledgeable individuals.

As the review says, this would be a great book for

  • Professional scientists
  • Students of science, at either the undergraduate or graduate levels
  • High school teachers and students
  • Members of the general public.

Buy this book at Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

Grace and Peace

C.S. Lewis, evolutionist

Dr. Jay Wile has an excellent summary of C.S. Lewis’s beliefs about evolution on his Proslogion blog: Another Point About C.S. Lewis.

To summarize the summary:

  • Lewis refused to join or endorse the Evolution Protest Movement, even though it was led by a personal friend.
  • His writings state acceptance of biological evolution [and, I should add, an ancient Earth (and Mars!)].
  • Lewis believed that evolution posed little threat to Christianity.
  • Lewis didn’t even believe in a literal Adam and Eve
  • Despite these beliefs, most would consider Lewis very orthodox in his Christian beliefs.

Grace and Peace

Arsenic in DNA – maybe

Figure 1 -- Phosphorus and arsenic on the periodic table.

News of surprising biochemistry: Thriving on Arsenic (NASA Astrobiology Magazine)

NASA microbiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon has discovered bacteria that apparently can use arsenic in its DNA in place of phosphorus. Most biochemistry can be done with six elements: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur (CHONPS). Smaller amounts of a variety of other elements are also necessary to varying degrees depending on the organism, such as sodium, calcium, iron, and magnesium. Arsenic is similar enough to phosphorus (same column in the periodic table, Figure 1) that within these bacteria it may be able to play the same role.

From the Astrobiology Magazine article:

The recent discovery by Felisa Wolfe-Simon of an organism that can utilize arsenic in place of phosphorus, however, has demonstrated that life is still capable of surprising us in fundamental ways. The results of her research were published December 2 on Science Express and subsequently in the journal Science.

The organism in question is a bacterium, GFAJ-1, cultured by Wolfe-Simon from sediments she and her colleagues collected along the shore of Mono Lake, California. Mono Lake is hypersaline and highly alkaline. It also has one of the highest natural concentrations of arsenic in the world.

On the tree of life, according to the results of 16S rRNA sequencing, the rod-shaped GFAJ-1 nestles in among other salt-loving bacteria in the genus Halomonas. Many of these bacteria are known to be able to tolerate high levels of arsenic.

But Wolfe-Simon found that GFAJ-1 can go a step further. When starved of phosphorus, it can instead incorporate arsenic into its DNA, and continue growing as though nothing remarkable had happened.

“So far we’ve showed that it can do it in DNA, but it looks like it can do it in a whole lot of other biomolecules” as well, says Wolfe-Simon, a NASA research fellow in residence at the USGS in Menlo Park, California.

The article describes the methods used to purify the DNA, to ensure that the arsenic was truly incorporated into the structure of the DNA rather that being associated with other molecules. Not all, however, are convinced.

But Steven Benner, a distinguished fellow at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, FL, remains skeptical. If you “replace all the phosphates by arsenates,” in the backbone of DNA, he says, “every bond in that chain is going to hydrolyze [react with water and fall apart] with a half-life on the order of minutes, say 10 minutes.” So “if there is an arsenate equivalent of DNA in that bug, it has to be seriously stabilized” by some as-yet-unknown mechanism.

Benner suggests that perhaps the trace contaminants in the growth medium Wolf-Simon uses in her lab cultures are sufficient to supply the phosphorus needed for the cells’ DNA. He thinks it’s more likely that arsenic is being used elsewhere in the cells, in lipids for example. “Arsenate in lipids would be stable,” he says, and would “not fall apart in water.” What appears in Wolfe-Simon’s gel-purified extraction to be arsenate DNA, he says, may actually be DNA containing a standard phosphate-based backbone, but with arsenate associated with it in some unidentified way.

Microbiologists over the past few decades have discovered bacteria and archaea in increasingly hostile places, such as hot springs and deep in Earth’s crust. This has spurred on the hope that other worlds (e.g. Mars, Titan) also have places that would be suitable for bacterial life. The possibility of bacteria that can live with a chemical foundation other than CHONPS indicates that life might thrive in places where we otherwise would not have expected it to.

This discovery may not completely redefine life as we know it, but it does (if proven to be true) add one more bizarre thing that life can do.

Grace and Peace

Pleistocene Park

From Yahoo! News/AP — One scientist’s hobby: recreating the ice age

CHERSKY, Russia – Wild horses have returned to northern Siberia. So have musk oxen, hairy beasts that once shared this icy land with woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats. Moose and reindeer are here, and may one day be joined by Canadian bison and deer.

Later, the predators will come — Siberian tigers, wolves and maybe leopards.

Russian scientist Sergey Zimov is reintroducing these animals to the land where they once roamed in millions to demonstrate his theory that filling the vast emptiness of Siberia with grass-eating animals can slow global warming.

Unlike “re-wilding” ideas in the United States (e.g. Montana), where most land is used for one thing or another, this one is along the Kolyma River (of gulag fame) in Siberia, which is about as isolated as one can get.

Isn’t this a little taste of what nature was meant to be, with the earth, sky, and sea “swarming with swarms of living creatures?” (Gen 1:20,24).

Grace and Peace

Related news: Leaking Siberian ice raises a tricky climate issue